Baijiu, Baby

Drinking in a yurt isn’t child’s play – by Nick Compton


Ed: This is one of the stories read out at Writers & Rum night on Wednesday. More to follow next week ...

Some people say that every type of alcohol, in proportional quantity, results in the same drunk. I’m not sure. Baijiu, or Mongolian baijiu at least, doesn’t give you the same heady buzz as a few beers, a glass of wine, or a snort of whisky. With baijiu, inebriation comes on like a freight train, hard and hollering. Your throat and belly are warmed and your mind becomes at once both lucid and completely fucked. As I polished off the first bottle, I knew I would soon be ripped.

The Han Chinese paid to dress as Mongolians and dance around our tables continued to clap and chant, but I could sense that dinner was winding down. Now warm and imminently drunk, I didn’t want it to stop.

About four hours earlier, our bus from Beijing had pulled into this tourist resort in the Inner Mongolian grasslands. Predictably, it turned out to be as authentic as Disney World’s Eiffel Tower. Our tour group, arranged through a university in Beijing, was a motley crew of about two dozen English teachers, university students, and other expat riff-raff who had nothing better to do during the week-long October holiday. We represented nearly every continent. There was Thomas the Dutchman, a group from Ireland, Koreans, a Costa Rican, Swedes, a Georgian, Russians, a Moroccan, Australians, two Iraqis, and a brother-sister tandem from Israel that spent the duration of the trip chain-smoking Turkish cigarettes and avoiding the Iraqis.

As soon as we’d had a chance to gawk at the horizon, inspect the yurts we’d be staying in that night and had souvenir belt-buckles and milk candy thrust at us, we were led to a pen of horses. Most of us had never ridden before, and the horses could sense it. They let us mount them and then ran riot, galloping in all different directions, throwing their necks to try to loosen the reins, and generally raising hell. Most everyone screamed. A few fell off. Just as our guide was able to straighten us out, and the horses fell into their routine, the rain began. It didn’t fall so much as torpedo sideways, driven by an unholy wind from somewhere deep in the desert. By the time we got back, we were soaked and shivering and it was dinner time.

We were eating in the resort’s biggest yurt, which functioned as a reception area and dining hall. It was frayed at the edges and spotted with dark sandy streaks, like the Gobi had been hocking loogies on it for the past two decades. Inside, there were tables set up for dining, a stage area to dance on and a KTV corner with karaoke equipment. My tablemates and I had just gotten to know each other and every one was still freezing. The situation called for drinks, if only to warm up, so I ordered us a bull horn of baijiu, and another for good measure.

“Hey, you guys,” I said to my tablemates, who had finished eating and were sitting in silence, waiting for some signal so they could politely hike back to their yurts and warm up under the covers. “What do you say we go join them? They look like they’re having fun.”

I pointed to a Chinese wedding party of a few dozen people who had entered mid-way through our meal. They had obviously come from out of town to soak up the novelty of the grasslands. After snapping group photos – everyone jumping on the count of three; the groom kissing the bride under a cow skull – they had torn into a KTV session and commandeered a few tables near the dance stage. While the bride clutched the microphone in her wedding gown and blurted out a Taiwanese pop song, the others sat at the tables and poured toasts from jugs of something they had brought themselves. Their faces were glowing red and everyone was laughing.

“No, we shouldn’t bother them,” Thomas said. “If you want to go, OK, but I should go now. I want to get up early.” With that prompt, all of the others followed suit, muttering about getting to bed or calling girlfriends back in Beijing. Soon I was the only foreigner in the yurt, fairly blasted and not ready to leave quite yet.

I walked over to the stage, where the bride was now belting out a boy-band hit. A few of the better soused couples were attempting what looked like a clumsy tango on the dance floor, but most of the others were watching from their tables, snacking on boiled peanuts and sunflower seeds. The groom was wearing a faded purple tuxedo top with a light pink dress shirt and oversized bow tie. Judging from his get-up and his glow, I suspected he liked to party.

At the edge of the dance floor, one of the men from the groom’s table called for me in Chinese to come over. As I walked to the table and pulled up a chair, a chubby, wide-smiling man sitting next to the groom surprised me with good English. “You are American? Welcome to China.” I thanked him and introduced myself while the others at the table looked on in amusement. His name was Wen Jiaping, he told me, and the group had come from Shanxi Province.

“A cheers?” Wen asked, shoving a cup my way. “He is married,” he said pointing to the groom, who could barely keep his eyes open now, his head rolling on his neck. “Married today, so …” – he poured a round of shots from whatever was inside his porcelain jug – “cheers.”

I hoisted my cup, clinked with everyone at the table and swallowed. More baijiu, this stuff a little less raw than the bull horn. I gave a thumbs up and told them that it was very good.

