Spring Festival and baijiu-rthday fun

JISHOU, HUNAN — My activities for the past couple of weeks have kept me away from writing much of anything, other than emails and QQ chats, so I am using this warm February afternoon to relay my activities since Jan. 15.

The university officially went on Winter Holiday on Jan. 15. Classes resume in nine days. I managed to turn in all my grades by Jan. 13, clearing the way for my own four-week holiday.

My friend Rain had plans for me beginning the 20th, so I basically had a week with little to do. The Spring Festival is a time for families to gather, much as Thanksgiving and Christmas are in the States. Given the mayhem of Spring Festival travel, students wisely leave campus as soon as they are able. Otherwise, train tickets may be impossible to obtain. This left the campus a virtual ghost town after the 13th, the day on which most students had their last examinations.

Fortunately, I have friends in town. One of my freshmen, Grace, invited me to travel with her family to her grandmother’s village in the countryside on the 15th. There, her relatives were making a special kind of rice cake, a traditional New Year food of the Tujia people. (The Tujia and the Miao are both ethnic minorities, native to this part of Hunan province.) After boiling the rice into a sticky porridge, the cooks pour the rice into a stone vessel. Then, two people (usually men) pound the boiled rice with heavy wooden mallets, breaking the kernels and forming an even stickier rice mixture.

[Photos of the process are here in my Picasaweb page.]

When the rice reaches the right consistency, the two pounders link their mallets together and rotate around the stone mortar to pull the still steaming rice free. They carry the dough ball to a greased stone slab, where others (usually women) knead the dough further and shape it into flat, round disks about 2 to 3 cm thick. The disks are then laid out on a sheet of plastic to dry in the sun.

Grace’s family made two kinds of sticky-rice cakes: white and yellow. I forgot to ask how the yellowed ones are colored, but their consistency reminded me of corn bread, so I wonder if yellow corn is part of the porridge mixture.

While the rice cake production continued, some of the village children led Grace and me to a cave a short distance from the village. (Most of this short distance was up the side of a mountain. Western Hunan has no shortage of steep slopes to climb.) Grace herself had never been to her grandmother’s village, so the trek was an adventure for both of us. We penetrated pretty deep into the mountain, but we two adults dissuaded the much younger (and more nimble) set from exploring the cave any further. We did leave our initials on the cave ceiling before leaving, though.

Her family served a simple, but very tasty country meal, and of course the requisite firewater (baijiu) to the men. Baijiu is a local brew, usually fermented from sorghum or millet, with alcoholic strength ranging from moderate to instant hangover. Grace’s uncle owns a baijiu distillery, so our liquor came from a reused four-liter water jug. Not chic, but still very good.

During the Spring Festival I had several occasions to drink baijiu, of various qualities. Around here, baijiu is served with meals and is the beverage most commonly used to toast one another at meals. Traditionally, men largely drink it, but I have noticed than women, particularly the younger ones, also partake of the aqua vitae. It goes down surprisingly easily, even at higher proofs, which (as I learned from experience) means it is best not to drink too much too quickly.

My next excursion was to walk around Qian Zhou with Rain, our mutual friend, Smile, and Rain’s daughter. Originally, we were going to visit Qian Zhou on the 20th, but Rain’s job and the need to pick her brother and sister-in-law up at the Zhangjiajie airport meant a delay until the 21st.

Qian Zhou Zhen is just about 10 km south of Jishou. It was once the site of an ancient town, much older than Jishou. (Before the 1950s, my friends tell me, Jishou was a tiny little riverside village, while Qian Zhou was more of a town. Their roles reversed once the Chinese government made Jishou the capital of the Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Ethnic Minority Autonomous Prefecture and located a university here.)

Now Qian Zhou, like many other places in China, is the focus of rapid urban development. The ancient quarter’s architecture has been recreated rather lifelessly with concrete blocks, but Qian Zhou still retains some of the original flavor of the town. There is a temple to Kong Zi (Confucius) there, which tour groups visit from time to time. It was once a school, and during the Cultural Revolution, a re-education detainment center.

The rest of Qian Zhou resembles more a modern Chinese city, with wide avenues, high rise buildings and many shops and restaurants. There is a huge park there, and a broad plaza faces the imposing Xiangxi government building, where Rain works in the cultural affairs office. The long range plan, apparently, is to move the commercial district and main train station from the cramped downtown of Jishou to Qian Zhou. When this will happen, given the economic downturn, is up for debate.

The following day, we went to downtown Jishou, so that Rain could buy holiday decorations for her home and for mine. For the new year, you are supposed to decorate your doorway with banners of red and gold (traditional Spring Festival colors), and hang colorful paper lanterns and the special new-year’s knot around your home. Sweets are another requirement, since eating something sweet as the new year begins ensures a sweet new year.

Rain and her parents live on the eighth floor of a building in the Qian Zhou Teacher’s Village (her father is a scholar on Tujia culture, especially the weaving art of xilankanpu). There I had New Year’s Eve dinner on the 25th. Just before we sat down to a sumptuous meal cooked by her grandmother, mother and sister-in-law, we lit firecrackers — a custom to scare away any evil nearby. (Baijiu was part of this meal, too.)

After dinner, I learned why the Chinese greet the New Year with fireworks. According to ancient legend, there was a demon called Nian (年 – the same word for the lunar new year) who ravenously ate any animals or people in his path. A boy discovered that Nian, though fierce, was afraid of loud noises. Firecrackers especially scared the creature away, so to keep the evil Nian at bay, the Chinese shoot off fireworks as the new year begins.

Another custom, not as widely practiced nowadays, is to stay up all night until dawn. I and most of my friends barely made it past 2 am, however.

On New Year’s Day, traditionally you eat dumplings (we call them potstickers sometimes in the States). My dumpling lunch and larger dinner was in the home of Harry, one of my freshmen. I later joined Harry and his family a few days later to visit his uncle and aunt in Fenghuang.

On the 27th, another friend, James, who teaches English at a local middle school, invited me to join his family in Furongzhen for lunch and dinner. We ended up staying the night in a hotel, as well.

The trip to Furongzhen was a bit of an adventure, so forgive the details. James’ brother-in-law has a car, but it could not hold all of us. So James and I took a bus to Furongzhen. James sat in the last seat in the back, and I just in front of him. The bus was crowded and the roads are bumpy. Next to James was a mother and her two young children, one of whom had just finished a milk drink before boarding the bus.

You parents reading this probably already know what happened. The girl got carsick and threw up her milk drink onto the floor next to me. Not entirely pleasant to witness (or smell), but the trip to Furongzhen is mercifully short.

After another big dinner (this time I drank beer instead of baijiu), James ended up playing cards with his relatives and I adjourned to a nearby international hotel to surf the Internet and chill. It’s hard to enjoy yourself when everyone is speaking Chinese and playing an unfamiliar card game (for money!); besides, I was tired.

We returned the following morning in a minibus that reminded me of the kind that ply the streets in South Africa. The goal for the operators of these things — no matter what country — is to pack as many people and luggage as possible into the van. Surprisingly, it works, and if you don’t mind the shoulder-to-shoulder accommodations, a faster way to travel than on the regular bus.

That afternoon, Rain and Smile picked me up for my birthday celebration. First karaoke, then a big dinner in a nice hotel with primo quality baijiu. Too much baijiu. The three of us got quite happily drunk, but my two escorts managed to squire me and themselves safely home.

The next day, a slight hangover notwithstanding, I accompanied Harry to Fenghuang, where I had breakfast, lunch and dinner — but no baijiu. Two nights in a row would have put me under, for sure.

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