6 days wild west adventure

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Colored stripes on the surface of rocks and sandstone look like huge waves in Zhangye Danxia Geology Park. [China Daily]

Gansu province has plenty to interest visitors, from the Dunhuang Grottoes and Yellow River, to the unique sights and sounds of its cities..

Gansu province has something for everyone, from breathtaking snow-capped mountains, vast deserts and grasslands, to cityscapes and historic sites. My "wild west" adventure was a six-day bus trip that began in the provincial capital of Lanzhou, headed further northwest and ended up in Dunhuang, a major hub on the ancient Silk Road.

Day 1: The Yellow River

I arrive in Gansu's provincial capital at noon after a two-and-a-half hour drive from the airport, which gives me a first impression of this western province: rolling brown hills and herds of cattle grazing on the grasslands.

Lanzhou is one of the few Chinese cities where visitors can experience the Yellow River. It is the country's second-longest river and often referred to as "the cradle of Chinese civilization".

The river runs through the heart of the city and the best way to enjoy it is take a walk along the riverbank when night falls.

It has an almost coastal feel with the neon lights, skyscrapers, a fresh and pleasant breeze, and mouth-watering barbecues.

Day 2: Lanzhou noodles

No visit to Lanzhou would be complete without tasting the popular handmade noodles.

Locals recommend Jinding (0931-8466-178) and Mazilu (0931-8450-505) restaurants, while many of the vendors on street corners serve up a surprisingly good dish.

Wandering around Tianshui Nanlu, I finally choose a vendor for breakfast and receive my first lesson on the city's noodles.

A friendly waiter tells me there are five basic elements that make a perfect bowl: beef soup, radish, red pepper, coriander and, of course, noodles.

After a brief stay in Lanzhou, I continue my journey to Zhangye, a six-hour bus ride.

It is about 8 pm when I arrive but there is still bright daylight.

I was told Zhangye is a typical kind of western city, with narrow roads, traditional buildings and temples.

A 30-meter-tall wooden tower in the plaza in the south of the city is a good spot to get a bird's-eye view of the environs.

Day 3: Giant Buddha and colorful rocks

One of Zhangye's biggest attractions is the 900-year-old Giant Buddha Temple, within which resides the country's largest reclining Buddha.

It's 34.5 meters long and 7.5 meters wide between its shoulders and lies there with a calm look on its face. Looking at its 4-meter-long feet and 2-meter-long ears, I can feel its power and tranquility.

Entrance tickets cost 41 yuan (US$6).

Zhangye Danxia Geology Park is also worth a visit. It is the country's largest and the most typical of Danxia's landforms.

It's almost noon when I arrive at the park. The scenery is magnificent in the strong sunlight. The colorful red hills are the result of millions of years of accumulated red sandstone and rock, while the colored stripes in the landforms are like huge waves.

It takes four hours to get to Jiayuguan, where the Jiayuguan Meteorology Tower, which looks like a dolphin, is a symbol of the city. Standing on the top of the 99-meter tower, I can see lush greenery on the edges of the sandy plain.

Day 4: The Great Wall

About 6 km from the downtown area, Jiayuguan Pass is at the western end of the Great Wall and was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

What impresses me most, however, is a story about one small brick that is part of the structure.

The craftsman in charge of the construction calculated that 99,999 bricks should be used in the project. His supervisor, who was jealous of his talent, told him that if there was one more or less brick, he would be sentenced to death.

When construction had finished, there was an extra brick that had not been used. The supervisor was about to execute the craftsman when he put the extra brick on the roof of the building, saying that it would "stabilize the pass".

The brick is still there and is easily identified by visitors.

It's already late at night when I get to the last stop of my trip, Dunhuang - just in time to pay a visit to Shazhou Night Market, a perfect place to feel the city's culture. Visitors can buy various kinds of handicrafts and snacks. Do remember to ask for at least 30 percent off.

Day 5: Dunhuang Grottoes

Before the trip, I was told a visit to Dunhuang Grottoes would take at least five hours.

This is a treasure trove, hidden in the heart of the desert, with more than 2,000 statues and 45 sq km of murals, dating back to about 1,000 years ago.

Entrance is 160 yuan per person for a guided tour, and 20 yuan more in English or other languages.

Visiting the 30-something cliff-side caverns offers an archeological adventure. The honeycomb of cavities has been shaped and renovated for a millennium, making it a witness to the evolution of this ancient stopover point on the Silk Road.

The dazzling statues and murals, that are well preserved in these caverns, are a feast for the eyes.

Those who are familiar with the country's art history will appreciate the distinctive styles of the various eras.

My day trip to Dunhuang Grottoes ends with a hike up Resonating Sand Mountain. The ticket is 120 yuan.

Darkness begins to fall as I start climbing the sandy hill. Though the mountain is small, I spend at least two hours climbing to the top as the sand makes it difficult to scale.

From the top, you can get a view of Crescent Spring, which locals say gets smaller every year. So, catch it while you can.

Day 6: A happy ending

My flight back to Beijing is at noon, so I decide to make full use of the time and do some last minute shopping.

There are many stands selling fresh fruits and good snacks, so I buy apricots, grapes and some delicious raisins - said to be the best in China and priced at 30 to 50 yuan per kg.


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