Zhangye is one of the most incredible places we’ve ever been, and we didn’t even see a half of what’s around. Its mind-blowing Colorful Mountains (Danxia Shan)* and stunning sleeping Buddha really left a deep mark in our memories.
Zhangye itself, is a comparatively small city (for Chinese standards) in the western province of Gansu, situated between the ultra-popular tourist destinations of Xi’an and Dunhuang… so, if those two cities are in your travel plan, you absolutely have no excuse for skipping Zhangye, a place that should be included in any China Highlight list.
heading from Dunhuang to Zhangye – how to take a train in China
All night it rained and still raining when we wake. We go to the train station, this works like an airport. You have to show the ticket at the entrance, otherwise, you can’t get in, pass the bags through a metal detector and enter the strictly controlled gate.You must wait in the all cannot go on the track. So when they open the doors, just before the train’s departure, the usual pushing crowd squeezes us. We get on the train, the seats are assigned, it is full.
There are dispensers of boiling water to cook instant noodles or make tea, just like in Kazakhstan. A funny thing is that the train crew trying to sell rubbish all along the trip, set for nail care, lighters, bright toys… we haven’t seen anyone buying anything…
Through the window we see the only desert, so now I’m sure, the famous Hexi Corridor, the road that goes from Turpan all the way to Lanzhou (across Dunhuang, Jiayuguan and indeed Zhangye), this mythological stretch of Gobi desert across the so-called Silk Road, is just a bare, ugly, polluted expanse of grey rock.
Tough way for the merchants centuries ago, and tough still for the wandering touring cyclist. And the Qilian Mountains, that should at least provide some distraction for the eyes, are not visible from here.
Zhangye hotel and restaurant
At 16:45 we arrive in Zhangye. Leave the station and go to the office to retrieve the bike shipments, just outside the entrance of the station, in the same building. We must give 4 yuan to the chick that gives us the bikes but without a receipt, if this was a bribe then it was a 50 cents one.
We head for the center that is 7-8 kilometers from the station and go ask prices at various hotels/hostels in the city. We also find the youth hostel but apparently, it does no longer exist. It starts to rain a lot harder and we can finally find a place for 120 yuan, not cheap for this part of China, but the usual hassle of hotels not accepting foreigners here is quite a mess.
The room is beautiful and spotless with a huge shower. We go to eat at a place nearby that has the menu with photos and prices, for us an indispensable thing.
Finally, we eat the eggplant that often we saw and we had not yet tried, fried and delicious.
We also take for the first time the Mafu tofu (we had already eaten but not in China). Delicious too, less spicy than we expected. Here in Western China, they are quite heavy with chili. But the fried eggplant, we would have eaten 10 more portions.
If you go to China ask for those, are called “jian zi qie“, I’m sure you’ll be delighted.
We are in a nice area of the town, with wooden houses in old Chinese style, probably modern reconstructions, lots of little places to eat here. The small restaurants are easily recognizable because in 90% of cases have curtains made up of green plastic stripes.
Of course, the chic ones do not have those. Today, potatoes with chunks of vegetables (such as leek). Served in a pot with fire below. Violent spiciness.
Danxia Shan: Rainbow Mountains
Upon awakening, we are looking for a bus to see the colorful mountains about 40 kilometers from the city: Danxia Shan. Many famous tourist guides didn’t even mention this unique natural marvel, we hate travel guides.
We wanted to take the bus to avoid going back and forth but it gets more complicated than we thought, in retrospect, we would have done faster by bicycle. If you speak Chinese, however, it’s easy to get the information. We go to the tourist information center. In China, you often meet people speaking a bit of English but at the Tourist Information Centers is guaranteed that they’ll not speak a single word.
How to get to the Zhangye Rainbow Mountains
Back in Zhangye, we go buy some strange fruit to taste. A sort of mini-melon (golden dragon melon?) and then a purple fruit that looks like a small apple (Mangosteen), when we open it we discover that inside is white and the part to be eaten is very small compared to the fruit. These are small white things resembling garlic cloves. Like no known flavor, is good.
Let’s watch a bit of singing talent show at the Chinese television and go to bed. These are the same all over the world, more less. There is the story of a railroad worker who sings very well and is very proud to work with the Chinese railways but he misses his mother and homemade dumplings and so “surprise”, enters the mother with a big pot of ravioli and everybody eats while crying!
Before leaving Zhangye we decide to visit the Buddhist temple, Dafo temple (40 yuan), which to our surprise really deserved. The same famous tour guide said that isn’t anything special. Never trust the guides.
There are several temple building as well as a high stupa, the main one, containing the China’s largest reclining (sleeping) Buddha, was started around 1000AD, and is a perfectly preserved impressive wooden structure. The Buddha itself has the internal structure of wood and is covered with clay and painted in gold, 36 meters long and 7 meters high.
He seems to live, has very expressive eyes, striking. It’s surrounded by 18 Saintly Warriors, 10 meters high. There is also a museum of ancient scriptures, also perfectly preserved. Nice is also the temple with thousands of golden Buddha and the wall drawings that depict a lot of monsters, a recently made temple but done very well.
Outside the temple, in the nice square, there’s a bunch of musician playing Chinese music, just practicing, we stop and listen.
We go eat some jidan chao fan (rice with egg, resembles what in Chinese restaurants in Europe is called “Cantonese rice”). Very nice after days of spicy food, and then we finally start cycling, headed to the region of Qinghai.
We’ll arrive in Xining crossing the Qilian Mountain and reaching 4000 msl. In Xining we should be able to extend the visa for another month. It can be extended in every city of China (at the office called PSB, public security bureau) but the extension of another 30 days starts from when the request is made so you have to do it when the current visa is due to expire.