Friday, April 6, 2018

Xi'an. The Muslim Quarter.

It's the first day of my third visit back to Xi'an and it's Yim's second time here. For both Bro and SK, it's their first visit to the city and I hope they enjoy their time here.  For me, I think Xi'an is my favorite city in China as far as being a tourist is concerned.  The old city is reasonably small and very walkable.  It's full of history and interesting sights, sounds and smells and at the same time, it's also very modern.  Not to mention that it always feels like springtime here - the weather is perfect for me.

This morning was all about food.  It started with us having to go out and get breakfast.  Yes, the hotel does provide a buffet breakfast for an additional fee but we'll go for that another day.  Today, I wanted us to get out of the tourist bubble of breakfast at the hotel and check out what locals do for their first meal of the day.

Checking the street map while standing across the street from our hotel.

Luckily, we didn't have to go far.  Pretty much just across the street where we came across several small eateries dishing up food.  A few had lines of people waiting to place their orders at the service window.

When you're not familiar with the food, it's always hard to decide where to eat so for a good few minutes, we were literally just walking by places and occasionally stopping to see what was being cooked up.  The thing I like about China is that much of the cooking often takes place in open view so you can see the cooks at work.  As someone who likes to cook herself, I enjoy watching them.  I took a pause to watch these three whip up stuffed buns.

By the end I was dying to try one of their creations so I got one to go.

Pretty much right next door was a small restaurant that had a few tables inside.  We checked out what they were cooking up outside - steamed buns, pots of boiling soup that looked spicy and fried fritters, including yau ja gway which always draws our attention.  Who doesn't like fried dough?  We decided it was good enough for us to give this place a try.

Remarkably, the little place was packed with people and we were lucky to find a table for the four of us.

While the other three ordered up their meal, I munched on my sandwich from the place next door.  The bread was good - crunchy and a little bit flaky.  The veggie filling was just okay; I think I much prefer a meat filling.  In any case, this relatively little bite of food was enough for me to get going on my day.  I don't want to overeat as who knows, maybe we'll grab more food later in the morning.

After our quick breakfast, it was on to our first destination of the day - the Muslim Quarter.  As long as I can get to the Bell Tower, I can get to the Muslim Quarter so that's the direction that I told Bro to navigate us in.  Our hotel's location is ideal for sightseeing in the old city and it was a lovely morning for a city walk.  Xi'an was just coming to life.  Though most of the stores had yet to open up but people were already on their way to work.  There was traffic on the street but not with the type of rush hour congestion that you would find in a US city.  I think that's mainly attributable to the fact that public transportation (buses and metro) are excellent in China.  I still have not seen any of the tuk-tuks that whizzed along these streets back in 2016.  Perhaps they are now banned as I read somewhere that the China is attempting to reduce smog levels in the country.  Good luck to them.

As soon as I saw the Bell Tower, I told the gang that we had to find the underpass to cross the street.  Not a difficult thing to do as the signage here is very good.

Down the steps and we were back in the tunnels that are very familiar to me.  Somewhere here, we would also find the line to visit the Bell Tower.  Believe it or not, I have been to this city three times now and on my previous two visits, I never made it to the Bell Tower.  Today, even though it was early morning, there was already an incredibly long line of people queuing up to enter the tower.  We decided not to wait and continued our walk towards the Muslim Quarter.   Maybe if we have time later today otherwise, I will leave here after three visits and not have stepped foot inside the place.  Arghhhh!!!

We emerged from the tunnels into a small plaza and from there, even Yim knew where to walk.  You just go in the direction towards the Drum Tower as the Muslim Quarter is situated just alongside it.  Early morning or not, week day or not, the place was already crowded with people.

Just as we had done at the Bell Tower, we paused for a few moments at the Drum Tower to check out the performance times.  I took this photo so we could check back on the times later.  I'm certain we'll catch one of the performances.  I had done the same thing when I was here in 2009 so I've seen a Drum Tower performance.....but not a Bell Tower performance.  Arghhhh!!!

A short walk later and we were at the start of the street that leads through the Muslim Quarter.   As with my previous visit, I took a ton of photos.  Here are most of them.

For some reason, the first food item I always come across is the ubiquitous and very popular dessert known as feng mi liang gao which is a cold yellow sticky rice cake topped with a layer of jujube (aka Chinese date) puree.

