The gigantic, naturally splendid provinces of Gansu (甘肃, gānsù) and Qinghai sit side by side, far to the west of Beijing and the Chinese seaboard. Together they form an incredibly diverse expanse, from colossal mountains in the south to vast tracts of desert land in the northwest. On a map, these provinces would appear to be at the very centre of China, but this is only true in a geological sense. Traditionally, the Chinese have regarded Gansu, the “closer” of the pair, as marking the outer limit of Chinese cultural influence.
A harsh, barren land, subject to frequent droughts, Gansu has always been a better place for travelling through than settling down in. The province’s geography is remarkable – from the great Yellow River, dense with silt, to the mountains and deserts of the Hexi Corridor, a 1000km route between mountain ranges that narrows at times to as little as 16km-wide bottlenecks. It’s the Hexi Corridor that accounts for the curious dumbbell shape of the province: the Silk Road caravans funnelled this way, the Great Wall was built here and today’s trains chug along here as well, on what was once the only link through Central Asia between China and the West. The towns along the Hexi Corridor are mere dots of life in the desert, sustained by irrigation using water from the mountains. Given that agriculture is barely sustainable here, central government has tried to import a certain amount of industry into the province, particularly in the east. The exploitation of mineral deposits, including oil and coal, was a tentative beginning, quickly followed by Mao’s paranoid “Third Line” industrial development in the 1960s, when factories were built in remote areas to save them from possible Soviet attack. But still the population is relatively small – just 26 million – if of an extraordinary ethnic mix, with Hui, Kazakhs, Mongols and Tibetans all featuring prominently.
The province may be wild and remote by Chinese standards, but it has plenty of historical interest. The Mogao Caves at Dunhuang in the far west house the finest examples of Buddhist art in all China, and further Silk Road sights are scattered right along the length of the province, ranging from the country’s largest reclining Buddha at Zhangye to the stunning Buddhist caves at Bingling Si, near Lanzhou, and Maiji Shan, near Tianshui in the far south. The Great Wall, snaking its way west, comes to a symbolic end at the great Ming fortress at Jiayuguan, and, in the southwest of the province, right on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, is the fascinating Labrang Monastery at the Tibetan town of Xiahe; from here, you can follow a loop route into Qinghai.
During the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), the first serious effort was made to expand into the western deserts, primarily as a means to ensure control over the Silk Road trade. Prefectures were established and, although Gansu did not officially become a Chinese province until the Mongolian Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), it is unquestionably a part of the Chinese heartland. At various stages over the last two thousand years Chinese control has extended well beyond here into Xinjiang. Nevertheless, right into the nineteenth century the primarily Muslim inhabitants of this province were considered little better than the “barbarian” Uyghurs of Xinjiang by central government; the great Muslim revolts of that period were ruthlessly quashed.