Synonymous with the Silk Road, the slender province of Gansu (甘肃, Gānsù) flows east to west along the Hexi Corridor, the gap through which goods and ideas once streamed between China and Central Asia. The constant flow of commerce left Buddhist statues, beacon towers, forts, chunks of the Great Wall and ancient trading towns in its wake. Gansu offers an entrancingly rich cultural and geographic diversity. Historians immerse themselves in Silk Road lore, art aficionados swoon before the wealth of Buddhist paintings and sculptures, while adventurers hike through desert rockland, ascend sand dunes and tread along high-mountain paths well worn by Tibetan nomads. The ethnic diversity is equally astonishing: throughout the province, the local Hui Muslims act as though the Silk Road lives on; in Xiahe and Langmusi a pronounced Tibetan disposition holds sway, while other minority groups such as the Bao’an and Dongxiang join in the colourful minority patchwork.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Gansu.
The Mogao Grottoes are considered one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in the world. At its peak during the Tang dynasty (618–907), the site housed 18 monasteries, more than 1400 monks and nuns, and countless artists, translators and calligraphers. English-language tours, running at 9am, noon and 2.30pm, are included in the ¥258 'A' ticket admission price, which gives you access to eight caves; the alternative ¥100 'B' ticket is for Chinese-language tours, with access to four caves.
With its relative inaccessibility, Bǐnglíng Sì is one of the few Buddhist grottoes in China to have survived the tumultuous 20th century unscathed. Which is a good thing, as during a period spanning 1600 years, sculptors dangling from ropes carved 183 niches and sculptures into the porous rock of steep canyon walls. The cave art can’t compare to Dunhuang, but the setting, few tourists and the remarkable terraced landscapes you pass getting here make Bǐnglíng Sì unmissable.
With its succession of squeaking prayer wheels (3km in total), hawks circling overhead and the throb of Tibetan longhorns resonating from the surrounding hills, Labrang is a monastery town unto itself. Many of the chapel halls are illuminated in a yellow glow by flickering yak-butter lamps, their strong-smelling fuel scooped from voluminous tubs. Even if Tibet is not on your itinerary, the monastery sufficiently conveys the mystique of its devout persuasions, leaving indelible impressions of a deeply sacred domain.
Set among wild, green mountains southeast of Tianshui, the grottoes of Maijishan hold some of the most famous Buddhist rock carvings along the Silk Road. The cliff sides of Maijishan are covered with 221 caves holding more than 7800 sculptures carved principally during the Northern Wei and Zhou dynasties (AD 386–581). The rock face rises in a steep ascent, with the hundreds of grottoes connected by a series of constructed walkways clinging to the sheer cliff.
Originally dating to 1098 (Western Xia dynasty), this stunning temple contains an astonishing 35m-long sleeping Buddha – China’s largest of this variety and among the biggest clay and wood reclining Buddhas in Asia – surrounded by mouldering arhats (Buddhists who have achieved enlightenment) and Qing dynasty murals. The hall in which Buddha lies is one of the few wooden structures from this era still standing in the land; note the panels of the main doors to the hall and their ancient paintwork.
One of the classic images of western China, this huge fort once guarded the narrow pass between the snowcapped Qilian Shan peaks and the Hei Shan (Black Mountains) of the Mazong Shan range. Built in 1372, it was named the ‘Impregnable Defile Under Heaven’. Although the Han Chinese often controlled territory far beyond here, this was the last major stronghold of imperial China – the end of their ‘civilised world’, beyond which lay only desert demons and the barbarian armies of Central Asia.
Tucked away down the backstreets of Xiahe not far from Labrang Monastery, Snowland Art is a family-style fine art and handicrafts training school set up by the infinitely resourceful and inspiring Canadian artist Kristel Ouwehand (Tenzin Dolma). Tenzin has sought to bring quality and very high standards back to local Tibetan art, through the fostering of skills and ethics in a supportive environment.
Six kilometres south of Dunhuang at Singing Sands Dune, the desert meets the oasis in most spectacular fashion. From the sheer scale of the dunes, it’s easy to see how Dunhuang gained its moniker ‘Shāzhōu’ (Continent of Sand). The view across the undulating desert and green poplar trees below is awesome. You can bike to the dunes in 20 minutes from the centre of Dunhuang. Bus 3 (¥2) shuttles between Shazhou Lu and Mingshan Lu and the dunes from 7.30am to 9pm. A taxi costs ¥20 one way.
By the Huangyanghe Reservoir (黄羊河水库, Huángyánghé Shuǐkù), it's hard to appreciate how massive the 15m-high Shakyamuni Buddha statue at Tiantishan Grottoes is until you reach his truck-sized feet to peer up at his outstretched hand emerging from the cliff face. These 1600-year-old carvings stand majestically in the open air, but the real star is the Buddha, his enormous feet protected from the reservoir's flood by a giant, half-moon dam around which you can walk to see him from varying vantages.