A journey to Lanzhou- on the Silk Road between China and Central Asia

A journey to Lanzhou- on the Silk Road between China and Central Asia

The famous Silk Road is a long route, connecting China with Europe. It crosses the whole of Eurasia from East to West, branching between Mongolia in the north, and the Indian Ocean in the south. One of its branches passes through Lanzhou, a key city, located on the symbolic Yellow River, northeast of the Great Tibetan Plateau. It is a multicultural place, presenting a lot of historic traces. At the same time, Lanzhou is one of the starting points to Tibet. Let’s make a journey to this picturesque city and dive into its atmosphere, history, and culture.

Basic facts about Lanzhou

Lanzhou (兰州) is the capital of Gansu Province of China. It is a large city, established on the two banks of the Yellow River (Huang He), at 1650 m altitude. If you look at the physical map of China, you can see the Great Tibetan Plateau on the southwest, and the Gobi Desert with its branches on the northeast. There is a long narrow land between these two zones that is relatively dry, but still not a desert, consisting of agricultural fields. It connects the eastern part of China with Xinjiang on the west-northwest. This land is called the Gansu Corridor (or Hexi Corridor)- one of the main routes of the Silk Road, and Lanzhou is its important center.

Lanzhou with Yellow River
Lanzhou with Yellow River

Today, Lanzhou is a large modern city with skyscrapers, malls, parks, and various attractions. But to understand this city better, let’s dive into its history before exploring it in detail.

History of Lanzhou

The history of Lanzhou is long and is highly influenced by the Silk Road. For most of its life, the city has been a part of China but being located in the country’s western periphery, it has a multicultural mix from several neighboring civilizations.

From the beginning to 6th century BC

Since unknown ancient times, the area of Lanzhou has been populated by Qiang people. In the beginning, there has been nothing else at the Yellow River banks other than just several local huts. But due to the passing trade route which later would become a part of the Silk Road, these huts gradually turned into a significant and strategic settlement. As a result, it was conquered by the Qin Kingdom.

From the 6th century BC to 81 BC- Qin Kingdom

During this period, the eastern part of today’s China has consisted of many kingdoms, existing in competition, under the formal rule of the Zhou Dynasty. One of these kingdoms was the Qin Kingdom, which has extended the Chinese culture and civilization to the area of Lanzhou. Later Qin Kingdom has conquered all of the other Chinese kingdoms, becoming the first Chinese empire. However, Qin Empire quickly fell and has been replaced by its successor Han Empire. But during this transition, Lanzhou has fallen under the rule of the Xiongnu Confederation until 81 BC.

From 81 BC to 220 AD- Han Empire

When the Han Empire re-conquered Lanzhou, the city has entered its first Golden era, becoming an important trade hub on the Silk Road. It has been given a new name- Jincheng, which means “Golden City”. And for better protection, the Great Wall of China has been extended westward for better protection of Lanzhou. Today, you can see some traces from this distant past in Wuquan (Five Springs) Park.

From 220 to 386- Local tribal states and the Liang Kingdom

After the fall of the Han Dynasty, China has been divided into the “Three Kingdoms”, but Lanzhou has been separated from them, temporarily under the rule of local tribes. During this period, the city has been the capital of the local Liang Kingdom. This period has been politically unstable, which affected the development of Lanzhou, and ended its first Golden era.

From 386 to 618- Northern Wei and Sui Empires

During the following 2-3 centuries, the area of Lanzhou has become a part of the Northern Wei Kingdom and the city has started growing again. After another short period of instability, the whole of China has been united under the Sui Dynasty, and Lanzhou has become a prefecture.

From 618 to 907- Tang and Tibetan Empires

The first century of the Tang Dynasty has been another golden era for Lanzhou. But it has been a time when two strong empires- the Tang and the Tibetan enter into a clash with a lot of wars, and due to its proximity to the Great Tibetan Plateau, Lanzhou has been conquered by the Tibetans from 763 to 843, then re-conquered by the Tang. Today, you can feel the spirit of the Tang Empire in Baiyun (White Cloud) Temple.

