You may have heard about the rainbow mountain in Peru, but did you know that there's a much more spectacular range of rainbow mountains in China?
The only reason these multi-colored mountains aren't more famous is that they are located a bit off the usual tourist trail, in Gansu province. But with high-speed trains now connecting Gansu with Beijing, getting here is easier than ever and is most definitely worth the effort.
China's rainbow mountains, officially known as the Zhangye Danxia National Landform Geological Park, are located just outside of Zhangye city, in a part of Gansu called the Hexi Corridor.
When my husband and I first visited Zhangye back in 2009, we had no idea that this incredible natural site was just a short taxi ride away. It was not until 2011 that the Chinese government established the Zhangye Danxia National Landform Geological Park to protect the area, and tourism infrastructure was built.
When we returned to Gansu 10 years later as part of our overland trip from Russia to Tibet via Mongolia, our main objective was to visit the Labrang Monastery (read more about our experience at the monastery here).
It was only at the last minute that we decided to add the rainbow mountains to our itinerary, and we were so glad we did! This multi-colored wonder was one of the most impressive things we saw during our 40 days in China.
Is the Zhangye Danxia Geopark a UNESCO World Heritage Site?
Pretty much every article I've read about the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geopark says that it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Even Forbes magazine says so. And you know what? They're all wrong!
A site called "China Danxia" was indeed inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2010, so you can see how people would be confused. In Chinese, "danxia" (丹霞) is a broad term that refers to a number of different landscapes developed from red, sedimentary rock (丹 means "red").
The UNESCO site includes six separate danxia landforms, but they are all in southeastern China, nowhere near the Zhangye danxia site in Gansu. I'm not sure why UNESCO left out the Zhangye site, but this certainly doesn't mean that you should leave it out of your itinerary!
Having seen photos of the other danxia sites in southeastern China, I'm pretty sure that that the Zhangye Danxia Geopark trumps them all. And yet, it's still virtually unknown among visitors from the United States, Europe, or anywhere outside China really.
Sure, it's been written up in a few articles in major publications, and apparently it was also featured in a video game called Sid Meier's Civilization VI. But Nick and I didn't see a single other foreigner during the four hours we spent in the park, though we saw plenty of Chinese tourists.
Outside of China, most people seem fixated on the rainbow mountain in Peru, which has garnered lots of attention on social media, mainly Instagram.
Which is Better: Rainbow Mountains China or Rainbow Mountain Peru?
While I haven't been on a rainbow mountain Peru trek in person (it was also not "discovered" by the tourism industry until years after I visited the area), from what I’ve read and seen I’m 100% certain that the Danxia mountain range in China is far superior in many ways.
The rainbow mountain of Peru is a classic example of a place that's been destroyed by Instagram fame. Heather and John from Roaming Around the World have written a brutally honest exposé of everything that's gone wrong with tourism at Peru's rainbow mountain.
I won't go into details here, but let's just say that the popular trips from Cusco to the rainbow mountain in Peru are unsafe, environmentally destructive, and often underwhelming.
After hiking for two to three hours to reach the mountain, many trekkers are disappointed to find that it's nowhere near as colorful as in the photos they've seen on Instagram and in tourism brochures. Those images have been heavily filtered and photoshopped.
So how do the rainbow mountains of China compare?
In China, the infrastructure is much better than in Peru. The Chinese don’t do anything half-assed, and when they decide they're going to open up an area for tourism, they go all out. Since 2011, an extensive system of walkways, viewing platforms and shuttle buses has been developed so that visitors can enjoy the site without destroying it.
And even though riding on a shuttle bus from one viewpoint to the next is not my preferred way of enjoying nature, I recognize that: (a) this is how Chinese people like to enjoy nature; and (b) it's necessary when dealing with so many people.
The danxia mountains are very fragile and would crumble underfoot if tourists were allowed to trample on them as they are in Peru.
I should also mention that the rainbow mountain trek in Peru leads to just one viewpoint of a single mountain, whereas the Zhangye danxia is a huge natural area covering 500 square kilometers.
So what about those colors? Have the photos of Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological park that you see online also been photoshopped?
