Great Wall Cinema Park and Lanzhou New Area

Every time I head to the airport some 40 miles north of Lanzhou, in the final minutes of my ride I always pass a giant replica Sphinx and Acropolis rising out of the desert dust, and an endless expanse of construction in the background. This week I finally took an hour long bus ride to visit these structures and find out more about “Lanzhou New Area”!

Great Wall Cinema Park

At the edge of Lanzhou New Area sits “the Great Wall Cinema Park” where the Sphinx and Beijing’s Temple of Heaven are casually hanging out. A ticket costs 50 RMB, and another 10 RMB gets you access to a sight-seeing cart, which I took because I wasn’t in the mood to walk across this large but sparsely decorated park/ movie set.Fullscreen capture 6242018 63049 PM.bmp.jpg

The Cinema Park is mish-mosh of cultural heritage sites- Forbidden City to your right, a scaled down Tang Dynasty DaMing Palace to the left…Fullscreen capture 6242018 70316 PM.bmp.jpg

…and then suddenly, a massive Transformer’s head the size of a small hill greets you around the corner.Fullscreen capture 6242018 63118 PM.bmp

I suppose it’s fitting that something Transformers related shows up at this park; the franchise has been hugely popular in China, and several films had extra scenes spliced in with Chinese stars for the mainland market.

I should recommend they add a monument of Kim Kardashian’s ass here too, as she is equally influential around the world, the perfect role model for a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs who will give up anything to make it big and #haveitall! #womenwhowork #bossladyFullscreen capture 6242018 63023 PM.bmp

Anyway, I reach the southern end of the park where the Sphinx is resting. It’s not at all out of place here in the desert, neglected and alone in the sand and dust. I can’t comment on the artistic integrity of the structure (my only planned trip to Cairo was cancelled in 2011 at the height of the Arab Spring). I hate it when citizens fighting for democracy disrupt my well-deserved vacations to authoritarian countries a swing set in front of the Sphinx ruins my perfect selfie!Fullscreen capture 6242018 63037 PM.bmp

Next up is the Parthenon, which I have been fortunate enough to see in 2009 (also near the height of the Greek debt crisis- bad timing all around) It’s likely a 1:1 replica, replete with missing portions of the façade, due to looting by the British asshole Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin from 1801 onward.   Fullscreen capture 6242018 63030 PM.bmp

And then there was this structure a few steps east of the Parthenon, a large cerulean-blue tiled pavilion. Worldly Harrison was so, so certain it came from Shiraz or Isfahan in Iran.

How romantic 浪漫, the idea that two architectural structures from millennia old rival civilizations – both ravaged beyond recognition by the neoliberalism (first Iran in 1953, when a secular and democratically elected Mohammed Mosaddegh was overthrown by the British government and CIA to protect the revenue streams of the oil and gas company known today as BP, and now Greece held hostage by the IMF, European Commission, and European Central Bank for failing to pay back risky, artificially cheap loans originated by private German and French banks [why are ordinary citizens responsible for failed investments made by private financial services groups?!?]) – now sit side by side in an empty movie park, next to Lanzhou airport.

But no, the lady driving my sight-seeing cart tells me it was just a random pavilion built for the Hui people in Lanzhou. My inner historian and faux-economist are crestfallen.

Lanzhou New Area

China is infamous for ghost cities; Ordos in Inner Mongolia is probably the most notorious, a $160 billion USD gleaming modern city meant to be home to one million occupants but is mostly empty a decade after completion. (a photo of Ordos from GettyImages below)gettyimages-125673327.jpg

Municipal governments across China build these mega cities in the middle of nowhere – complete with museums, soccer stadiums, artificial lakes, parks, etc.) to reach public spending/ economic growth quotas, only to find there was never a real demand for these “new development areas” to begin with. Fullscreen capture 6242018 65837 PM.bmp.jpg

I have faith that Lanzhou New Area is different- tens of thousands of Chinese outsiders (外地人) from more provincial parts of Gansu and the west move to Lanzhou each year. There is genuine demand for housing (Lanzhou is sandwiched between mountains on the north and south side- the city cannot physically expand beyond its current borders),