From 907 to 1235- Western Xia, Song, and Jin Empires

After the fall of the Tang, China has been divided into many small kingdoms. One of them has flourished in what is today Qinghai and Gansu- the Western Xia. In 960 it has been replaced by the Song Empire which gradually has united most of China. Then, in 1127 another state has come into control of Lanzhou- Jin Empire. During the time of all these dynasties, Lanzhou has continued growing in importance as a trade hub on the Silk Road. This is also the time when Islam has been introduced in Lanzhou and the surrounding area. This is the time when God City Temple has been built.

Baitashan HIll, full of history
Baitashan HIll, full of history

From 1235 to 1368- Mongol Empire

During the 13th century, the Mongols gradually have conquered the whole of China, and Lanzhou has fallen under their control in 1235. The city hasn’t suffered serious damage and has been still flourishing due to its location on the Silk Road. During this era, one of the most important landmarks of Lanzhou has been built- the White Pagoda on Baitashan.

From 1368 to 1644- Ming Empire

The Mongols have been pushed out of China by forces of Ming, the new Chinese dynasty. During the Ming era, Lanzhou has been temporarily replaced by the neighboring Lintao county, but later its position as a prefecture has been re-established. There are many artifacts that remained from this era, such as the temple around the White Pagoda, Baiyi Temple Pagoda, and the Muslim Xiguan Mosque.

From 1644 to 1912- Qing Empire

This is the time when today’s province of Gansu has been established, and Lanzhou as its capital. The city has continued growing but has suffered serious damage during the Dungan Revolt between 1864 and 1875. Eventually, the Qing Dynasty has been overthrown, and Lanzhou has become a part of the Republic of China. Places like Qiaomen Mosque and Zhongshan Bridge has been established during this era.

From 1912 to 1949- Republic of China

During this period Lanzhou has entered its industrial era. Although it has been severely disturbed by a series of bombardments by the Imperial Japanese Army between 1937 and 1940, the Japanese have never conquered Lanzhou, and have suffered heavy losses by the armies of the Chinese generals Ma Hongkui and Ma Bufang.

From 1949 until now- People’s Republic of China

Finally, Lanzhou has become a part of Communist China. Since that time, the city has passed through all the stages of Chinese Communism, until eventually, it received significant growth in recent years. Tourism also grew, and today we can enjoy the city’s modern life and its places of interest.

Modern Lanzhou
Modern Lanzhou

All of the above gradually formed the modern image of Lanzhou and made it an attractive place to explore. And we can find the traces of its history in its tourist attractions, its local culture, food, people and the whole atmosphere.

Our journey to Lanzhou

Lanzhou has been our stop point during our Eastern Tibet and Xinjiang trips. But at that time we just passed through the city or stopped in one railway station to move to the other railway station. However, on our second way back from Xinjiang, I decided to explore the city, realizing that there is much to see and taste here.

So, I determined the key spots in Lanzhou where I could explore it in the best way- old traditional, religious sites, museums, parks, local food streets, and of course, the banks of the Yellow River- the most important landmark of the city. I could visit most of these places, while some of them I couldn’t, but would visit eventually next time.

Places to visit in Lanzhou

First, take a look at the map of Lanzhou. The city is prolonged from west to east along the banks of the Yellow River- it is long and narrow. Its western part is a bit more modern, and there is not too much to see there, except one of the most important sites- Gansu Provincial Museum. And the eastern part, located inside Chengguan District is the core of the city, with more places to visit. And there are two nearby hills with some old traditional sites, also providing great panoramic views of the city.

So, let’s start with the central museum of Lanzhou- Gansu Provincial Museum.

