Sunday, November 30

China, Day Seven: Meeting The Locals

Today didn't promise too much. I mean, sure, we had the Terracotta Soldiers to look forward to, but the afternoon was devoid of any attractions and I was a bit worried that we'd spend it all just wondering the Muslim Street again.

But the Terracotta Soldiers were awe-inspiring, even after I learned that they weren't all discovered lined up whole in an underground cavern. Still, the work that must have gone into rebuilding them was impressive in itself, as was the sight of them lined up in their massive pits.

After lunch we headed back to the Great Mosque to pray and generally hang out in for a while. During our stay there, we were told by a fellow Muslim about another "pretty" mosque within walking distance. Jumping at the chance to do something new (it was going to be a first for our guide too), we headed off to find it.

While wandering around Muslim Xian, I finally acknowledged something that should have been obvious to me from the start - that Islam in China is old. 1200 years is a long time, and makes China's Muslims older than any in the Indian Subcontinent or even some now-Arab states. That's a pretty amazing fact given that when most of us think about Islam and Chinese, we'd probably compare them to chalk and cheese. The Muslims we were passing in the street had had Islam in their blood far longer than I had.

On the way we stopped off at another mosque, similar in state to the Great Mosque, but on a much smaller scale. We finally found the one we were looking for, an even smaller mosque than the last, but the one which, so far, was in the best condition.

And then some. Gold plated Arabic script was plastered all over it's inner walls, immediately giving it a totally different vibe to the rustic and natural mosques we had seen already. This too had the same courtyard-prayer hall layout that the last two had, and we quickly established that this too was a Chinese style that had been integrated into local mosque design.

While we were there we met, by chance, an English speaking local who happened to have been educated in the UK too. It was so useful to finally get to have a direct conversation with a local Muslim - he explained things about the culture, the history of the mosque and things we should be looking out for. His final tip was to point us in the direction of yet another mosque, one which was the oldest in Xian - even older than the Great Mosque itself.

But that wasn't the last time we were to see our new friend. As we passed his home, he insisted on having us drop by for a chat with his family (including the two grandparents of his wife) and some Egyptian business colleagues/friends he had staying with him.

So there we were, some native Xians, a couple of Pakistanis (one of whom was British born) and some Egyptians, eating nuts and sipping on milk, all there mainly because of their faith. It was a wonderful opportunity to gain some insight into Chinese Islam, and a brilliant experience that we were very fortunate to have had.

We finally left to visit the mosque our friend had recommended. The contrast was amazing - where the last mosque we went to was stunning in its upkeep and modernity, this really did appear old. Majestically so though; you could almost feel the history seep out of its almost fully stone-built mithrab.

We headed back to the Great Mosque for Maghrib (it was the only one that would gladly allow women to pray in), the last time we would probably be there. After that, we did some final shopping in the Muslim Quarter before heading off for dinner and an early night. This was pretty lucky, seeing as I managed to catch up with a friend online too.

Where I had come to Xian to see some Terracotta soldiers, I had found so much more. Islam in China had finally literally come alive for me here and in some way I wish I had more time to just hang out and mingle with the locals. Alas our time is up once again and we travel to our next destination tomorrow - but this isn't necessarily a bad thing though since as we go there as our itinerary switches from that focusing on tourism to Islamic culture.