Source of the Yellow River and fabled birthplace of mythical patriarch to all Chinese Fu Xi, Gansu has benefited little in recent years from its historical significance, holding the dubious privilege of ranking among China's poorest provinces. Despite its impoverished economic status, there is one area in which Gansu suffers from an embarrassment of riches: tourist attractions. For many, Gansu is the highlight of northwestern China.
Gansu's abundance of historical sights and spectacular geographical features make for a long list of exhilarating activities which include horse treks, camel rides, hiking snow covered sand dunes, exploring caves and ancient Buddhist grottoes, visiting desert oases, taking rickety old buses to some of the most inhospitable landscapes on the planet and climbing about the imposing peaks of the Qilian Shan (Qilian Mountains). And we've yet to mention the Silk Road.
One of the most popular imports to come in through the Silk Road is Buddhism. Those plying the ancient path in search of traces of ancient civilizations are invariably drawn to the Buddhist monuments that line the way. Gansu's Mogao Caves are, simply put, one of the biggest repositories of Buddhist art in the world. If you go, make sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore a few of the 492 caves there.
Other fantastic Gansu attractions include the western terminal of the Great Wall of China at Jiayuguan Pass, the Great Buddha Temple at Zhangye and Yueyaquan (Crescent Lake), a picturesque desert oasis and a good spot for camel rides or 4x4ing over the dunes.
In Gansu, you'll see Tibetans, Hui, Mongol, Dongxiang and Kazahk ethnicities, in addition to the ubiquitous Han, as you make your way through the province's multifarious landscapes, which include parts of the Gobi Desert, mountain plateaus, grasslands and subtropical river valleys. Tibetans might offer you a cup of Yak butter tea, and if you aren't completely averse to experimenting with new flavors, you should try it. Be warned—it's considered by many to be "appallingly rancid," but to others, the black tea, salt and butter combo delivers a hot, dual-shot of fat and caffeine to the system—perfect for travelers looking for a little pep on chill mornings at 10,000 feet.
Other Gansu dishes on offer are the popular lamien or hand-pulled noodles, served in Muslim restaurants. These are known as qingzhen restaurants ("pure truths restaurants"), and serve typical Chinese dishes pork-free, with the emphasis on lamb and mutton instead, and are as favored by non-Muslim Han Chinese as they are by the Muslim Hui and Uighur. Given Gansu's relative isolation and low levels of development, international fare is largely limited to Lanzhou hotels.
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