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A day with Meng and Sebastian… walking through Xi’an China’s Muslim Quarter and tea tasting along the old city wall.

10/02/2013

Last week my newlywed friends Sebastian and Meng (English name Mona) joined me for a day exploring the Muslim Quarter followed by some tea tasting near the old city wall South Gate in Xi’an, China. The Muslim Quarter (Most famously, “Muslim Street”) is located next to the city center’s Bell Tower which itself is smack in the middle of the 16 km circumference old city wall in Xi’an. (It’s China’s oldest intact city wall.)

We began our adventure strolling past the many shops in the Muslim Quarter.

(Click once on a photo for a larger view… click a second time for a full-sized view.)

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Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.

Mona and Sebastian found a shop where they could buy some nuts as gifts for the Chinese New Year.

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Mona wanted to visit a “hole in the wall bakery” that is a local favorite, so we found the unassuming looking entryway a couple of streets away…

Entry into the alley where the bakery is located. Walk though the open doorway, turn right at the back wall, turn left at the next wall... and the bakery is at the far end on your right.

Entry into the alley where the bakery is located. Walk though the open doorway, turn right at the back wall, turn left at the next wall… and the bakery is at the far end on your right.

Almost there... It's the small doorway on the right under the yellow sign...

Almost there… It’s the small doorway on the right under the yellow sign… Let’s sneak up those stairs a bit to see if we can sneak a peak inside before we enter…

Ok... Starting up the stairs now... I think I might be able to peak through the window if I go a bit farther...

Ok… Starting up the stairs now… I think I might be able to peak through the window if I go a bit farther…

I can see the smiles on peoples' faces and hear the lively chatter inside. The room is obviously tiny, yet I hear 20 or 30 voices. (I must admit I feel like a bit of a voyeur at this point.)

The smiles on peoples’ faces and hear the lively chatter inside are impossible to miss. The room is obviously tiny, yet I hear 20 or 30 cheerful voices. (I must admit I feel like a bit of a voyeur at this point.)

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Ah… So that’s what the hubbub is all about… Sweet treats popular with the locals, especially for the upcoming Lunar New Year celebrations a week away.

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So Mona and Sebastian made their purchases after which we made our escape back down the winding corridor. (See video)

We got back out on the street and decided to pick up a few more types of nuts and dried fruit…

So we head on down the street where Mona stops to pick up a few peanuts....

We head on down the street where Mona stops to pick up a few peanuts….

We decided to skip the ram's head and various other unidentifiable internal parts. (I've always wondered what the Chinese do with the good cuts of meat, as the unsavory ones are all I ever see.)

We decided to skip the ram’s head and various other unidentifiable internal parts. (I’ve always wondered what the Chinese do with the good cuts of meat, as the unsavory ones are all I ever see.)

The nuts and dried fruit are great, however. Here Mona cuts a deal on some dried kiwi. Yum!

The nuts and dried fruit are great, however. Here Mona cuts a deal on some dried kiwi. Yum!

Luckily we were there on a weekday, so it wasn't (ahem) crowded. Seriously though, it would have been much worse on a weekend.

Luckily we were there on a weekday, so it wasn’t (ahem) crowded. Seriously though, it would have been much worse on a weekend.

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We strolled on down the street. By then Meng and Sebastian were beginning to get hungry, so we looked for a good place for some soup. There were many from which to choose.

We strolled on down the street. By then Meng and Sebastian were beginning to get hungry, so we looked for a good place for some soup. There were many from which to choose.

This place looked interesting but was way too crowded.

This place looked interesting but was way too crowded.

Ah... This looks more like it... But let's keep going a little farther...

Ah… This looks more like it… But let’s keep going a little farther…

Finally we found a little soup shop a short distance from the main crowd… Here we enjoy some traditional Muslim soup.

(See video)

(In case you couldn’t read it in the video, I was pointing out that all trikes, motorcycles and motor scooters in the inner city must be battery powered. No gasoline models allowed.)

Back into the bedlam...

Back into the din…

We decided to head out of the Muslim Quarter so took a narrow street leading back to the Drum Tower. That was somewhat of a mistake, as the street was clearly too narrow to accommodate the hordes of people, carts, and electric motorcycles trying to occupy the same space at the same time… The video demonstrates that point…

Can you spot the guy with the bump on the back of his head… and the middle aged woman who has a little bunny logo on the front of her coat? (For some reason, many Chinese women seem to feel “cutesie” never goes out of style, even when it is no longer age appropriate.)

We survived the overcrowded street, finding this side street which lead us back to the Great Mosque.

We survived the overcrowded street, finding this side street which lead us back to the Great Mosque.

We then made our way past the Great Mosque, out of Muslim Street and into the circular tunnel lying beneath the Bell Tower. Emerging on the other side, we walked east to a big book store where we browsed the racks for about thirty minutes.

Eager to get on to the tea shop, we left the bookstore and traveled through a tourist market (catering more to Chinese nationals than to foreigners), before finally arriving at the tea shop. The shop sits just inside the South Gate of the old city wall.

At last... Arrival at the tea shop!

At last… Arrival at the tea shop!

Mona and Sebastian are first inside.

Mona and Sebastian are first inside.

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Our hostess greets us and starts preparing various teas for us to sample.

The first pour of the hot water onto the tea is considered too bitter to drink... so it is used to wash the cups.

The first pour of the hot water onto the tea is considered too bitter to drink… so it is used to wash the cups.

Entire books have been written on tea culture and the proper way to serve tea, so there is no way to cover that here. Having said that, here are a few of the most basic of rules:

  • Tea (including the leaves) is meant to be seen as well as tasted and smelled… so no self respecting Chinese person would consider making tea with a tea bag.
  • Unlike in the west where we pour hot water onto the tea once, then throw away the leaves, in China the “first pour” is considered too bitter to drink. For that reason, the tea from the first brewing is used only to wash the cups. Some people believe that the subsequent pours (2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.) all have their own unique qualities. They laugh a little at Westerners who throw away the tea leaves after the first brewing.
  • Drinking tea is as much about the ritual and the companionship as it is the tea itself. Don’t be in any rush. Take your time and savor it and each others company.
Nice shot of your hand, there, Sebastian! :-)

Nice shot of your hand, there, Sebastian! 🙂

One of my favourite teas... an oolong with flower petals mixed in.

One of my favourite teas… an oolong with flower petals mixed in.

Let’s take a little look at the video…

Treasures in hand, Mona and Sebastian exit the shop...

Treasures in hand, Mona and Sebastian exit the shop…

With the city wall directly to our left, we decided to walk though it for the shortest route home.We could have taken the bus but it was too beautiful of  a a day for that.

With the city wall directly to our left, we decided to walk though it for the shortest route home.
We could have taken the bus but it was too beautiful of a a day for that.

Just on the other side of the wall, we stopped for one last photo before walking home.

Just on the other side of the wall, we stopped for one last photo before walking home.
The red decorations on the wall are for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebration.

One last thanks to Meng and Sebastian for the great day! 新年快樂!!!

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