Me-go: Around-the-World

Stopover in Lanzhou


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Lanzhou is one of those towns that everyone ends up passing through on their to and from the West of China. During Phase 1 I arrived in Lanzhou one morning on a night train from Xi’an. I walked out of the station and into a cab to the bus station on my way to Xiahe, a small Tibetan town six hours away by bus. On the way back from Xiahe I immediately caught a train South to Chengdu, never spending any time in Lanzhou.

This time I had no choice, I arrived on an eight hour day train from Yinchuan and the night train’s to Jiayuguan were sold out. I decided that waiting one night in Lanzhou was better than taking another night bus so I set out to find a hotel. The first hotel I tried had no rooms, so I went to another near the train station. Most hotels in the region have a sign board listing the prices for each room type, sometimes with (misleading) photos. The sign posted said 46 yuan for a single room, which is what I asked for. They looked at me and said something ridiculous, like 190 yuan. I pointed to the sign again and the woman in charge at the desk shoot her hand and said 190. Completely covered in sweat, probably bright red, I turned and stepped into the lobby, set down my bag and took out my map of Lanzhou and compass.

I knew they had rooms but they just didn’t want to give one to me. A woman paid 30 yuan for a room while I was standing there, well below the inflated price I was willing to pay. After a few minutes another woman approached me and motioned for me to come back. I got my 46 yuan single room and was soon unpacking onto my cement floor and looking for the shared bathrooms. Sometimes in China you just have to wait a few minutes for them to come around.

Train from Yinchuan to Lanzhou My room, 46 yuan Proactiv commercial in Chinese

It was still mid-afternoon and I decided to walk around and try to see what this city looked like. It’s quite strange, as it’s squeezed into a canyon on both sides with the Yellow River running through it. Walking toward what was marked as a square on my map I kept my eye out for internet shops and good places to eat. Just a few blocks from my hotel I found a movie theater showing Superman Returns but the girl at the desk told me it was dubbed in Chinese. Although I would rather see it in the theater I ended up buying a copy in a shop near the theater. It turned out to be videotaped from a theater and scratched, so key scenes from the movie were left out. The square turned out to be a large are with nice plants and manicured grass and the required KFC. I don’t understand why KFC is so popular in China, it seems to outnumber McDonalds 4-1.

As I was walking down one of the large boulevards among the tall office buildings I noticed a girl, about 18-years old, walking very slowly in front of me. I took notice, slowed my pace and watched her out of the corner of my eye. As I passed her she matched my pace so I slowed down. She slowed down. I stopped next to a sign next to a mirrored building and watched the reflection. She continued on and moved off the sidewalk and into the bike path—good, she was giving up, I thought. When I started walking again she wandered back and was soon slightly in front of me again so I slowed down. She had been watching in the mirrored buildings and as soon as I was out of her sight she quickly turned around and looked at me. I made eye contact and raised my eyebrows. She pretended not to notice and walked toward the other side of the sidewalk. When she got behind me again I quickened my pace to a very quick walk. This went on for blocks and finally, after waiting quite a while next to a building with my arms crossed she continued across a busy intersection, expecting me to follow. I reached the crossroads, let her go ahead and did not cross. She stood across the road watching me while people walked around her and finally crossed again so that she was diagonally across from me on the intersection. Only then did I take a quick left down a smaller street, finally losing her. I am used to being looked at in China, even watched. But this was something different, she was planning to pickpocket me and wouldn’t give up. I kept my eye out for that yellow shirt for the rest of the day, convinced that she would find me again.

Superman Returns poster City square Matching dogs

I had to check out in the next morning so I had almost the entire day to kill before my train left for Jiayuguan at 6:30. I headed toward the river to get a better glimpse of the city layout. On the way I passed an electronics mall with a large Cannon sign out front so I went inside. My Canon S60 has had a streak across some part of the sensor or lens since I got it back from being repaired in May. It didn’t take long for the sales girl to see the problem but both she and the the sales boy who spoke a little English next door were convinced it was the LCD. Since I have downloaded the photos to a program and looked at them in Photoshop I know the problem is internal. Lanzhou is probably the most developed city I will travel through in China and my best hope to get it fixed. After taking out my phrasebook to find the word for repair I heard “Beijing” in the reply and deduced that no one could help me in Lanzhou.

When I got to the Yellow River I saw a great park lining the bank filled with walkways, rose gardens and small cafes. I also came upon a sports park with ping pong tables, basketball courts and exercise machines. Asian cities have a few of these metal exercise contraptions in most parks, usually being used by older people. They are not weight bearing, but seem to work on flexibility and motion. This park didn’t have the usually 3-5 machines, they had about 50! Even better, I saw a metal sign posted with illustrated instructions on how to do all of the instructions.

Man on the public exercise machines Instructions for the exercise machines

I decided to visit the shopping district and see what the locals were buying. There were a lot of teenage clothing shops and snack stalls. After seeing most of the city and all of the main intersections in the shopping district I decided there was no McDonalds. That was actually one of the reasons I gave myself to be happy about stopping in Lanzhou, there would be one last McDonalds stop before the Wild West of no fast food. You see, it’s not that I don’t like Chinese food, but once I head West and enter Central Asia I know that I won’t be getting as much Western food. I was trying to stock up. So, KFC for dinner it was. The air conditioning was a blessing and my shirt started to dry while I ate my chicken legs. As I finished another Westerner sat in front of me, I was shocked! Another Westerner in Lanzhou, I hadn’t seen one in a few days. It turned out to be two guys from Canada and we sat down together to tell travel stories. They had just arrived on the train from Tibet (somehow the got out of paying the foreigner surcharge so it was only 800 Y) and were incredibly excited for some KFC after a month of mutton.

While we sat talking three young girls were obviously listening and giggling in the seats next to us. One got up the nerve to say hello and eventually attached herself to one of the Canadians, teaching him Chinese phrases. After 10 minutes the entire second floor of KFC was pointedly staring at us and we really felt the need to leave. That’s when the pictures started. The girls mothers came by and each posed with us in a group and individually, sometimes just smiling, other times holding the peace sign in front of their faces. If anyone hadn’t been looking before they were now so we got out of there as quickly as we could. The girls walked out with us and the little instigator gave one of the Canadians a sticker photo of her and the other two girls. We parted ways and I headed for my train, full and left with a good feeling from the city where no one wants to stay.