Lanzhou Travel Guide
Last updated by peggie at 2013-11-17
The city of Lanzhou, Gansu Province, marks the southeasternmost ancient Silk Road city along the equally ancient Hexi ("Western rivers") Corridor, a reference to the river basins of the Jin and the Wei Rivers - both tributary rivers to the upper reaches of the Yellow River - that form the valley floor that is the Hexi Corridor, which corridor roughly corresponds to the narrow, "bottleneck" stretch of present-day Gansu Province and which separates the Gobi Desert to the north and east from the Taklimakan Desert to the southwest. At the other end of the "bottleneck" stretch of present-day Gansu Province, i.e., in the northwestern part of the Hexi Corridor, lies the Gansu Province city of Dunhuang, famous especially for its Buddhist grotto art - including both paintings and sculptures, some of the latter depicting pre-Buddhist yaksha (male) and yakshi (female) figures - and for being an early Chinese Buddhism venue devoted to the study and propagation of Buddhism in China, thanks surely to the influence that the Silk Road also had on the "trade" in ideas.
The area around present-day Lanzhou has a prehistory that stretches back some 5000 years, when Neolithic cultures such as the Majiayao Culture, Banshan Culture, Machang Culture and Qijia Culture, successively, flourished here, which suggests that this part of the world, already at that early stage in human social development, was an important piece of geography to occupy, as it undoubtedly brought its occupants into contact with peoples living both east and west of what would later be called the Hexi Corridor, as well as with those cultures living north and south along the Yellow River itself. The city of Langzhou also has a long recorded history stretching back some 1400 years, as the next section illustrates.
History of Lanzhou
Not originally a part of the Chinese empire, the area of present-day Lanzhou, which lies on the banks of the Yellow River, was inhabited by the Qiang ethnic minority before it eventually came under the domain of the Qin people during the 6th century BCE. The Qin people controlled much of present-day Gansu Province and parts of present-day northeastern Qinghai Province, as part of an arrangment between Qin Zhuanggong, the then leader of the Qin people, and King Xuan of Zhou, ruler of the Western Zhou (BCE 1027-771) Dynasty during the period BCE 827-782 (this is the same Qin people who would later form the Qin State that would eventually be transformed into the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, China's first Imperial dynasty, through a series of dog-eat-dog wars that characterized the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period, as the name itself suggests, of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty).
It was first under the Qin Dynasty that trade along the Silk Road was significantly intensified, and the need for well-provisioned towns and cities along the sparsely populated western fringes of the Silk Road route made itself felt. It was the opportunities provided by this increased trade traffic, both through the Hexi Corridor and farther westward in China, around the northern and southern fringes of the Taklimakan Desert, that caused the growth in size and wealth of the famous Taklimakan Desert cities of Kashagar, Khotan, Kucha, Niya, Lop Nur and Turfan, as well as the growth in size and wealth of the famous Hexi Corridor cities of Dunhuang, Jiayuguan, Jiuquan, Zhangye, Wuwei and Lanzhou. Most of these cities shrunk as quickly as they had sprung up - some becoming veritable ghost towns - once the overland Silk Road routes gave way to the maritime Silk Road routes.
"All roads lead to Rome" is a metaphorical saying equivalent to the more plebian saying, "there's more than one way to skin a pole cat [viz., a skunk]", though there might also be a certain amount of literal truth to the former saying. However, in ancient times, there was only one road leading to - and from - China, as the Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk, Xuan Zang (of the 16th century Chinese novel, Pilgrimage to the West, fame), the famous, intrepid discoverer, Marco Polo, and even the famous - or perhaps infamous - Mongol chieftain, Genghis Khan, discovered, and that road led through the Hexi Corridor.
The burgeoning trade of the early Silk Road and the wealth it spread also provided an incentive for marauding bands of nomads to attack the trade caravans - and even to attack the lesser Silk Road trade route cities themselves. Therefore Emperor Wu of the Han (BCE 206 - CE 220) Dynasty, whose reign was from BCE 140-87, had the Beijing Great Wall extended westward to the city of Yumen, situated northeast of the city of Jiayuguan - and roughly midway between Jiayuguan and Dunhuang - at the northeastern extremity of the narrow Hexi Corridor, just before the route in question turned westward, leading to Dunhuang.
