“I can’t find my room!”
At the end of last week’s post I was waiting in the guest house in Langzhong to be picked up for dinner with the County Chief, having just retreated from the surrounding crowd of hyper-curious towns folk.
Being invited to dinner by the County Chief was indeed a great honor. True to Sichuan’s reputation for hospitality, he spared no effort to serve good food and drink. I guessed I was probably his first foreign guest.
The room was a simple affair, but the banquet table was set with beautifully carved decorative vegetables accompanying many dishes, and gaily folded cloth napkins, set atop a vinyl table cloth.
厨师在为我们的阆中晚宴做最后的准备工作。 / The chef puts finishing touches on our banquet table in Langzhong.
Sichuan, apart from spicy foods and giant pandas, is renowned for producing a variety of clear Chinese liquors, made from sorghum and other grains. There are many different types, but as a category they are known as “bai jiu” which might be affectionately translated as “white lightning” spirits. Proofs vary, but range up to 30% or more alcohol content. Strong stuff.
The County Chief was a powerful man in rank, but short in stature. He had the swarthy complexion of someone who had spent a fair amount of time under the sun, working the land. This was, after all, an agricultural area, especially renowned for producing silk worms, silk thread and silk fabric.
As we sat down to dinner he was very down to earth and sincere in welcoming me to his corner of China and Sichuan, and insisted that I sample their local specialties, both the food and the baijiu.
In keeping with custom, he offered a welcoming toast, the first of countless toasts. As a good guest, it is appropriate to return the toasts on a somewhat reciprocal frequency, which in this instance, was also countless times.
The food was great — spicy but delicious, with a great variety of very fresh, crisp produce. Unfortunately, with each course served, of what must have been a 14-course banquet (I lost count), the county chief called for a new and different brand of local “bai jiu” to be served, to ensure I sampled the full gamut of what was produced in the region.
He did this no doubt in a spirit of hospitality befitting a very special occasion. I knew it was probably unwise to be consuming so many different types of “bai jiu” at one sitting, but it would have been extremely rude to refuse.
The conversation was lively and jovial, and getting more so as the banquet wound on. In fact, it was a Saturday night in downtown Langzhong, and as we exited the dining room after the sumptuous meal, the County Chief proposed we go for a walk down the main street.
That seemed a splendid idea, so I agreed, and off we went, chattering happily down the middle of Langzhong’s main drag. It was bustling with pedestrians and folks just hanging out. Snack and produce vendors, small shops and restaurants were doing a brisk weekend trade. We stopped and talked with various folks including the County Chief’s barber.
I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the same townspeople who’d gawked at me that afternoon were gawking again, and asking themselves just how it could be that this strange visitor was now touring town with the County Chief.
At one point, we had a crowd of several hundred people following us, a bit like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.
By the time the good County Chief and his entourage dropped me off at my guest house, the advancing baijiu had fogged my sense of direction and I required some navigational assistance to get to my room. I slept very soundly, but woke in the morning feeling like there was a giant panda standing on my head.
Moral: if you must drink baijiu, never, ever mix different kinds at the same sitting. Or you will awake to find a giant panda standing on your head.