Located in the north-west of China, between the Tibetan and Huangtu plateaus, Gansu connects the Chinese heartland with the vast desert region to the northwest. Covering a total area of around 450,000km2, roughly the size of Sweden, Gansu borders 6 different Chinese provinces or autonomous regions: Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Shaanxi, as well as having a border with Mongolia.
Archaeological findings have shown that Gansu has been inhabited since at least 6000 BCE. Later, China’s founding Qin Dynasty had its roots in the area. As the Chinese empire expanded during the Han Dynasty, so too followed China’s Great Wall and, much later, the province’s first railway through Gansu’s Hexi Corridor. The Hexi Cooridor is an east-west route which runs the heart of the province, and connects China to Central Asia and the West. The Hexi Corridor eventually became a key leg of the Silk Road, an important trade route that made Gansu important not only as a center of economic trade, but as a place of cultural and religious exchange. As the silk trade grew, so did the trading posts along the Hexi corridor; many of these ancient posts form the major population centers of Gansu today. The blending of cultures in Gansu eventually led to ethnic tensions such as the 1862-1877 Muslim rebellions left millions dead. Gansu is highly seismically active. A 1920 8.5 magnitude earthquake, for instance, killed over 200,000 people.
Gansu province has a population of roughly 26 million people, over 70% of whom are still engaged in farming. Almost 92% of the population is Han Chinese with the rest being made up of Hui, Tibetan, Dongxiang, Tu, Manchu, Uyghur, Yugur, Bonan, Mongolian, Salar, and Kazakh minorities. This rich mix of people means that the province abounds with mosques, monasteries and temples.
In 2014 Gansu had a nominal GDP of around $111 billion and a GDP per capita of only $4300, making it one of the poorest provinces in China. Recent growth in the local economy has been driven primarily by the expansion of mining and heavy industry. Gansu has significant deposits of minerals including many rare earth elements. Other significant deposits include potassium, chromium, coal, iron, lead, crude oil, platinum, tungsten, lithium, and zinc as well as massive deposits of nickel; over 90% of China’s nickel deposits can be found in Gansu.
Modern industrial development in Gansu did not begin until after the railroad through the Hexi Corridor was completed in the mid-1950s. It was Mao Zedong‘s idea to transform the province into a center of heavy industry with Lanzhou, the capital, at its heart; Mao believed that by dispersing his manufacturing bases in western China, he would better be able to defend them in the case of enemy attack. Besides mining, Gansu today engages in electricity generation, petrochemical extraction and refining, oil exploration machinery, building material production, locomotive equipment, chemical fertilizers, and petrochemicals.
In China’s 12th Five Year Plan, which runs from 2011 to 2015, plans were laid out to grow the province’s economy by an annual rate of 10% by focusing investments on: renewable energy– including hydropower, solar and wind- coal, chemicals, nonferrous metals, pharmaceuticals and services.
Gansu’s growing reliance on heavy industry, however, has led to a spike in pollution levels and Lanzhou, by some measures, is the most polluted city in China today with heavy industry, petro-chemical factories and brick kilns contributing to the smoke and air- borne chemicals that are said to be double that found even in Beijing.
Agriculture is also a significant contributor to Gansu’s economy. Crops farmed in Gansu include cotton, linseed oil, maize, melons, wheat, tubers, sugar beets, rapeseed, soybeans, a variety of fruits, and a vast array of Chinese medicinal herbs. However, the majority of produce in Gansu is grains, with annual grain outputs at around 8 million tons.
Historically, Gansu struggled to produce enough grain to feed itself. It has only been with increased irrigation, mechanization, the introduction of chemical fertilizers, the collection and storage of rain runoff and mulching with plastic film, that the province’s agricultural output risen sufficiently enough to meet its population’s basic needs, but total agricultural productivity still remains below that of many other provinces.
The fertile Hexi Corridor produces most of the province’s food crops. Attempts are currently being made to transform the historically barren land around the Hexi Corridor into cotton fields with improved irrigation techniques. It is estimated that as much as one-third of this area may be suitable for cotton. Wool and tobacco are produced as cash crops. Gansu also raises large herds of livestock, about half of which are. It also raises two-humped camels.
Lay of the Land
Because Gansu is bordered by two plateaus, it is an elevated area, with an average elevation of over 1000m above sea level. The Yellow River not only flows through the south of Gansu, but it gets much water from sources within the province. The river has allowed Gansu to be settled since pre-historic times. Away from the Yellow River and its irrigation and various oases, Gansu is an arid, barren land, with warm to hot summers, and very cold winters. In some areas, Gansu becomes subarctic, with temperatures dropping to -40 degrees Celsius during the winter.
Through the centre of Gansu runs the Hexi Corridor, a 1200 km passage dotted with oases. The corridor follows oases down along the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. To the south of the Hexi Corridor lies the snow-capped Qilian Mountains, with the highest peak in the province reaching 5547m above sea level. To the north are the flat grasslands of Mongolia and the Gobi Desert.
Desertification is a serious issue throughout the province. Gansu sees little rain, and can be plagued by dust storms in the spring. China is currently working in conjunction with the Asian Development Bank on what has been called the Silk Road Ecosystem Restoration Project whose aim is to reverse desertification in the province.
Earthquakes are another challenge for the area. Gansu experiences tectonic activity caused by the movements along the Eurasian and Indian Plates. The eastern part of Gansu has been hit by major earthquakes which have taken place on average every 65 years since the 6th century, while minor earthquakes plague the province once every 10 years.
Interesting Aspects for a Traveler
Lanzhou, the province’s capital, is located at the cartographic heart of China and hosts the Gansu Provincial Museum. However, Dunhuang, a small oasis town that prospered during the Silk Road, is the main reason that most people visit Gansu; surrounding it are forts, towers and cave temples as well as magnificent sand dunes. The Dunhuang cave paintings are some of the best Buddhist paintings in China. A half hour drive from Dunhuang are the Mogao caves which also hold some of the best Buddhist paintings in China, if not in the world, and are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Buddhism arrived in China over the Silk Road, and the sculptures at Bingling Si were one of the first Buddhist monuments to be created in China. Known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, they were carved over a period of 1600 years by sculptors hanging from ropes paid by wealthy Silk Road traders heading west. Isolated by the waters of the Yellow River – which saved them from destruction during the Cultural Revolution –reaching them requires boat travel.
Xiahe is an important Tibetan Monastery town that still sees Buddhist pilgrims flock to its beautiful, spiritual Labrang Monastery founded in 1709. The monastery is one of the six major Tibetan monasteries of the Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
Langmusi is a remote mountain town set in beautiful country. It boasts beautiful walking trails that are dotted with several Buddhist temples.
Jiayuguan was considered China’s final outpost before the desert, and still houses the ancient Jiayuguan Fort and the Great Wall Museum which tells the story of the Wall from the Han to Ming Dynasties.
Singing Sand Mountain and Crescent Moon Lake also attract many visitors due to their breath-taking scenery.