As we walked it rapidly became apparent that China has embraced its own communist version of capitalism not just with open arms but with a warm friendly hug. The hotels are as big and impressive as any in the world and the streets are lined with shops selling every kind of consumer goods that anyone could possibly want. The thing that surprises the most is the number of banks. Just walking along one street, from a major junction down towards the train station, I stopped counting when I reached twenty - about half a mile in.
We were heading towards the station because that was where the cheaper hotels that I knew of were to be found. I went into one to inquire. It was difficult but we eventually established that, although it was a nice hotel with reasonably priced rooms, they didn't in fact have any free and that - this being a national holiday week - I would be unlikely to find any rooms anywhere.
Outside I consulted with Mike. The only reason for staying in Lanzhou had been that the last bus back to Baiyin is at seven O'clock and that seemed rather early to be returning.
On the other hand we didn't actually have any plan for anything to do in the evening so we abandoned the idea and decided to get the six-thirty bus back. (We are, apparently, equally paranoid about catching last buses and trains).
With that decision taken we were free to look for lunch. We soon found it.
One of the things that definitely makes life easier for travellers in China is the fact that many restaurants, even quite small ones, have picture menus. Combine that with the little card I carry that says in Chinese that I am allergic to mushrooms and buying meals becomes easy - providing you don't mind what actually comes on your plate. In the restaurant we found there was also a young waiter who had some English. We ordered a plate of shredded vegetables and some fried chicken. The chicken, unlike the same dish back home, was prepared in the usual way of chopping it up bone included, battering it and frying it. Once you get used to picking bones from your teeth and NEVER swallowing without chewing, it's actually delicious - all the better for not having "secret recipe" combinations of herbs and spices added to the batter. The vegetables were not readily identifiable beyond the shredded carrot, and were coated in a thin caramelly sauce which was initially odd but became quite compelling after a the surprise had worn off.
I really find it difficult to get used to the prices though. A meal for two, including two large bottles of beer and more food than it was possible to eat came in at under three pounds. My salary here is peanuts but it's going to be very hard to spend it.
We strolled on the extra hundred yards to the splendid railway station, which has a very interesting architectural feature. As you approach you can see the tall columns that line the frontage and you can also see that there is something odd about them though your eye can't quite make out what exactly it is. At first I thought that perhaps they weren't columns at all but were, instead, painted onto the front of the building. It was only when I got really close that I realised that they are half columns with the illusion being caused by their shape which was two concave columns joined back to back rather than a convex column. The effect was that whichever direction the sunlight came from the columns look, from a distance, like flat, painted features.
I took some photographs, which will appear in a separate entry, while we decided on our next move.
Our next move was to take a cab to the Yellow River Bridge, a destination that our FAO had not only recommended but written down for us so that we could show the cab driver. We weren't expecting much. The last time someone had told me about a beautiful bridge it had turned out to be the very plain concrete one across the river on our day-trip to the country.
The ride turned out to be longer than we had anticipated and rather more nerve-wracking. Chinese taxi drivers are clearly trained in the same techniques as Cairo ones. They do not believe in the use of brakes and they change lanes with a randomness that is dizzying. They aim the vehicle at gaps that are clearly too narrow but which magically become just wide enough at the last possible moment. We passed the front of a moving bus so closely that I could have reached my hand from the window and wiped the dust from its bumper. We dodged and weaved in and out of fast-moving traffic until I was forced to shut my eyes to preserve my sanity.
Finally we were let out from our wild ride at one end of the bridge. When we had recovered we looked at it.
It's a decent piece of engineering with its steel arches but nonetheless remains a rather ordinary bridge and were that all there was to see we would have been powerfully disappointed. Fortunately it isn't. Across the river we could see a park with a lot of very lovely buildings.
We started out across the bridge.
(To be concluded in Part 3)