The Muslim heritage of Xi’an

We’re back after a brief period “off”. We’ve been very busy planning our wedding and our next big adventure, our honeymoon, which, by the way, will take place in the same continent as this post 🙂 I really miss travelling far away like we did last summer. These last months of relative “quietness” have been useful to put in order our lifes but we are anxious for our honeymoon to begin!

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Wall of Xi’an

After having written about our amazing experiences in Datong and Pingyao, we want to share with you a bit of the charming city of Xi’an. Xi’an is a must-see in any first trip to China. Located in the surroundings of Xi’an, the Terracotta Army is, together with the Great Wall of China, one of the highlights of this country. But the Terracotta Army is not the subject of this post. Of course we will give you some tips to visit it in a future post, but our aim now is to prove that Xi’an has much more to see and do.

Vibrant nightlife in Xi’an Muslim Quarter

In fact, Xi’an was once the capital of China and its city centre really deserves a visit. We took a high-speed train in Pingyao and we arrived at Xi’an late in the night. Although the journey lasted only 3 hours, we even had enough time to meet a Catalan boy that was in a solo trip. We decided to meet the following day to explore the Muslim quarter of Xi’an together.

Welcome to Xi’an Great Mosque!

Crossing all China in only two weeks gave us the chance to discover different landscapes and architecture styles. Xi’an really surprised us when we found ourselves in the middle of a Muslim enclave.

1. Big and Small Wild Goose Pagodas

The Wild Goose Pagodas were the first monuments that we visited in Xi’an. I remember that the day was very sunny and hot. I really felt like if we were in Arabia… but the truth is that those are Buddhist pagodas.

Surviving to a hot day in Xi’an (with a view to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda)

The biggest one is the Big or Giant Wild Goose Pagoda, which was built in 652 during the Tang dynasty, although it was renovated later, during the Ming dynasty. The pagoda was aimed to house sutras and figurines of Buddha that came from India. The pagoda, which is 64m high, is part of the Daci’en Temple complex. Although we did not enter the complex, it is open to the public.

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Daci’en Temple and Big Wild Goose Pagoda

The Small or Little Wild Goose Pagoda was built a bit later, between 707 and 709. Nowadays it is 43m high, with 15 levels of tiers. After having travelled to Japan before, this was not the kind of pagodas that we though we would find in China. They really surprised us!

2. Drum Tower and Bell Tower

As many Chinese cities, like Beijing, Xi’an has also a Drum Tower and a Bell Tower. We saw them in our way to the Muslim Quarter. They are located one next to the other in the heart of Xi’an.

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Xi’an Drum Tower

The Drum Tower was built in 1380 during the early Ming Dynasty and of course it had a huge drum inside! The drum used to beat at sunset to indicate the end of the day. On the opposite, the bell in the Bell Tower was stricken at dawn. The Bell Tower was built only 4 years after the Drum Tower. It is a huge structure (its base covers an area of 1,377 square meters).

3. Stele Forest Museum

The Stele Forest, also called Beilin Museum, is located in a former Confucian Temple. It is a very ancient museum: its collection of Steles began in 1087. Nowadays, it houses a collection of around 3,000 steles, placed in several exhibition halls.

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Beautiful steles in the Beilin Museum

The truth is that visiting such museum had not been in our plans since the beginning. We were not sure of visiting any museum in the Shanxi region. However, we read in our Lonely Planet guide that the Beilin Museum housed the Nestorian Stele and we were really interested on this particular stone. The Nestorian Stele is a Tang Chinese stele from 781 which documents the early Christianity in China. Made of limestone, its text is written in both Chinese and Syriac.

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Finally we found it!

It was a bit difficult to recognise the Nestorian Stele among the hundreds and hundreds of stones shown in this museum. But, finally, we did it! 🙂

4. Muslim Quarter

The Muslim Quarter is an explosion of flavour and smell. Located inside the city walls, it has 32,361 Muslim inhabitants. If you are a foodie, you cannot miss this quarter. The origin of Xi’an Muslim Quarter is old: it was founded in the Tang Dynasty, when Muslim merchants arrived at Xi’an through the Silk Road. Such commercial heritage remains today, specially in the bazaar area.

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Meat cutting in the Muslim Quarter

As per the food offer, in the streets of the Muslim Quarter visitors will find traditional Muslim dishes, mainly beef, mutton, traditional pastry and kebab. The quarter becomes more and more vibrant at night and its definitely a must-see in the city.

5. Great Mosque

The heart of the Muslim Quarter is the Great Mosque, the largest one in China. Its courtyard is a very popular site for tourists, because the truth is that we are not used to Chinese Muslims (mainly Hui people). This Sunni mosque was built during the early Ming dynasty.

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In the courtyard of the Great Mosque

The most interesting part of the mosque is the combination between traditional Chinese architecture with Islamic functionality. Caligraphy in both Chinese and Arabic writing is found in the complex. The main building is the prayer hall which has a beautiful turquoise roof. The prayer hall is the only part of the mosque which is not open to public.

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