I recently got back from Gansu and Qinghai Province in China. Both Western provinces of the country steeped in culture, history and out-of-this-world scenery.
It was my first time in Western China and I didn’t know what to expect. The only thing I knew was that it’s less developed than the Eastern provinces (where all the big cities are) and that once I get to Qinghai it might get a little sensitive because many ethnic minorities (especially Tibetans live there). Those were my general assumptions and impressions of the area before going.
I was also rather nervous about the heat because temperatures can get to 40 degrees celsius in the Gobi desert and the area within Qinghai I was visiting would be nearly 4000m high in altitude.
Was any of my impressions, assumptions and worries valid?
Some, but for the most part, none.
I visited several cities within Gansu, and it was observably less developed than places like Shanghai or Shenzhen, but I wasn’t expecting big hi-tech cities to exist in provinces that dominate China’s agriculture industries.
It’s like expecting Houston Texas to be like New York city.
The places were tidy, the roads were nicely paved, infrastructure was comprehensive. All the places I went to were just really nice, livable places. The air was super clean and the sky was consistently blue with fluffy white clouds, or no clouds at all.
Just picturesque. Everywhere I looked.
Most of Gansu overlaps the Gobi desert and the whole province is rather dry in those areas, which means the 36 degrees Celcius I experienced in the sand dunes was more comfortable than the muggy humid 25 degrees I get in Hong Kong.
Which leads me to some packing tips for people planning on going
TIP 1: The temperature is hot in Gansu in summer and very cold in winter. But it’s very dry, which means you just need to provide yourself with shade to keep yourself cool. A fan isn’t needed, or any other cooling device.
TIP 2: The sun is harsh. UV rays are strong and you NEED to apply and keep reapplying sunscreen if you plan to be outside all day. Or best yet cover bare skin to avoid sunburn.
TIP 3: Protect your lips. I’m not joking about the UV rays. I have never gotten sun damaged on my lips before in my life and I wasn’t even aware it was possible. Bring UV protection for your lips
TIP 4: Moisturise. It’s really dry. No amounts of water or liquid you drink will help you from feeling dry from the inside out. Bring a thick moisturizer to avoid completely drying out.
TIP 5: Qinghai is pretty cold all year. The warmest it gets is “chilly”. The weather is also rather unstable because the terrain is mountainous. Pack an umbrella, or waterproof jacket with you and dress in layers.
Both Gansu and Qinghai are traditionally and still are multi-cultural provinces occupied by several different ethnic minorities. What this means is, the food is really interesting. In fact, Han Chinese food is not common although Han Chinese is the majority. (Han Chinese food is the typical food you think of when you think of Chinese food, fried rice, dumplings and hot pot)
Halal food of the ethnic minorities of Kazakh, Salar and Hui are the most common cuisine. Meaning pork is rare and lamb kebabs are everywhere. Rice is uncommon, but flat breads and noodles are.
The many centuries worth of cultural exchange along the Silk Road has made Arabic, Turkish and Mongolian influence a firm feature in Gansu food.
The overall flavors are savory, sweet with a hint of spice in almost everything. Not too spicy like Sichuan cuisine, but expect most things to have some spice to it.
Food tips on things you really shouldn’t miss out on.
TIP 6: Gansu produces some of the best fruit in the country because of the big temperature difference between day and night which makes produce extra sweet. You have to try grapes, peaches, yellow plums, watermelons and honeydew melon. Fruit is sold by weight, but you can tell the vendor you want x RMB amount and they will give you it accordingly.
TIP 7: You must try the lamb kebab skewers. They’re around 2RMB each, but they will only sell you 10 skewers minimum.
TIP 8: Stay hydrated with a local drink called “sing – pee – shui”. Its a special drink found in Dunhuang city that people drink to keep hydrated and avoid heatstroke. It’s basically salted apricot peel water. Yummy stuff that I had multiple times. 5 – 10RMB
TIP 9: You must try some roast lamb. Gansu is famous for its lamb in China and rightly so. Prices range on which part of the animal you order. (You can pretty much order any part you want)
TIP 10: Food in Qinghai is less varied because things just don’t grow or cook well in high altitudes, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t cool things to try. A green pea-like millet thing is often used to make a compressed cookie, soup or noodles. The taste is similar to oatmeal and popcorn. Not bad.
What to do there
The Silk Road:
If you like history and appreciate a lot of Buddhist art and culture then you must go to Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang. A designated UNESCO world heritage site. It’s a collection of over 400 caves within the cliff face of the Gobi desert.
Each cave is home to Buddhist murals, wall paintings and statues from 800 B.C all the way to the Qing dynasty of China.
This was one of the highlights of my trip. An ordinary pre-booked ticket online will let you have access to 8 caves with a guide. You can choose English or Chinese for your tour to be conducted in.
All the coves are locked and free roam is not allowed to keep the painting from oxidizing or just getting damaged any further from people touching or using flash to take photos.
But the art themselves isn’t what makes this place significant. It was the secret library found within one cave that stored over 50,000 bodies of text ranging from Buddhism, astrology, folktales, history and many other topics.
The majority of the documents rest in UK and France, along with USA, Germany, Japan, India and South Korea. But the ones that managed to remain in China are located in Beijing.
TIP 11: Prebook your tickets or else your experience will be crap. Walk in purchase of tickets only allow you access to 3 caves and you will have no guide, no explanation nor time to appreciate the 2000 years of history you are observing.