Gansu Provincial Museum (甘肃省博物馆)

This is a large museum in a pompous building with high educational value. Knowing the history of Lanzhou and the whole province of Gansu, you can see more details here, presented by a lot of artifacts. It has a natural science section where you can see replicas of dinosaurs and many other prehistoric animals, including a 4 m-tall Mammoth.

The other section is historical- you can see the history not only of Lanzhou but the whole eastern section of the Silk Road, from most ancient times until today. There are a lot of artifacts, of which the most attractive is the Galloping Horse, dating from the late Han Dynasty era- a brilliant example of ancient art. Entrance fee: free, but you have to show your passport, and there is a limited number of visitors.

Gansu Provincial Museum
Gansu Provincial Museum

From this museum, you can go north to the bank of the Yellow River and walk eastward.

The south bank of Yellow River

This area is turned into a beautiful park with a lot of attractions. It is also called Binhe Road Greenery Corridor (滨河路绿色长廊) because it is situated between the Yellow River and the riverside Binhe Road- the longer riverside road in China.

One of the first of them is the Mother Yellow River Sculpture (黄河母亲像)- today turned into one of the symbols of Lanzhou. It presenting a “mother” and a “baby” and is a favorite place for photos.

Then you can proceed by the river bank. Soon you will see another symbol of Lanzhou- the water wheels, once used for farming along the banks of the Yellow River. There are at least two places where you can see them. The first is a well-arranged garden, designed like a small museum (entrance fee: 10 CNY). And the second one further east- it is larger but is not a museum, just a place in the park with more wooden water wheels.

But before you reach the second water wheel place (called also “Water Wheel Expo Garden”), you will arrive at another landmark of Lanzhou- the pedestrian Zhongshan Bridge.

Zhongshan Bridge (中山桥)

This bridge has a significant historical value. It is built in 1909, during the last years of the Qing Dynasty, and it is made of iron. Today, for its protection, it remained pedestrian. It has turned into a favorite tourist attraction, also providing picturesque views of the river, the city along it, and the next attraction on the steep hill north of the river- Baitashan.

Crossing Zhongshan Bridge
Crossing Zhongshan Bridge

You can cross the river on Zhongshan Bridge, and you will reach the foot of Baitashan.

Baitashan Hill (白塔山)

From here, you can make a nice hike to the top of the hill. And the alleys to the top curve between old traditional buildings- pavilions, temples, a beautiful wall relief, and many other constructions guiding you centuries ago in time. One of these buildings is a museum- Lanzhou Painted Pottery Museum, presenting precious relics, some of which come from the ancient Majiayao culture, from 2000 BC and before.

You gradually reach the top of the hill, where you can see the pagoda that has given its name- the White Pagoda (in Chinese- “Bai Ta”). It takes you to the time of the Mongol era (Yuan Dynasty) when this pagoda was built by the Mongols in memory of a Tibetan Lama. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, a temple has been built around the pagoda, and finally, during the Qing Dynasty, it has been renewed and enlarged.

So, there is a lot of history on the whole hill. But another attraction is the stunning view of the city and the Yellow River from above. You can descend from the hill on foot or by the newly established cable car (55 CNY in both directions, 30 CNY for one direction downward, and 45 CNY for one direction upward) to the south bank of the river. Then you can proceed with your walk eastward.

Water Wheel Expo Garden (水车博览园) and Yantan Park (雁滩公园)

After a nice riverside walk, eventually, you will reach the Water Wheel Expo Garden- the second water wheel place that I mentioned above. Here you can see various water wheels, of various sizes and decorations, places in different places around the park. You can even try to rotate some of them. Finally, you can leave the garden on the Lanzhou Woqiao Bridge- a small attractive bridge on a small tributary of the Yellow River.

Water wheels by the Yellow River bank
Water wheels by the Yellow River bank

Only 350 m east-southeastward is Yantan Park- one of the most beautiful parks in Lanzhou. It features a lake, surrounded by the best of the modern Chinese garden art. And there is a pavilion complex in Chinese traditional style- a great place to relax.

