For over a millennium Silk Road camel caravans wound their way through the mountain and desert corridor of Gānsù, transferring goods and ideas between China and Central Asia along the world’s first information superhighway. Travellers, pilgrims, artists and merchants entered the Middle Kingdom using a string of oasis towns as stepping stones. The Buddhist art, military garrisons, beacon towers and tombs they left behind form one of the Silk Road’s richest treasure troves.
While Gānsù is most known for its Silk Road legacy – the series of ancient Buddhist grottoes stretching from the eastern edge to western tip – what makes the province truly spectacular is the unexpected variety of landscapes and peoples within its elongated borders.
Despite its rich history, an unforgiving arid climate has made life hard here. Outside of the oases, most of the land west of the capital is barely habitable, and up until recently Běijīng did little to relieve the area of its isolation. Even with the completion of the vital Lánzhōu–Ürümqi railway line in 1963 and the subsequent development of mining and industry, Gānsù remains one of China’s five poorest provinces.
Nevertheless, for travellers Gānsù is a highlight of the northwest. The province contains an unimaginable trove of Buddhist paintings and sculptures, a fascinating glimpse of the vibrant Tibetan culture of Amdo and the idyllic, little-visited rural scenery in the southeastern corner. Some of the diverse people you might meet on your way include the Hui, Tibetans, Mongols, Salar, Dongxiang and Kazakhs.