The gigantic, naturally splendid provinces of Gansu (甘肃, gānsù) and Qinghai (青海, qīnghăi) sit side by side, far 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 in the northwest. On a map, these provinces appear to be at the very centre of China, but this is only true in a geographical sense. Traditionally, the Chinese have regarded Gansu, the “closer” of the pair, as marking the outer limit of Chinese cultural influence.
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Gansu’s population is relatively small – just 26 million – if comprising an extraordinary ethnic mix, including Hui, Kazakhs, Mongols and Tibetans. The province’s remarkable geography encompasses stretches of the great Yellow River, its waters dense with silt, and the Hexi Corridor, a 1000km passage sandwiched between the Tibetan and the Gobi Desert that narrows to a 16km-wide bottleneck at its skinniest point. Silk Road caravans trudged through the corridor, the Great Wall was built through it and even today Gansu’s main rail lines and highways are funnelled along it. Here too you’ll find some of the region’s most spectacular historic sites: the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang house the finest examples of Buddhist art in all China; there’s the country’s largest reclining Buddha at Zhangye; plus more rock art at Bingling Caves, near Lanzhou, and Maiji Shan, near Tianshui. The Great Wall snakes across Gansu to its end at the great Ming fortress at Jiayuguan, and in Gansu’s mountainous southwest is the fascinating Labrang Monastery and the Tibetan town of Xiahe.
A huge, empty landscape with a population of less than 6 million, Qinghai is in many respects a part of Tibet, covering the northern section of the Tibetan Plateau, with a strong minority presence – as well as Tibetans and Hui, there are Salar, Tu, Mongol and Kazakh people all living here. Qinghai’s unspoilt natural wilderness incorporates the enormous Qinghai Lake, which offers opportunities for hiking and birdwatching. Only the eastern part of the province around Xining has a long-established Han presence, though the splendid Kumbum Monastery, one of the four great Tibetan lamaseries, is located just outside the city.
China made its first serious effort to expand into the western deserts, primarily as a means to ensure control over the Silk Road trade, during the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). Prefectures were established even though Gansu did not officially become a Chinese province for another millennium; during several periods, however, Chinese control extended well beyond here and into Xinjiang. Nevertheless, right into the nineteenth century the primarily Muslim inhabitants of this region were considered little better than barbarians, and the great revolts of 1862–77 were ruthlessly quashed.
Given that agriculture is barely sustainable in arid Gansu, since 1949 the central government has tried to develop heavy industry in the province. The exploitation of mineral deposits, including oil and coal, had a tentative beginning, followed by Mao’s paranoid “Third Line” policy in the 1960s, when factories were built in remote areas to save them from possible Soviet attack.
Geographically and culturally part of the Tibetan Plateau, Qinghai has for centuries been a frontier zone, contested between the Han Chinese, Tibetans and Muslims who dwelt in its pastures and thin snatches of agricultural land. Significant Han migration didn’t occur until the late nineteenth century, when it was encouraged by the Qing dynasty. However, effective Han political control was not established until 1949 when the Communists defeated Ma Bufang, a Hui warlord who had controlled the area since 1931. The area is still perceived by the Han Chinese as a frontier land for pioneers and prospectors, and, on a more sinister note, a dumping ground for criminals and political opponents to the regime, with hundreds of thousands held in Qinghai prison and labour camps.
The Bingling Caves
The excursion from Lanzhou to the Buddhist Bingling Caves, carved into a canyon on the Yellow River, provides an introduction to both the monumental religious art that filtered along the Silk Road, and also to the Yellow River itself. The caves are among the earliest significant Buddhist monuments in China – started in the Western Jin and extended by the Northern Wei, the Tang, Song, Yuan and Ming. Though the earliest wall paintings here have been virtually washed away, a considerable number of exquisite carvings survive, mostly in good condition, with some impressive restoration work in progress.
