Lanzhou to Dunhuang: the Hexi Corridor

August 26th -August 29th, 2017 Llasa-Lanzhou-Dunhuang-Liuyuan (yellow line on map is roughly the Hexi Corridor between Lanzhou and Dunhuang, not to Llasa)


My first introduction to Lanzhou was an overcrowded, polluted, traffic snarling city. Mountains hemming the city in on both sides with the Yellow River dividing the city into east and west, heavy industry with snarling traffic did not leave a reason to return although I knew I would return on my way from Llasa to Dunhuang. But, Lanzhou holds secrets. Get lucky and give her a chance and Lanzhou brings out another side.

Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, is considered to have been the gateway to the Silk Road and where this road crossed the Yellow River. Historically, this was the most important route into ancient China to what was known simply as the western Regions and beyond to the west, Central Asia. Everyone, merchants to poets, wanderers to conquers passed through the narrow, 1000 kilometres long strip between Dunhuang and Lanzhou (or visa versa) known as the Hexi Corridor. Sometimes as narrow as 16 kilometres wide and surrounded by inhospitable country of Qilian Shan (mountain) to the south and Gobi Desert to the north, any caravan passing through this track had little freedom of movement. This natural bottleneck or the Throat, opened onto the Mouth of China and anyone making the journey from Central Asia to the fertile lands of China had to pass this way.

Fortresses and beacon towers were built along its length. Even the Great Wall extended as far as the Hexi Corridor. The most western remnants of it can still be seen near Dunhuang to Luyuan as well as some at Jiayuguan (not visited) where the Ming rulers built a magnificent fortress in 1372 and has been renovated to its past glory. Here in this photo, I am between Dunhuang and Luyuan, there are remnants of the Great Wall melting into the desert. FullSizeRenderHere, the walls and fortresses built with mud-bricks rather than like the eastern wall (near Beijing) of stone. These areas were the outer reaches and probably used as places of tax collection or ‘immigration and exit’ points. The Shule River once flowed through here, which would have provided transportation as well as protection, fresh water for people and animals, and a source to make mud for building the wall. Now, there are only black goji bushes and and cemetery from the local village that occupies a spot in the Gobi Desert.


Great Wall and Shule River through Gobi Desert


New road through Gobi

(However, at the end of this post, you will note a new ‘great wall’ in the Hexi Corridor.)

After a 25 hour train ride from Llasa, I was looking forward to the in-room foot salt-bath that had been prepared on my first visit to Ningwozhuang Hotel. The hotel is grand and I was told it was for ‘big potatoes’ assuming that meant for official visits. I wasn’t sure how I got a reservation, but certainly, it was one of the finest hotel rooms that I have ever stayed at! (Here the wifi was the strongest that I encountered throughout China.)

The five days while I was in Llasa, it had rained in Lanzhou. The Yellow River was red with silt from the mountains. Even the Bingling Si Caves (see ‘Previously, in Xi’an’ post) which I had visited two weeks previously were closed due to the rough waters of the Yellow River, which had to cross to get to the site. So I was lucky to have seen these caves.
This day is was cloudy with a chance of rain so we headed to the Lanzhou – Gansu Provincial Museum. IMG_3784What a treasure of information and beautifully presented – chronological, interactive, well-lit, labelled in English and Chinese (definitely museums around the world could learn from this museum)!  I would see one of Gansu national treasures, The Flying Horse, a Chinese bronze sculpture that perfectly balances on one leg from the Eastern Han probably the 2nd century CE. Discovered in 1969 near the city of Wuwei, Gansu Province. IMG_3787The Silk Road exhibit, magnificent Quran of the Qing Dynasty and the ancient pottery exhibit was most informative. I was enthralled with the patterns found on pottery (BCE) and the similarities to the patterns found on calabashes in Northern Nigeria. Although probably no connection, the recognition of these patterns were most interesting to me. (When I return to Cairo, I will add to this post the comparison of patterns found on calabashes to these patterns.)IMG_3793IMG_3804

After many inquiries about handcrafts in Lanzhou and the difficulty of getting past the excuse ‘that there is no parking’, we are dropped off at a walking street that offers as many international brand stores as in London. My guide turns off into a quiet alleyway and facing me is a Confucius Temple. IMG_3809Within the alleyways are small stores that offer supplies for calligraphy art, stamp and coin collector shops, and a calabash store. Here, artists have worked for centuries carving beautiful scenes onto tiny to giant calabashes.P1010503

I meet Mr. Chang who had just sat down to a bowl of noodles. He offers to share his lunch with me and invites me into the next room where his wife is pulling dough into noodles and placing them in an electric pot full of aromatic broth. Lots of vegetables were sliced up on the table and entered this delightful hotspot. We dawdled and talked, laughed and joked, of course through a translator. Mr. Chang sat me down and tried to teach me his art. With his tools, I tried to make a scratch on the calabash but could not and fearing the knife would slip and I would cut myself, I gave up rather quickly but not without a keen appreciation for his art and craft.IMG_3823

Then off to lunch at the Yellow River Romantic Garden Restaurant looking over youth playing football and beyond the Yellow River. This restaurant’s speciality is for weddings and beside our table was a wedding party enjoying many, many toasts to good life and fortune.