The city of Lanzhou, as part of the territory belonging to the surrounding region, remained a part of the Chinese empire from the Qin through the Western Jin (CE 265-316) Dynasty. With the advent of the Eastern Jin (BCE 317-420) Dynasty, formed on the remains of the defeated Western Jin Dynasty (the nomadic Turkic tribes from the north were continually knocking on China's northern door, as it were), the rulers of the beleaguered Han Chinese empire were forced to make a retreat southward, relocating their capital in Jiankang (present-day Nanjing).
Earlier, during the Three Kingdoms (BCE 220-280) Period, when Imperial China was divided into three competing states, Lanzhou belonged to the Wei State (BCE 220-265), aka the Cao Wei State, whose ruler was the famously infamous warlord, Cao Cao (the other two states of the Three Kingdoms Period were the Shu State (BCE 221-263) and the Wu State (BCE 229-280)).
The period during the Eastern Jin Dynasty and the subsequent period of further fracturing of power into numerous smaller states and dynasties (i.e., the Sixteen Kingdoms (CE 304-460) as well as the Southern and Northern Dynasties (BCE 386-588) Periods, which periods involved a certain amount of overlapping, since some of the states in question spanned all or part of both periods) saw Lanzhou become part of the Former Liang (CE 320-376) Kingdom, aka the Qian Liang Kingdom (in fact, Lanzhou served briefly as that kingdom's capital), a kingdom which itself vaccilated between cooperation with the Eastern Jin Dynasty and the stronger challenger, the Han Zhao (CE 304-329) Empire, as it called itself.
Note that during this troubled period of fractured rule (i.e., of numerous kingdoms and/ or dynasties), there was not a lot of loyalty on offer - entire captured armies would often serve "the other side", with their generals receiving new titles from new masters. Thus, though a kingdom or a dynasty might ostensibly be under non-Han rule, it might well have made use of Han armies. With such fractured rule, i.e., given the lack of clear, polarized choices, no one seemed to want to be on the losing side. In some cases, however, captured contingents of ordinary foot soldiers were forcibly "conscripted" to serve in auxiliary capacities such as transporting munitions and other supplies, constructing defensive works, etc. It was not an easy period in which to be a pawn, as it were, on this particular "chess board".
When the Former Liang Kingdom came to an end, Lanzhou came under the rule of the Former Qin (CE 351-394) Empire, aka Qian Former Qin Empire, and when that state ended, Lanzhou found itself under the auspices of the Later Liang (CE 386-403) Kingdom, aka the Hou Later Liang Kingdom. Lanzhou became a part of the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty of the Northern Dynasties (CE 386-588) Period, which spanned the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period, when the area around Lanzhou was established as the Jincheng Commandery as part of the newly created Zicheng County. The Northern Wei Dynasty was ruled by the Tuoba clan of the Xianbei, aka the Tanguts, who would later form the Western Xia (CE 1038-1227) Dynasty. It was under the Sui (CE 581-617) Dynasty that the city, not yet named Lanzhou, would be the seat of the newly formed Lanzhou Prefecture.
Thereafter Lanzhou remained a part of the Chinese empire through most of the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, but in CE 763, the entire region of present-day Qinghai-Gansu was captured by the Tibetans, though the Tang Dynasty would recover most of the captured lands, including Lanzhou, in CE 843, and Lanzhou would remain firmly in Chinese hands until, as indicated, the non-Han Tuoba clan of the Xianbei would form the Western Xia Dynasty, aka the Tangut Empire, wresting the area that included Lanzhou from the Chinese (the northern nomads belonged to distinctly different tribes, each with its particular culture - the Jürchens cum Manchus, the Tanguts, the Mongols, etc. - though they were all members of the broader Turkic ethnic group). The name Lanzhou first came into currency during the Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty, when the surrounding county would be renamed to Lanzhuan County.
