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Gansu is the long, narrow province linking central China with the desert regions of the northwest. For centuries, as goods were transported through the region, Gansu acted as a conduit between China and the Western world. As merchants made their fortunes from silk and other luxuries, the oasis towns strung along the Silk Road became important trade outposts of the Middle Kingdom. But beyond the
massive fortress at Jiayuguan lay the end of the Great Wall, the oasis of Dunhuang, and then perdition. Gansu was the edge of China.
What has long been the poorest province in China is essentially dry, rugged, and barren. The decline of the Silk Road brought terrible suffering and poverty, from which the area has only very recently begun to recover as tourism boosts the local economy. Over the last few years, protests at Labrang Monastery have led to travel restrictions. The area around Xiahe was closed off to foreign tourists in late 2012, but at the time of writing it was open again to foreigners. Check with your travel agent for up-to-date information.
A small oasis town, Dunhuang was for many centuries the most important Buddhist destination on the Silk Road. Just outside of town, beyond the...