Monday, April 20: After leaving the Drum Tower, I venture into the heart of the Muslim Quarter to explore. I’m assaulted by colorful banners, food carts and stalls, along with the delicious smells of dumpling soup, beef or mutton Rou Jia Mo (Chinese Hamburger), northwestern style noodles, and Yangrou Paomo, or crumbled flatbread (unleavened bread) in mutton stew. It’s noisy and lively, a vibrant scene where I can wander along aimlessly among the crowds toward the Great Mosque.
Below is a stall of stuffed flatbread, simply dough fried on a large pan surface and pressed down. Once fried, the flatbread is opened and stuffed with meat.
After a leisurely stroll, I wind up at the Great Mosque, the largest mosque in China. Established in 742 during the Tang dynasty (618-907), it was restored and widened in the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. It was built in the shape of a rectangle from east to west, and it is divided into four courtyards.
Islam was introduced into Northwest China by Arab merchants and travelers from Persia and Afghanistan during the mid-7th century when some of them settled down in China and married women of Han Nationality. Their descendants became the Muslims of today. The Muslims played an important role in unifying China during the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Hence, other mosques were also built to honor them (Travel China Guide: Great Mosque).
In the first courtyard is the Wooden Memorial Archway with upturned eaves and glazed roof tiles. This archway was built at the beginning of the 17th century, dating back over 390 years.
In the middle of the second courtyard are three connected memorial gateways supported with four pillars. On the top of the main gate is a title inscribed in Chinese calligraphy: “The Court of the Heaven.” Stone carved fences are around the gateways with two passages on both sides. This stone complex was built in the Ming dynasty.
Yizhen Pavilion is also known as Phoenix Pavilion. The main pavilion in the center is hexagonal with cornices and pinnacles, which looks like the head of a phoenix. Pavilions on two sides are triangular with reflexed wings. These three pavilions are connected in a unique shape, as if a phoenix is spreading its wings.
The Great Mosque melds Arabic motifs into familiar Chinese designs, making it different from mosques found in other Islamic countries. The mosque has neither domes nor traditional-style minarets.
The Worship Hall has a turquoise roof and exquisite carvings on the doors and eaves.
The main hall can hold 1,000 people at a time and according to traditional custom, prayer services are held five times everyday respectively at dawn, noon, afternoon, dusk and night.
On the inside of the Worship Hall, all the pages of the Holy Koran are carved in the 600 pieces of huge wooden boards; 30 of them are in Chinese while the others are in Arabic.
In 1956, the mosque was decreed to be an important historical and cultural site under the protection of the Shaanxi Provincial Government. In 1988, it was promoted to be one of the most important sites in China.
In the middle of the third courtyard, “The Introspection Tower” serves as the minaret, which is the tallest building in the whole mosque for calling Muslims to prayer. With two stories, three layers of eaves, and an octagonal roof, it would be very impressive if it weren’t being renovated on this day!
Returning to the entrance, I see the Wooden Memorial Archway from the other side.
The Five-Room Hall sits at the entrance to the second courtyard.
As I make my way out of the mosque and back into the Muslim Quarter, I find these interesting T-shirts with pictures of “Oba Mao.” 🙂
Suddenly, I’m back in the bustling Muslim Quarter, where suddenly I’m feeling very hungry. Though all the food looks enticing, I’m determined to find a bread soup that one of my colleagues told me about.
Jujube, otherwise known as Chinese dates, are commonly seen here in the Muslim Quarter.
Every kind of dehydrated fruit imaginable is sold in the Muslim Quarter.
Finally, I find a restaurant where I see people sitting at outdoor tables busily tearing bread into tiny pieces into bowls. I’ve found the famous soup!
I also see these two friends talking amiably. They look like what I imagine Chinese intellectuals would look like.
I step inside the restaurant where I order the Crumbled Flatbread (unleavened bread) in Mutton Stew, in Chinese, Yangrou Paomo. I’m given a large bowl and two pieces of round, flat unleavened bread.
I observe the people at the tables around me and realize I should break the bread into small pieces so that it can absorb the flavor of the liquid. The bread is hard and the process is time-consuming. I see many people are breaking their bread into tiny pieces, but I tear mine up into slightly larger pieces, one, because I don’t want to sit all day tearing the bread, two, because I’m famished, and three, because I’m envisioning the bread pieces becoming something like dumplings, chicken-and-dumpling style, once the soup is poured over them.
After I prepare my bread, I take my bowl to the chef at the back of the restaurant. He ladles hot soup over the bread, topping it off with pieces of beef (mutton is also popular). Back at the table, a Chinese young man who speaks a bit of English instructs me to add chili paste, caraway and a specially salted sweet garlic to the dish.
It is the most delicious thing imaginable! I end up taking out the meat as it’s a little fatty for my taste, but I enjoy every bite of that bread, which does in fact turn into something resembling a cross between dumplings and späetzle. I’m in heaven.
I sure wish I didn’t always have to worry about getting stomach problems or gaining weight, because I love food, especially a dish such as this!!
After lunch, I make my way back past the Drum Tower and head back to the hotel to relax a bit before I tackle the ancient city walls.