Yellow River of Sorrows

Lanzhou

Earlier spring, we were in Lanzhou, out West, Gansu province, upper reaches of the Yellow River–China’s second longest, after the Yangtze. It is, I read, China’s river of sorrow, for its history of horrific floods, some of history’s deadliest natural disasters.

Taoist fortunetellers, Lanzhou

In a 50-year period between 1887 and 1931, Yellow River floods killed an estimated seven million people, including in epidemics that followed.

Lanzhou’s famous beef noodles

Notoriously, during the second Sino-Japanese War, Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists created a man-made Yellow River flood (not here but to the east) to halt the enemy advance, killing perhaps a million Chinese people and no one knows how many Japanese soldiers.

Lanzhou

The floods’ cause (in part) is in the name: the “yellow” is silt, from a fine, easily eroding rock (loess) that collects and raises the river till it spills over. (Loess is finer than sand, carried by wind, mostly quartz, highly subject to erosion.) We called that beige stuff “Gobi sand” and it got in our eyes, packed into our ears, and had to be dumped out of pockets and bags for days. OK, it was sandstorm season. But never have I seen a dustier place than Lanzhou. Not inches of dust, but piles a foot high in the dustpan after people swept. Mounds collecting indoors in room corners, outdoors against buildings, streets.

Lanzhou: Muslim community

The river’s not so “yellow”– more brown. Industrial waste has rendered it (source: UN) unfit for drinking and also for agricultural and even for industrial use.

These inflated sheep carcasses keep afloat rafts that locals and visitors hire (with a driver) for fun, to float along the Yellow’s filthy length. We did not partake. It made me sick to look at them.

This blog has attracted a VERY nice American follower who lives in Langzhou and I apologize, Dave, but in spite of the cool provincial museum (home to the famous, iconic bronze horse, one of the best archaeological treasures, almost thrown into a smelter during the Cultural Revolution), the awesome hand-uplled beef noodles(flavored with cinnamon & star anise as well as ginger and cilantro) and several active temples & mosques, I do not hope to return to Lanzhou.

Old Street, Lanzhou

And the Yellow River, past and present, made me sad.

Mosque-on-a-boat? Yellow River

4 comments on “Yellow River of Sorrows

  1. kennedydk says:

    I so appreciate you writing this. It is so much better than anything I can do. I have been teaching in Lanzhou as a sub since February 21 and I leave here for home, Missouri, on the 3rd of July. With your permission, I am going to send people to this story to be able to capture just a little but of Lanzhou….thanks for this…….and a big thank you for the connection with Kevin and Richard. Love to you and your family.

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  2. […] Words Football,” featuring tiny tots screaming “Vagina” and (2) repulsively inflated sheep carcasses — which we blogged about after almost vomiting at them in Lanzhou, at the edge of the Gobi. […]

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  3. […] as NYC is home to many from Fujian province, down the coast by Taiwan. Yet we saw two Lanzhou beef noodle places, a dish from China’s west (yet loved everywhere) — flavored with 20 […]

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  4. […] course (tragically), the most deadly natural disaster in human history is believed to be the 1931 flooding in central Chin of the Yellow River, (which we discussed in “Yellow River of Sorrows“) in which as many as 4 million people […]

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