Well, the Chinese equivalent of Spring Break, the May Day holiday, has yet to begin, but the school agreed to let me go a day early in exchange for a pay cut.
I'm now sitting in an Internet cafe in Lanzhou, an industrial city in Gansu Province. Tomorrow, I'll be leaving for Xiahe which, while in the jurisdiction of Gansu, is culturally predominantly Tibetan and home to the Labrang Monastery, which is one of the most prominent monasteries and an important pilgrimage destination in Tibetan Buddhism. Suffice it to say, I'm eager as all hell to go. I might also swing over to another Tibetan town called Tongren, in Qinghai Province.
When I was in the US, I used to get allergies every Spring, namely rhinitis. However, after coming to China, they mysteriously disappeared, never seeming to surface when I was in Guilin and Lianyungang. However, since I have come to the Northwest, they have returned in full force. I spent last night on the train unable to sleep until about 6 in the morning because every time I laid down on the bunk, my nose would plug up and I would find myself unable to breathe through it.
Otherwise, the train trip was nice. We went through Gansu during the daytime, so I got to see all the beautiful desert scenery. I met this Pakistani med student who was on his way to Zhengzhou (Henan) to pick up his degree - we had a good talk into the wee hours of the morning in the dining car, and we chatted for a while today as well before the train arrived here.
Some things should be said about Lanzhou. The city is actually fairly affluent, despite being the capital of one of China's poorest provinces, and they city government has done a lot to make the city welcoming for tourists. The food is pretty good (it's the home of "lamian," which are noodles made by pulling and folding specially-made dough into something kind of like angel-hair pasta), it's home to a large Hui (Chinese Muslim) community, and the people here are really friendly.
Now the bad side: pollution. One interesting factoid I learned before coming here is that Lanzhou is, in fact, the most polluted city in the world. You see, after the Communists took over in '49, they decided to designate Lanzhou as an industrial center for the manufacture of chemicals. Well, it just so happens that Lanzhou is in an arid valley surrounded by desert, so what happens is all the pollution gets trapped in this thick blanket of smog that covers the city 24-7. And it stinks. I don't mean that it "sucks," I mean it literally stinks, and the air is so bad that it actually makes the eyes sting.
I don't mean to diss on residents' civic pride - but I can't wait to get out of here. I swear, this entire city is one giant environmental disaster.