Lanzhou - and moving on to Xining
- Categorized in: April 2011
Lanzhou has quite a bad reputation. Any time someone mentions Lanzhou, they’ll usually tell you it’s one of China’s most polluted cities in the same breath.
I suppose expectation can colour a man’s first impressions, so as I sped down the last 20 or 30km into the heart of this extremely long city (its 40km end to end) I didn’t expect to be marvelling at its wonderful sights.
True to form, as the descent continued, the air thickened and the traffic grew more and more rowdy, until, gasping for the small amount of oxygen that remains in the air, I arrived a little tired, dusty, dirty but still exhilarated on the street of the North-West Minorities University, to be met by “Dr. Tom” – who was to be my host for the two nights I stayed in Lanzhou.
Lanzhou is the provincial capital of the province of Gansu. Geographically it is defined by the mighty Yellow River that flows along the entire length of the city from east to west (which in my view could pass as the Thames), and mountains to the north and the south, which at the city’s centre, is only a few kilometres across. On a clear day – or as clear as Lanzhou gets – one can stand on the north hills that rise up from the river and look back across the cityscape to the temples and pagodas that adorn the southern parkland hills.
Looking south across the Yellow River
The city itself has been a natural centre of communications and defence in the Chinese West for over 2,000 years. It’s changed hands over the years especially in the early 20th century before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, as it fell in and out of the hands of various Christian and Muslim warlords, before finally being gained by the People’s Liberation Army under the Communists in 1949 after some weeks of bitter fighting.
The old ironwork bridge that spans the Yellow River – the Zhongshan Bridge – was for a long time the only crossing over the river for hundreds of kilometres in either direction right up until the Second World War. I’m told that the Japanese repeatedly tried to destroy the bridge with bomb attacks during the war to sever the Chinese forces’ badly strained communications…but they never hit it. A rare piece of good fortune for the Chinese during that time.
Bridge over the Yellow River - Zhong Shan Bridge
Going further back in time, Lanzhou was a caravan stop along the Silk Road and a transit point for the wool, silk and tea trades linking Mongolia, Sichuan and Tibet. And it lies in a strategic position at the entrance to the Hexi Corridor, the long strip of land “out of China” towards the North-West, between the Gobi desert to the north and the mountains of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau to the south.
Since the 1950s, Lanzhou was earmarked for development as an industrial centre, in particular as the centre of China’s atomic energy industry. Since the 1960s it has also been established as a centre of petro-chemical, non-ferrous metal, leather and plastics industries (to name a few). The population has increased to over 3.2 million and with all this pollution has worsened considerably. The story is told that, inspired by a moment of genius to improve the air quality of the city, the authorities figured it was a good idea to blow the top off one of the bigger surrounding peaks. It was thought this would have the effect of “opening the window” so to speak, and allowing a stronger air flow to flush out some of the worst pollution. Yet, in the end, even this was a step too far in conservational scarring of the local landscape for the pwers that be.
Although most of the population of Lanzhou are Han Chinese, there is an even greater presence of Hui (Muslim) Chinese here than in Xi’an, and also at least some Uighurs and Tibetans as well. Lanzhou is not a tourist destination – whether domestic or international – and so overall, it seems to have a very different feel to it when set against the historical amusement parkland of Xi’an (and its 13 dynasties).
After making it to Lanzhou on schedule – which meant covering the 750km in 8 days - a rest day was in order. Dr. Tom was a contact of friends I have in Xi’an and he very kindly put up with me – a total stranger – staying in his airy 11th floor apartment close by the “Min Da” as the North-West Minorities University is known for two nights. Dr. Tom both practices and teaches medicine at one of the local hospitals and Min Da respectively, and he began to give me some insight into Lanzhou as a city.
As well as Dr. Tom I had been put in contact with a lady called Christina who is working as an English teacher at the “Gong Da” – the local engineering polytechnic. She took me to dinner on my first evening – a great delight to eat a huge Italian Calzone and talk about Kirkegaard (not that I’ve read him) after eating nothing but niu-rou la mian (spicy beef noodles) for the last 3 meals. Christina assured me that Lanzhou was definitely preferable to Xi’an, and after hearing about the friendships she’s made here and the work she’s doing – aside from teaching – helping special needs kids and orphans, I began to believe her. I was pretty impressed!
