It’s a bustling Chinese neighbourhood with plenty of sweet-smelling street snacks and colourful bric-à-brac to bring home. What’s so special about that?
Well to begin with, the Muslim Quarter is unlike any other neighbourhoods in China. It is located in Xi’an, which is home to approximately 70,000 Muslims. The high number of Muslims in the city means that there is an abundance of Halal food, traditional garments, as well as a compelling mix of Chinese heritage infused with Islamic art and culture.
The Muslim Quarter is made up of several streets, lined with old and new shop blocks, tall trees, as well as at least 10 mosques around the vicinity. A must-visit here is the Great Mosque, which not only showcases an interesting architecture, but also offers an insight on how the local Chinese Muslims practice their faith.
The Grand Mosque was built in the year 742, making it the oldest and one of the largest mosques in all of China. Covering a space of 12,000 square metres, the walled complex has 20 buildings scattered around 5 well-tended courtyards. Quintessential oriental architectural details including the pagodas, glaze-tiled roof, and phoenix statues are further enhanced by the mix of Chinese and Arabic calligraphy, peaceful gardens, as well as ablution stations.
But how did Xi’an earn such a substantial Islamic heritage? Some 1,000 years ago, the city was a key point along the legendary Silk Road, a 6,400-kilometre trading route that connected China and other eastern countries with Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. While trades were booming, so did knowledge. The teachings of Islam were introduced to the local people thanks to Arabian and Persian merchants and in 651 AD, Emperor Gaozong of the Tang Dynasty became the first ruler to allow the practice of Islam in China.
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Nowadays, the area is made alive by the Muslim Hui people, who share a lot of cultural and language similarities with the Han ethnic group. Adhering to strict Islamic principles, the Hui people do not eat pork or consume alcohol, and can be seen wearing white skull caps or colourful headscarves.
The best place to begin your Muslim Quarter experience is via the main street also known as Huimin Jie. Here, visitors are treated to a kaleidoscopic sights and sounds, most of which come from the vendors selling all types of Halal food including yang rou pao mo (flatbread with lamb soup), liang pi (cold skin noodle), rou jia mo (flatbread with shredded meat), as well as the ubiquitous lamb or mutton meat on skewers. The amount of wonderful food on offer here is so staggering it deserves a separate article on its own. Best to come here with an empty stomach.
A visit to the Muslim Quarter is always paired with two of Xi’an’s most famous landmarks, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower. Whilst the Bell Tower got its name from the large bronze-cast bells stricken at dawn, the Drum Tower is named after the huge drum beaten at sunset. From the top of the Drum Tower, visitors are treated to a bird’s eye view of the Muslim Quarter.
GETTING THERE: AirAsia X flies to Xi’an from Kuala Lumpur. For lowest fares and flight info, visit airasia.com.