Thursday, July 30, 2009

Lanzhou days

I took an overnight train from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou, the provincial capital of Gansu, as it is eleven or twelve hours on the road through some high passes, marginal roads, and wayside towns, some of which are safer than others. In any event a sleeper train is always to be preferred to a sleeper bus for overnights, in both punctuality (trains may be delayed slightly, but not often, whereas buses are subject to the whole panoply of bizarre road obstructions and delays of rural China, from goats in the road to horrific accidents) and comfort. This doesn’t keep people from taking sleeper buses over long-haul trips, and I was faintly appalled to see the sleeper bus from Luoyang to Xining (!) trucking down the street in Lanzhou. Taking the sleeper bus from Luoyang to Xining is like taking the sleeper bus from Dayton to Denver, without the benefit of the interstate highway system.

For reasons known only to the gods of railway booking, I had a hard-sleeper berth right in the middle of a whole company of art teachers from a technical school on Dalian, who’d gone on a school-sponsored trip to Xi’an, Lanzhou, and Dunhuang. They were thrilled to encounter an art historian among them and plied me with questions about my interests and my research. There was even a question about “quality” (suzhi, a very hot topic in Chinese social discourse these days) - did I think that a study of the aesthetics of a culture could reveal anything about the quality of its people? I am extremely put off by this discourse on human “quality,” by which is usually meant the attitudes of civil society: courtesy, order, rule-following. As much as I would like the Chinese government to act differently in many circumstances, I have to concede that under the pressure of a still largely impoverished population that tops 1.3 billion and a terrifyingly small proportion of arable land, I am not at all sure that the US would do as well. I think the chaos of life in China is ascribable largely to poverty and overpopulation, not to some lack of “quality” on the part of the Chinese people. On top of this, of course, most Chinese people have been listening to meaningless regulations for so long that it’s no wonder they don’t take rules in general very seriously. Indeed, things would be better if people in China were more law-abiding (especially on the roads) but it is hardly a lack of quality that explains the current situation. It is rather a lack of trust between the people and the government that gives the rules: the tremendous and pervasive corruption of officials in even the most modest positions of power destroys the public trust that abiding by the rules will benefit them, rather than simply subjecting them to the whims of local officials.

One of the things about being in Gansu is that I always forget the altitude of the province in general - in many places above 2000 meters - and I got a couple of unintended high-altitude sunburns before I wised up to this fact once again. Lanzhou is somewhat lower than Dunhuang and Jiayuguan, but it’s still up there. The city is crammed into the narrow space between two mountain ranges, where the Yellow River flows sluggishly eastward. It is still a young river at this point and neither as broad nor as deep as it will become later in its course. Lanzhou is the site of the first bridging of the Yellow River, in fact, during the Ming dynasty, and the iron anchoring pillars of the old suspension bridge are still visible in a park along the riverbank. The geology of the place forces the city into a long, narrow design, with only a few heavily trafficked main thoroughfares, and it is nearly always choked with smog trapped between the mountains on either side.

Like all of Gansu, Lanzhou is a heavily Muslim city, and I was able (by virtue of the Gansu Provincial Museum’s being closed on Mondays) to do something I’d wanted to do the last time I was in Lanzhou, eleven years ago, which was to walk around the city and photograph some of its urban mosques. These are woven tightly into the fabric of the city itself, so that it is usually difficult to get far enough away from them to document them architecturally (and, not being a Muslim, I could not enter to see the insides of the buildings); but it is their very integration with the cityscape of Lanzhou that attracted me. I’ll post these images in a separate photo essay, however; here suffice it to say that my favorite mosque, which looks kind of like the Kremlin, was still there despite a tremendous amount of urban renewal going on around it, and this made me happy.

My main purpose for going to Lanzhou was to make a day-trip to the site of Binglingsi in nearby Yongjing county (about which more later), but I did also want to visit the newly renovated Gansu provincial museum, which turned out to have some wonderful Silk Road exhibitions as well as an entire wing devoted to my favorite Neolithic pottery of all time, that of the Majiayao culture, centered in southeastern Gansu. Majiayao funerary jars are robust ochre-colored vessels with simple shapes and dynamically abstract geometric designs in black and maroon. Very good imitations are made and sold on the fake-antiques markets, which are so good that I wouldn’t dare try to bring one home without a certificate of its modern origins, which the sellers are obviously unwilling to provide. It’s a pity, to be sure.

That said, the biggest thing that happened while I was in Lanzhou was the riots in Urumqi, the most significant ethnic violence in Xinjiang in decades. These were treated markedly differently by the Chinese press than earlier such incidents, which usually met with a complete suppression of reportage. In this case, the coverage was all over the television news, with gravely besuited university sociologists offering analysis to counter the footage of partially burnt corpses and puddles of blood in the streets of the city. The coverage was powerfully tailored to evoke sympathy for the victims (who are surely deserving of it, although the classically Chinese tactic of invading their hospital rooms with television cameras, with no consideration for privacy, hardly seemed sympathetic) and to ascribe responsibility for the events to overseas Uighur activists rather than to any tensions existing within Xinjiang itself. Internet service was radically constrained in all of western China, including in Lanzhou (as was cell phone service in Xinjiang, as I understood it), but the extraordinary thing was the statement issued by the government over television news, apologizing to law-abiding citizens for the necessity of curtailing communications as a way of restraining the “hooliganism” of those who were blamed for inciting the riots. They actually apologized for the inconvenience, which was rather startling. I was never in the way of being anywhere close to the violence (in fact, I’ve still never been to Xinjiang, sad to say), but the reverberations of the event were very audible in multi-ethnic Lanzhou.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you get back to Lanzhou, I wouldn't hesitate to buy anything at the fake antique market. I bought several things there and brought them back to the states with no problems. Of course, I guess it would depend on the prevailing winds whether the airport staff wanted to ask questions or not....