Well yes, some of them have. Particularly the ones with lots of green and blue hues. The true colors of the mountains in the Zhangye Danxia Geopark are mostly shades of red, pink and orange (remember that "dan" means "red" in Chinese).
But they are still spectacular! The photos in this article are all completely unfiltered, taken by me or Nick (mostly Nick). So you can judge for yourself whether the mountains live up to the hype.
How Were the Rainbow Mountains Created?
I'm no geologist, and I'm not going to attempt to give you a boring science lesson here. But basically, the "red bed” was created about 135 million years ago from sandstone and clay rocks. Over the years the iron in the rocks oxidized, turning them red.
It took millions of years for mineral deposits to be compacted into the different strata that create the stripey layer cake effect we see today.
How to Visit the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geopark
The Geopark is divided into two scenic areas: Qicai (七彩), which means “Seven Colors”, and Bing Gou (冰沟), which means "Ice Ravine". Qicai is where you will find the rainbow mountains.
Zhangye Qicai Danxia Scenic Spot - 张掖七彩丹霞旅游景区
The word "qicai" in Chinese means "seven colors" or, a bit less literally, multi-colored or rainbow-colored.
There are three entrances to Qicai: north, west and east. Once inside the park, you can visit four viewing platforms: Xian Yuan Tai, Yun Hai Tai, Jin Xiu Tai and Hong Xia Tai.
Entrance to Qi Cai costs 74 yuan. At the ticket window, this is stated separately as 54 yuan for the entrance fee and 20 yuan for the shuttle bus. In reality, though, you have to pay for both, as the shuttle bus is the only way of traveling from one platform to the next. The 1 yuan insurance fee is optional, however.
After buying your ticket at the entrance, you will board a shuttle bus to travel around the park. It’s not allowed to walk from one platform to another, and in any case, they are more than 20 kilometers apart. Just walking up and down the stairs on the viewing platforms is already a pretty good workout.
The order in which you will visit the four platforms depends on which entrance you start from. Don’t try to do them out of order, for example by staying on the bus until the last stop and then working your way backward. The Chinese have a particular way of doing things and do not like it when people try to deviate from it.
I will describe the four platforms here in the order that you will visit them if you enter the Qi Cai Scenic Area from the north or east entrance. From the west entrance, the order would be a bit different. No matter which way you enter, you should allow about four hours to visit all four platforms.
Xian Yuan Tai - 仙缘台 - Colorful Meeting Fairy Observation Deck
The first thing you’ll notice is a steep stairway leading up to a viewpoint on a high hilltop. This was closed when we visited, but don't worry, there are several other lookout points here.
Cross the road to find a series of platforms. Most people just go to the one closest to the shuttle dropoff point, but if you keep walking to the furthest one you will have the best views, and you may even have it all to yourself.
Views here are probably best in the afternoon, but if you come in the morning it’s still worth seeing.
Helicopter rides are offered here from 8 am to 12:30 pm and from 3:30 pm to 7:30 pm. They cost 780 yuan per person in the Robinson R44 helicopter, which takes two passengers, or 880 yuan per person in the Bell 407 helicopter, which takes four passengers.
Yun Hai Tai - 云海台 - Colorful Sea of Clouds Observation Deck
This was probably my favorite of the four viewing platforms, as the views are really breathtaking. Rock formations you can see here include: "Colorful Flying Clouds", "Huge Scallop Rock Cumulus", "Monks Worship Buddha" and "Spirit Monkey Views the Sea".
In my view, the most beautiful of these is the "Huge Scallop Rock Cumulus", which is a large formation made of red, gray, white and yellow stripes of sandstone. It takes a bit of imagination, but some people say it looks like a dragon rising out of the ground.
I'm often left unconvinced by the shapes that you're supposed to be able to see in the rocks, but the one that's the clearest to me is the "Monks Worship Buddha".
If you've visited the Great Buddha Temple in Zhangye city, you might experience a bit of déjà vu here. The boulders look very much like a large reclining Buddha with several monks standing over the image and praying, just like in the temple in Zhangye.
