It might be the shimmering Chinese cities of Beijing and Shanghai that often hog the limelight when it comes to tourist destinations in China, but the lesser-known province of Shaanxi and its age-old capital Xi'an hold a teeming treasure trove of delightful Muslim-friendly cuisine and rich Islamic history that are just begging to be discovered!
It's no surprise that such wonders await Muslim travellers to Xi'an: Islam has been around here since the 7th century, and the thriving capital is still home to some 50,000 Muslims today!
But if you still need convincing, here's 8 reasons why every Muslim traveller should visit Xi'an in 2018 ?
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1. The Great Mosque of Xi’an
One of the oldest (and most beautiful, if we do say so ourselves!) mosques in all of China, the Great Mosque of Xi'an is perhaps the highlight of your trip here.
Built as early as 742 A.D. during the Tang Dynasty and later on expanded upon during consecutive dynasties, the traditional Chinese architecture of this mosque continues to stun visitors and worshippers alike to this day.
Credit: Alex Berger on Flickr
With five tranquil courtyards sprawling across the mosque's 12000 square-metre wide grounds, it's also the largest mosque in China, so it's worth dedicating a few hours just to this mosque alone!
Credit: BenKatabs on Facebook
Part of what gives it such timeless beauty is its flawless combination of both Chinese and Arabic influences in the architecture.
Take some time to explore the mosque grounds and you'll find calligraphy in both Chinese and Arabic styles, inscriptions of both Chinese and Arabic poetry on the ancient walls and Chinese and Arabic motifs lying side by side in perfect harmony with one another.
Credit: Alex Berger on Flickr
There's a distinct charm that's often unique to ancient mosques which is difficult to replicate elsewhere, and the Great Mosque of Xi'an is certainly no exception to this. It's definitely one mosque you won't forget anytime soon ?
2. Halal local food
Halal Chinese delicacies might be a bit of rarity in some parts of the world, but certainly not in Xi'an. Because of the sizeable Muslim population living here, there's a huge array of halal authentic Chinese cuisine for you to help yourself to. If haven't got all the time (and tummy space ?) in the world, though, here's what you shouldn't miss!
Flatbread in mutton soup (Yangrou Paomo)
The most famous and representative of Xi'an's halal local cuisine is probably the "yangrou paomo" (crumbled flatbread in mutton stew) and you're likely to encounter this particular dish everywhere you go while you're here.
It consists of chopped-up mantou boiled in lamb broth and served with juicy strips of tender lamb meat and fresh vegetables on top, so you can imagine how filling it is despite its size.
If you're visiting in the winter, yangrou paomo is a surefire way to warm yourself up: just picture yourself lapping up that piping hot broth ?
Credit: @nahzakm on Instagram#HHWTTip
: One of the best places in Xi'an to have yangrou paomo is "同盛祥泡饃
", a 100-year old store right next to the historic drum tower! Read on to find out more about the fascinating drum tower ?
Xi’an meat burger (Roujiamo)
Forget hamburgers: the classic "roujiamo", which you'll find all over Xi'an, predates its Western counterpart and is also known as the world's oldest sandwich, having been around since 221 BC!
Credit: Cathy Wisata on Facebook
The name "roujiamo" itself literally translates into "meat held by a flatbread", and though it's popular all over China, here in Xi'an, local varieties consist of halal minced meat (usually beef) stuffed in between flatbread and topped with various spices, like coriander or star anise.
Lamb Skewers (Yang Rou Chuan)
Lamb skewers are a mainstay of Xi'an's street food scene, and it doesn't get much better than this, folks. Sizzling chunks of tender lamb meat seasoned with a variety of different spices, including cumin and Szechuan peppercorns, are skewered onto fresh tree branches (yes, actual branches from a Tamarisk tree!)
Credit: @mnanna on Instagram
Xi'an streets are lined with countless stalls hawking these succulent lamb skewers, so you'll have no problem finding them everywhere here. You might have to get in line, though -- queues are often really long since they're so popular!
Osmanthus Flower Jelly/Cake
It isn't just the hearty meat-based dishes that Xi'an is known for: be sure not to miss out on some of Xi'an's irresistible sweet treats as well. Top on our list is the osmanthus flower jelly, an especially popular treat with the locals.
Aside from being one of the most photogenic foods on this list, it also looks like a cross between jelly and a cake, and certainly carries the best (taste) of both worlds!
