Our hotel in Huaibei is a carnival of lies. The crew veritably fought each other to get into the elevator for breakfast, eagerly awaiting the bagels, coffee and toast promised in the lobby posters. They arrived to find nothing but the usual dumplings, stodgy bread sticks and warm orange juice.
Huaibei is famous for one thing, and that is Kouzijiu, a popular form of alcoholic spirit. The process for making it is not dissimilar to the process for making soy sauce. Men with shovels mix a mushroom yeast into piles of sorghum grains, before leaving them to set for two months. Then, they are steamed in a giant vat, and the water that condenses at the other end is not water at all, but 60% alcohol.
Usually, the grains and yeast are spread and mixed by a machine on rails, but the shovels are out because a widget has broken on it. The shovellers walk back and forth over the warm grains, treading them into the floor with impunity. The air is rich with an earthy tang, like a sugar-coated fart.
A man called Bu brings a tray of fresh baijiu straight from the condenser, but he is obliged to wait for a whole hour while we faff with our shots. There needs to be one of me walking in, me describing the fermentation process, and me explaining that although it is only drunk in China, baijiu is still the world’s biggest selling spirit category, with annual turnover in excess of $23 billion.
Eventually, after Bu has been lurking for an hour in the shadows, the director decrees that we are done with documenting the making, and now we must move on to the sampling.
“Great,” she says at last. “Bu’s up.”
Mr Bu is to proffer a tray of the little thimble-glasses of baijiu, and I am to take one, and explain to camera how the Chinese show sincerity by draining their glass. Then I am to drain another one to show I am really sincere… then another.
I am, consequently, somewhat the worse for wear when I the local propaganda office insists on taking us for dinner. Three of their minions have been kicking their heels for an hour in the lobby, while our fixer shows them everything she can think of on her laptop. I am getting flashbacks to Bossy Lady in Yunnan, who was simply incapable of understanding that the last thing anybody wants to do after a 12-hour working day is sit across from her all evening chewing inedible local delicacies. Mr Fan from the propaganda office, however, is very keen to display the charms of Anhui, and drags us to a restaurant VIP room big enough for all nine of the crew, him, and the usual Chinese bunch of interlopers – a handful of people who may or may not also be propaganda office employees, but who sit at the table staring at their phones all evening.
Mr Fan opens up the first of many bottles of Kouzijiu, each one in a green ceramic bottle shaped vaguely like a fish, and decorated with a pattern of millet seeds. Everybody has a little thimble-glass by their plate, along with a small glass jug for booze. The toasting starts.
I am used to all this, so I know what to do. I know that I must drain my glass to show sincerity. I know that I must hold my glass slightly below my toaster’s, in order to show humility. I am not aware, until tonight, that when the Chinese go for a full-on blowout, they stop bothering with the thimble-glasses and start draining the jugs. Before long, they are all red-faced and giggly, trilling the joys of booze, and debating which country drank the most.
“We had a bunch of people a few years ago from Finland,” says a lady who is wearing a red leather jacket like a refugee from a 1980s Michael Jackson video. “They drank an awful lot.” Her name, it turns out, is Xi Feng, literally Western Phoenix – what are the odds that a woman from Anhui’s primary distillery town would be named after the competition in Shaanxi? It’s like meeting a man whose name is Jack Daniels.
Finally we are permitted to go back to our hotel, where we must pack for tomorrow’s journey to Shanghai – another ten hours on the road.
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).