Travel the Silk Road in China’s Gansu Province – Episode 436

categories: asia travel

Hear about travel to the Silk Road in China’s Gansu Province as the Amateur Traveler talks again to Lee Moore from Silk Road Hitchhikers about his trip to this historic and remote part of China.


The Gansu province connects Central China to the western portion of China. It is defined by the Silk Road. It is the part of china that connects “China China” with central Asian China. Lee had a project to hitchhike the Silk Road which is why he traveled there.

“Our overall route went from Xian, which is where the terracotta warriors are, which is just a little east of Gansu, to the other end to the most western city called Kashgar. Gansu is right in the middle of that. It is this long province. It is almost an arm that reaches out from Central China to the west.”

“You are probably going to start out in Lanzhou, which is the provincial capital, and it is in the southeastern corner of Gansu. There is not much interesting in Lanzhou, but you will have to go through there. From there you can go about 3 or 4 hours east to a city called Tianzhu, and that has some amazing Buddhist grottos. There are these Buddhist statues carved onto the side of a cliff face. They have bolted these stairs and walkways into the cliff face so you can go up and look quite close at these little caves. Construction began around 400 A.D. This is part of the Silk Road heritage. Buddhism came in from India over the Silk Road. Still, in Tianzhu, there is a temple for Fuxi, who is supposedly the founder of the Chinese Race. He invented Chinese writing.”

Lee also interacted with Tibetan people in the mountainous parts of Gansu. His trip included some spontaneous stays with locals, some successful and some unsuccessful attempts at hitchhiking, and a visit to the rebuilt “end” of the Great Wall of China at Jiayuguan. He was more impressed with the paintings in the caves at Dunhuang.

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Show Notes

Silk Road Hitchhikers
Independent Travel to Beijing, China – Episode 193
Three Weekend Trips From Shanghai – Episode 227
Travel to the Yunnan Province of China – Episode 319
Gansu Travel Guide
Silk Road China
Maiji Caves
Fuxi Temple
Tianzhu County
Maya Snow Mountain
Qinghai Lake
Jiayuguan City
Mogao Caves
Crescent Lake
White Horse Pagoda
History of China


Airport evacuated over pair of hair straighteners
Giant Live Millipedes Seized at San Francisco Airport
Malaysia Airlines yanks heavily-criticized ‘bucket list’ promotion


Chris: Amateur Traveler Episode 436. It was the route of Marco Polo and still brings back images of caravans. Join us today as we explore China’s portion of the Silk Road in the Gansu Province.

Welcome to the Amateur Traveler. I’m your host Chris Christensen. This episode of the Amateur Traveler is again brought to you by Blogger Bridge. If you’re looking to connect with content creators to promote your business check out

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I’d like to welcome back to the show Lee Moore from who’s come to talk to us about the Gansu Province of China and the Silk Road. Lee welcome back to the show.

Lee: Thanks, it’s good to be back, Chris.

Chris: This is the fourth show that Lee and I are doing on China. Well, Lee is doing most of the work here. The first three being Beijing as an independent traveler and then we did a show on three-weekend trips you could take from Shanghai. Then the third one was on the Hunan Province of China. If I’ve got those correct.

Lee: Yeah, that’s correct.

Chris: Can you put the Gansu Province on the map for us?

Lee: Sure. It’s right kind of connecting central China to the western portion of China which you think of as more of weaker territory. Pretty much Gansu is defined by the Silk Road. That’s why we took it. We had this project which we pitched to hitchhike the Silk Road, so Gansu is the part of China that connects China with the sort of central Asian China.

Chris: When we say the Silk Road, you went to what would be the easternmost portion of the Silk Road that would go all the way into Europe originally. This was the caravan routes that things traveled on between the far east and what we now think of as Europe.

Lee: Yeah.

Chris: Okay, and you decided to hitchhike it.

Lee: Yeah. That was our proposal. We wanted to hitchhike it. We thought that would give us a great way to meet people to kind of get to know people on a very personal level. We were not as successful as we had hoped, so we weren’t able to do the whole trip by hitchhiking. But we did have some great stories. I’ll talk about one of them today.

