Luzhou Laojiao

Jul 30, 2013

Deeper into the countryside

Luzhou continues to offer fun and adventure

Our first time at Egg Bar!
Just waiting for the bus on the highwayA little guy in the hill by the highwayMore little guys in the hill by the highway
A narrow pathway leads from the highway bus stop to a small shrine ensconced in bamboo.
Luzhou Laojiao's countryside factory
As we suspected, the small brewery in the city center is not where China’s supply of Luzhou Laojiao is manufactured. It takes an “Industry Development Zone” to quench that thirst.
Out in Tai'anOut in Tai'anIt's hot out, so we're having some cool beers at Egg Bar
It’s hot. Peter’s melting.
Some kids in the alley
The small residential area we found offered everything we were looking for, including fun times at and around the old man bar.

They’re building a highway through the site of our regular countryside bus stop, and we returned from vacation to find that we were essentially cut off from the small village where we usually eat and hang out. The trip into the city requires a longer walk to a different bus stop, and it’s hot out and that’s annoying. So the only sane choice was to go further out into the countryside — via a third and much closer bus stop — to see what we could see.

Our initial expedition led us down the highway into nothing and nowhere and then the Luzhou Laojiao Distillery Industry Development Zone. It was presented as a tourist sight, so we figured it was worth checking out.

There was a nicely decorated factory, though not one that really seemed open to unscheduled tourism. In fact, if anything, we were the sight to see; all the drivers and packers and other workers gave us startled hellos as we passed.

We did find, however, an open bodega next to the highway — and where there is a bodega, there are cold beers. We sat at the rickety table out front and had a couple of cold ones, lamenting the fact that we didn’t really find any alternatives to our now inaccessible Tofu Soup neighborhood but being proud of ourselves for trying.

We took a different bus back … and passed right through the very type of residential area we were looking for. Restaurants and shops and teahouses and people, just a few stops from the school! We rushed off the bus and out into the street.

We spent the afternoon tucked away in an old man bar down an alleyway, watching the street life unfold. Kids darted by the entrance, doing kid things and occasionally stopping to get a peek at us white weirdos. The big doings in the bar was that the TV remote had died. The men made sure keep us in the loop — the proprietress had gone in search of batteries, they indicated, oh look now it’s back on, do you like this show?

We’ve been back to the neighborhood a few times, trying different restaurants, and we’ve already befriended a new bodega owner. There’s a phenomenon I’m noticing when were out in areas where there haven’t been many foreigners before: People will take surreptitious glances at us but generally leave us alone until one brave person approaches. Once I start speaking Chinese, a whole crowd will gather. Not everyone will have the courage to say anything, but they all want to get their curiosity satisfied. And I can offer a few biographical details: American, teachers at Tianfu Middle School, yes we like spice. And then the crowd will disperse, and we will be a little less strange.

Buying some watermelon

Nov 19, 2012

100: Digging into the gift bag

Treats by which to remember the day

Baijiu in the gift bag

A party is not complete without a gift bag, and this one was pretty good. There were two expensive looking books about the history of Tianfu Middle School — one mostly in Chinese and one mostly in pictures; and a two-bottle set of special run Luzhou Laojiao 1573 — their premium product, and the only baijiu that I tolerate — with a logo commemorating the anniversary.

The package also included a school-produced video about Tianfu’s 100 years, and it is a marvel of over-the-top pomposity. And, of course, it’s interesting to see the historical footage and pictures of our home. The video is a little longer than 15 minutes, and it’s all in Chinese, but if you want to check it out, we put it up here.

Nov 18, 2012

100: What’s for lunch?

Bellying up to the celebratory buffet

After we changed out of our dressy Anniversary Celebration clothes, we hit the cafeteria — because we were hungry and it was the only place we knew of (at the time) to find food out in New Campus Land.

Instead of regular lunch service, however, we found a special Anniversary Celebration buffet! Which made sense, because if you cart thousands of special guests out to the countryside for a four-hour long assembly, you’d better feed them. The food was typical cafeteria fare (which is actually pretty delicious; we’ll get into that in a coming post), but because it was a party — and our school’s sponsor is a beloved liquor company in the city — everyone was encouraged to take beer or Luzhou Laojiao with their meal. (It’s been really hard to suss out if China/Luzhou has a drinking age or what it is. On this special day, anyway, the kids were able to grab a beer without ruffling any feathers.) This made the atmosphere extra convivial. A few happy parents/alumni came over to toast with us as we ate, and we were happy to be included in their fun.

After lunch, the anniversary was solidly over … and the National Day Holiday began! Everyone had vacation from school for the next week, so we packed up some things and joined the throngs of students catching the bus back into the city. (While our new campus apartment was nicer, it didn’t yet have internet.) Let the relaxing commence!