Lanzhou switched masters again, albeit, remaining under the rule of yet another nomadic Turkic tribe, when the area fell to the Jürchen Jin (CE 1115-1234) Dynasty. And, indeed, Lanzhou would yet again switch Turkic masters when the Mongols snatched much of the north, including present-day Gansu Province and the city of Lanzhou, from their Jürchen rivals, eventually unseating the Jürchen Jin Dynasty. Back in the arms of Imperial China beginning with the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, Lanzhou would continue to grow, but the subsequent Han Chinese dynasty, the Ming (CE 1368-1644) Dynasty, seeking to reverse much of the influence of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, would demote the Sui Dynasty created prefecture to a county, and place it under the auspices of Lintao Superior Prefecture.
In 1477, Lanzhou was separated from Lintao Superior Prefecture and again became Lanzhou Prefecture. Lanzhou Prefecture became a city proper in 1656, during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, under its new prefecture name, and only 10 years later, in 1666, Lanzhou became the capital of the new province of Gansu, and the city and the prefecture grew at the expense of Lintao Superior Prefecture. In 1739, in recognition of the fact that Lanzhao had far surpassed Lintao, the latter became a simple city and the title of "superior prefecture" was instead transferred to Lanzhou.
Like neighboring Shaanxi Province, Gansu Province and especially its capital, Lanzhou, found itself embroiled in the Hui Minorities War (1862-77), aka the Dungan Revolt. The city of Lanzhou was itself subject to much violence between 1864-75, suffering extensive damage. During WWII, when large swaths of China - especially coastal China - were occupied by Imperial Japan, Lanzhou was one of the key cities along the Soviet supply route into China, whose terminus was the city of Xi'an in neighboring Shaanxi Province, this at the same time that the other Allied Powers, including the U.S., Australia and the U.K., were supplying the Chinese resistance fighters from the south, via first the Burma Road (1937-45) and, when the Japanese had definitively succeded in interdicting the Burma Road after Rangoon fell, via the Ledo Road (1945).
In the same way that the Imperial Japanese forces incessantly bombed the southern supply routes (and note that drawing Japanese fire in this manner itself represented a victory of sorts, since it kept the Imperial Japanese forces occupied on several fronts simultaneously), they also repeatedly attacked the northern Allied supply route, including the city of Lanzhou, which was heavily bombed.
Though the populous city of Lanzhou is exempted, other Hexi Corridor cities such as Jiuquan and Lop Nur are today the site of nuclear missile bases, much like the sparsely populated states of the western U.S. (Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana) were chosen to host nuclear missile bases, given their difficult access (a spy would stand out like a sore thumb) and their sparse populations.
As capital of Gansu Province, the city of Lanzhou is a bustling metropolis with a population of over 3 million, including ethnic minorities such as the Dongxian, the (Muslim) Hui, the Uyghurs, the Tibetans and of course the ethnic majority, the Han Chinese. Lanzhou is a rail, air and highway hub for the region, and is still, as part of the Hexi Corridor, a key railway and highway gateway to Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang, for short) as well as to Tibetan Autonomous Region (Tibet, for short). In fact, thanks to its well-developed airport, Lanzhou Airport (LHW), the city is also the local air hub for the larger, regional cities of Xinjiang and Tibet.
Lanzhou is also a major regional industrial center, and was in the recent past an important "gold rush town". Lanzhou is home to the region's largest oil refinery, it is home to one of China's major hydroelectric power plants, Liujiaxia Dam, thanks to the Yellow River and its many tributaries here in the upper reaches of China's "Mother River". As a local industrial giant, Lanzhou is a major producer of machinery and chemicals, and boasts a burgeoning non-ferrous metallurgical industry as well. With a stable supply of wool, thanks to the many local and regional sheep herds, Lanzhou is also a prime producer of woolen textiles. Lanzhou is also famous for its fruit orchards and especially for its melons, having earned the title of "the city of fruits and melons". Lanzhou produces over 20 varieties of fruits and melons, including peaches, honey-dew melons, Yellow River melons (a native variety) and Mapizui melons (also a native variety), to name the most prominent.