Reaching the Bingling Caves
The caves can only be reached by boat, and only then between April and early October when water levels are sufficiently high. From Lanzhou, the first stage of the expedition is a two-hour bus ride to the massive Liujiaxia Hydroelectric Dam, a spectacular sight poised above the reservoir. At the dam you board a speedboat, which takes a further hour to reach the caves and offers excellent views of fishermen busy at work and peasants cultivating wheat, sunflowers and rice on the dark, steep banks. Towards the end of the trip, the boat enters a dramatic gorge, where the river froths and churns between jagged hills that have been eroded into bizarre shapes by the wind and water.
Chongcao – Himalayan viagra
Over the past three decades, the impoverished edges of the Tibetan Plateau have remained stubbornly resistant to the economic development that has transformed the rest of China. However, this is finally changing, thanks to an unlikely commodity.
The caterpillars of the ghost moth live underground in high-altitude regions (between 3000–5000m elevation). While feeding on roots, the subterranean larva is attacked by a parasitic fungus, Cordyceps sinensis, which kills the caterpillar and erupts from its forehead in a stalk-like growth. When hand-collected and dried by nomads, the bizarre-looking fungus – half caterpillar, half stalk and known as chongcao (“insect grass”) in Chinese, or yertse kumbu (“winter insect, summer grass”) in Tibetan – has long been used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine, where it is reputed to act as an aphrodisiac and improve a range of conditions from asthma to cancer.
As China’s middle class has grown, demand for caterpillar fungus has increased and prices have soared. The profits from this booming trade – prices can reach well over US$100 per gram, more expensive than gold – have started to improve the livelihoods of people across the Himalayan region. The practice of harvesting the fungus before it has released its spores has decimated the harvest elsewhere on the plateau, pushing prices ever higher in the places where the fungus is still relatively plentiful, as it is in the Tibetan fringes of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan, encouraging locals to cash in while the boom lasts.
The Hexi Corridor
For reasons of simple geography, travellers entering or leaving China from the west have always been channelled through the narrow strip of land that stretches 1000km northwest of Lanzhou. With the Qilian Mountains soaring up to the south, and a merciless combination of waterless desert and bone-dry mountains to the north, the road known as the Hexi Corridor offers the only feasible route through the physical obstacles that crowd in west of Lanzhou.
Historically, whoever controlled the corridor could operate a stranglehold on the fabulous riches of the Silk Road trade. The Chinese took an interest early on, and early Great Wall-building efforts were taking place along the Hexi Corridor under Emperor Qin Shi Huang in the third century BC. Subsequently, the powerful Han dynasty incorporated the region into their empire, though the central government’s influence remained far from constant for centuries, as Tibetans, Uyghurs and Mongols vied for control. Not until the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century did the corridor finally become a settled part of the Chinese empire, with the Ming consolidating the old wall and building its magnificent last fort at Jiayuguan.
Two cities along the corridor, Wuwei and Zhangye, offer convenient places to break the long journey between Lanzhou and the extraordinary Buddhist sculptures at Dunhuang, and have their own share of historic sights.
An oasis town surrounded by inhospitable desert, DUNHUANG has been a backpacker favourite for decades, with two main claims to fame. Colossal sand dunes – among the world’s largest, reaching hundreds of metres in height – rise along its southern flank, while the nearby Mogao Caves boast a veritable encyclopedia of Chinese artwork on their walls. The town has become something of a desert resort for visiting these imposing sights, though there’s little to actually see in Dunhuang itself bar the well-presented City Museum (敦煌市博物馆, dūnhuángshì bówùguăn; April–Dec Tues–Sun 8.30am–6.30pm; free) on Mingshan Lu, which houses a small collection of scrolls, pottery and statues that survived the twentieth-century depredations of foreign archeologists.
Ninth-century poet on a leave-taking at Jiayuguan
One more cup of wine for our remaining happiness. There will be chilling parting dreams tonight.
To some Chinese, the very name JIAYUGUAN is synonymous with sorrow and ghastly remoteness. The last fortress of the Great Wall was built here by the Ming in 1372, over 5000km from the wall’s easternmost point at Shanhaiguan, from which time the town made its living by supplying the needs of the fortress garrison. This was literally the final defence of the empire, the spot where China ended and beyond which lay a terrifying wilderness. Everything that travelled between the deserts of Central Asia and China’s central plain – goods, traders and armies – had to go through this pass. The desolation of the landscape only adds to the melancholy: being forced to leave China altogether was a citizen’s worst nightmare, and it was here that disgraced officials and condemned or fleeing criminals had to make their final, bitter farewells. The perfectly restored fort, just west of nondescript Jiayuguan town, is one of the highlights of northwest China, with a number of additional Wall-related sights scattered in the desert nearby.
