Old Version
Outside In

Pulling Power

More than its namesake beef noodle dish, Lanzhou offers a glimpse of Yellow River culture on the edge of the desert

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

Panoramic views of downtown Lanzhou are best experienced from the top of White Pagoda Hill

Lanzhou in Northwest China’s Gansu Province may be capital of beef noodle soup, but that is certainly not the only point of interest in the city. Nestled between mountains to the north and south, on the edge of the Gobi Desert and astride the Yellow River, the city sits at the beginning of the Hexi Corridor, gateway to the Silk Road and all points west. The Gansu capital used to suffer from relatively serious air pollution about 10 years ago, but during my weeklong stay, that no longer seemed to be a problem.  

More often than not, Lanzhou is first met through a steaming bowl of meaty broth noodles. Lanzhou beef noodle restaurants can be found in almost any town around the country, and with the abundance of it, one can become highly picky about the quality. “There are people from Lanzhou everywhere!” exclaimed one resident when asked about the nationwide popularity of this dish.  

Given the abundance of mouthwatering food on offer in the city, I committed to walking everywhere, so I could reward myself with a feast in the evening. Lanzhou boasts two great night markets, and possibly more if you’re lucky. The most popular for tourists is the Zhengning Road night market. Busiest from sunset onwards, the market boasts a variety of noodles, dumplings, baked naan bread, grated potato pancakes, and more than I would have liked, boiled whole sheep heads and intestines, and even barrels of local draft beer to wash the feast down. However, given that the market is a popular tourist destination, you might need to push through the crowds or line up for the more popular stalls. 

In my wanderings, I chanced upon another night market not so far from the first, but much less crowded and boasting an even larger variety of dishes. As is often with popular night markets, dishes that are the “signatures” of the city are recycled in every fourth stall, and one can end up walking the long food street only to encounter the same dishes over and over again. On the contrary, the accidentally found food market along Nanguan Minzu Fengwei Street is much less crowded, and many restaurants have plastic tables and seats outside, where you can relax while nibbling without being pushed around.  

The locals are proud of their Yellow River beer, but those looking to explore more gourmet flavors can try Gansu wine. Not strictly from Lanzhou, rather from Zhangye further along the ancient Silk Road, Gansu wine is worth a try. For around 120 yuan (US$17) you can get a decent Cabernet Sauvignon to complement your next bowl of noodles or Chinese barbecue. Gansu wines can be found in larger supermarkets or liquor stores.  

Besides my evident love for street food markets that I could spend days wandering around, Lanzhou also has a few spots suitable for history and culture lovers. The city’s landscape is dotted with minarets stretching from many mosques due to the city’s large Muslim population. Many of them were still closed to visitors because of the pandemic, but probably the most impressive is the Chinese curved roof-style mosque in the middle of Nanguan Minzu Fengwei Street, where the food market lies. The other mosques in the city, while impressive in their size and elegant minarets, are mostly your usual construction of white or eggshell glossy tiles and look much better from a distance. 

Another great way to see more of the city faster is getting higher up to enjoy the scenery. On the northern side of the Yellow River lies White Pagoda Hill. You can take a cable car over the river from the southern bank, but climbing should not take longer than 40 minutes unless you dawdle. During the climb, you can visit a small Buddhist temple nestled on the side of the hill. The White Pagoda lies on the very top, where, after walking around clockwise three times as is customary for Lamaist stupas, you can soak in the view and have a cup of tea from the vendors. The dense foliage shades most of the climb and so it should not be too strenuous even during the hot summer days.  

Another half a day could be spent in Gansu Provincial Museum. At the time of visiting, it had a Silk Road exhibition and one dedicated to the medical staff fighting the pandemic on top of the usual artifacts like ceramics, bronzeware and jade, as well as exhibits on fossils and paleontology.  

While the Yellow River’s strong current and milk tea-colored water may not be too inviting for a swim, you can instead enjoy a trip on the raft. The rafting stations, found on the southern bank of the river, beckon visitors to try out the rafts made out of blown up whole sheepskin. Not to worry, it isn’t just air-filled sheep skins tied together: the raft is held together by a sturdy frame. If animal-based rafts are not your glass of Yellow River beer, stroll on embankments beside the river. It is a great way to experience city life, where the adjacent green areas fill with other tourists, dancing aunties or avid karaoke singers. A couple of other Lanzhou attractions lie right on the pedestrian road on the southern bank. The city proudly displays wooden watermills claiming their design is unique to Lanzhou. There is even a garden dedicated to the waterwheels, so important were they in Lanzhou’s history. Further west, a sculpture of Yellow River Mother is a popular picture spot. The Yellow River, while historically flooding numerous times and destroying cities among it, has also provided a rich land and, in turn, food for much of Chinese civilization.  

Lanzhou can be an intense weekend trip or a relaxed week’s holiday. Locals are friendly and will try to help or give advice for the best spots to see or places to eat even without asking, and that is the ultimate sign of hospitality. As per the latest visit, foreigners might have trouble finding a place to stay, but the situation should improve after pandemic prevention measures are lifted. However, to avoid difficulties, it is always better to call and reserve ahead. Otherwise, heading to the local police station to ask for a hotel that foreigners can stay in may be the last, but also a very effective resort.

Many food options available on Zhengning Road are halal