Ribbons of reds, oranges and yellows slice through the rock, to create a rainbow vista contained only by the contours of the jagged mountain peaks. Acclaimed as one of China’s most beautiful landforms, it sits in a class of its own. No less than the National Geographic magazine saw fit to name Zhangye Danxia Geopark in their Top 10 Geographical Wonders in Asia.
Yet, Zhangye Danxia receives few international visitors. On my journey along China’s ancient Silk Road, I was determined to be one of those few.
“You will learn a lot from Danxia, ” the station taxi driver explained sagely. “Not many foreigners come here. You will be top of the class.“
I had pulled into the impressive and slick Zhangye West station, on the newer high speed line. This is not to be confused with Zhangye station, which is on the original, slower, line.
English is not widely spoken in this part of China and expect moderate surprise, if you cannot speak Mandarin. I, for one, cannot but survived using the Baidu and Google Translate apps.
With relative ease, I took a taxi from the train station to all but the gates of the Geopark. Be aware that most taxi drivers expect to carry multiple passengers, unless you pay for the empty seats. It is no small journey from either Zhangye town or Zhangye West train station to the geopark, both taking up to an hour. Myself and the driver amused ourselves speaking into the translations apps and conversing as he drove, receiving more wise words.
Given the rampant development and modernisation along the Silk Road, there is little accommodation that can be described as authentic. On the flip side, modern hotels abound in Zhangye and finding one to fit your wallet should not be a problem.
If I tell you I stayed in a traditional nomadic yurt on the edge of the colorful Danxia Geopark, I should also tell you that it was a purpose built affair with a comfy bed, firmly weather proofed and plenty of plug sockets for modern age gadgetry.
Recent construction aside, the white yurts with traditional red motifs all looked the part at, “KaoShan Tent,” clustered in small circles. I rather took to the place. The staff were all very helpful and my yurt proved a snug retreat from the unseasonable showers plaguing the region. It is also the closest accommodation bar none to the entrance gates of the park, meaning a gentle stroll to be one of the first into the park in the morning. Or, the smug luxury of avoiding a long car or bus journey at the day’s end.
Breakfast and dinner were served in large domed structure, which did admittedly leak in a few places under the deluge we faced during my visit. Equal to the task, the kitchen still delivered a good and hearty selection of local dishes. I was a little dismayed at quite how much food my fellow yurt dwellers left behind, played with and half eaten, just to be thrown away. With my compliments to the chef, you can be assured that I let not a morsel go to waste.
Zhangye Danxia Geopark
There are two entrances to the park and it is worth remembering at which you are entering. Once your ticket has been purchased (CNY 60), there is complimentary bus service that shuttles along a circular route between viewing points.
It is not quite as sedentary as it may sound, as most viewing points are a few hundred metres long, sometimes with paths between them and often up noticeable gradient. There is a decent stretch of your legs here, if you are looking for it. However, it is not a place where you can roam free, off piste.
20 million years in the making, cretaceous sandstones and siltstones were deposited here along with iron and trace minerals in a time before even the Himalayan Mountains were formed.
Laying horizontal, hidden from view, these vibrant colours were forced to and through the surface of the earth by the collision of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates.
The red sand stone coloring is due to an iron oxide coating between the sandstone grains. Known as hematite, it followed the same rusting process as metal left out in the rain. Other oxides form different colors: browns, yellows and even black staining of the sandstone. Iron sulfides created a yellow color. Chlorites created the green hues.
Hewn by the elements, the wind and the rain have chiseled stark peaks and rippled reliefs into the rainbow mountains. The bright colours and dark shadows dance together, as the sun moves across the sky.
After half a day, you will have tried all the view points and run out of superlatives and adjectives with which to describe the views.
I was naive to visit during the Chinese school Summer holidays, when the site was mobbed. If you can, avoid these busy periods. A crisp, clear and cool day in Spring strikes me as an ideal time to visit.
Take care to board the correct bus back to your starting point. In the spluttering rain and crowds, I managed to take the wrong bus and endured a slow circuit of the park before correcting my logistical error.
Though not without making a few minor logistical errors along the way, I am pleased to have graduated to join the few international visitors who have experienced Zhangye Danxia Geopark. A class well worth taking.
High resolution Danxia photo credits: ImagineChina
The author travelled at his own expense on a trip arranged by Lesley Lee of Xinjiang China International Travel Agency, whom he is able to highly recommend.