I did have everyone stop at what has become an obligatory sampling place for me. It's the vendor that sells all the nut snacks as I call them.  There are probably two dozen different types of nut snacks and you can sample them all.

They pretty much all delicious so much so that Yim and SK could not help themselves. They bought a couple of different types which I am sure they will share with everyone as the trip progresses.  We've already discussed backing along some snacks for our Xinjiang road trips.  These nut snacks will be perfect to fend off hunger pangs until we can have a proper meal.

SK also stopped to get herself a snack.  A skewer of grilled cuttlefish.  Not something you would find in the US but this is a very Chinese street snack.

Both Alipay and We Chat Pay are as popular in Xi'an as they are in Shanghai and Beijing and most of the street food vendors we walked by had the ubiquitous QR codes posted up so you can just do a mobile payment.  But, cash is still accepted.....for now.  At the rate China is progressing, who knows.....the paper yuan may soon become a thing of the past.

Also popular is hua sheng gao, a peanut crisp.  You'll hear the sound of the mallets, pounding out the sweet treat, as you pass by the candy shops.

If you've read my previous posts, you will know that I am obsessed with Old Beijing yogurt.  I am typically not a fan of yogurt but this drink is just so tasty.  I told SK that you can collect the bottles and so we have both made it a bit of a goal for us to find different ones that we like.  I had to get this one because I very much liked the blue and white design.  The only thing that really bothers me about the drink is the plastic straw.  On my next visit to China, I will try to bring along reusable straws to avoid adding even this small item of plastic to the environment.

The one thing that I noticed on this visit to the Muslim Quarter that I did not notice on my previous visits were all the shops selling not just fresh produce but fruit that you can have cut up and placed in a carryout container.  I saw quite a few Chinese walking around with large, see through plastic containers, poking at pieces of cut fruit with a wooden skewer.  From what I can tell, you pick the fruit you want and the vendor will cut it up for you. I presume you pay by weight.

It's good to see folks eating healthy.

In 2016, I didn't notice the mobile payment QR codes hanging up everywhere.  Today, there was no way to not see them.


Xi'an is the terminus of the China Silk Road.  No doubt, the bread is influenced by the Central Asian cultures.

As technologically advanced as China is becoming, what stopped us in our tracks today was an old fashioned cookie making machine.  It was fascinating to watch this thing churn out walnut cookies.  What you can't see in the video is the guy making them is so bored that he was actually watching a video on his cellphone at the same that he was scooping what looked to be walnut paste into the empty cookie molds.

These are candies made from haw berry, the fruit of the Chinese hawthorn tree.  Brought back memories of eating haw flake candy as a child.

Dried slices of haw fruit.

Chinese seem to love their quail eggs.

I have no idea what these cubed up things are.  Definitely not brownies.  Tea??

This woman is making up another one of the popular food items here - jing gao.  It's a steamed sticky rice cake that is cooked in a wooden mold but served on a skewer.  The rice is flavored with various toppings including jam, ground peanuts and sesame seeds.

These red things are persimmon donuts.  

All the while that we were walking, I was keeping my eyes out for the narrow alleyway that leads through the souvenir shops and eventually takes you to the city's famed Grand Mosque.  But I was so distracted with everything going on around me that I know I missed the turn off.  I was also trying to find a *quieter* side street that we could go onto but no luck.  Today, as I presume is the case pretty much every day, the Muslim Quarter was so packed with people, we were pretty much walking shoulder to shoulder and front to back with each other and strangers.

We did end up in a section of the street that I had never been on before.  If I had to describe it in one word, it would be offal.  It was all abut offal.  I'm guessing both cow and sheep offal.  If you were in need of fresh and cooked hearts and livers, this would be the place you would come.

There was also a vendor selling eggs.  Of course, the black shelled ones caught my eye.  I think they are duck eggs that have been boiled in sulfur water....something akin to Japanese owakudani.  I wonder how you eat them and if they taste something like the Chinese thousand year old eggs that I love!

Of course, there are countless restaurants in the Muslim Quarter serving up food.  I decided we needed to have our lunch here.  This is my fourth visit to the place and I've never eaten here.  About time I did and I was going to drag the other three into joining me.  There was no objection.