Now, you can explore the center of the western part of Lanzhou, south of the Yellow River.

Religious sites in the western center of Lanzhou

Lanzhou has a mix of Buddhist, Taoist, and Islam cultures. They are present in several religious sites around the city. Unlike the Yellow River bank, they are not so touristy and feature the best of the religious and traditional architecture.

  • Baiyun (White Cloud) Temple (白云寺). This is a Taoist temple, located right beside the lower station of the Baita Cable Car and Zhongshan Bridge (actually, you can visit it during your Yellow River south bank walk). It has been founded in the 8th century, during the Tang Dynasty era, and since then it has been renewed many times.
  • God City Temple (申城寺). Actually, it is a former temple. It is built during the Song Dynasty era. Today, its beautiful buildings are used for cultural relics and souvenirs market.
  • Baiyi Temple Pagoda (白衣寺塔) and Lanzhou Museum (兰州市博物馆). It is another Buddhist temple with a pagoda, built at the beginning of the 17th century, during the end of the Ming Dynasty era. Today, the southern part of this complex is turned into a museum- Lanzhou Museum. Its theme is the same as the theme of Gansu Provincial Museum but focused only on the city of Lanzhou, and of course, much smaller than it. Entrance fee: Free.
  • Qiaomen (Bridge Gate) Mosque (桥门清真寺). It is a bit hidden mosque, located just south of the Zhongshan Bridge, but behind the main buildings along the boulevard. It takes you to the beginning of the 18th century, the Qing Dynasty era.
  • Xiguan Mosque (西关清真寺). This is the largest mosque in Lanzhou and one of the largest in the whole of China. It has been initially built during the Ming Dynasty era, but recently renewed. Today, it is one of the Lanzhou landmarks.
Qiaomen Mosque
Qiaomen Mosque

These are the most interesting religious sites in the center of Lanzhou, but there is more. This part of the city is the best area to try modern daily life, the contemporary culture, and the delicious cuisine of Lanzhou.

A spot for modern life- Dongfanghong Plaza (东方红广场) and its surroundings

This is the main square of Lanzhou, and one of the best places for modern cityscape photos. It consists of a green part (a park), and a stadium. The square is surrounded by various modern constructions- office and trade buildings, malls, hotels, and government buildings. If you want to try the modern daily life and image of the city, you can “taste” it in some of the surrounding malls.

Now, let’s go to the south. You can see the nearby high hills rising south of the old Lanzhou Railway Station, and if you stare at the hills closely, you can see some temples and pagodas on them. This is a chain of parks, so let’s visit it too.

Wuquan (五泉山) and Gaolanshan (皋兰山) Mountains

This is a small mountain area, just south of western Lanzhou. It features a narrow long ridge, which is the main mountain, called Lanshan. The main mountain with its summit is Gaolan Shan (and this is the name of the highest peak of the mountain), now turned into a park with a lot of alleys, pavilions, and various other attractions. And of course, it provides breathtaking views of the city below.

One of the northern branches of Lanshan is special. It is called Wuquan Shan (Five Springs Mountain), and it is not just a park, but it has a historical value. There are real five springs in the park, and a lot of temples, pagodas, pavilions, and other old traditional buildings. According to a legend, the springs have been created when one of the Western Han generals (from the 1st century BC) whipped on the ground in search of water for his army resting there.

Cable car

There is a cable car taking you from Wuquan Shan to the summit of Lanshan. You can use it if you want to skip some hiking. The price is 60 CNY in two directions, 40 CNY for ascending only, and 30 CNY for descending.

These are the most important spots to see in Lanzhou. But a journey to this city would be never full if you don’t explore its local cuisine.

