Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I'm at a pretty comfortable Internet cafe in Lanzhou. Lanzhou is one of those large, unknown cities that's an unpleasant surprise in the way Xining was pleasant. I think everyone that comes to Lanzhou comes here to get somewhere else, since it's a good place to go in a lot of different directions by train or plane. I'm going to Urumqi from here, capital of Xinjiang province and site of the riots that killed 200 people last month.

Lanzhou was described as polluted and boring by a variety of sources, but it wasn't as bad as described, entirely due to the hostel where I'm staying. This hostel doesn't show up on any of the sources I consulted (Lonely Planet, Wikitravel, Hostels World), but it's very clean, comfortable and fascinating. So let me say for the sake of those Googling for reviews that the Wanlin International Youth Hostel in Lanzhou is excellent, as is the Lete Youth Hostel in Xining.

This hostel is actually a cross between a restaurant, a greenhouse and a hostel. Most of the space is taken up by tables, which are secluded booths surrounded by trees. In the middle of the lobby/restaurant is a stream, crossed by delicate bridges every now and then. On the sides are rooms. About four of them are large, spotless dorms with immaculate bunk beds. The rest are private dining rooms. Try and guess which one is yours: you'll always be pleasantly surprised.

As you walk around, you'll bump into a few groups of people dining boisterously, most of whom will try and engage you in conversation and offer you food. I made a bad start when I refused a shot of liquor, and then a cigarette, then the liquor again, but everyone nodded knowingly when I said I was Muslim.

The dozen or so staff speak absolutely no English, but somehow the hostel has an English website, English-language signs and paperwork. The staff are really just sharply-dressed waitresses that people occasionally ask for hoteliering services. There are no rules, rates or anything of the sort. The shower is upstairs, room 208. You find a mysterious staircase and walk down an empty hallway. This part feels like a video game. Room 208 is an empty dorm with a clean washroom and, nicest of all, a Western toilet.

Lanzhou (pronounced laan-jo) is not a bad city from what I saw. I ran this morning along the Yellow River (it's really brown, but the Yellow Sea really is yellow) on a tree-covered boulevard with a wide path next to the river. It's cold here, like it has been my entire time in China. Even Shanghai was only modestly hot, and I've been wearing long sleeves and a jacket ever since I left Chengdu 8 days ago. Urumqi is supposedly in the desert, thank God. I'm running out of warm clothes.

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