Monday, July 28, 2008

Jul 27 - Lanzhou

Breakfast early. We check in at main floor of hotel at 7:30 am for trip to airport in Beijing. We get in a tour bus. Our luggage is in a small van going separately. We meet at the airport, and go through security. For a local flight in China the standard for liquids in carry-on is zero/nada/zip. No toothpaste. So the toothpaste and the skin creme and the mosquito lotion and the lipstick all goes in the checked baggage. We had to run our eyeglasses through the x-ray separately. We are all through security by 9:15 or so. Our flight leaves at 10:50.

Mike stopped at a small bookstore/variety store/essential airport needs place, and asked for a luggage lock. Lo and behold they had one, and it was only 22 RMB ($3.30). It is not TSA compliant, which means that in Chicago, when we come home, it will probably be destroyed by the TSA, but a TSA compliant lock in the States is at least $10.

We eventually took a transfer bus to the waiting plane, sitting out on the tarmac. The air is so chalky white that we thought of the IQ test you give to the 3 year old: "What color is the sky?" Any three year old knows that the sky is blue, except for Beijing toddlers. God knows what color they think the sky is, but it is most certainly NOT BLUE.

About 10 minutes into the flight the air started clearing up somewhat. The stewardesses on the China Eastern Airlines flight we were on were competent in both Mandarin and English, and all instructions were in both languages.

Between Beijing and Lanzhou, you fly over a whole lot of mountainous, dry land. The Yellow River runs through the land, and we crossed over it a number of times. We landed at Lanzhou Airport, which is apparently some 75 km from town, collected our luggage, and met our new guide, Charlene Li. Even though we had all eaten on the airplane, we went for lunch at a hotel near the airport.

The local beers served at lunch were MONS and Huang He (Yellow River). After a few glasses, we realized that if you turn the bottle around, MONS is really SNOW. You end up drinking a lot of beer because your safe beverage choices in China are beer, soft drinks, bottled water, all of which seem to cost the same. All end up on the buffet table in front of you.

Each of our meals up to this point, and presumably for the rest of the trip, are served buffet style. Lots of dishes are placed on the lazy susan in front of you, and everyone takes for his own plate. For some reason, the last dish usually seems to be soup.

It took close to an hour to drive into town. Charlene told us that we were at 1500 m of elevation, close to 5,000 ft above sea level. The town of Lanzhou (pop. 3,000,000) stretches for miles on both sides of the Yellow (muddy) River, hemmed in by hills. Our first stop was the White PagodaTemple, sitting on a hill on the south side of the river. We got out, climbed up to the pagoda, and looked around. It was original built during the Yuan Dynasty, 1206-1368, and now exists in mostly restored form. The walk up takes maybe 30 minutes. The point of the visit is climbing to a commanding view of the city, which is mostly on the north (other) side of the river at that point. The story is that Genghis Khan built the temple to honor a Buddhist monk. There is a Taoist shrine, and a workshop where small gourds are inscribed with elaborate designs (micro-carving calabashes). We saw several fine mosques from the mountain top.

Then we crossed the river on the Zhongshan Bridge, an early 20th century steel suspension bridge, now entirely used by pedestrians and bicycles. As we looked around at people's faces, we saw diverse ethnic features, and clothing that indicated minority populations (white turban for Huis, beards for Uighurs).

Lanzhou is at the beginning of the Hexi Corridor, a narrow band of land stretching many hundreds of kilometers, bordered on the south by the Tibetan Plateau and the QiLian Shan (Snow Mountains), and bordered on the north by the Gobi Desert, and other stretches of mountains. It was, and is, the only way out of China to the west, and had huge strategic importance. The next town we will visit, Jiayuguan, is at the west end of the corridor.

The last touristy thing we did was to view the famous statue of Mother Yellow River, a 20th century statue along the river.

We drove to the hotel in the town center, where we were to have dinner in 1 hour 15 minutes. We lit out walking, passing numerous vendors with piles of fresh walnuts in the shell. In two blocks we found our internet cafe, where we posted yesterday's posts. (Total price 2 RMB per hour)Then back quickly to the hotel, where we were 15 minutes late for dinner. We had previously requested a taste of niuroumian, the local beef noodle dish. So after all of the other dishes were served, the chef came out, demonstrated the pulling of fresh noodles, and everyone was served a small bowl of this local dish. It is a thin soup made from beef shank, with noodles of different thicknesses and lengths. You are given the opportunity to add red vinegar and chili oil, and also to add chili powder. With the right amount of seasoning, it is quite good.

After dinner, we got back onto the bus for the short ride to the train station. It had been a hot and sweaty day, and we were all quite tired and dirty, but had no opportunity to shower or change clothes. The train station was a mob scene, and Mike got separated twice from the rest of the group. Security at the train station requires that all luggage be scanned, and the lines behind were rather long.

We were taking the overnight train to Jiayuguan, leaving on train T927 at 10:20 pm and arriving at 7:23 am. We had 1st class sleepers (called soft sleepers in Chinese trains), four to a room.

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