Another week, another post and this one has lots of nice images since I’ve been off from work so have had time to scan loads of my old photos in. Today
Today the Lowlander and I can be found in Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province and home to over three and a half million people which is about the same as the whole of New Zealand but not enough to make it a major city in Chinese terms. It is also noticeable for lying on the Yellow River which is not that yellow, (more a mucky brown, although to be fair, yellower than the Red River which is a dark murky brown), and being home to Five Flavour Tea which is only marginally tastier than drinking the waters of the Yellow River itself.
Incidentally, some research on Google Earth has informed me that the area of stunning scenery which we passed through on the train to Lanzhou seems to be a just north-west of the city of Baiyin, the nearest place of any consequence being a town named Wuchuanxiang. It looks worth checking out and if any of you have done, please, let me know all about it!
Uncle Travelling Matt
Links to all parts of the travelogue
Book 1: Embarking Upon A New Korea
Book 2: Master Potter does Fine China
2j: Lanzhou and Jiayuguan
2m: Urumqi (I)
2n: Urumqi (II)
2o: Urumqi (III)
24th July, 2002 – Lanzhou, China
The sun's early morning rays revealed the landscape of the Gansu Province to be one of the most intriguing that I have ever seen. From my high bunk I watched as the train wound through arid hills and alongside small fields full of ripe watermelons. The Lowlander was already up and talking to a fellow passenger, a lady of his age named Lin Peng who hailed from Inner Mongolia but worked in Lanzhou selling Cashmere coats. They were as happy as two pigs in muck writing out his name in Chinese characters and talking about Mongolia, so I left them to it, and gazed out of the carriage window. The dryness here was as complete as in Ningxia, but the varying altitudes made this area far more fascinating to look at. What's more, many of the hillsides contained holes or small caves, presumably made by human hands though for what purpose I could not fathom out.
Like Ningxia, the area was also sparsely populated, or at least it was until we to the city of Lanzhou itself. She appeared through a gap between two hillsides, a shimmering mass of skyscrapers, straddling the Yellow River and hemmed in between the mountains. At first it seemed as if we would not be stopping there as the train thundered past on the opposite side of the valley, but then it changed direction, losing altitude and swinging over the great river (a surging mass of water that lived up to its name, looking exactly like the yellow soil bath that I'd sampled in Pusan), before following the other side of the valley down into the city's large railway station.
We booked in at the grand Lanzhou Binguan for the night. I'd known as soon as I'd read the description in the guidebook that this was the place for me; 'a large, fully renovated Sino-Stalinist edifice' where in the good old days all the big names had stayed. Why not play the political cadre for one night at least? After all, I still had my Mao badge on. What's more, it turned out to cost only a very proletarian Y100 per night. 'Long Live the Revolution!' say I.
After showering and settling into our new abode, it was of course time to explore the city and see the sights of which Lanzhou had a mind-boggling three in total; the Provincial Museum, and two cablecars up the mountains on either side of the city, where one may find parks, restaurants and pleasant views over the sprawling riverside metropolis. We decided to leave the cablecars for the evenings so that we could see the lights come out as well, which left only one place to visit, the highly recommended museum, situated at the opposite end of town. And to get there, we'd need a taxi.
Perhaps now is a good time to talk about the taxis of China which are interesting to say the least. For a start, I have to say that they're not bad. We had only two try and rip us off throughout the whole trip, which by any country's rating is not bad going. The first as soon as we'd got off the boat at Qingdao and the second was when we arrived at Beijing Railway Station, and taxi drivers in every country know that newcomers have no idea of prices, and if one is to try it on, those are the ideal places. All the others however were fine, all using a meter which not one of them pretended wasn't working, an annoying and frequent scam in so many countries.
No, our only gripe about them was again the bad geography. We'd encountered it first at the Post Offices on a global scale and now it came to haunt us at a more local level in taxis. Now in Britain, (and according to the Lowlander, in his homeland also), to become a taxi driver you have to pass a test, (called 'The Knowledge' I believe), showing that you actually know where places in your town and city actually are. In China however, in the unlikely event that such a test is mandatory, I assume that it is either not particularly hard, or that most taxi drivers have a severe amnesia problem. Time after time, we stepped into a taxi, gave the guy (or girl) a destination, and were met by a look of bewilderment. Was it our bad pronunciation? Not likely, we always pointed to the Chinese characters in the book. Was it that our destinations were obscure? No, we never once asked to be taken to the house of Wong Ling somewhere on Wuhuang Street just off Lingxia Avenue. No, we asked for places like the town's main park, the PSB (Chinese KGB-type place), the Provincial Museum or some famous pagoda, and every time these destinations foxed 'em. And having a map helped little either. Map-reading is, I assume, a bourgeoisie capitalist evil in China. What other explanation could there be for the fact that not one driver could pick out a railway line on one?
