Chinese new year holiday period was definitely upon me. Back in Beijing, I was looking to go to Lanzhou but there were no tickets to anywhere available. I did make an effort one morning and went to a ticket office near my hostel but they had nothing and I didn't rate my chances of success if I went back the next morning when the next set of tickets (they were sold five days in advance) went on sale.
Incidentally, often when I go to buy train tickets, including this instance, there are guys hanging around the ticket window at the front of the queue. Often they are trying to push in or just waiting for a friend or relative who is in the queue, but some of them genuinely seem to be there just as some sort of social activity. They listen to the town you ask for then repeat it, smiling and laughing as if sharing a joke with you. Other details or questions may be shared as if they're buying it with you and they are keen to look at the ticket after you have bought it, as if admiring a photo of your new-born baby. At first I thought it was just me being a foreigner as I seem to get this sort of attention at many places I go, in shops or restaurants, but increasingly I see other it happening to other Chinese customers (none of whom seem any more interested in the attention than I do, even if they don't feel as obliged to smile back as me).
There were no buses all the way to Lanzhou and the daily bus to the relatively-near town of Yinchuan was sold out for the next week, which is very unusual for buses. I decided to book myself a ticket to the halfway point of Xi'An, a few days later and kill time back at the hostel while I waited. I was going to go to the Beijing Planetarium with Sunny on the morning of the bus, but I was sick and she was so tired from not having a day off from working in the hostel bar for months that we both decided to give it a miss.
I wasn't feeling well (again!) and didn't fancy dragging my illness around for another few weeks as I had done throughout December, so looked up a doctor on the internet and found one to visit just ten minutes walk away. I was massively impressed with the facilities and service I received, even if I had to pay sixty pounds for it, although I pretty sure that this is not what most Chinese patients see at their surgery. The doctor told me that this clinic was particularly popular with Chinese film stars giving birth, partly because there was an attached maternity ward so they can go straight from there to giving birth without press intrusion. I peered out of the window but couldn't see any pregnant women with expensive clothes hurrying across the courtyard.
Although the consultation fee was high, the drugs were most certainly not. When I mentioned that I got ill like this all the time, the doctor got me two courses of two types of medicine so I could use some in the future also, and the price was still only about six pounds!
That night I took my stuff over to the bus station for the night bus. Surprisingly, it was not a sleeper bus but merely a normal coach. I took a seat at the back corner of the half-empty bus but shortly before departure it suddenly filled up with a large group of Korean students who were in the country for a couple of weeks. We chatted, joked and shared food for a while before drifting off to sleep. The big guy next to me was singing himself to sleep, which was a bit off-putting, but he stopped it eventually.
Arriving in Xi'An in the morning, we were dumped by the roadside on the city outskirts, as often happens. Different people gave me different pieces of advice before I got on a bus which took me to the centre. I wasn't sure where to go next but a sixteen year-old boy from the bus came to help me and, after asking several policemen for directions, walked me twenty minutes down the road to a bus station and helped me buy a ticket to Lanzhou for the same night.
I left the main part of my bag there and spent a few hours walking around the city and getting something to eat. Coming back it was the start of rush hour so taxis were all full before I was picked up by a motorbike taxi. After an initial misunderstanding when he took me to the wrong bus station and a renegotiation of the fee, we weaved our way through the busy traffic on time. I stopped to get some food inside the bus station when one of the Korean students approached me who had been on the bus the night before. It turned out that they were all also booked on the same Lanzhou bus as me - small world! Although, this one was a sleeper so the opportunities to gather round and chat were minimal.
The woman I bought my ticket from had said that the ride would take ten hours. Given that the departure time was 17:00, this threatened a three AM arrival time. Mercifully, it was longer than that, but it was still just six-thirty when we were dropped off at a bus station. There was a thin covering of snow on the ground and it was cold in the air so I quickly jumped in a taxi. Its engine kept dying and the driver had to get out twice to lift the bonnet and fiddle with the spark plugs, but it got me to my taxi by seven and I checked in and went to proper sleep.
I went to book a train ticket when I awoke. After I leave Lanzhou I need to head south to get into Laos before my visa expires. Predictably, the long distance trains were all sold out and the shorter ones were sold for the next few days, so I took a ticket back to Xi'An knowing that this would mean too much time in Lanzhou and that I would have to be quick to complete the onward journey south by the sixth of February.
