On a recent dreary day we were riding our bikes down Jiangbin Xi Lu along the Panlong River to see if rains had swelled the waterway. The river was indeed flowing swiftly, its waters churning brown and a bit frothy. But what caught our attention was not the water, but a small rusty brown historical marker pointing across the street.
Slightly hidden by overgrown vines was a small gate topped with writing in both Chinese and Arabic. Quite by accident we had stumbled upon the 700 year-old Jinniu Jie Mosque (金牛路清真寺).
Just inside the gate was a stall proffering all sorts of fresh baked bread — some of it was light and airy and smelled of sugar, while other varieties were hard, thick and flavored with sesame. The friendly young man selling the bread told us it was fine to snap some pictures as long as we refrained from taking them in the prayer room. Sounded sensible.
Unfortunately for us the prayer room makes up the vast majority of the mosque complex. We removed our shoes and stepped inside. The hall is meant to accommodate 200 people, with a curtain separating men from women. When we visited, there were only two men crouched praying on thick carpets. Even though the hall was almost completely silent, we could just make out their quiet prayers.
As in every mosque, artistic depictions of human beings are forbidden. Instead, natural scenes are common and Islamic calligraphy is almost omnipresent.
The Jinniu Jie Mosque has a beautiful ceramic example of this set into the back wall of the prayer room. Above everything rose wooden rafters supporting a tiled roof. Minus the Persian rugs, it was almost as if we were wandering through a Buddhist temple.
Wanting to leave the worshipers alone, we stepped back outside and were immediately approached by an elderly man. After a short conversation he led us to the left of the prayer room and down a hallway until we were facing a large green sign covered with characters. As we read, the man explained the history of the mosque.
The original mosque was constructed during the Yuan Dynasty beside a road called Jinniu Jie (金牛街) — thus its present name. At the time, thousands of ethnic Hui moved from Shanxi, Hebei and Henan provinces to Kunming. They established a Muslim quarter along the Panlong River and in the process built the mosque.
During the Panthay Rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century, Du Wenxiu (杜文秀), leader of the revolt, stayed several times at the Jinniu Jie Mosque. The seventeen-year war fought against the Manchus would claim at least one million lives in Yunnan.
After the rebellion was put down, vengeful Qing forces razed the Jinniu Jie Mosque. In 1889 the Muslim community in Kunming rebuilt and enlarged the facility. They added several new outbuildings which today house study rooms and a cafeteria.
During World War II the entire compound was again destroyed by a 1941 bombing raid. Oddly enough, a Japanese general oversaw the mosque's reconstruction two years later. More than a half-century later the building was designated historically significant and slated for preservation. That status spared the mosque when Kunming's Muslim quarter was relocated in 1997.
After our unexpected history lesson we followed the hallway to the back of the mosque where a door opened onto an alleyway. Across the alley was a Hui restaurant, that, due to it being mid-afternoon, looked abandoned.
Our unofficial tour guide suggested we try the small eatery inside the mosque. We retraced our steps back toward the prayer hall, crossed the courtyard and stepped into the cafeteria. The only thing available was Hui-style noodles flavored with cumin. They were delicious, and ended up being free.
The Jinniu Jie Mosque is located at 57 Jiangbin Xi Lu. It is just south of where Renmin Zhong Lu crosses the Panlong River. The nearest bus stop is Xiaohuayuan (小花园) at the intersection of Renmin Zhong Lu and Qingnian Lu. The stop is serviced by bus lines 1, 2, 4, 61, 69, 74, 77 83, 129, 132, 237 and K9.