After leaving Lanzhou, our next stop was Zhangye City via high speed rail. We were originally planning to stay there for the night and use this small city as a home base while we checked out the surrounding area, but some advice from friends changed our minds. Instead, we booked a yurt at a local camp ground.
Yurts were traditionally used by nomadic tribes in Asia because they’re relatively easy to take down and set up. They block the wind nicely and keep in heat. Our yurt was super cozy and honestly was a lot nicer than we were expecting from a campground in one of China’s poorest provinces.
It was pretty cold while we were there. It dipped down to 0°celsius and we woke up to ice in those cute little sinks outside. So, we were happy that hot pot was on the dinner menu at the hotel (it was the only option, actually) and luckily? I made a doggie friend that kept me warm throughout dinner.
The hotel staff kindly helped us rent a driver and car for the day on Sunday, which allowed to to see 3 separate areas. It was money well spent because we got to see so much beauty and variety in such a short time.
Colourful Danxia (The Rainbow Mountains)
We were actually at the Yurts by 3pm so we had time to visit the rainbow mountains twice. Once at sunset and once for sunrise. Our afternoon visit was a bit crowded but breathtakingly beautiful!
The Rainbow Mountains, in Danxia Geopark, is a unique geological area, where the mountains have formed in a spectacular way. No photographs can really capture them properly. The mountains seem to go on forever!
As of 2020, entrance to the park is about 75rmb, which includes the shuttle bus and entrance into the park itself. If you go back the next day, like we did, you only pay the portion for the bus (20rmb). It’s well worth the price, and the shuttle bus service takes you to several viewing points. We didn’t have a ton of time before the sun set, so we saw 2.
We actually walked home while the sun set, and enjoyed a beautiful evening and an early bedtime back at the camp.
For our morning trip, we focused on the first viewpoint and the most sprawling lookout. We watched the sun slowly rise over the mountains, lighting up the sky and bringing color back to the world. I don’t wake up for many sunrises… The last one before this was in Cambodia at Ankor Wat… But this was certainly worth the early start!
After a quick breakfast and pack up back at the yurts, we head to our next stop via private driver. I can’t lie and say we were particularly fond of either of the men who drove us around this area. They both drove like absolute maniacs, driving into oncoming traffic to get ahead of other cars… But after watching the other drivers on the road, it seemed like that is just the status quo in Gansu. Be prepared for some crazy drivers!
Binggou Park is about a half hour drive from Danxia, and very worth the trip! The area reminded us of a mixture of Zion and Bryce National parks in Utah. There were a lot of stairs to climb, but the views more than made up for the aching glutes!
The rock formations, colorful landscapes and blue skies made for some perfect photography conditions. There also weren’t as many tourists out this way, which was nice.
We spent 2 hours hiking up and down trails before heading back up our car and setting off for Mati Temple.
Mati Si or ‘Horseshoe Temple’ was our final stop for the day. Located about 65km away from Zhangye, it’s a beautiful ride up to this unique temple.
What makes this temple so fascinating is the way it has been built. Most temples are a series of buildings. Mati Si is actually a series of rooms carved into the side of a mountain. It’s definitely something to see!
Unfortunately, the temple is very small and wasn’t really built for tour groups, so only a set number of people could go through at a time. This made for long queues and a lot of time spent waiting. By the time we finally got to go in, we basically had to leave for the train station. We didn’t end up seeing most of the temple, which was really too bad.
I wish we had spent more time walking around the outside areas of Horse Shoe Temple instead, because although we really didn’t get to see much, we had no regrets about going to Mati Si. The trees there are changing color and the landscapes are stunning. The mountain range also changes a lot in this area and starts to look more Himalayan.
If I could redo this trip, I would have actually skipped our next stop and have stayed near Mati temple over night. There are camps where you can learn more about the nomadic cultures that lived in this area nearly 2000 years ago when the temple was first built. You can also do hiking in the area.
Our trip didn’t end here! Our next stop was Jiuyuguan, home of the Great Wall! (Yup, there too!! Not just in Beijing!). Stay tuned for more on that!