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Read about Tom's adventures in Zhangye Danxia, China


There would be a lot of contenders for this crown, including some other places in China, and even some in America, but for the sheer strength and variety of colors in this landscape, I haven’t run into anyplace better. I fortunately got to see the area three years ago, and I think with the metastasizing of the Chinese tourism boom, it may be more difficult to visit and shoot than it was even then. If you can put up with the crowds though, it’s really worth it. My friend Laurent Martres and I, who visited together, were pretty amazed that such a place existed anywhere.

The official name of the national park harboring the landscape is Zhangye Danxia Geopark, but it is sometimes called the Rainbow Mountains. We flew to Dunhuang and took a two hour car trip to Zhangye (the nearest town to Zhangye Danxia), our base of operations. Flights directly to Zhangye are now more available and the airport has been expanded. When we went, the Chinese were busy turning the surrounding area into a huge tourist mecca with new hotels and extensive parking and hundreds of shops. Also, a high speed train now travels from town to the park which is 24 kilometers away. I think visiting in winter would reduce the crowds greatly and make shooting at the site much easier. It gets cold and snows in winter, which would add another wonderful scenic addition, and if I go back it will be in in late fall or winter. Also, I will take a drone which seems to be perfectly acceptable in China.

With all these visitors, you might expect the fragile area to become over-crowded and destroyed, but the hordes of people are strictly managed. Only buses enter the park, and when we visited all visitors had to go to three viewpoints. No free lance walking anywhere inside the gates was allowed. Even if a visitor stepped out of the confined area to get a better picture, a guard with a bullhorn would demand their immediate return to the official viewpoint area. Even with these controls, there was so much beauty here that it was not hard to get great shots. Because this is such an amazing place and the weather can be so variable, I recommend spending at least five days to a week here. If you get enough Danxia images, you can shoot at some of the nearby secondary sites I mention at the end.

Morning and sunrise are the best time to visit, at least in September when we went. There were often clouds around the mountains in the west, which usually shut us down in the evening. This is one of those places where sunlight is required for the best colors. As with all my trips to China, I can’t imagine not hiring an English speaking guide and a driver. Your guide will work to help you get photos and run interference with the local bureaucracy. I also think China is one of the safest places in the World to travel right now, and I have had three great trips there, and I hope to go back soon.

Be prepared for disbelievers when you disseminate your images, although I’ve seen a lot that were much more saturated than mine. The place really is miles above everywhere else in striking color saturation and multiple hues.

Other nearby photo ops include the beautiful and rugged Qilian Mountains, the second danxia of Zhangye called Binggou Danxia—not as colorful but full of sculpted rock formations, and Pingshanhu Grand Canyon, another new Chinese national park with trails to beautiful desert vistas. When you book the trip, or even after you arrive, it should be easy to add the lesser known areas.

Coloful forms at Zhanhye Danxia Geo Park, China Gansu Province

Zhanhye Danxia Geo Park, China

Sunset at Zhangye Danxia


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