Sep 7, 2012

Flood: What are you looking at?

It’s not a disaster, it’s an event!

Looking at the flood

I was definitely not the only one running around with a camera that day. Spectating may be the Chinese national sport. You’ll often run into crowds of onlookers huddled around anything from a car accident to a cellphone demonstration to a construction site. (Sometimes they’ll actually wander around a construction site, just to see what’s up.) So people were out en masse to soak up the spectacle.

Looking at the flood
Police had put up caution tape where water overflowed into our street, but many people just ignored it.
Looking at the flood
Don’t worry. The guys in the boat are official.
Looking at the flood
The recently completed bridge by our house provided an excellent view of the area that was underwater. This was as crowded as it’s been since the bridge opened.
Looking at the flood
This is possibly more tourists than the Luzhou Laojiao factory gets when it’s not underwater.
Looking at the flood
A quiet spot, away from the crowds
Looking at the flood
The man on the right-hand side of the photo is guarding his living room furniture.
Looking at the flood
Some citizens took it upon themselves to sweep the water back down into the river.
Looking at the flood

Next, the waters recede …

Sep 4, 2012

Flood: The water rises

It’s raining, it’s pouring … it’s flooding

The muddy, churning water of the Yangtze
The churning waters of the Changjiang River
Zhongpingyuan Road, at the bottom of our school
The river rises

The rain was quite heavy this summer, but we thought nothing of it, as the rain had been pretty heavy all year with no surprises. Until …

Sometime during the night of June 22, our Changjiang River burst its banks and flooded the streets and buildings that surrounded it. No one was killed, my friend Kristy told me later, but it was the worst flood Luzhou had seen in 50 years.

The water reached Zhongpingyuan Road, which is the back boundary of our school campus. That’s almost half a kilometer from the river, and up a significant incline. Buildings on the river front were drowned to their second story. From the bridge, you could see rooftops that were now at water level, and trees that looked like bushes, because their trunks were entirely submerged.

The before (left) and the after (right)

Above is the Luzhou Laojiao factory, which is right around the corner from our school, and a major tourist attraction for the city.

Tomorrow, a look at our neighbors’ reactions …

Jul 30, 2012

The Dragon Boat Festival

With a local guide we finally join in on some local fun

The dragons on the lake

We’ve been present in China for many holidays, though because of our status as outsiders, we don’t really know how, why or where any given festival is celebrated. Like, imagine Thanksgiving from the perspective of someone living in Akron, OH, who doesn’t really speak English and doesn’t have a television or any local friends: You’d have no idea that you were supposed to be watching a parade on TV and eating turkey, you’d only know that most of the stores were closed.

But, now we had Alex! And his generous offer to be our guide at the Dragon Boat Festival.

Poet Qu Yuan
A statue of the poet Qu Yuan
Traffic was heavy on the way to the festivalHere's a good place to sell cars
Some enterprising car dealer set up a sale alongside the path to the festival.

On the morning of June 23, he met us at our school steps, and we grabbed a cab. The festival itself was a 9 yuan drive out into the countryside. Along the way, Alex gave us a bit of history: Around 300 BC, the poet Qu Yuan either fell or jumped into the river and drowned. Fish started feeding on his body. To get the fish to stop eating him, people paddled out into the river in dragon boats to throw Zongzi to the fish. To commemorate the event, we now have a dragon boat race every summer.

This is, at least, what my heat-addled mind got from his explanation. Check the Wikipedia if you want a more detailed account.

The festival is a bigger deal in the east of the country, but there was still a significant turnout for Luzhou’s celebration. The cab let us off about 10 minutes away from our destination, and we joined the throngs of revelers walking towards the lake. City buses were still allowed to traverse the crowded roads, as were enterprising motorbikers who were offering rides from the main road to the festival site. Police were on hand to coordinate the slow ooze of traffic between all the people on foot.

There was a huge crowdStreet meat kabobs
Alex bought me some delicious kebabs.

When we reached the site — a scenic park wrapped around a medium-sized lake — the sun was high in the sky. It was crowded, but we found a spot with a good view. Sweat dripped down my back as the four boats took their time drifting into place for the race. Vendors weaved through the crowd peddling bottles of water. Many hid from the sun under umbrellas. I patted myself on the back for remembering sunscreen. Alex disappeared for a minute, and returned with fans for us: a lady-like flower print for me, and a manly display of calligraphy for Peter.

Finally, the race began. One of the boats was sponsored by Luzhou Laojiao, the company that sponsors our school. I would have rooted for that one, although I wasn’t sure which one it was. On their trip to the far end of the lake and back, you could see that skill seemed to have been allocated in alphabetical order; Boat A won handily, and Boat D’s rowers were comically out of synch. But we all cheered for A, and that was that.

We found out later from Alex’s grandmother that the outcome is fixed. “It’s a show, not a competition,” she told us.