Credit: yeowatzup on Flickr
You'll also find tons of other Chinese sweet treats in Xi'an, including persimmon donuts, pomegranate juice (great for cooling down if you're here in summer!) candy fruit, and even more modern varieties like frozen yogurt.
3. Xi'an Muslim Quarter
No need to worry about running around the whole of Xi'an to find all those delectable dishes above: Xi'an's Muslim street market is a local street food heaven, dotted with countless stalls and vendors hawking their sumptuous wares that you won't be able to resist purchasing as you walk past.
Credit: @outrofuso on Instagram
All the shops here are operated and run by the local Chinese Muslim community, most of whom are from the Hui ethnic group, so it's the best place to be to immerse yourself in the local culture of Xi'an's thriving Chinese Muslim community (60,000 of which still live in this part of Xi'an today!)
The Muslim Quarter itself is literally more than a 1000 years old and teems with life all day and night, from its brilliantly painted storefronts to its ancient traditional Chinese architecture of the buildings here, including the age-old Great Mosque aforementioned.
Credit: @marwaamir on Instagram
It's also a great place for souvenirs, from miniature terracotta army figurines to kaleidoscopic lamp shades that'll provide a burst of colour to your home furnishings.
Credit: Mitch Altman on Flickr
If you'd rather bring back some of Xi'an's local delicacies for you to enjoy at home, though, look out for the local candy makers in this area. Xi'an sweets make for some of the best souvenirs from the Muslim Quarter!
3. Bell & Drum Towers
These two behemoths are probably Xi'an's most notable landmarks, having been built more than 700 years ago in the Ming dynasty. Originally used to signify the passing of time way before the invention of clocks, both towers are timeless bastions of Chinese culture
Housing the largest and most well-preserved wooden structure in all of China, the bell within the original bell tower was regularly rung at dawn and on separate occurrences when the threat of attack from a rival ruler loomed over the city.
Credit: Mitch Altman on Flickr
It also signifies the geographical centre of the city, and is a truly picturesque sight during spring, when the flowerbeds surrounding it bloom into cheerful bright hues of sunshine yellow and cherry red.
The sister building of the Bell Tower, the drums here were originally used to signify the coming of sunset. While the drums on display here today are no longer used, it makes for an awe-inspiring sight at night when the entire tower is lit up.
Credit: YOYU.cn on Flickr
Each drum here is decorated with a different Chinese inscription to signify good fortune, but for a real taste of drum culture, check out the drum museum within the complex which houses the largest drum in all of China!
Credit: Pablo BM on Flickr
Be sure not to miss the daily drum performances here, either. There are several timings for the performances every day, and though they generally take place on an hourly basis, it's best to check in advance as the timings might change.
4. Xi'an Terracotta Army Museum
It's unthinkable to miss the Xi'an Terracotta Army Museum while you're in China: this UNESCO World Heritage Site is likely one of the most impressive sights you'll ever lay your eyes on, with a whopping 8000 terracotta soldiers, not including chariots, horses, acrobats, officials, musicians or strongmen!
While the terracotta army itself was first constructed in 246 BCE under the order of Emperor Qin as a way of guarding his burial site, it was buried so deep into the ground over time that it was only coincidentally discovered in the 1970s by a group of local farmers.
Credit: Kevin Poh on Flickr
The complex itself is divided into three different pits, with the first pit being the largest and most famous, housing about 6000 soldiers alone.
Incredibly, look closer and you'll find that each of the life-sized terracotta soldiers have distinct faces! Each of them have also been carved specifically to display uniforms befitting their rank, from infantrymen to high-ranking generals. To make it even truer to life, each of these figures originally used to hold their own weapons.
Credit: Kenneth Hong on Flickr
If you can't get enough of the Chinese dynasties' rich history, head over to the Shaanxi Provincial History Museum, which houses some of the best collections on Chinese history in the country. Here, you'll find everything from ancient Chinese currencies to centuries-old painted ivory ceremonial figurines!
5. Huaqing Palace
Situated right next to the Terracotta Army, the luxurious Huaqing Palace served as the Chinese royalty's favourite winter retreat for its natural hot springs which were perfect for a soak to stay warm in the cold.
Credit: Peter He on Facebook
Today, you can still find 5 of the hot spring pools remaining within the palace grounds, each meant to have a different function from the next. The Star Pool, for instance, was built without a roof since it was meant for night-time baths that would have allowed you to simultaneously gaze up at the stars (hence the name!)
