Day 1

Psh, 18 hours isn’t so bad. Piotr and I finished our train ride today and are now in Lanzhou, in Gansu province. It was fairly uncomfortable, and made me really want to be sure to get a sleeper for the 24 hour trip from here to Urumqi.

Alas, they were sold out of sleepers, and the best we could get is a hard seat on a train that leaves three days from now. So for the time being I guess we’ll have to hang out here. Lanzhou holds the dubious distinction of being the most polluted city in the world… Ugh.

They certainly don’t make it easy to leave, either. Generally whenever we’ve arrived at a station in some city, we’ve always been able to go to the ticket office in that station and buy tickets to our next destination. Unfortunately, the ticket office here only sells tickets for same-day and next-day travel, both of which were sold out in our case. Finding out where to buy tickets for later travel proved difficult and we ended up having to ask for directions several times and take a bus to another place in the city. We finally found it and got our tickets but it wasn’t too fun.

After that we had to find a hotel, since we’ll be staying here three nights before we can finally leave. The first one we went to, which looked pretty good, didn’t allow foreigners to stay there. The next three after that were all sold out. We finally found one for a decent price, but it’s definitely the weirdest place we’ve been yet. It feels kind of sketchy and both Piotr and I are kind of creeped out by it, but we don’t really have any other options.

We walked into the building because from the outside it looks very much like an ordinary hotel. We haggled at the desk for a while and couldn’t get the price below 84Y / night, which is reasonable enough, at least compared to prices in Beijing. They also said we could look around a bit before we decided. We were a little wary because from the lobby the place looked like a 45 star hotel, and 84Y/night seemed like too little. Especially considering that that included meals. So they took us to this little side room where we took off our shoes and they gave us little slippers to wear. Having to wear slippers to go upstairs and see the rooms was also a little weird, again giving the impression that this place was super nice.

Anyway, they showed us the room and it looked comfortable. Somewhat small, but two comfortable beds, a TV, and AC. We didn’t really have any other options because other hotels were sold out (besides, this one was cheaper), so we said we’d stay. We repeated many times: Sleeping here, eating, showering, 24 hours, 2 people – 84Y?? And they’d verify each time. In the end we didn’t even have to pay, because you pay at checkout.

So we’ll see when we leave if we were robbed in the intervening 24 hours, and if the final cost is 84Y or not. Right now it kind of feels as if the place is too good to be true. Consider:

So, I still don’t know what to make of this place. It could be a scam somehow, and that would be bad, but it could also be a sweet little place that’s good to know about if I ever come back to Lanzhou. They have expensive drinks available, and massages and stuff, so I’m thinking that maybe they try to lure in guests with reasonable prices for the room, and then make their profit on the other services. Also, we’re far enough west now, that maybe even my adjustment to the Eastern coasts prices, is still off. 84Y/night is definitely pretty cheap for Beijing/Shanghai (the two general areas I’d been before now), but maybe not this far west where it’s generally poorer.

Also, I read something about Spas at one point in the past, and I think that this may be the kind of establishment we’re staying at. I dunno, but that could explain the weird pay-when-you-leave system. We weren’t supposed to leave the place at first for longer than 2 hours, but we finally were able to give them a safety deposit in order to get out for a fair amount of time. Not that Lanzhou has much to see, so I think I may spend a fair amount of time over these next few days chilling in our room. I finished Congo on the train up here, but Piotr’s Lonely Planet travel guide lists a foreign language bookstore somewhere, so maybe I can buy a new book.

So I think that’s all for now. The train ride here was beautiful, and so I have pictures of course that I’ll want to show everyone, but I don’t have the means for now. I think Piotr and I are off to see the Yellow River now. I probably won’t do much for the next several days so don’t expect a new post for a while. Hopefully if I have time, though, I’ll be able to update on the status of our hotel/spa/cult place. I suppose I could put its info on here in case we go missing, but the place is too nice for something like that to happen, I think. But maybe it would be good to store it here so that if I ever return to Lanzhou (or any of you come), you can know to come to it (or avoid it, as the case may be). I have their business card but can’t read most of it. It has a giant red number on it, which I suspect is the phone number: 8629699, though I don’t know the Lanzhou area code. Also, it’s address appears to be building 32 on Tianshui Lu.

If anyone has any info on what this kind of place is based on my description, please post a comment about it. Maybe it’s a Spa?

Day 2

Good news: the hotel/spa/cult thing seems pretty legit. Today we went down to make sure that it really was the 84Y that they promised, and it turns out that it was. As such, we’ve decided to extend our stay there for the rest of our time in Lanzhou. I really recommend this place to anyone finding themselves here for a night or more.

So, after squaring away our debt with the guys at the Hotel/Spa/Cult (or more accurately, leaving a 300Y deposit and a promise that we would square away our debt when we leave in two days) we decided to do everything on our day’s to-do list. Looking down there was only one thing, and that thing was to climb a mountain.

Piotr told one of the pretty Chinese girls working the door of our h/s/c “我们想上山” (Women xiang shang shan [We want to go up a mountain]). Flustered, the pretty Chinese girl said she didn’t understand. She and Piotr looked at me, but I didn’t really know what to say, so I said more or less the same thing. “Oh! You want to climb a mountain!” she exclaimed. She then led us to a taxi and told the driver to take us to a certain mountain.

Lanzhou itself is 5000 feet up, and the mountain/hill (the words seem more or less interchangeable in Chinese, so I don’t know what it is), was another 2000 feet. It was a pretty good work out, despite the fact that there were stairs all the way up.