Here I was introduced to pre-packaged 8-treasure tea or sanpaotei! A mug glass filled with all the dried ingredients: green tea, goji beans, walnuts, ju-jube, chili, chrysanthemum blossom, rose hip, rock sugar , wrapped in plastic, and all ready for boiling water, refills free.I was not sure who then owns the glass mug but I left it behind.

Then off to another railway station and another overnight train (13 hours) to Dunhaung. (This time I had an in-suite toilet!)


Dunhuang is at the western end of the Hexi Corridor near the historic junction of two arms of ancient Silk Road coming from the west, one around the north, and the other around the south of the Taklmakan Desert. The Silk Road routes from China to the west passed to the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert, and Dunhuang lay on the junction where these two routes came together. Additionally, the city lies near the western edge of the Gobi Desert, and north of the Mingsha Sand DunesDSC_0012 (whose name means ‘gurgling sand’ or ‘singing dunes’, a reference to the noise of the wind over the dunes), making Dunhuang a vital resting point for merchants and pilgrims travelling through the region from all directions.

As such, Dunhuang played a key role in the passage of Silk Road trade to and from China, and over the course of the first millennium AD, was one of the most important cities to grow up on these routes.  Dunhuang initially acted as a garrison town protecting the region and its trade routes, established in the 2nd century BC by the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). Yü Guan or “Jade Gate” and the Yang Guan, or “Southern Gate” are names of ancient passes along the medieval highway that illustrate the strategic importance position  of Dunhuang.

Over many centuries Buddhist monks, initially traveling from the west, created a sanctuary in hundreds of caves armed out of the dry cliff faces at Dunhuang, where an oasis provided water and the means of growing food. Buddhist monks from India and China traveled this road, and Dunhuang became a repository of Buddhist wisdom and art through the thousand years of trade on the Silk Road.(Also at Turpan’sBezeklik’s Thousand Buddha Caves and the Bingling Si caves outside of Lanzhou clearly illustrate the movement of Buddhism). Eventually, caves were painted and statues incorporated onto the walls and scriptures written as a holy Buddhist resting area. The earliest carvings and frescoes are reminiscent of Indian art, while later dynasties’ artists used different techniques and portrayed figures of their Chinese contemporaries.

DSC_0028The Mogao caves hold one of the greatest storehouses of Buddhist art in the world. That is, they did, until the beginning of the last century when they were pillaged by highly respect European archaeologists carted Buddhist wall painting off to public and private galleries and museums,but then, the Cultural revolution and extremist Islam have also done damage, too. The grottoes spread for 1700 metres along a canyon wall. At the peak of their use, during the Tang Dynasty, AD619-907, they housed 18 monasteries, more than 1400 monks and nuns and countless artists, calligraphers, and translators. All this creativity was funded by private donations. At the height of its glory there were more than 400 caves at Dunhuang now only eight caves, selected in rotation from among that number are open to visitors at any one time. The caves became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

Going through the towns bazaar in mid-day was not a good idea as everyone is having a siesta but my guide knows my interest in crafts and he suggests visiting his home to meet his mother and father. His mother makes hand-made shoes for children and sells them in the Saturday/Sunday markets. So with a rare invitation, we enter our guides home and enjoy a few hours seeing how these shoes are made.

In Dunhaung the most western section of The Great Wall of China rises in sections of dusty remembrance of the past. Wikipedia says: “A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the Ming walls measure 8,850 km (5,500 mi).[4] This is made up of 6,259 km (3,889 mi) sections of actual wall, 359 km (223 mi) of trenches and 2,232 km (1,387 mi) of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers.[4]Another archaeological survey found that the entire wall with all of its branches measures out to be 21,196 km (13,171 mi)spans.”

Eastern Great Wall near Beijing:

P1000403Most Western Great Wall near Dunhaung


As I leave Dunhaung for the train station in Luyuang to travel 4 hours to Turpan, I am struck with another, modern Great Wall and provides an example of the continuous improvements in infrastructure that China invests: 200 kilometres of wind mills along the Hexi Corridor.

DSC_0113(all rights reserved, copyright 2017. To copy or re-produce photography and/or writings, written permission from Lesley Lababidi is required).

All Photographs and text are under international copyright laws. No re-use without the written permission of Lesley Lababidi 2023.

6 thoughts on “Lanzhou to Dunhuang: the Hexi Corridor

  1. I admire your courage and stamina -train trips of many hours – the territory you are covering and the people you are meeting. The gourd shop – unbelievable how may different sizes there were.
    I was happy to see and hear that they have restored some of the things that were destroyed by the Cultural Revolution, history should not be lost! The last picture of the windmills – blending the old with the new.
    Enjoy yourself and thank you for sharing.

  2. Lesley,
    In this article, I especially love that you had lunch with Mr. Chang and got to see the noodle making, the photo of your feet in slippers in your train cabin, and the shoes made by your guides Mother. They are so colorful.
    As Anthony Bourdain says: ‘be a traveler, not a tourist.’ You are definitively a traveler!
    Travel safe,

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