In the last two months, I’ve managed to check off two big bucket list items. One of them was traveling to Gansu Province in the remote northwestern area of China. What’s there, you ask? Well, let me show you.
Gansu Province, located on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, is often synonymous with the ancient Silk Road, which in itself is a pretty intriguing reason to go. But for Robert and I, the interest to travel was sparked by two things: China’s Rainbow Mountains and the Gobi desert oasis town of Dunhuang.
We started out by flying to the city of Zhangye in central Gansu Province, most famous for Zhangye Danxia Landform, aka the Rainbow Mountains. A couple of years ago I hadn’t even heard about this place, but after visiting, I’m totally blown away by the fact that these kinds of hidden travel-treasures still exist.
The Zhangye Danxia Landform is one of the most stunning things I’ve seen in China, even in the world. Not only the colors, but also the land formations are just unreal. The area wasn’t discovered until about 15 years ago when some locals – completely unaware of how unique their surroundings were – took a NatGeo photographer out to the mountains.
My thoughts and tips for Zhangye:
- Go, go, go! This place is incredible. You won’t regret it.
- The Rainbow Mountains are the main attraction in the area, but keep in mind that there are two other geoparks, too; Sunan Danxia Scenic Area and Binggou Danxia Scenic Area (the last picture above is from Binggou). We visited Binggou (which means Ice Valley, love the name, very Game of Thrones). No rainbow colors there, but different types of stunning landforms and canyons. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to see Sunan.
- The Zhangye Danxia Landform area is big. It has several large viewing platforms and you’ll be transported around by bus once you enter. Visitors are not allowed to walk freely in order to preserve the colorful surface of the mountains.
- Some viewing platforms require more climbing, which is when you’ll notice the high altitude of Zhangye (between 2000-3800 meters). So don’t worry, you’re not necessarily in horrible shape, it’s just your body not getting as much oxygen as it’s used to.
- As anywhere famous in China, do not visit during public holidays or high season. I saw some very scary pictures of the viewing platforms being absolutely packed, so you’ll obviously want to avoid that at all cost. So when should you go? A good time is in April-May and September-October which seems to be the shoulder season with pretty nice, dry weather. The downside is that the mountain colors are most vibrant after rain, and the high season months are also the wettest.
- For a good standard hotel in Zhangye, I can recommend Jinyang International Hotel. The restaurant is very Chinese, but staff extremely friendly and rooms very nice.
Once we were done climbing up and down hills in Zhangye, we jumped in our private car (with driver) that we had arranged for the whole trip, and drove 250 km to our next destination, Jiayuguan.
Jiayuguan is known for the Jiayuguan Pass, which was the first frontier of the Great Wall and westernmost entry point to China in the Ming era. It consists of a fully restored fortress, courtyard and wall, but in my opinion, the most fascinating part was hearing about the history with Jiayuguan being the entry point for Silk Road merchants coming in and out of China. It’s where they negotiated for Ming Dynasty visas and entry permits. It was like the immigration hall at Pudong Airport, except probably a lot cooler with camels, spices and silk.
Jiayuguan Pass is worth a visit if you’re in the area, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it.
We stayed at the Plaza Holiday Inn in downtown Jiayuguan, which by the way does not seem to be a real Holiday Inn. So just fyi, haha. But the standard was ok, staff friendly and helpful, and food pretty good. Also possibly had the hardest bed I’ve ever slept on.
On the third morning of our tour de Silk Road we set out to Dunhuang. It took us around 5 hours to drive the 400 km to our next destination. I have to say, I’m so impressed that the highways even in these remote areas of China are just impeccable. It was such a smooth drive in endless, flat desert land with the occasional mountain range popping up in the distance. Beautiful. Loved it.
The city of Dunhuang is in the northwestern end of Gansu Province and right at the edge of the Gobi desert. Now, when I say at the edge of the Gobi desert, I really mean it. When you’re in Dunhuang, you’ll encounter this 👇 sight of the massive sand dunes about to swallow the city at any moment. But apparently the dunes somehow stay put and kindly let life in town continue as it always has.
I’ve never been to the desert before, so seeing a tiny part of Gobi was a major moment for me. We spent the whole first afternoon riding camels and climbing up and down the dunes. We got awesome orange sand boots for CNY 30 to make walking in the sand easier, but it was still exhausting.
Dunhuang is famous for two things, the first being the Crescent Moon Lake, an absolutely unreal oasis in the middle of the dunes. Somehow this mysterious crescent shaped body of water has survived endless sandstorms through thousands of years. It’s truly a stunning sight. Unlike at the Rainbow Mountains, there’s a lot of activities and entertainment built around the dunes by the lake, making the vibe a bit touristy. It’s not bad, but I would of course love to experience this kind of place feeling more connected to nature.
The second well-known thing about Dunhuang is the Mogao Caves. As Dunhuang was at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, it ended up being a cradle of Buddhism in China. 1700 years ago buddhists started to carve out caves for meditation and worship in a mountain wall, and over time it turned into 492 grottoes, or temples, now containing one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in the world.
The Mogao Caves themselves were an incredible, unique thing to see. However, the setup around visiting the place was maybe a bit different from I had expected. Before being able to enter the actual cave area, visitors have to watch two films about the history of the caves, around 30 minutes each, in two different auditoriums. After that, you’re transported by bus to the caves, where you join a guided 75-90 minute tour to see 7-8 grottoes.
It was fascinating to learn about the history and see the beautiful carvings and paintings, but I didn’t expect it to be such a restricted, fully guided experience with not much freedom to explore on your own. Visitors are only allowed in certain parts of the restored area, whereas I would have loved to see more of the non-restored mountain wall as well.
Definitely worth visiting though, just know what to expect.
Unfortunately I didn’t get any shots of the paintings as photography isn’t allowed inside the caves.
Our last major stop of the trip was Yangguan Pass about 100 km from Dunhuang. The place isn’t overly famous and I really didn’t have any expectations, but our guide, Peter, recommended it for seeing some of the westernmost ruins of the Great Wall. And it turned out to be such a positive surprise. In true China style, there was a big touristy complex built with staff dressed up as Western Han Dynasty soldiers in a massive fort and courtyard, but we just skipped that part entirely, hired a donkey and carriage and headed out to the desert to see the ruins.
And this place was magical. But for us, it wasn’t the ruins of the Wall that made the biggest impression. It was the incredible landscape. I don’t know how long we spent just running around the beautiful little hills, taking photos trying to do the scenery justice, and just sitting there looking into the endless distance.
My thoughts and tips for Dunhuang:
- If you go, make sure to research tours and things you can do in the desert aside from activities in the touristy Crescent Moon Lake area. I didn’t do this – huge mistake! – and if I ever go back, I would definitely do an overnight camping trip out to the desert, and some sort of longer Jeep safari in the dunes.
- Lamb is a common food in Dunhuang, we had some amazing local lamb dishes.
- We stayed at the The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel and I can highly recommend it! They have a very cool, exotic silk road-vibe, but with a pretty high standard all the way through. The breakfast was a bit disappointing considering that everything else was so memorable, but it covered the basics. Stunning views from our room and the hotel rooftop restaurant towards the desert dunes.
- Dunhuang, and particularly the hotel in Dunhuang was the only place during the entire trip that had good coffee available. If you need a guaranteed coffee fix every day, make sure to bring your own. The hotel was also the only place that served any kind of Western food during our five days in Gansu Province.
TO SUM UP…
This trip was just beyond any expectations. I chalk it up to two major reasons: 1) Gansu Province having incredible nature and so many awesome things to see, and 2) our private tour guide, Peter + the private car and driver making everything incredibly smooth and convenient for us. Specifically Peter was truly a lifesaver. He’s lived in the US and pretty much only works with foreign clients, so he understood our standards, culture and concerns about things like food safety and hygiene. He’s also local so he knew where to eat and sleep to make sure we’d feel comfortable throughout the trip. I can’t recommend him enough, and please send him tons of regards from Robert and Jenna if you contact him. (Scroll down for Peter’s contact.)
Make sure to check out many, many more pictures and videos from our trip on my Instagram Stories Highlights under Gansu Province.
Flights: Shanghai Xi’an, Xi’an Zhangye.
Arrive in Zhangye, check in at Jinyang International Hotel
Depart hotel at 5am for sunrise at Zhangye Danxia Landform
6am-10am See the Rainbow Mountains (Zhangye Danxia Landform)
10:30am-12pm See the Ice Valley (Binggou Danxia Scenic Area)
12-1pm Lunch at Zhangye Danxia Geopark
1-4pm Drive from Zhangye to Jiayuguan
4-6pm See Jiayuguan Pass
7pm Arrive at Plaza Holiday Inn hotel
Depart hotel at 8am
8am-1pm Drive from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang
1pm Lunch in downtown Dunhuang
2pm Arrive at The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel
3pm-7:30 pm See the sand dunes and the Crescent Moon Lake, camel ride
8pm Back at hotel
Depart from hotel at 8:15am
9am-12pm See the Mogao Caves
12:30-1:30pm Lunch in downtown Dunhuang
1:30-2:30pm Drive to Yangguan Pass
2:30-5pm See Yangguan Pass and ruins of the Great Wall
6pm Back at hotel
Dinner and sunset with sand dune views from hotel rooftop restaurant
Flights home: Dunhuang-Lanzhou, Lanzhou-Shanghai
This article has so much useful information for anyone considering going. It’s written a couple of years back but has tons of valuable tips.
Private tour guide: Peter Sun, tel. +86 189 198 2954, email firstname.lastname@example.org