We had some really spectacular failures too, one of them coming out of Lanzhou, which is the capital of Gansu. We got into someone’s car and I thought we were hitchhiking. About 45 minutes into the drive the driver decided that we should pay 150 U.S. dollars for the ride. For a two hour ride. We had a little bit of a discussion about that and eventually he dropped us off somewhere in the middle of nowhere. In five years it will be a city with a million people, but right now it’s in the middle of nowhere. They’re just constructing that city. It was an interesting trip and it led to a lot of interesting adventures.

Chris: Now we should point out that you are a student of Chinese as I recall, which is one of the reasons we keep doing the shows about China with you. So you’re not quite as ill prepared as if we were talking about me doing this trip?

Lee: I speak Chinese pretty well. I finished up nine months of studying Chinese Literature in Taiwan and I’ll be doing a Ph.D. in Chinese Literature at the University of Oregon starting in September.

Chris: If you weren’t working on a Ph.D. in Chinese Literature how doable would this trip for someone who, for instance, spoke no Chinese?

Lee: I still think it’s doable. I met a Danish guy. He and I met in Kyrgyzstan. He was more successful at hitchhiking in China than I was. I think one of the reasons is because he didn’t speak any Chinese at all. It sounds crazy, but because I was able to talk to people I feel like they just more willing to try and charge us. It goes against everything that I know, that I thought about hitchhiking, and that I thought I knew about China. Yeah, I think that one of the reason’s we had so much trouble was because I spoke Chinese okay.

Chris: Interesting, and the other thing I’ve noticed since you were last on the show is you started to speak of yourself in the plural.

Lee: I haven’t actually grown a second person. We had two people on this trip. For Silk Road Hitchhikers it was myself, I’m the kind of cultural guy I speak Chinese, and a friend of mine, a professional photographer and filmmaker Gaylen Burke. He doesn’t speak any Chinese, but like I said, he was the guy doing the camera work. That’s what I meant when I said we.

Chris: Okay. I suspected that there might be someone else involved.

Lee: I’m very egotistical.

Chris: There was that possibility. You were getting close to that Ph.D. and I was wondering whether I should discourage you. Tell us a little bit more about the route and the itinerary first of all. Then we’ll go into a little more detail place by place.

Lee: Our overall route went from Xi’an, which is where the Terracotta Warriors are. Which is a just a little east of Gansu. About probably four hours to get into Gansu from there. We went all the way to the other end of China. To the most western city called Kashgar. Gansu is right in the middle of that. Actually I think we spent more time in Gansu than in any other place. Just because it’s this long province. It almost is like an arm that stretches out and reaches out from central China to the very west.

Chris: What kind of itinerary would you recommend possibly for someone who’s not interested in hitchhiking? In terms of where you would stop along that route.

Lee: You’re probably going to start out in Lanzhou. Which is the provincial capital and it’s in the south eastern corner of Gansu. There’s not much interesting there, but you will have to go through there as just kind of a transit point. If you go from there you can go about two or three hours east to a city called Tianshui that has some amazing Buddhist grottoes there. Just these Buddhist statuaries that are carved onto the side of a cliff face. I think there are over a hundred of them.

As a part of what you do, they’ve kind of bolted these stairs and walkways into the cliff face, so you can go up and actually look quite close at some of these little caves. Some of them are quite small, they’re dug back three or four feet into the mountain. They’ve just kind of got some sort of painting, or a small Buddhist statue inside them. Others are quite large. I think the largest was probably about 30 feet tall.

Chris: All the statues are inside the grottoes rather than on the cliff face itself?

Lee: Sort of. The largest ones aren’t that far receded. It’s almost like, are you familiar with Stone Mountain in Atlanta?

Chris: Uh huh.

Lee: It’s kind of just barely receded, but it still feels like it’s carved into the cliff face.

Chris: Okay. This is something not for people afraid of heights, it sounded like.

