From Langmusi, our new favorite Tibetan village and idyllic spot to find peace of mind, we headed to a somewhat contrasting destination: Lanzhou. The capital of the Gansu Province and a key city on the ancient Silk Road and Yellow River, with roughly half the population of Denmark or New Zealand (2.6M in 2014).
Lanzhou is both known as a beautiful modern mountain city with the Yellow river flowing through the city center and as a perfect example of a big Chinese city developing too fast with the result of now being on the list of one of the 30 most polluted cities in the world (Blacksmith Institute). While not really knowing what to expect from Lanzhou, given the fact that we came straight from some of the most beautiful natural landscapes we've experienced in China (horse trekking on the Tibetan Plateau) we weren't expecting much. Except for Lanzhou la mian, of course.
Lanzhou la mian - 兰州拉面
Lanzhou la mian is the traditional beef-soup-noodle dish, which we absolutely love and which has it's origin in Lanzhou. This epic dish is available throughout most of China and consist of home-made pulled noodles in a beef broth soup. By now, I know my way around getting the vegetarian version with qing tang 清汤 - clear soup. It's basically just boiled water, extra veggies and then I add heaps of Chili and vinegar to spice it up! Such a warm & comforting dish which we in Shanghai get for lunch or mainly dinner but here in Lanzhou we discovered that you have to be an early bird to get Lanzhou La Mian: it's a breakfast dish served from 7am and by 11am most traditional noodle shops are already closed. Delicious way to start the day!
Come on Lanzhou!
Lanzhou wasn't at all as polluted as expected, not that we really paid a lot of attention due to our other "struggles" in the big city.
First, at the train station we realized what we've realized several times before in China: the importance of planning & booking in advance. And the consequences when you don't (we like flexibility a bit too much). Long story short, no train tickets from Lanzhou to Beijing unless we were willing to take 2 random placed hard-seats for 28 hours. No thank you.
Secondly, after leaving the train station empty handed to check in to our pre-booked Chinese hotel we were met with the message that this hotel does not accept foreigners (special license needed for this in China). As the calm humans we are, instead of making an unnecessary scene we sat down in the reception, Leon dialed up Ctrip, whom we booked through and I started looking at other options nearby. Not long after, the Chinese receptionist came over with a room card and told me we could stay 1 night for RMB 100. Not really sure what that was all about but again, long story short, we decided to go for this solution. Mei Wentis, no problems.
Zhongshan Bridge & The Yellow River
As Lanzhou was more of a hub for us to catch the train to Beijing and eat noodles we hadn’t really planned much to do here. Though we did of course easily find several online articles on ”Top Things To Do in Lanzhou”, none of the city's major attractions really appealed to my current travel mood (Gansu Natural History Museum anyone...). Leon on the other hand was interested in one attraction “and a piece of Chinese history”: Zhongshan Bridge.
Apparently Zhongshan Bridge was the first real bridge over the Yellow River when it was built in 1909. Before that, only floating bridges made up of barges, ropes and chains with planks over top made it possible to cross the river by foot and these were both super unsafe and costly to continuously rebuild when destroyed by floods or ice in winter. Today you’ll find more than 10 bridges just near Zhongshan bridge, crossing the same yellow water but Zhongshan Bridge is the famous Yellow River bridge. It’s indeed a very beautiful iron bridge, nicely lit up in the evenings… And for Leon the interesting part was also that a visit at the bridge meant a visit at the Yellow River: the 3rd and last of China’s Great Rivers he wanted to visit (beside the Yangtze River and the Mekong River).
In and Out of Lanzhou
The following morning we rocked up to another smaller train ticket office right outside our hotel. Our plan was to try another combination of train tickets with a stop-over in Xi'an. If this didn't work either we always had the back-up plan of flying but we really wanted to train for the experience and landscape watching.
To our big surprise this much nicer ticket lady could offer us 1st class tickets in a coupé for our original direct route Lanzhou - Beijing. While these tickets were RMB 1100 each for the 20 hours journey, we happily accepted. Private train "suite" with bathroom and a super cozy train journey to look forward to. Excited! For comparison, normal "hard sleeper" tickets (6 pax suites) were around RMB 300-400 and "soft sleeper" tickets (4 pax suites) around RMB 500-600. The hard-seat tickets available was around RMB 150. Good price for a 20 hours train ride.
Trains often sell out in China so planning is really key. Especially with our current travel-dates: Friday of Full Moon Festival weekend and the week before the big national holiday in October: Golden Week. Needless to say Lanzhou Train Station as well as our train was super super busy! Luckily our little private suite was left absolutely undisturbed for our whole 20 hours train-ride and I can highly recommend to spend a little extra and get the comfort of a private "hao bao" suite. Bon Voyage!