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Feasts for the Eyes, and the Palate, in Xian, China

Feb 07 -- On the “Muslim Street” in the Chinese city of Xian stands a bronze tableau in honor of street food. There, on a crowded lane packed with stalls selling Islamic-Chinese cuisine — lamb dumplings, mutton soup, pancakes and mung bean noodles — tourists can pose with statues of a soup seller and his customers. It’s a photo opportunity that brings together Xian’s two most famous tourist drawing cards: life-size human replicas and superb dumplings.

 

Each year, thousands of tour groups swing through Xian in the central part of the country, one of the four ancient capitals of China. The main draw is the site housing 8,000 buried terra-cotta warriors, the life-size standing figures that Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of unified China, ordered to be created and buried to guard his tomb and fight his battles in the imperial afterlife. It’s perfectly possible to zoom in and out of Xian, stopping only to see the warriors in their open-air museum, and be served the characteristic “dumpling feast”: a high-end celebration of local dumpling culture that can include dozens of morsels, savory and sweet; fried, steamed and boiled; some shaped like leaves, others like flowers and frogs.

 

But Xian, with its millenniums of Chinese history on display, is a remarkable place to spend more than a couple of days. Sights range from two splendid imperial tombs to the syncretic architecture of Chinese Islam at its finest, to an elegant Buddhist pagoda, all in the modern Chinese urban context of a city of about eight million people, replete with aggressive traffic, plentiful construction and bustling luxury shopping malls.

 

One cold winter evening, my husband, our teenage son and I took the overnight “soft sleeper” train from Beijing to Xian. Our aim was a trip that would build on the warriors — and the dumplings — and let us explore the past and present of the city. The tiny train compartment was cozy, with comforters and pillows, and grassy cups of hot tea brought to us in the morning, shortly before the train pulled into the Xian station right up against the largely intact 14th-century city walls.

 

We stayed at a residence hotel with small self-contained apartments in the historic center, near the Muslim quarter, and close to two famous 14th-century towers, the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower, both of which were completely covered in scaffolding. We quickly discovered that though we were just a short walk away from the famous delicacies of the Muslim Street (its formal name is Beiyuanmen Street), we were even closer to the rich possibilities of another small food street across from the hotel, which we quickly came to regard as our own. This street, completely lacking in historic character — or statues — had street vendors with steamers full of dumplings stuffed with glutinous rice, a man who hacked huge grilled scallion-flecked flatbreads into squares, and barbecuers with small grills on which marinated shredded pork and chicken sizzled.

 

On the Muslim Street, we sampled Islamic Chinese food, which completely eschews pork and relies instead on lamb and mutton, as well as glutinous noodles made from mung bean flour. Women made scallion-filled pancakes to order on griddles (you could also get your pancake filled with yellow chives or with spiced ground meat). We stepped into a storefront to eat our first bowls of paomo, perhaps the most characteristic Xian dish of all: flatbread crumbled into a rich mutton soup.

 

Xian, the eastern end of the old Silk Road, has long been important for Muslims and Buddhists, emperors and traders. The Great Mosque of Xian was founded in 742, not so long after Islam took root in China. The mosque, rebuilt over the centuries, is notable for its Chinese architecture — a minaret that strongly resembles a pagoda, and pavilions decorated in bright ornamental ceramics. As we explored, afternoon prayers let out, and the courtyard filled with men in skullcaps.


Right off the Muslim Street lies the palace complex of a Ming dynasty nobleman, Gao Yue Song, who rose to greatness 400 years ago by placing second in the Confucian imperial examination; a wall plaque at the house celebrates his brilliance as a 12-year-old test taker. We wandered through the tranquil, rambling house, presented as a “scholar’s residence,” with its succession of rooms and courtyards.

