Wednesday, July 8, 2009

A Tranquil Escape

After work on Monday, three of my Xi'an colleagues took me out to do a bit of sightseeing.

I was last here during the Mid-Autumn Festival and one of the spots I visited was Muslim Street or Hui Min Jie, but didn't go into the mosque and wanted to go this time.

Now that I reflect back, I realize my coworkers may have been worried about going into this neighbourhood with the news of the Xinjiang riots coming out. Xi'an is home to some 60,000 Muslims, most of whom are Hui minority.

However, I was determined to visit the mosque and dragged the trio with me. We walked from the South Gate all the way there, taking almost 45 minutes plus a 20-minute bus ride.

We wandered down the lanes of Muslim Street and had to ask several people where the mosque was until we found the signs pointing the direction to "The Great Mosque".

And to my delight it was still open, but to my colleagues the 25 RMB ($3.66) admission fee was high, but as they all had never been in there before, I treated them to go in, much to their delight.

One whipped out her small video camera and started recording the moment. There were few people around, most were men, Muslims coming to pray or chat with friends.

Inside it feels more like a garden than a place of religious worship, with lots of trees and flowers around and birds constantly chirping and flying overhead. It was just before dusk so the light was soft, creating a quiet beautiful aura in the place.

The mosque was built in 742AD during the Tang Dynasty and was restored and expanded during the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, which explains the various architectural styles in the compound. It is divided into four courtyards, each with various arches or towers, and rooms.

There are Chinese and Arabic calligraphy on wooden and stone tablets, as well as manicured bonsai plants, giant ceramic pots filled with lily pads and very old trees everywhere.

In the middle of the courtyard is literally "The Introspection Tower", but it really should be named "The Introspective Tower" or "The Reflective Tower", as it suggests people should be looking inside their hearts.

Finally at the very end is the Worship Hall. Non-Muslims aren't allowed in this area, but you can see a giant hall with columns, where worshippers walk in without their shoes onto lots of individual prayer mats that seem to go on forever.

We all admitted we didn't know much about Islam, but one remarked that those who were religious seemed happier. I said that while that was true most of the time, I tried to explain one didn't have to be religious, but it works for some.

Soon after we left the mosque, the sun started to set, ending a relaxing and tranquil visit to the mosque and back to the dusty, noisy and crowded streets of the Muslim district.

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