Lolling about in Lanzhou

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.


In China, everyone stands in line

August 6, 2015

I’d forgotten the way that the slow growl of the diesel engine and the light tottering side to side begs me to sleep. Or the way the thrown open curtains, brushes against my just-too-long-for-the-bunk legs, and never-ceasing chatter keep me from it. But that’s travel by the slow train in China.

It’s been a while. A busy couple of months. My personal life got a little weird; school came to an end; my parents, sister, and brother-in-law came to Beijing, accompanied me to Xi’an, then left again. My friends Matt and Dave came to Beijing, too. I might come back to it all later, but for now, it’s on the road.

There’s five thousand kilometers of rail and road ahead of us; one thousand behind us. Beijing, China to Osh, Kyrgyzstan. Go west, young men, someone decided, so that’s where we’re going.

Anyway, we were on the train.

Matt watches the dusty country go by.

Matt watches the dusty country go by.

The first leg was Beijing to Lanzhou. Twenty-eight hours by slow train, and man was it slow. Brisk-jog slow. But beyond the windows was China.

Just outside of Beijing, the mountains reared up from the plain, craggy and cliffy in whites and reds. Shrubs speckled the softer sides and added color in smudged greens to the muddy rivers that slinked through the valleys below. Hamlets of grape and corn farmers clung to the hills where the train plodded in and out of tunnels in alternating light and dark.

Further along came the coal towns. There, herds of ravenous sheep rambled across rolling hills shredding the greenery. The houses were broken clay. Circular mound graves broke up the plants. As the sun set, DaTong rolled by and a nuclear plant loomed in vaguely disconcerting contrast to the crumbling hovels in its shadow.

DaTong powerplants.

DaTong powerplants.

Then nighttime. The shades came down. The old men pulled out their liquor. Matt, Dave, and I spent the evening in the dining car, spilling grease on our clothes. The beer cans stacked up. Eventually, one of the staff came over and made a sleeping motion with his hands. We packed up, and he seemed proud to have gotten his meaning across to the lone table of foreigners. When he returned to the staff table he told them of his triumph. They chuckled and took turns making the sleep-time signal with their hands.

Back in the sleeping car the dozen inlets of half a dozen bunks – low, middle, and high, in pairs – buzzed with people coming and going from washing faces and changing clothes. Some young men played cards. Some families chatted. They were impressed with our China Famous Brand Red Star 二锅头。It made us a fast friend, sitting a few inlets down on the tiny seats that fold out into the aisle next to the window.

Train bunks are not for big people.

Train bunks are not for big people.

He wore a gray wifebeater, rolled up over his substantial, drooping belly.

“Come drink!” he shouted down corridor, the sound waves bouncing from bed to bed and into the ears of sleeping children and finally to the table where we were playing cards.

My drinking buddy.

My drinking buddy.

We went.

“Sit!” he yelled, only a little less loudly, as we arrived. He lifted the cut-off bottom part of a coke bottle, which is serving as his liquor glass. We lifted our bottle. Then moved to the in-between-cars section where smoking is tolerated.

We talked of LanZhou, his hometown and our first and brief stop. Our new friend’s skinny friend joined us. We talked of LanZhou beef noodles and of their deliciousness and cheapness and of standing in line – children and old men and bosses and soldiers alike – to get them. I said that in China, everyone stands in line. The skinny friend clapped me on the shoulder.

“In China, everyone stands in line,” he repeated then barked a toothy cackle. “You’re an Old China Hand.”

Talk turned to Chinese cigarettes and local legends and Obama and Xi Jinping and Mao ZeDong. I tried to translate for Dave but most of it I couldn’t understand.

At 11, the lights went out.

“You’re an Old China Hand” the skinny friend said again and slapped my shoulder.

“When we get to LanZhou, I’ll treat you to whiskey,” the big man said, then paused and cracked another grin. “In China, everyone stands in line.”