A fun moment between the two sisters.  SK had spotted a container of Old Beijing yogurt that she wanted but she simply could not stomach drinking another container's worth.  Her kind sister offered to drink it for her but not without letting out a big Chinese groan (aaiiiyaaahh....) first.  That cracked both of them up and I just had to snap the photo to capture the moment forever!

One of the things that I do not like about being in China is the fact that there are so many people smoking here!  So it's no surprise to see cigarettes for sale everywhere.  It's astonishing how many different brands there are!

The food in Xi'an is spicy.  'nuf said.

I had to take this photo of a jumble of rental bikes.  I didn't see any rental racks in Xi'an so it looks like most of the bikes are ones that you can rent and simply leave anywhere.  You gotta feel sorry for the company that has to come and retrieve these.

Did I tell you that Chinese, including the one typing these words, love, love, love persimmons?  Sadly, I don't  belong in the camp of people who love dried persimmons....mainly because I'm not much of a fan of dried fruits in general.

SK has also been on a mission to buy tea, as a gift for a friend who apparently is not a tea connoisseur but decided to ask SK to bring back some from China.  I would've just gotten any type of tea from China but apparently this friend has indicated that he does not like strong tasting tea and SK has taken that request very seriously.  When we happened across this tea vendor, we stopped to check out his offerings.

Though he was quite a popular vendor, surrounded by a small crowd of people, he did take a few minutes to explain his selection to us.  To me, if it tastes good, I buy it....not the true connoisseur.  Most people don't see tea being sold in blocks but that's how some Chinese teas are fermented and packaged.  To me, any tea that is fermented will be stronger in flavor than either a green or white tea so I was trying to steer SK in that direction.

While SK was trying to decide whether or not to buy any tea from the guy, I was more fascinated with watching him conduct sales transactions.  Of course, he had his QR code.

The green one QR code label is for We Chat Pay.

...but no cash register.  He simply held up his smartphone, displaying the QR code.  The buyer scans the code, enters in the amount of the purchase and then simply clicks on the submit button.  Purchase made.  It's incredible how quickly the Chinese have adopted mobile payment systems and how quickly they have figure out how to work the system to their advantage.  This guy can literally conduct his business with just his phone!  I would not be surprised if his payment system is also somehow tied to his inventory system and his tax payment system.

Back to more food.  This guy was selling a fruit we had never ever seen before.  This is the seed of the water caltrop plant, an aquatic plant that has been cultivated in China for centuries.

The flesh of the fruit reminds me of water chestnut.  I wonder if the fruit has a similar texture and taste to water chestnut which I love to eat so much so that I often buy it to munch on as you would an apple.

Seeing bowls upon bowls upon bowls of noodles just fueled my hunger pangs.

Everyone had had such a light breakfast it wasn't hard to convince any of them to break for a bite.  Only problem is that we ended up picking a place that served noodle soup but even with the help of our two Mandarin speakers, we really had no idea what we were really ordering.  Just noodle soup, non spicy please.

Plenty of seats so we found four that we liked.

Then our bowls of noodle soup got delivered. Hmmmm......what is this?  Bean thread noodles with bits of meat and soggy things that tasted like dough.  This, as it turns out, is yang rou pao mo, THE most popular food dish in the Muslim Quarter.  It is essentially as I described it.  The doughy stuff are bits of bread....the flat ones that you see for sale on the streets here.  In fact, they tell you to look for the bread, outside the restaurant, as a sign that this is a place to enter if you are in search of a bowl of yang rou pao mo.  To me, it's definitely an acquired taste, especially since the meat is a bit tad on the gamey side....probably more mutton than lamb.

As we were polishing off our bowls of soup, we noticed a couple of girls who were seated at the next table, tearing bits of bread into their bowls.  When they were done, a waiter came by with a kettle and poured the hot soup into their bowls.

I think that when we ordered our soups, we were asked whether or not we wanted to tear the bread ourselves or whether we wanted it pre-torn for us, so to speak.  Since we had no clue what we were being asked to do, the woman pretty much decided for us that it would be easiest if we had everything just served up to us.  I guess if you are are a true yang rou pao mo eater, you might want to do the tearing yourself so you can control the size of the bread pieces.  I'm glad I got to try this but I don't think I will order it again.  Straight up spicy soup will be the way I will go from now on.  But....I will never turn down a bowl of noodles.

After lunch, it was time to do some sightseeing but we were not ready to leave the Muslim Quarter yet!