I never totally got afternoon tea. I love the communal and relaxing idea behind it, but the formality and quiet talking rub me the wrong way. Then, one day, I swapped in moonshine for the tea, Chinese rice farmers for my usual city crowd, and suddenly, I was converted.
There was no formal invitation, but the sound of laughter and a wide open door beckoned me into what turned out to be someone’s personal cave in the rural village of Puzhehei, near China’s border with Vietnam. Inside, I faced six rice farmers on stools staring at me with interest, a floor jagged with 10,000-year-old stalagmites, dozens of covered clay jugs filled with alcohol, a disco ball overhead, a karaoke machine wedged into the rock wall, and, before I knew it, a shot of homemade baijiu (clear rice liquor) pushed my way.
I’d arrived just in time for their daily ritual of afternoon moonshine. The drink differs from their dinner version. It doesn’t immediately knock you out and tastes just a touch less like gasoline. At any given moment someone would yell “gan bei!” (dry cup). We’d raise our glasses, clink, drink, and grimace.
The rules are clear, even if you don’t speak the language: Everyone drinks or no one drinks. I found this out the hard way when I tried to pace myself and sit the sixth gan bei out. I loved it. We all got smashed. Instead of polite conversation there was lots of shouting about my 6’ 3’’ frame. Instead of scones, a bowl of fried crayfish. We played mahjong and slowly built up a crayfish shell heap on the ground by our feet. And, of course, it ended with microphones in hand and Chinese pop songs and Tom Jones tunes reverberating off the cave walls.
About 20 gan bei’s too, if memory serves correct.
Will Bleakley Will Bleakley is a former associate editor at Down East magazine.