Lanzhou and Environs the Heart of China

What a vast country China is. I am going to tell you about just a part of this fascinating place. In 1998 I was lucky to spend six months helping to reclaim (or more correctly, trying to stem the spread) of the vast deserts which run for thousands of kilometers across the top of China from Afghanistan in the West to the Yellow Sea in the East. On good authority I learnt that these deserts are spreading at the rate of 35,000 hectares a year – they call it “The Rolling Sands” where sand starts to roll and cover fertile black soil. I have to repeat that to myself – 35,000 hectares a year – to let it sink in, as this is such a massive loss of, in most cases, fertile land. This is all about people pressure, as you will see if you go to ‘Pictures’ in my Photo Gallery in the website. To prove this, if you dig down through the sand you will come to black soil, then sand, soil, sand and so on. This dates to when overpopulation happened, then starvation and the death of millions, (such as “The Great Leap Forward”) when the land recovered.

Lanzhou is the most central of the larger towns in the heart of China, approached in my case by rail from Beijing, traveling for two days, mostly up the gorges of the Yellow River. This river is aptly named as these gorges are mostly bounded by massive cliffs of yellow loess, hundreds of meters high, and the river is yellow. Loess is windblown particles of soil, airborne from Mongolia over many years (and to digress, one often can’t see past an outstretched hand in Beijing for this yellow brown dust in the air). Millions of people live in caves in these gorges. On arriving in Lanzhou you see that the river runs down the centre of town through similar gorges, cutting the city in two, a spectacular sight.

Lanzhou mostly services the massive hinterlands around it, but is best known to us here through the famous New Zealander Rewi Alley who settled in China as far back as 1927 and who did amazing work helping the poor people, especially boys, setting up schools under extreme odds during the civil wars, and the emergence of Mao. His last school, the Bailie Oil School (where I talked to the children about desert management) is still going. I have studied Rewi over the last 40 years and he was part of the driver that enticed me to China.

Lanzhou is also the Chinese sister City to Christchurch. It’s a little town by Chinese standards and is the hub, or start off point, south to Chengou, north along the Silk Road to Urumqi and west to the vast uplands of the Tibetan peoples. I spent a week in the city, being grilled by various Tibetan dignitaries over sumptuous dinners and being evaluated as to my worth to help them with their land management problems. This happened wherever I went which was a fascinating process, while not good for the waistband, I must have fitted the ticket as I was whisked, or rather bounced for days over rough mountain tracks to work and live with this culture in their beautiful high meadow and mountain pastures. The Tibetan culture, in its natural farming state, is a beauty to behold and a privilege to be embraced by. (There are 56 minorities in China, with the Han being the majority. I worked with five of these fascinating cultures.)

Back to Lanzhou and off by second class train up the Silk Road, a quick look at Rewi Alley’s second school at Shandong, and away on to Urumqi at the end of the line where I worked with the Uyghur people in The Gobi Desert, but mostly with the Kasak people in the Takelamagan Desert.
My experiences with these fascinating people is food for another story, as within the time allowed in class, I wanted to create a picture of Lanzhou, as the hub of a wheel which radiates out north to Turpan in the Takelamagan Desert, at 152m below sea level (I think the lowest in the world), and west to the Himalayas (and we know the height of them).

I will never forget Lanzhou and hope to accept invitations I have to go back there.