The Cheapest Meal I Ever Had

Up from the archives this week for Chinese New Year is a story about a meal I had in Xian China in 1990.

Cheapest Meal I Ever Had

Wed, February 17,1999

this is a story that came clearly into

my mind this week for some reason.

The Cheapest meal I ever had and paid for rather

than had bought for me, was in Xian in China about

9 years ago I was on a real nice tour staying in

the best hotels the full works it was like

paradise, being treated like a lord, I had slipped

away from the tour group to explore the city by

myself and had wandered off of the main drag and

into this warren of ever narrower alleys expecting

eventually to find my way back onto a main road,

after about half an hour wandering through the

alleys I stumble across a mah jong game taking

place around a rickety old table between these

four wrinkled faced old people, they seemed real

surprised to see a westerner there, and the

audience who were betting on the game were pretty

interesting bunch as well they made me welcome and

offered me a seat, and a cup of tea from a big jar

that had the leaves stewing in it for lord alone

knows how long, I accepted the glass of tea out of

courtesy and curiosity as to how it would taste,

it was quite bitter but felt like it might have a

kick to it, the mah jong game was continuing

apace, with the tiles hitting the table with a

regular crashing sound and at the end of each game

money would fly across the table, big wads of

notes, this was a pretty big school or so it

looked. They were real proud of there guest as

they kept calling people out from the surrounding

houses and buildings to see me, I was that

strange, and I have to admit i was wearing an Iggy

Pop T-Shirt with the legend Raw Fucking Power

across the back of it, so I did look strange to

them, and they were pointing at me and laughing

and smiling and the glass of tea never remained

empty for long, after about half an hour I decided

it was time to move on and I asked for directions

out of this maze and they point out the way even

though no one speaks english, and after another

twenty minutes or so I finally come back out to a

road, and after walking along for a while I am

getting pretty hungry when I come across a street

market I wander over and have a look and there

are a few stalls selling food, there is one with

the little suckling pigs roasting away, another

has satay, and there is a place doing these little

lizard like things that they cook on a stick after

you choose a live one to eat, I really don’t mind

being Vegetarian at times like this. As I settle

upon the Noodles stall that sells Noodle soup with

vegetables, I ask for a bowl and she dishes up

this steaming hot bowl of soup and I get out my

money to pay I only have Foreign Exchange

Certificates or Yuen as they are known and no

actual local money, so I offer her a range of

notes a one a two a five and a ten there is about

twelve cents to a Yuen back then and expect her to

take what she wanted, she gave me a strange look

and asked the woman on the next stool how much

they were worth, at least I guess that was the

conversation as I didn’t speak any Mandarin other

than hello and good bye, and then she takes the

one Yuen note and walks off whilst I sit and eat

and goes to change it up and bring me my change, I

couldn’t believe she was offering me change I

refused but she insisted and started counting this

wad of notes into my hand now was I dreaming or

what I had only given her like the equivalent of

12 cents or eight pence and she counted out

thirteen notes change into my hands I was stunned,

trying to work out what proportion of next to

nothing I had just paid for the great bowl of

noodles I had just eaten and after counting up all

the Reminbi I had been given in change and it was

something like twelve thousand of them I started

to think maybe the Mah jong school wasn’t so big

after all, and I had just eaten for about a

hundredth of a cent, really that was the cheapest

meal I ever had, and what a great place.

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About simonovitch

Writer poet music freak etc etc based in London you'll find out more by reading my blogs.
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