Though Lanzhou's image has been tarnished by a reputation for heavy pollution, bear in mind that media coverage of China is often laced with hyperbole. Lanzhou sees blue skies fairly regularly, thanks to new environmental reforms, and the place to be on days like those is White Pagoda Park. The orginal pagoda is rumored to have been built in tribute to a monk who died on his way to an appointment with Genghis Khan. That pagoda toppled, but was rebuilt by the Ming Dynasty's first emperor, military genius Zhu Yuanzhang, with later additions..
If you only have time to see a single sight in Lanzhou proper, the Gansu Provincial Museum is a fine choice. Recently reopened after major renovations that conceal its Russian-designed origins, the museum hosts a collection as impressive for its quality as for its diversity. Among the items you'll find are samples of neolithic painted pottery from the 8,000-year-old Dadiwan culture. You'll also see evidence of Silk Road cultural diffusion (or maybe an as-of-yet undocumented Chinese trade missions to the Roman Empire?) in the form..
To experience the Buddhist culture of Tibet without going through the hassle of permits and tour guides, there may be no better place than Labrang Monastery (Lābǔlèng Sì, 拉卜楞寺), located near the tourist boom town of Xiahe, six hours out from smoggy Lanzhou. Labrang is the largest Tibetan lamasary outside of Tibet. Its sprawling grounds feature a host of 18th century architectural masterpieces including the Grand Sutra Hall, Spring Debate Palace and the Temple of White Umbrella as well as hundreds of prayer wheels and over a..
Sometimes referred to as "Western Badaling" for its resemblance to a section of the Great Wall near Beijing, this part of the Great Wall, about 9 kilometers out from Jiayuguan Fort, was originally built in 1539, through some reconstruction and refurbishment, including the addition of stairs, occurred in 1987. Hiking up to the top, which can be very demanding due to the 45 degree inclination you're pitted against on the way up, is worthwhile. You'll be rewarded with sweeping views encompassing the Jiayuguan oasis, forlorn..
Once considered the end of the "civilized" world, Jiayuguan Fort (Jiāyùguān Chénglóu, 嘉峪关城楼) was Imperial China's westernmost stronghold at the end of the Great Wall. Beyond the fort's walls; primal fears in the forms of elemental demons and barbarian armies waited to ambush disgraced officials and exhiled poets cast out through the Gate of Conciliation (Róuyuǎn Lóu, 柔远楼). On the opposite side of the fort, the Gate of Enlightenment (Guānghuá Lóu, 光化楼), where law-abiding citizens of the empire could come and go..
Mingsha Hill (Míngshā Shān 鸣沙山) is known as one of the "Eight Great Landscapes" of Dunhuang. This 40 km (25 mi) long mountain is made up of huge mounds of sand, with the highest point reaching 250 m (820 ft). Also known as the Echoing-Sand Mountain, or Singing Sand Dunes, an old tale describes this site as a once beautiful oasis in ancient times. A war between two armies supposedly ended here, with the troops being buried by strong sand winds, their cries still echoing from the mountain. Though unlikely to be the cries of those..
These two gates formed the westernmost expansion of the Great Wall and represented the fringes of Chinese civilization for centuries. Yumen Guan (Yùmén Guān, 玉门关), the "Jade Gate Pass," and Yang Guan (Yáng Guān, 阳关), the "Sun Pass," were built by Emperor Wudi more than 2,000 years ago and protected the Hexi Corridor entrance near Dunhuang from Hun invasions. After the Han Empire solidified its control over the vital corridor along the Silk Road, the fortresses became trading outposts for jade caravans arriving from..
The Mogao Caves (Mògāo Kū, 莫高窟), also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (Qiān Fó Dòng, 千佛洞), are a group of 492 cave-temples in southeast Dunhuang. These astonishing caves, or grottoes, were dug out of the bedrock and cliffs sometime in the fourth century. The story goes that a Buddhist monk named Lè Zūn had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light, inspiring him to build a cave there. During the Tang Dynasty there were over 1,000 caves carved into the cliffs in Dunhuang. However, those..
What's left of the Shandan portion of the Great Wall in Gansu faces the twin dangers of natural erosion and human destruction. Most of the Wall is split up, broken, crumbling and piereced by kilometer-wide gaps. Still, for Great Wall enthusiasts, history buffs or tourists visiting Dunhuang, a visit to the best of the ruins is well worth the effort. The Shandan Great Wall (Shāndān Chángchéng, 山丹长城) was first built over 2,000 years ago during the Han Dynasty, but it was not well maintained in the centuries tha until the..
Travelers with the patience and money to endure the journey and entrance fees are well rewarded when they finally reach the Bingling Caves (Bǐnglíng Sì Shíkū, 炳靈寺石窟). Featuring a massive 27-meter (89 ft) statue of the Maitreya Buddha, fantastic frescoes, 183 caves and statues painted in strikingly vivid colors, Bingling is considered one of the top four Buddhist grottoes in the country. Travel to the caves is fairly involved but worthwhile. The trip starts with a 2-hour bus ride from Lanzhou to the Liujiaxia Reservoir..
Some 15 km (9 mi) southwest of Xiahe, Tibetan families still herd yak on the rolling plains of the Sangke Grasslands (Sāngkē Cǎoyuán, 桑科草原). The influx of tourists into Xiahe hasn't gone unnoticed in Sangke, however—a collection of yurts banking off the tourist boom cluster around the entrance with souvenirs for sale, horse rides and kitschy photo-ops. Beyond the county-fair-style setup at the front, pristine green prairie rolls off into the distance where it's met by a horizon clustered with mountains. Farms and..