Buick want us to showcase their latest model on this trip. I should be able to tell you all about it, but all I can say for sure is that it will be released in America in 2017, and that it is a red one. And the one we have been supplied by the Songyuan Buick dealership unhelpfully has National Geographic decals plastered all down the sides, having previously been part of this year’s journalist junket convoy. So the director orders a trio of idiots (me, the fixer and the D.O.P.) to take it out and get it cleaned, preferably in such a manner as to generate some interesting footage that will also fill up this episode’s quote of product-placement car shots.
She is hoping for an automated car wash, so she can get a sequence of me glumly sitting behind the wheel while big spongey rollers splash on the windscreen. My colleagues and I unanimously decide that what we really need is a Bikini Car Wash, where they can photograph me trying to look glum while perky Chinese girls rub their soapy boobs on the windscreen. This turns out to be a non-existent service in arctic Songyuan (or indeed, anywhere in China, indeed possibly in the world… I might have dreamt it). The best we can hope for is two men with low-hanging trousers and a high-pressure hose, blowing hot water on it in a garage. This, however, fogs up the lens every time he gets close, so we are getting very little footage.
The fixer’s phone rings. Even I can hear the irate voice yelling at him from the speaker. It is the manager of our hotel.
“What the fuck are you doing? Your wizards are out of control!”
We are, indeed, currently in charge of an octet of shamans, who are supposed to be setting up in one of the hotel’s dining rooms. It is an opulent, pointlessly baroque Chinese suite, decorated with pictures from the life of Khubilai Khan, overstuffed sofas, and for reasons that only a Mongol can explain, an astroturf pasture scattered with one-quarter-scale models of goats. And apparently, the shamans are “smoking and spitting on the floor.”
I find this hard to believe, not the least because there are eleven ashtrays in the suite, which seems to imply that smoking isn’t that big a deal. Indeed, even though smoking indoors is now at least officially illegal in Beijing and Shanghai, up here in the frozen north the people of Manchuria can regularly be seen chuffing indoors, in the warm. In fact, back at the room, a forensic investigation confirms that only one person, our liaison Mr Bao, has lit up at all, on the basis of his girly Huang Shan fag-ends in the ashtray. Even the director has not smoked anything while we were away. But the hotel’s complaint isn’t really about alleged smoking and notional spitting. It is about the presence of eight shamans on the premises, plainly up to no good.
Tonight they are performing an exorcism ritual, or chu gui, which requires them to dance in circles with drums and tambourines, chanting spells in Mongol, while the central shaman, a lady called Furong, whirls and hyper-ventilates while setting fire to a small doll that looks like My Little Ku Klux Klansman.
In order to hang onto the suite, we have had to order dinner, which sits untouched on the Lazy Susan in the dining area while the ritual continues. The waitresses stare in stony disapproval, and tut as the sofas get moved. “We don’t care for their sort,” mutters one.
“‘Their sort?’” snarls Coral Red, a poet who happens to be sitting in. “THIS IS YOUR CULTURE, YOU STUPID HUSSY.” After that, the waitresses leave us alone, and when we need water, I have to go outside to the shops.
Meanwhile, the chanting and drumming reaches a crescendo. Furong’s long black hair now surrounds her face, completely obscuring it, and she is panting and muttering, her eyes rolling. She eats the embers from the fire she lit around the Ku Klux Klan doll, and is drooling black gunge from her mouth. She collapses onto the sofa and is fed 60% proof Mongol booze, which she spits across the room, muttering to herself in Old Mongol, a language that she has never learned.
“WESH!” she shouts hoarsely, “WESH!” She is drooling more black slime, and spitting out more firewater, her eyes wide, and staring at me across the room. “WESH!” she shouts. “WESH!”
Suddenly Furong’s henchman shouts at our assistant producer, who is standing by the exit, clutching at her head.
“OPEN THE DOOR! OPEN THE DOOR! IT’S TRYING TO GET OUT!”
She opens the door, and suddenly there is silence.
Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E03 (2017).