We, that is to say my flatmate and I, had another day out in Lanzhou yesterday, though it wasn't actually out idea. The third of the little group of teachers in the city, Erika, didn't come. Recently she seems to be less inclined to socialise with us and so, when the FAO invited us to have dinner with her and her son at her apartment on Friday night Erika cried off. Richard, the FAO's son was home from University for the weekend and he met us and showed us the way to the apartment. It was the standard Chinese apartment, laid out almost identically to all the others I've seen, including ours. Jane cooked up a pretty good meal and afterwards we spent several hours drinking beer and playing card games. It was sometime during this activity that Jane suggested that, as a reward for our unpaid demonstration teaching she would take us to Lanzhou on Sunday. She would show us around and take us wherever we wanted to go. We could also go out and see her son's University and drop him at his student accommodation in the afternoon.
It seemed a good plan.
When she arrived on Sunday morning it was in an education department car complete with our own driver. Mike climbed into the back with Jane and Richard and I took the front passenger seat. Erika, it seemed, had decided not to come.
The drive to Lanzhou is no shorter in your own car than it is in the bus, but it's considerably more comfortable. We went through the toll gate and onto the expressway and raced through that bleak landscape, even bleaker now than that winter is arriving, than it was before, keeping up a steady stream of fairly trivial conversation.
Once we reached Lanzhou our first port of call was one that I had read about and suggested – the waterwheel park. It's a modern attraction which the authorities are still building. It consists of a moderate sized park in which various waterwheels and the associated contrivances have been installed in a Heath Robinson tangle of chutes, run-offs, millstones and – of course – wheels. At this time of year the only thing missing is the water that powers it all!
The wheels did not turn, the run-offs remained dry, the millstones did not grind. Nevertheless it was interesting.
Just inside the main gate there was a small wheel and a large circular area around which were arranged, on pedastals, small statues of the various emblems of the Chinese years. Mike told Richard when his birthday was and asked Richard which animal was his sign. Richard did a brief calculation and informed him that he was born in the year of the tiger.
I gave him my birth date.
I was unsurprised to learn that I am a cock.
We strolled around the park. In addition to the, currently static, waterwheels it is filled with slightly oversized and stylised statues representing the Chinese way of life of a bygone era. They could hardly be called beautiful, some of them border on the grotesque, but they were original and fascinating. Across the river, a decorative dragon ran along the entire length of the far bank. We could see it constantly as we strolled through the park which runs in a narrow strip parallel to the water. At the end of the park it is possible to look at the main road bridge over the river and here the dragon rears up with its head towering above the traffic and staring into the face of a mirror image dragon that approaches the bridge from the other side.
Looking the other way we could see the constant signs of new building and civic expansion that seem to be the defining mark of modern China. It was a bitterly cold day. In our warm clothes we were snug enough but as I took picture after picture a bone-deep ache crept into my exposed fingers and, though I was having a great time, I was quit glad when we finally turned around and made our way back to the car.
The park, even now, is a quite fascinating place and I shall try to make another visit when the summer comes before I leave Baiyin and see it in action.
From the park we headed into the city for our planned appointment with something far more important than mere sight-seeing – Pizza Hut!
I have been in Baiyin now for three months and though I vary my Chinese food to the extent that I can with home cooking there are a great many foods that I miss. I had been told that there was a pizza restaurant in Lanzhou and when I mentioned this to Richard at dinner on Friday he showed us an advert for the place. It was, we were delighted to discover, a franchised branch of Pizza Hut. We drove towards the shopping street where it was located. The streets around the area were narrow and filled with traffic and people. The driver manoeuvred skillfully through them. Here and there, as with Baiyin, there were token signs of Christmas. At a point opposite a small, raggedy Christmas tree bedecked with half a dozen pink and yellow baubles, he stopped and let us out. Richard led us back a few yards to the junction and there, wonder of wonders, was Pizza Hut.
We went in and it was immediately obvious that it's a popular destination. There was a waiting list and the customers were milling about in the small, but warm, reception area. Jane spoke to them in rapid Chinese and handed a ticket to her son.
"We are B18," he said, "There are about twelve people before us."
We didn't care. We would wait.
About thirty minutes later, our turn came and we were showed in to a table. The décor was like any other Pizza Hut and the staff were dressed in festive Christmas waistcoats with green bow-ties and Santa hats. Pleasant, upbeat western pop music was playing. The menu was in Chinese and English and featured everything you would expect – pizzas in all varieties, pastas, soups, salads as well as other things that you wouldn't expect – Jambalaya, assorted Chinese rice dishes.
On the wall was a large sign that read "Happy Moments".
The meal took considerably longer than we had expected so that by the time we finished it was already late enough that we needed to take Richard back to his University. In her teens it had also been Jane's University and we drove out along the river road, past the Lanzhou mosque and out to the west, towards Lanzhou Northwest Normal University.
As soon as we walked through the gates there was no mistaking the familiar campus feel of the University. I haven't been on a campus for more than thirty years but there is something about them that is unmistakeable. Students wandered about with armfuls of books. Academic buildings towered above us. On the playing fields a game of football was under way. Groups of students, both small and large, were everywhere. I felt a brief nostalgic longing for my own student days, so long ago.
Richard and Jane showed us round, pointing out the places that were important parts of their lives. It was an interesting lesson in change as time after time Jane told us what buildings had been in her day and Richard told us their current functions.
It's a large campus with many blocks of student and teacher accommodation. It took us almost an hour to walk around it and then it was time to leave, time to let Richard go on his way back to his own accommodation and time for us to be on our way back to Baiyin.
Lanzhou is a much more varied and interesting city than Baiyin, though, as we found out last time when we tried to walk around unguided, it is better seen with someone who knows it well to show you around.