“Thank you,” Wen said. “In Shanxi … we are famous for baijiu..and noodles.” I nodded. He poured another toast and we promptly swallowed it. They pushed the peanuts and sunflower seeds my way and insisted that I take a handful. Meanwhile, the bride had given up her position at the microphone to a few of the bridesmaids, who started in on an up-tempo Chinese pop song.

“In America,” Wen said, his eyes lighting up as he paused, “does everyone have … guns?” I laughed. I had heard the question a million times in China. Usually I would try my best to explain the intricacies of the situation. But the baijiu, the music and the weird yurt vibe had killed my patience.

“Yes,” I said. Wen and a few of the others laughed. Wen asked me if I had a gun. I told them that I did, and when he asked me if I had it now, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my cell phone, pretending it was a pistol. They thought that was hilarious. I was drunk.

“Go dance?” I asked Wen and the other men of the party, who were all wearing purple sports coats with the same floppy bow ties as the groom. The Backstreet Boys had come on, and it was the only song I recognised. A few stragglers joined me on the dancefloor, rocking back and forth on their feet. I broke into a slow, rhythmic grind, swinging my hips and bellowing the lyrics while I let my hands convey the emotion. “You are my fire! …”

I looked preposterous. It didn’t take long for a crowd of onlookers to form, watching my theatrics. Soon they had all broken out their cell-phone cameras to snap pictures, and sheepishly asked me to stop my drunken dancing so they could take their photo with me. I happily obliged, smiling and putting my arm around anyone who requested a photo. Someone gave me a cigarette and a bottle of beer. I was having a great time.

Then, out of nowhere, someone passed me a baby.

At first, I had no idea what it was – a bundle of blankets, maybe? I had a beer in one hand and an unlit cigarette dangling from my mouth. I cradled the bundle in my right arm as I set down the beer. The poor thing couldn’t have been older than three or four months. It was tiny and asleep, bundled up in fat layers against the cold. I had it in both hands now, and was looking around for an answer as to why I was holding a baby. None were given. A few women snapped photos on their phones and urged me on with their thumbs up. I was baffled and drunk and still holding a baby.

The karaoke and the dancing continued around me, everyone seemingly oblivious to the fact that a hammered foreigner loitering in a yurt was holding somebody’s infant child. I didn’t know what to do; the wiser decision-making parts of my brain had long ago been blitzed that night.

“Ahhh, Wen?” I asked, holding the baby and walking towards the table I had been sitting at. He was gone. One of the bridesmaids told me he had left to help the groom sober up. I asked her if she knew why I had a baby. She looked even more clueless than me. “What do you mean? If you don’t know, how should I? Did you steal it?”

God no, I tried to say. I was dancing and drinking and the next thing I knew I was holding this baby. She shrugged her shoulders, seemingly indifferent to my plight. “Have you asked them?” she said, sweeping her hand towards the smoky dance floor, where there were probably twenty people, all in a rather advanced stage of inebriation.

Right on cue, the baby woke up. It crinkled its nose and squished its face in preparation for a good long session of bawling. I did my best to soothe its cries, using pretty much the same lip smacks and tongue clicks I had used to coax my reluctant horse earlier. It didn’t work. My strange face hovering above him – or her, I didn’t have a clue – must have been terrifying. No one was coming to my rescue.

I rocked the baby and shushed him, promising in English that if he stopped crying I’d get him a banana (what do babies eat?). He didn’t. My voice only made him scream louder. Could I set him down somewhere so he could sleep? I decided it was a bad idea. Jesus, what a predicament. I walked back to the dance floor, but everyone ignored me, as if a foreigner holding a Chinese baby at a wedding in a yurt was the most natural thing in the world. Maybe a Shanxi tradition even.

The baby was still crying. I made funny faces and puffed out my cheeks, but he didn’t stop – if anything he cried harder. Tough crowd.

Finally, a woman in a thick down coat and stocking hat rushed into the yurt. She grabbed the baby from me without a word, and bee-lined to the dance floor, where she finger-jabbed and verbally assaulted some unlucky bastard, a middle-aged man who must have been entrusted with her kid only to pass it off to me. After giving him an earful, she left the yurt, baby in arm.

Shortly after, I stumbled back to my own yurt, through the wind and the prairie darkness. When I got there, our light was off and my roommate was in bed, but awake. He asked me how the wedding party was. I said it was fine. I asked him if he knew anything about babies.

“No,” he said. “Do you?”

“God no.”

Nick Compton is a writer and editor living and working in Beijing. For another of his tales of baijiu drinking, check out An American Hero in China, on Beijing Cream.