Christina persuaded me to come along the following morning to her English class to appear as a kind of live “show-and-tell” for her students. This proved – for me at least – great fun. Not that I like the sound of my own voice or anything (!) but it’s nice to be able to tell young Chinese people that I like their city, their country and their people. After I gave a little talk about what I am doing, their assignment was to write an “article” about me. I would be fascinated to know what could be written about me in Chinglish.
Whatever they say, I can guarantee at least some of them will have squeezed in the word “harmonious” into their writing. I had great admiration for Christina who – amongst other things – has made it her personal quest to extinguish Chinese people’s use of the word “harmonious” from their English vocabulary. A worthy mission as anyone who has had to do any Chinese/English translation work will attest. If only people really could live together in as “harmonious” a way as Chinese students believe they can and ought to, then this would truly be a sweet-sounding life.
I spent the afternoon seeing a few of Lanzhou’s sights – very lazily taking a taxi to the top of the northern peaks of the BaiTaShan – or White Pagoda Mountain. The famous ZhongShan Bridge was closed for repairs so the only way across the river was by speedboat – an instant racket for a few score boat drivers who could squeeze as much as 20RMB out of you to get to the other side.
The dinghy crossing to the north side
The guidebooks then assured me that the Gansu Provincial Museum was well worth a viewing. After a frustrating hour or so taking buses and walking through traffic to finally reach this place, the laconic looking security guard took evident pleasure telling me it was closed on Wednesdays, so I gave up my sight-seeing efforts and returned for a rest at Dr. Tom’s.
Later that evening, Dr. Tom took me out to the night markets a few blocks from his apartment. Unlike the night-markets of places like Guilin and Fenghuang, in Lanzhou these markets are not tourist traps. Instead they are entirely practical (and tax-free!) emporia for locals to come and meet all their shopping needs – from fake Calvin Klein underpants to dish-scrubbers to a fresh goat’s head (presumably to take home and share with the family).
We wandered about the busy streets with Tom pointing out the different ethnicities to me – a Hui here, a Tibetan there, a Uighur this way, a Kazakh that way. As we wandered we grazed on the endless array of snacks on offer and talked, or he stopped and chatted with the stall-keepers as I tried to keep up listening to their Putonghua patter.
On our way back out of the markets, I spotted a group and thought I’d venture a guess that these people were Uighurs. One of them turned to look at us, and immediately recognised Dr. Tom. This turned out to be a fellow professor at Min Da – who was indeed a Uighur, named Alim Yusef and hails from Kashgar, in the far west of the province of Xinjiang. His friend turned out to be Iraqi (considerably different looking again) and was the new Arabic professor at Min Da. So as Dr. Tom made professional contacts with his Iraqi colleague, I found out a bit about what lies in store in Kashgar, swapped phones numbers and was assured by Alim of a friendly welcome there from his friend Emetjan once I arrive – as well as swearing eternal friendship to one another of course.
So it seemed Providence once more smiled on me. Already this second part of my journey has involved many more personal contacts flowing from place to place as I move along the road. It certainly adds a lot of colour to the experience.
The following day I left Lanzhou for the West. The next waypoint was to be Xining – the provincial capital of Qinghai province, some 220km away. I left a little surprised at the positive impression I had had of Lanzhou. It just goes to show, a little hospitality goes a long way.
The day and a half’s ride from Lanzhou to Xining follows the Yellow River almost the entire way. This river lies at the heart of China’s historical journey. While not exactly yellow, it is at least the colour of exceptionally milky tea. I could not say that this segment to Xining was the most spectacular of the routes I have taken, but I did find myself enjoying the ride, and feeling pretty healthy as the numbers on my distance metre ticked by.
The provincial boundary between Gansu and Qinghai
Once more the agriculture of the region is the defining feature of the land. The mist of my ignorance about all this agriculture cleared a fraction when I stopped for a rest after about 90km done and was approached by three farm labourers. While I sat on the ground, they squatted down on their hams. After some garbling of the usual questions about where I was from, where I was going etc. I started to almost decipher their accent. (I tried to imagine a Chinese traveller getting to grips with the local Norfolk accent back home in England, and couldn’t decide which of us deserved more sympathy.)
