A thousand kilometers along the Silk Road in Gansu Province is, among other things, a journey from the recent past to ancient history


Gansu province lies where the steppes of Inner Mongolia and Tibetan and Loess Plateaus meet. The exceptionally fertile lands of the latter made this region the cradle of the Chinese nation. Gobi Desert and the flourishing gardens, steppes and peaks of the Quilian Mountains – the history here was largely determined by geography, and in particular the “green belt” leading from one oasis to another that made it possible to build a road to the Mediterranean in this area. Cities flourished on this trade route. A mighty melting pot, which for a long time used to be a part of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan, today unites the Chinese and Turkic-speaking Muslim Uighurs, Dungan people and Tibetans. Ancient Buddhist temples coexist with mosques, and the predominantly red and gold color scheme is supplemented by the green color of Islam. The roads are not always easy, especially if you prefer a jeep safari to the comfort of a fast train, as the distances are quite long, with desert storms being quite common in the area and the language barrier tough to overcome. But thanks to these difficulties or contrary to them, the journey will surely be unforgettable.


A hundred-li long embankment

Keep in mind that the capital of Gansu Province is a multi-million industrial city, with all the major attractions concentrated around the Yellow River: Baitashan Park with the White Pagoda, Waterwheel Garden, and Zhongshan Bridge, the first iron bridge across the Yellow River, built in 1907 and later named in honor of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Many scholars tend to think that this place is the cradle of Chinese civilization. You can look for proof of this point of view at the Gansu Provincial Museum with over a hundred thousand artifacts arranged in a few impressive collections on paleontology, anthropology, the stages in the development of the Great Silk Road, etc. Also, a night boat trip on the Yellow River, where you can enjoy chrysanthemum tea with goji berries, live music and a view of the mosques illuminated with green on the steep right bank, is a must-have on your list.


Top secret

Dafosi Lane, with its newly built grey five-story houses and a few stores, is not much of a tourist attraction. Therefore, it is a real miracle to find a Giant Buddha Temple in such surrounding. A wooden gate with intricate laces and elaborate painting leads to the inner yard. Here is the two-story pavilion, where, for almost a thousand years (they started building the pavilion in 1098) a thirty four and a half meter long Shakyamuni Buddha has been lying in nirvana. It is the largest indoor reclining Buddha in China. In addition, one may also find the remarkable wall painting, a library of sutras and a huge Buddha tooth. Other than that, there is not much to see in Zhangye. But if you go out of town, you may visit Mati Temple Grotto and Zhangye Danxia Geopark. Its famous landscape featuring red gravel, grey graphite and clay was shaped six million years ago. Walking in the hills is strictly regulated: one can only step on top of wooden decks. There is also a bus ferrying people from one observation platform to another.


Gobi, mountains and fortress

The state top category (5A) sanctuary lies four kilometers from the city of Jiayuguan. Jiayu Pass is one of the best-preserved outposts of this part of the Chinese Great Wall from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Ten-meter walls guard the general’s quarters, wings, towers, an alcove and a temple. When the site obtained UNESCO World Heritage status, souvenir shops appeared here along with tourist attractions such as camel-back rides. You can buy a copy of laissez-passer from a stern-looking warrior, a handmade fan, delicious halva or a desert rose crystal. Not far from the fortress, there is a “hanging” section of the Great Wall. It follows the curve of the mountain ridge, and, from afar, looks as if floating in the air.


Thousand Buddha Caves

Once coming to Mogao, you will understand why your long journey has been totally worth it. This thrilling place was a key point along the Great Silk Road, a junction between the cultures of China, India, Greece and the Islamic world for over a thousand years. The site, which is part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, was started as a hermit’s cave (around 336 AD), and finished in the Yuan period. (Just in case you forgot, that is between 1271 and 1368. Chinese measure time by dynasties. Even museums specifying a year or century of an exhibit is a rare occurrence. So it does make sense to learn the basic periods prior to your trip). The stunning thousand-year-old encyclopedia of Buddhist art is a multilevel complex with 492 caves, covered with wall paintings. The halls are decorated with statues of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Apsarases – in total, there are over two thousand colored sculptures and approximately four thousand bas-reliefs. Although there is no way to see them all at one go, the previously shown film and museum guides with an excellent command of English will help you find your way around. In Cave No.96, you can find a 35-meter tall Buddha statue.


Теxt: Olga Savelieva

Published on: February 26, 2018