"Lanzhou" Top 5 Page for this destination Lanzhou by mke1963

Lanzhou Travel Guide: 98 reviews and 188 photos

Poor old Lanzhou has a bad reputation as one of the world's most polluted cities. Indeed for much of the year a grey haze hangs over the skyscrapers and chimneys, hiding even the nearby hills and mountains. A rare clear day reveals a narrow valley, with the city extending along the banks of the Huanghe (Yellow River) towards Xigu, now really just a suburb of Lanzhou. Lanzhou may not be the world's prettiest city but it does have a long history and remains one of China's key interior cities: in the surrounding areas there are many temples, old towns and spectacular countryside. Even the city itself is not totally charmless as some of the guidebooks claim, and there are a good number of sites worth exploring. The famed Gansu Provincial Museum, home of the motif of Chinese tourism - the tianma or heavenly horse, will reopen in late 2006 after a ten year closure for refurbishment and extension. Without the time to visit some of Gansu's more remote areas, the provincial museum will once again be the best place to see some of the archaeological and historical artefacts of this fascinating and wild province.

Until 1656, Lanzhou was known as Jincheng or the Golden City and has long been a strategic place on the Yellow River as it snakes its way from the Qinghai plateau to the Pacific. Lanzhou is the only city actually on the entire length of this river. The river has never been used much for navigation because of its shallow depth and series of rapids and waterfalls, but Lanzhou was a strategic crossing point between the heartlands of Chinese civilization in the Wei valley to the southeast and the warring tribes to the north and west. A stretch of the Great Wall, long forgotten and now lost, ran from near Wuwei southwards to Lanzhou. The outsiders in this case were the Tibetans to the west and south, rather than the Mongol and Central Asian kingdoms to the north. Although the line of this wall no longer exists, there are still plenty of watchtowers, beacon towers and small fortresses in the western foothills of the nearby Qilianshan and old fortifications can still be traced in many villages.

Lanzhou must have once been a lovely place, and the Lanzhou Museum at the Baiyisi has a scale model of the city and its surrounds 200 years ago. It stretched along the southern bank of the Yellow River, lines of huge old waterwheels pumping water into the fields and the town itself. At the western end of town the walls looked out onto a stream that opened into small muddy harbour as it reached the main stream. Two tall pagodas, one at Baiyisi and the other at Baiyunguan by the river, pierced the sky, and in the town there were many tall, elegant structures. had it all survived it would be attracting millions of visitors every year and Lanzhou would fully deserve the "gorgeous" adjective that a recent city publication uses frequently. Alas, Lanzhou had the misfortune to be far from the coast and far from the land borders, so it became one of the main focal points for strategic industries from the 1950s onwards. "Strategic" here means all the most polluting industries that can be imagined, and these were placed all along the valley and in a number of surrounding towns. In the deep Lanzhou ravine, there is just nowhere for the smoke and dust to go and the city quickly became notorious - even inside China - for being a thoroughly unpleasant place to live and work. Only a few years ago, a hare-brained solution was proposed - and partly implemented - to rid the city of its smoke: rather than get industry to fit and switch on pollution control technology (also known as "the way the rest of the world does it"), Lanzhou decided that nature was to blame and decided to remove a big mountain by using high-pressure hoses to flush the mountain into the Yellow River. Yes, big sighs all around.

But Lanzhou seems to have finally got the message that "our special circumstances" is never a good enough excuse for poisoning the water, the air, the soil, the crops and your people, and the city is becoming clearer by the day. Although the haze is still here, it is thinner than it was even three years ago, and there are many clear days. Large parts of the huge refinery in next-door Xigu have been shut down and wait the demolition men. The city is successfully attracting new cleaner industries, and there is a growing pride in the city and its leafy thoroughfares. Trucks drive around spraying the flowerbeds, and while this is hardly a sustainable method of cleaning up the place, it does make the city look and feel nicer until the city fathers discover the word "sustainable development" in the dictionary.

Furthermore, modern Chinese architecture is at its lowest ebb in the town as well, with plenty of grim, heavy concrete towerblocks being erected even today. Some of them look decidedly unsatisfactory before they are even finished, but they do have the requisite white tiles and blue glass

Lanzhou is frequently mentioned for its appearance in the list of Chinese cities that were variously described as being "eight out of the world's ten" or "sixteen out of the world's most polluted cities". This may be a bit unfair, not least because the original source of these statements is shrouded in mystery and is not in the document vaguely cited for this dubious honour. However, if something is repeated often enough, it becomes the truth eventually. The reality is that Lanzhou is cleaning up its act quickly and investing in the environment and its people, and the city is brighter than it has been for many decades.

Today Lanzhou is a thriving city, with two major and popular universities which escapes the fierce summer heat and the bitter winter cold found just to the north and west, and with the upgrading of major highways in the last few years, access is getting easier. However, the airport is 90 minutes away from the city centre - a real nightmare when there is thick fog or heavy snow - and getting railway tickets anywhere is an ordeal. Lanzhou doesn't make life easy for visitors.

But for all that, I have a growing affection for the city. It is a great place for eating, as reported by many people, being at the periphery of a number of different gastronomic styles. There is still a lot to see in and around the city, and the Hexi Corridor is close by. The loess hills and the Yellow River valley on both sides of the city is spectacular, and there are quaint old towns all around - fortunately there were insufficient steel mills, nickel smelters, ferroalloy plants and cement plants for every town to have one.
The people in Gansu are especially friendly, especially the rather quiet and gentle Muslim Hui people, who are always quick to smile and for whom friendship with a stranger is a natural, cultural tradition.

Eastbound on the Silk Road you get to Tianshui and the famous Buddhist grottoes at Maijishan.

Westbound, heading towards the Mediterranean, next stop is Wuwei, although a stop in Gulang County and at Shuangta is recommended.

The small, well-preserved Qing town of Qingcheng is just two hours away and is definitely worth visiting.

  • Last visit to Lanzhou: Jun 2006
  • Intro Updated Jun 17, 2006
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  • Jul 3, 2006 at 12:43 AM

    Had I read your tip earlier I would have headed directly from the airport to the train station. Not that there is nothing else to do in the city, but I am annoyed at the fact that neither of my two guidebooks mentioned the museum closed for 10 years!!

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