The sun is bright white overhead, and in the distance there are the red striated rocks of the Flaming Mountains, where the Monkey King once fought Princess Iron Fan, or as the Uyghurs tell it, where a hero once felled a dragon, causing its still-simmering body to break up into seven pieces.
Our van stops at the side of the road to look down a ravine at ancient Buddhist grottoes, cut into the rock. They were once by the bank of a river in a green valley, but are now marooned a hundred feet up, above a wadi that only has water in it maybe once a year. This isn’t part of our scheduled filming, but I do a piece to camera about the retreat of the waters from Xinjiang, and we get to give the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon a quick run along the valley to shoot it from the air. We only attract eight passers-by, which is a miracle in China.
We have come to Tuyuk village, a Muslim community out among the vineyards, where the locals dry grapes in the sun until they become raisins. There are five thousand people living here, spread out in single-storey huts across a swathe of land in the shadow of the Flaming Mountains.
Ismayil is an old man who makes merceles, a fermented grape juice that uses the wine production methods of Ancient Greece, but with no alcohol content. The Quran only forbids “intoxicants”, you see, whereas merceles is officially medicine. We have to shoot all the stages of its manufacture, from the grape picking, to the crushing, to the sieving, to the boiling and the adding of kebabs.
No, wait, what? Kebabs. The grape juice is boiled with hunks of meat, and then left to set for 40 days until it is drinkable. Then it apparently puts hairs on your chest. While I am trying to interview Ismayil about his herbal ingredients, a butcher is dragging a sheep behind me and slitting its throat, letting its blood drain into a hole in the ground. And while I am talking with him about the history of grapes, the same butcher is shoving a hollow tube up the dead sheep’s leg, and then inflating it like a lilo to push the skin away from the flesh. In fact, the whole day is taken with the slow dismemberment and cooking of a sheep, with some bits going onto kebab skewers, and the rest of them being boiled in a pot to make our lunch.
We sit gingerly on the divan and poke at the big hunks of meat. A neighbour (all Ismayil’s neighbours have come to gawp) hands me a cut-throat razor to saw flesh off the shank. It tastes remarkable – mutton this fresh turns out to taste the way lamb tastes for everybody else. I realise that Ismayil has had his flies undone all day, but that if I point this out, it will ruin the continuity. His granddaughter smiles at me experimentally, and two grandsons ask me if I am an American.
None of the interlopers speak particularly good Mandarin, which means we are all mercilessly taking the piss out of each other in our own little linguistic alleys. Viewers of the finished product should look out for the moment when Ismayil and I first greet each other, shot, for reasons not worth going into, late the day after I have already knocked back several bowls of his supposedly alcohol-free medicine. I come in through the carved wooden door in his courtyard, and he runs laughing to shake my hand. I greet him with an enthusiastic: “Ismayil! Big up your bad self!”
He replies with something unintelligible in Uyghur, which probably means: “Why didn’t you tell me my flies were undone, you arsehole?”
There is a knock at the door, and a very short woman in a green headscarf comes in.
“My legs are giving me jip,” she says, “and I heard there was a slaughter today. Can you do me a couple of pigeons.”
Oh yes, says Ismayil, and gets her to sit down and lift her skirt. Then he slits the throat of a spare pigeon and spatters her legs with blood, while the film crew look at their watches.
Right, says the director, if we can now get to the bit where we sieve the grape juice…?
There is another knock at the door.
“Hello,” says a man in a knock-off Armani T-shirt. “I heard there was a slaughter today, and I’ve got these pains in my legs. Can you spare me a pigeon or two?”
But of course, says Ismayil decapitating two more pigeons and spraying him with blood, before ripping out feathers and dropping them onto the result. His patient starts to look like a zombie version of Foghorn Leghorn, and we get back to the business at hand.
By the time I get to taste some merceles, I am ready for the worst, but it tastes like Ricola, and I am quite happy to drink it all day. You would never know that there was half a sheep and four dead pigeons in it.
Jonathan Clements is the author of The Emperor’s Feast: A History of China in Twelve Meals. These events featured in Route Awakening S02E02 (2016).