I must confess that I went to Zhangye for the Instagram photo of the “Rainbow Mountains”. Before arriving, I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the place I wanted to visit – Danxia Landform Geopark – and I didn’t know much else about Zhangye. Out of the 1,053 pages in the China guidebook, less than one was dedicated to it. From the overly saturated photographs online, I expected Danxia to be an imposing geological wonder with awe-inspiring views of red, yellow, green, and blue mountains. I am always up for an adventure into the unknown and I love the opportunity to photograph nature, so I booked a train ticket.
Zhangye is an innocuous town located in China’s Gansu Province and surprisingly has a population the size of Dallas. The city itself is charming but don’t expect to be blown away by the culture or to get an English menu.
It took an hour from Zhangye to reach Danxia. The geopark is quite new, though the formations date back 24 million years. The story goes that a farmer photographed the mountains, which were published in 2000. This set off a chain of events culminating in Danxia receiving the coveted status as a National Geopark in 2016. Now it’s a well-organized machine of queuing corrals, people mover buses, and boardwalks that connect the whole park and restrict where visitors can go.
The experience is not communing with nature – you get on a bus, get off, snap some photos, take a short walk on the platforms, and then get on the bus again until the next stop. Selfie sticks, sun umbrellas, and lines. It’s an incongruous combination of remote nature and herds of people. Imagine the Grand Canyon and Disneyland had a baby. That’s Danxia. Nothing could have prepared me for the sunset. It was like being in the crowd at Coachella – smashed together like sardines and full of eager anticipation for the show.
The sunset did not disappoint. It was magical to watch the mountains change colors and become unnaturally vibrant. I felt alone, connected with the landscape, if only for a few minutes.
Then, I snapped back to reality. I was surrounded by tens of thousands of Chinese, sticking out like a big white thumb. But no one cared that I was the only Westerner there. In fact, no one paid attention. In many countries, businesses cater to Western tourists. Not China. China has enough to deal with handling the massive numbers of domestic tourists.
What struck me even more than the jaw-dropping mountains, was China’s sky-rocketing domestic tourism. Zhangye is a microcosm. With a burgeoning middle class and more natural wonders than the West realizes, the Chinese have become insatiable tourists. Zhangye Danxia Landform is one of the most incredible sights you’ll ever see. It was worth the trek to the middle of Gansu and the cultural observations will be a cherry on top. Be warned, you won’t be alone. But at the very least, do it for the “gram.”