About 34 of the way up the mountain we came to a road. Here we could buy water and stuff, and sit under a tarp if we bought the water, and then continue on. We had two options: Go along a road up to the top, or go up more stairs. Piotr preferred the former, while I preferred the latter. I won out, and up the stairs we went.

Shortly thereafter we ran across two boys. They would run up ahead and then pause and let us catch up, and then do that again. After some time, we said “Hello,” to them, to which they replied, “Hello.” “How old are you?” I asked. “I am 12 years old.” One of them responded. The television channels here, CCTV# (I don’t know how many numbers there are), all seem to have periodic learning English programs, and all the learning English programs seem to teach people to ask and answer the question of how old they are. So it seemed a pretty good bet that they would know that question. I also asked them their names in English, and they were able to respond. The rest of our conversation was in Chinese, but they made sure to speak very slowly and clearly. They were best, best friends (not brothers), and lived here in Lanzhou.

They then became our little guides and took us up the rest of the way. We saw a couple cool things before we reached the very highest point, which was a neat little pagoda. The first cool thing was this giant bell that you could ring for 1Y. Piotr and I both did, and it was pretty invigorating swinging back a giant log and thrusting it forward at the huge, maybe 8 foot tall, bell and hearing the reverberating “DOOOOOONNNNGGGG.” The other cool thing were these little cars that went whizzing by us periodically. There was a track down part of the hill, and down it came these people in street-luge type cars. We hoped that at the top we would be able to pay some amount of money, hop in the car, and go tearing down the mountain in them. Unfortunately, when we finally found the place, it was only a little amusement park ride kind of thing. You could go down, but then it pulled you back up. You couldn’t get out of the car at the bottom of the hill. We still did it, and it was fun, but not quite as cool as we thought before.

So we finally got to the top of the mountain, and there we came to a crossroads again (not literally). I wanted to go back the way we had come up, down the steps, and back to the hotel. Piotr wanted to forge off into the wild unknown down the backside of the mountain, where there were no steps, and no people, and who knows what at the base. This time we took Piotr’s way.

We headed down what seemed a reasonable path. It was easy and nice. Too easy and nice, as a matter of fact, as it proved to be a dead end after maybe a half hour or so. At about this time I began to have more misgivings about this choice. Piotr tried to appeal to my sense of adventure saying that we didn’t know what was at the bottom, and it was exciting and new. I could only weakly argue that I wanted to go back to the h/s/c and read books. So we backtracked and tried another way down.

This way took us through rows of nicely planted trees and hardened sand dunes. Alas, it too seemed to more or less dead-end. Again I protested this decision to go down the other side of the mountain. Piotr tried to convince me: “Are you a man?” “Real men see their plans, even their bad plans, through to completion.” “Bad ideas are good!” These arguments, while not exactly… convincing… convinced me.

We ended up backtracking again, taking another path, scaling a side of a hardened sand dune, and crossing this big flat place that didn’t seem like somewhere we were supposed to be. We finally caught site of a road down below, and while there wasn’t exactly a nice path to it, we were able to work our way down the hill, through the bushes, and around rocks and things to get there.

The road was long and dusty, and it wasn’t immediately obious where it was going. It was about this time that we realized we were getting sunburnt. We were also just about out of water. I had a 16 of a bottle left, and Piotr had a 14, both very hot. Things seemed hopeless. Okay, so they didn’t seem hopeless, but I’m reluctant to admit that Piotr may have been right and it was fun and adventuresome going that way.

The road finally led us to that place that we were at before, 34 of the way up the mountain, where we had chosen my stairs over Piotr’s (different fork) road. We bought some water there, and sat under the tarp giving our burning flesh a break from the harsh UV rays. We decided to quickly descend from there the way we came up, so it ended up being a bit of a compromise descent.

All in all it was a very enjoyable experience, and quite a workout. We’re both really looking forward to getting massages back at our lodgings. They offer “Japanese Style”, “European Style”, and a few others. Piotr really wants the Japanese one, so I might try European. Tomorrow we’ll see if we’re bright red and peeling or golden brown and incredibly sexy.

That’s all for now, but I’ll leave you with a very funny and well-written link. It’s about some foreigner who accidentally stumbled upon a secret Chinese aerospace plant in Beijing while on an innocent bikeride and had a run in with the cops. It really is a good taste of what China is like. I read it and all along though, “haha, I could totally see that happening.”

Day 4

Well, we checked out today… and paid almost exactly what we were expecting. They overcharged us for one of the massages, and undercharged us elsewhere, so it ended up being 8Y less than we had predicted. So it seems like a good place to me.

The massages weren’t all that good, though. Next time maybe it would be worthwhile to seek out massages in the city somewhere, or at any rate better express what we wanted. It took us some time to convey to the guys that, no we did not want that kind of massage. We wanted one of the 108/128Y ones, not the 250Y or 300Y one. Piotr’s ended up being just soft rubbing instead of the kneading or chopping he was hoping for. Mine was slightly better, though I had to direct her a fair amount about what to massage and what not to. Anyway, afterwards, when we had both returned to the room somewhat disappointed we decided to trade backrubs. I enjoyed Piotr’s more than the one I had just paid 128Y for. :-)

Soon we’ll be boarding our train for Urumqi… Ugh, 24 hours or something in a hard seat. :-(

Sat, Aug 5, 2006 | For updates follow me on twitter