Lanzhou Overview

Once an important trade hub thanks to its location on the Silk Road, Lanzhou, once dubbed the "Golden City," has seen its formerly brilliant patina dulled by pollution. Still, Gansu Province's capital city remains a destination of great value and interest for the serious traveler, if only as a jumpoff point for the nearby Labrang Monastery and Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves, two top-grade historical attractions that have largely been spared the attention of the group-touring masses thanks to their isolation. 

Now an industrial and transporation hub of some three million, Lanzhou is home to mix of ethnic Han, Hui, Bao'an, Dongxiang, Tibetan, Yugur and Salar peoples. This diversity is one reason that travelers should consider peeking beneath the blanket of smog or basing themselves in the city for few days. The ease of making regional transportation connections is another. Finally, the city's lack of guidebook-ready luster keeps it cheap. Travelers en route to Tibet, Xingjiang, Chengdu and other popular destinations would do well to consider basing themselves Lanzhou for a day or two rather than simply changing trains and moving on.

The best of Lanzhou's attractions are actually in the nearby countryside. The town of Xiahe, home to Labrang Monestary, one of the most important Tibetan Buddhist lamaseries in the world, is within daytrip range, as are the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves with their hundreds of Buddhist statues and murals, some dating back to the 4th Century AD. Both provide excellent window's into the region's rich and complex history, one that contrasts sharply with modern Lanzhou's industrial sprawl.

But even in town it's not all grime and smog. Far from it. The Gansu Provincial Museum has everything from exhibits on the prehistoric megafauna that used to roam the area to 2,000 year-old bronzes. Often-hazy views from the top of the cable car in White Pagoda Park play second fiddle to the pagoda itself, while Five Springs Park, the city's largest, features pavilions and pleasant greenery. The White Cloud Temple overlooks the Yellow River, a reminder as a Taoist temple in a primarily Buddhist region of China's rich cultural diversity and branching religious roots. And speaking of religion, the nearby small city of Linxia is notable both as for its Muslim Hui Chinese population but also for Wanshou Temple, a beautiful Taoist temple situated in the hills above the town. 

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