By 2030 one million people are expected to move in as full time residents. There is a promotional video for the new city, stylistically similar to propaganda clips from the Trump and Kim Jong-Un administrations, for interested investors.Fullscreen capture 6242018 42643 PM.bmp

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Lanzhou New Area’s 5 hospitals and 75 public schools are up and running near capacity by the end of the next decade. For now, it’s still a surreal experience to take a bus through the Lanzhou New Area.Fullscreen capture 6242018 63555 PM.bmp

In New York you see the occasional skyscraper built; in Chengdu you might see dozens of residential complex apartments rising simultaneously in the outer city rings. But here, the entire city is still under construction- hundreds of commercial and residential towers are half finished, stretching for miles on end. I wish I had a drone to capture a bird’s eye view of the construction frenzy.Fullscreen capture 6242018 63614 PM.bmp

Vast roads meant for six lanes of traffic are mostly unused. Interestingly, it seems all of the vegetation has already been planted, giving the trees and parks a decade to mature before they are put to daily use- pretty good planning!Fullscreen capture 6242018 63604 PM.bmp

Most of the finished apartments sit empty, but there are pockets of residential life where some people have permanently moved in. I ate a bowl of tomato and egg noodles and asked the guys at the shop about the cost of the apartments- currently under 5,000 RMB per square meter (half of the price in Lanzhou proper, less than 1/15 the price in Tier 1 cities). I should invest in an apartment here, instead of a master’s degree…

Fullscreen capture 6242018 63537 PM.bmpI quietly relished in the experience of riding the new cross-town bus (with new car smell!) as the only passenger; Probably the only time in my life living in China that this will ever happen!



I had the privilege of attending the wedding (as a groomsman, no less!) of my best friends, Monica and Fox! Here are some highlights of all the antics that went down, starting 24 hours before walking down the aisle:Fullscreen capture 632018 91949 PM.bmp

Mylar balloons:
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The gang thought they picked up golden mylar balloons that spelled “LOVE”… but opening the pack, the first couple letters were “H” “P” “D” “Y” and we freaked thinking that we got a “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” set… but after blowing up and sorting out all the balloons it actually said “HAPPY WEDDING”, which was a bit funny but still thankfully relevant. Anyway the balloons were impossible to stick the wall, and letters kept falling off throughout the eveningFullscreen capture 622018 95854 AM.bmp

In a traditional Chinese wedding, the groom and his guests have to go to the bride’s home before the wedding, and beg for her hand in marriage. There are lots of games held to test the groom’s devotion before the bride is set free and can finally leave the house, and I got a taste of how some of this plays out. (on the car ride over I had heard horror stories where the groom was so frustrated/ humiliated with the situation that he leaves without the bride and cancels his own wedding- yikes!!)Fullscreen capture 632018 92119 PM.bmp

So it is a bit like a fantasy video game with a half dozen levels, combining both strength and wits to clear all the challenges and reach the bride. Except instead of demons and goblins we have in-laws, which, if relationships are not properly managed, could be worse than video game monsters 🙂 Fullscreen capture 632018 91450 PM.bmp

Level 1: As soon as the elevator door opens, we step out but realize the door leading to the hallways has been forced closed.. and the first challenge is to rip the door open. There’s a lot of heckling from both sides but the bride’s guests finally relent and we get through unscathed.Fullscreen capture 622018 95930 AM.bmp

Level 2: the apartment door is locked shut. We come prepared with red envelopes and “bribe” various in-laws to open the door for us. A guy pulls out his phone and demands Fox pay him via WeChat – but Fox cleverly says there’s no wifi in the building and he only has 3G, averting a costly showdown. Eventually we give enough money that the front door opens.Fullscreen capture 622018 95938 AM.bmp

Level 3: of course, the bedroom door (where the bride resides) is also locked shut. Monica is trapped in her castle tower with four bridesmaids, who also – not surprisingly – need some red envelopes before we are allowed in. The girls refused to budge for the longest time until the adults were nervous we would all be late for the wedding, and they finally relent.Fullscreen capture 622018 100025 AM.bmp

Level 4: now, things get tricky. Monica presents Fox with a napkin that has been kissed by the five girls, leaving five lipstick stains of various shades. He has to correctly guess which set of lips belongs to his future wife. He guesses incorrectly and the girls pull out a tray of sesame balls, normally a welcome treat, but these have been laced with mint toothpaste and Sichuan peppers.

