Where am I?

SYNOPSIS:  About being lost in a big city.  About the magic of Nutella.  About writing Chinese.  About people and their reaction to me.  About the Yellow River and a long train ride from Xian to Lanzhou.

Never in recent history, and never on any of my travels had I felt so lost.  I sat on my bed in my beautiful studio apartment, and looked at rows and rows of high-apartment blocks out the window, and had no clue where I was. 

Picture this:  You arrive in a town in a foreign country.  You don’t speak the language.  You were dropped off by a taxi at your hotel (in my case, my AirBnB apartment), but you have no idea where in town that is.  And you have no map, no access to a map (since google is fire-walled in China), nor any guide book (since the China Lonely Planet was too big to carry) or anyone to ask.  Maps are my lifeline.  I look at them and feel I know the town before I even get there.  This was a Nutella moment!  I was angry at the Chinese for blocking even google maps, and I was angry at myself for not being computer savvy enough to have gotten myself Tor before going on this trip. (From what I understand that is software that places your computer into a different country, virtually that is, allowing you to bypass your local country’s firewalls.  It is powerful.  And that’s why it and the use of any VPN software, are under penalty forbidden in China. I would hope that the penalty only goes for the local population.) If I could have been angry at anyone else, I would have added them to the list. 

As I was spooning my Nutella, I contemplated whether it was worth feeling sorry for myself.  Come on!  I was in a beautiful country, I was in Lanzhou because it was on the Silk Road and the only large city which for miles had the Yellow River flowing right through it, and I was here to explore one of the most important Buddhist cave sites in the world.  There was nothing to feel sorry about.  But I could not keep spooning Nutella.  Some action was needed that would ground me; somehow put me back in a place where I would feel found again.  So I ventured out.  Not far.  Just a few blocks. 

In China you are never far from little grocery stores. As luck had it, I was very close to a fruit, vegetable, and meat market.  So I went shopping.  And with a few bags of groceries, I arrived back home.  That was an accomplishment.  I had a home, I had gone shopping, and I had found my way back home even in the, by now, dark.  Once again I had lucked out with my AirBnB.  It was cute, private, affordable, outright cheap, and Lei, my host, was very kind.  But he did not live here.  He only managed this and four other AirBnBs.  He sensed my confusion and had promised me to send some key phrases (like the names of the correct bus stations, and towns) in both Chinese and English.  I could text him any time.  That was reassuring, but it still did not tell me where I was.  But it would help me to move on. 

I made myself tea, fixed some dinner with my newly bought groceries and puttered around in the apartment, rearranging and unpacking.  I had a home.  I was not lost.  Wherever I would go, I would always find my way back here since I had the address in Chinese characters.  Chinese characters are the key to everything.  Asking people on the street usually results in them backing away from you, horrified to interact.

It is still quite rare for single foreign travelers to roam around in China.  Foreigners come in groups or accompanied by a local guide.  Therefore taxi drivers, and even tourist information personnel are completely thrown off by simple words or phrases like:  Toilet.  Metro? Train Station? Bus? Ticket?  Even though I limit my questions if possible to a single, hopefully universal word, in a quite obvious context, I often get stuck.  The Chinese are used to local tourists, droves of them, not clueless Westerners like me.

After I observed just too many locals who could translate with their smart phones, I gave it a try.  Lo and behold, I had a translator app on my phone all along.  A downloaded simplified version of Chinese allows me to be operable offline.  Now I can approach people at a ticket counter or a bus station, or a taxi driver, prepared with a string of expected questions, and voila!

Speaking of people:  I get stared at a lot.  When I walk around, I often smile at people, or nod a hello.  Rarely do I get a smile back, and hardly ever a greeting.  When I say Nihow, the Chinese Hello, I get stone faces; it does not seem customary to greet strangers.  When I say Hello, I get giggles.  Especially youngsters, when they see me, say Hello first, to see if they can get a reaction from me.  When I hello them back, they are ecstatic!  Sometimes they follow up with:  What’s your name?  Where are you from?  And I always engage with them.  But it is pitiful to see how few people actually speak English somewhat fluently.  Luckily, I have met a few who have picked up their English through work and school, like my AirBnB hosts, or Uighur Man in Turfan.

When I had mentioned to U-Man that I was going to Lanzhou, he went sentimental and longingly exclaimed:  You will see the Yellow River!  I have not ever seen that.   The river has taken on magic proportion in most Chinese minds.  It is associated with myths, with one of the earliest civilizations, and for centuries it has transported the fertile loess across the country just like the Nile used to do in Egypt.  Its name stems from that loess, which turns the color of the river a not so appealing muddy brown.  But it is that love affair between the Chinese and the river that makes them see it yellow. 

I took the train from Xian to Langzhou.  It’s a long 7-hour ride. 

Way before the allotted time, I arrived at the train station.  It’s almost like the airport these days.  You never know how long the various security checks will take.  But the line moved smoothly and I could have taken the earlier train after all…  I went through a lot of trouble yesterday to exchange a ticket I already had.  Oh well.  Better safe than sorry.

Stuffy, filled with bags and people, the waiting rooms — a whopping 6 of them — looked intimidating. But a reassuring LED number corresponding to my ticket, directed me.  The Chinese have their system.  They do not behave quite as orderly as their Japanese counterparts; a lot more elbows are in action, but ultimately things work out.  Everyone and their aunts and uncles seem to get on that train, weighed down by huge bags.  I had an assigned seat.  Not everyone did.  Lots of people had to stand.  I checked with everyone around me if anyone could speak just the tiniest bit of English.  Nobody.  With my small thumbed-through family album of photos I made friends with the Uighur woman who sat next to me.  Later on, a young woman was directed to me who wanted to practice her English.  We almost had a conversation.  For the most part, I got my computer out and wrote a lot of blogs, catching up, finally! 

From Shaanxi province to Gansu Province, where I am now, the landscape changed dramatically.  Amazing mountain ranges tunneled through for roads and trains piled up for miles left and right of the tracks.  Breathtaking! 

One other foreigner was on this train:  Boris from Holland.  He has a girlfriend in China who speaks English.  They came to Lanzhou for the noodles and to go mountaineering.  We exchanged a few notes on our travels. 

7 hours went by rather quickly.  A taxi took me to my AirBnB in Lanzhou, yet another big town with millions of inhabitants and lots and lots of stalagmite neighborhoods.  And that’s where I am now, not feeling quite so lost any more.  That’s the miracle of Nutella, some groceries, a nice home, and writing it all down. 

Good night.