Friday, December 08, 2006

Train Nazi Postscript

20 September 2006. We finally dropped into Lanzhou at about 7.15 am. I managed to get back into the carriage via the platform as recounted earlier (Train Nazi). We eventually were pressed out through the exit with a throng of fellow travellers into the cool morning air. We were immediately struck by how different this town is. Hard, gritty, flinty even. Hard faces. Heads down. Worker’s clothes, impassive responses to our proffered hellos. Here we met Richard our driver after running the usual gauntlet of no hopers that crowd around the forecourt of any rail-station anywhere in the world.

Including a bunch of soldiers preparing to board a bus, looking surly and half asleep, Captain trying to get them to line up properly and to stand in order while their baggage was being stacked high on the bus. That made me grin to myself. Military conscripts anywhere in the world are all the same. They know what a straight line looks like but passive surliness, spiced with some insouciance, without direct disobedience, is just the perfect mix with which to get your own back at your officers. I know the formula well and fancy I was rather expert at it. The Captain was clearly rattled enough for me to keep my camera in my pocket. No need to prod the dragon.

We were dropped off at our hotel which boasted “grand” in its title somewhere. It was a pile of rubbish actually. With the usual Chinese inability to provide quality service. The one thing it had going for it was the size of the room. However the whole place was remarkably musty and we were forced to open windows – onto the city reputed to be the most polluted in the world – clean the bathroom with bleach (that shopping expedition is another story in itself) and to keep the air-conditioning turned off. In fact I think the whole musty/mould problem was the air conditioning. But we slept there in the warm air of late summer, mixed with dust and smoke, together with the noise of people and traffic bustling away six stories below and the trains bellowing through to the Russian border, Tibet, Urumqi and other remote points directly beneath us. Whatever shortcomings we have in this hotel, it is probably is far beyond what those soldiers are putting up with right now.

Four weeks after we were there the sorry story of Lanzhou’s air pollution was complemented by a broken sewage pipe which turned the Yellow River red. Something poetic in there somewhere.

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