 

The next day, it was time for Xian’s main attraction: the terra-cotta warriors. An hourlong bus ride took us into the countryside, past universities and spas; the area is famous for its natural beauty and healing springs. The Museum of Qin Terra-Cotta Warriors and Horses is laid out as a series of huge buildings, reminiscent of airplane hangars, that extend over the three main trenches where the warriors were excavated after they were discovered in 1974. Pit 1 features thousands of the life-size clay warriors lined up in rows, while Pit 2 has a smaller group, including chariots and horses. In the Pit 3 building, you can get close to individual warriors in glass cases. The museum is, without question, a strange and wonderful place to visit, whether you prefer to reflect upon the vanity of emperors, the skill of the terra-cotta manufacturers — who managed to give the soldiers distinctive personalities — or upon the lives and longings of the peons who fought the imperial wars.

 

The next day, we had breakfast in the nameless food alley across from our hotel, where one particularly enterprising vendor with a grill built on to a bicycle cart made grilled chicken sandwiches topped with a fried egg and served on buns of puffy white Chinese bread slathered with two kinds of spicy bean sauce.

 

Then we went in search of an entrance that would take us up on the Xian city walls. Soon we found ourselves wandering through a part of the old city that is lined with stores and stalls selling calligraphy supplies: inks, ink pots, brushes and seals. On the walls, we walked along a piece of the old city circumference, from guardhouse to guardhouse, passing bicycle rental facilities, where more ambitious visitors can circumnavigate the eight-mile distance on two wheels.

 

Later, we took a taxi to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist temple dating to A.D. 652. The pagoda is surrounded by pavilions with stone carvings, many of them celebrating the journeys of the scholar Xuanzang, a seventh-century Buddhist monk who traveled all over China and then on to India, in search of wisdom and sacred Buddhist texts, which the pagoda was originally built to house. We climbed the interior stairs, up the seven levels, and looked out over the modern city of Xian.

 

On our last day, we visited the Hanyangling tombs, another lavish imperial burial site, this one from the Han dynasty emperor Liu Qi, who reigned from 156 to 141 B.C., and his Empress Wang. This emperor was again buried with terra-cotta figurines — but they were very different, both in scale and in scope, from the infantry, archers, officers and charioteers who make up the more famous terra-cotta army. For one thing, the figures at the Hanyangling tombs are doll-size, and include serried ranks of miniature sheep and goats and cows and pigs, presumably sent into the afterlife as a food source. In the enormous underground museum, you peer into the dim tomb compartments at groups of human figures or alternatively, at underground herds of livestock.

 

The emperor’s insistence on eating well underground (he was buried with figurines representing cooks and servants as well as all that meat on the hoof) is well reflected in the food offerings of Xian. We had dinner one night at Tong Sheng, a restaurant devoted to a higher-end version of paomo, and another night at the Xian Hotel, in a vast dining room of somewhat tattered elegance. But the most interesting food is bought — and eaten — outside. Skewers of highly spiced lamb; cold, sour liang ping noodles; ground meat sandwiches, sweet potato fritters; hand-pulled Xian noodles with chile sauce and cilantro; steamed sticky rice on skewers with sweet sauce and peanuts, mutton soup dumplings. There were also nuts and dried fruit; the Muslim Street, in particular, featured store after store with machines sorting walnuts by size, with arrays of dates arranged by value, and vivid orange persimmons available by the box.

 

On our last morning, when we went out to buy our breakfast sandwiches from the man with the grill on his bicycle cart, he handed me my sandwich and said, “Tomorrow?”

 

In fact, I could have wished for another couple of days in Xian; there was still so much more to explore in this city that deserves to be more fully seen and tasted.

 

IF YOU GO

Our train travel was arranged for us by Yellow River Travel, yellowrivertravel.com.

We also found this website very useful in planning train travel in China, and figuring out the different kinds of trains and bookings: seat61.com/China.htm#.UUwjA1f8nIU.

 

We stayed at the Citadines Hotel, citadines.com/china/xian/central.html, with studio and one-bedroom residences. Be aware that there are several Citadines around the city (and in other cities). The staff was very helpful and the hotel was comfortable and well situated. We paid about $130 a night for a suite.

 

Tong Sheng restaurant, on the north side of Bell and Drum Tower Square, 86-29-8721-8711, specializes in paomo mutton soup, with unleavened bread crumbled into the bowl. Expect to pay less than 60 renminbi, about $10 at 6 renminbi to the dollar, for dinner. 
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