Lee: Yeah. We ran into a girl, a Chinese girl, up there who was a little afraid of heights. It gets a little scary. You’re looking down pretty much a hundred feet and there’s nothing in between you and the concrete walkway below. It can get a little scary. It feels almost like they’re not hanging on anything. It just feels like the walkways are floating, which is, of course, even more scary.

Chris: Interesting.

Lee: The grottoes they go back pretty far. I’m trying to think. Construction began, it looks like, at around 400 A.D., so some of them are fairly old. I think those are the smaller ones though. This is part of, kind of, the Silk Road heritage here. Buddhism came in to China.

Chris: Right, from India.

Lee: From India, yeah. From India, Afghanistan, and via the Silk Road. I think a lot of people today think of Buddhism as only an East Asian thing, but it started out in India.

Chris: Right. Despite the fact that it is more prevalent in East Asia that is not it’s origin.

Lee: Yeah. It’s interesting because in the statuaries sometimes you can see the sort of different faces. You can see that some of these faces aren’t Chinese. Some of these faces are either Indian, central Asian, or something else, which is one of the more interesting things about this place I think.

Chris: So you can really see the influence very definitely of the trade routes which is what this whole area is about? Interesting.

Lee: Absolutely, yeah.

Chris: Was there a particular reason they were carving these? These aren’t tombs. It didn’t sound like that from what you were saying.

Lee: No, I think it was just kind of religious devotion. My understanding is wealthy merchants, wealthy Buddhist merchants, paid to have these things carved. I believe it kind of generated good karma.

Chris: Interesting, and what was your next stop?

Lee: Still in Tianshui there is a temple for Fu Xi. Fu Xi is this interesting Chinese mythological figure. I think the Chinese would not say mythological figure. They would he’s a historical figure, or certainly the people who we talked to in this temple would. He is supposedly the founder of the Chinese race. He invented the trigrams that are used in the Book of Changes, the I Ching. He invented Chinese writing.

Chris: When you say trigrams that’s the predecessor to the modern Chinese writing system that we know? Or am I missing something here?

Lee: No, sorry. A trigram it’s literally like, it’s almost kind of like Morse code. Are you familiar with the South Korean flag?

Chris: Yeah.

Lee: You know how they have the four different things on the side with the yin-yang in the middle.

Chris: Right.

Lee: Those four different things are trigrams from the Book of Changes.

Chris: Okay.

Lee: Those are four of the eight trigrams. It’s kind of essentially a fortune telling method.

Chris: Oh, okay. Alright I’m not familiar with this, okay.

Lee: I don’t think it’s quite the oldest text in Chinese culture, but it’s one of the oldest texts in Chinese culture. So it has a lot of importance for Chinese religion, Chinese civilization, and that kind of thing. They make a big deal out of it. Increasingly they’re making a bigger deal out of it. They’re having big celebrations to celebrate the birth of the Chinese nation there and it kind of plays into Chinese nationalism. The temple isn’t all that impressive. There are more impressive temples in China. I just think that the story of Fu Xi and the importance that the Chinese government and Chinese people are placing on Fu Xi is interesting to me. And it’s interesting to see. When we were there a group of Taiwanese people, Taiwanese Daoists, were there. They’d come all the way from Taiwan to worship specifically stuff having to do with Fu Xi and his wife/sister Nu Wa who gave birth to I think just the Chinese people.

Chris: When you say the Chinese people you mean the Han people?

Lee: It’s interesting. I actually asked some people about that and there is a little confusion. My understanding was it was the Han Chinese people. I mentioned to one of the tour guides. He was like, well no technically the Weavers and the Tibetans would be included in that. I think that’s one of the more interesting things for me because it’s this kind of modern nationalist reading into the Chinese mythology. Because I don’t think that before anyone would have said, “Yes, he’s the father of the Tibetan people” but I don’t know.

Chris: Well I think that’s one thing that having traveled just a little bit in China, far less than you, that surprised me a little bit. When we think Chinese quite often in the west we’re tempted to think of that as one thing. Then you go to places like Hong Kong and they talk about the six major nationalities and things. It’s interesting seeing some of the differences that are a little more subtle than we see from the outside.