The situation in Lanzhou however, was compounded by the fact that unlike elsewhere in China, that fair city operated a system of two classes of taxi. Firstly, there were the green ones; Volkswagens or Citroens, normal taxis, where there was a small chance that your driver would know where your destination lies.
And then there were the yellow ones.
Lanzhou's yellow taxis were not cars but vans. You know the type, the tiny ones that the Japanese and Koreans build. Except that these ones were homemade and what's more looked like they'd been bought by the City of Lanzhou second-hand off the Taxi Corporation of Beirut. They were dented, scratched, indicatorless and wholly unroadworthy. On the plus side however, their fares started at five yuan, as opposed to seven in the green cabs. On the minus though, you could guarantee that these guys wouldn't even have a clue as to how to find the houses of their own mothers.
It was a yellow cab that we hailed to take us to the museum. We were dropped off at a pagoda, and after much frantic waving and pointing at the name of the museum in Chinese, our driver decided to consult his friend in the neighbouring vehicle, and after a short argument, realisation dawned, and we sped off through the city and pulled up besides that depositary of heritage.
But now it was our turn to look stupid. Like its contemporary in Yinchuan, the Gansu Provincial Museum was well and truly shut and boarded up. Driver grinned, we sighed, and back to the hotel we all went.
Still, it had not been a complete waste of money. What with our hotel being at one end of the city, and the museum at the other, en route we had got to view most of the sights of Lanzhou, and it proved to be an interesting place. Geography had conspired to make it long and thin, the city centre being over seven kilometres in length, yet less than two wide. Like Yinchuan, Qingdao and Beijing, there was money here, glass skyscrapers reached for the heavens and all around were the cranes of construction. That said however, one did get the feeling that its level of economic prosperity was not quite that of its northern neighbour. Pockets of grime still existed, and the roads were abysmal, although to be fair, that was largely due to the fact that most of the major thoroughfares were in the process of being pulled up to make way for a new two-tier urban highway system, which would also include a sparkling suspension bridge over the Yellow River. No, Lanzhou might not be a showcase city yet, but in five years time it should match any in China.
On the way back we stopped at a large pagoda gate flanked by stone lions. We were a little surprised to see Muslim men sat on the steps, but the reason soon became clear. Upon stepping through the gateway, instead of finding a temple dedicated to the Buddha, we were confronted with a large pool hall. Perhaps the original structure had become a victim to the ravage of the Cultural Revolution, or perhaps the gate had always been purely ornamental.
Upon our return to the hotel, we booked our tickets for the activities that would occupy us over the next few days at the en-site travel agents, before heading off again, this time to the cablecar with an email stop en route. We knew better than to ask the yellow taxi driver to take us to the internet cafe mentioned in the guidebook, so instead we plumped for the nearest big thing, the Communist Party Headquarters. After being driven half-way across town to the biggest department store and then directing the driver the Party HQ ourselves, we got to the cybercentre only to find it all in darkness. The fuse had blown and local adolescents and students milled around not really knowing what to do until eventually someone did something right, and the lights flashed on and they could return to their shoot-em-up games and ICQ.
Internet cafes in countries like China are quite unlike those in the West. For us the internet cafe is chiefly a place to email when away from our own PC, or perhaps to check the news at the same time. In the Second and Third Worlds however, where most people simply do not have the financial resources to buy their own computer, internet cafes take on a whole new importance. They are a place to play games, type dissertations, chat online and off, meet friends, and drink soft drinks. In fact, if anything they are more akin to youth clubs for students and other miscellaneous adolescents who often have a penchant for arcade games. And because most games take a very long time to play, then these places are usually ridiculously cheap. One hour later and one yuan down, we had surfed to satisfaction ourselves, and were out in the sunlight once again.
The cablecar turned out to be a pleasant trip indeed. It took us over the river and then up the hillside, giving fine views over the city. In fact, it would have been very romantic indeed, if I'd been sharing it with a tall slender lady with a passion for French kissing, but alas my companion, whilst tall and slender, was no lady and had a passion for belching and farting instead. Well, as Mick Jagger once said, 'You Can't Always Get What You Want' and wise words they were too, Mick, and so instead I joined the Lowlander for a game of burp tennis.
And at the top we walked through the park to the restaurant, sat on a table overlooking the city, and whilst the sun dimmed and the neon lights grew brighter, we dined on fine food and played backgammon. And of course, the worthy two-nil winner was I, and thus the night was perfect, and even the inability of the taxi driver to find our hotel didn't bother me.