The groomsmen are sacrificed and take turns eating the sesame balls as punishment. I suspect the game was rigged as Fox’s first four guesses were all – allegedly – incorrect (statistically unlikely), and we are forced to finish the tray of repulsive, stomach-churning snacks.

Level 5: we are presented with a loaf of sliced bread. By this point I was certain there was arsenic and laxatives baked into the crust, but no, it gets more interesting. Using our teeth we must bite the bread into pieces that can be assembled together to form Monica’s surname, Ge . Fullscreen capture 622018 95350 AM.bmpI didn’t even know her last name was Ge, and I have no idea what this character looks like, so I make a bunny with my bread.Fullscreen capture 622018 95957 AM.bmp

We failed! but the wedding was already paid for, so the games continue!

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FINAL LEVEL: Monica’s shoes have gone missing! She can’t possibly leave the house until we find her shoes! They are hidden somewhere in the room. I rip open the wardrobe doors and I’m ready to *TRASH* the closets much to Monica’s shock and horror, but the guys are fast and find a shoe under the bed and another behind the curtain. Yay! Game Over! We get to leave for the banquet, with the closets intact!

Bride Wars: Spring is wedding season in Lanzhou, and it’s impossible for a bride and groom to find a venue just for themselves on the weekends here. There will be multiple weddings going on at once, and this was the scenario we faced as well. Both brides were standing across from each other in the grand foyer greeting their guests; more than once a little kid ran up to greet the wrong bride 🙂 Fullscreen capture 622018 100116 AM.bmp

The wedding planner is meticulous in his plans, and at the start of the banquet the groomsmen and bridesmaids must walk onto the catwalk in unison, paired together by height. Monica and Fox follow and they look so thrilled in the moment – Fox in particular is overwhelmed with emotion. I couldn’t be happier for them, and it was a real treat to see two of my best friends in Lanzhou get married… aww!Fullscreen capture 5312018 11921 PM.bmp.jpg

As groomsmen, its our job to circulate throughout the banquet and force everyone at each table to take a shot of baijiu with the groom. Obviously Fox would be dead if he took 200+ shots, so the responsibility is shared amongst the guys. I was initially looking forward to taking part in these antics, as the tables have *finally* turned, and I could get my revenge and shout at everyone “DRINK YOU WORTHLESS SCUM!” “TAKE A SHOT!!” “AWW, DON’T TELL ME YOUR ON ANTIBIOTICS!” “ARE YOU SICK? DO YOU HAVE A DOCTOR’S NOTE?” after having this happen to me so many times already at other weddings.

But, I would of course be required to drink my share of liquor in return, and – unlike Carey Elwes killing off Vizzini with iocaine powder in The Princess Bride – I haven’t been working on my alcohol tolerance at all these past two years…BattleOfWits…and no one wanted to see a groomsman puking mid-wedding, or worse – drunkenly snatching food off other people’s plates, or throwing a glass of Sprite in a kid’s face, etc – so I was relieved of my duties early and was able to enjoy the rest of the banquet as a mere commoner.

The bridesmaids and groomsmen initially planned to throw a big KTV party later that evening, but we were all so exhausted from the past two days of chaos that we postponed the karaoke madness for another weekend… stay tuned!

Family Affair: a Wedding, the Afterparty

At the end of April I attended the wedding of Ma Jian, the brother in law of my half- first cousin, once removed. He sits on a distant branch of the extended family tree, but we always enjoy running into each other in and around Lanzhou at a relative’s home, or at dinner.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105809 PM.bmp.jpg

Ma Jian’s wedding took place on a Sunday afternoon, at a fancy halal restaurant biking distance from my school. It’s the same restaurant where I met all my relatives for the first time back in September 2016, so it’s only fitting that I’m here again for a final celebration, as my services draws to a close.

