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.

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