Lee: I think it’s fascinating the kind of concepts of ethnicity that are all tied up into this one temple. That’s one of the reasons I would recommend going. Even though it’s not all that impressive. It’s definitely worth seeing and it’s right there in the middle of downtown Tianshui.

Chris: Okay.

Lee: I guess for the next stop you would have to go back through Lanzhou to a place called Tianzhu. I’m actually not 100% what it should be called. The county is called Tianzhu County. The actually county seat where we stayed is called Huazangsi. It’s a tiny little Tibetan town that is maybe that is maybe two hours northwest of Lanzhou. We went there and we ran into someone. A friend of a friend who was living there and she took us on this really cool hike.

You think of Gansu and the Silk Road as being a desert, but this was a very cold place. We hiked a mountain called Maya Snow Mountain and it took us probably two and a half hours to do a five mile trail, which is pretty slow. It’s a fairly high mountain. It’s in a little bowl. It kind of reminds me of, I don’t know how much time you’ve spent out in the American West, but are you familiar with the Wind River mountain range in Wyoming?

Chris: I am not.

Lee: So it kind of has this granite that’s bursting out of these very green areas. That’s what I felt like and it’s just very craggy. We did, again like I said, a five-mile hike. It took us two and half hours. The elevation hits you very hard. You’re coming up from Huazangsi, that town down below. It’s about a two and a half hour ride up and there’s a lot of elevation gain there. Then you’re hiking up and it’s essentially the first mile of two you can see almost all of the trail. Two thirds of the trail you can see because it is just going up a mountain on stairs. You can just see it all right there, so it’s a pretty steep elevation.

Chris: When you say on stairs you literally mean on stone steps?

Lee: Yes. They constructed a trail right into the side of this mountain. The mountain is incredibly beautiful it goes up this trail, winds around a ridge line, and drops back down. There are two lakes. The lakes are supposedly holy to the Tibetan people in the area. They have fairies that live in each of the lakes. One fairy lives in one of the lakes and another fairy in the other lake. The second lake is actually much prettier just because it gets really up into that Alpine scenery. You’ve just got straight rock walls with no vegetation at all. It’s surrounded by mountains, so it was one of our favorite hikes.

Chris: You say the Tibetan people and you surprise me a little bit because you seem to be, as I look at the map, too far north to be Tibet.

Lee: Tibet proper, Tibet the province, has obviously a lot of Tibetans. That province just north of there Qinghai has also quite a bit. This mountain is right there on the edge of Qinghai and Gansu. There are actually quite a few Tibetans there. Especially in this part of Gansu. It’s essentially an elevation thing. If you go further down in elevation you’ll have a lot of Han Chinese. If you go further up in elevation you’ll have a lot of Tibetan herders.

Chris: Got it, okay.

Lee: I was surprised too. I didn’t know any Tibetans lived in Gansu, or I didn’t know many did. Technically the county that we were in, Tianzhu County, is a Tibetan autonomous county.

Chris: Interesting.

Lee: I guess I should point out that I’m not sure how open this area is to foreigners. It was kind of unclear at the time. We didn’t have any problems while we were there, but I heard that you might have trouble with some of the authorities hiking there. It might, sometimes, not be opened. I’ll have to say that after hiking it I found reviews of it on TripAdvisor, so I assume that we’re not the first westerners to go there. But sometimes it may be closed. You may have to kind of feel your way around and see if there are any kind of sensitivities about the area.

Chris: Okay.

Lee: But we had absolutely no problem. We didn’t even see anyone there to pay money at the ticket gate, so no one was there.

Chris: Excellent, where to next?

Lee: I’m going to take us a little out of Gansu if that’s okay. Qinghai, that province that I mentioned just a minute ago, is a Tibetan province. A largely Tibetan province right next door to Gansu and it’s an easy detour. Technically the Silk Road did occasionally go through this part of Qinghai, the kind of north eastern part. Sometimes parts of Gansu were closed off due to political strive, war, or whatever. This was one of the ways around that.

