This story begins with me urinating in the widest of wide-open spaces: Mongolia.
There's not a single bush to pee behind. Even in the Sahara Desert, where I once had to light my toilet paper on fire when finished, sand dunes had offered some privacy. But here, I see nothing but brownish-green grass for miles and the tent I'm about to eat in. That's the beauty of this place, but it's also its problem, I think, because Erjiu probably brought alcohol.
Erjiu did indeed bring alcohol. And 20 minutes later, I'm holding up a shot glass and shouting "ganbei!" ("bottoms up") as lamb meat rotates on the lazy Susan.
Everyone has a fun uncle. Mine is a successful businessman in the DC-metro area who sends me funny texts. My best friend Luxin's fun uncle, Erjiu—which means "mom's second brother" in Mandarin—is a small Chinese man living in Inner Mongolia who likes to drink too much liquor and then shoot off full-size fireworks. I went with Luxin to visit him, and I am the first blonde girl his teenage daughter has ever seen.
Inner Mongolia is an autonomous region of China that borders both Mongolia and Russia. Even though my friend and her family are ethnically Han Chinese, Mongolian tradition shapes much of their lives. In these parts, Mongolian script subtitles Chinese characters. A larger-than-life statue of Genghis Khan sits in the region's capital. Here, people drink away the freezing temperatures by downing shot after shot of baijiu, China's horrifically pungent white liquor.
It's summer, but today's weather is no exception. After a winding, two-hour drive to the remote grasslands, Erjiu, his family, and I gather around a lazy Susan as he cracks open a bottle.
"Cheers," he says, smiling toothily as he uses the one English word I've taught him.
"Cheers," I smile back.
In Luxin's family, dining is a grand and noble affair. Erjiu has rented a Mongolian tent for us to eat in, the outside of which is nearly fluorescent white. Inside, pinks, purples, and blues dance on the fabric walls and tableside benches.
The décor is surprising, but the food is unadorned. We are first served a series of milk cookies—rectangular crackers that we dip into milky tea. Next come small dishes: goopy black blood sausages, bits of nuts, and vegetables, which I'm told are rare in these farm-unfriendly parts. Together, these form a prelude to our hearty main course: lamb.
Not some lamb, but rather a lamb—an entire animal slaughtered and cooked for our enjoyment—arrived in multiple rounds. Mongolians are traditionally nomadic, meaning that space for food is at a premium; this explains why 90 percent of our meal comes from the same animal.
Ribs, thighs, you name it—it's been sliced into a hunk and now sizzles on the plate in front of me. Fist-sized chunks fill two large platters. I pinch one by the chopsticks and drop it on my plate. It's simple meat, expertly prepared. Fatty juice drips from the bone whenever I bite into the tender flesh. Just when I think lunch is over, the chef brings a tub of white soup, gray and brown morsels bobbing throughout.
"Leftover lamb organs," Luxin explains.
As I eat, I stare out at the empty landscape. Here, dining serves a more vital purpose: fuel. But I'm here for lunch, not life, so I don't have to worry about shepherding for food or surviving a brutal winter. Accordingly, Erjiu makes sure to punctuate our carnivorous feast with baijiu, toast after toast after toast.
It's (literally) tough to swallow. Luxin and I make eye contact before each go and watch each other for signs of weakness. As best buds throughout college, we drank a lot of weird shit. But baijiu is both violently alcoholic (between 40 and 60 percent) and bizarrely salty. To my Western palate, it's a shock. Erjiu watches me each time I drink and laughs. I laugh, too—as soon as I'm done wincing.
"This was an aggressive lunch choice," I lean over at one point to whisper to Luxin.
Erjiu holds up his cup to toast me with determined regularity. We're drinking from tiny tin bowls, and he is completely unashamed about trying to get me drunk. I'm the guest from far away, and that's just tradition. It's an honor, I realize, to be the drunk girl at the table.
The grasslands, while beautiful, are stark and lonely—circling dust clouds, browning grass, the occasional pile of horse dung. And yet, "stark" and "lonely" couldn't be further from my experience. By the meal's end, we're lying in the tent on our backs, giggling tipsily.
Later, I'd gallop across the hills on a horse I didn't know how to ride as a dude in a sparkly purple vest zipped around me on his motorcycle. And later still, Erjiu, Luxin, and I would get roaring drunk and proceed to shoot off fireworks in the parking lot of his apartment building. (We would only be stopped several explosions later after a chunk of the building façade came crumbling down.) There's an air of playful lawlessness in Inner Mongolia, and it makes for a rollicking good time.
Still, it's the meal in the tent that I'd remember most vividly. Not because of the lamb meat, or dusty grasslands, or the sweet lazy Susan. But because at the end of the meal, when I lazed around on the tent's carpeted surface, I felt a warmth in my chest. I'm still not sure if it was from the baijiu or the laughter. But either way, that's a damn good end to a meal.