Carcasses hanging in butcher shops, carts overflowing with produce, and small food stalls making fresh batches of deliciousness crowd the sidewalks. Meanwhile, a constant traffic jam of pedestrians, honking cars, beeping motorbikes, and zippy mopeds, flood the narrow streets where road rules don’t exist and everyone has the right of way.
This organized chaos is just a typical scene in the Muslim Quarter of Xi’an.
Wandering through this hub of activity, one cannot help but be swept away by the hustle and bustle of sights, sounds, and smells in one of China’s oldest cities. This combination of cultures makes the Muslim Quarter a one of a kind place, and it is just as lively a tourist scene as it is genuinely local.
On Beiyuanmen, the main street just off the central roundabout, is where you’ll encounter specialty shops and restaurants pumping loud music and flashy lights to attract business from tourists strolling the area. With a plethora of street food to choose from, it’s a perfect way to get a taste of the Muslim culture.
Stray a little farther in, and the streets become narrower, the sidewalks – if any at all – are less shiny, and signs advertising a shop’s business will be modest or perhaps non-existent. With fewer tourists in this neck of the woods, Simon and I stood, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in a sea of locals all going about their day buying groceries, selling goods, and sitting down for a bite to eat – the latter in which we happily participated.
Choosing a place to eat never proved to be such a difficult task than in the Muslim Quarter. We had to quickly get over the paradox of choice and go with our gut. Our gut had never had Muslim Chinese food before, so it was our mission to try as much of the local fare as our bellies allowed. Bread and mutton soup, hand pulled noodles, grilled meat skewers, and savory fried flatbread were just a few of the dishes we sampled, and that isn’t even a complete list of what they have to offer.
I filled my memory card and memory bank with photos of our eating adventures as well as ordinary life that unfolded all around us as we dodged cars, motorbikes, and other pedestrians on the street. Most times I received curious stares when photographing our meals, piles of produce, hanging carcasses, or cooks making food, but on some rare occasions I received a smile from a local, posing happily for the camera.
To the outsider, the Muslim Quarter is a chaotic frenzy of activity. But stay a few days, and you’ll see that amidst the madness, there exists a symbiotic harmony, creating a unique atmosphere that you won’t experience anywhere else.