Desert sights around Jiayuguan
Several other attractions around Jiayuguan could be combined with a trip to the fort. 6km south of town are the ruins of the First Beacon Tower (第一墩, dìyīdūn; ¥21). Built on the Great Wall in the sixteenth century, the long-abandoned tower lies crumbling on a cliff top overlooking the Taolai River at the foot of the Qilian Mountains.
The Overhanging Wall (悬壁长城, xuánbì chángchéng; ¥21), 8km northwest of the fort, is a section of the Great Wall connecting the fort to the Mazong range, originally built in the sixteenth century and recently restored. The ramparts afford excellent views of the surrounding land; it was more atmospheric before they built a crass tourist village nearby, but is still worth a visit to gaze out west and imagine what it was like when this place represented the end of China’s civilized world.
The desert also harbours a couple of unusual collections of ancient Chinese art. One is the Underground Gallery (新城魏晋墓, xīnchéng wèijìnmù; ¥31), 20km northeast of Jiayuguan. Actually a burial site from the Wei and Jin periods, more than eighteen hundred years ago, the brick-built graves contain vivid paintings of contemporary life on each brick.
A kilometer beyond the fort are the Heishan rock carvings (黑山岩画, hēishān yánhuà). These look more like classic “cave man” art: a hundred or so pictures of hunting, horseriding and dancing dating from the Warring States Period (476–221 BC), are etched into the cliffs of the Heishan range. Visiting the First Beacon Tower and the two art sites in conjunction with a tour of the fort and Overhanging Wall takes a full day. Hiring a taxi to get you around will cost ¥200–250.
Finally, one stupendous but rather inaccessible natural sight is the July 1st Glacier (七一冰川, qīyī bīngchuān; ¥51), located 4300m up in the Qilian Mountains some 120km from Jiayuguan – remarkably close considering how toasty Jiayuguan is in summer. A day-trip by taxi costs around ¥600. Travel agents in town provide tours with an English guide for ¥700. It’s a long day, involving a three-hour drive, followed by five hours climbing up and down, and three hours driving back. The do-it-yourself option is to take a train to Jingtieshan (京铁山, jĭngtĭeshān) then a taxi – around ¥140 return.
The Mogao Caves
The Mogao Caves, carved out of a stretch of wild desert cliffs 25km southeast of Dunhuang, are one of China’s greatest archeological sites – it is from here that Buddhism and Buddhist art radiated across the Chinese empire. Work started on the caves in 366AD, and continued up until the fourteenth century. The earliest artwork shows considerable artistic influence from Central Asia, India and Persia, though you can see how these foreign styles waned over time, as the iconography slowly adapted to Chinese aesthetics.
Of the original thousand plus caves, over six hundred survive in recognizable form, but many are off-limits, either no longer considered to be of significant interest or containing murals that the Chinese consider too sexually explicit for visitors. Of the thirty caves open to the public, you are likely to manage only around fifteen in a single visit. Some grasp of the caves’ history is essential to appreciate them properly, but restorations and replacements in the modern era have complicated the picture, and many of the statues, in particular, are not original. The caves are all clearly labelled with numbers above the doors but the interiors are unlit to preserve the murals; bring a flashlight if you have one. Photography at the caves is prohibited.
The Mogao Cave treasures
Before the arrival of Buddhism from India, Chinese religious activities had been performed in wooden buildings. Cave temples were introduced to China from India, where they were developed in response to poverty, heat and scarce building materials.
The emergence of the Mogao cave complex dominated early Chinese Buddhism, as pilgrims, monks and scholars passing along the Silk Road settled here to translate sutras. Merchants stopped too, endowing temples to ensure the success of their caravans and to benefit their souls. Huge numbers of artists and craftsmen were employed at Dunhuang, often lying on high scaffoldings in the dim light of oil lamps. The workers were paid a pittance – one document discovered at the site is a bill of indenture signed by a sculptor for the sale of his son.
