Northwest China Travel Guide

Northwest China is the most remote and inhospitable part of the country. It includes the provinces of Gansu, Shaanxi, and Qinghai, as well as the autonomous regions of Ningxia and Xinjiang, and is very sparsely populated.

The region of Northwest China is bounded on all sides by mountains and the Great Wall. It also borders Russia, Mongolia, and other countries and is home to mainly ethnic minority groups, like the Mongols and Kazaks. Although there are several large cities in the region, Northwest China is nothing like built-up eastern China and is tough to get about for the most part.

The main cities of Northwest China are Lanzhou, the Gansu capital; Xining, the Qinghai capital; and Xi’an, the Shaanxi capital. Gansu is the most popular province in Northwest China. It is home to the Hexi Corridor - a major part of the Silk Road - and has the most happening towns and cities.

Lanzhou is Gansu’s capital, and other than being the main entry point, it is a bit of a noisy, polluted place. Dunhuang is about the most interesting center in the province, known for its nearby Mogao Caves; a UNESCO World Heritage site of hundreds of painted grottoes. Nearby Crescent Moon Lake is an oasis on the Silk Road.

For a look at the Great Wall of China, Jiayuguan, 300kms east of Dunhuang, is the westernmost part of the wall that features a large fort and lookout towers. It is known as the Overhanging Wall. Wuwei and Zhangye in Gansu are also interesting places to head for forays onto the Great Wall. They are roughly in the middle of the province.

Gansu also has many national parks, including Maijishan National Park and Yueyaquan National Park. The Tibet-like plateau camel trekking here is also superb.

The neighboring province of is Shaanxi and the easternmost part of Northwest China. It, too, comes with several worthwhile national parks containing stark volcanic scenery, along with sections of the Great Wall and high plateaus - the Loess Plateau stretches to the Yellow River. Xi’an, in the center, is the capital and start point of the Silk Road.

Qinghai is the most remote province of Northwest China proper, with Xining as its capital up near the border with Gansu. Xining is famed for the Qinghai-Tibetan Railway, while Huangzhong is home of the renowned Kumbum Monastery. Qinghai also boasts China’s largest lake in Qinghaihu National Park and has excellent rafting along the Yangtze and Yellow rivers.

Ningxia and Xinjiang autonomous regions are only really visited by ardent travellers; particularly the latter, more remote province. Ningxia borders Inner Mongolia, Gansu and Shaanxi and has Yinchuan as its capital. There are several sections of the great Wall to see in Ningxia, including the Eastern Ningxia Wall, which features Hongshan Castle and Water Cave Gully.

Xinjiang is the remotest part of China. The Silk Road ran right through here from the Hexi Corridor and Xi’an to avoid the inhospitable Taklimakan Desert. Known as the Death Sea, this desert is the world’s second biggest and is inherently beautiful. It has the perfect look that the word ‘desert’ represents, with massive dunes and mountains. Camel treks are popular in the fall.

Getting There & Away

All provinces and autonomous regions in Northwest China have airports and flying is the only viable way to travel, given the huge distances. Lanzhou Zhongchuan Airport is the main airport in the region, lying 75kms from the Gansu capital. Flight time from Beijing is 2 hours.

For Xinjiang autonomous region, fly to Urumqi Diwopu International Airport, which is 4 hours from Beijing. As a comparison, the train journey is over 40 hours or 21 hours from Lanzhou. Traveling by long distance train in Northwest China is more preferable than traveling by bus.