“The old man who served as a conductor walked alongside the bus until we hit the highway, cajoling and, on occasion, seemingly bullying people into getting on board.”
We visited Qinghai Lake just in time. The next day, the rains came. Flash floods and landslides closed the road. Time to leave the Tibetan Plateau behind us and head for Xi An. Arriving at Xi Ning bus station, you know there’s an express bus that will get you to Lan Zhou in two and a half hours. Finding it is a different matter.
The place is a circus, with white-capped Hui Muslims, red-robed monks and Tibetan herders all milling around – many of the Tibetans were clearly in the process of travelling away from home for the first time. I kept listening out for the canteen band from Star Wars.
I couldn’t see Lan Zhou on the departure board, even though it’s clearly the main city stop from here. A conversation with a man who was pushing through the press of people shouting, “Lan Zhou! Lan Zhou!” saw us bustled and coaxed through the crowds to a bus.
Chinese is a tonal language, so speaking it is hard enough. Shouting over the din of a transport hub to a man disappearing into the crowd is crazy. “How much is it? When does it arrive? How come we just went past the ticket inspector without tickets?”
The answers to all but the last question came eventually, but sometimes in China you just need to accept that events are in motion and there’s nothing you can do but be swept along with the tide.
The bus was cheap, but small, dirty and slow. We crawled through the city at a walking pace. I know it was walking pace, because the old man who served as a conductor walked alongside the bus until we hit the highway, cajoling and, on occasion, seemingly bullying people into getting on board.
I couldn’t be sure all these people definitely wanted to go to Lan Zhou. Maybe they’d just popped out to buy fruit …
Our little bus battered and ricketed its way down the mountains along the banks of the flood-swollen Yellow River, thick and brown with run-off from the mountains.
Sometimes you could see the toll road passing overhead, cutting through mountain tunnels, fast and safe above the churning waters. Somewhere up there was the express bus.
I really didn’t mind getting the slower bus though. The smell wasn’t good and some of the passengers stared at us for pretty much the whole five hours, but fair enough. First time down from the mountains and they get to see the foreign creatures – what a day they were having!
About 80 miles from Lan Zhou we passed through one of the most nonsensical villages I’ve ever seen. Let me explain. I’m from the North East of England. I know about mining communities. You sink a shaft, you set aside your processing area, a little way up the road, you build your pit village.
Here, they built the village among and through the heaps of coal. People sit, cook and eat in a thick, black soup.
As we arrived in Lan Zhou, we were passed by one of the expensive busses and a look at the rows of Han faces inside made me realise what differentiated the two. We were on the ethnic minority bus. Makes sense.
Back to the train station and an overnight train to Xi An, our last stop before Beijing and Britain.