The monastic community reached its peak under the Tang, with more than a thousand cave temples. Later, as ocean-going trading links supplanted the Silk Road, Mogao became increasingly provincial, until eventually the caves were sealed and abandoned in the fourteenth century.
In 1900 a wandering Taoist priest, Wang Yuanlu, stumbled upon Mogao and decided to make it his life’s work to restore the site, excavating caves full of sand, touching up the murals, and even building a guesthouse, which he financed through alms. His efforts might have continued in obscurity save for his discovery of a bricked-up chamber (cave 17), which revealed an enormous collection of manuscripts, sutras and silk and paper paintings – some 1000 years old and virtually undamaged. The Dunhuang authorities, having first appropriated a fair amount, had the cave resealed and so it remained until the arrival of Central Asian explorer Aurel Stein in 1907. Stein, a Hungarian working for the British Indian Survey, had heard rumours of the caves and persuaded Wang to reopen the chamber. This is how Stein later described what he saw:
Heaped up in layers, but without any order, there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly 10 feet and filling, as subsequent measurement showed, close on 500 cubic feet – an unparalleled archeological scoop.
This was no exaggeration. Among other manuscripts, Stein found original sutras brought from India by the Tang monk and traveller Xuanzang, Buddhist texts in many languages (even in some unknown to the scholar) and dozens of original Tang-dynasty paintings on silk and paper – all crushed but untouched by damp.
Donating the equivalent of £130 to Wang’s restoration fund, Stein left Mogao with some seven thousand manuscripts and five hundred paintings. Later the same year a Frenchman, Paul Pelliot, negotiated a similar deal, shipping thousands more scrolls back to Paris. And so, virtually overnight, the British Museum and the Louvre had acquired the core of their Chinese manuscript and painting collections.
Today the Chinese are pressing for the return of all paintings and manuscripts in foreign collections. It is hard to dispute the legitimacy of these claims, though had the treasures not been removed, more would almost certainly have been lost in the chaotic years of the twentieth century. Fortunately, despite the massive loss in terms of manuscripts and scrolls, the artwork at the caves themselves is still fabulously preserved.
Twenty-five kilometres southeast of Xining, Kumbum is one of the most important monasteries outside Tibet. Set in the cleft of a valley, the walled complex is an imposing sight, an active place of worship for over six hundred monks as well as the constant succession of pilgrims from Tibet, Qinghai and Mongolia, who present a startling picture with their rugged features, huge embroidered coats and chunky jewellery. There are plenty of tourists too (not to mention a hulking great military base right next door), but Kumbum remains a good introduction to Tibetan culture.
The monastery dates from 1560, when building began in honour of Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelugpa Sect of Tibetan Buddhism, who was born on the Kumbum Monastery estates. Legend tells how, at Tsongkhapa’s birth, drops of blood fell from his umbilical cord causing a tree with a thousand leaves to spring up; on each leaf was the face of the Buddha (the trunk is now preserved in one of the stupas). During his lifetime, Tsongkhapa’s significance was subsequently borne out: his two major disciples were to become the greatest living Buddhas, the Dalai and Panchen Lamas.
During the year, four major festivals are held at Kumbum, each fixed according to the lunar calendar. In January or February, at the end of the Chinese New Year festivities, there’s a large ceremony centred on the lighting of yak-butter lamps. In April or May is the festival of Bathing Buddha, during which a giant thangka is unfurled on a hillside facing the monastery. In July or August the birthday of Tsongkhapa is celebrated, and in September or October there’s one more festival commemorating the nirvana of Sakyamuni.
Squeezed 1600m up into a narrow valley along the Yellow River, and stretching out for nearly 30km east to west, gritty LANZHOU sits at the head of the Hexi Corridor, which means that almost everyone heading to Xinjiang from eastern China will pass through at some point. Many travellers break their journey here, but most head on before too long, thanks in no small part to Lanzhou’s awful air quality: the colossal assortment of factories and petroleum processing plants around the city, coupled with its location – hemmed in by large mountains – once earned it the unfortunate title of “World’s Most Polluted City”. Today, atrocious traffic means that the pollution shows little sign of abating.