Three farm workers on the road to Xining
They told me about the irrigation system which I had often wondered about – since it rarely rained there. Apparently up in the mountains, the government has created huge reservoirs of water. At certain set times, the water is released and channelled off in various directions according to local need, or more usually, when the local authorities said it was your turn to get some water. It is at these set times that the farmers can open the mini-sluice gates that lead to their field(s), and they then usually make the most of the opportunity to flood their field beyond saturation point. This explains why, as I cycled along, some fields were absolutely sodden mires of sludge, while most other fields were bone dry.
In this region, the main staple crops are wheat, some barley (especially in the Tibetan areas), potatoes and oilseed. I’ve also passed a lot of vegetables fields and patches, as well as greenhouse constructions. These kinds of crops are more profitable but are a lot more intensive to grow – crops like Chinese cabbage (ganlan), tomatoes, aubergines, broccoli and others.
At this time of year, you see a lot of fields covered with strips of plastic covering the little plantlets that are just appearing from the soil. The idea is to lock in the little moisture and condensation that forms in the soil at a vital stage of growth. Putting this plastic in place is all done by hand and looks painstaking work – only to be repeated within a few days of growth as the workers go around making neat little holes in the plastic to allow the plant to continue to grow. I’m repeatedly humbled, as I toil my way across the Chinese landscape, when I see the work going on and am reminded who has the tougher job.
Ganlan shoots coming up through protective plastic
That evening, I pressed on towards the falling sunlight. I had decided that this was a good occasion to make use of my tent and camp for the first time, if for no other reason than to test out all my kit. I stopped at a little shop to provision myself with some basic food - there's not much on offer in the average roadside shop other than "fast noodles" and the most bizarre tasting "sausages" I've ever eaten.
As I continued on, the sun was dropping and there seemed to be fewer obvious places to stop. Eventually I sent up a quick prayer "Lord, please show me a good place to stop!" A little way further I passed a track leading up and back on the left. A small voice said "that's the one." I carried on, thinking "yeah sure, I'm just imagining things." 50m on and the voice was insistent, "I'm telling you that's it." I tried to persuade myself that even if it was "it", there's bound to be another more obvious one along soon. But the voice persisted. "OK! I give in. I must be mad but I'm turning round out of faith." So 150m down the road by now, I turned round the bike, and was sure I heard an exasperated but amused "Thank you!" I then waited for the traffic to pass so no one would see me, and cycled quickly up this sandy track. 50m and just round the corner, the track led to a little sand quarry with perfectly soft ground for the tent, completely invisible from the road, quiet and secluded and sheltered from any wind. I couldn't have wished for better! Whatever you make of this little episode, I am just entirely grateful for being led there and, if nothing else it has strengthened my faith. Why I don't listen and obey this quiet voice more easily and more often is a mystery to me!
My first camp breakfast - very tasty!
This overnight camp gave me a bit of confidence about the journey ahead since I did manage to make my stove work (for a change!). Of course, bad workmen blame their tools, but this little stove does seem particularly temperamental. At least I know now that it will finally respond to various forms of begging, crying, pleading, cursing and praying. Eventually…. I’m sure this love/hate relationship will continue to blossom over the coming weeks.
Well, after a dusty and quite cool night, I packed up early and completed the final 70km into Xining in a morning's ride.
The air is definitely a lot colder up here. Though I hardly noticed it, I have now climbed to around 2,400m above sea level. At this height, the mercury climbs and falls over a terrific range in any one day. But the benefit is that the air up here is noticeably clearer and cleaner. Xining is on the north-eastern edge of the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. From here, the journey north to rejoin the better-trod path of the Silk Road that lies in the Hexi Corridor is over mountains that climb up to over 4,000m above sea level. So the contrast between freezing mountains and blistering hot deserts in the next week or two is going to be an interesting one I’ll have to deal with. I’m just glad to have packed my double-thickness thermals – and of course my Khunu sweater which makes a great pyjama top through the colder nights!
I am being well looked after by a handful of wonderful and welcoming people here in Xining. But I’ll tell you more about them another time.
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