A Vile Vial

My travel itinerary on this China trip took me to Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province. Besides being the center of China’s coal production, Shanxi is famous for vinegar. In fact, when you step off a train or plane, the smell of vinegar is in the air.

Upon arrival, our hosts took us to a traditional Shanxi restaurant. Beside each table setting was a vial of vinegar that looked frighteningly similar to a vial of medicine. Before eating the meal, we had to sip the vinegar through a tiny straw. Apparently it will cure pretty much anything that ails you.

Be that as it may, I found it rather vile!

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Vinegar, Anyone?

Vinegar, Anyone?

I took a little jaunt this weekend to Shanxi Province to visit some friends in a city called Yuci.  Like most cities in north China, it is connected to Beijing by rail, and getting there is an easy overnight train ride.  We pull out at 9:40PM and arrive at 6:20AM.  Get on, sleep, get up and off!  It’s that simple.  A short enough time that, if you don’t drink anything, you can even manage to get through the entire trip without having to make a trip to the toilet, something that is becoming increasingly important to me as my rickety knees become more and more rickety!

This wasn’t my first visit to Yuci.  I had been through the town in 2001 on road trip with 2 friends and my mom.  What follows is the account of the trip that I wrote at the time.  Let’ call it, Vinegar Anyone?

I’ve been in China a long time and have done many things, but over the October holiday I experienced a "first:" — a China Road Trip.  You know the great American road trip, where you pack up the car and drive across country.  Well, be it hereafter known that it can be done in China now.  A friend of mine in Beijing is the proud owner of a bright red Jeep Cherokee, and she and I decided that we wanted to drive to Pingyao, an ancient city in Shanxi, about 50 miles from the provincial capital Taiyuan.  The morning of October 1, Terry, Amy, my mom (visiting for a few months) and I set off to see for ourselves China’s newly built expresway system we’d heard so much about.  It was great, and 7 hours later we found ourselves driving within the city walls of Pingyao.  We explored the city and surrounding countryside for a couple of days, then set off for home.

Our trip home proved to be quite an event.  One of the customs in China is, when one goes travelling, to buy products that are unique that a particular area and take them home as gifts.  Beijing is famous for roast duck, and you can even buy already cooked, vacuum packed duck dinners.  For the province of Shanxi, it’s vinegar.  For some reason (the abundance of sorghum perhaps) venegar is huge in Shanxi.  Hence roadsides feature stall after stall after stall selling vinegar.  Not just your garden-variety vinegar, but expensive vinegar in gift boxes.  Terry and I decided to get some to bring back to our Chinese friends, so we stopped at one of the stalls.  The purchase made, we climbed back into the jeep and started her up.  Well, we tried, but all we heard was that sickening clicking sound.  Nothing. This engine wasn’t going to start for nobody no way! Now what?/We popped the hood and peered in, I suppose hoping that something would jump out at us and thus resolve the problem.  The vinegar sellers crowded around the 4 white womem and the jeep and confidently pronounced "che huai-le!"  The car is broken.  The man we’d bought vinegar from graciously offered to cycle off to find a mechanic, and we gratefully did not try to stop him. About 20 minutes later, he returned with a mechanic in tow.  He tinkered around and told us that the battery was dead and we’d need a new one.  Now was not the time to argue with him.  "Where do we get one?" I asked (we were in the countryside, not in any town).  "I’ll go to town and buy one for you."  Sounded good to us.

He returned about an hour later with a giant truck battery and bypassed the old one to see if that in fact was the problem.  Hooked up to the truck battery, the jeep started right up. Yay!  But silly us, we didn’t notice that the engine was now hooked up to the truck battery lying on the ground, outside of the jeep.  Kind of like an iron lung, I guess.  With the engine purring away, the mechanic confidently declared again that it was the battery and that we would need to buy a new one!  Huh?  Did I miss something?  "I thought that’s where you went– to get us a new battery??"  "Nope, but you definitely need a new battery!"  "Then please please go somewhere and buy one for us!"  Off he went again, this time not to return for a full 2 hours, during which time we devoured a bowl of noodles in the "restaurant" that was beside the road.  All during the meal, of course, someon was trying to seel us vinegar!

When the mechanic returned, he got the battery in and it started like a charm.  Three cheers!  We went into a little shack to settle up with him.  It was a pricey battery, but we decided that since he’d gone hunting for the thing and had put it in, we were in no position to bargain.  As we were leaving the shack, the mechanic grabbed a jar of vinegar and did his part for the local economy:  "Want to buy some vinegar?"  At this point we sort of fled for our lives, never wanting to see a jar of vinegar again in our lives.  We left behind a group of kind vingar sellers who had all gone above and beyond the call of duty to help the four stranded foreigners.  We said our thanks and waved goodbye and hit the road.