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 450,000km, roughly the size of Sweden, Gansu borders 7 different countries and provinces including Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Xinjiang, Qinghai, Sichuan, and Shaanxi.
In 2017, Gansu province has a population of roughly 26 million people. 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 2017, Gansu’s GDP was approximately $104 billion, and its per capita GDP was about $4000, making it one of the poorer provinces in China.
Gansu’s primary industries accounted for approximately 12% of GDP in 2017. Important crops include corn, wheat, tubers, cotton, linseed oil, maize, melons, wheat, sugar beets, rapeseed, soybeans, a variety of fruits and vegetables, and a vast array of Chinese medicinal herbs. Gansu also has a significant animal husbandry sector which raises cattle, horses, donkeys, sheep, two-humped camels and goats. Historically, Gansu struggled to produce enough grain to feed itself. Increased irrigation, the collection and storage of rain runoff, mechanization, usage of chemical fertilizer, and mulching with plastic film have materially improved agricultural yields. Gansu also has some forest reserves. Take advantage of its animal husbandry and agricultural sectors, the province is also investing in leather and food processing.
Gansu’s secondary industries accounted for approximately 34% of GDP in 2017. 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 China’s manufacturing bases in western China, China would better be able to defend them in the case of enemy attack. Gansu today engages in electricity generation, petrochemical extraction and refining, metallurgy, oil exploration machinery, building material production, locomotive equipment, chemical fertilizers, petrochemicals, hydropower and other renewable energy manufacturing including solar and wind. Gansu is one of the most important goal or energy bases in China and ranks fifth in terms of wind energy generation.
Gansu also has significant deposits of over 170 different 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. The province also has 600 million tons of oil reserve.
Gansu’s tertiary industries accounted for 54.1% of its GDP in 2017. In terms of leading tertiary industries, the province’s wholesale and retail trade and its financial intermediation sector each accounted for approximately 14% of the tertiary sector output.
In 2017, Gansu’s foreign direct investment was approximately $43 million down from $135 million in 2010.
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 corridor dotted with oases. Forming part of the ancient northern Silk Road, for centuries the Hexi Corridor was the most important route from China to Central Asia. The corridor follows oases down along the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. As the Chinese empire expanded up the corridor during the Han Dynasty (202 BCE-261 CE), so too followed China’s Great Wall, and later, the province’s first railway. Gansu’s location as a key thoroughfare for the Silk Road made the province historically very important to China. As the silk trade grew, so did the trading posts along the Hexi corridor; many of these form the major population centres of Gansu today. Located on the south bank of the Yellow River, Lanzhou is the province’s capital. Over the centuries, its population has been supported by excellent farming land situated nearby.
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 Outer 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. In 1920, for instance, an 8.5 magnitude earthquake killed over 200,000 people, many of whom died from resulting landslides which overwhelmed many towns.
Interesting Aspects for the Traveller
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 and 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.
The Dunhuang Oasis is a small oasis town that prospered during the Silk Road; 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 by car 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.
Singing Sand Mountain and Crescent Moon Lake also attract many visitors due to their breath-taking scenery.