If you happen to have read other posts on this blog you may have noticed I tend to improvise a lot on my trips and when I went backpacking in Zhangye in northern China this was of course no exception!
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When I finished hiking around Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, I had to calculate carefully my journey as I didn’t have many days left on my Chinese visa and still wanted to go solo camping on the Great Wall of China, so I needed a destination that I could cover in just a short amount of time…
Talking with another backpacker at the hostel in Zhangjiajie where I was staying, we started rambling about possible destinations.
He mentioned a place up north in the dessert but the connections were not great, then we stumbled across some photos of the Colourful Mountains in Zhangye and WOW! I had to get there no matter how!
The journey to Zhangye
With my timing issues this was just of a slight concern as it was not precisely en route towards Beijing where I had to make it for my Great Wall camping adventure.
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Instead I had to go north west on a 31 hour train.
Trains normally sell out in China and as I had to get on the first train in Zhangye’s direction it meant that hard-sleeper beds were sold out and I didn’t want to add on my tight budget the cost of a soft-sleeper bed.
A hard-seat was the only choice…nothing wrong with an uncomfortable 31 hour journey when there’s the prospect of a magical site ahead!
The trip was long for sure…I had bought enough snacks and drinks to feed a family or in this case a backpacker with plenty of time to kill!
What I was not expecting was the kindness of all the fellow passengers that saw me as such a rarity! not only is not common to have westerners traveling on this side of China but even less common is to have them traveling in the economy class.
Time certainly went much faster as we tried to engage in conversations with my very broken and basic Mandarin and their even worse English.
I was also invited to try the foods they were bringing from their hometowns and more than a couple of beers were also drank.
At around one hour before the end of the long journey, I was delighted to have my first glimpses of the Great Wall of China! these were abandoned ruins but I loved the sight of it! every few hundred meters there would be remains of watch towers.
The improvised backpacking in Zhangye trip was starting to pay off really soon!
When I finally arrived to Zhangye I was certainly exhausted. I took the bus number 1 from the station towards the city centre and found the Xixia Youth Hostel.
This was a nice place although as usual around middle-of-nowhere China there were no many other backpackers.
As I arrived at mid day I only used the first day to take a well deserved nap (always great to lie horizontally after so many hours!) and start trying the local street food, which surprisingly was not abundant.
My time constraints and the prospect of another long journey to Beijing (25 hours, this time on a hard-sleeper bed!) meant that I had to push for a long day from early on the following morning.
There were two main sites I wanted to see while backpacking in Zhangye: the Colourful Mountains of Zhangye and the Pingshanhu Grand Canyon.
If you have time, you could reach them independently. As I didn’t, I signed up for two “tours” sold at Xixia Youth Hostel.
These tours were actually pretty good as the number of people was very small (x8 for the Grand Canyon and x3 for the Colourful Mountains).
The price for the entire day was 325 RMB. With each tour costing around 160RMB including transport and entrance fees. Not cheap, but I left both places totally satisfied!
Pingshanhu Grand Canyon
The first tour started early in the morning and we were back by noon. After about a 45 minutes drive we arrived to the park.
The entrance looks almost as if it was a theme park and I got very scared that huge crowds would be just behind the gate.
Luckily this was not the case. As this is a remote area, not so many people makes it there and for the couple of hours we walked around the park I didn’t see more than 20 people in total.
The Pingshanhu Grand Canyon is relatively big in walkable areas and if there was something I didn’t like of the tour is that we didn’t have more time to keep exploring.
We went through different paths, viewpoints, and a “longer” trek that took us down the canyon and then we climbed up via a ladder that reminded me the Sky Ladder of my days Hiking in the Tiger Leaping Gorge.
The landscapes are simply incredible. The signs around the park compare it to the Grand Canyon in Colorado and geologically as important as Zhangjiajie.
I thoroughly enjoyed this half-day trip! if you can go on your own and spend the entire day it’ll definitely be worth it as well!
Zhangye Colourful Mountains
As we made it back to town at noon, I had some time to kill and have lunch as the second tour of the day was not until around 3pm.
Similar as in the morning, but on a different direction, the drive there took about 45 minutes.
Upon arrival to the scenic area, we were also greeted by a theme park sort of set-up. Again, the fears of the crowds that may await ahead…
Thankfully I was wrong again. Although there was a lot more people than in the morning trip, it didn’t feel crowded.
The park is rather large and it has different sections that are reachable only via internal free shuttle buses. Each of these areas has well developed paths and viewpoints.
As with all natural attractions in China, expect to see name-tags for the natural features such as “Colourful Sea of Mountains” and “Supernatural Tortoise Looks Up The Sky”.
I love this tradition of creative-naming! which tI find most of the times almost absurdly creative.
The site is certainly planned for the masses as the spaces tend to be rather generous, which helps against the sensation of being around herds of tourists.
Having said that, I’d of course have preferred to be on a rugged natural environment as on this was the mountains feel almost unreachable even that they’re just in front of you.
I didn’t feel one with nature but just an spectator on a tourist attraction.
But I completely understand the need of orderly development in these sort of places.
Being the most populous country in the world, if you leave the crowds (whenever they arrive) free to roam around there will certainly be destruction.
What I expected to be the highlight of this unplanned adventure did not disappoint at all! these mountains are a magical sight!
I always love to daydream and travel in time and could only wonder what may have been the impression these mountains made on the merchants and traders that travelled over hundreds of years in this region as Zhangye used to be an important post on the ancient Silk Road.
This impulsive trip to the province of Gansu was definitely worth the long journeys.
In one day I was privileged to visit two incredible sites that are the result of million of years of geological changes. Backpacking in Zhangye is definitely magical.
Just another example of all the incredible natural beauty this country has to show and that to my surprise it’s still almost completely unknown to us western tourists.
If you’re planning to go backpacking in China I highly recommend it, make sure to go backpacking in Zhangye as it’s simply incredible! and feel free to ask any questions or suggestions!