We weren’t in Kansas… er.. Xinjiang anymore, and we could see and smell the difference. Arriving in Lanzhou, a small provincial capital of only 3.6 million people, felt like arriving in China. Skyscrapers towered in every direction, illuminated with flashing neon even at eight o’clock in the morning. From the windows of a city bus we spotted traditional Chinese-style buildings in the dawn light, with their distinctively-shaped ornate rooftops poking around corners. The driver rhythmically pumped the brakes and honked incessantly at rush hour traffic as the bus itself quickly became crowded and chaotic. By the time we reached our destination the sun had completely risen, and looking down the long, straight avenues we got a glimpse of the ultimate telltale sign that we had made it to China: smog.
Lanzhou was once one of the most polluted cities in China, repeatedly ranking within the top 10 during the early 2000s. In recent years the local government has managed to clear the air somewhat by reducing coal usage and restricting industrial enterprises that are big producers of emissions. But despite their efforts, the city is forever cursed by geography, and the mountains surrounding the city succeed in keeping much of the smog in the downtown area.
We took a quick post-lunch hike across the Yellow River and up to the top of Baitashan Park, which is pretty much a small mountain and offered some pretty amazing views of the city—or what we could see of it through the haze. If this is a city that’s seen as a success story for reducing pollution, I hate to think what’s in store in the rest of the country.