The Dirty Dirty: Lanzhou
There is only one way to start a day in Lanzhou 兰州 and that is with a big bowl of la mien (pulled noodles), a breakfast that is infamous across China. Men take clumps of dough and hand pull the lump into flawless noodles that hit your tabletop piping hot just a couple minutes after passing the 5 kuai across the counter. This place served the best la mien I have ever tasted. Hords of train conductors and local police filed in to start the morning off right, the uniform filled restaurant confirming that my beat was correct. I ate here twice in one day, downing an early and mid morning bowl for good measure.
Lanzhou is famous for its la mien and its world class pollution, ranking as having China’s worst air quality. Lanzhou is located on the bend of the Yellow River, which historically gave the town many advantages as a trade center. Currently, the narrow river valley traps much of the city’s pollution between tightly knit mountains. Lanzhou has been converted into an industrial center, and one can certainly feel the grime sticking to pores, and the sensation of hair sprouting on the surface of teeth after just a day of strolling around the city. Faced with the air pollution problems, authorities discussed the only logical plan of action to reduce the toxicity problem. OPERATION: LETS BULLDOZE SOME MOUNTAINS TO ALLOW MORE FRESH AIR IN.
OPERATION: LETS BULLDOZE SOME MOUNTAINS TO ALLOW MORE FRESH AIR IN has not yet been carried out, but it would employ many workers and would so romantically follow the Mao endorsed ideas of man conquering nature. This idea was promoted by Mao with vigor, and is best embodied in one of his personal favorites, the beloved tale “The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountain”. This story was one of a few that was allowed to be taught in schools during the 1960′s. Below is an exert of Mao referencing the lore in a closing speech given in 1945.
“The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains”
It tells of an old man who lived in northern China long, long ago and was known as the Foolish Old Man of North Mountain. His house faced south and beyond his doorway stood the two great peaks, Taihang and Wangwu, obstructing the way. With great determination, he led his sons in digging up these mountains hoe in hand. Another graybeard, known as the Wise Old Man, saw them and said derisively, “How silly of you to do this! It is quite impossible for you few to dig up these two huge mountains.” The Foolish Old Man replied, “When I die, my sons will carry on; when they die, there will be my grandsons, and then their sons and grandsons, and so on to infinity. High as they are, the mountains cannot grow any higher and with every bit we dig, they will be that much lower. Why can’t we clear them away?” Having refuted the Wise Old Man’s wrong view, he went on digging every day, unshaken in his conviction. This moved God, and he sent down two angels, who carried the mountains away on their backs. Today, two big mountains lie like a dead weight on the Chinese people. One is imperialism and the other is feudalism. The Party has long made up its mind to dig them up. We must persevere and work unceasingly, and we, too, will touch God’s heart. Our God is none other than the masses of the Chinese people. If they stand up and dig together with us, why can’t these two mountains be cleared away?
“The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains” (June 11, 1945), Selected Works, Vol. III, p. 322.
Lanzhou has known many a mistress over the years, frequently being claimed and conquered by many tribal states, Tybetans (yes that’s misspelled intentionally for security reasons) , Mongols, and multiple Chinese dynasties. Lanzhou is positioned about half way across China from east to west, and has long been a critical hub for trade along the silk road.
The grime and dirt don’t just stick in peoples pores, it seems that the Lanzhou filth has filtered down into their hearts and brains as well. I rarely feel unsafe in China, but I found myself checking my six as I strolled about at night. The feeling of underbelly, scraping by, do anything for everything, was only enhanced by the proximity of our hotel to the train station. Train station areas always have the cutties hanging around. After looking for trouble for a few hours, I settled down for some eats, what else…..la mien. This time I had some mutton chwar (kebabs) to top it off.
Back at the ranch…some of my students received a phone call to their room. Having no Mandarin skills they figured the phone call was in relation to towels, toiletries, or other trivial matters. They tried their best to explain they didn’t understand before saying, “Ok, goodbye”. Within 10 minutes a Chinese woman appeared at their door and when they opened it, she let herself in. My two male students were preparing for bed, and one happened to be pants less with plans for sleep. The two boys figured she worked housekeeping for the hotel and were not alarmed by her presence or her confidence moving about the room. She sat down next to the pants less youngster, and slowly placed her hand on his bare upper thigh, startled he removed the exploratory hand. The two became alarmed, realizing that “Ok, goodbye”, had sent the message of confirmation for some sex sales, and that the woman sitting on the bed next to them had arrived to deliver full service room service.
The Hui are in full force in Lanzhou, and most parts of Gansu Province. Mosques grab the eyes, the minarets for the calls to prayer spiking up into the smog. We wandered down to one of Lanzhou’s numerous Mosques that land marked the city. Xiguan Mosque was full of friendly Hui, who welcomed us into the courtyard and looked on with curiosity as a small band of foreigners settled in under an ancient tree. Outside of Xiguan, we happened upon a vendor from XJ Province who was selling some quality dried fruits. XJ is known for its raisins, and I also scored some dates that had made it overland all the way from Iraq. The Iraqi dates were great, and my students went wild for the XJ granola bar cake, a heavy honeyed slab of all sorts of nuts and dried fruit.