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Before I got to Zhangye in China’s Gansu Province, I thought that when it comes to mountains, I had seen it all. From the jagged peaks around Shangri-la, to the impressive pillar formations of the Avatar Mountains and the hundreds of karst hills around Guilin – after visiting them all, I had wrongly assumed that mountains couldn’t possibly get any more diverse. But the Danxia Landform Geological Park near Zhangye proved that when it comes to China, there is always something unexpected and breathtaking around the next corner.
Before I went there, I of course googled some photos and at first, I thought that some photographers had gone wild on photoshop. The truth is, while some people crank the saturation
a bit way too much, the mountains inside the Danxia Landform Geological Park really do look like a multilayered birthday cake covered in unicorn puke, like, millions of years ago, Earth was holding a rather lavish party and things got a bit out of hand. A myriad of colours ranging from bright white, to deep yellows, oranges and reds to hues of green and blue paint the mountains in neat lines like an artist on LSD would a canvas. For the first five minutes in the park, it was hard for me to believe that the Rainbow Mountains, as the locals call them, are actually real and that I hadn’t fallen down a rabbit hole into a technicolor wonderland.
24 million years ago, deposits of different coloured sandstone and minerals formed these layers and they were subsequently shaped and folded into sharp ridges, valleys and peaks by millions of years of rain, wind and the movement of tectonic plates. The end product is magnificent to look at and no two views are the same. The mountains all have their unique patterns, shapes, sizes and even colour arrangements. They are so impressive, that these rugged landscapes – which by the way can be found throughout southeastern, southwestern and northwestern China and are called “Danxia Landforms” – were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The name Danxia Landform is given to all landforms in China showing this unique combination of steep cliffs, red sandstone and petrographic geomorphology, but the one near Zhangye, the formation called the Danxia Landform Geological Park, is by far the most impressive one.
Although the Rainbow Mountains have gained some popularity since the recognition by UNESCO and travellers have started to take notice, I wasn’t too surprised at how relaxed things remain inside the Geological Park. Gansu Province is still off the beaten tourist path, and accordingly, the province and its attractions don’t get the hordes of tourists other parts of China do.
The Rainbow Mountains can be found only about 40 kilometers outside the small town of Zhangye and the park spans about 400 square kilometers. To get there, visitors usually arrange transport with their hostel or hotel, which will bring them to the entrance of the park. From there, busses take travellers into and through the park. An incredibly well maintained, pink brick road winds its way through the mountains and walking paths with rainbow coloured steps lead up to viewpoints high above the landform.
Most people head out in one of the busses, spend some time at a viewpoint before continuing on with the next bus, others show up early and spend the day hiking through the landscape. But whatever you decide to do inside the park, the experience will most likely not be crowded and although people sometimes do go crazy on photoshop, the Rainbow Mountains are a real and magical place.