The first major city along the Yellow River (Huáng Hé), Gānsù’s capital has been an important garrison town since ancient times. Following the communist victory and the city’s integration into the expanding rail network, Lánzhōu developed quickly, perhaps too quickly – for a time in the late 1990s it was considered the world’s most polluted city.
After travelling for hours towards Dūnhuáng (Blazing Beacon), the monotonous desert landscape suddenly gives way to lush, green cultivated fields with mountainous rolling sand dunes as a backdrop. The area has a certain haunting beauty, especially at night under a star-studded sky.
Jiāyùguān & Around
Jiāyùguān marks one of the defining points of the Silk Road. Following the construction of the Ming-dynasty fort here in 1372, Jiāyùguān came to be known colloquially as the ‘mouth’ of China, while the narrow Hexi Corridor, leading back towards the nèidì (inner lands), was dubbed the ‘throat’.
The southeast of Gānsù holds some of the prettiest country in northwest China. Tamped earthen houses and terraced wheat and corn fields are interspersed with lush, forested hills, and the Silk Road remnants at Tiānshuǐ and Luòmén are in relatively good condition compared with much of what you’ll see to the west.
Straddling the border between Sìchuān and Gānsù is Lángmùsì (Taktsang Lhamo in Tibetan), a rural Tibetan village nestled among steep grassy meadows, evergreen forests and snow-clad peaks. An enchanting place, surrounded by countless red and white monastery buildings and with numerous possibilities for hikes and horse treks, it’s easy to spend a few relaxing days here.
Píngliáng is a quintessentially booming Chinese mid-size town. The busy shop-lined streets hardly seem like the sort of place a Taoist immortal would want to hang around, and, in fact, all of these folks have wisely retired to Kōngtóng Shān – the main reason for visiting the area.
In the foothills of the icy Qílián Shān range lie the former Tibetan and Chinese Buddhist grottoes of Mǎtí Sì (Horse Hoof Monastery; admission Y45). While the area isn’t a national park, it very well could be, with kilometres of trails rising up along the high ridges overlooking the Hexi Corridor.
Located near one of the legendary cradles of Chinese civilisation, Tiānshuǐ is famous for the nearby Buddhist caves at Màijī Shān and the less interesting Fu Xi Temple in Qínchéng. Booming Tiānshuǐ is the second-largest municipality in Gānsù, but it’s not too overwhelming and is a pleasant first stop for those following the Silk Road west.