Xining is the capital and it’s a bit like Lanzhou. It’s just an ugly city that has little to offer. There’s a mosque there and there’s not that much to do. One of the cool things about Qinghai though is Qinghai Lake. That’s the largest lake in China. It’s really big. It’s a national park. They have areas specifically where if you enter those areas they will charge you a ticket price and treat it like a national part, but mostly it’s just kind of deserted herding land. We were trying to get there and again we were hitchhiking.

We got picked up by two Tibetan police officers who were incredibly nice and we were talking with them for a little bit. I forgot exactly how it happened. They mentioned the people. As we going into the more Tibetan nomadic areas we started seeing Tibetan tents. They mentioned the people there you could walk into their tent and ask for anything and they would give it to you without asking for any money. I said, “Hey, we’ve got a tent of our own. Would we be able to pitch that tent on some of their land and just camp out there tonight?” They said, “Yeah, totally. Why don’t you do it at our grandfather’s house?”

So we ended up staying at their grandfather’s house. He makes yogurt, so we drank his yogurt. I’m not sure if it was actually his that he made or if he bought if from some else, but they have a Tibetan kind of moonshine that was pretty gnarly. I had a little bit, but not all that much. Gaylen, the photographer he drank a couple of glasses. Grandpa put it down like a pro. Gaylen was able to keep up with him, but I was not.

Chris: Do you know what it was made out of? I’m picturing fermented yak milk or something equally exotic.

Lee: It’s not yak milk, but it’s made from I believe just grains.

Chris: Okay, so it’s really moonshine.

Lee: Yeah, but it’s pretty heavy alcoholic wise. I think it’s upwards of 50%, so I just can’t handle that kind of stuff.

Chris: Well and then it can double as paint thinner, so that’s useful.

Lee: Yeah, I guess it keeps you warm on those warm Tibetan nights. By the way, so we camped out and we didn’t even use our own tent. Grandpa had a tent by his house. He didn’t use it anymore. He let us sleep in there. They have little wooden pallets that they’ve put carpet on that we were able to sleep on, which was nice because it kept us off the cold ground.
Now we were there at the end of June. When we were talking to the police officers they said, “It’s too bad you came now instead of coming in about a month, sometime in July.” Because then it warms up and lots of tourists come at that time. This was during the day and the sun was out. It was nice. I didn’t think that much of it. I thought he was just kind of being a wimp. Turns out he actually wasn’t. It was really cold. Again it was middle of June to late June. It dropped down below 32, below freezing. We had trouble sleeping at night. It was incredibly cold.

Chris: I guess that answers the question of best time to travel. Probably the quote un-quote heat of the summer, July and August.

Lee: Yeah, maybe September too. Although you’re pushing it there in Qinghai. Gansu is significantly warmer, but if you want to go into any mountain areas you definitely kind of have to be in there in the summer or early fall.

Chris: Where to next?

Lee: I’ll just talk about Jaiyuguan real quick. I actually think that it’s one of those places that’s in all the tour books that maybe you could skip. Jaiyuguan is supposedly the end of the Great Wall of China, but we went to the Great Wall there and it wasn’t all that impressive. It was built in the past 10 years. There was a Great Wall there. Historically it was there, but what’s rebuilt now is not all that impressive. It’s just fairly short. It’s not like in the areas around Beijing where it goes on forever and you feel like you could [hike] that whole thing. This you can actually see the end. You walk to the end and from there it just stops. There are actually two separate sections of the wall.

My understanding from some of the people that we talked to is that two businessmen were vying to start making money from business sales, so when they rebuilt the wall they built two separate sections. You can go to one section or the other section, but you can’t go to both. They’re within eye distance. Maybe within a thousand feet from the end of one section to the other section. It just kind of gives it this sort of sense of this isn’t the real wall. This is sort of fake. It’s not like in Beijing or other places where I’ve been to.