Jin Xiu Tai - 锦绣台 - Colorful Embroidered Observation Deck
This is another fantastic lookout point and is probably my second favorite after Yun Hai Tai. The sediment layers are said to look like an embroidered piece of silk with red, white and yellow ribbons.
Rock formations to be seen here include: "the Silk Road", "the Great Wall on the Precipice", "Mazi Noodle Shop", and the "Tassels of the Yugur Maiden".
The Tassels of the Yugur Maiden are the most visually stunning, at least if you visit in the morning. Yugurs are an ethnic minority who live in Gansu province, and the rocks here are meant to resemble the tassels that hang from the skirts of a Yugur woman's traditional costume.
I'm sure the Silk Road would be stunning too if viewed at a different time of day when the sun is in the right spot. I never managed to identify the Mazi Noodle Shop, and I can't even imagine what it's supposed to look like. If you find it, let me know in the comments below!
Just before you reach the bus pick-up point, there's a kiosk that sells camel rides. I didn't see anyone riding them, but I did see a few depressed-looking camels locked up in a holding pen. I'm sure these camels would rather be wandering free, so please refrain from riding them.
Hong Xia Tai - 虹霞台 - Colorful Clouds Observation Deck
The layer cake effect is especially vivid here, with lots of different colors stripes in the mountains. We didn’t have great weather for this one, but under better conditions it might have been my favorite.
Rock formations here include: "A Supernatural Tortoise Looks Up to the Sky" and the "Small Potala Palace".
There is a hot air balloon experience on offer, but before you get too excited, the balloon stays tethered to the ground. So, while you'll probably have great views from up there, you'll stay in one spot the whole time.
For 480 yuan, you can also enjoy a five-minute ride on a powered paraglider.
When leaving this platform, make sure you get on the right shuttle bus. If you entered via the north entrance, this will be your last stop, and you should take the bus marked 北出口 (north exit) to leave the park.
If you entered via the west entrance, take the bus marked 西出口 (west exit) to continue to the other platforms before exiting via the west exit.
Binggou Danxia Scenic Spot - 冰沟丹霞景区
Binggou lies another 15 kilometers or so beyond Qicai and has a separate entrance fee of 60 yuan. I did not visit this park, so I can't speak about it from personal experience.
The photos I've seen do look beautiful, and if you're looking for a less crowded experience where you can go hiking and get away from other tourists, then I'm sure this would be a great option.
We did consider visiting Binggou after Qicai, but in the end we decided it was just too much for one day. If you wanted to spread your visit over two days, you could visit Qicai on the first day, then spend the night in the nearby town of Sunan and visit Binggou the next day from there.
Don't be misled by the Chinese name, which translates as "ice ravine". You shouldn't expect to see any ice here, unless perhaps if you visit in the winter. The name refers to the shape of one of more well-known rock formations in Binggou, which is said to resemble melting icicles.
In this park, the focus is on shapes rather than colors. You'll see palaces, camels and shrines carved out of the rockface by Mother Nature.
Shuttle buses are included in the ticket price, but unlike at Qicai you are allowed to walk wherever you want in the park.
How to Get to Zhangye Danxia National Landform Geological Park
The drive from Zhangye city to Qicai is 40 kilometers and takes about 30 minutes by car. Binggou is a further 15 kilometers away. You have three options for making this journey: private taxi, shared taxi or bus.
This should cost about 160 yuan return from Zhangye to Qicai, and 220 yuan return if you want to visit both Qicai and Binggou. Your driver will pick you up at your accommodation, wait for you at the park, and then drive you back. This biggest advantage of a private taxi is that you can leave as early as you want to avoid the crowds.
Silk Road Travelers Hostel arranges shared cars to go to Qicai, Binggou and other scenic areas around Zhangye. This is cheaper than a private taxi, particularly if you are traveling on your own, but the cars run only at set times.
There is an express coach from Zhangye West Bus Station (张掖西汽车站) to Qicai. It costs 10 yuan each way and takes about 50 minutes, leaving at 07:30, 08:00, 08:40, 09:20, 10:00, 12:00, 13:30, 14:30, 15:00 and 17:00. A return ticket is valid until 6 pm the same day.