Visitors to Lanzhou are surprised to learn that the city combines the best of modern northern Chinese cities with the quaint charm of the cities of southern China. This is all the more surprising given that Lanzhou is reputed to be the most polluted city in China, though this is due mainly to two factors: the pollution of the Yellow River in earlier industrial times, and the fact that the city sits in a bowl, rimmed by mountains, which blocks the movement of air at times and permits the accumulation of, not least, airborne particle pollution, much like the city of Los Angeles in the U.S. is plagued by "smog" (low-lying "clouds" of particle pollution). However, most visitors to Lanzhou, as well as the city's residents, feel that the city fares much better than its reputation would suggest.
Since Lanzhou was bombed extensively during WWII, most of its buildings are of newer date (this is also true of the city of Exeter in the U.K., which was bombed incessantly by Germany during WWII). Besides its newer architecture, the city is known for its "Green Corridor", the belt of greenery that lines both banks of the Yellow River that runs through the city. The Green Corridor is well worth the walk. The main highlights of the city of Lanzhou are: Bingling ("Ten Thousand Buddha") Caves, or Grottoes (click here); White Pagoda Mountain with its White Pagoda Hill Park (click here); Five Springs Mountain with its Five Springs Mountain Park (click here); Zhongshan Iron Bridge, "The First Bridge Over the Yellow River" (click here); Gansu Provincial Museum, a must-see for anyone interested in Langzhou's prehistory and the city's political, cultural and religious history (click here); and of course, the Green Corridor (click here), which, besides being a pleasant stroll through a lush green park, also contains cultural relics like the Waterwheel Garden (click here) and the Statue of Mother Yellow River (click here).
Lastly, you wouldn't want to miss visiting the site where the tubular, Lanzhou Hand Drum, used in the Lanzhou Taiping ("Peace") Drum Dance, originated (the Lanzhou "hands free" hand drum is strapped around the performer's neck, with a traditional leather drumming "membrane" stretched over each end of the instrument), therefore you should pay a visit to Xianghuajian Village, about 60 kilometers north-northeast of the center of Lanzhou. The Lanzhou Hand Drum drumming ceremony commences each year on the tenth day of the first lunar month (Spring Festival/ Lunar New Year), and reaches a peak during the Lantern Festival ceremony, also a part of the Lunar New Year festivities, when the Lanzhou Taiping Drum Dance is performed.
While at Zhongshan Iron Bridge, do keep a lookout for the local "kayak", an ancient raft cobbled together of sheep and cow hides. In former times, they were used to ferry people and smaller animals across the Yellow River. Other noteworthy sites beyond the city proper include: Xinglong Mountain, about 55 kilometers southeast of Lanzhou (click here); Tulugou National Forest Park, about 160 kilometers northeast of Lanzhou; Labuleng Lamasery in Xiahe County, about 150 kilometers southwest of Lanzhou; and the Maijishan Grottoes in Tianshui City, about 300 kilometers southeast of Lanzhou.
Since Lanzhou makes an excellent air transportation hub, short visits to cities in Xinjiang or Tibet from Lanzhou make eminently good sense, and roundtrip tickets are generally cheaper than two one-way flights that cover the same distance.
The weather in Lanzhou is quite temperate, with dry, hot summers and dry, cold winters. There are no heavy rainfall periods such as those that characterize more monsoonal climates. Here, the rainfall is distributed throughout the late spring to late fall calendar. Snow is a rarity. Since Lanzhou is situated on a high plateau, the daily temperature swings are greater than the seasonal temperature swings, so layered clothing is a must.
If you can unburden yourself from a busy itinerary while in Lanzhou, you really should spend some time lolling about in the Green Corridor on either side of the Yellow River. The walks there are simply priceless. There are ample places to sit and enjoy the view, or you can find yourself a café along the corridor where you can refresh yourself with a cup of coffee, or, better yet, you can try one of the Eight Auspicious Teas at the Waterwheel Garden. The view of the city from across the river, nestled between the Yellow River in the foreground and the mountain range in the background, is itself worth a trip to Lanzhou.
Top Things to Do in Lanzhou
Lanzhou Travel Guide
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