"Hey! People are lining up for the bus!" I shouted in disbelief because I had NEVER seen Chinese people line up for any form of transportation before. The idea of Chinese people getting into lines for public transportation seemed so absurd at this point that seeing people line up literally left me stunned.
"Hmmm," Jess said half-heartedly as she continued to read the map. "I guess that is possible... there's our bus." She said in mid-stride.
I caught up, got in line to board the double decker bus and reluctantly followed Jess to the top only to find that it was completely empty and thus the better decision. Even though I had only been in Xi'an for a few minutes I could already tell that it was MUCH different from any part of China I'd ever traveled to before. Looking out of my bus window I saw a brightly painted overpass that gave way to a uniquely ancient, modern city. A single building has a mixture of traditional Chinese architecture with arched, rippled roofs and western architecture containing massive columns. ‘Amazed’ doesn't begin to describe my impression of Xi'an. (Side note: I wish had pictures to show, but they were all lost in an unfortunate incident that you'll read about in my next blog.)
As we were eating, we heard someone speaking non-accented English to us.
"Hey," the slightly older man began. "Where are you gals from?"
"America," I answered trying to finish my sandwich.
"Oh ok. I'm from Chicago." He began. "My name is Bill."
"I'm Tempestt." I said nodding to him and then to Jess.
We exchanged pleasantries and shared what brought us to China.
"I teach English in the northeast," I explained. "And she is a second year Chinese language student." I said pointing at Jess who was just finishing her spaghetti.
"Oh, cool. I'm a lawyer in Chicago, but I'm here travelling. I came to China for a buddy of mine's wedding." He said in one breath. "I've just been hanging out and exploring the city. I LOVE the Muslim Quarters! The food is sooooooo good."
"Yeah, we've heard that from a few people." Jess began. “We were actually planning on going but don’t really know where it is.”
“Well, I know where it is and am planning to go there tonight.” He said. “ I could show you gals where it is if you want.”
“Sure, that would be great,” I said. “I just HAVE to take a nap first. I didn’t get much sleep on the overnight train.”
“Ok, well we can just meet in the lobby then.”
“Cool,” Jess and I said.
“Have a good nap.” Bill shouted smilingly.
“It’s just this way,” Bill said as we walked along the city wall.
“Alright, we’ll follow you,” I said. “Have you been up there?” I asked pointing up at the city wall.
“Oh, up there?” He asked. “Not yet. I heard it’s pretty expensive to ride a bike along the top of it.”
“We might check it out,” I said walking between Bill and Jess, wondering how Xi’an managed to maintain such an ancient structure. I had read about fortified city walls in the Old Testament and other non-sacred historical books, but I had never imagined that I would be standing near such a structure, snapping photos on my iPhone. We didn’t actually get to ride bikes on the wall that goes around Xi’an, but it was amazing to look at such an ancient structure in such a modern place.
“Well, we’re here now!” Bill said excitedly. “We should go to the temple: it’s about time for them to start praying.”
“How much does it cost?” Jess asked, knowing that in a place that seemed to thrive on tourism it was unlikely to find any free attractions.
“Oh, maybe 10 or 20 Yuan.” Bill answered as we walked along the not-so-crowded street. “I can’t remember exactly where it is, but I know there was a sign down here. We can walk until we see it.”
“Ok, that works.” I said nonchalantly. “We wanted to look around anyway.”
As we walked in the middle of the street, I visually digested everything around me. On either side of the street there were shops unlike ones you would find all over China. These places sold kosher products, as to adhere to the strict diet for those who worked in and lived near this district. There was no pork in sight—that’s weird in a country where pork is the meat of choice. On sidewalks in front of the markets, there were men and women cooking on open fires. A little further down, there was a group of men looking into something that looked like a fire pit. They threw flat, unleavened bread into the pit and watched it stick to the sit of the pit until it was golden brown in color. This entire process took less than two minutes.
We turned left onto another street and there were even more vendors. Some people were dressed in their traditional Uyghur or Wei apparel as they sold various articles, while other sold strange varieties of food. This food ranged from smelly tofu to breaded, fried bananas to lamb and beef on a stick resembling shish kebabs.
After walking for about 15 minutes, we found the sign for the temple, followed it to the temple entry, paid admission, and went in. Once inside the temple, things began to look and feel even stranger. Unlike the soft roar of vendors advertising their products of choice on the street, things were quiet inside the temple gates. Even the other foreigners recognized the difference, slowed their pace and talked very quietly. It is for this reason that I got a few stares when I yelled to Jess and Bill to follow me so I could take a picture underneath a small pagoda, alone and then with Jess. Just as we finished taking our pictures, I noticed men with covered heads staring at us. In that moment I wished that I had thought to wear a hat or something out of respect, remembering all the things I’d ever observed or read about the Muslim culture.
Suddenly, there was a mass migration of all the temple-dwellers toward an area that a voice over an intercom system announced something in a non-Mandarin Chinese dialect.
“Come on!” Bill shouted in his loudest golfing voice. “They’re about to start praying.”
“Can we go in there?” I asked pointing at the canopied walkway that lead to a courtyard in front of the temple entrance.
“Of course we can.” Bill said matter-of-factly. “I went yesterday. We just can’t go inside the temple.”
We watched them de-shoe, walked in and bow with their foreheads to the ground on their prayer rugs. As they prayed for all of ten minutes, I watched with dumbfounded wonder the seemingly paradoxical existence of Muslim Chinese people, a group of people who, as a whole, declare belief only in self. Even in the Beijing subway system, the declaration “In Learning We Trust” is plastered along the walls with an English and Chinese translation for all to read. This temple in the middle of Xi’an made no sense to me.
We watched them re-shoe and walk into various buildings that we desired were off-limits for us, yet longing to enter. That wish was only granted when we got locked inside the temple complex and ended up finding a temple worker who spoke English. As he led us to the exit, I couldn’t resist peaking in a door that had smoke pouring from underneath it.
“You want to go in?” He asked
“Uh, no,” I stammered. “ I mean . . .yes, if that’s ok.”
“Sure.” He said opening the door to some older Muslim men cooking on an open fire. “You want a picture?”
“Well, uh, yeah,” I said.
“Go ahead.” He said to us as he explained our request to men. Some of them moved in order to allow us to sit down and others to avoid having their pictures taken. Once we were done taking pictures, we realized that our guide had left us, so we quickly said goodbye, left the room and found the exit to the complex less than a few yards away.
The Muslim Quarters were an unexpected wonder for me in Xi’an, but we ended up visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors—our original purpose for going there—and it kept with the uniqueness of the city. The ancient warriors and horses, buried during the Qin Dynasty in order to protect Emperor Qin in the afterlife, were amazingly life-like. I felt like I was once again standing in the middle of an unexpected historical moment, observing relics older than my country of origin. The fact that the discovery and assembly of these structures is ongoing made the moment even more amazing.
Xi’an, with it’s ancient charm, made me feel like I’d left China for a moment. The city has an Asian, Middle Eastern feel that cannot be duplicated, at least not that I’ve observed elsewhere.