OMG, I GOT MY SITE PLACEMENT!! Site Placement Day goes something like this: 83 PC trainees impatiently mill around in a large conference room, waiting for the site managers to hand out different colored folders that indicate the province at which you will serve. Yellow is for gansu, pink for Sichuan, green for guizhou, and blue for Chongqing. The first thing you look for is the color of the folder handed to you, and then you quickly decipher the name of the city written in large font on the front page, in which you will live (ranging from population 6,000 to 15 million).
My eyes darted around frantically for the first minute or two at a blur of colored folders being passed around… dear god please don’t give me a blue folder – I cant stand 102 degree summers… and please no pink, lots of natural disasters recently, and that tone-deaf accent… green would be okay, nice scenery but no heating in the winter… until I received a YELLOW folder!! I am happy to announce I will be teaching at a university in Lanzhou for the next two years!
Lanzhou was once an important stop along the ancient silk road 2,000 years ago, linking the eastern world to central asian kingdoms, persia, and rome. today, the city is home to 3 million people (medium size, by Chinese standards) and is the provincial capital of Gansu. The culture of north-west China is heavily influenced by Hui-muslim and Zhang- Tibetan religions and customs. We were warned that Gansu and Guizhou are some of the poorest regions of China, but in a provincial capital living standards are drastically different from those in the countryside, and on a day to day basis we will still be living decent, middle class lives.
Two days later after all the excitement settled down, the Peace Corps volunteers were sent off to spend three full days at their new sites. For some volunteers this meant a quick, two hour bus ride to check out their future campus and homes- good for them! For us in Lanzhou it was a 20 HOUR TRAIN RIDE (all the hard sleepers sold out, so we were just sitting on our asses, eating ramen, and making small talk forever) in each direction! Some volunteers had even longer rides, up to 26 hours one way. All for a three day stay. But hey, this is PC and part of the experience is *the struggle* and toughing it out.
To be honest, the scenery of the train ride was beautiful, and in the late afternoon sun we passed through rivers and lush, forested mountains in northern Sichuan. When we woke up in the morning, the landscape was completely bare- the hills and mountains were striped with various hues of yellow and brown, carved from a million years of relentless sandy wind, and scorched with little vegetation. We officially arrived in Gansu!
At Lanzhou, I met up with Mr. Zhou, Mr. Gu, and Mr. Lin (who I later found out was only 21 and I didn’t need to call him “Mr. Lin” all the time). They were men from the university and took me to have the famous handpulled “lanzhou la mian” noodles for breakfast, and dropped me off at my apartment to shower and relax. I checked the map on my phone and realized I was on the outskirts of the city. (first thought: OMG, am I in the Bronx of Lanzhou?!?) luckily from what I understand, there’s no neighborhood in Lanzhou like the Bronx, and being a less affluent city, there’s also no posh Tribeca or Upper West Side either. This city can’t be defined in the context of New York neighborhoods, and I just have to figure things out on my own.
What I do know is I have a shopping mall and super market across the street, a vegetable market right outside my apartment complex, and plenty of (mostly noodle) restaurants in all directions near where I live. This is probably a good time to learn how to cook, and the former volunteer that lived in my apartment left me a rice cooker, which I now have to learn how to use 🙂 there are also a few buses down the block that will take me downtown (about 25 minutes though its only a 3km drive) and to my campus (10 to 15 minutes) depending on traffic.
The three days were full of filling out forms, opening a bank account (I now have 200RMB, or roughly $31.00 USD, deposited in the bank of china!!), inspecting my apartment to ensure it is up to Peace Corp standard, meeting the Dean of the English Department- Mr. Jiang, who speaks perfect British English – to learn about my classes (freshman oral English, with extremely low level students, almost all female), and learning the three important rules of the classroom (1. no talking about politics, 2. no talking about religion, and 3. no dating students. Since 1. I’m progressive but apolitical, 2. I am apathetic toward organized religion, and 3. I absolutely do not date younger, I assured him that I would have no problem with these restrictions).
Later I took a tour of the city, near the downtown area. I did some hiking to get a good view of the city, which straddles the mighty yellow river and is surrounded by mountains on all sides.
By the end of my stay I was exhausted, but definitely looking forward to spending two years in Lanzhou.
The 4th day I got up early and headed back onto the train leaving for Chengdu. The second time around, 20 hours went by a little faster, mostly because (at my host mom’s suggestion) we figured out a trick where you could stay in the less-cramped, air-conditioned dining cart for as long as you wanted, so long as you kept buying the train’s overpriced dinners, midnight snacks, and breakfast.
I met THE COOLEST yuppies from Urumqi (Xinjiang province, which we are absolutely forbidden from visiting while in the Peace Corps) in the dining cart. They were being loud and rowdy, smoking/ eating dinner /drinking beer and baiju well past midnight. We started chatting and became quick friends, drinking beer and playing the Chinese card game “screw the landlord” to kill time. They were taking a week off from their jobs – a police officer, entrepreneur, dance teacher, accountant, and a doctor (who I noticed drank/ smoked way more than the others, but whatever, life is short) – heading toward Yunnan, and for whatever reason they collectively felt the need to suffer through a 20 hour train ride instead of taking a short flight to Chengdu.
Eventually they found a way to upgrade to the hard beds at 6AM, with five hours still left to go, and we said our goodbyes; I’m grateful we met and will certainly visit them two years down the road!