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.
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.