Lanzhou, China

  • Date
  • 14 April 1999

14 April 1999 – Lanzhou, with three million people, is a thriving city full of new, high-rises and tired, old Communist cement buildings. The streets bustle with young people in modern clothes of tight denim and platform tennis shoes.

“Stick with us and we’ll show you China,” Jim joked with our 34-year-old interpreter Mr. Yuan, who is a boyishly handsome government employee. Everywhere we turn in China, Mr. Yuan tells us, “This is a first for me.” With Mr. Juan’s help – and yet another first for him, we found Lanzhou’s Cultural Palace Teahouse, which Jim remembered from a 1990 visit. Upon entering, an old man, who looked at least 100, greeted us wearing an old Mao suit and big circular glasses, like President Jiang Zemin wears. The old man escorted us to a small wooden table close to the stage. Obediently, we sat in green lawn chairs and young, beautiful women served us tea, with lichee nuts and enormous rocks of sugar, in small porcelain bowls topped with lids. A Chinese opera underway showcased heavily made-up male performers, many dressed as women, wearing ornate costumes. The mostly male audience clapped and showed appreciation by throwing large, colorful scarves sold by the teahouse onto the stage. The scarves are Chinese paid applause.

Afterwards, we walked through several blocks of the restaurant district and picked one with the prettiest girls in the door. Inside stood stocked fish tanks, a small pond filled with turtles and frogs, and cages of ducks, chickens and snakes. Jim decided on a snake still squirming in a bin. With enormous scissors, a young man cut off the head in the front of the restaurant and the movement stopped slowly in the slinky creature. The man continued cutting down the length of the snake, pulling out the long red internal parts. The blood was drained and Jim’s snake headed to the kitchen.

Seated, for fear my choice might be slaughtered in front of me, I ordered Lanzhou Duck, a take-off on Peking Duck, and broccoli with garlic and rice. Mae Wang, our sweet, teenage waitress delivered the snake, now pink in color, fried in a light batter. “Tastes like succulent chicken,” Jim proclaimed after chewing a bit. The Lanzhou Duck included only crispy skin, not the meat of the duck, made into soup and sold to someone else.

More snake came with Mae Wang. This time the gall bladder in Chinese liquor, which she advised Jim, “Custom says to drink this for your health.” So he did. Then the blood of the snake arrived, and we were told, “Drink this to improve your skin.” Finally something Jim could not stomach! “My skin is okay,” he exclaimed.