Tea in Lanzhou
Many parts of China have their own recipes and their own brews for preparing tea, but it can be difficult for the visitor to discover them unless on a formal tour, and even then much depends on being with a knowledgeable guide.
In Lanzhou, there are several types of tea that are particularly popular.
The first is called Sanpaotai, where the tea is stirred with several loganberries and a chunk of rock sugar. It is available in many of the cities parks, and is reputed - as is often the case with tea in China - to be a health tonic.
The second may be a little harder to find, and is known as Guan Guan tea, which is made by farmers in the Lanzhou Municipality (a huge area by the way) in small earthenware teapots. The tea is simmered for hours on a fire of tree roots, and table salt and the kernels of walnuts are added. It is served in tiny cups, enough only for a couple of sips and is very bitter and extremely strong. It is generally a breakfast drink to really wake people up with a bang.
OK, I've had a couple questions about it, so I'm going to answer for the record... Yes, I drank yak butter tea with Tibetan nomads (see my Xiahe travelogue). Yes, it is god-awful. I consider myself fairly adventurous in terms of trying new things but this stuff is really bad. Everything in the Tibetan parts I was at smells of yak butter or yak meat, which is a smell you aren't soon to forget, but it's the tea that I really can't get out of my mind. As far as I can tell, it's rancid yak milk mixed with yak butter and heated all day, salted waaay too much, and then served to unsuspecting visitors like myself. Of course, it would be rude not to drink it when offered, but make sure you only get a little bit if they're offering. Blech.
Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu province, has the feel of a frontier town, people stop there to stock up on supplies and traditional medicines (which are laid out along all the streets) before heading to more rural areas. The city is very diverse Hui Muslims, Uigher Muslims, Chinese, Pakistanis, and Tibetans. The city is surrounded by mountains as it borders the Tibetan plateau.
The night markets are really neat - I recommend eating some of the kebabs and other foods available in stalls there and skipping the restaurants. The picture above is me in the night markets.
If you go down by the Yellow river in the evening you're likely to find people of all ages hanging out - doing Tai Chi, playing chess or majong, and students who gather there. The grounds there are really nice and you can meet some really friendly local students.
From Lanzhou you might consider heading south into Gansu for a day or two, there are some really interesting Hui towns and the famous Tibetan Labrang Monastery in Xiahe - definitely worth the visit, especially if you're not going to be able to make it further into Tibet. It's a world away from Lanzhou in only a few hours' drive.
Even better than Lanzhou... I've included travelogues to two other towns in Gansu, with lots of great pictures so please check them out. Xiahe is a little Tibetan town, and Dunhuang is the home of the famous Buddhist cave paintings on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert.