Story & photos by Joshua Berida
I have seen photos of China’s Rainbow Mountains splashed on the cover and pages of magazines, travel web sites and advertisements. I couldn’t believe the contrast, bright yellows and reds, with hints of green and silver. This was the kind of place I have to see to believe.
When I returned to China, this time in Xi’An; I knew I was close enough to the city of Zhangye in Gansu to see the Rainbow Mountains with my own eyes.
Journey to the west
Xi’An is a cosmopolitan city with plenty to offer, whether you’re looking for history, the Terracota Warriors are a must-visit, or you just want to eat delicious local delicacies, the place to go to is Muslim Street. However, this bustling metropolis wasn’t the reason I was heading west into China’s heartland. I booked overnight train tickets to Zhangye with a short stopover in Lanzhou, eager to finally make it to my destination, the Rainbow Mountains.
The overnight journeys didn’t only transform the cityscape from a sprawling urban jungle to a smaller one, but also the landscapes. As I moved further west, lush, green countryside and mountains turned into towering red or yellow rock formations, and into a more arid topography. When these changing scenes, I knew I was moving closer to my destination.
Nature’s work of art
Zhangye, a small city by Chinese standards, served as the entry point for excursions into the Zhangye Danxia, or Rainbow Mountains. The latter took thousands of years to form with the help from climate and tectonic movements.
I already spent a day in the city, exploring another site, Mati Si. The owners of the hostel I stayed in and other travelers told me that the best time to see the mountain is during sunset on a clear day, so I decided to go late in the afternoon to get my money’s worth.
The weather was perfect the following day, albeit hotter because of the arid climate, but I was eager to finally see the Rainbow Mountains. In Chinese fashion, the park had walls surrounding it and a massive tourist center to buy tickets. Visitors aren’t allowed to go about in their own way (a bus took us to different sections of the park), or walk outside the wooden platforms. These were trivialities that one can overlook. Once we laid our eyes on the stripes of yellows, red soil, dashes of whites and greens, the man-made structures paled in comparison to nature’s work of art.
The Rainbow Mountains were as advertised, however, for the colors to be vibrant, the skies should be clear, with little to no clouds. Fortunately, the skies were just that with only a hint of cloudiness. This didn’t detract from Mother Nature’s color palette; in fact, it gave it a different dimension. The contrast, the play of light and shadow brought out the best in the shades of yellows, whites and reds.
It was still early and we made it to the last viewing platform; all the remaining visitors were eager to watch Mother Nature bring out her brush and paint the mountains during sunset. It was an hour or two of waiting, but it was worth it. The last rays of the sun fell on the mountain’s canvas, the skies were transforming from white and blue to orange and the conditions were falling into place. Nature’s sleight of hand and flick of the wrist revealed a color display. Light and shadow, the color contrasts and just the right amount of sunlight created a spectacle with the colors merging and distinguishing themselves right before our eyes. Before the sun set, we headed out satisfied with nature’s display and artistry.
Sea of yellow
It was only two days after I visited the Rainbow Mountains, but I was still eager to explore the region looking for places to discover. There was one such place I found by accident on the way to another park in Gansu. It had bright-yellow rape flowers surrounded by quaint houses and verdant, green rolling hills. I asked the person seated behind me what was the name of the place the bus sped by, and she said Biandukou.
I felt had to see it again, so I returned the day after I went to the Qilian Mountains in Qinghai to Biandukou. This part of the province was an anomaly, since most of it is arid and dry; however, once one reached the border of Gansu and Qinghai along the mountain range, the weather changed and so did the landscape.
Mother Nature was at it again; there was a sea of yellow right before our eyes. Rape flowers, as known locally, blossom during the summer. I was lucky to witness them in full bloom. The display of colors wasn’t reserved for the Rainbow Mountains, but in this part of the province, as well.
Despite the rapid modernization of China’s cities and towns, those outside of Guangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai and Xiamen just to name a few, the countryside still has some of the most beautiful landscapes as epitomized by Biandukou and the Rainbow Mountains.
Once again, Mother Nature reminds us that she still stands out amid the man-made structures and approximations of beauty that people create.
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