Lee: Also Jaiyuguan has a more impressive fortress. It’s interesting. If you’re in Jaiyuguan you should definitely go see the fortress, but again this is one of the places that the guidebooks recommend that I’d say maybe skip.

Chris: Okay.

Lee: The final place in Gansu that I want to talk about is Dunhuang. Are you familiar with Dunhuang?

Chris: I am not. I am not familiar with this whole region.

Lee: Oh, okay. Dunhuang is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in China. It’s not in grottoes like at Maijishan. It’s paintings and the paintings are in caves generally. I think entirely in caves that have been carved into the side of this mountain in the middle of the desert. I think the last of the paintings were painted around 1000 A.D. and then they were rediscovered in the 19th century. Incredible. Unfortunately it’s also very expensive. They limit the amount of people who can go into any one particular cave in a day because they don’t want to expose it to too many people.

Chris: Right, raise the humidity for instance.

Lee: Exactly, you can only see twelve unfortunately. I would recommend to anyone who goes anywhere near that area to definitely go check them out. It’s amazing to see some of the artwork that they still have there.

Chris: It sounds like from the timeline you gave there, probably that whole practice of painting there was disrupted by the Mongol invasion then. You were right around the time period that Genghis Khan starts coming up on the scene.

Lee: I want to see it’s one of Genghis Khan’s predecessors. Not the Mongols, but one of the other central Asian tribes.

Chris: The Tartars.

Lee: Yeah, something like that. They just sort of closed them off and no one really knew about them. It’s a sore point for the Chinese. I don’t think they were rediscovered by westerners, but those kind of Western explorer types came in and started doing research. Some of the most incredible things that had been found there are all in foreign museums. These guys took whole rock faces with them, so that’s a sore point for a lot of the Chinese visitors.

Just to give you an idea of the kind of stuff that they have there, they have a Bible written in the Syriac language. Because Christianity along with Buddhism was one of the major things transported along the Silk Road. I believe that would have been Nestorian Christianity.

Chris: Probably, yeah.

Lee: Still the museum, which by the way is free, is built maybe 500 feet away from the entrance to the caves. I thought it was as interesting, if not more interesting, than the actual artifacts in some ways. Because in the caves you go in there and it’s dark, you have someone talk to you about them, and then you leave. They actually have reproductions of the caves, I think maybe seven or eight caves, inside the museum. So you can go and kind of look at them very closely.

For whatever reason the administrators of the museum say you can’t take photos in the museum reproduction caves. I don’t get that. I took some photos and I was able to get away with it. It’s a reproduction. You’re not doing any damage. But the museum is incredibly interesting and it has a lot of those artifacts. I saw a copy of the Syriac version of Psalms, so that was really incredible to see it.

Chris: This was the first time that you went to this region I gathered.

Lee: Yeah.

Chris: But you’ve spent quite a lot of time in China now. What surprised you about this portion of China?

Lee: I was expecting it to be less Han Chinese. I know we talked about the Tibetans in Tianshui there, but otherwise it’s still very Han Chinese. This very much a part of China. I was thinking there would be a bit more of a transition and there was less of a transition than I expected.

Chris: It’s interesting. While we were talking I was looking up things and I happened upon the history of China page on Wikipedia. They have an animated gif that shows at various times what the shape of China would be. You can see how around 100 A.D. there’s just China over here in the east, kind of the eastern half of what is China now, and then just this one little portion that sticks out, which is this long, skinny province that is basically where you traveled to. Over the next 700, 800 years that sticks out of China because of the importance of the Silk Road obviously because of the importance of the trade. It’s just curious to see that.

At some points around the 700’s then it expands past that area into the next province to the west. Really for at least 600 years there’s really just that sliver of China, as it reaches out across the Silk Road of course, while other civilizations are reaching back to it in the same fashion.

Lee: Yeah, and you feel that when you go from Dunhuang and cross over into Xinjiang.

Chris: Which is the province I was mentioning further over to the west, right?

Lee: Right, yeah. It feels like a different civilization. It’s the same country different civilization I guess I would say. That barrier is definitely there, and it’s kind of maintained throughout history to a certain degree.

