August 6, 2015 – Lanzhou, Gansu Province
In my two years in China I’d never heard anything good about Lanzhou. But after about 25 hours on a train, the last six of which were spent surrounded by a murder of children begging me to teach them English tongue twisters in between singing unique renditions of Happy Birthday, I thought I was ready for anything.
I was not ready to be sold a timeshare.
Matt, Dave, and I had about six hours to kill in Waystation Lanzhou before it was time to get back in the bunks, and we had only one goal: Eat Lanzhou beef noodles. Aside from the yellow Yellow River, Lanzhou Beef Noodles are Lanzhou’s claim to fame.
Well, that and find Dave some allergy pills for the cold that he refused to admit he had.
(“It’s not a cold, man! My nose is just stuffed up and I have a sore throat. I know what a cold feels like.”)
We found both, first the noodles in a joint that insisted we take pictures in front of their sign – I can only guess that we’re now prominently displayed next to the counter – and the second, after sorting through the chaff of pharmacies trying to sell us traditional Chinese remedies for “allergies”.
And then we found a Starbucks. While we waited for Dave to return from the dark-wooded, dark-roasted interior, five or six white-shirted young people surrounded me and Matt. I knew something was wrong. When Matt accepted a cigarette from one of the young men, I knew we were doomed.
“Hey, man. Can you do us a big favor? … It’d be a real big help … Just five minutes … You don’t need to do anything. Just come with us,” they crooned.
I said no. I thought about the cigarette. I said yes. I told my friends we were going upstairs. They looked confused, then worried.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s doing them a big favor, a real help. It’ll just be five minutes. We don’t need to do anything. We’ll just go with them.”
They glanced at each other.
“They’ll tell us how to get to the Yellow River,” I said.
They shrugged and gave me a pair of looks that said: “This better not take long.”
Our crowd of chaperons herded us into a big, salesy room with tables scattered here and there. The middle was dominated by a giant model of what I can guess was somewhere in downtown Lanzhou. I sat at an adjacent table, accepted a cup of hot water, and waited for the pitch. It wasn’t long in coming. Something about beautiful apartments, lovely views, good locations, and bargain prices. I listened for three or four minutes, then broke the news: “Sorry, I live in Beijing.”
The salesman looked crestfallen.
“Well, what about Xian? It’s a nice place.”
But he knew the gig was up. I gave my chaperon crowd a knowing smile and asked them where the Yellow River was and we left. They smiled and thanked us. Then told us the wrong directions.
By the time we found it, we’d been lost in Lanzhou’s back alleys and bumbled around a lovely, muck-filled lake park and the sun started to dip behind the dirty hills that surround the city, reflecting orange light of the barge-plied, slit-filled waters. We stood on the apex of the one of the bridge’s spanning the waters that gave birth to Chinese civilization some five millennia ago, watched the sun go down, and agreed that Lanzhou wasn’t so bad after all.
Then it was back to the train station. On the walk, we ran into a distraught Korean woman who told us the hotel she had booked seemed to no longer exist and she didn’t know what to do. We helped her lug her five bags up to the next intersection and check into a different hotel. We asked where she was going:
From Korea, through China, across Central Asia and ending in Iran some three months later.
With all those bags. And we thought we were in for a long trip.