However, the city itself is slowly becoming more attractive, especially with the tarting up of the Yellow River’s north bank. There are also a number of good day-trip possibilities, including the Bingling Caves, and Lanzhou forms the start or finish line for the fascinating Xiahe loop. Lastly, this is the best place in China to slurp down a bowl of Lanzhou beef noodles – a dish now available all around the country.
Rafts and speedboats
To go boating on Yellow River, head for the south bank around Huanghe Bridge and Zhongshan Bridge – ride across the river on a traditional, inflated sheepskin raft (¥30/15min), or take a short scenic trip on a motorboat (¥20/10min; two-person minimum).
West of Xining
West of Xining, Qinghai for the most part comprises a great emptiness. The 3000m plateau is too high to support agriculture, and the only people who traditionally have managed to eke out a living here have been nomadic yak-herders. The real highlight of the area is the huge and virtually unspoilt Qinghai Lake, whose saline waters are home to thousands of birds. A few hours beyond, Chaka Salt Lake is an interesting stop for those wishing to break the long journey to Golmud, the only town of note for hundreds of kilometres, and a place to catch trains to Lhasa as well as onward transport to Dunhuang and southern Xinjiang.
Situated in an extraordinarily remote location – 150km west of Xining, at 3100m above sea level on the Tibetan Plateau – Qinghai Lake is the largest in China, occupying an area of over 4000 square kilometres. Its cold and briny waters nevertheless teem with fish (mainly the endemic naked carp) and are populated by nesting migratory birds, particularly at Bird Island, which, along with several manmade scenic spots, has become the lake’s main tourist attraction.
If you don’t have time to stop here, you can admire the view while travelling between Golmud and Xining; it’s worth scheduling your journey to pass by during daylight hours. The train spends hours running along the northern shore; by bus you’ll skirt the southern shore instead.
Be aware that access for foreigners to certain parts of the lakeshore is restricted, particularly around the “nuclear town” of Xihai on the northeast edge of the lake, where China’s first nuclear weapons were developed.
The Xiahe loop
The verdant, mountainous area south of Lanzhou, bordering Qinghai to the west and Sichuan to the south, is one of enormous scenic beauty, relatively untouched by the scars of industry and overpopulation. The people who live in the so-called Xiahe loop are diverse in culture and ethnicity, including a very strong Hui and Tibetan presence. Xiahe, in particular, is a delightful place to visit, site of the major Labrang Monastery, one of the largest Lamaist institutions in China, which attracts monks and pilgrims from across the Tibetan Plateau. From Xiahe, you can loop back to Lanzhou via Tongren – itself home to a large Tibetan population – and Xining, both in Qinghai province, or follow an adventurous route south into Sichuan province.
Note that towns throughout the loop are small affairs with few ATMs or exchange facilities – it’s best to take enough cash to cover the entire trip.
Phenomenally beautiful and surrounded by mountains on all sides, Labrang Monastery sits just west of Xiahe’s centre. There’s no wall separating the town from the monastery – the two communities just merge together and the main road goes right through the middle of both. The signs that you’re entering the monastery are the long lines of roofed prayer wheels stretching out either side of the road, tracing a near-complete circle around the monastery. To the south side, along the north bank of the river, you can follow the prayer wheels to the other end of the monastery. It’s mesmerizing to walk clockwise alongside the pilgrims, who turn each prayer wheel they pass.
The majority of the important monastery buildings are north of the main road. The buildings include six colleges, prayer halls, sutra printing workshops and mud-brick dormitories for the monks. At the colleges monks study towards degrees in astronomy, esoteric Buddhism, law, medicine and theology (higher and lower). There are also schools for dance, music and painting. The Gongtang Pagoda (贡唐宝塔, gòngtáng băotă; daily 7am–11pm; ¥20), first built in 1805, is the only major monastery building south of the main road – on the prayer wheel circuit – and is worth climbing for spectacular views over the shining golden roofs of the monastery.