Chris: Interesting. You’re standing in the prettiest spot in Gansu. Where are you standing? What are you looking at?

Lee: You’re standing at the upper lake in Maya Snow Mountain looking across the lake at the mountains and just the craggy rock faces.

Chris: You mentioned that some of the surprise was the landscape that you were picturing desert this whole way. It sounds like the main center of the province is desert, but then to the southern side you have these peaks.

Lee: Yeah, and these peaks are pretty tall. It’s the Qilian Mountains there. Mostly they are snowcapped in the summer.

Chris: I wonder if that’s also because they are fairly far north at that point, so it’s going to feel like higher up just because of the latitude as well.

Lee: Yeah, I think it’s a mix of both because in certain parts in Gansu, like I said it stretches out there from the south towards the northwest, so you’re getting a bunch of different latitudes in there. I think that must play into that in some points.

Chris: Interesting, anything else that you can think of that people need to know before they go to this portion of China.

Lee: After the Mogao Caves there’s this place called Crescent Lake which is a desert sand dune. It’s what you think of when you think of desert and you kind of see the sand dunes, giant sand dunes. I was a bit disappointed in it. There is a lake there that is supposedly a fairly ancient spring that looks like a crescent moon, but all of the stuff there is rebuilt. It’s a little pricey. I would say skip it.

One of things you definitely do want to see in Dunhuang, which I enjoyed, is the White Horse Pagoda. On the Silk Road there was a translator. I think he was in the 400 A.D.s around the 4th century of the Christian era. He was one of the first people to translate the Buddha Sutras into Chinese. He had a horse that died there in Dunhuang and so he made a pagoda for him. Unlike a lot of things, like I mentioned in Jaiyuguan the Great Wall there that was rebuilt in the 90’s, this is very real.

Chris: Real meaning that it is original versus than being imaginary.

Lee: Right, sorry. Yeah, it’s original. It has this authentic feeling I guess I would say which I feel like a lot of things in China lack. It’s not all that impressive, but it’s authentic history and I would encourage anyone in that area to go. There were parking lots full of tour buses going to the Mogao Caves, which are the caves that I mentioned in Crescent Lake, but this place actually had nobody. I thought it was more impressive than Crescent Lake.

Chris: Excellent. One thing that makes you laugh and say, “Only in Gansu.”

Lee: When you can go from the Tibetan world to the Han Chinese world in an afternoon. You can just hitchhike from one civilization to another.

Chris: Now I think you may have mentioned my next question, which is you really know you’re in Gansu when.

Lee: Yeah, pretty much. When you feel like you’re knee deep in Silk Road history.

Chris: When you’re on that Silk Road today, you mentioned the Silk Road history, are there times when you really get the picture of this being a caravan route? Other than some of things that you have mentioned like the historic sites. I think Route 66 is the closest thing that we have to a caravan route which is much more modern. Does it still have the sense of a major traveler destination or thoroughfare?

Lee: Not in Gansu, but in Xinjiang that province to the west there definitely. Absolutely, yeah. Kashgar the city that we [finished] often it feels like it hasn’t changed. There were times that if people weren’t talking into their iPhones and you’re in the bazaar there, or in the bazaar in Turpan, you really do feel like you could be five, six, or seven centuries back.

Chris: I think of that as the opposite. You mention starting in Shyam which is one of the few places that I have been that we’ve overlapped here. I loved the city and you could see the Muslim influences that came over the Silk Road. On the other hand it gets a lot of tourists and such. It’s not a hard city to get around in. You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of the 700’s or something like that.

Lee: I should mention Gansu and this whole area doesn’t get that many Western tourists.

Chris: Does it get a lot of Chinese tourists?

Lee: A fair amount, yeah, Dunhuang particularly. I should say Dunhuang does actually get plenty of tourists. It’s only purpose as a town now is for tourism, but other parts we didn’t actually see any other westerners there in Tianzhu at all when we were hiking at Maya Snow Mountain. You’re kind of out there.

Chris: Last question, if you had to summarize Gansu in three words what words would you use?

