ack in August 2018, I read a newspaper report about tourists who filmed themselves trampling all over an ancient Cretaceous-era landform in a bid to evade the entrance fee. Zhangye Danxia Geopark, famous for its multicolored rocks has been a backdrop to movies and TV shows, and its rock formations date back 40-100 million years ago. They were swiftly caught after making the rookie mistake of uploading their feat of derring-do on video app TikTok. “We got through the back door, and didn’t have to pay,” they said. The next stop on their tourist trail was the police station.
I had two thoughts. The first was that I really wanted to go there – I have always been a sucker for landforms, and the second was that I certainly would never behave that way. Yet after visiting the Geopark, I did have some second thoughts.
Zhangye is a city in northwest China’s Gansu Province, and judging by the building going on, it’s certainly on the rise. It lies almost in the middle of the Hexi Corridor, that part of Gansu on a map that is squeezed between its neighbors. It seems relatively overlooked by foreign tourists, who if they are doing a Silk Road trip often bypass it on the way to Jiayuguan, the last outpost of the Great Wall, yet there are quite a few attractions in and around the city, and the scenery is certainly breathtaking.
Arriving in Zhangye, I took the high-speed train from Xining, capital of neighboring Qinghai Province. I was not prepared for just how stunning the journey would be – so nice, I took it back again two days later. Leaving Xining, the line passes through the Qilian Mountains, forming the border between Gansu and Qinghai. Some of the peaks reach over 5,000 meters, and by mid October, the mountains were already snow-covered. I met some fellow tourists on the train who said they had been driving up there in the morning, and showed me photos of them cavorting in snow-covered meadows.
Coming closer to Zhangye, the climate and landscape changes abruptly to dry and arid, with fields of solar panels replacing fields of cows and yaks. Along the roads, farmers have planted rows of brightly colored flowers – mostly it seemed for tourists to take pictures in front of the colored sandstones which rise up as cliffs from the valley floor.
You can either stay in Zhangye city itself, or right at the entrance of the Geopark, some 30 minutes by car away from the high-speed train station – although there are cheap buses from the station to go and come back. For those tight on time, it could be possible to arrive by train in the morning, see a couple of sites, and then continue to Jiayuguan in the evening. Near the entrance to the park is a tourist town consisting of hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops, with high prices to match. All the hotels are in similar style, painted to match the landscape, and have no restaurants, so you have to go out for all meals. The one I picked was clean, and somewhat strangely had Japanese-style rooms.
It’s then a short walk to the Geopark, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I already knew you were not allowed to walk by yourself in the park, but had to ride around on buses. What I was not prepared for was the sheer number of tourists, even in the off-season. The buses, included in the entrance price, go around different routes – remember which gate you came in, as there are several. At each stop, you can walk around to different viewpoints. It is certainly beautiful – if you can see past the hordes of scarf aunties posing for photos with red or blue scarves flapping in the wind, the colorful bands of red, ochre, yellow and maroon rocks in the background. You can’t really say it’s peaceful: loudspeakers dotted around each viewpoint play rousing music and give information. Sometimes both, coming from opposing speakers. Coming closer to sunset, the best viewing spots were as crowded as the Great Wall on a public holiday, so I gave up and got the bus out. It was not the rock-communing experience I was expecting, and I ended up having some sympathy for the ticket-evading miscreants. Not for the money saved, but the peace and quiet.
But the next day, I hired a car and driver, and on the recommendation of the hotel receptionist, decided to give another geopark a try. Binggou Danxia Geopark, or Ice Valley in English, was more what I was looking for. You still have to take a bus for several kilometers to the park itself, but once there, you are free to walk around as you please, with several routes up paths and steep steps to reach viewing platforms, where you can see the peaks of the Qilian Mountains in the distance.
Chinese parks love to name rock features according to what they look like. One impressive feature really does look like a castle, another does resemble a group of women. Strangely, the group of tall, rather phallic-looking rocks was not named.
Apart from a slight confrontation with a Japanese-speaking tour guide who was shattering the peace by shouting at his guests to “jia you” (keep going) as they puffed up the steep steps, and one or two music speakers – they obviously can’t resist – it more than made up for the previous day’s disappointment. I would have liked another day or two to visit some other out-of-town spots – you can access the Qilian Mountains from Zhangye, or the Mati Temple Grottoes (Horse Hoof Temple), around 80 kilometers from the city, which compares favorably to the more famous Dunhuang Caves, but with far fewer visitors. Pingshan Grand Canyon is another quieter landscape spot – I had inquired at the hotel about going, but they dismissed it as being too similar to the other places. They underestimated how much I like looking at rocks.
Instead, on the way back to town for an evening train, I stopped off at the Dafo (Great Buddha) Temple in downtown Zhangye, which hosts a 34-meter reclining Buddha, the largest indoor clay reclining Buddha (with a wooden core) in Asia, and dating from around 1100.
There has been a temple on the site, with different names, since 1098. The temple underwent a massive restoration and reopened as a place of worship in 2006. There are some small museums inside with collections of Buddhist art and sutras, and outside is a rather pleasant square, with the requisite gaggles of seniors playing rowdy games of chess or cards. Then only one stop remained, for a nice bowl of vegetable noodles in a Muslim restaurant outside the train station, and I was ready for the scenic ride back to Xining.