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Billy Button Wines

Jo Marsh
8 October 2015 | Jo's blog | Jo Marsh

Ningxia culture and customs

Ningxia is a provence in north central China, bordering Inner Mongolia. It is basically a desert, with a mountain range on the western flank and the Yellow River running through it. It is small by chinese standards with just 6 million people. The capital is Yinchuan, which has 1.3 million inhabitants. Although the region has a very long history, most of the city is new and there is a huge amount of construction going on. Unlike cities in Australia that have suburbs that sprawl in all directions, Yinchuan is a very compact city surrounded by a ring road, and everyone lives in high rise apartment buildings. Grapes and goji berries are the main industries here, the wine industry is still in its infancy but there is huge investment in wineries here with some very spectacular buildings, ranging from ostentatious Loire inspired Chateaus to traditional chinese design, and everything in between. Despite the fact that the city is in a desert, there are a huge number of trees and gardens here, all on irrigation from the Yellow River. Lining the highway in all directions are closely planted trees - willows and poplars mainly. Throughout the city there are trees lining every road and flowerbeds on the corners of all the major intersections.

The winemaker at my host winery, Liu, speaks English quite well and has been enlightening me about the culture in Ningxia, and greater China. The food here is quite different to what we associate with chinese, as what we have in Australia is mainly southern style chinese. Here in Ningxia the sauces are generally tomato or vinegar based, not much soy sauce. Tomato and potato, which we do not normally associate with chinese cuisine, are quite commen in the dishes here. Mutton is the primary protein, but chicken, beef, donkey and fish are also common. If you order a chicken dish, expect to get the whole chicken chopped up (minus the head), so there is a lot of bone, neck pieces and feet. If you order fish, it will most likely be carp. Carp is quite the delicacy here. My winemaker took me to 'famous tourist area' the Sand Lake, where the famous food served at restaurants is fish head. Carp head. And you get to choose your carp from a tank out the front of the restaurant. Luckily it includes the front part of the fish as well, which was actually quite succulent and not too muddy. I declined the offer to eat the fish brains.

I am staying in a hotel here where there is a buffet breakfast. When it is busy, they have a chef making fresh noodles from dough. It is quite amazing to watch, within 30 seconds he turns a lump of dough into fine noodles, which take about 30 seconds to cook and are then served in a spicy broth. Everything is garlic and chilli here. And lots of it, breakfast, lunch and dinner. Suits me fine.

Meals are early here - lunch is usually 11.30 - 12.00 and dinner is 5.30 - 6.00. Liu suggests to eat rice for lunch and noodles for dinner, because noodles are easier to digest. Meals are accompanied by a glass of hot smoky plum syrup. I've come to enjoy this quite a lot. Many of the vegetable and noodle dishes are served cold and usually seasoned with vinegar. At every table there is a container of chilli and a container of vinegar. Liu always adds the vinegar to the noodles. The chinese also believe that drinking cold beverages, particularly with a hot meal, is unhealthy so it is very hard to get a cold beer! 

Wine is still not very popular here, beer is widely available, but the drink of choice is Baijiu, 'white spirit', which is a (grape) spirit usually around 65% alcohol - it's lethal! The equivalent of 'cheers' here is 'ganbei', except that ganbei involves downing the contents of your glass in one go. They really like ganbei here, whether it's Baijiu and red wine. And there is a ganbei custom here at special dinners, where each person at dinner individually takes a bottle of the alcoholic beverage of choice and then goes around to each other person at the dinner and in turn fills their glass for ganbei. Not so bad if there is only 4 or 5 of you. But when there is 10 or more people, this can be a challenge, particularly if the person charging your glass likes to fill your glass full. When you cling the glasses, you keep your glass lower than the other persons as a sign of respect.

I would not want to drive a car here in a fit, it's chaos! Traffic lights, road signs, lane markings are all just a guide, people do whatever. One day we got stuck in a traffic jam on a country road because there were people selling melons on the side of the road and cars would just stop in the middle of the road to buy them. And then other cars would move into the opposite lane to get past them, and then other cars would then try and get past those cars, so you have 3 cars abreast on a single lane road with oncoming traffic. I've seen at least 6 accidents since I've been here. Car insurance must be through the roof! The city is full of new european cars, but as you travel out towards rural areas, electric motocycles become the transport of choice. Many people have the 3 wheel type with a tray on the back. These are used as road side stalls selling food and drinks and all manner of things. There are also a lot of the truck version of the 3 wheeler, with a noisy engine that sound like a steam engine. These vehicles chug around the rural roads (and the highways too) carrying massive loads of all sorts of things, sometime taking up both lanes of the road with long pieces of bamboo or plywood.

Other things that are a bit different here are that after lunch naps are very common (like Europe), the toilets are nearly all the squat type and never have toilet paper or soap, and the beds are rock hard. In the 'international' hotel I'm staying at, I have a mattress that is a bit like an ironing board, while at the more traditional guest houses the beds are usually woven bamboo with no mattress.

The people here all seem lovely and very eager to please. Because it is such a remote region of China, well off the beaten path, they do not see many foreigners here so we are quite the celebrity. I've gotten quite used to being stared at in restaurants. Quite often people will try out their english on you as you walk past 'hello', 'nice to meet you', or occaisonally 'will you marry me'.

I've enjoyed my time here, met some great people, enjoyed the food, but it is nearly time to leave. And I'm really looking forward to a cold beer that is more than 3.3% alcohol, and a soft bed!


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