The local cuisine of Lanzhou

Every Chinese knows it- Lanzhou Lamian (Lanzhou Stretched Noodles). They are so popular around the whole of China, and as the name suggests, these noodles originate from Lanzhou. The typical Lanzhou Lamian is a clear fragrant soup with hand-made noodles and beef (niu rou- 牛肉).

Lanzhou Lamian
Lanzhou Lamian

Today you can find Lanzhou Lamian (兰州拉面) restaurants everywhere in China, and they are held by Hui Muslim people, mainly from Gansu and Qinghai. However, you can’t find a restaurant with such a name in Lanzhou city itself. Instead, you can see names (of course, usually all in Chinese), such as “Beef Noodles Restaurant”, or something else, and you can find such places to eat everywhere around the city.

Besides this famous and delicious meal, there are many other local means worth to try. Among them, I would mention Facai Gold Fish (not a real fish, but a mix of chicken breast and shrimps), Niangpizi (wheat noodles), and a whole Roasted Lamb.

The best place to try Lanzhou local food- Zhengning Road (正宁路)

There are many restaurants, as well as a night market where you can try the local Lanzhou cuisine. But the best place is Zhengning Road because there is not only a great variety of meals on the street, but you can enjoy a specific local traditional atmosphere while you buy and eat your dinner.

Outside of Lanzhou

In general, that’s the most important from Lanzhou. From here, if you want to proceed with your Lanzhou journey, you have to go out of the city, and there are many interesting places to see there. I would not come into detail, but two of these places deserve visiting, and they are not too far. Let’s go there.

Tianfusha Palace (天斧沙宫)

It is located around 21 km from the western center of Lanzhou. But it is not a human palace. It is a sand rock (“danxia”) landform complex, featuring high, vertical sand-rock walls with shapes reminding of a “palace” and other human-made constructions, hence the name “Palace”. Today, this place is turned into a geopark presenting spectacular otherworldly landscapes.

There is no direct public transport to Tianfusha Palace, but you can reach it from Lanzhou City University by taxi for just 30 to 50 CNY. Once you arrive there, you can walk into the place for free (there is still no entrance fee). But when you want to back, it is better to discuss with the taxi driver to come and take you, because most probably there will be no taxis waiting at the entrance.

Bingling Temple (炳灵寺石窟)

Visiting this spot is a challenging adventure. It can take you on a time travel to the Qin Kingdom era, more than 2000 years ago. There is a canyon on the Yellow River, with steep, and in many places vertical rocky walls. And when you reach it, you can see a lot of grottoes with Buddha images, carved into the rocks. They are dated from around 400 BC until the 19th century AD.

Bingling Temple
Bingling Temple

To make a trip to this place, you’d better plan a whole day. The place is reachable in summer and early autumn only. First, you have to go to Liujiaxia Reservoir (again, only by taxi- about 55 km), then, from there you have to take a boat ride- there are boats to the spot waiting at the wharf. Or, there is another, alternative way, but it is even more adventurous- by rental car with a local driver who can take you on a 6-7 (or even more) hours journey, on narrow mountain roads until you reach the place. Again, in winter it would be almost impossible to reach it.

Now, let’s back to Lanzhou and get some travel tips, about transportation and accommodation.

Transportation

Being a big megacity and a provincial capital, Lanzhou is easily reachable by plane and by train, not only from Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, or other big Chinese cities, but also from abroad.

You can travel by plane to Zhongchuan International Airport. It is connected to all the big cities in China, as well as some other cities in Southeast Asia. Once you arrive, you can take the commuter train connecting the airport with the two main railway stations of Lanzhou. The price is 18.5 CNY for the Second class and 22 CNY for the First class. There is also a shuttle bus, which is slower but still convenient.

Or, you can reach Lanzhou by train. It is located on the main railway route connecting East China with Xinjiang. The nearest big city is Xining, and there are a lot of trains and buses between these cities, traveling for just 1-2 hours. There are also a lot of buses traveling between Lanzhou and the nearby destinations in Gansu and the neighboring provinces.

