Thursday, 5 October 2017

China: Harder Than It Looks


So back we come after a month in China and we are shattered, dirty and overwhelmed by massive colds. We have infected an entire 777 on the return flight from Beijing to London and can now barely talk. All we want to do is die in the quiet of our own home. And it is only at this point that I yearn for my bottle of Three Gorges Wine Company 52% liquor, reasoning that not even the Three Gorges liquor can be worse than the way I currently feel and maybe a shot would actually help. Then I remember that I left it in a fridge somewhere in China and anyway, it's truly undrinkable, dead or alive.

I acquired this awful liquid, this Three Gorges baijiu (I think it's known as) at a place called Yichang on the Yangzi River. I paid too much for it (£1.60 for 125 ml); but then again, Three Gorges Wine Company liquor is so bad that a little goes a really long way. I only bought it in the first place because I'd seen other people (blokes, invariably) tucking into variations of the stuff in eateries and restaurants and reasoned That must be just the thing, taken in small quantities, to round off a hard day's sightseeing.

Could not have been more wrong, of course. I don't think I've ever drunk anything so alarming, not even when I was a teenager experimenting with bucket homebrew and amateur wine and White Shield. The one and only time I consumed Three Gorges Wine Company 52% liquor (Lake North Famous Brand Goods it also said in English in small print as a come-on) I was almost blinded. It started off nice and cold from the fridge before exploding into a horrible stale grappa kind of nose after which all I remember is choking helplessly while tears coursed down my cheeks. I was on fire and I was crying and having convulsions. It was authentically frightening. What was in the bottle? Various ingredients had been suggested to me by people along the way, including wheat, rye, rice, grapes, sorghum and barley, but the colourless, slightly viscous end product wasn't really intelligible on account of the coughing and blinding; and even when I wasn't blind I couldn't read the Chinese writing on the label to get a better idea.

Was it just a terrifying one-off? Hard to say. Higher-end variants are heavily advertised on roadside billboards as well as sold in relatively smart liquor shops, so there's nothing unfamiliar about the basic concept. In fact I watched a bunch of local lads in the great city of Tianjin start off their evening meal with a large bottle of baijiu split four ways, followed by three bottles apiece of dependably excellent Tsingtao beer - and still manage to cope with chopsticks and a cauldron of boiling hot bouillon. So, no, my Three Gorges wasn't entirely freakish. Baijiu is apparently the most widely-drunk hard liquor in the world and I just picked a terrible example.

Would I have been better off with one of the local regular wines? A Cabernet Sauvignon from the Great Wall winemakers? A camel-themed rosé whose label I could not construe, but which the translation app on my phone rendered as Drunk Piece? A Chilean red called Legend of Chilephant with an elephant on the label? Yes, of course: they wouldn't have made me cry. On the other hand, I did drink some Changyu sparkling white which looked like wine but tasted just like the Sprite in a neighbouring glass, so maybe it's not as simple as that.

Either way, the experience was pretty emblematic. I mean, China is an astonishing, hugely impressive work in progress, crammed with energies and achievements and modernities barely forty years after the end of the Cultural Revolution; but it's also relentless, fairly bonkers, extremely hard to decode, hugely unrelaxing for the Western tourist. A modest bottle of bathtub hooch turns out to be not a way of unwinding, but an incredibly challenging thing, a threat, an affront to the sensibilities which this traveller did not even begin to anticipate. That and stewed chicken feet for breakfast: we still have so much to learn.


CJ

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