Author Benjamin Carlson Photography Jasper James
DAY TWO No matter where you are, there are few better ways to start the day than immersed in a deep tub pungent with Hermès bath salts. I follow my dip with an equally restorative order of dragon fruit with toast in the hotel café, fortifying myself for a shopping spree at the antique market of the Temple of the Eight Immortals, the biggest Taoist temple in Xi’an, located east of the city walls.
Outside the temple, peddlers display an array of baseball caps, incense burners, screwdrivers, and sweet potatoes. I inspect a decorative clay object and am practically charged by a wrinkled old man, who claims it is from the Yuan dynasty of AD 1271. I nod and move on. I ask another vendor the price of two iron tiger statuettes, and she corrects me: “They’re unicorns.” Nearby, a young woman is involved in a heated conversation with a pipe-smoking man in a military coat.
“Are these yours?” she asks, holding up several “Certificates of Merit” given to comrades for good work.
“How can you sell them?”
“They’re no use to me. He’s not
“You shouldn’t sell them.”
“Eh, all right.”
Inside the Eight Immortals, where Empress Cixi fled in 1900 during the Boxer Rebellion, worshipers put bundles of incense into iron urns and bow three times. I follow them into a hall where a Taoist priest with a mustache and a black hat listens to a loud audiobook while visitors kneel upon pillows. Nobody else seems bothered, and I wonder if this isn’t some kind of test. Isn’t Taoism all about accepting contradictions? I leave the temple, passing a food cart selling five spice dog meat. A few feet away, a Chihuahua in a pink vest snoozes on a blanket.
“That’s Haohao,” his owner says.
I bend to greet Haohao and he bares his teeth, growling until I back away from the pile of onions he seems to believe belong to him.
My next stop is in the South Gate area, at the Forest of Steles, a repository of stone tablets founded in 1087. Housed in the city’s Confucian Temple, it contains 3,000 steles that are considered masterpieces of the calligrapher’s art—the characters delicately chiseled into the stone—including several complete books written by emperors. By the entrance, four elderly masters demonstrate calligraphy for small crowds of mostly older men. One man yanks a small boy away after he repeatedly bumps a master’s elbow with a toy truck. “I’m helping!” the boy cries.
You don’t have to know the language to appreciate the wildly diverse styles on show at the museum: some swooping, others dashing, or, in the case of one master called Crazy Zhang, erupting in wild, drunken arcs. In one gallery, I find the Nestorian tablet of 781, a record of Christian pilgrims’ first encounters with China. It’s a testimony to Xi’an’s cosmopolitan past, when foreign goods and ideas traveled along the Silk Road, bringing fruitful infusions of the outside world into Chinese culture and cuisine.
Appropriately, I’m about to visit a real hotbed of cultural fusion: the Muslim Quarter, a sprawling area within the city walls. I’ve arranged to meet two longtime expat residents: Matt Allen, a San Franciscan entrepreneur married to a local woman, and his friend Marcello, an Italian-Venezuelan guitarist. Matt gives me a bro-bump, then plunges into the crowd.
“Something that doesn’t get nearly enough attention is how long Muslims have been a part of Chinese culture,” says Matt. “This is a scene that’s been humming along 24 hours a day for centuries, and it’s gorgeous and humming all day long.”
I struggle to keep up as Matt and Marcello dodge vendors selling peanut brittle, walnuts, dates, and deep-fried persimmon cakes. Plumes of smoke swirl around hickory lamb skewers. Matt appears from the crowd to hand me a cup of pomegranate juice. They’re in season, so the price is good. “My Muslim friends, they all know the price of, like, six commodities at once,” he says over his shoulder. “It’s all still Silk Road trader stuff.”
It’s a dizzying scene. Bikes honk. People shout. The three of us surface at a popular shop called Old Sun’s Family Beef Lamb Porridge, which serves a dish known as yang rou pao mo. We sit and tear discs of soft, dense bread into tiny pieces to fill a bowl, which will then be ladled with hot, savory lamb or beef stew. Matt points at my crudely torn bits and turns to Marcello. “Man, he is going to have some terrible soup.”
Finally, I get it right. The cook, wearing a square white hat, swirls steaming broth into my bowl, adding bok choy and chilies as he goes. As we eat, I ask Matt what makes Xi’an so special. “I love how smart everyone is here without any education,” he responds. “All the men can fix everything, and the women can all make 100 soups. The whole country is jerry-rigged, and I feel like this is where that started.”
We end the afternoon jostling along alleyways toward the Great Mosque, one of the largest and oldest in China. While the buildings have the graceful eaves of Chinese temples, the vertical inscriptions along the doorframes are written in Arabic script. As we stroll through the mosque gardens, my companions talk hip-hop. A few years earlier, Matt tells me, he and a friend achieved some notoriety with a video of them rapping, in Chinese and English, a piece titled “We Livin’ in Xi’an.”
After a spritz and snooze at the hotel, I head for the contemporary Spanish eatery DUO, opposite Nanhu Lake. While I chow down on suckling pig croquettes, Galician octopus, and vacuum-cooked codfish, the city’s only flamenco band—composed of two locals and a Scotsman—accompany a stomping Chinese woman in a red dress.
My phone buzzes. It’s Matt, telling me there’s an arm-wrestling competition taking place in a pirate-themed barbecue restaurant across town. I leap into a cab and head over. A smoky room of long tables is filled with beer steins, burly men in Speedos, and girls in red bunny outfits. How they kept the Strangenesses here down to eight, I’ll never know.