I arrived in Xi’an stiff and smoky. My bunk on the 15 hour train ride had been cramped, and the smoke and snores of nearby Chinese inescapable. Not even a chocolate biscuit breakfast had cheered me up. I needed fresh air and good food.
The Muslim Quarter did not have fresh air, I doubt anywhere in dry dusty Xi’an does, but the food was something special. Stalls selling sweet persimmon pancakes and barbecued cow stomach caught my eye.
Nobody seemed shy here. In the public toilets, the man beside me, while deep in a phone conversation, began noisily urinating. Behind us, an old man was squatting over the drop while chatting. I knew he was squatting because he had kindly left the door open.
Later, a grinning Chinese man beckoned me into a plastic chair diner. He spoke English and had dyed hair the colour of pork pie crust.
After I ordered a lamb stew, he gave some pitta bread. It was thick and bland. It was so hard to digest, I had to drink water to help me chew.
Suddenly, I realised people were looking and laughing at me. A brave girl approached.
“Excuse me, don’t eat the bread. Just break it into small pieces, then take it in a bowl to the counter. They will pour the stew on it”.
I was embarrassed but grateful. The stew was worth the humiliation, and it even came with a plate of tasty pickled garlic cloves.
As I was mopping up the dregs, pork pie hair came over. Smiling, he pointed at my last garlic clove.
“You forgot to remove the skin”.
He was right. But at least I hadn’t gone for a **** with the door open.