A long-ago capital of China and the Eastern starting point of the Silk Road, Xi’an has a rich history dating back thousands of years, and culinary traditions and a culture touched by a host of outside influences. For years, my parents had urged me to see Xi’an and its famed terracotta warriors, so I’d come to think of the visit as some Chinese rite of passage. Myra’s parents were visiting China for a week, and they separately had decided on coming here as their side-trip out of Shanghai, so I happily tagged along. I was particularly buoyed by Myra and her parents’ excitement about China and fascination with history (her mom works at the Penn Museum in Philadelphia), making it much easier to forget my fatigue from my prior week of travel in Thailand.
As excited as we all were, we arrived bleary-eyed and hungry, having taken the early morning flight out of Hongqiao. We stepped out of the Xi’an airport into a breezy sunny morning – we’d been fortunate enough to come in September, skipping the July and August heat. After dozing off and on through the hour-long ride into the city, our guide Kathy suggested a restaurant called Canton Palace for lunch near our hotel, and ordered a few local specialties:
With the exception of the chicken, lunch was full of light and healthy flavors, which to be honest are not all that common in my short history of Shanghai lunches. While good in this regard, most of the dishes were new, and did not inspire as much gusto relative to our hunger.
In the afternoon, we took a stroll and bike ride around parts of Xi’an’s enormous city wall, originally ordered fortified (over a prior Tang dynasty wall) by the first Ming emperor on the advice of a wise hermit (that was the rage in old school China, for many of the most sagacious purveyors of wisdom to be mountain-dwelling recluses). Kathy gave us a brief introduction to the watch towers, the arrow slits and the parapets (lower inner wall) meant to prevent my clumsy ancestors from falling off into the inner city during nighttime patrols. You can rent bicycles (tandem, too!) and ride around the wall, which is both wide and long in perimeter. Obviously, we rented some tandem bikes – but only rode from one gate to the next, which is about a 15-minute trek at a leisurely (and bumpy) pace.
We spent the rest of the afternoon at the lively section of town known as the Muslim market, a little neighborhood of vendor-lined streets hawking dates, walnuts, unleavened breads, all sorts of other foods I didn’t know, and all sorts of trinkets.
Being an integral stop on the Silk Road, Xi’an had long been visited by a relatively large number of Muslim who later settled down and became one of China’s myriad groups of ethnic minorities. At the end of the winding alleys within the neighborhood stands the oldest mosque in China, expectedly known as the Great Mosque of Xi’an, but unexpectedly and thoroughly Chinese in its architectural style, without any of the domes or minarets that typify the prototypical mosque.
256号 Xinjie Street Xincheng, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China
Great Mosque of Xi’an
North Guangji Street, Lianhu, Xi’an, Shaanxi, China, 710060