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This long, snake-like province runs along the Hexi corridor, which was one of the main paths for the Silk Road. At the southern end of the province it bulges out with the Yellow river slicing across the bulge. For thousands of years caravans went down this desert pathway to reach the markets of China, stopping at the occasional oasis town to refuel or for protection against bandits. Recent archaeological diggings have found that Neolithic people lived in the Gansu area over 10,000 years ago, making the Hexi corridor more important that just recent Silk Road commerce.
Today, the north and central parts of the province are predominately Muslim. At one time the province belonged to a vast Buddhist Empire that left hundreds of beautiful grottos across the province. Presently the only Buddhists in the province are Tibetan communities in the south and some Mongolian communities strung all over the province. Gansu is one of the poorest provinces but has the potential to become an economic center thanks to its location as a major gateway to western China and vast natural resources.
Gansu is a mountainous desert area. This makes it very hard to travel around the province but makes for stunning beauty. Also the remoteness of the area allows visitors to go to places that very few travelers or locals ever go to. Gansu shares domestic borders with Ningxia, Shaanxi, Sichuan, Qinghai and Xinjiang.
Being a mixing ground of different cultures Gansu celebrates every major Chinese, Tibetan and Muslim holiday. And with growing numbers of Christians those holidays are starting to make it into the mix.
China has three "Golden Week" holidays per year. People get a mandatory two or three days off work for each holiday, and workers' companies can grant them the rest of the week off, making each holiday a total of 7 days. As you can imagine, having almost 1.4 billion people with the same days off can make travelling at these times arduous to say the least.
Travelling during the Spring Festival/Chinese New Year is incredibly difficult. Chinese New Year is China's Christmas, so the millions of migrant workers and students flood back to their home towns. Everybody else takes the opportunity to spend their hong bao (gifts of money traditionally given at CNY) and go travelling. Most of the time, since you are only allowed to purchase train tickets 6 days in advance and must be present in the city of origin, sometimes only standing room tickets are available. Be aware! The Spring Festival is undoubtedly the busiest time for the Chinese transportation system. Flying will avoid the crowded trains, but book early and expect to pay higher prices. All the main tourist attractions will be crawling with tourists (worse than usual), so unless you like crowds, it's best to avoid it altogether.
Chinese New Year is based on the lunar calendar, so the date changes each year. The Chinese New Year/Spring Festival holiday is 7 days long and usually starts on New Year's Eve.
The two other national holidays are October 1st, National Day, celebrating the founding of the People's Republic of China and May 1st, which is International Labor Day. Almost all Chinese get the two holidays off and many take the opportunity to travel. If you want to avoid the crowds, fly, but it should get a lot less busy towards the end of the week.
Gansu is dry and hot in the summer and can be cold in the winter. This place has extreme weather all year but the nice part is very little humidity. Therefore in the summer travellers will not feel the heat so badly.
Lanzhou is the major hub for transport to anywhere in the province and for going into western China because all trains going to Tibet or to Xinjiang must pass through Lanzhou. It is easy to take an airplane or a train into Lanzhou from any major city in China. There are several direct trains a day from Xi'an, Beijing, Urumqi and Shanghai, Xining to Lanzhou. To the neighboring province of Ningxia it is much easier to take a bus then a train or plane.
There are two main train lines branching out of Lanzhou from Shaanxi province to the east. One train line goes to Xining and one goes to Urumqi. The train line to Xining really only serves to connect Lanzhou to Xining and eventually on to Lhasa. The Urumqi line connects with all the major cities along the Hexi Corridor but sometimes stop at strange times in those towns.
Bus is the easiest and most direct way to get around Gansu, especially in the south. Although the buses connect most cities many of the buses are quite old. Also the roads are frequently blocked by landslides, therefore making it easy to get stuck in a town. Lastly the bus companies occasionally go on strike.
Gansu is famous for soup noodles. If you like noodles, you're going to be sick of them by the end of the trip. If you don’t like noodles, well then you’re out of luck. Gansu is known for being the home of the pulled noodles called laomian. One of the interesting parts of laomian is that you're supposed to eat it in a food stall. Fancy restaurants just cannot do the dish justice. Laomian can be found anywhere in China but for some reason it is just better in Gansu.
Another favorite of this area of China is karouchar, which is meat on a stick. This is usually made from lamb, but it can be anything. Karouchar hamburger, known as Rou Jia Mo, is particularly nice: the vender cooks up the meat on a stick, puts it into a pita-like thing and then fries the whole thing again, putting tons of spices and red chili on it. It is very good, just be careful when eating lots of street food.
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