xi's moments

Moutai and me: A journey to the heart of baijiu country

By James Skinner | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2018-10-30 14:13

Performers from the Gelao ethnic group prepare to take part in a traditional ceremony in Moutai town, Guizhou province on Oct 18. [Photo by James Skinner/chinadaily.com.cn]

A pig's head.

There are a lot of things going on around me, but it is the pig's head I briefly glimpsed on a table that keeps returning to my thoughts. What is it for?

I am in a small village outside the town of Moutai, Southwest China's Guizhou province, for a ceremony to promote the local method of making baijiu, China’s infamous, super-strong clear spirit.

The country produces a breathtaking variety of baijiu and few visitors forget an encounter with it.

Moutai is famous in China as a major baijiu-producing town, with the potent aroma of fermenting liquor ensuring a visitor knows about the local specialty.

The town itself truly has a mystical feel, set in a valley with the Chishui River running through the center. Traditional wooden buildings dot the hills, with small, old-fashioned liquor stores that would not look out of place on a European high street.

Low clouds that hide the peaks of the surrounding hills add to the feel of being somewhere special.

The trip to the village started early that morning. A journey by car through countless other small villages, each one a little bit further from civilization than the last - not that any of them looked like wretched places to live.

Indeed, with neat houses and small, well-stocked shops, the villages appear beautiful and tranquil.

As the journey neared its end, it seemed impossible that there would be any kind of big event this far out from the town. The roads had gradually started to become less smooth, and the driver seemed to become less sure of the route.

But, after a difficult last stretch up a steep dirt track –– there it was. Hundreds of people milling around, many in the traditional dress of the Gelao ethnic group–– one of China's 56 ethnic groups.

And that was when I saw the pig’s head –– strangely human-like from close up. Being a little squeamish when it comes to severed heads, I take my seat for the ceremony.

It turns out I am in for an exciting morning, as the audience is treated to a seemingly endless spectacle of music, dancing, speeches, and even a magic show! It seems like the whole village is taking part, with groups of schoolchildren and senior citizens all taking turns in the spotlight.

But it is the local Gelao performers who really steal the show, with their dazzling costumes and unique traditional dancing, easily winning the loudest applause from the assembled guests.

Throughout this Guizhou cultural extravaganza, the show is held together by two hosts who seem to easily charm the audience and hold everyone's attention between acts.

Following a quick lunch and a drive back through the villages to Moutai, I get the opportunity to visit a local baijiu company.

Xiongzheng Baijiu Co is a local producer with a unique sales pitch –– it is the only baijiu producer making the spirit using the traditional Gelao method of production. And the firm’s staff are keen to show it off.

Touring the factory, we are taken to a gigantic dark room where hundreds of large urns are stored. As I start to wonder what they are all for, a company representative quickly explains that they hold the firm’s unique blend of bai jiu and that it is here that the drink is left to age.

I discover that how long the spirit is left to age simply depends on the desired taste the producer is looking for, but it is usually a period of years, sometimes more than 10.

The factory's production line yields yet more surprises.

Far from churning out thousands of bottles per hour, the rate of production is relatively sedate –– with a small group of workers taking extreme care to make sure each bottle is properly sealed and boxed. There is no doubt about it –– this is a quality product.

Finally, it is time to try Xiongzheng's unique blend of baijiu and I am handed a small shot glass of the clear liquid. I have learned from experience that it isn't always a good idea to smell what you are about to drink, as an off-putting aroma doesn't necessarily mean a bad taste. So, I am brave and simply take a gulp.

Fire! But the burning quickly subsides and leaves a pleasant oak-like flavor in the mouth, likely a result of the careful aging of the product.

The whole experience is over much quicker than I had hoped, and it is time to leave beautiful Moutai and return to city life.

Surprisingly, it is clear that this area of China is still largely unknown to Western tourists. No doubt that will change; I am glad to have seen it before it does.

Oh, and the pig's head? I never managed to find out.

James Skinner is a contributing editor at China Daily with an MA in International Relations. He has a particular interest in British and American politics, as well as global security issues.

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