Sometimes, nature has a way of throwing the unexpected at you, even when you thought you must have seen everything by now.
If you venture to the northern foothills of China’s Qilian Mountains, in the province of Gansu, you’ll see one such example of her apparently limitless capacity to amaze.
However, this particular place is so spectacular that you won’t so much be left doubting your eyes while your jaw drops involuntarily towards the floor, as contemplating whether they’ve somehow had their color settings psychedelically distorted.
Rainbow Mountains (aka the Zhangye National Geopark), is so called because it contains a sight wholly unique to that part of the world (and possibly only matched anywhere else by Peru’s Vinicunca Rainbow Mountain and Painted Desert in Arizona, USA). That’s because the mountains that stand there are so colorful you could almost convince yourself that they’ve somehow been daubed in spraypaints of oranges, yellows and blues.
Not only that, but the separate colors tend to appear in thick straight lines that traverse the peaks and valleys of the mountain range, as if to add to the almost otherworldly sense that, yes, this might still be planet Earth, but not quite as you know it.
These spectacular mountains, standing over 100m tall in places, are the result of sandstone deposits, iron and trace minerals, erosion and tectonic shifts that have formed over 24 million years.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2010, the mountains maintain their brilliant vibrancy thanks in part to elevated viewing platforms and trails that deter tourists from stepping directly onto them – and that’s no bad thing for the sightseeing, either, as these mountains deserve to be viewed with the benefit of some distance, where the sheer breadth of this entirely natural display can be best appreciated.
Zhangye is the nearest city to Rainbow Mountains, and from there, you can either opt for a guided tour (offered by most hotels in downtown Zhangye), take a bus from Zhangye West Bus Station, or simply travel by car to the area, which stands only around a 20-mile drive from the city.
You’ll have three areas to choose between for your trip – the Linze Danxia Scenic Area, which makes up the bulk of the park and is where you’re likely to find the most tourists; Binggou, where the formations tend to resemble melting ice sculptures; and Sunan Danxia Scenic Area, which is less crowded than the other two but has fewer fully built roads, and so might limit you if you decide to do without a guided tour.
The best time of year to visit is between June and September, when the weather should make walking comfortable, while it’s recommended to visit at either sunrise or sunset when the colors are at their most vibrant and changeable.
However you plan on getting there, and at whichever time of year, unlike some trips, this one really is more about the destination than the journey. In China‘s Rainbow Mountains, that destination is one that stands in awe-inspiring and unforgettable technicolor.