Northwest of the plain is loess land and the steppe region, covering the provinces of Shanxi, Shaanxi and the heavily industrialized eastern Gansu. One of the important centers of Chinese civilization in the past, the Loess Plateau remains overwhelmingly Han in ethnic composition.
The heavy deposit of windblown loess soils are fertile but fragile, prone to erosion, gullying and landslides. Much of the land cannot be cultivated. Rainfall is unpredictable. Winter temperatures fall below freezing and the summers are hot.
The rural areas support a lighter population density than the North China Plain, and the general standard of living is markedly lower except in the southeast sector. In the northwest and beyond the Great Wall, the desert begins. The region was formerly part of the Silk Road leading to Central Asia. Since 1949 mining and industry have become of key importance.