The streets were empty and uninteresting, so I picked a taxi at random, and said: "Let's go south."
Wherever we get to, I said.
Lanzhou lies 1,200 km west of Beijing, in a west-east valley through which flows the Yellow River. The mountain immediately to the south of the city center is Lanshan. We made for there, but were stopped at a railway crossing, where we waited for half an hour as three massive cargo trains passed by, strung with hundreds of oil wagons.
"I was born in Lanzhou," said my taxi driver. "I have never been anywhere else. Lanzhou people tend to stay put, where we were born. I know of some people who have left to do business elsewhere – Urumqi, other places. But I wouldn't go."
We passed over the railway track, through brown brick slums and up the winding mountain road. The city below was disappearing in a thick grey soup.
"What is the best thing about Lanzhou?" I asked.
"The summer is great, the best climate in China. You don't sweat like in other cities. Other than that … I don't know. The pollution is pretty bad. That is not mist," he said, gesturing to the soup. "That is pollution. But not as bad as it was. You should have seen it a few years ago."
Lanshan was still snowy in late February, and the road was icy.
"Come again in the summer. Many nights, I bring my wife and daughter up here during the summer and we enjoy the cool clean air."
We stopped at an open air cafe on the side of the mountain, people sipping tea seated on deckchairs with the temperature somewhere around minus 5 Celsius. The tea – the traditional northwest sweet tea with fruit, sugar and other bits and pieces thrown in – cost 8 yuan (one US dollar) per cup.
"Down below it would cost RMB5, but they have to bring the water up the mountain so the cost is higher."
As we drove back down, we startled a wild pheasant which flew off up the loess slope. "There are lots of wild rabbits here too, but there is a strict ban on hunting. You can hunt outside of Lanzhou in the wild areas, but not me. No time."
There are 5,000 taxis in Lanzhou, and there is a weird system in place based on odd and even license-plate numbers, whereby only half the taxis are supposed to be on the road on any working day – weekends and holidays not included.
So my driver has two or three days holiday a week, depending on which way the numbers fall. He has to pay a fixed fee of RMB4,500 a month to the state-run taxi company, and after that can keep anything left over from gas and maintenance costs. That adds up to around RMB1,000-1,500 a month take-home income.
"Enough? No. We have to work really hard for it, we never stop. I have one driver friend who has urinary tract problems because we have no time to even take a piss."
We drove west to the other part of the barbell that is Lanzhou – the heavy industrial center of Xigu, where in the 1950s the Russians built the huge petrochemical plants which are the base of Lanzhou's economy. We passed many people wearing white caps – the Moslem Hui people with whom the Han Chinese share this part of the world.
"We get on pretty well with the Hui people these days, although they can be pretty violent. When there are arguments involving Hui people, it can get bloody."
Lanzhou city is growing and changing fast. The population was 2.8m five years ago, and is now 3.2m, not including the many transient workers from the poor rural parts of Gansu who come to Lanzhou seeking work and a better life. The one-child policy is still in force for Han Chinese – two children are allowed for Hui and other minority people. But the policy is becoming irrelevant, said my driver, who has an 11- year-old daughter."
"Many people feel now that one is enough. One is already a big economic burden, so even if they were allowed to have two, most probably wouldn't. There are the tuition fees for English, for instance. It's expensive. But if you have enough money you can get approval for a second child. If I had RMB500,000, I would definitely have another kid. There are three sisters and two brothers in my family. Both my brother and I have one daughter each, so I would love to have a son to carry on the family name. But I don't have the money."
How is your daughter doing in school?
"She is good at math, but terrible at English. We pay for her to attend a cram school, but it is not much use. I hope she will be able to get to university, but you know there are a lot of graduates who are unemployed, and a lot of them end up as ordinary workers in the factories.
"Does your wife have a job?
"No. But she does sales in a market, selling clothes. No salary, it just depends on how things go. Sometimes she makes RMB1,000 in a month, sometimes nothing at all."
So how is life now compared to before? "Oh, much better. At the very least we all eat well these days. I look at what the school kids have for lunch, and it's amazing – hamburgers, ham. Back when I went to school in the 1970s, all we had to eat was dried sweet potato chips. Then again, it's not all good. Some of these kids just sit around all day at home and eat. No exercise. They get fat."
He looked at me.
"You foreigners drink milk every day, right? I can't stand it. Same with my daughter. But my wife says I have to set a good example and drink milk every day. There's lots of goodness in milk, I know. We want her to grow strong. But I prefer tea."
Do you have a PC at home?
"No, not yet, but all my brothers and sisters do. I will probably get a PC for my daughter when she starts Middle School in September next year."
We were by now in the industrial zone of Xigu, the air clearly more filthy than in Lanzhou's city center. "That is a glass factory, but I understand business is really bad. And that is a cotton factory – the same. They are state enterprises, you see. It seems like the only way these factories can survive is if they are taken over by private entrepreneurs. And the bigger the factory, the bigger the problem, it seems."
At the heart of Xigu is the massive Lanzhou Petrochemical plant, a subsidiary of the China National Petroleum Corp and a key part of China's heavy industrial base since the Soviet experts helped them build it in the 1950s. Lanzhou Petrochemical has been firing workers, my taxi driver said, but the word on the street is that it is doing okay in the midst of all the tectonic changes in China's economy. Overall, he was positive about these changes.
"Anyway, the result of the reform process is that if you are capable and work hard, you can make money. And if you are lazy you are going to have a tough time."
We were now driving east, back towards central Lanzhou. I asked about the officials who run Lanzhou and Gansu province. What do you think of them?
"All the top officials here are from elsewhere. Everyone sees them as just using Lanzhou as a springboard in their careers. They don't seem to do a whole lot for us, and Lanzhou seems to be falling behind. Even Xining city (in Qinghai province, to the west of Lanzhou) is growing faster than we are."
When a big leader comes from Beijing and they do a big meeting with the ordinary people, only police and official family members are allowed to go. It is pretty funny. I guess they are worried people would start to say something critical."
We were now in central Lanzhou, the streets broad and lined with buildings, apparently built in the past five years.
"Most of the old city has been pulled down. Visitors ask me to take them to see the old areas of the city. They're gone."
Do people miss them? "There would be no point in missing them."