Thankfully the ride in the death car only lasted about 30 minutes. I’ve never been so terrified in a car before or since and at one point I genuinely prepared my body for the crash that seemed inevitable.
The maniac skidded his car to a halt at a junction off the highway and we both stepped out with ashen faces, our limbs visibly shaking. I probably would have kissed the tarmac if I’d had time, but no sooner had we retrieved our bags from the boot when another car pulled over and the 30th hitchhike of our journey thus far was secured.
“Ah hello, hello, hello! We can talk and be friends! You are my friends!” the young man said, as he helped us put our bags into his car.
“My name is Ryan. I learn a lit’ English from teacher many year ago. Sorry please!”
Ryan was undoubtedly one of the nicest, most welcoming and generous people we’d met (and that’s saying something). He was short and ever so slightly chubby. His face was a Chinese version of Carlton Banks from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. He also had a strange habit of sniffling all the time as if he had a steady stream of dust flowing into his nostrils.
“Will you come with me to my home town, Huizé?” Ryan asked us, between sniffs.
“Yeah sure,” I said, looking at the map. “Huizé is between Kunming and Zhaotong, it won’t put us too far behind schedule”, I said to Michael.
That night Ryan took us out to his favourite restaurant with his friends. We walked upstairs and were seated in our own room at a large circular table. To picture the scene that unfolded before my eyes and ears, just imagine the board game Hungry, Hungry Hippos. Now replace the hippos with Tasmanian devils and you get the idea.
Barely had the food settled on the table, when all of a sudden there was a whirlwind of frenzied activity: chopsticks, mouthfuls of food, spit and whatever else spewing in all directions.
Eventually it all got too much for me so I had to nudge Michael on the arm and whisper, “Michael, slow down mate, no one else has started eating yet”.
Once eating had commenced for real, Ryan asked us if we would like some “white wine”.
“Yes please,” I replied enthusiastically, rubbing my hands together.
But to my surprise, instead of wine glasses, it was shot glasses that were handed out among the ten or so guests around the table and a clear liquid was poured into each.
“These don’t look like wine glasses”, said Michael.
“Cheers!” said Ryan, much to the delight of his Chinese friends.
“Gambe!” I said, and we downed the drink. I shuddered it down my gullet and washed it down with a torrent of saliva that had surged into my mouth.
“Doesn’t taste a lot like white wine does it?” Michael said to me through his clenched teeth.
What we were drinking, we later discovered, was baijiu, a 40-60% AVB Chinese liquor that is usually distilled from sorghum, a species of grass. The taste is very distinctive and is apparently highly valued in Chinese culinary culture. Tourists, however, usually compare the flavour to paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, or diesel fuel.
“That’s bad,” rasped Michael, “I don’t think I can manage another one. My throat is on fire”.
One second later someone yelled “gambe!” and our glasses were filled again.
“That’s it,” said Michael, breaking out in a light sweat, “No more, I’ll be sick.
Exactly one second passed.
“Oh screw it,” he said, before roaring “GAMBE!” and we had another.
“Was that necessary?” I spluttered, after an ominous baijiu burp.
“Sorry mate, it’s contagious. Give it go”
“No. I’m trying to enjoy my fo- oh okay, screw it, GAAAMBEEEE!”
Everyone cheered and we continued in this manner until all the food started to taste like paint thinner, rubbing alcohol, or diesel fuel.
“Stop spinning the table Richard!” slurred Michael.
“No one is spinning the table, Michael,” I replied. “And that’s a plate of egg noodles you’re talking to. I’m over here mate”
No matter how much we ate and drank, the food and drink just kept on coming. Just as I was considering a tactical chunder to make some room in my stomach, the desserts were served and the banquet ended. Ryan insisted on paying the bill, in spite of our pleas, and all rolled down the stairs, down the street and into a Karaoke bar to have a few beers.
We walked in amid yelps of excitement from the locals and the whole place started buzzing at the prospect of performing their songs in front of westerners. As soon as the bravest one of them, apparently, so Ryan told us “the toughest man in Huize”, came over to us with a couple of beers, our table was soon surrounded by everyone in there.
Beers, shots and cigarettes were offered to us from all directions and the now familiar war-cry, “GAMBE!”, rang long into the night.
I think by the early hours of the morning Ryan had grown slightly jealous that we weren’t giving him our full attention and he suggested heading back to his flat to chill out.
“Fair enough,” Michael said to me, “He picked us up. We’re his westerners”.
Just when Michael and I were settling down for a night on the couch, thinking that Ryan was the most generous man we’d ever met, he told us to get up and he ushered outside and into his car.
“Another bar?” we wondered.
No. Ryan evidently hadn’t finished yet. He drove us to the best hotel in town and paid for our rooms for the night.
Once inside, we both collapsed onto our beds and fell into a drunken stupor. Our brains were overwhelmed by the Baijiu, our stomachs were overwhelmed by the banquet and our hearts were overwhelmed by the extent of Ryan’s hospitality. Legend.