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Gansu Travel Guide

Gansu Travel Guide

Gansu Province has been important in Chinese history as the main northern passage to the outside world, and the Silk Road and the Yellow River runs through it.

For tourists, it is the home of popular Silk Road sights, from the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang in the west to the Bingling Grottoes in the major city of Langhou in the east.

Through the Gansu Corridor, a bullet train allows fast travel along the entire length of the province. The train runs from Urumqi in western China to Beijing and makes travel more convenient.

Location of Gansu Province

Gansu Province location in China mapGansu Province is oddly shaped and straddles the Gansu Corridor.

Gansu Province is located in the northwest of China just to the west of Xinjiang. It is a long handle-shaped province with its capital, Lanzhou, on the Yellow River. The Yellow River bisects the eastern half of the province.

Gansu Province borders Shaanxi to the east, Qinghai to the south, Inner Mongolia and Ningxia to the north, and Xinjiang to the west. It is the seventh largest province in China and is 454,000 square kilometers (175,290 square miles) in area. The complex landforms of Gansu include mountainous regions, plateaus, plains, river valleys, and desert.

The Gansu Corridor

mogao grottoes width=Mogao Grottoes

The most prominent geographical feature of Gansu Province is the Gansu Corridor (also called the Hexi Corridor). It is a wide and long area of lowland about a thousand kilometers long between mountains and plateaus. Whoever controlled it controlled easy access to the Far East, the trade, and the military movements.

The huge long basin between the long mountain chains  made the Silk Road possible. It was the easiest way to travel from eastern to western China. It was the main travel corridor that connected the eastern empires and states to the West, and it is the main reason that the historical travel highlights were built.

Travel Highlights

Gansu Attractions Map

Dunhuang in the far west of Gansu, next to Xinjiang (1,100 kilometers or 700 miles from Lanzhou), is the most popular travel highlight where the Mogao Buddhist Caves are the most popular singular historical attraction in the province. Also popular is Mingsha (Singing Sands) Hill and other sites.

Jiayuguan is the second most popular city in Gansu, with the large fort and western end of the Great Wall sites.

In the capital Lanzhou, no particular attraction is outstanding, but there are many things to see and do in the big metropolitan region of about 4,000,000 people in 2018 including seeing the Yellow River and interchanging for onward transportation.

Zhangye City is relativity remote in the desert where the biggest attraction is the Danxia Landform Park, one of the most popular tourist places still off the beaten track, and there are several other attractions too.

Cities of Gansu Province mapCities of Gansu Province

Other Gansu Province Cities and Towns

  • Tianshui has old Silk Road sites. It is the second largest city.
  • Jiuquan is about 23 kilometers from Jiayuguan in western Gansu. There are Silk Road sites there such as the Yulin Grottoes.
  • Wuwei is near the center of Gansu. Two attractions are its Confucius Temple and Tiantishan Grottoes.

Gansu Weather

Zhangye Danxia LandscapeThe Zhangye Danxia landform area is known as “the eye candy of Zhangye.”

Much of Gansu Province is desert land, and precipitation throughout most of the province is meager.

There are sharp temperature chnages between summer and winter, so the with uneven and unpredictable precipitation throughout the year. For the more temperate parts of Gansu, such as Lanzhou and Zhangye, the best times to visit are from about April to September, taking care to avoid the busy travel months.

However, for the extreme northwest at Dunhuang and Jiayuguan, we recommend that you avoid the hot summer months and go in the spring and fall so as to avoid the seasons of extreme cold and heat. In July, the hottest month, the temperature can reach 38°C in Jiayuguan, and 33 °C (91 °F) is the average high in Dunhuang.

Demographics and Ethnic Groups

The population of Gansu Province is just over 26,000,000 [2018]. The people live predominately in scattered cities since much of the province is desert. It is China's poorest province (GDP per capita around 4,300 USD).

Besides the Han Chinese majority (92%), there are many ethnic minorities such as the Hui, Tibetan, Dongxiang, Yugu, Baoan, Mongol, Kazak, Manchu.

History and Culture

Gansu mapNorthwestern Tang Dynasty China included the Silk Road: the Gansu Corridor and a portion of Xinjiang.

The ancestors of the Qin State settled in Tianshui area in Gansu during the Zhou Dynasty (1,029 BC–771 BC), and they spread out to the central Shaanxi plain. After Emperor Qin (259 BC–210 BC) unified the whole country, the Qin Great Wall from Lintao (a county in Gansu) in the west to north Shaanxi in the east was built.

After the Qin Empire fell, the Han Empire tied itself into the Silk Road trade that was already flourishing at this time in Central Asia, India and western Asia. So silk as well as many other Han trade products were carried westwards, and the Han Empire flourished. They built the Han Great Wall all the way to Dunhuang and Jiayuguan.

After the Han Empire fell, the Sui Dynasty (518–618) took over the Gansu Corridor. Gansu's importance grew in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). When they fell, the Western Xia Empire refused to submit to the Song Empire, and for 200 years, they fought off attacks by the Song and then the Mongols and controlled the Gansu Corridor. Historians believed that they had advanced weaponry and architecture for their times and their own writing system.

When Genghis Khan rose to power to become the main Mongol leader, he repeatedly attacked the Western Xia Empire from 1202 to 1227.

The Western Xia defended themselves fiercely, and in 1227 Genghis Khan himself died during one of these attacks on the Western Xia. The Mongols however conquered and destroyed the empire.

Gansu was first established as a province in the Yuan Dynasty (1206–1368). During the Yuan Empire, Silk Road trade reached the historical height since most of Eurasia was controlled by them and they promoted the trade.

Later Silk Road trade declined and Gansu became a China backwater.

See more about Silk Road History.

Bullet TrainBullet Train

Bullet Train Travel in Gansu

For sightseeing, seeing the scenery, and ease of travel between Silk Road locations, we recommend that you take bullet trains. G trains take 8 or 9 hours to travel between Beijing and Lanzhou. D trains take about 11 hours to travel between Lanzhou and Urumqi.

D-class bullet train travel between Lanzhou and Zhangye West take about 3 hours. From Lanzhou to Jiayuguan South, it takes about 4 and a half hours.

Tailored Gansu Tours

silk roadCamel rides

Gansu is a popular destination for natural landscapes, desert scenery, and Silk Road experiences. Travel with us to enjoy the highlights in this Gansu.

At China Highlights, we have Silk Road experts who can create the perfect trip for you for you for a rich experience and memories. Here's why you should choose us.

You could peek at our our customizable Silk Road Tours to help shape your own trip of the Silk Road.

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