Something about dipping your finger in the lightning-colored liquor in the tiny shot glass in front of you, flicking a few drops at the table, to the sides and finishing by rubbing it on your forehead. Ancestors and spirits can drink with you this way, I think.
It all got pretty blurry that evening in Hohhot.
It started just with an innocent beer at our hostel. Then Dad started meeting people. Other guests at the hostel. One of them, a French-Canadian, was fluent in Mongolian and had some local friends. Soon, we were going out to dinner to meet them at a nearby restaurant.
The restaurant was busy, but they found a table for us upstairs by the private rooms and we settled down to drink more beer and eat the glorious, gigantic dumplings and meat cooked with stones (to increase the heat) and talk about our impressions of Inner Mongolia. The Canadian took off for most of the meal, but came back with a local friend very excited to talk to foreigners.
In his late forties or fifties, balding in that W-shaped pattern of many Chinese men, he looked like any drunk guy you'd see in a restaurant. He was dressed well, but couldn't stand up by himself. He said he was related to Genghis Khan, and drank like it.
Beer flowed, into our glasses, and, regrettably, all over our floor. Our new royal friend spilled it all over his cell phone, our shoes, our coats. He hugged my mother. He hugged me. He hugged Dan. He hugged my father. He kissed my father's cheek. We were his new best friends.
My parents got called away suddenly to entertain in one of the private rooms next to our table—a girl was having a birthday party and apparently desperately wanted to meet them. Everyone was singing, and my parents and another American sang the Star-Spangled Banner for them.
Mom was developing a case of China Belly, and got out while the going was still good, back to the hostel to relax and mop the beer off her jacket.
Dad, Dan and I weren't so smart, and stayed on to the morning hours. Eventually the birthday party, the other foreigners and the great-great-great-grandnephew of Genghis all staggered off and we stayed drinking Mongolian vodka (chased with yet more beer) with the owner of the restaurant.
The party wasn't over yet, though. Just around the corner was another great bar, our new friends assured us. A real Mongolian bar, not the Chinese kind. A Chinese bar usually has a DJ, some girls dancing on black boxes by a fog machine, and sticky dice cups ready for people to play endless rounds of drinking games. This bar had a live singer, people dancing, and no dice.
We danced into the morning, alongside fierce couples and until our throats were hoarse from shouting over the rocking Mongolian pop. Plenty of toasts were offered, to each other and to the ancestors, but the ritual of it was lost in the fun.
**Click here to see photos of Inner Mongolia**