Zhangye Danxia Landform | The coloured hills of the Zhangye Danxia Landform
The coloured hills of the Zhangye Danxia Landform.

Zhangye Danxia Landform, Gansu Province (5 days)

See the fantastically-coloured mountains and cliffs in an all-but unexplored area of Gansu; visit Horse Hoofprint Temple, Jiayuguan Fortress, and more.

Level 3
Some hillwalking; easier hike options available if needed. (Can I do it?)

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Trip overview
Day One main activities Fly from Beijing to Jiayuguan; visit Jiayuguan Fortress; overnight in hotel.
Day Two main activities Private bus to Zhangye, check in to hotel in Zhangye; hiking in Danxia Landform; visit Zhangye’s Giant Buddha Temple; overnight in Zhangye.
Day Three main activities Hiking in Binggou Rock area; overnight in Zhangye.
Day Four main activities Visit Horse Hoof Temple and hike; private bus to Jiayuguan; overnight in hotel.
Day Five main activities Visit First Beacon Tower of Ming Dynasty Great Wall; fly back to Beijing.
Outside the west gate of the fortress at Jiayuguan
Outside the west gate of the fortress at Jiayuguan. (Click for larger image)

Jiayuguan and Zhangye, Gansu Province

The name of the province we’re visiting, Gansu, was first used in the Song Dynasty (960–1279 AD), after two areas belonging to previous dynasties were combined. One area was previously named Gan; the other, Su.

The Silk Road passed through Gansu, following a narrow route between the Tibetan Plateau (too cold!) and the Gobi Desert (too hot!) that’s known as the Hexi Corridor.

Zhangye was one of the stops on the Silk Road, and Jiayuguan was at the westernmost end of the area controlled by the Ming Dynasty. While the main focus of this trip is the Danxia Landform, the Buddhist sites and relics left by Silk Road travelers, and the Great Wall in the area of Jiayuguan, are also well worth a look.


The coloured hills of the Zhangye Danxia Landform
A road cuts through the coloured hills of the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geopark. (Click for larger image)

Zhangye Danxia Landform

By arrangement with the operators of the Zhangye Danxia Geopark we will visit a beautiful area in the middle of the landform, far away from any crowds. Regular tourist groups don’t go here because it increases their cost, and it’s not an option for solo travellers because of requirements for group size and early booking. It’s worth it, though—the area reminds us of how the landform was naturally before it was developed for mass tourism, a stunning sight.

China boasts many different kinds of unique and beautiful landscapes, from towering limestone karst mountains to expansive grasslands that reach as far as the eye can see. Formed from red sandstone beds by combination of erosion and uplift, the Danxia Landforms are also spectacular sights. Some Danxia Landforms have been listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Danxia landforms are sandstone formations, known for being very dramatic and colorful. The landform near Zhangye City has colourful and magnificent cliffs in a hilly and mountainous land. Danxia refers to isolated peaks, steep pillars, ravines, mountains and hills that have formed after a long period of erosion by wind and running water. Unlike limestone karst, Danxia landforms are composed of red sandstone, which gives them their characteristic crimson colouration. Several Danxia Landforms are listed by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites because of their profound natural and aesthetic value. The area we’re visiting boasts majestic, multi-coloured slopes that give you the sensation of walking into a painting.

The Zhangye Danxia Landform is characterized by magnificently multi-coloured sandstone hills and mountains that ripple away towards the horizon. The area we’ll be visiting was used as the backdrop for the Zhang Yimou film, “A Woman, A Gun, and A Noodleshop.”

The cliffside chambers of Horse Hoof Temple, near Zhangye, Gansu
The cliffside chambers of Horse Hoof Temple, near Zhangye, Gansu. (Click for larger image)

Temples and Buddhist sites near Zhangye

The Silk Road passed through Zhangye, bringing many travelers, but nowadays many choose to head straight to Jiayuguan. While in Zhangye, we’ll visit the Giant Buddha Temple, and the Horse-Hoof Temple and Caves.

Horse Hoof Temple and Caves

The site of the Horse Hoof Temple has been in use since at least the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317–420 AD), and the snowy Qilian Mountain range makes a beautiful backdrop. It’s best known for its Hanging Temple and grottoes, and is a little similar to the famous Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, although less-visited. Some caves and relics were damaged by treasure-hunters, and damage was also done during the Cultural Revolution.

We'll explore the caves and temples before heading out for a hike in the high-altitude meadows in the nearby mountains.

Giant Buddha Temple

Built in 1098 AD, and extended and renovated during the Ming and Qing Dynasties, Zhangye’s Giant Buddha Temple houses the largest indoor reclining Buddha in China—nearly 35 metres from head to toe. The reclining pose signifies entry into nirvana. We’ll also see a variety of architectural styles in the temple, with the Ming and Qing Dynasties represented, amongst others.

The temple was built here after the Emperor of the time's tutor in Buddhism followed the sound of heavenly music and found buried an ancient statue of Buddha, reclining in the same nirvana pose of the Buddha we'll see in the temple.

The fortress at Jiayuguan, seen from the outside
The fortress at Jiayuguan, seen from the outside. (Click for larger image)

Han Dynasty and Ming Dynasty relics near Jiayuguan

Some of the earliest Great Wall was built during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), including a line of rammed earth ramparts that stretched out into the desert. It’s said that these fortifications, and the soldiers stationed on them to repel attacks from nomadic tribes and bandits, played a large role in making the Silk Road safer for travelers and increasing the volume of trade along the way..

The fortress at Jiayuguan marked the western end of the main line of Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 AD) Great Wall, but some watch towers were built further to the west. Near a deep canyon, we’ll find ‘The First Beacon Tower’, built to give early warning, via smoke signal, of approaching attackers.

Jiayuguan Fortress

Jiayuguan Fortress is known as the western-most end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, and was one of the most important fortifications of its time, guarding the western entrance to China from the Hexi Corridor. The fortress has three defense lines – a moat, an outer city wall, and an inner city wall. There are gates on the east and west side. The fortress looks spectacular, with Great Wall climbing from it to the mountains in the north and south, and multi-storey towers and halls inside the walls and moat. We’ll visit the fortress on the first day of the trip.

In ancient times, banishment was a common form of punishment. If you were banished ‘to the West’, it's out through the west gate of the Jiayuguan Fortress that you'd pass.

Related content

Photos and trip reports: Zhangye Danxia Landform, Gansu Province (5 days)

  1. Zhangye Danxia Landform, 2019/06/05

    Zhangye Danxia Landform, 2019/06

    See a selection of 27 photos from a trip to Gansu that included visits to the Zhangye Danxia Landform, Binggou Rock Park, Horsehoof Temple, and Jiayuguan Fortress.

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