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Gansu: Cradle of Culture

Ashley Greenwood 2016-07-27 10:05

Gansu’s population of over 26 million is wonderfully diverse - with a Hui Muslim population in Línxià, vibrant Tibetan culture in Xiàhé, and Lángmùsì and other minority groups including the Bao’an and Dongxiang. The Yellow River flows through the capital of Lanzhou in the southeast of the province, while large parts of the province are more than 1,000 metres above sea level. 

Gansu is home to three deserts, including part of the famous Gobi Desert and small parts of the Badain Jaran Desert and Tengger Desert, and has become a popular destination for travellers wanting to ride camels along paths well worn by Silk Road traders. You can even enjoy sand-surfing and other activities here. 


The Gobi Desert in the north marks the end of the Hexi Corridor, a natural land passage that stretches 1,000 kilometres through the province, through Dunhuang, and the famous ‘Rainbow Mountain’ of Zhangye, down to Lanzhou. Rivers flowing from the Qilian Mountains feed a string of oases along the corridor, the most famous being the beautiful Moon Crescent Lake just south of Dunhuang. 

Jiayu Pass 

The narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor is the Jiayu Pass (Jiayuguan), where the Jiayuguan fort, the first fortification of the Great Wall of China, guards the western entrance to China. If someone was banished from ancient China, they were ordered to leave through Jiayuguan, and so the gate became known as the Gate of Demons. 


The fort, built during the early Ming dynasty around the year 1372, is the most intact ancient military building. Legend has it that when Jiayuguan was being planned, the official in charge asked the designer to estimate the exact number of bricks required. The designer told him 99,999. The official doubted the estimate and questioned if it would be enough, so the designer added one more brick. When construction was finished there was one brick left over, which was placed loose on one of the gates where it remains today. 

Mogao Caves 

Historically, merchants on their way to Constantinople would stop in Dunhuang to get fresh camels, food, and guards for their journey. Before departing they would visit the Mogao Grottoes, 25 kilometres southeast of Dunhuang, to pray for a safe journey. Also known as the Thousand Buddha Grottoes, the Mogao Caves consist of 492 temples at an oasis strategically located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road. 


The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art, spanning a period of 1,000 years, with the first caves dug out in 366 AD as places of Buddhist meditation and worship. They are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China. 

An important cache of documents was discovered in 1900 in what has been called the "Library Cave". Up to 50,000 manuscripts were found hidden behind a part of the cave walled-up in the 11th century, and are one of the greatest collections of ancient documents ever found. While most of them are in Chinese, a large number are in other languages such as Tibetan, Uigur, and Sanskrit and consist of Buddhist canonical works, books of prayers, Confucian works, Taoist works, Nestorian Christian works, administrative documents, and anthologies. Among the finds is the Diamond Sutra, the earliest dated printed book from 868. With records of the political and cultural life of the time they offer an insight into the lives of ordinary people. Many of the manuscripts are now available as part of International Dunhuang Project which has made digital copies of the documents. 


More to see in Gansu 

If you’re planning a trip to the caves, be sure to visit the ‘Rainbow Mountains’ on your way back. At sunset the red and orange sandstone hills glow vibrantly, giving them their other name of the ‘Flaming Mountains’. 

Also on the outskirts of Dunhuang, the Minghsha Dune is the first in a series of thousands of dunes that make up the Taklamakan Desert. Mingsha is famous, however, as it has never encroached on the oasis below. Visitors can climb the dune for beautiful views at its peak - and then sled back down. 

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