I had been warned that most of the restaurants would be shut throughout the new year period. This wasn't really true, but many were operating on a reduced service or menu. One place told me that they couldn't make me a pizza because the cook who makes the western food has traveled home to be with his family this week. For Chrissakes, even I can make a sodding pizza, how hard can it be? And, why can't the manager take responsibility before he went away to make sure other people can cook some of this stuff. As if to emphasise the stupidity of the situation, the kitchen staff were on their meal break when I left and there were at least a dozen of them in chefs hats sitting around the tables.
New year itself quickly came around. Just as for our new year, the big day is the last day of the old year rather than the first of the new year. However, the differences were marked nonetheless. For the western world, this represents the biggest street party on the calendar. Actually, for China it probably does too, but all things are relative. Partly this is because the authorities don't want to encourage or even allow any kind of public gathering for many reasons. Partly because in Chinese culture the idea of going out to an event is fairly alien. Most people were just sitting in their homes with their families when midnight came around.
Nonetheless, even with no big crowds in sight, this was no silent ghost town. China is the home of fireworks, after all. What this meant was that for at least a week beforehand and for many days afterward, tens of thousands of fireworks would be set off by amateurs from pavements, rooftops or even launched out of windows. All of this came to a climax at the moment that the new year began.
Walking around shortly before midnight there were hundreds of burnt out shells, often of boxes that launch many rockets from one single firework. Sadly, this wasn't quite as fantastic as it sounds. Most of them were cheap quality (having been privately bought) and were often just the type to make loud bangs rather than pretty displays. I would be lying if I tried to claim that I hadn't done stupider things than this with fireworks in my youth, but you still have to ask yourself just how safe this is. The answer is that it isn't safe at all. I read later that hundreds of people are killed every year in China from amateur misuse of fireworks. Presumably the hundreds of people lighting them from crowded streets and shopping areas don't think that it's anyone's fault?
If there's one place that was totally safe though, it was the local supermarket. Looking for some toiletries one day, I tried to look around the shops. As is the case with a number of such places in China and Russia, they have this system where you have to leave all personal bags, handbags etc with security before you can enter - all in the name of stopping shoplifting. I do have to question whether they are losing so much money through theft that they really feel they are improving the situation with all the extra staff, long queues, general chaos it causes etc.
Wandering around the town one evening, who should I run into again but the same group of Korean students. That was three times in three days I had met them in three different cities (albeit linked by bus trips). It turns out that they were Christian missionaries here to help try to convert the local Muslims. They asked me if I knew Jesus and I had to admit 'not personally'. They assured me that he loved me though, which was very nice to know.
Lanzhou's premier tourist attraction is two big wooden wheels that used to be used for irrigation purposes many years ago. They're not even the originals, mind you, just recent display replicas. In fact, whilst I'm running the town down, did I mention that a decade ago it was reckoned to be the most polluted city on the world?
Having basked in the beauty of the wheels and the nearby temple, I walked around the northern part of the city which included the Muslim area, which is always interesting to see in China. It's also, in my experience, usually the poorer area. Perhaps because they hang on to their traditions tighter than Han Chinese people and are less ready to allow their traditional cultural areas to be built over with concrete tower blocks and shopping centres?
The day before I left, I had a query with my bill at the hotel. I was going to check out and go elsewhere for the final night as a result, but then they wanted to charge me for late check out, even though they freely admitted that they had told me to check out late (actually, they shifted the goal posts around on this somewhat). People don't argue with these things here, but I wasn't going to give in. It never got nasty and it was all smiles and jokes, but I sat down by their reception desk, got out some food to eat and prepared to sit it out. Many phone calls to management were made and the reception staff were unofficially apologetic, blaming it on their superiors. One manager came down for over an hour to try to resolve the point. Finally, after two and three-quarter hours which none of them could quite believe, they made me an offer to meet me halfway which I was willing to accept. Maybe I am helping to bring the concept of customer service to the far east?
Come the time to leave town, I went to the station and boarded my train. It was a nine-hour ride on a hard seat, but I had to be happy I had a seat. The first half of the journey was pretty crowded with the aisles generally full of standing passengers. Then, halfway along, we stopped at a station which was full of people queuing to get on. Even the other Chinese passengers, more used than I to these conditions, were wide-eyed in wonder at how the train could possibly accommodate so many people. As ever, we did though. I'm sure glad I wasn't one of the people who had to spend four hours crammed into the doorways like commuters in the worst subway trains.
A couple sitting opposite me saw me reading my Hitler biog and asked why I liked him. I explained in strong verbal and visual terms that I didn't but that I found history interesting. This concept does not really compute in China though so they just grinned politely at me and asked again "Why do you like Hitler?". It will probably be a good thing when I finally get that book finished.