Best Time to Visit Zhangye Qicai Danxia Geological Park
The light is best either very early in the morning or in the late afternoon. Depending on whether you choose morning or afternoon, some platforms will have better views than others, but all four are still worth visiting at any time of day.
All four platforms have close to 360-degree views, so there's always something that's lit up, provided the sun is out. Keen photographers may want to stay all day, or spread their visit over two days (one afternoon and one morning).
If this is your plan, you could consider staying in the nearby town of Sunan rather than going all the way back to Zhangye. I did see a few hotels right at the north entrance to Qicai, but I don’t know if they accept foreigners (some Chinese hotels don't).
In addition to the light, the other great thing about arriving early in the morning is that you will beat the crowds. We left Zhangye at 6 am and were in the park by about 6:45 am. There were too many clouds for a good sunrise, but it was still worth it to beat most of the other tourists.
If you want to see the sunrise, check what time the sun rises when you're there and leave Zhangye about an hour before that.
What Else to See in Zhangye
Zhangye is a pleasant city and is small by Chinese standards, with just over 1 million inhabitants. While the nearby Rainbow Mountains are the star attraction, it's definitely worth taking an extra day to explore the city itself.
Great Buddha Temple - 大佛寺
In a country where new buildings are made to look old, and everything has a fresh lick of paint, this 1,000-year-old temple is refreshingly unrestored. The main attraction is the reclining Buddha sculpture.
At 34.5 meters in length, it's the longest wood and clay Buddha in Asia. His ear alone is 4 meters long. The entrance fee is 40 yuan, which you pay at the ticket booth about 70 meters down the road.
Xilai Temple - 西来寺
Easily the most recognizable landmark in Zhangye, this pagoda made of brick and wood is nine stories high. The square below it is a hive of activity, especially early in the morning when folks are out doing their morning exercises.
It costs 50 yuan to climb to the top for views out over the city, but we were content to admire it from below for free.
Ganzhou Market - 甘州市场
This food market is open from 10 am to 10 pm, but it's most lively at night. You'll find lots of local specialties to taste at the food stalls and small restaurants here, as well as dishes from other parts of China.
Where to Stay in Zhangye
The Silk Road Travelers Hostel
In China, hostels are often the best options for budget travelers, even if you're looking for a private room rather than a dorm.
This one has English-speaking staff and can arrange tours and other excursions in the area. Our double room looked like a standard Chinese hotel room, but the communal areas had a definite hostel vibe.
Where to Eat in Zhangye
As mentioned above, the Ganzhou Market is the place to go to try some of Zhangye's local dishes. Typically, each restaurant or food stall will specialize in one particular dish, although they may offer other items on the menu as well.
Here are some of the eateries I tried and the vegan Chinese dishes I ate there. Since none of these places have English signs, I have included a photo of the sign out front so you can identify the restaurants that way.
The owner here is very friendly, and their specialty, 搓鱼面 (cuo yu mian), is delicious. The name of this dish translates as something like "rub fish noodles", but it doesn't contain any fish. The reason it's called that is because the noodles, which are made by hand using a rubbing motion, resemble little fish.
Every time we passed by there was a woman out front rolling out the noodles by hand. They offer vegan versions of 搓鱼面 and are happy to adapt the ingredients to your taste.
Directly across the lane from 邢记搓鱼面 described above is this place, which specializes in congee. If you haven't had congee before, it's a kind of porridge that's popular as a breakfast food in China. I believe the one I had was 黑米八宝粥 (black rice eight treasure congee).
Most of the menu is vegetarian, with plenty of vegan options. In addition to the congee, we also tried some of their steamed buns, including these fun monkey-shaped ones, and 鱼儿面 (yu'er mian), yet another local dish that has "fish" in the name but not in the dish itself.
The specialty at this restaurants is 拉面, a Gansu favorite. We had the 素菜拌拉面, a vegan version of this hand-pulled noodle dish, topped with bean sprouts, celery and what I believe was some kind of tofu.
All photos in this article were taken by me or my husband, Nick Leonard (mostly by Nick). All rights reserved.