The remote foothills of the Qilian Mountains in China’s Gansu Province yield an implausible display of kaleidoscopic sandstone structures developed more than 24 million years ago. Gansu Zhangye National Geopark, located in the old northwestern city of Zhangye, is home to what’s known as Danxia formations — eroded amber-colored mountains encircled by serpentine cliffs taking shape as early as the Cretaceous Period. The 124-square-miles of public land were not formally designated as a national park until 2016, although it has been a national gem for decades, even placing in the country’s sixth most beautiful places by Chinese National Geography Magazine in 2009. Colloquially known as China’s “rainbow hills,” Zhangye’s most popular polychromatic attraction shepherds foreign visitors to three particular areas of the Danxia formations: Linze Danxia, Binggou, and Sunan Danxia Scenic Areas.
Linze Danxia Scenic Area is considered the most visited, and safest, for travelers unfamiliar with the area. Located 19 miles west of downtown Zhangye, it’s the easiest way to appreciate the mountains. The region offers a shuttle service, convenient boardwalks, and ample viewing platforms each offering its own perspective on the park. There are affordable busses to take you from the city to the park’s edge.
Another scenic area in the rainbow hills region, Binggou, is located 28 miles from Zhangye and offers visitors sharp elevation changes and canyon-like landscape not offered in Linze. Also known as Ice Valley, the elevation ranges from 5,000 to 8,200 feet above sea level during your journey. The captivating assortment of shapes and sizes of these structures, which some say resemble Buddha, will leave you in awe. The trip is a bit more challenging than the well-travelled areas of the park, but the views are gratifying. Visitors have the option of utilizing a sightseeing bus to the Xiaoxitian and Daxitian regions of Binggou. Both stops offer travelers access to viewing platforms for spectacular views and photo opportunities.
Sunan Danxia Scenic Area, located south of Linze, is the least travelled region of the park, and, therefore, less developed. There are no sightseeing busses cruising through Sunan, although you can drive a personal vehicle through the crimson hills. Be alert of incomplete and knobby roadways during this particular trip as well. While it’s off the beaten path, it offers larger, more dynamic, and striking landscapes to those who brave the isolation.
Peak season at the park is from June to September, and ticket prices vary with attraction. When visiting the geopark, it’s likely you’d stay in Zhangye, and when you’re not admiring the marble hills, spend time in a city rich with cultural and historical significance. Zhangye is one of western China’s most paramount settlements. Resting along the helm of the silk road, the city features architectural anomalies such as the Great Buddha, Muta, and Dafo Temples. History and anthropology buffs should check out the Blackwater State site and ancient Han Dynasty tombs. These relics of a long-departed dynasty are constantly under threat of decimation thanks to weather and human influence. The site even features remnants of forgotten castles on both sides of Han Tombs Complex.