Crescent moon spring is another must-visit. This natural crescent-shaped moon oasis in the middle of the desert is right next to sand dunes in the Gobi desert.
But be warned, it’s a very popular tourist attraction and the beauty of the surroundings can be easily lost in the chaos of tourists everywhere.
TIP 12: GO EARLY. As early as possible to avoid the crowds. I went early afternoon and there were still crowds of students on field trips everywhere.
There’s a lot of different activities you can do and I have to admit it’s very touristy, but the Crescent moon spring has been a refuge for travelers along the silk road for over 2000 years. So it’s a must-visit. Even if it’s just for the 1 hour camel ride!
TIP 13: Dunhuang is a city along the Silk Road that was a trading hub, but now it’s a tourist city open from June to October. HOWEVER, the local government is trying to encourage winter travel. It only just started and not many people go, but apparently, the sand dunes are covered in snow, which I think would be a very cool experience in itself.
The Tibetan Plateau:
The Tibetan Plateau is absolutely massive, and of course, I didn’t explore all of it, not even close. Just a small corner of Qinghai Province that’s next to Gansu.
But once you make that transition from Gansu to Qinghai, the difference is stark. It’s like two different worlds because of the terrain.
Gansu is dry, mostly flat but Qinghai is mountain after mountain, after mountain. I went from 36 degrees Celcius to 9 degrees Celcius within a 5 hour car ride.
TIP 14: Don’t be fooled by the cool weather, the UV rays here are still harsh. Sunscreen is a must!
You can’t say you’ve been to Qinghai if you haven’t been to Qinghai Lake. It’s the largest lake in China. It’s not possible see the whole thing at any vantage point other than from the sky. When you’re standing at the edge it’s like looking into the ocean.
Interestingly, the lake is a saltwater lake and its salt content has slowly increased over the years as the water levels have decreased. The result? The unique fish in the lake grow very slowly from the lack of food, and any significant sized fish you see in the lake is probably a few decades old.
TIP 15: The lake is super touristy, in some ways it’s worth getting a ticket into the grounds, but it does take away a lot of the experience. Instead, you can find a local “Zhang” Ethnic family that owns land near the lake to give you access for a few photo snaps. 30 – 50 RMB is normally enough.
TIP 16: Once you get to Qinghai you will be going into high altitude areas of 3000m and up. Altitude sickness is a real possibility. Taking Diamox 25mg pills two days before starting your ascent will help avoid some symptoms.
Chaka Salt Lake is another cool place to visit for some Instagram worthy shots. Chaka salt lake is a functional salt processing area, that turned into a tourist attraction once someone realized how beautiful the reflections on the salt plains looked on camera.
(It only started accepting visitors in the past 5 years, but the facilities and the organization of the place is amazingly commercialized…gotta admire how fast Chinese business work)
It looks like the place makes most of its money from tourism now, but it still processes salt. The Chaka Lake was traditionally a provider of salt to the Chinese imperial courts because of its taste. (strangely, I didn’t find any salt being sold at the place)
Ta’er Monastery is a famous Buddhist destination near the city of Xining. The Monastery was built to commemorate the founder of the Gelugpa sect, Tsong Khapa. The place covers the area he was born.
The site is seen as a holy destination for Gelugpa Buddhist followers.
Another place to visit if you’re in the area is Zhangye national park in the city of Zhangye, Gansu. The national park is home to one of the most beautiful landscapes in China, according to National Geographic.
The landscape is filled with mountain faces of different colored layers. Or greyish green surfaces that make the whole area look unreal.
The rock formations is the only one of it’s kind in China and is the result of mineral-rich soil, years of weathering and tectonic movements all the way from the Himalayan mountains.
This site, like every other site, is touristy, but like all the other places, it’s touristy for a reason. It’s extremely beautiful and the only way to preserve it is to do some heavy crowd control.
You are no longer allowed to walk freely within the park because the colored layers get damaged once you step on it. So now the government has built boardwalk paths to regulate where people can and cannot go.
They were busy building more while I was there.
Overall, I would recommend everyone to go at least once in their life. The air was pollution-free, the food was great, the cities were clean and the transport between cities was easy by road or high-speed rail.
My only advice is to prebook your tickets for attractions where possible to not get disappointed and prepare some form of a Chinese translation app on your phone if you don’t know any Chinese.
It’s not Shanghai or Beijing, there really aren’t any foreign travelers in this area. I think I saw a total of 10 noticeably foreign individuals on my whole trip. And although getting from one city to another is easy, getting to attractions outside cities do require careful planning.
TIP 17: Some places are an easy taxi ride, that won’t cost you more than 100 RMB for an hour ride. But others, it’s just simply not possible and a local guide needs to be arranged if you’re not renting a car, which I’m not even sure how renting a car in China work…so I can’t help you there.
There’s a lot more to do, see and eat but I think the above covered the main highlights I would recommend to most people.
I would definitely go again and explore each place in more depth. I barely scratched the service and I really enjoyed discovery this side of China. If you read my other post about things to know before going to China then you know I mentioned how chatty and nice people can be.
Well, people are even more chatty and nice outside the big cities. Long story short, my 5 hour high-speed train journey from Xining to Dunhuang ended with half the carriage knowing my life story because they kept asking and complimenting my Chinese as well as them teaching me everything they can possibly think of about the local history, food and culture.
This trip is up there on my topmost favorites so far.