I bike there dressed in khakis, a blue short-sleeve polo, and Onitsuka sneakers (the ‘Peace Corps look’ is also the perfect ‘wedding guest look’ in China)! Soon the calm of the morning is scattered by the roaring engines of several rented luxury cars arriving at the restaurant, including a black Range Rover (which ferries the high-spirited 2 year old Ali and his mom Fay), and a black S-class Benz, which Ma Jian and his beautiful wife step out of.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105241 PM.bmp

Two rows of firecrackers leading from the street to the restaurant are set ablaze, and incredibly loud, sizzling popping sounds fill the air. Confetti and glitter are shot into the air from all directions. It’s an entirely noisy affair and we are slowly ushered upstairs to the banquet. I’m tasked with keeping an eye on Ali…Fullscreen capture 5102018 105317 PM.bmp

…as Fay will be busy with her four-month old baby Alara!Fullscreen capture 5102018 105302 PM.bmp

Ma Jian has an enormous family – both of his parents each had seven or eight siblings (his grandparents really took Mao’s words to heart, to go forth and multiply for the strength of the nation), so immediate uncles/ aunts alone make up 15 people, plus spouses, plus kids and grandkids… and it’s a crazy family reunion. There are kids everywhere running around, and I find it hard to keep track of Ali as his cousins and aunts beckon him to play.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105350 PM.bmp

We get settled in, select seats at random, and begin to pick at the dried fruits and sunflower seeds set at each table. Tea is served, along with orange soda and Sprite- following tradition, there is no alcohol on the premise (I’m grateful I don’t have to fight off a token baijiu guy this time around).

Soon the Imam comes and takes the stage, blessing the new couple with his wisdom and words. He talks a bit about the meaning of Islam, says several lines in Arabic, and then ceremoniously knocks over a massive metallic bowl of walnuts and red dates to the ground. The guests rush over and grasp at the dried fruits; I managed to pick up a walnut. Fay tells me these are tokens of fertility and good fortune.  Fullscreen capture 5102018 105255 PM.bmp

The entire ceremony is short, and after just under two hours, guests have finished lunch and head home. I ride back to Fay and Ma Qiang’s home, play with baby Alara, and make plans for the after-party: KTV!!!Fullscreen capture 5102018 105345 PM.bmp

There’s nothing in the world Chinese people love more than singing at KTV, except maybe eating hotpot, huoguo 火锅. Select KTV parlors also serve individual sized huoguo, where each guest receives a small pot of spicy broth over a kerosene burner to dunk raw foods into, to enjoy throughout the night while singing. This is naturally where we ended up – a heaven on earth in downtown Lanzhou – and here we dwelled for the next six hours (3x longer than the wedding banquet itself!)Fullscreen capture 5102018 105331 PM.bmp

The afternoon ceremony may have been a dry wedding, but the KTV afterparty was a completely different story – crates of beer were wheeled in, and a pack of cigarettes was placed next to each hotpot. A wedding is (hopefully) a once in life time experience, and therefore deserves to be celebrated in a monstrous smoky, boozy inferno of camaraderie with like-minded friends and family.Fullscreen capture 5102018 105339 PM.bmp

The guys are playing drinking games, shouting numbers and throwing finger gestures (representing numbers) at one another. Other guests are texting on their phones and making small talk between bites of hotpot. As the sole American and English speaker, I’m busy standing in the corner of the room on a small stage with the mic, checking off a list of songs I was requested to sing: Michael Jackson’s Heal the World, Beyonce’s Single Ladies, Shakira’s Waka Waka, and more…shakira-wakawaka759

…my face gets redder and redder after each song- from the beer, from the lack of breath, from the fumes of chili oil broth and all the cigarette smoke… my eyes are burning and watering, and yet I’m having a wonderful time, drunkenly screaming these song lyrics in a language no one else understands but everyone seems to enjoy immensely, blurrily watching Lanzhou-ren humiliate the newly wed couple with all sorts of hilarious, marginally-sadistic post-wedding drinking games that seem to be the rites-of-passage for a bride and groom to test their love and bond…

…five hours in, no one is speaking Mandarin anymore, and everyone has switched to a Lanzhou dialect I can’t understand… and I’m all for it, knowing I’m likely the only PCV that has gotten this treatment in the 23 years Peace Corps has been stationed in China.

