Let me set the scene for you here. We were in the city of Zhengzhou, probably making up the quota of western tourists for the entire year. We were staying at a hotel that seemed designed for Chinese businessmen, complete with smoking in the elevators, weird see-through glass doors to the bathrooms, and business cards from call girls slipped under our doors at night. We ended up in Zhengzhou because Hannes' Uncle Reinhold is a Yellow River enthusiast, making the Yellow River Museum a must-see. In this very non-touristy city, we were strangers in a strange land -- more so than anywhere else on this trip -- and the result was a whole spectrum of experiences ranging from mildly unpleasant to amazing to just plain ridiculous. This particular experience gets filed under amazing, with a dose of the good kind of ridiculousness thrown in.
Around the corner from our hotel we had noticed a restaurant that was always packed (always a good sign) and serving something that looked like a hotpot, so we decided we should give it a try. We walked in on a Friday night, and since it was busy, we were going to have to wait a few minutes for a table. I don't know how it happened, but within what felt like 30 seconds, Reinhold was sitting down next to a group of young Chinese guys, drinking one of their beers and smoking one of their cigarettes. Next thing we knew, tables had been shoved together and we were seated next to these guys, ready for an evening of hot pot and revelry.
The camaraderie extended by our newfound friends was instant. I assumed they were interested in us because we were foreign, and in a good mood because it was Friday night and they were a little bit drunk. The five of them had an entire case of beer sitting on the bench next to them (I assume they brought it from outside the restaurant, and that this was kosher), and they immediately passed them around to us. My reserved self was a little confused about why I was being handed a beer. Did they just want us to pose for a picture? No, they wanted to drink beer with us! Ganbei! There were a lot of toasts. To be honest, I had no idea what was going on, but figured the right choice was to go with the flow.
Then came the food. I have no idea what the proper name of the dish was (it's not a true hotpot), but I can tell you what was in the pot: an entire chicken and lots of Sichuan peppers swimming in a thick gravy-like sauce. And when I say an entire chicken, I mean an entire chicken, including not only the feet (Grandma's favorite), but the head (there is photographic evidence of Hannes taking a nibble of the comb). The hotpot was served with a variety of cold vegetable dishes (delicious) and a seemingly endless supply of fresh noodles, which the server would bring around and dump into the pot with the gravy and the chicken. I think the noodles were all-you-can-eat, it seemed like they would've kept giving us more and more if we could've managed to keep eating. Sichuan peppers make my tongue feel funny and will never be my favorite spice, but I still enjoyed it, and my dining companions were raving about the sauce. Plus the total price was something like $10, which fed 6 people who were feeling extremely stuffed by the end. It felt crazy from our Western vantage point.
By the end of the night, the table - especially the boy's side - was looking more than a little gross (cross-reference under: mildly unpleasant). Cigarette butts filled empty rice bowls, which were also occasionally being used as spittoons, ick. Beer cans and chicken bones covered every possible surface. We concluded the night by getting on video chat with one of the guy's girlfriends, because why not, right? And all of this despite the fact that our two sides of the table weren't really able to communicate with one another. You've heard of the language of love, but I'll tell you now -- it is the language of beer and hotpots that really brings people together.