Sunday, April 14, 2013

Muslim Quarter Mishap

I'm sick of writing about China but I want to tie up a few things first, so this will be my last blog for this trip, and a little scatterbrained.  Please bear with me if I go on any birdwalks.  I got into Shanghai two weeks ago last night, and went to JoAnn and Michael's for some catching up and dropping my stuff off.  And then I was out the door again.  My flight to Xi'An was at 7:30 the next morning, over in freaking Pudong, and I've become terrified of missing flights since last summer's debacle (which I didn't write about, it seems...basically my alarm failed and the taxi either didn't come or didn't call up, and so I missed my flight back to Iowa, a mistake that cost me $1,200).  So I saw them off to bed before walking to the New Star Sauna, an authentic Korean bath house down the street from my old school, where I spent about 3 hours going from the hot room to the hot bath to a cool shower.  Rinse and repeat.

Unfortunately, I had a pretty bad headache the next day, and my Korean friends would have told me it was from the toxins released from the hot/cold treatment.  Whatever the case, I got to Xi'An and was not in the best mood.  I tried to get a taxi from the airport to stop by Emperor Jing-Di's tomb, but he tried to tell me it would cost 600 kuai running the meter.  I hadn't done as much research on this point as I should have, but I was pretty sure that was bullshit, so I got out of his taxi and went to buy a ticket for the bus instead (and it turned out I was right - the taxi the hotel called for me when I went back to the airport only cost 150 kuai).  When the bus stopped it was in the heart of old Xi'An, and I really didn't care.  I wanted to get to my hostel - a good one called Qixian - and leave my stuff.  I wanted a meal that did not consist of a red bean bun (I don't eat red bean anything - it was the last thing I ate before I got violently ill my first Christmas in Korea, and even the smell of it kind of makes me want to hurl).  And I wanted a damn aspirin.  Eventually I got to the hostel and got something for my headache, but had failed to find anyplace I wanted to eat.  But as I started wandering the old town, I decided I could live without a proper meal for now.

I had all sorts of things I was going to go do.  I wanted to bike along the city wall and see the drum tower and the bell tower and the Forest of Stelae.  But I just couldn't be bothered.  I guess it's possible to get China fatigue even when you don't live there.  Instead I wandered my way through side streets until I reached the Muslim Quarter.  I've lived and traveled in the Middle East, and was really curious to know what it would look like in China.  There are actually a couple of different Islamic minorities in China - Xinjiang province is much better known for it, but these are a different people, the Hui.

I've always found Xinjiang cuisine to be the expected outcome of mixing Arabic food with Chinese food, and the mosques in Xi'An were the same, except with architecture.  If you took Chinese buildings and tried to build a mosque out of them, you'd get something that looks like the mosques of Xi'An.  I was fascinated by them, because while they looked Chinese, if you know what to look for in Islamic architecture, you'd see those things as well.
Islam forbids the depiction of any creature with a soul.  This over the centuries has resulted in beautiful geometric patterns as well as floral decorative motifs.
The Qu'ran, of course, is important.  You will see it prominently displayed in mosques, as well as depicted, as it is here.
I found it interesting and funny to consider that Chinese Muslims can read and speak two of what I consider to be the most difficult languages in the world - Arabic and Mandarin.  Arabic phrases are also carved into the decorative motifs.

And then there is the matter of one of the most recognizable aspects of Islamic architecture: the minaret.  A minaret is where the call to prayer is given from (five times a day...starting at times at four-freaking-thirty in the morning, so if you are considering living in the Middle East, I hope you are a heavy sleeper, or living on the right side of the building!), and is usually a tall tower at one or more corners of the mosque.  The minaret at the Great Mosque of Xi'An looks like nothing so much as a 3-floor pagoda.  It's clever, and is just another example of the amalgamation of the two cultures that created it.

Well, while wandering and finding the two mosques (there is a smaller one that I stumbled on - the first few pictures are from it) I passed some really delicious street food.  I don't eat very much street food.  Sometimes it just looks unappetizing, and you don't have to tell me that it comes with risks.  I'd eaten it once with Meen in Shanghai, and occasionally I'd get my favorite Taiwanese breakfast sandwich thing outside the fabric market there, and having had no bad experiences with it, I decided to try these delicious things.
 First there was the shwarma thing.  Instead of flatbread it came in a bun thing.  It was delicious.
Then I tried some noodles.  I only had like, two bites, because they were cold - I thought they would be fried, and was seriously mistaken.  They also came served in a bag, so they were hard to eat and walk.
My favorite was probably the fried, spicy tofu.  It was cooked with cilantro - mmmm!  Have I mentioned how much I love tofu?  Because I do.  They gave you a little skewer to stab them with.
Also my favorite (I can have two, because this was sweet, and thus, a dessert) was the fried banana on a stick.  I love hot bananas, and it got bonus points for calling to mind Arrested Development's banana stand.
And, because I'd heard Five and Domestic Goddess raving about the sugar cane juice I never tried outside the fabric market, I decided I'd wash it all down with that.  I didn't care for it.  It is sweet, but not too sweet, and has an organic taste to it.  Give me a pure chemical coke anytime!  Anyways, I just don't think of China when I think about juice.  Thailand, of course, and the Middle East as well (there are days when I'd kill for the banana-orange juices I used to order from the Yum Yum Tree in Bahrain).  I shouldn't knock China's juice, but...yeah.  Not my favorite.

Well, like I said, street food does have its risks.  This point was driven home particularly clearly when I woke up at five in the morning with all the food I'd eaten in the last 24 hours coming out of one end or another.  It is not the worst case of food poisoning I've ever had (see the above reference to red bean...I thought I was going to die), but it was definitely the most inconvenient.  I pulled it together and made it to the terracotta warriors anyways, but I didn't end up seeing the bell tower, or the drum tower, or the city walls (other than as I was passing through them), because I went back to my room and fell asleep as soon as we got back, and holding it together that long was trying.  And strangely enough, I'm kind of okay with that.  I've seen enough city walls, and towers of one kind or another, and museums and temples and such that I don't feel cheated.

I still would have liked to see Jing-Di's tomb, but sometimes you just have to write things off for a loss.  Damn taxi drivers.


  1. I've seen coke in a plastic bag but never seen noodle in a bag...
    nice photos!

  2. If u ever have a food poisoning in the future, just drink ORGIL RASHAAN as soon as the poisoning thing starts. That is it. It works like a miracle.