It’s all about the Food!

I know, I know… This is probably one post too many about Xi’an, but it’s just not fair to write  about Xi’an without a mention of the food we had and the place that we stayed in. So bear with me for one more post…

Jo and I are not what you would consider foodies. When we are hungry, we find food to fill our stomachs. It’s a bonus if the food tastes nice (or if it’s even food in the first place) (You can never be too careful here in China). So it was kind of surprising (to us) that one of the reasons we increased our period of stay in Xi’an was for the food.

Xi’an was the starting and ending point of the Silk Road for centuries. For a very long time (I love how phrases like these take away the need for research), merchants and travellers from the West made Xi’an their home upon reaching the end of their journeys. Because of the mixture of ethnicities, Xi’an has some of the most unique dishes we’ve seen so far.

The best place to soak in the unique culture mix of Xi’an is definitely the Muslim Quarters. Built around the Great Mosque, the streets are crammed door to door with trinket shops, butcheries, craft shops, and of course, tonnes and tonnes of eateries and push carts selling all kinds of food imaginable (and a lot you can’t).

Although it’s called the Muslim Quarters, the shops are as multicultural as they come. Singapore always prides itself on being a melting pot of different cultures. Now imagine combining Singapore’s China Town, Arab Street, Geylang Serai, Clarke Quay and Little India into a two kilometre by two kilometre space, add in a generous dose of livestock and spit, and you’ll have about half of what makes up the narrow streets of Xi’an’s Muslim Quarters.

Like many other Chinese cities, the streets of Xi’an are very well planned and organized. All roads run in North-South, East-West grids. Yet at the heart of it all, there is the Muslim Quarters, whose rogue streets seemed planned by a city planner who had one too many sniffs of the happy smoke. The winding cobblestone streets are laid out haphazardly, with little alleyways thrown in for good measures that run into dead ends and (I swear this is true) canals.

Yet, that is one of the appeals of the Muslim Quarters. It is easy to get lost within it, finding surprises at every turn. For us, we got greedy and couldn’t keep our grubby hands off all the food that we saw… to the point where I didn’t even have the capacity to push away spitting old men (and women) (an essential skill here in China). Don’t judge us.

Can't get enough of the street food!

One of the specialties of Xi’an was the Yang Rou Pao Mo (羊肉泡馍). It’s a dish where patrons are asked to pinch a big bun into tiny pieces that would then be soaked in a huge bowl of lamb (or beef) broth. The general idea is that the smaller the pinched pieces, the tastier the dish would be. It was hard work pinching the dough, but we were suitably motivated by the potential awesomeness of the dish, and more so by another patron sharing our table. He actually got his dough returned, and for his efforts, received a sound scolding from the waitress to get serious with the pinching.

Awesome Chinese customer service strikes again!

Evolution of the 羊肉泡馍 – featuring Jo.

The last but possibly most important reason for us extending our stay was because of the hostel we stayed in.

We had wanted to keep our expenditure low for this trip by scrimping on the cost of our accommodation, and couch surfing when we have to. We figured that since we SHOULD be out exploring during the day, we just needed a sleeping surface for the night, and (hopefully) some hot water to shower with.

So far, we’ve not really been that good at keeping with the plan. The cities we’ve visited in Gansu are not what you would consider major cities, so it was a bit harder to find hostels or people letting out their couches. Furthermore, it was off season, so there were steep discounts at most of the hotels in town. We figured we could afford to spend that extra S$2 each a night for internet access and room service.

The thing about hotels is that they are all trying so hard to achieve a certain “standard” that after a while, they all feel the same. There is nothing really unique about most of them, so much so that it seemed like they have no “character”.

All that changed when we reached Xi’an. We could not find a couch to surf on at the last minute, so we decided to search out Han Tang Inn, a highly recommended hostel in Lonely Planet. We did not manage to find Han Tang Inn, but we found Han Tang Hostel which was along the same street instead.

I know… our initial thought after checking in was “Chinese Counterfeiters strike again!” too. But eventually, we found out that Han Tang Hostel was a new sister establishment set up by the people from Han Tang Inn. (in fact, it was so new that renovation work was still being carried out while we were there)

Being new, the facilities at the hostel were awesome, and the pricing reasonable, but more importantly, the service staff at the hostel were some of the friendliest we’ve managed to come across so far.

It just feels nice to have a place to “go back to” after a day of exploring – a place where you get to meet people from all around, a place where you can exchange stories, and more importantly, a place that serves cheap alcohol just below where you sleep.

Kudos to Joyce, Sasha, Fox, Alex for going out of their way and doing their part to make our stay in Xi’an unforgettable.