The capital of Gansu province, Lanzhou is a key gateway to northwestern China (your other option is Urumqi). These days Lanzhou is just a 2.5 hour plane ride or 9-hour high speed train from Beijing. It’s the perfect starting point to visit the famous Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, experience the Silk Road at Mingsha Mountain and Crescent Oasis, and view the colorful mountains of ZhangYe Danxia GeoPark. That also means most people don’t spend much time there, so if you’ve got limited time, here’s an itinerary for 1 day in Lanzhou to make sure you get a wholesome experience.
Breakfast for 1 day in Lanzhou: Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles
These famous hand-pulled noodles are basically synonymous with Lanzhou, and in Lanzhou, they’re eaten for breakfast. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a good spot for these noodles for dinner, so if you’ve only got 1 day in Lanzhou, don’t sleep in. In fact, locals say the earlier the better for these noodles.
These big bowls are filled with steaming hot broth, chewy noodles, and tender meat (typically beef). They’re best if spicy, but you can always request a non-spicy bowl. Some of the best shops serving Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles will be the numerous halal restaurants in town.
Morning for 1 day in Lanzhou: Explore the Yellow River and its surroundings
After your morning chow, head down to the Yellow River, the third longest river in Asia. Start at the Waterwheel Garden for some gorgeous scenery and prime photo spots. Then take one of the famous old-fashioned sheepskin rafts for a ride down the Yellow River. Choose the one-way rafting option here so you can explore the other bank of the Yellow River. As your guide rafts you down the river and across to the other side, make sure to keep an eye out for the Lanzhou Water Mosque, situated to your left on a platform on the river.
Once you disembark, head to the Lanzhou Water Mosque to check out the architecture in person. While non-Muslims are generally allowed inside, double check to make sure there are no special events occurring at the time of your visit. Please be respectful while walking around and refrain from entering the main prayer hall and other restricted areas.
Next, walk back toward the Zhongshan Bridge, aka the Yellow River Iron Bridge. The first permanent bridge over the famous river, it was built between 1907 and 1909. You’ll cross the bridge later, but for now, turn around and look up to White Pagoda Mountain. The park is free to visit and you can spend just half an hour walking around the base or a couple of hours going up the stairs to the top.
Now cross the Zhongshan Bridge and admire the feats of both nature and man, represented by the Yellow River and the Iron Bridge, respectively. Continue along the river bank to the cable car ticket office and buy a roundtrip ticket. This ride will give you aerial and panoramic views of Lanzhou, the Yellow River, and White Pagoda Mountain.
Lunch for 1 day in Lanzhou: Find some street eats
You’ll want to save ample space for dinner later at the night market, so find some street eats for lunch. There are endless food vendors on the banks of the Yellow River. A good option for a main is the fried glutinous rice cakes and potatoes. Alternatively, find a halal restaurant for some great lamb skewers and related dishes.
Afternoon for 1 day in Lanzhou: choose your own adventure
If you decided to climb up White Pagoda Mountain, you’ll probably want to find a resting spot for a while. If not, use the afternoon for some more Lanzhou sights.
Take your pick depending on your interests. Choose to either visit the Shifogou National Forest Park for some nature or the Gansu Provincial Museum for some history.
Dinner for 1 day in Lanzhou: The night market is the main event
Hit up the night market at Zhengning Road. I went to so many night markets in China and this was definitely the best one. It’s also the highlight of a short visit to Lanzhou.
Make sure to arrive early, around 6 p.m. Especially on weekends and holidays, it can get ridiculously crowded. The night market actually has foods from all over, but if you want to eat local Gansu specialties, the halal dishes are the main draws. Here’s what to try:
- Niu Nai Lao Zao, or Milk with Fermented Glutinous Rice: this is a sort of sweet soup, if you will, consisting of milk, eggs, fermented rice, and toppings such as sesame seeds, raisins, and peanuts.
- Fried potatoes and glutinous rice cakes, if you didn’t have it for lunch
- Grilled skewers of basically every meat and seafood
- Lamb offal soup: for the more adventurous eater, this soup consists of various lamb parts, including offal.
- Lamb marrow: deliciously tender, with juicy marrow you can suck out with a straw
- Fa Zi Mian Chang: another option for the adventurous eater, this is a local halal delicacy. It’s not for everyone though and the pungent smell and taste was definitely a bit much for me. It’s chewy dough fried with sausages made from diced up offal.
If you want more familiar foods, those exist in the night market as well. Either way, take your time and enjoy looking at all the foods and the people.
Have you visited Lanzhou? What are your favorite things to do, and more importantly, to eat?
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