Must see attractions in Gansu

  • Top ChoiceSights in Dunhuang

    Mogao Grottoes

    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.

  • Sights in Southern Gansu

    Bǐnglíng Sì

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Xiahe

    Labrang Monastery

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Tianshui

    Maijishan Grottoes

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Zhangye

    Big Buddha Temple

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Jiayuguan

    Jiayuguan Fort

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Xiahe

    Snowland Art

    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.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Dunhuang

    Singing Sands Dune

    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.

  • Sights in Wuwei

    Tiantishan Grottoes

    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.

  • Sights in Dunhuang

    Yadan National Park

    The weird, eroded desert landscape of Yadan National Park is 180km northwest of Dunhuang, in the middle of the Gobi Desert’s awesome nothingness. A former lake bed that eroded in spectacular fashion some 12,000 years ago, the strange rock formations provided the backdrop to the last scenes of Zhang Yimou’s film Hero. Tours (included in the price) are confined to group minibuses (with regular photo stops) to preserve the natural surrounds, but the desert landscape here is so dramatic you will still feel like you're at the ends of the earth.

  • Sights in Jiayuguan

    Overhanging Great Wall

    Running north from Jiayuguan Fort, this section of the Great Wall is believed to have been first constructed in 1539, though it was reconstructed in 1987. It’s a reasonably energetic hike up the equivalent of 55 flights of stairs to excellent views of the desert, power stations and the distant, glittering snowcapped peaks from the watchtower at the top (which you can climb up). The Wall is about 9km north of the fort.

  • Top ChoiceSights in Hezuo

    Milarepa Palace Buddhist Temple

    A towering nine-storey layer cake of a temple, the Milarepa Palace is both deeply steeped in mystery and unusual in the Tibetan world as different spiritual leaders from varying sects are worshipped on each floor. The exterior is quite modern, but the interior conveys a seasoned, creaky and musty sense of age coupled with a powerful sense of devotion from the worshippers who flock here and prostrate themselves at the main gate. A taxi here costs ¥2 to ¥3 from the main bus station.

  • Sights in Mati Xiang

    Mǎtí Sì

    Mǎtí Sì translates as 'Horse Hoof Monastery', a reference to when a heavenly horse left a hoof imprint in a grotto. Between the 5th and 14th centuries a series of caves were almost as miraculously built in sheer sandstone cliffs and filled with carvings, temples and meditation rooms. The caves are reached via twisting staircases, balconies, narrow passages and platforms that will leave your head spinning.

  • Sights in Pingliang

    Kongtong Shan

    Kongtong Shan, 11km west of Pingliang, is one of the 12 principal peaks in the Taoist universe. It was first mentioned by the philosopher Zhuangzi (399–295 BC), and illustrious visitors have included none other than the Yellow Emperor. Numerous paths lead over the hilltop past dozens of picturesque (though entirely restored) temples to the summit at over 2100m. While the mountain is an enchanting place to hike, those looking for genuine historical artefacts or ambience may be disappointed.

  • Sights in Dunhuang

    Jade Gate Pass

    The Jade Gate Pass, 78km west of Dunhuang, was originally a military station. Together with Sun Pass, it formed part of the Han dynasty series of beacon towers that extended to the garrison town of Loulan in Xinjiang. Admission includes entry to a section of Han dynasty Great Wall (101 BCE), impressive for its antiquity and lack of restoration; and the ruined city walls of Hecang Cheng (河仓城, Hécāng Chéng), 15km down a side road.

  • Sights in Dunhuang

    Sun Pass

    This Han dynasty military post was one of the two most important gates marking the end of the Chinese empire along the ancient Silk Road. Today, a dusty museum chronicles some of the site's artefacts, but the real draw is the crumbling beacon tower atop Dundun Hill (墩墩山, Dūndūnshān), where a modern viewing platform offers generous vistas of the surrounding Taklamakan Desert.

  • Sights in Wuwei

    Changchengxiang Great Wall

    Running between fields near the village of Changchengxiang (itself named after the Great Wall), this section of Great Wall makes for an interesting excursion from Wuwei. The wall runs for around 600m, a brick-less, tamped-earth fortification that dates to the Ming dynasty. Jump on one of the buses (¥6, one hour) to Changcheng (长城) from the main bus station and ask to be dropped off at the Ming Great Wall (明长城, Míng Chángchéng).

  • Top ChoiceSights in Dunhuang

    Dunhuang Museum

    On the road to Singing Sands Dune is this sparkling museum that takes you on an artefact-rich journey through the Dunhuang area (from prehistoric to Qing dynasty times) via hallways designed to make you feel as if you were exploring the caves. Don't miss the splendid to-scale recreation, decorated with soft pigment, of Cave 45. Another highlight is the excellent Fan Yanyan Centre of Silk Arts display, with its eye-catching styling and gorgeous silk pieces. Take your passport.

  • Sights in Tianshui

    Fuxi Temple

    This hoary Ming dynasty temple was founded in 1483 in honour of Fuxi, the father and emperor of all Chinese people. A statue of Fuxi is in the main hall, surrounded by traditional symbols such as bats, dragons and peonies, motifs also observable in the elegantly carved woodwork. The hall ceiling's original paintings of the 64 hexagrams (varying combinations of the eight trigrams used in the I Ching) is an astonishing sight. A 1000-year-old cypress tree is also in the grounds.

  • Sights in Dunhuang

    Yulin Grottoes

    About 180km south of Dunhuang, the 40-plus caves of the Yulin Grottoes face each other across a narrow canyon. The interior art spans a 1500-year period, from the Northern Wei to the Qing dynasty. Many show a distinctive Tibetan influence. The original carved interior tunnels that formerly connected the caves are intriguing. Excellent English guides are available on-site for ¥15. While the art at the Mogao Grottoes is considered higher quality, the frescoes here are better preserved; there is little of the oxidation and thickening of painted lines so prevalent at Mogao. The only way to get out here is to hire a driver (¥400) for the half-day return journey.