Five Days In Lanzhou

Was that Paladin (Richard Boone) down at the stables?  Marshal Dillon (James Arness) over at the saloon? 

Lanzhou is in Gansu Province in China's Wild West, a two-hour plane ride from Beijing.  Last week I spent five days there giving talks for NRDC's China Environmental Law Project and eating the best street food I've ever had. 

Lanzhou is a fast-growing city of 4 million or so, hemmed in by nearby mountains and bisected by the Yellow River.  It has China's worst air pollution, a dubious honor indeed.  The combination of nearby coal-fired powerplants, heavy traffic, local and regional heavy industry, and soil blown in from the nearby plains and desert means that the locals seldom see the sun.  I didn't. 

A word about the food.  Lanzhou is famous for its la mian noodles -- hand-pulled noodles in a complex, spicy broth with slices of brisket.  My first day in Lanzhou, a local took me to what she said was the best noodle shop in town.  The next day, another local took me to a different best shop in town, deriding the other place as just for tourists.  Both were better than any Asian noodle dish I've ever had.  There is also the Night Market, several blocks of food stalls where grilled lamb skewers, fish, noodles (of course) and some stuff I couldn't identify and wouldn't eat are for sale. 

Aside from the food, I was in Lanzhou to give two talks, one on injunctive relief in endangered species cases under U.S. law, and one on environmental litigation in the U.S.  The endangered species talk, given to an audience of Chinese environmental lawyers and grass-roots organizations, was pertinent to a proposed dam project on the Yangtze River that will wipe out an enormous fish reserve that includes very rare populations of the giant Yangtze sturgeon and Chinese paddlefish. 

The day after I left, construction on the dam started, without any reasonably fair, sufficient environmental review or public comments.  Things get built quickly in China, and those who think we should emulate this in the U.S. are invited to spend a year or two in Lanzhou breathing the sooty, dusty air and drinking the polluted water.  My second talk was to an auditorium full of law students who asked me some very thought-provoking questions about the Kyoto Protocol and U.S. relations with China. 

After Lanzhou, Beijing seems calm and orderly in comparison.  As I am writing these words, we are enjoying a true "blue sky day," thanks in part to high winds.   I am convinced that the people of China want the same things we do:  clean air, fresh water, and a sound environment.  NRDC isn't riding into town with six-guns like Marshall Dillon or Paladin, but we are helping China to get the job done.