Slim little Gansu Province is almost as svelte as the Silk Road that runs its length, and if you’d like to see the legendary ancient trade route that brought all manner of goods between China and Central Asia, then start packing your bags for Gansu. Dotted along the way are temples, Buddhist statues, beacon towers, skeletons of the Great Wall, forts and old trading towns – all the remnants of the commerce that once electrified the region.
Sandwiched by some of China’s most diverse areas, the Hexi Corridor, which framed the Silk Road of Gansu, overflows with the stunning human diversity of its surrounding regions. In the north, the Uighurs of Xinjiang keep bustling Muslim trading towns alive, while in the west Tibetans still vagabond along Gansu’s ageless paths. Mongolians flow in from the northeast, and the Hui of Ningxia to the east live as if the area hasn’t aged a day since Marco Polo traversed its lucrative roads.
But it’s not just the human medley that makes Gansu so wondrous. Whether you’re looking to roam the dusty streets of a massive city, wander through ancient World Heritage Sites of Buddhist statues, ride camels to the foot of a glacier, or lift your spiritual side with ceremonies from distinctive world religions, there’s enough in Gansu to keep the adventurer screaming for more.
The territory of present day Gansu became prominent thousands of years ago from its location along the Hexi Corridor (Héxī Zǒuláng; 河西走廊), a natural passage connecting China’s remote northwest to the developed interior. The Hexi Corridor proved strategic for economic and military purposes, and the Han Dynasty even extended the Great Wall to this area to protect this vital artery of the Silk Road.
During the 7th – 9th centuries, emperors of the Tang Dynasty were at constant war with the Kingdom of Tibet, who eventually ceded the majority of Gansu land with the Qingshui Treaty. Around the same time, a Uighur empire controlled a large swathe of land in northern Gansu, and many of the locals in that area converted to Islam.
Gansu remained off the radar for years until the Muslim rebellions of 1862 – 1877 left thousands dead and nearly eradicated the Muslim population. Though the rebellion was later quelled by Qing forces, further rebellions would rock the area over the years, particularly the Dungan Revolt (1895 – 1896), which spread from Gansu to other Chinese provinces like wildfire.
Today ethnic tensions have somewhat subsided in Gansu, which was incorporated into the PRC in the 1950s. It has remained a distant land, with few newsworthy events, and the province’s mining and agriculture based economy is experiencing modest growth. Despite developmental efforts, Gansu is still considered one of China’s poorest provinces – a fact that has prompted the local government to look to its rich and culturally diverse past to promote tourism to boost the economy.
Gansu has always been a diverse place, but today the Han dominate the population at 91%. Islamic ethnicities such as the Hui and the Dongxiang (a lesser-known ethnicity recognized by the Chinese government with less than 700,000 people) take 5% and 2% of the pie, respectively, while Tibetans represent 2% of the total ethnic makeup. Though there are various languages and dialects throughout Gansu, most ethnicities have a strong grasp of Mandarin, in addition to their native tongue.