A view of a countryside pond

Take a look at our slideshow from the Dragon Boat Festival by clicking on the picture above.

Mar 9, 2012

Winning a photo contest

And figuring out what it was all about

Some students mistook this for our wedding photo

One of our first weekends here, our head teacher called early in the morning to summon us to a tour of the nearby Luzhou Laojiao factory - a historical hotspot that’s pretty much in our backyard. When we got there, we were met by a photographer and his assistant as well as a tour guide. The team took photos of us for two hours, and then we went home, baffled by what had just happened.

Months later, head teacher called to say that the photographer would like to enter the photos of us in a contest, and would that be OK? “Of course,” we said.

This week, we found out that a photo of us had been chosen as the first place winner! (It’s the one up top. You can see more of that photo set here.) There was a small ceremony this afternoon where we finally put the whole story together: This was a photography contest sponsored by the Luzhou Laojiao liquor company, asking photographers to take snaps of their beloved brewery.

The ceremony, in a normal-looking office building
See all of our photos from the ceremony here.

The ceremony was in a small conference room, and they had made up name plates for me and Peter - although, strangely, not for our photographer, who was also there. The manager of the company spoke first, they showed the winning photos, and then we were invited up front. The MC (through our friend) asked Peter what he thought of the historic Luzhou Laojiao square (“Very beautiful,” he said), and then they asked us to kiss. There were a lot of cameras documenting the whole thing. It felt very strange - kind of like we had been mistaken for famous people and were nervously playing along. They presented us with a gift box of their most expensive liquors and then we sat back down. The judge (or a judge) then spoke about the winning photos, calling the one of us “a masterpiece.”

Once our part was over, we sneaked out (which is ideally how I like to end all meetings - leaving immediately after the attention’s no longer on me) because we both had classes to teach.

Oct 23, 2011

A surprise trip to the Old Cellar

We’re, like, supermodels, or something

Luzhou Laojiao

This morning we were awakened by a phone call from one of our bosses: “A photographer who works with our school wants to take photos of you. Can you meet him in half an hour?”

I managed to buy us a whole hour, and we jumped in the shower and made ourselves presentable for what was explained to us as a “3-4 minute photo shoot.”

The disembodied drinker

We met the photographer at the gate of the school, along with two students - Cindy and Alice - who were to be our translators. We followed them, not to a photography studio, but the Old Cellar. This factory, which is right in our backyard, produces a liquor called Luzhou Laojiao. The locals call it wine, but it’s a white spirit brewed from sorghum, and it tastes INTENSE. This liquor has been brewed here for nearly 2,000 years, and it’s the pride of the city. Cindy told us our students receive two small bottles of it as a traditional gift upon high school graduation. She says she doesn’t drink it, because it’s too strong. (She’s about 16, I think, but there is no drinking age here.)

We were met at the factory by another photographer and a tour guide, Angie. It was very surreal. Angie gave us a private tour of the factory - which we had actually been intending to visit one of these days - with English help from the two students. Meanwhile the two photographers were snapping away. They posed us in front of everything. They even took pictures of Peter taking pictures of me. (Peter, fortuitously, thought to grab our camera on the way out the door.)

A bottle of Luzhou Laojiao

The tour itself was pretty simple; because of the language difference, a lot of it boiled down to, “this is a thing.” Having toured wineries and breweries before, I’ve seen how alcohol is made, and it was much the same here; take a grain, heat it up, store it away. It did take about an hour, though, because we had to keep stopping to pose for photos. The photographers snapped us listening to the tour guide, looking at stuff, reading plaques, joking with the kids, sitting on benches …

At the end of the tour, we had a small sample of the liquor in the ceremonial hall. It was about 11 in the morning, but why not? They sat us at this large wooden table with beautiful chairs and served us a small shot in a traditionally shaped porcelain glass. Much like a wine tasting, there’s an elaborate process to sipping the spirit, involving sniffing, sipping and inhaling. They even had us rub a little on our skin, although I don’t think that’s a traditional part of the ceremony.

And that was that. We went back out front, where the photographers had Peter and I kiss in front of the giant rock at the entrance. And then, our modeling job was over.

We exchanged phone numbers with Angie for possible language exchange, which would actually be pretty cool. She was very nice, and we’re definitely in the market for new friends here. But no explanation was offered for what we had just done, or why. Though we did get a nice private tour out of it in English. Check it out for yourself:

>An early-morning tour of a liquor showroom
Check out the full album of our tour.

This city is really serious about the liquor. Luzhou Laojiao is known throughout all of China. You can buy it EVERYWHERE here. There are liquor stores next to liquor stores, all selling those red boxes. Here’s just a small sample of shops that we’ve seen around town:

Stores selling baijiu
So many liquor stores!