“The Plan of Birth” and more!


I put together a lesson plan for demographics – the study of human populations for a given country. We talked about how China ended its One Child Policy in 2015, and now adheres to a Two Child Policy. Surprisingly, over half my students are not the only child in their families– many are ethnic minorities (Hui Muslims, or Tibetan) and they were not impacted by the One Child Policy when it was enacted in 1979. Families were permitted more than one child if the first was a girl, and in rural communities where my students are from the laws were not strictly enforced.

Family planning was largely successful in China, and the primary punishment for having a second or third child was to pay a heavy fine. I challenged the students to think of the reverse situation- hypothetically, could a government force you into having children?

We look at Japan, a country on the cusp of living off of robot servicing in several decades. Birth rates are among the lowest in the world, and the taxable population continues to shrink every year- while the elderly live longer and longer, siphoning government funds for their pensions and healthcare.6a00d83456fd3269e200e54f1e77c88833-640wi.gif

“You are the prime minister of Japan. Your country will collapse in 100 years unless people have more kids. What rewards and punishments would you create to encourage childbirth?”

Most of the students discussed rewards related to financial incentives (such as tax credits), extended parental leave, and subsidized primary school. They became quite creative with their punishments though, which had me laughing hysterically when I peeked at their notebooks.

A student formally titled his laws “The Plan of Birth” and I have summarized the most cruel and unusual punishments (all against the 8th Amendment of the US Constitution, of course) from the class below:

Those who do not contribute Japan’s birthrate will be punished in the following manners:

Forbidden from going abroad
Must work on weekends
Your pay will be cut in half
You will be defamed terribly in public
Can’t go to restaurants
Forbidden from taking public transportation
Forced to divorce your spouse and automatically paired with a new spouse
Forced to live in a zoo with animals
Cancel your citizenship
If you don’t have children your parents will hate you forever!!

AQI 2000

Fullscreen capture 4122018 102012 PM.bmpAQI: Air Quality Index
Best Case Scenario: naturally occurring sandstorm
Worst Case Scenario: chemical plant explosion in nearby ‘new economic zone’
Permanent Impact to Health: unknown. possibly lung cancer, and other diseases that eat away at the body for inhaling chemicals at a concentration equivalent to smoking three packs a dayFullscreen capture 4122018 94527 PM.bmpFullscreen capture 4122018 94723 PM.bmp

Pedestrian Footbridge

This school year, a new pedestrian footbridge was constructed to connect the two sides of our campus (doomed by fate, a highway splits our school in half along a north – south axis. The first year I was here, we could still risk our lives to cross the highway when the traffic light turned red for precious seconds. The traffic light has since been removed entirely, and the only way to get across campus is to use the new, narrow overpass)

We have a row of student safety patrols on the ground that wear vests and carry signal flags to guide confused / lost peers and ensure we queue in a civilized manner for this perilous journey. To be fair, I took great pride in being a safety patrol once, though I was in sixth grade then, and was there to assist 6 or 7 year olds.Fullscreen capture 4252018 102653 PM.bmp.jpg

The footbridge lights up at night in wild flashes of colors. This is common for most buildings, tunnels, and highways throughout China- kind of tacky from afar, but definitely fun to walk through up close. The bridge at our school flirts with the entire spectrum of the rainbow, but lingers longest on purple. It has a futuristic vibe to it- part Star Trek, part strip club – the perfect setting for rocking out to the Weeknd’s Starboy after a long afternoon of teaching.Fullscreen capture 4112018 114134 PM.bmp