Xian: The Muslim Quarter, the Great Mosque and the Musical Fountain

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Xian has a very large Muslim population, which in the Old Town is mostly centred in an area behind the Drum Tower. We quickly discovered that this was the best place to eat, and I was excited about this as it meant I could safely eat the meat in street stalls without worrying about whether it might be pork. [I’m not religious at all, but I just can’t eat pork. There’s no logic in it at all.] In the evenings the quarter comes alive and just bustles with people. A Turkish man sells Turkish ice-cream at the entrance, but it didn’t appear to be the crazy stretchy-elastic ice-cream I’d had in Şanlıurfa. Restaurants lined the main street, with stalls in front of them and big charcoal grills. Skewers of meat and tofu and bits of liver are piled up on benches, flies lazily hanging around and waiting to be swatted away. Stalls selling colourful drinks pop up on every corner, and we tried pretty much every colour – finding them all vaguely fruity and ridiculously sweet. We bought spicy lamb skewers for 5 RMB, and handfuls of smaller beef skewers at five for 10 RMB.

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Winding our way through the smaller lanes, wiggling our way through the crowds, we passed stalls selling halva and sweet rice cake things on sticks, skewers of fruit and unrecognisable blobs, hot noodle soups and fresh flatbread baked on hot stone. Shops sold fruit and dates and dried persimmons, with boxes of apple tobacco and tea leaves.

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Other stalls sold souvenirs such as paper-cut silhouettes or plastic-cut puppets in frames. Souvenirs mixed with random clothes and food and little bottles of home-made pot-set drinking yogurt, which I didn’t try as it sounded suspiciously similar to ayran – a Turkish salty yogurt drink that no amount of trying has enabled me to enjoy.

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A bit further down the alley we found what was our favourite food stand, one we revisited every night in Xian. It was run by a friendly man who cooked up baby potatoes with a whole stack of herbs and spices. We weren’t sure what all of them were, but we agreed to chuck everything in and hope for the best. There was definitely fresh garlic, chilli flakes, chilli paste, spring onions, carraway seeds and ground coriander, along with sugar and salt. Whatever he put in it, it tasted seriously delicious.

Xian has a large mosque, and I was incredibly curious to see what a Chinese mosque looked like. It’s hidden within the Muslim quarter and the minaret was designed to look like a mini-pagoda as a precaution. Inside, it looks typically Chinese, with gardens and wooden pagodas and lots of red paint. I was a little surprised, and if it wasn’t for the Uighur script I wouldn’t have picked it, at first, for a mosque at all.

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The mosque itself was further into the complex, and it was the first entirely wooden mosque I’d seen. We couldn’t go inside, which was a little disappointing as I’d specifically changed into long pants and long sleeves in the hope of going inside. However, I could see the traditional carpets covering the floors and an old man in a white cap sitting inside. It lacked the columns and inner courtyard I’ve seen in Middle-Eastern mosques, and I couldn’t make out much more or see the mihrab. While the design struck me as bizarre, this mixture of Central Asian and Chinese style, it of course makes sense that a Chinese mosque would look very Chinese!

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Xian has a musical fountain in front of the Big Goose Pagoda that we’d heard from other travellers was incredible and couldn’t be missed. And so, along with a guy we met at the hostel, we decided to go. We’d been told it started variously at 8pm and at 9pm, so we planned to get there before 8pm just in case. And we decided that since it was quite a few kilometres away from the hostel we’d take a taxi. With three of us it would cost next to nothing.

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However, before we could find a taxi, a tuk-tuk driver found us. We negotiated a price and got in. It wasn’t very comfortable, and I was going backwards so couldn’t see the traffic ahead. I’d say that was a blessing, except for the fact that I could see everything coming up from behind! John was facing forward as he doesn’t like going backwards, and he seemed to be getting a little nervous at the way our driver – and everyone else on the road – was driving. It was a little crazy. So many times we were convinced that the next barrier would take us out, or the truck trying to overtake us would shove us off the road, or a bus would run into the back of us [they get close. REALLY damn close!]. It was something of an adventure. I suspect it was John’s first real exposure to being almost wiped out on foreign roads! We were glad to get out of the tuk-tuk, and John was glad to be alive.

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The musical fountain with its sound and light show clearly draws the crowds, and even at about 7.30pm there was no room to sit or stand around it. We wandered for a bit before trying to claim a place, eventually finding one and settling in to wait. And it felt like we waited forever. All around us people tried to push through to the front, sitting on the cement edges of the fountain before a police officer, looking more like a power-tripping twelve-year-old playing dress-ups, came and blew their whistle repeatedly. It was unpleasant. And the fact that they looked like kids in oversized borrowed uniforms meant that no one could take them seriously, which of course seemed to irritate them and they’d blow their whistle more.

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Eventually, at about 9.20pm, the show started. And after such a long wait, and having our eardrums almost burst by the goddamn whistles, it was a serious letdown. I’m not sure how people could have given it rave reviews. Sure, it’s OK – but definitely not worth waiting around for hours for, and if we’d shown up at 9.00pm we’d have never seen anything at all due to the crowds. It was nice enough, and maybe if it wasn’t summer holidays there wouldn’t have been such a crowd and we wouldn’t have had to be so paranoid about our bags, and not getting pick-pocketed, and not being deafened by teenagers on a power trip.

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We left after about 20 minutes and found a tuktuk to take us to the Drum Tower, where we had a late dinner of street food including giant tubs of baby potatoes. We wandered through the market and headed back to the hostel.

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