Credit: Peter He on Facebook
Also famous for being the setting against which the timeless love story of Emperor and his consort took place. It was said that the hot springs were the secret of her exquisite beauty and she would spend long periods of time bathing in the hot springs to keep her skin supple.
Credit: @solegarciabenito on Instagram
It's also a remarkably well-preserved example of exquisite traditional Chinese architecture, with its elaborate gateways, koi ponds and lush courtyards. A leisurely stroll through the palace grounds will definitely make for a perfectly relaxing experience here!
6. Xian Ancient City Wall
We've seen many city walls before across our travels, but Xi'an's Ancient City Wall definitely stands out as one of the grandest, most imposing and complete structures we've seen so far!
Credit: yeowatzup on Flickr
Originally built in the 6th century and later expanded upon in the 13th century, it has four huge gates (one on each side) which were specifically built to incorporate elaborate designs to make it harder for outsiders to penetrate through the walls.
Each of the four gates had a specific function, with the South Gate being the most beautifully decorated and used mostly for official ceremonial purposes. The East Gate houses a grand military outpost from where the city's generals would sit to survey the surrounding areas in dire times.
Credit: Bernt Rostad on Flickr
Because of the fact that it was meant to provide sweeping views of the city for the sake of defence, you can still admire some gorgeous views of Xi'an's skyline from the city walls itself. Do note that not all the gates are open to visitors today!
Credit: Mike Swindell on Facebook
You can also hop on the local sightseeing battery car or bus tours which will circle you around the entire wall for a fee.
Otherwise, do as the locals do, and go for a cycle around the walls and give yourself a good 1.5 hours of exercise to circuit the entire complex!
7. Big Wild Goose Pagoda & Small Wild Goose Pagoda
One of the holiest Buddhist sites in Xi'an, the Big Wild Goose Pagoda is a towering 7-storey millennia-old structure and is marked by its simple yet grand architectural style.
Credit: Mark Fischer on Flickr
Initially 5 storeys tall at the time of its construction in 652 AD, two more storeys were added over time. Make your way up the stairs within the pagoda to find unobstructed panoramic views of Xi'an from each of the arched doorways built into every storey of the structure!
Credit: @pimpitcha_t on Instagram
The Big Wild Goose Pagoda is certainly a spectacular sight not to be missed, but as one of the most popular tourist sites in Xi'an, you might have to come early to avoid jostling with the huge crowds.
Alternatively, pay a visit to the quieter Small Wild Goose Pagoda, which despite its name, is actually taller than its counterpart, with 13 storeys! Similarly, though, each storey offers great views of the city if you're willing to make the climb all the way up!
Credit: Peter Narkiewicz on Facebook
While you're at it, don't forget to check out the nearby Morning Bell Chime, which was built in the 11th century and used to chime every morning to signify the coming of a day (and with it prosperity and fortune!)
8. Mount Huashan
China is also home to some of the most breathtaking mountains on the planet, and if you're visiting Xi'an, you really can't miss the spectacular Mount Huashan situated 120km out of Xi'an!
Credit: Mohd Nizam Zambari on Facebook
As one of the Five Great Mountains of China, climbing up to its peak might present in a challenge in itself. Once you reach the top, though, the commanding scenic views you're treated you will definitely wash the fatigue from your limbs almost instantaneously!
Credit: Awesome Nature on Facebook
Adventure-seekers would love the hike up to the peak, which is characterized by narrow paths that might look terrifying, but at the same time unbelievably beautiful because of the views they'll afford you of the area all around! Trust us when we say this is one experience you'll remember for the rest of your life ?
This is also the locals' preferred way of hiking up to the peak, combined with the scenic cable car ride down.
Credit: tak.wing on Flickr
If you're not up for the hike up, though, don't worry: you can still catch a cable car up to the peak of the mountain. The ride will take 10-20 minutes depending on which of the two cable car routes you decide to take.
Credit: Tamara Pawlukiewicz on Facebook
With all of its amazing attractions, from ancient mosques to spectacular mountains and grand hot spring palaces, Xi'an will surely leave you breathless with wonder! What are you waiting for? Book those flight tickets now!
P.S. Can’t wait to visit Xi’an? From now till 17 Dec 2017, fly direct from Kuala Lumpur to Xi'an with AirAsia X from just RM269 all-in! Valid for travel period between now till 30 June 2018. Worried about comfort on your flight to Xi’an? Fly in total comfort with AirAsia’s premium flatbed from just RM699 all-in! You’ll also get 40kg baggage allowance, complimentary meals and priority boarding ?
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