Gansu Travel Guide

Gansu Travel Guide

By Candice SongUpdated Sep. 10, 2021
Dunhuang Mogao Caves The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang

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.

Gansu features breathtaking landscapes of vast deserts, grasslands, snowy mountains, and Danxia landforms. It beautifully shows the magic power of nature.

There, you can also learn about religious cultures (Buddhist and Muslim) and experience the life and atmosphere of a Tibetan area.

More and more people are coming to discover Gansu’s charm.

 6-day Dunhuang and Zhangye Tour

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 center of northern China east of Xinjiang with Shaanxi to the east, Qinghai and Sichuan to the south, and Inner Mongolia and Ningxia to the north.

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.

It is the seventh largest province in China and is 454,000 square kilometers (175,290 square miles) in area.

The Gansu Corridor

The Gansu CorridorThe Gansu Corridor refers to the narrow part in the map including Zhangye, Jiuquan, Wuwei, Jinchang and Jiayuguan.

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.

Most Popular Cities and Attractions

As an important province on the Silk Road, Gansu has many historical and cultural attractions where you can feel the charm of ancient China.

Located at the intersection of the Loess Plateau, the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau and the Inner Mongolia Plateau, Gansu enjoys diverse landforms such as grasslands, deserts, and, most notably, its unique Danxia landforms.

1. Dunhuang — Where the World's Four Great Civilizations Met

Mogao CavesThe Mogao Caves

Jixian Lin, a famous Chinese writer once described Dunhuang in this way: “In the world, there are only four cultural systems with a long history, independent systems, and far-reaching influence: China, India, Greece, and Islam. And there is only one place to gather these four cultural systems — that is Dunhuang”.

Located in the far northwest of Gansu, Dunhuang is famous for its grottoes and frescoes. It is a famous city of historic and cultural interests. Its long history has bequeathed its unique culture.

Must-sees include:

Related tour: 6-Day Silk Road Photography Tour in Zhangye and Dunhuang

2. Zhangye — a Color Palette in the Desert

Zhangye Danxia Landform Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park

Zhangye is located in the middle of Gansu, where Gansu is narrowest. It features unique and beautiful natural landscapes, with a 50-square-kilometer (19-square-mile) area of celebrated Danxia landforms, typified by orangey-red cliffs and rainbow ridges.

Zhangye appears to be one of the filming locations of Disney’s Mulan. In the official trailer, at 1 minute 56 seconds, when Mulan is riding across a colorful mountain ridge, that mountainous landscape is very likely to be Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park.

Must-sees include:

Related tour: 7-Day Dunhuang, Zhangye, and Ejina Qi Photography Tour

3. Jiayuguan — a ‘Soldier’ on the Gobi

Jiayuguan Jiayuguan

Jiayuguan is in the northwest of Gansu. It was the western starting point of the Great Wall in the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). In medieval times, the empire ended not far outside Jiayuguan where the “boundless Gobi Desert” stretched to unknown lands. 

Must-sees include:

  • Jiayuguan Fort — “the First and Greatest Pass under Heaven”
  • The Great Wall Museum — China’s first museum with the theme of the history and culture of the Great Wall
  • The Overhanging Great Wall

4. Gannan — Immersed in a Peaceful Tibetan Vibe

Zhagana Zhagana

Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture of Gannan is located in the southwest of Gansu. There are vast grasslands, national nature reserves and Tibetan temples. There you can experience Tibetan culture and enjoy the typical Tibetan plateau scenery without the risk of altitude sickness.

Must-sees include:

  • Labrang Monastery — home to the largest number of monks outside of Tibet Autonomous Region
  • Nuo’ergai Grand Prairie — a pure oasis on the Northwest Plateau of Sichuan
  • Langmu Temple — a tranquil town where Tibetans, Hui Muslims, and Han Chinese live peacefully together
  • Zhagana — an Edenic Tibetan village

 6-day Gannan Tour

Other Notable Gansu Cities and Towns

  • Lanzhou is the capital of Gansu, dominating the south. Popular attractions include White Pagoda Mountain and Gansu Museum.
  • Tianshui, between Lanzhou and Xi’an, has old Silk Road sites, like the Maiji Mountain Grottoes.
  • Jiuquan is only 23 km (14 mi) east of Jiayuguan in western Gansu. There are Silk Road sites there such as the Yulin Grottoes.
  • Wuwei is in the center of Gansu. Two attractions are its Confucius Temple and Tiantishan Grottoes.

Best Times to Visit Gansu

Beautiful Grassland Scenery in Gansu in Summer Grassland's scenery in Gansu in summer

May to October is the best time to visit Gansu. The weather in late spring and early autumn is comfortable. In summer, the grasslands of Gannan are at their best with thick green grass.

Much of Gansu Province is desert land, and precipitation throughout most of the province is meager. Sun protection and hydration are important, especially when traveling in summer.

For more weather-related travel information, see Gansu Weather.

How to Get to Gansu

There are two main ways to get to Gansu — by air and by train. We recommend flying. Lanzhou is the main transportation hub of Gansu.

Contact us for updated travel information

From Beijing

By plane

  • Beijing to Lanzhou: 2½ hours
  • Beijing to Dunhuang: 3½ hours
  • Beijing to Zhangye: 3 hours

By train

It will take 20+ hours from Beijing to Gansu by normal train. There are bullet trains from Beijing to Lanzhou, taking 7–9 hours.

From Shanghai

By plane

  • Shanghai to Lanzhou: 3½ hours
  • Shanghai to Dunhuang: 6 hours (transit in Lanzhou)
  • Shanghai to Zhangye: 3½ hours

By train

It will take 20+ hours from Shanghai to Gansu by normal train. There are bullet trains from Shanghai to Lanzhou taking 11–12 hours.

 11-day Silk Road Tour

From Xi’an

By plane

  • Xi’an to Lanzhou: 1½ hours
  • Xi’an to Dunhuang: 2½ hours
  • Xi’an to Zhangye: 2 hours

By train

There are bullet trains from Xi’an to Lanzhou and Zhangye, taking about 3½ hours and 7½ hours respectively.

From other cities

  • Hangzhou to Lanzhou: 3 hours by air
  • Shenzhen to Lanzhou: 3 hours by air
  • Chengdu to Lanzhou: 2½ hours by air
  • Urumqi to Lanzhou: 3 hours by air

For more transport information, see Gansu Transportation.

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 (1029–771 BC), and they spread out to the central Shaanxi plain. After Emperor Qin (259–210 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.

Qinghai and Silk Road Tour

Gansu Food

Gansu cuisine features roasting, steaming, and braising beef or mutton as well as noodles with a preference for salty and spicy flavors.

Special food includes:

Lanzhou Beef NoodlesLanzhou Beef Noodles
  • Lanzhou beef noodles (兰州牛肉拉面)
  • Hand-grabbed mutton (手抓羊肉)
  • Niangpi (酿皮) — cool noodles made of flour, which are served with sesame sauce and a large variety of ingredients
  • Jiangshui noodles (浆水面) — noodles eaten with sour juice made from fermented celery, Chinese cabbage, and other vegetables

Discover Gansu with Us

Contact us for updated travel information

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

See our popular Gansu tours for inspiration or you could contact us with ideas for your ideal custom-designed Gansu tour.

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