Visiting Labrang Monastery
While there is nothing to stop you from wandering around the monastery complex by yourself – be sensitive, use your discretion, and move clockwise – given the bewildering wealth of architecture, art and statuary, it’s a good idea to take a guided tour at some stage. This can be arranged at the ticket office – take the only sizeable turn off the north side of the road within the monastery area (on the right if coming from the station). The hour-long tours (roughly at 10.15am and 3.15pm; ¥40) include entrance to five buildings and are led by English-speaking monks.
Labrang Monastery is the site of some spectacular festivals that, as with Chinese festivals, take place according to the lunar calendar. The largest is the Monlam Festival, three days after the Tibetan New Year (late Feb or early March). The opening of the festival is marked by the unfurling of a huge thangka on the south side of the Daxia River. Processions, dances and the lighting of butter lamps take place on subsequent days.
The old road to Xiahe
Though direct buses and a highway connect Lanzhou to Xiahe, you’ll get a better feel for the region by hopping slowly between towns along the more scenic old road, which travels via Yongjing and Liujiaxia (the jumping-off points for Bingling Caves), and then traverses Dongxiang Autonomous County. Such is the beauty of this trip that you may find yourself wanting to stop off at one of the ridge towns en route, whose populations are almost entirely Muslim: you’ll see very few men who aren’t wearing skullcaps. Women wear a square veil of fine lace, black if they are married and green if they are not. The largest ridge town goes by a few different names, but is generally referred to as Dongxiang (东乡, dōngxiāng) and makes for a fascinating stay, with its bustling, regular livestock market.
In the mountains around Dongxiang, the Islamic and Tibetan Buddhist worlds begin to overlap and villages are interspersed with ancient communities of some of China’s lesser-known ethnicities. The Dongxiang people, numbering nearly two hundred thousand, are Muslims of Mongol origin and descended from troops garrisoned in Linxia under Genghis Khan in the thirteenth century. These days, to outsiders at least, they are indistinguishable from the Hui except at certain celebrations when old Mongol customs re-emerge. The Bao’an, who number barely eight thousand, are similar to the Dongxiang in that they, too, are of Mongolian origins – while their language is written in Chinese, it contains a high percentage of Mongolian words. The Salar are a Turkic-speaking people whose origins lie, it’s thought, in Samarkand in Central Asia; they live primarily in Xunhua County in neighbouring Qinghai province.
Regular buses ply the 25km route between Dongxiang and Linxia （临夏, línxià), a strongly Muslim town, full of mosques. Linxia’s Hui are inveterate traders and their enterprises, together with burgeoning local industry, have seen factories and tower blocks sprouting up on the outskirts. The town is rather ugly; nevertheless, it’s an interesting enough place to spend a few hours should you get stuck between buses. The main Nanguan Mosque (南关清真寺, nánguān qīngzhēn sì) is immediately south of the square at the intersection of central Tuanjie Lu and Jiefang Lu. From Linxia, there are regular buses on to Xiahe.
Yushu: after the quake
It was all looking so promising for Yushu (玉树, yùshù), an autonomous Tibetan prefecture perched 4000m above sea level at the far south of Qinghai province. The source of the famed Yellow River, this remote, mountainous and extremely picturesque area had started to become a magnet for adventurous travellers seeking a Tibetan experience without having to pay through the nose for a sanitized, pre-packaged tour to Lhasa.
Then came the events of April 14, 2010, when a 7.1-magnitude earthquake hit Yushu. The main tremor – and its devastating aftershocks – destroyed 85 percent of the houses in Gyegu, the county seat, and killed some 2700 people, a fair chunk of the tiny local population. The national authorities were quick to respond, having learned from the far deadlier Wenchuan earthquake that struck Sichuan in 2008. Yushu had few medical facilities, which meant that everything had to be flown in and that those buried under the rubble had to be dug out, often by hand, in freezing conditions.
The area is slowly getting back on its feet, but is likely to remain off the travel radar for a while to come. The Lete Youth Hostel in Xining made admirable fundraising efforts after the earthquake, and is as good a place as any to get up-to-date information about the area.