Food and culture in the Muslim Quarter, Xi’an

Xi'an, China | Muslim QuarterThe ancient walled city of Xi’an is a feast for the eyes, the senses and the taste buds. Brimming with history and culture it requires a few days to take in all it has to offer.

Xi’an was certainly my favourite city in China, I loved how eclectic it was, I loved how different it felt from Beijing.

We arrived on the overnight sleeper train from Beijing, our first experience of travelling hard sleeper on this trip {after travelling Kupe, soft sleeper across Russia and Mongolia}.

The 6 berth open compartments were spacious and quite comfortable, there was a Chinese man in our berth who spoke very good English and he was fascinated by the upcoming Scottish Referendum, and the Channel Tunnel!

After checking in to one of the city’s Youth Hostels we reunited with friends we’d traveled Mongolia with – always wonderful to do this, to catch up and share stories.

Dried kiwi fruit, like jewels

Dried kiwi fruit, like jewels

All of us were in Xi’an {pronounced She-ahn, if you are getting tongue-tied!} primarily to see the Terracotta Warriors but I was very interested in the Muslim Quarter.

Xi’an was the beginning, or end depending on your direction of travel, of the ancient silk routes and this created a worldly city of traders, a melting pot of West meets East.

The Muslim Quarter is a captivating warren of tree-lined streets and narrow alleys, vibrant with life and enterprise, it’s easy to imagine here the barter and commerce of the silk road traders. 

The atmospheric streets are lined with restaurants opening onto the road and grocery shops stocked high with spices and vegetables.

Street food stalls generate steam and fire, the smell of food drifts up the thoroughfare.

Dried fruits and walnuts are neatly stacked and piled up adding to the souk-like experience.


From one food vendor to the next we were tempted, from dumplings to meaty skewers, sweet treats and flat breads.

We opted for a piece of the delicious glutinous rice cake, served on a stick, the sweet firm-packed rice was topped with dark syrupy dates, it’s golden colour was so alluring.

Glutinous Rice Cake

Glutinous Rice Cake

Nang bread {a sesame sprinkled flatbread} was being cooked everywhere and we purchased a steaming hot disk to nibble as we walked.

The deep-fried, breadcrumbed banana on a stick made a delicious breakfast snack, hot and crunchy with cool, soft banana underneath.

In the heart of the Muslim Quarter stands the Great Mosque mostly dating from the Ming dynasty, appearing much like a typical old Chinese temple, even the minaret is a pagoda.

Within the outer walls the Mosque is a peaceful escape from the activity of the streets around it.

The screens and buildings look delightfully Chinese, yet the Arabic calligraphy, dusty furniture and men in white skullcaps reveal Islam to the visitor.

The large prayer hall at the back of the complex is covered with a beautiful blue tiled roof, the dark, old interior is restricted only to Muslims.

In front of the hall the spacious courtyard is decorated with lemon trees, another nod to the Arab world in my eyes. A broad wooden arch separates the gardens from the courtyard, its upturned tiled roof resembling a rising Phoenix.

To the south of the city walls stands the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a large 1300 year old stone pagoda within a temple complex surrounded by extensive gardens, squares and fountains.

We had found ourselves there early one evening, after heading for the nearby Shaanxi History Museum only to arrive too late for entry.

The surrounding gardens were lovely, there were covered woodland trails and streets of market stalls selling souvenirs and snacks.

As the evening drew in the lights around the fountains filled the garden with colour.

We understood there was a sound and light show at the fountains but couldn’t pin point when it was to happen. The temperature dropped and our bellies growled with hunger so we left and went for a feast instead!

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Big Wild Goose Pagoda

Cut off from the rest of the city by an endless stream of traffic on a busy roundabout, the beautiful Bell Tower stands at the geographical heart of Xi’an.

It looked magical at night, every detail was illuminated. We passed it often on our exploration of the city yet never actually went inside.

The Bell Tower | Xi'an, China. Took the pic with my phone!We did, of course, visit the Terracotta Warriors but I’ll leave that for another post. Xi’an was a highlight in our trip through China and I often greedily dream I’m walking through the Muslim Quarter.

I hope to return one day, I would love to track the silk roads through central Asia.

This world is traced with ancient routes that awaken our nomadic souls.

Pin it for later:

Xi'an Food and Culture in the Muslim Quarter


Try these posts:

The Army of Terracotta Warriors Burial planning to the extreme!

China’s National Treasure: The Pandas of Chengdu Yes, there’s baby pandas!

Glittering Shanghai exploring this magnificent city.

Shanghai. Gardens, Art and the Smog from Hell The air suddenly became lethally toxic!

Shanghai Museum A slick museum in a building shaped like a dish!

The Great Wall is a Mighty Dragon. Wandering the Great Wall almost alone!

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By Rachel Davis

10 Responses

  1. Dave Rowley says:

    Great posting! It’s really interesting to hear your views on a Muslim area in China after all your experiences in the Middle East. Amazing that the Xian Mosque is all Chinese architecture, even a pagoda instead of minaret! I love the photo of the colorful fountain with pagoda behind, and of the rice cake on a stick – looks delicious! Do Muslim people in Xian dress differently from non-Muslims? You mentioned the skullcaps – did you see lots of people in the Muslim quarter wearing skullcaps or other traditional Muslim clothes? China seemed to me like a very non-religious country, did you find the same in Xian? And what differences are there between hard and soft sleeper trains? Sorry for all the questions!

    • Hey Dave!
      Glad you liked the post 🙂
      Yes, there were a lot of men in skull caps and many wore clothes that were more Islamic than Chinese. I read that China is mostly Atheist but the Buddist temples we visited were always busy. The Mosque was very quiet but I imagine it gets pretty busy on a Friday.
      The hard sleeper is 6 berth and open to the corridor. Soft sleeper is four berth in an enclosed cabin. I personally didn’t find it any ‘softer’ though, the beds were still quite firm! I think I prefer hard sleeper as it’s more open.
      No worries about the questions! I love that you take an interest!

      • Flyer! says:

        I think its also interesting to note that Islam in China has had a long history since 632 when it first came via Arab diplomats who I believe were descendants from the Prophet Muhammed. Had China not become Atheist I think Islam would have a much larger presence in China rather than being largely confined to the Northern areas. Probably say the same for other religions too but Islam in particular because (I may be delving into politics here) the Nationalists had a lot of Muslim personnel in their armies. Much like how it was in the Ming Dynasty.

        • I find the movement of people over the millennia fascinating, the spread of ideas, religion and language. I often wonder how things would have been so different in many places under slight changes of history. Thanks for visiting!

  2. trixpin says:

    How amazing does this all look? My eye was immediately caught by the dried kiwi fruit – I’ve had it once and LOVE it. V. jealous 😉

  3. Looks like a really nice neighbourhood, such a lovely post and now my tummy is rumbling!

  4. Very informative! Loved the pictures of this city looks so colorful.