Lee: Silk Road history.

Chris: Excellent, and speaking of which Lee where can people read more about your travels.


Chris: Excellent, any stories on that which you didn’t mention here?

Lee: Yeah actually there is one that I was thinking about mentioning. We were sort of detained by the Chinese Police.

Chris: I think you might want to mention that, yeah.

Lee: We were in a town near Dunhuang that had no foreigners going to it. It is called Subei. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this. When you’ve traveled in China have you ever had trouble getting a hotel room as a foreigner?

Chris: No, but when we were in China we were on a tour. Very different situation.

Lee: When I lived in China I never had a problem. I never got turned away from a hotel even though, technically on the books, they had a law that said foreigners could only stay at hotels that are approved for foreigners. We got onto this trip and apparently something has changed, and they are, for the most part, enforcing that. Because I’m able to speak Chinese sometimes the people in the hotel don’t care. They just want to make money, but sometimes they did.

We stayed in a place that was 50 renminbi a night, which is maybe about 9 dollars. Not per person, that’s for a room. It definitely wasn’t approved for foreigners. We were in this tiny little town and the police saw us walking around and talking with people. They came by our hotel at midnight and they moved us to a different hotel.

Chris: We just told that story last week, but I couldn’t remember who had told me the story. I’m glad you did bring it up. We can attribute this story to where it came from. Excellent, well Lee thanks so much for coming back on the show and sharing your growing love for China and especially in this case for Gansu.

Lee: Thank you for having me. I always love doing this. Hopefully I get to do it again.

Chris: Excellent and good luck on your further studies in Chinese.

Lee: Thanks.


Chris: In news of the week I have three news stories for you all air travel related. The first one was that the Luten Airport near London had to be evacuated because of a suspicious package that was eventually blown up by the police. It turned out not to be a bomb. Sources at the telegraph believe that it was a pair of hair straighteners and that is suspicious.

Speaking of suspicious things giant live millipedes were seized at the San Francisco Airport. This is disgusting. In a package marked toy car model the US customs agricultural specialists find 20 foot long live millipedes. I hate it when things get mislabeled.

Then finally Malaysia Airlines scrapped a title of a competition they were doing. Asking people what activities and destinations were on their bucket list. The problem that they ran into here is that since a bucket list derives from the things you want to see before you die some people thought for an airline that had recently lost two airlines that that was too soon. I honestly don’t know any solution for them except maybe changing their name. For all three of those stories check at the show notes at or look at links in this episode’s lyrics section.


With that we’re going to end this episode of the Amateur Traveler. We may miss an episode coming up this week because I’m traveling back to back to Mexico and Iceland. So I don’t guarantee I’ll get episodes out every week coming up. Remember you can find the links to everything we talked about in the lyrics of this episode. Join the Facebook community at If you have any questions feel free to send an email to or leave a comment on this episode. As always thanks so much for listening.

Transcription sponsored by JayWay Travel, specialists in Central & Eastern Europe custom tours.

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Chris Christensen

by Chris Christensen

Chris Christensen is the creator of the Amateur Traveler blog and podcast. He has been a travel creator since 2005 and has won awards including being named the "Best Independent Travel Journalist" by Travel+Leisure Magazine.

One Response to “Travel the Silk Road in China’s Gansu Province – Episode 436”



I’ll try to add some more info to this episode.

1. Most of the Great Wall was quite modestly built is because all the Wall only needs to stop the herds of the invading tribes.
2. The caves at Dunhuang was rediscovered in late 19th century, & a great deal of artifacts were sold to a English explorer in 1907 by a local Taoist priest. The mural paintings there are thought of as chinese equivalent of the Sistine chapel.
3. Han Chinese has considered Gansu as a core province since around 100 BC, likely because of its geographical importance to stop any foreign invasion from the west. During the Han dynasty, the Emperor moved 500 to 700,000 people to settle in this province. The Emperor Wu’s campaign into Central Asia also required this region to serve as the corridor to extend Chinese soveignty as far as Chechnya.

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