I walked into a room, a very nice room, a room that was as large as my home in the UK, a room that was square, but one that seemed crooked, I walked in, I walked in slowly, and my heart just sank. This room, this extraordinary remnant of the bourgeoisie that used to be Mao. This little piece of decadence in the middle of what I could only describe as a ‘paddy field’, prepared, ready and waiting for my arrival and the arrival of this entourage who by no choice of mine, were my newest buddies on the planet. We’d only met 2 hours prior to our pending lunch time drama and we’d met under the most precious of circumstance. Me, young, full of energy, perhaps naive, determined to succeed. Them, toothless, smelling of stale cigarette smoke, dirty and certainly not odor free. A unique combination and certainly an eyesore in 1980’s Southern China, where white people, black people and anyone not Chinese, was looked upon as an alien, a martian, ET and perhaps a combination of all 3 wrapped up into one moving and quite amusing anomaly. Mud, red as the surface of that Martian planet they believed me to have descended from, made up the basis of a ‘so called’ road we’d just driven on for the past 45 minutes. Rule of law being, if you could pass, no matter what direction you were traveling, you passed and if you believed you were going to hit an on coming car or bike or van, you went for it, with the firm belief that they, the other driver, would crap out of a head on collision before you did. Well it wasn’t me who was driving, but local drivers, my drivers, were all graduates of the James Bond F1 motor school, where ‘cahones’ were a gifted extra at birth. No fear, no hesitation and never a dent to be seen anywhere on any of their vehicles.
In this room, this very nice room, lay a table, a very long table, adorned with the most exquisite of lace table cloths, the best silverware that China could manufacture and the prettiest plates I’d ever seen, outside of those the Queen would use in Buckingham palace. I was directed to a seat, a very large table topping seat, and that’s when the fun began. I call it fun, but it really wasn’t. It was Hell.
Boiled and now stone cold mushrooms, soggy peanuts, chopped up pork (also cold) and crackling, and 1000 year old eggs. This was the beginning and it would be three hours later before we reached the best part of that dreadful ‘feast’, a watermelon and apple desert. In between came shark fin soup, oysters that reeked of ammonia, stuffed crab and lobster, all alive when presented on their platter, all dead and consumed within 2 minutes of their demise, which played out live and in person right before our eyes. A blood bath then followed as a live 4 foot long snake was dragged into the room. Black, wet, and ready to die, the snake that is, and hoisted up into the air by a 4ft 11″ young lady, like a trophy would be hoisted had she won the cup, this poor snake was about to die. The knife came out, the conversation ceased and the barbarism began. Slit from top to bottom while still alive, blood drained into several shot glasses, and then, that final blow as the poor snake, obviously in pain, was relieved of his head. That very same head bounced twice on a tiled floor and ended up right in front of my right leather shoe. My face was white, or should I say whiter than it had been ten minutes earlier, my stomach wanted to heave and my mind was in complete turmoil. My hosts however began to blurt out meaningless phrases in Mandarin. It seemed to me like they were trying hard to outbid one another, and indeed that’s exactly what was happening. The snake blood, seen as an aphrodisiac, was being auctioned, and little did I know that they were doing all of this on my behalf. Once the bidding ended, I was handed a shot glass full of blood and invited to drink. I thought it was a joke and I immediately made light of their not so kind offer. The snake head was still firmly entrenched beneath my right show and here I was, with the poor buggers blood in my hands, looking right into his eye on the ground wanting to vomit and faint at the same time. They cajoled, they encouraged, they insisted and then eventually, as puke left my mouth and covered that exquisite table-cloth, they gave up and drank the blood themselves. Greedy bastards! After snake it was time for chicken, undercooked, perhaps boiled again and served hung drawn and quartered, though not headless. I now had the snake head at my right foot and the chicken head, eyeballs in tact, at the end of my left arm. Delightful!
Although memorable for all the wrong reasons and although my stomach remained empty for many days after this luncheon, the most incredible part of that day had yet to occur. You see while we’d been inside that restaurant, the heavens had opened and a deluge of rain had washed away any semblance of what was in those days, something you’d call a road. China was in the midst of building it’s freeway system, and investment that initially took all of 800 billion US dollars and 25 million workers. (Well it seemed like 25 million, it could have been less, or even more, the problem being that everywhere I travelled there were tens of thousands of the buggers laying road surface by hand. Yes, by hand. They were turning red clay into tarmac by hand, and it just made sense in my mind that do do this across such a vast country from scratch, an army of tens of millions of participants would be required.) Our journey back took 6 hours. Yes, 6 hours. A 45 minute jaunt without roads was turned into a 6 hour nightmare, with no where to stop, nowhere to pee, no place to pull over to get a drink and certainly no way to do anything other than sit and wait and wait and wait, until finally we would move three or four yards, then stop again. I was sitting in the back of a Mitsubishi Outlander with 5 smelly and half drunk Chinese men, all filled to brimming with snake blood. It wasn’t a party, it was a scene from a horror movie. I remember when we finally arrived back at the factory, I was so exhausted that it took me about an hour to empty my bladder and then 2 days to get over the shock of what had happened. After I left that factory to go back to the border, a journey that should have taken 30 minutes, but which in essence took another 2 hours, I was left to reflect on a day that might of been instead of a day that was. I was consumed by how brutal this culture were towards their ambition to join the 20th century. How non plus they were to eating anything that walked or flew and how indifferent they had been to my puking all over lunch, spending all day with them, buying nothing from them and eating nothing at all that they’d offered up. My conclusion was instantaneous. China is and always will be a shithole, life was cheap there and still is today. Although very friendly and hospitable as a race, they can stick their chickens and their snakes right back up the orifice that they eventually eject them from. Sadly even though the roads are now kind of ‘world class’, some 35 years later, the food is still crap and life is still pretty worthless. I don’t have to make these needless journey’s into the depths of the ‘jungle’ to eat things that should only be eaten by other animals and not by human beings, and I certainly don’t have to tolerate factories that are meaningless to my business development, but and it’s a huge but, when one experience vanishes, another appears, and that’s just what China remains. It’s an experience wrapped up inside a shitty memory with every step.