China’s Pastel-Painted Mountains

China’s Pastel-Painted Mountains

There’s a UNESCO heritage site near the Chinese village of Nantaizi that, to some, looks like a real life scene from a Dr. Seuss illustration. Others imagine the giant hand of a deity painting the rocky mountains in pastel colors with long sweeping brush strokes. To Spot Cool Stuff’s eye, the area looks like giant pieces of bacon.

Whatever it reminds you of, unless you happen to have visited one specific section of Gansu province, you’ve never seen anything like the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park.

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The area is often referred to as “the Danxia Landform,” though “a Danxia landform” would be more technically correct. Scattered around China there are at least seven Danxia landforms, the term being one geologists use for any red sandstone formation with cliffs caused by both endogenous forces (such as earthquakes and tectonic movements) and exogenous forces (like erosion and corrosion). Some Danxia landforms look like waves frozen in rocks. Others — like the Yangyuan Stone and Yinyuan Hole, pictured below — suggest that Mother Nature has a rather juvenile sense of humor. But only the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park contains such spectacular colors.

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The park as a whole is about 400 square kilometers (150 sq mi), roughly 10% of which contains hyper-colorful mountains like those in the photos on this page.

The mountain’s distinctive look is a result of two factors: an unusual mixture of different rock types (in different colors) and upward pressure on the earth’s crust. The rock types have various resistance to that pressure — over the last million years some have risen quickly, others have stayed mostly in place, still others have slid sideways — and all that creates the interesting patterns you can see today.

[ ALSO ON SCS: The Unusually-Colored Beaches of Hawaii ]

danxia gansu hiking platform s Chinas Pastel Painted MountainsIn fact, the entire area of the park is still rising at a rate of almost a meter every 10,000 years. That’s pretty quick in geologic terms (though not so much relative to any other meassure).

Happily, the most colorful area of the park has been left mostly untouched. A 2010 designation as a UNSECO World Heritage Site will hopefully keep it that way. Pretty much the only evidence of development you’ll see here is a viewing platform and a crisscrossing series of roads, boardwalks and paths. It all makes for excellent hiking. So, if you go, bring some good shoes. And a camera. And leave a comment and let us know what you think the mountains of the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park look like.

published: 27 June 2013
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Planning your trip

Getting there: The Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park is located 40km from the former Silk Road garrison town of Zhangye. The cheapest transport is by bus (60~90 mins) from the West Bus Station. Hiring a taxi for the round trip allows you to stop at your convenience and take photos on the way; make sure to negotiate your fare (typically 150~180 RMB) in advance.

If you go: Note that there isn’t much in the way of stores, restaurants and facilities in the park. There is superb hiking — set out from Zhangye with everything you’ll need.

When to go: Semi-arid Gansu typically has cloudless days. If you happen visit an overcast one, the Danxia park will likely disappoint. The colors are especially great around dawn and dusk.

Family friendly? Not particularly. Kids are likely to enjoy looking at the mountain colors; parents — especially those lacking local language skills and/or significant China travel experience — are unlikely to enjoy the logistics of getting their children to rural Gansu.

Where to stay: There are no accommodations (that we know of) in the immediate vicinity of the geological park. The hotels in Zhangye town are a bland and uninspiring lot; try the misleadingly-named Zhangye Electric Power Building.

For your bookshelf: If you don’t want to purchase the entire Lonely Planet China guidebook, the Gansu province chapter is available for download in Kindle eBook format.

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