Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter is as old as the ancient Silk Road, the path that brought trade goods and new religions from the west into China. Today the Muslim Quarter is a bustling district of this ancient city and a must-see on even a short Xi’an trip. Here are some of the reasons not to miss this fascinating district.
A group of elders sit outside the Great Mosque after daily prayer.
Photo by paula soler-moya via flickr
There is a saying that goes: “Look to Shenzhen for a 20-year-old China; look to Beijing for a 1000-year old China; and look to Xi’an for a 5000-year old China”. Along with Athens, Rome and Cairo, Xi’an is one of the four major ancient civilization capitals of the world. Today, it is most noted for the famed Terracotta Army of Qin Shi Huang, the first Emperor of China.
While Xi’an’s glory days are long past, much remains to remind us of the old Chang’an city. The city boasts a Muslim community of 60,000; some descended from prosperous merchants and respected scholars who first traveled on the Silk Road and settled down in Xi’an. The Islamic heritage is evident at the Muslim Quarter, a bustling hub of narrow lanes with stores and restaurants opened by Muslim owners. This walking guide will take you through the major sights in the Muslim Quarter area and leave you with a greater understanding of the traditions, beliefs and culture of the Hui (Chinese Muslims) community. Pro tip: Make sure you start on an empty stomach, there will be plenty of street snacks to try along the way.
1. Beiyuanmen, entrance to the Muslim Quarter
Start at Beiyuanmen, located north of the Drum Tower. Head into Hua Jue Lane (you should see a gate that leads into a narrow alley past some souvenir stands) for the Great Mosque.
Start the Muslim Quarter walking tour at Beiyuanmen
Photo by wuming1303
2. The Great Mosque: the religious center of Muslim Xi’an
Within the historical Muslim Quarter area are ten Islamic mosques, among which is the well-known Great Mosque. One of the largest mosques in China, it covers an area of 13,000 square meters; the Prayer Hall accommodates up to a thousand worshipers.
Founded in the 8th century, the architecture is an intriguing blend of Chinese and Islamic design. Arab influences are seen in the central minaret and huge turquoise-roofed Prayer Hall. Beautiful Islamic script decorates the entryways. The mosque also features a spirit wall, a classic Chinese temple feature with the purpose of keeping demons at bay. The gardens are reminiscent of those found in Chinese palaces, decorated with rocks, pagodas and archways.
Worshipers at the Great Mosque
Photo by Iamgoing via sina.com.cn
3. Snacks Galore at Xiyang shi
Northwestern Xi’an has one of the most exciting selections of street food in China. Men with white skullcaps and women wearing colorful scarves around their heads serve up distinctive local snacks like rou jia mo (meat sandwich), guan tang bao zi (dumpling stuffed with hot gravy) and liang pi (cold, tossed noodles) among the many roadside stalls. Those with a sweet tooth will absolutely love the homemade gui hua gao (osmanthus cake) and jing gao (steamed glutinous rice cake).
Street food in Xi’an – Juicy barbecued cumin-chili lamb kebabs
Photo by Iamgoing via sina.com.cn
How to eat yangrou paomo (crumbled flatbread in mutton stew): tear the bread into small pieces before handing the bowl back to the cook, who will then add the mutton stew (above)
Photograph by Danielinblue via wikicommons
Osmanthus cake at the Muslim Quarter food street
Photo by Shimeiersmile via sohu.com
4. Beyond the Muslim Quarter
Other than Beiyuanmen and Xiyang shi, the Muslim “Square” also encompasses less explored streets that are often a more realistic expression of the daily lives of ordinary people. If you have time to spare, escape the touristy lanes and explore these historical backstreets or head over to the Drum Tower and Bell Tower. These Ming Dynasty structures light up beautifully at night, casting an atmospheric glow on the ancient and fabled city of Xi’an.
Discover Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter on our Xi’an City Tour: