James Beard Publication of the Year 2017

A Night of Grain Alcohol and Sichuan Noodles That Almost Never Happened At All

A Night of Grain Alcohol and Sichuan Noodles That Almost Never Happened At All

Baijiu in Jilin Province

Somewhere between the Pizza Hut and the KFC, disillusion set in. I’d put up with the hotel chains, the faux-Euro village, and the ski slope floodlights trapping the resort in an orb of artificial light 24/7, but American fast food had pushed me over the edge.

This was not China. Sure, we were at a Chinese ski resort in the cradle of China’s ginseng region, a crop indelibly linked with Chinese culture and medicine, but something was off. I was part of the problem. I came to northeast China to document the growing popularity of skiing, a Western practice, among China’s rapidly westernizing middle class.

Now, I wanted out. With my colleagues holed up at a Holiday Inn with an all-you-can-eat buffet, I escaped into the frigid night air. Just blocks from the hotel, the streetlights vanished, the only lights peeping from the foggy windows of tin shacks lining the road. I hesitated. Disenchantment had masked the relative safety of the resort, and now reality was setting in. I was out here. Alone.

I zeroed in on a shack with its door ajar. I made out the unmistakable sounds of laughter and clinking glass from the other side of a metal wall. I cracked the door open and slid inside. The burst of warmth felt good against frosty cheeks, and ginger-peppercorn steam hung thick in the humid air. The room was sparse, with bare metallic walls and a concrete floor occupied by a pair of circular plastic tables. A group of bundled Chinese men joked loudly at one of the tables with a big man in a yellow baseball cap.

“You hungry?” asked the man, pointing at the enormous spread of dumplings, Sichuan noodles, and soups interspersed with bottles of Tsingtao beer. He introduced himself as Kevin, an Arizonan contracted to build the region’s first water park. The rest were a mix of laborers, welders, and engineers from around the country. Only one spoke English. Kevin spoke no Chinese. It had been an interesting night. He said the baijiu helped.

Baijiu, China’s prized grain liquor, peels the paint off of any drink out there, so when somebody slid me a glass of yellow liquid, my insides instinctively shriveled. Gan-bei. Cheers. Laughter erupted as I tried to hide a poisoned grimace. Kevin gave me a pat on the back, and I quickly realized that I’d be the night’s entertainment. The baijiu flowed and food kept appearing, courtesy of the establishment’s round-faced hostess/cook/homeowner.

I asked the tireless chef if she liked the new construction happening in her once-sleepy village. She nodded. In all of the years she’d lived here (which happened to be all of her years) business had never been better, thanks to the overflow of tourists.

Two beers later, I announced my exit. On my way out the door, I bought some home-brewed baijiu from our hostess. She smiled and threw a ginseng root in before tightening the top. Stepping out into the night, I held the bottle up to the resort lights—the only reminder of a night that might never have happened at all.

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