My hotel concierge, Xi Dan, is a convincing advocate for the charms of his home town. “Many visitors expect Xi’an to be an old and underdeveloped city,” he says. “In fact, it is very modern with good transportation. Compared with some other big cities in China, it is inexpensive and is comfortable, civilized and prosperous. It has four distinct seasons, but is not too hot or too cold.”
After a good breakfast, I follow his advice about exploring the city and head for the Muslim Quarter. For centuries, this has been home to more than 30,000 Chinese Muslims belonging to the Hui ethnic minority, descendants of Persians, Arabs and Central Asians, who fled Mongol invasions to settle in this part of China at the time of the Ming Dynasty. Most are traders whose ancestors arrived along the Silk Road and the alleys of the neighborhood are at first sight reminiscent of a more somber Moroccan or Tunisian souk.
The shops and stalls are full of shirts, bags, watches, bracelets, paintings, vases and, of course, terracotta warriors in all sizes and materials. Designer brands, or rather counterfeits, abound. This is the perfect place to stock up on souvenirs at good price and, Xi Dan assures me, a good place to eat.
“Xi'an, then called Chang'an, was on the caravan route to Central Asia and the Middle East, now known as the Silk Road, and this brought together people of different cultures,” he says. “That is reflected in the many different foods you can enjoy here, including Muslim dishes such as pitta in mutton broth. Another popular snack is rou jia mo, chopped meat – beef or lamb in Muslim areas and pork elsewhere – wrapped in a pancake. It is enjoyed all over China and is called the Chinese hamburger.”
The large number of food stalls in the Muslim Quarter offer plenty of choice at any time of the day or night. I watch bread being baked at the roadside, enjoy delicious sweets fried with sesame oil and sample nuts coated in candy. The heart of this neighborhood is the Grand Mosque where men with bushy white beards and white skull caps come and go in rhythmic harmony, while their women in black lace headscarves take over the family business as they pray.
The mosque is built in an architectural blend of Chinese and Islamic art and is one of the largest in the People's Republic of China, at 12,000 square meters. It was built facing east during the Tang Dynasty in 742 but was later restored during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The most prominent room is the Main Hall which is used five times a day for prayer, its ceiling painted in turquoise color where you can study antique ebony Koranic verses. The mosque’s courtyard is filled every evening with believers sharing dinner and reflecting on religious matters. When night falls, multicolored bulbs highlight the minaret and the Wall of Spirits, designed to keep out demons.