Snow-capped peaks of the Qilian Shan range.
Wanting to save time, I decided to fly from Kashgar to Lanzhou. This cost a bit more then taking the train, but gave me about three more days to see things instead of sitting on the train. As a bonus, the airline, In a effort to increase customer goodwill, included a free night’s hotel stay with my flight from Kashgar to Urumqi (the most inland city in the world, btw). But after our baggage took two hours to come out, and the bus ride to the hotel took 45 minutes, we arrived at the hotel around 2 am. Then the clerk wouldn’t check me in until the locals all got taken care of, leaving me to share a room with some businessman. He was nice enough, but it was kinda awkward. Especially when he said we would be waking up at 7 am for the bus but turned out it was actually 6 am.
The flight to Lanzhou was nice – we got tons of food and because I had a window seat, I got a good view of the city and the dunes when we flew right over Dunhuang and then some beautiful mountains and snow-covered valleys.
Some of the foothills near Lanzhou.
But my mood that morning was quickly changed when I started trying to check into a hotel. I must have checked five or six hotels and the only room they would give me was an expensive double. They all had dorm rooms and singles listed, but I was told I couldn’t have one. At the last hotel I checked, I was so frustrated that I asked what room I could have if I was Chinese. The clerks blushed, and kinda look at the floor – one couldn’t even look at me anymore – while the other sheepishly pointed to one of the less expensive rooms. So I went back to the first hotel – the cheapest option – and checked in, determined to get my money’s worth by taking the world’s longest shower that night.
* * *
There isn’t much to do in Lanzhou. My purpose in going was two fold: extend my visa and take a bus to the town of Xiahe which has the Lebring Monistarty – the biggest outside of Tibet. The travel desk at the hotel said it was closed to foreigners because of some political problems and recent events had put tourists at risk. But the British guys I hung out with in Jiayuguan were going and that was only a couple weeks ago. Even all the forums I checked online said it was closed and tourists were stopped by police and turned back. Then I found a random AP story from a week earlier that said it had been opened for a month.
The only way to be sure was to go to the bus station and try to get a ticket. Since it was late at night, I could only find out the times (7:30am, 8:30am, 2:20pm) and was told to come back in the morning and I could get one – but since I wanted to get my visa extended first, I decided to try for the next day instead.
Farmland just outside Lanzhou.
On the way home I stopped at a hotpot place for dinner. No one spoke English and the menu wasn’t in English but it did have pictures. So after trying to figure it out I ordered the one with the smallest stack of sliced beef I could get – 18 pieces. I know that seems like a lost, but once they cooked down, it wasn’t all that much meat. The waitress help me order more food which turned out to be a mistake. When they brought out the broth, it had about six different kinds of peppers floating around, and the dipping sauce had a few more.
As I started eating the beef, they just kept bringing food – carrots, cabbage, quail eggs, noodles – stuff I’m not even sure I even ordered. But I was hungry, so what the heck? Part way through the meal they brought a glass of this warm milk-like substance. But it was a bit sweeter – like tapioca flavored – and I think used to calm the fire in your mouth. I’m glad I didn’t drink that much because when I went to use their bathroom before leaving the restaurant, all three urinals were filled with puke that looked and smelled exactly like that drink.
* * *
The next morning I decided that I needed to get my train ticket to Beijing as well as get my visa extension done first. I researched some times for the trains then went to the train station and got my ticket then took the bus over where the local PSB (police) branch that handles visa extensions. The LP guide said they can do it in one day – turns out the need five. And the extension starts the day you apply, not the day your current visa runs out (so when you apply for an extension of 30 days, the first five are spent waiting for them to process your extension). But since Tina wasn’t going to be back for a week, I didn’t want to use up a week of my extension without her so thanks, but no thanks.
Street vendor cooking up some noodles.
After stopping at a bookstore, getting bus insurance (which the British guys needed before they could get bus tickets, and the RG guide mentioned), then having some steamed beef dumplings for lunch, I went back to the hotel to spend the rest of the afternoon reading and watching Chinese TV – which I am addicted to. There was a night market a few blocks from the apartment so I went to a little stall and had some noodles while watching some gory Chinese war movie with the staff.
I got up to catch the 8:30am bus down to Xahie planning to come back the next afternoon then catching my train to Beijing the next day. So I checked out, got the station only to find out that I needed multiple copies of my passport and visa (which I didn’t have) and that I didn’t need that insurance after all. So as I was being handed off to person after person – none of whom spoke English, and the bus leaving in about five minutes – I pointed to my watch and said I didn’t have time to make all these copies (not sure where to do that) and make the 8:30am bus.
"If it comes from a pig, I got it".
Not to worry – turns out there wasn’t an 8:30am bus that day anyway! – the next bus wasn’t until 2:30pm. And since it takes about four hours to get there I would be getting there at night, only to have to leave early the next day. Totally not worth it. So tired of wasting my money and time in this town, I walked out of the bus station, and took the bus back to the train station, begged them to change my ticket to Beijing to that day, and got the last bed on the 12:20pm train.
I did learn the most valuable travel advice for China: the only actable information is from the person you are dealing with at the moment. Not something you read or that someone else told you before. And even then, it’s wrong because they don’t really know either.