Our journey along the Silk Road continued from Xinjiang Province into Gansu Province. In this article, we are going to tell you a brief history of the region and tips to make your life easier when visiting the main tourist sites. In particular, we are going to talk about the Mogao Grottoes in Donhuang, the Rainbow Mountains in Zhangye, and Labrang Monastery in Xiahe.
It’s hard to find ancient sites in China, and Gansu is an example of how old cities along the Silk Roads are now modern and high-tech. You need a lot of imagination to picture ancient bazaars and caravans in your mind when you’re there. However, knowing something about its historical importance can help to better enjoy the area.
A Brief History of Gansu
According to archeological findings, the Yangshao Neolithic Culture emerged in this area along the Yellow River around 4000 BC.
In imperial times, Gansu was an important strategic outpost and communication link for the Chinese empire. The Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) extended the Great Wall across the Hexi Corridor, which was part of the Northern Silk Road running northwest from the bank of the Yellow River. This historical route was important for both traders and the military moving between Northwest China and Central Asia. Also, it was a cultural and religious transmission path: temples and Buddhist grottoes such as those at Mogao Caves (‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’) were built over 1,000 years starting from the 4th century AD.
In the 9th century, Gansu was part of the Tibetan Empire and then of the Ganzhou Uyghur Kingdom. Thus, not only Buddhism but also Islam spread in the region. The blending of cultures in Gansu eventually led to ethnic tensions such as the 1862-1877 Muslim rebellions which left millions dead.
Nowadays, Gansu is the seventh-largest administrative district by area at 453,700 square kilometres with a population of 26 million. Almost 92% of the population is Han Chinese with the rest being made up of Tibetan, Uyghur, Mongolian and other minorities. This rich mix of people means that the province still has a great diversity of religious beliefs. For instance, in Xiahe county of Gannan Tibetan autonomous prefecture, there is Labrang Monastery, one of the six great active monasteries of Gelugpa sect. There, pro-Tibet marches took place in 2008 and 2012, showing as ethnic tensions has never really stopped in the region.
Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves
Donhuang was our first stop in the region and you can see how to get there in our detailed article ‘One Month in China along the Northern Silk Road’. We stopped there to visit the previously mentioned Mogao Caves. This must-see Buddhist site is composed of 492 grottoes with some 45,000 square meters of murals, and 415 painted clay figures. However, don’t expect to walk around to visit all the caves: you can access the site only with a tour guide and you’ll be shown 8 caves, chosen by guides themselves.
→ So, how can you visit this amazing site?
- The ticket costs ¥258 (yep, it’s expensive and special fares are not available) and you can either buy it at the Mogao Grottoes Reservation and Ticket Center, more or less in town, or the Mogao Caves Ticket Office in front of the Mogao Caves Visitor Center. We were told you couldn’t buy it on the spot the same day, so we went to the Reservation Centre… Just a waste of time.
- The ticket includes two 20-minute-long videos about the Silk Roads and the Grottoes, the transfer to the actual site, the guided tour in English, and two museums. No pictures are allowed.
- Guided tours in English are at 8:30, 11:30, and 14:30. This is the time you should start watching the first video in order to be at the actual site around 12:30 and get the tour which actually starts at 12:45.
- You can get to Mogao Caves Visitor Center by taxi (about ¥20) or by urban bus (¥3). The bus is green and it should leave more or less in front of the Silk Road hostel in town.
Zhangye and the Rainbow Mountains of Daxia National Park
Zhangye lies in the centre of the Hexi Corridor and even the name alludes to its Silk Road importance: 张掖 is a shortening of ‘张国臂掖，以通西域’, which translates as ‘Extending the arm of the nation to its Western Realm’. It’s a nice city where to spend two or three days both to visit the tourist sites, walk in the parks, and to enjoy good food in local restaurants.
→ What to see in Zhangye?
The best site in the city is the Reclined Buddha Temple (¥40). The view of the 35-meter-long Buddha is just stunning and you can’t really stopping looking at all his parts. Just one tip, go there around midday so as to be alone inside and fully enjoy this peaceful place in the heart of a crowded city.
From there, you can walk to the Wooden Pagoda (¥50); it’s better from the outside than the inside and the view is not that good. We don’t really recommend you to go up.
Everyone goes to Zhangye to then visit the Rainbow Mountains of Daxia National Park. We did the same and we went there with a transfer organized by our hostel (¥50 return ticket). We left at 3pm in order to be at the viewpoint No. 4 at sunset. Most of the hotels will organise a tour/transfer to go there either at dawn or at sunset because the colours are better. If you want to go there by bus, there is one working from 8am to 6pm but we don’t know the exact price. The entrance to the super well organized site is ¥75. There will be shuttle buses taking you from one viewpoint to another, four in total, but you will be able to walk on the platforms to enjoy the landscape.
Just one tip when buying entry tickets: Try always to get a student discount if you look young enough and have a university badge or anything similar, nobody will understand what’s actually written. Student tickets are usually half price so you’ll save a lot of money.
Lanzhou and Labrang Monastery in Xiahe
Lanzhou is the capital city of Gansu Province and it’s full of traffic and skyscrapers. We spent just one afternoon there so we can’t really say what’s best to see. Personally, we visited the Museum and the Baiyun Taoist Temple as we found it while walking along the Yellow River side from Zhongshan Bridge till the Yellow River Mother monument.
We actually used Lanzhou as a starting point to go to Xiahe to visit Labrang Monastery and then to Xi’an to continue along the Silk Road. For more details about these journeys, check out our article ‘One Month in China along the Northern Silk Road’.
→ Why and how to visit Labrang Monastery
Labrang Monastery was founded in 1709 and today is still home to the largest number of monks outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. We recommend you a visit there to have a taste of Tibet and see how a Buddhist Monastery looks like and function. We spent one day and a half there, but we wouldn’t mind having two full days.
Here a few tips to fully enjoy the site:
- The Monastery is like a citadel inside Xiahe so you can freely walk around, but if you want to enter the buildings, you have to pay a ticket.
- There are two English guided tours led by a lama (a monk) that start at 10.15 am and 3.15 pm. Buy the tickets (¥40) at the ticket office outside the Monastery before the visit and then go to the visitor center inside the citadel, we were taken there so don’t worry too much.
- The temples and the Chanting Hall are very fascinating and our guide was very nice and knowledgeable. The morning tour is thought to have you at the Chanting Hall at 11.30 when all the monks pray together.
- Visit Golden Pagoda / Gongtang Chorten (¥20) to see stunning walls full of sutras inside and enjoy the view from the top.
- Try to go to see the Printing House, on the right side of the garden where there is the library; it should be open till 12, but we guess it’s totally random.
- Walk the inner kora (pilgrimage) along the perimeter of the Monastery: it’s 3 km long and you have to do it clockwise. Following the pilgrims is very fascinating.
- Cross the monastery following the main road and you’ll exit in the most ancient and authentic side of Xiahe, where the Nunnery is (see maps.me). There, on your left side, you will also see another Tibetan Buddhist Temple: you can access the garden and enjoy a very peaceful environment.
There is more to see in Gansu, but we had to select due to shortage of time. As previously mentioned, from Lanzhou we went to Xi’an, the last symbolic stop along the Silk Road!