Check your transport to Lanzhou!

Street traffic in Lanzhou with Xiguan Mosque behind
Street traffic in Lanzhou with Xiguan Mosque behind

How to travel in the urban area of Lanzhou

So, since most probably you would reach Lanzhou by plane or by train, these are your entry points: Zhongchuan Airport, the modern Lanzhou West Railway Station, and the old Lanzhou Railway Station. From here, you can travel inside the city by metro, by public bus, by taxi, by public shared bike, or just on foot.

By metro

This is a convenient “shortcut” way to move from one point to another. Currently, there is only one line of the Lanzhou Metro, but it is convenient, because it follows the west-east direction of the city, passing by the most important points of interest, and by the Lanzhou West Railway Station. Fares depend on the distance, starting from 2 to 8 CNY.

By bus

There is a well-developed public bus network in Lanzhou. You can travel throughout the city, from east to west, conveniently passing by most of the points of interest, for only 1 CNY, and unlike the metro, you can enjoy various changing scenes from the city. The most convenient line is bus No. 1, connecting not only most of the interesting places but also the two railway stations.

By taxi

In general, if you just wander around the center and the Binhe Greenery Corridor, you don’t need a taxi. There are a lot of buses, and by taxi, you would not be too much faster due to the regular traffic jam. But if you want to go to places like Tianfusha Palace, or if your hotel is too far, a taxi is an option. It is not too expensive- starting for 7 CNY, and charging 1.4 CNY per kilometer after the 3rd km.

By shared bike

You can see these bikes everywhere- red (Mobike) or yellow (ofo) bicycles, randomly parked on streets, parks, alleys or bus stops. In my opinion, they are the best way to explore Lanzhou (at least the flat lower part of the city, and it was the way I wandered around. You walk on the street, see a bike, unlock it and just take it to your next point. When you arrive, you lock it again and leave it wherever you want.

On Zhengning Road
On Zhengning Road

But there is a problem- not every traveler can use these bikes. First, you have to prepare in advance- to make an account in WeChat or Alipay, which is a bit complicated. This is the most difficult part. Once you do it, you can use your mobile to scan the code on the bike to unlock it. And because it is complicated, but at the same time these bikes are a big temptation, look at this article on using shared bikes in China for more info!

Finally, let’s take a look at the other important details of your Lanzhou journey- your accommodation.

Accommodation

There are a lot of accommodation options in Lanzhou. You can find various hotels, from budget (like 120-150 CNY per room per night) to splurge (reaching 600, 800, or even more than 1000 CNY). Here I would not propose a particular property, since you can easily find it on Booking or Agoda. But have in mind that as everywhere in China, not every hotel can accept foreigners, especially the budget ones. The problem comes from the regulation, requiring every foreigner to register. Some hotels have the license to do it for the foreigners, but others don’t have it.

Some hotels appear in Booking and Agoda, which are international sites, supposing that they can accept foreigners, but in reality, they can’t. So, I would advise you not only to book your hotel but send a message to them to confirm that they can accept you.

Check your Lanzhou accommodation in Booking!

Find your Lanzhou accommodation from Agoda!

Location

Location can be important, especially if you have a tight schedule. Look at locations near a metro station, so if you have to leave Lanzhou by train, you can easily reach the railway station without risk of delay.

I explored Lanzhou alone, then I left the city by train to Chengdu, from where I had to join a trek in Mt. Ge’nyen in Eastern Tibet. Later, we traveled to other places in China and other countries. But since then, I still miss the taste of Lanzhou Lamian and the impressive local life of this beautiful city on the Yellow River.

Get more inspiration from the video below:

Take a look at some books about Lanzhou, Gansu Province and the Silk Road!

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A travel guide about Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province in China- a pearl on the Silk Road, and an entry point to Eastern Tibet. A travel guide about Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu Province in China- a pearl on the Silk Road, and an entry point to Eastern Tibet.

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