xi’an is worth visiting for the street food alone. the muslim quarter is an attraction for both international and national tourists. in this chinese muslim neighborhood, you’ll find narrow streets lined with watches, scarves, incense and wood boxes. much like the crap you can buy in your united states hawker parts of chinatown. focus on the food, not the wares.
as you stroll through the streets, vendors line both sides of the sidewalk. there are so many scents wafting about, and callers calling to buy their goods…it’s almost impossible to not run yourself dizzy from zigzagging to check out every smell, every stall.
one of my absolute favorite things i found was a stuffed persimmon. a dried persimmon (not chewy dry like dried nectarines. more supple, like a dried apricot) was taken and stuffed with chopped nuts, rose water and a few other magical ingredients. it is griddled til slightly golden and served in a square of wax paper to keep your fingers greasy clean. warm, sweat, chewy. i dare u to just try one.
another soul satisfying option is a steamed bun stuffed with minced and stewed pork. for less than 10 yuan, you will have a chinese version of a hamburger. the white fluffy bao absorbs the dripping from the meat, which is highly seasoned with chilis and spices. then you can add more toasted chili on top if you like. i only wish i had taken the time to take a picture of this glorious find. i meant to only take a bite, as i had just eaten, but it was so warm, so soft and so juicy that i may have stuffed the whole thing into my face in seconds…sigh. now it’s just a memory. but one you should definitely track down.
in xi’an, another famous dish is mutton soup. i didn’t know it was famous, nor that it involved participation on my part. i walked passed a food stall filled with noisy slurping and boisterous burping. soup bowls were flying from the man’s hands who was dealing with vats of stock and piles of meet. i worked up the courage to step in and found a table in the back. i was handed an empty bowl and 2 pieces of flat bread. i sat there and looked around for about 5 minutes, wondering when my soup was going to be delivered to my empty bowl.
finally, two young college kids came and joined me and laughed when they saw me. i was embarrassed….until they showed me that i must rip the bread into tiny bits before i get my soup. the girl showed me to rip tiny tiny pieces, as when they absorb the liquid, they become softer and easier to chew. i tore away and then handed my bowl over, excited about what my soup was going to taste like. had i ripped small enough? indeed.
the soup was hot, rich and muttony. floating herbs, dense and chewy pieces of bread and braised mutton. i slurped and burped (demurely of course) along with the rest of them. i love interactive food!
aside, from the food in xi’an, you obviously will want to check out the burried (no longer) terra cotta warriors. don’t sign up with your hostel or guesthouse.
you can take a bus from the local bus station and pay a fraction of the price. the driver of the bus obviously knows that your stop is the warrior stop. if you don’t speak chinese, they’ll know where you’re looking to go.
how much? $1 = 6.6¥
the guest house where i stayed, 7 sages hostel, was not glamorous. but i met very nice people. and bargained a dorm bed for $4/night (normally going for $6)
the bus to the terra cotta warrior museum is 7 ¥. it can be picked up from the bus station in front of the railway (green bus #306).
i took an overnight train from beijing to xi’an for about $20 in the hard class seats. i thought i’d be tough and sit with the locals and not upgrade to the soft sleeper. the benches were wood seats facing each other. 6 people packed into a 4 person capacity+luggage. after having amusing “chats” and making many faces at babies and staring older people, i began to get sleepy. but sleep is hard when your seat is at a stiff vertical angle. i eventually tapped one of the snoring men on the floor by my feet and he gladly swapped places with me. i slumped on the floor and slept (nevermind not so comfortably) for at least a few hours before my train pulled into xi’an. next time i suggest a sleeper (hard or soft, at least you get to lie down) for $40.