September seems to be the month for our trips abroad. This time we are doing the famous Silk Road route. This is an ancient trade route linking China and the West. It not only circulated goods, but also exchanged the splendid cultures of China, India, Persia, Arabia, Greek and Rome. The road, actually a caravan tract, opened up in the Han Dynasty and starts at Xi’an, followed the Great Wall of China to the northwest, bypassed the Takla Makan Desert, climbed the Pamir mountains, crossed Afghanistan and Central Asia, and went on to the eastern Mediterranean shores. Due to time constrain we are covering only part of the 6000+ km route. Our journey starts from Xi’an in China to Urumqi, crossing into Kazakhstan with a stop in Almaty,nd then into Uzbekistan with a transit in Tashkent and visits to Bukhara and Samarkand.
THE MUSLIM QUARTER
It was drizzling as we left the hotel (Ramada Xi’an Bell Tower) to go to the nearby Muslim Quarter. It was 9.30 am and the first thing was to get some breakfast. The streets in the Muslim Quarter are lined on both sides with restaurants, candy shops, souvenir stores and roadside stalls. And all the premises here are operated by Muslims. It is often a forgotten fact that there are many more Muslims in China (28 million) than in Malaysia (19 million).
I ordered some plain noodles hoping to warm up by sipping the hot soup. But, I was served a plate of cold noodles instead. We have communication problem. Nik had a skewer of spicy barbecued lamb. Throughout the area, you’ll find many stalls selling barbecued lamb, beef and squids. These succulent spicy meats and squids are a must try. As we walked along the tree-lined street, the constant pounding noise became clearer. The noise was from the candy stores where a variety of local candies are still made the traditional way. At each store, two men would be pounding peanut or a block of cooked sugar. Local sweets and delicacies are sold at these stores. Roasted walnuts, dried chinese dates and persimmons are plenty, too.
The streets attract many visitors at lunch time and get even busier in the evening. On some streets, motorised vehicles zig-zagged amongst the pedestrians. It really is a bustling and vibrant area, a very popular enclave amongst the tourists as well as the locals. For lunch I had a bowl of mutton soup with bread crumbs. Nik, of course, ordered his favourite skewered lamb.
At the end of Beiyuanmen Street we came to the bazaar on our right. Here, the stores sell clothes, jewellery, bags and local handicrafts. Like most bazaars, price haggling is a must if you are looking for bargains.
THE XI’AN GRAND MOSQUE
The entrance gate to the Xi’an Grand Mosque is located opposite the bazaar stalls on Huajue Lane. It is actually a complex of four courtyards with the mosque at the far end. Each courtyard has an arched gate and a small garden planted with trees and decorated with ornaments. On both sides of the walls, there are rooms that serve as small exhibition halls.
At end of the last courtyard, we came to an open area leading to the mosque entrance. There was no one manning the entrance, but after a few minutes a middle-age man appeared and he allowed us into the timber mosque. The interior of the mosque is simple, but the ceiling is richly decorated. On the walls the entire Qur’an is carved on wooden panels. The Arabic version occupies the top half while the Chinese translation appears beneath it. The writing is clear and beautiful and we could read the Arabic version very well. I was overwhelmed to be able to visit this great and beautiful mosque built in the traditional Muslim and Chinese architecture.
THE BELL TOWER
In the afternoon we walked to Bell Tower. It is a building that marks the geographical centre of the ancient capital. The structure has a rectangular base, three eaves and an upper floor. This landmark sits at the intersection of four roads-East Street, Nanda Street, West Street and Beida Street. Walking around on the first level, we had a good view of the major roads in Xi’an city. The Bell is situated at a corner overlooking another landmark, the Drum Tower. Looking down, the flower bed was full of rows of colourful plants. The interior of the tower is equally beautiful and richly decorated as the exterior.
THE CITY WALL
Leaving the Bell Tower, we went into the subway to go to the nearest gate of the City Wall, the South Gate. Taking a left turn too early, we found ourselves heading towards West Gate instead. It was raining lightly and my legs were tired. Nik asked a local and she got us on the right bus. The West Gate was two stops away.
After paying for admission (54 Yuan each), we climbed up the steps. The City Wall is a rectangular brick wall built along the perimeter of the old city. It is one of the largest ancient military defensive systems in the world. It’s total length is 13.7 km, 12 meters high, 12-14 meters at the top and 15-18 meters at the bottom. Every 120 meters there is a numbered rampart. Now on either side of the wall, you’ll find commercial and residential buildings.
It was late afternoon and we have to return to our hotel somehow. And that’s how we ended up cycling on the City Wall. We hired a tandem bicycle for 90 Yuan, valid for a duration of 2.5 hours. It was our first time riding a tandem bicycle. Off we went in the drizzle, our flimsy raincoats flapping in the afternoon breeze. The ground of the City Wall is made of blocks of bricks rendering the surface a little uneven. The view on either side of the wall was typical of a city, nothing particularly interesting. We made a few stops along the way to catch our breaths and to relieve ourselves. We cycled at a moderately slow speed for about an hour. By the time we reached our intended stop, we had cycled about 4.5 km. Once the bicycle was returned, the 200 Yuan deposit is refunded. We caught the bus to go Muslim Quarter to have some dinner before returning to our hotel.