Faces of the Muslim quarter


Xian is mostly known as a stop of on the way to the terracotta soldiers, but my favourite part of the city was the muslim quarter.

Islam came to China from traders down the Silk Road. Arabian and Persian traders sometimes settled in China, taking their religion with them. Of the several Muslim minority groups in China, it’s the hui who live in shaanxi (the province you’ll find xian in). They are ethnically Han Chinese who speak mandarin and are culturally very similar to Han Chinese, however they are also practicing Muslims.

The Muslims quarter is a couple of winding streets behind the city’s drum tower. Its an odd, but logical mix of Islamic and Chinese culture. You’ll find noodles but without the pork, drum towers meters away from a mosque and women in hijabs selling you chopsticks. The middle of the streets house the grand mosque, which looks a little out of place because unlike the rest of the city (which is aligned according to feng shui) it’s facing Mecca in the west. It’s also a mosque like nothing I ever seen before, with a pagoda for a minaret and the main prayer building inside a hutong (traditional Chinese style building) shaped hall.

Unlike much of China (which looks like the apocalypse has happened anytime after 10 at night) it continues to be bustling at night. The overall effect of the place is that it’s very photogenic, although the street food was also a big draw…

Border Village

Shi Wei is a small village in the North of Inner Mongolia on the border with Russia, surrounded by grasslands, Mongolian horses and forest (totally satisfying my Mongolia stereotypes). At the end of the village is a long fence marking the Russian border and another village on the other side of the fence, no more than 10 km away from where you’re standing.

The locals in the village are an odd mixture of Russian and Chinese; blue eyes and black hair were all equally common. We stayed in the home of a local family who had turned their house into a home-stay. The husband explained that his wife was half Russian and half Chinese, that’s why she had such ‘beautiful blue eyes’. Most of the people we met tried to speak Russian to us at first, because anyone white was, obviously, Russian… Sadly my Russian is limited to ‘da’. Any street signs were in Chinese, Russian and Mongolian (also sometimes in questionable English) and breakfast was either Russian bread or Chinese dumplings.

This border village was in many ways similar to any border village; a mid point between two cultures.These villages have more in common with each other than they do with their capital city. Places like this are a reminder that borders and nations are not discreet walls where one language, people and culture end and another abruptly begins. In fact, you probably wouldn’t know the difference between the two villages, apart from the arbitrary fence placed between them indicating they’re bureaucratically controlled by one central government rather than another.