For the first time since starting this blog, my travels have taken me outside of baijiu country and into the land of the yellow wines, or huangjiu 黄酒. Huangjiu is an undistilled rice wine, among the most ancient of Chinese drinks – almost all Chinese alcohol before the Yuan Dynasty was huangjiu. Though today most of the country prefers the sorghum punch of baijiu, huangjiu remains the traditional drink of choice along much of China’s eastern seaboard, particularly in the south.
After a healthy, hangover free start to my journey in south China, the onslaught of Chinese alcohol finally began taking its toll on our merry band of travelers. Was the baijiu was the only thing keeping the bacteria at bay?
April 12 – Longyan, Fujian: A bruising overnight train dumped fellow traveler Todd and me in the middle of Fujian at about 4:45am. A few hours later I met with Mr. Wang, manager of popular Fujianese huangjiu Chengangjiu 沉缸酒. We discussed the finer points of rice wines and local Hakka culture before touring the factory. I was then subjected to about 12 hours of full-blown Chinese hospitality. There were three feasts, a ride arranged to the Hakka tulou (earthen houses) and even the dreaded late night karaoke session.
Drank a half a liter of Hakka mijiu, another kind of rice wine, with Todd at the tulou and was accused by Mr. Wang of being a wuss: He’d consumed two liters of huangjiu while we were out. Wang’s heightened state of drunkenness provided me with the opportunity to give Todd an instructive lesson in offensive ganbei-ing, hitting Mr. Wang with a series of knockout beer blows at the KTV that rendered him slumped almost onto the floor mat during the cab ride home.
Todd also nearly killed himself setting off cheap fireworks we picked up in rural Guangxi.
April 13-15 – Shaoxing, Zhejiang: Our first night in Shaoxing, a city whose name has become synonymous with its huangjiu, we drank a bottle of Kuaijishan 会稽山 huangjiu and made friends with some friendly young Chinese professionals from Xiamen, with whom we drank Snow Beer in a hotel courtyard until politely instructed to shut the hell up. None of the Fujianese cared much for huangjiu or baijiu. Kids today.
On day two we were joined by my former colleague and A+ drinking companion Andrew. I planned to welcome him to Shaoxing with two bottles of huangjiu, but the salesman was so persuasive that I left the store with seven. All were consumed that night. And then someone who we were all convinced was a Triad (but later turned out to be a bus driver) made us drink another two half-liter bottles, all in ganbeis. We were then stupid enough … no, that’s not right … drunk enough to drink another several rounds of black beer. Shaoxing native Yu the Great, the legendary diverter of floods, could not have saved us from the next morning’s five-alarm hangover.
In retrospect, I have pinpointed this bender as the moment at which the wheels began to fall off of our party’s health. I was the first victim, going down with a stomach bug the next night, yet still managed to limp through a meeting with Guyuelongshan 古越龙山, Shaoxing’s largest huangjiu producer, before leaving.
April 16-17 – Shanghai: Added a third traveler, Joel, in Shanghai. Sickness rendered my meeting with the sales team of an Inner Mongolian milk baijiu a complete disaster (I forgot my voice recorder, questions, notepad and pen – just wow), but was able to rally for some craft beers at Southern Barbarian later in the day. The stomach bug picked Todd as its next target.
The march of gentrification seems to be proceeding ever onward in my absence. Apparently people now “get off” rather than “alight” from the Shanghai subway, and Dr. Wine has expanded his Fumin Lu operations, taking on a second practictioner, Dr. Beer.
April 18-19 – Qingdao, Shandong: As par for the Qingdao course, drank several liters of beer out of thin plastic bags. While touring the Tsingtao beer factory the guide asked me how much beer. I said it depends. She then showed me a picture of Wen Jiabao visiting the factory. I asked her how much beer Wen Jiabao could drink. She dodged the question.
We also staged a huangjiu faceoff between local favorite Jimo Laojiu 即墨老酒 and a fancy bottle of Shaoxing. Jimo tasted a bit like a chocolate stout beer and won the day in a unanimous decision.
But don’t think that we left Qingdao unscathed – Joel went down with the barfs just before we left.
April 20-21 – Yantai, Shandong: The game of musical toilets continued, taking me out again on day one and Todd on the next.
As the seat of eastern China’s wine business, Yantai lacks some (if not all) of the Western world’s wine country charm, but Changyu 张裕 (Zhangyu in pinyin) Wine has a nice enough museum. Saw hundred-year-old casks of wine as big as an elephant, and tried two of Changyu’s traditional Chinese medicinal spirits, accounting for the only two shots of baijiu on this leg of the journey. Wrapped things up with a RMB120 ($19) bottle of Changyu that was considered across the board to be decent, but probably not as good as what can be had for the same price back home.
As with the last bit of travel notes, more stories are on the way when I finally drink my way back to Chengdu. The story concludes next week in the heavy drinking north, where I lose my ailing travel companions but regain my health.
93 shots to go.