Lanzhou is an ugly but friendly city with an excellent museum, tasty food and busy downtown shopping areas. The Yellow River, running thick and brown through the city against a backdrop of hills dim with mist, dust and industrial pollution, is seen by some as one of China's classic sights, while the major historical and artistic attraction lies just beyond the city at the Bingling Si Buddhist Caves. Nearly all travellers on their way to or from Xinjiang will end up stopping in Lanzhou; it's worth staying a day or so, but no longer.
On the map, Lanzhou appears to lie very much in the middle of China, though this is a misleading impression. Culturally and politically it remains remote from the great cities of eastern China, despite being both the provincial capital and the largest industrial centre in the Northwest. At the head of the Hexi Corridor, it was a vital stronghold along the Silk Road and was the principal crossing point of the mighty Yellow River. For centuries it has been a transportation hub, first for caravans, then shallow boats and now rail lines. Not until the Communist era, however, did it become a large population centre as well, in response to the city's burgeoning industry. Now the city has nearly three million people, the vast majority of them Han Chinese.