All images were taken by Cara from Crawford Creations
One of my absolute favorite off the beaten path places in China is Gansu province.
While I had the opportunity to visit Dunhuang and the Mogao caves, there’s so much left to Gansu that I still haven’t explored.
When I saw that incredible, off the beaten path blogger Cara from Crawford Creations, spent a significant amount of time traveling around Gansu, I knew I needed to get her to write about her experience for all of you.
The Best Off the Beaten Path Adventures in Gansu
The following is a guest post from Cara of Crawford Creations
If you’re looking to truly get off the beaten path, experience a melting pot of cultures, and see some of the world’s most unique landscapes, man has Gansu has got you covered. From incredible natural wonders to ancient temples, Gansu is China’s best-kept secret when it comes to sheer variety of off the beaten path experiences.
Gansu Province forms a narrow corridor in northwestern China. With climates ranging from sandy desert to lush grasslands, Gansu may very well be China’s most geographically diverse province.
Gansu’s Incredible Diversity
Historically the northwestern most boundary of China, Gansu formed a link between ancient China, the Middle East, and the West. Travelers along the Silk Road entered China through Gansu Province, before ending their journey in neighboring Xi’an.
Lying at the crossroads between, Han, Tibetan, and Hui (Muslim) China, the culture, much like the geography, in Gansu is incredibly diverse. Gansu Province is home to ancient relics from all three cultural groups, a rare mismatch of treasures to explore in one place.
Out of all the amazing places I’ve visited in China (and the world), and there are many, Gansu without a doubt shoots straight to the top of my list of coolest trips I’ve ever taken. It is so insanely unique there were times I literally thought I was on another planet.
Here are some of the best “pinch me because I can’t believe this is real” things to do in Gansu Province.
1. Seven Color Danxia (Rainbow Mountains)
Talk about a childhood dream come true. Did you ever think that rainbow mountains were a real thing?! Because I didn’t until I saw photos of these mountains in China that were literally rainbow colored. It turns out, rainbow mountains do exist outside of a Dr. Suess book! And you can find them tucked inside of Zhangye Danxia National Geopark in Gansu Province, China.
These incredible rainbow striped mountains formed over millions of years of erosion of the area’s mineral-rich soil. As the mineral-laden sand and mudstone rock eroded it essentially created what looks like natural sand art. Each mineral layer tints the soil a different color forming rainbow colored stripes.
The result is an entire area of barren hills that have been transformed into the world’s most epic canvas. If you’ve never thought of nature as an artist before, you will now. Viewing the Rainbow Mountains from the park’s 5 viewing platforms as an absolutely breathtaking experience.
To be honest I was a bit worried that the Rainbow Mountains wouldn’t hold up to my expectations after two years of eagerly anticipating getting to see this place with my own eyes. Spoiler alert, they totally held up. The Rainbow Mountains were every bit as epic as I expected them to be.
If you’re a photographer, you’re going to love this place. And if you’re not a photographer, well, you’re still going to love this place. Promise.
2. Binggou Danxia (Ice Valley)
Binggou Danxia is actually the sister park of the Rainbow Mountains. Both Binggou and the Seven Color Danxia fall under the umbrella of Zhangye Danxia National Geopark. Unfortunately, you still need to buy a ticket for each one. It’s a bummer, but totally worth it.
Binggou Danxia is like the underrated younger sister of the Rainbow Mountains. Completely overshadowed by the Rainbow Mountains, but is actually super awesome in its own right.
I guess it’s because it doesn’t have any flashy colors. But it makes up for it with the most incredible rock formations and nature made sculptures I have ever seen. It’s two most famous sculptures are a giant camel and the Louvre. There are thousands of other rock formations, all which are rather phallic in nature. Mother earth was feeling frisky I guess.
Binggou’s geography is similar to that of its sister park, but without with colorful minerals. You’ll see some pink and white stripes, but most of the formations are a red-orange colored rock.
The neighboring Qilian Mountain Range can be seen from the viewing platforms built on various hilltops throughout the park. Their snow-covered peaks make for a beautiful dramatic backdrop to Binggou’s red danxia formations.
I absolutely loved exploring all the hiking paths and hilltop views around Binggou Danxia Geopark. This place can totally hold its own against the Rainbow Mountains. I have no idea why it doesn’t have any acclaim or garner much attention because Binggou totally deserves it. Unlike the Rainbow Mountains, I had no idea what to expect when I went there, but it totally blew me away with its awesomeness.
3. Mati Temple (Horse Hoof Temple)
Mati Temple is a 1600+ year-old Buddhist temple carved into the cliffside of a legendary holy mountain. It’s less of a temple in the traditional sense and more of a labyrinth of interconnected caves winding seven stories up the mountain.
Each of the 21 grottos that make up the temple function as prayer rooms with statues of Buddhist Gods and traditional decorations adorning each enclosure. Every grotto inside the temple is unique, and the collection of caves is home to 200 different Buddha statues carved throughout hundreds of years.
The 60-meter tall temple was carved in the shape of a pagoda, after, legend has it, a horse touched down from the heavens and left its hoofprint in the mountain. Hence the name, Horse Hoof Temple (Mati means horse hoof in Chinese).
Mati Temple resides in the Mati Temple Scenic Area located in Su’nan County, where Mati Temple is just the biggest of 4 different temples available for exploration including Thousand Buddhas Temple, King Gesar’s Palace, and the Pagoda Forest. You do need to buy an additional ticket to see the Thousand Buddhas Temple, but it’s pretty cheap.
There’s also a beautiful 3 km hike to a waterfall that starts just up the road from Mati Temple. During peak season they offer horseback rides to the waterfall as well (for an additional fee of course) as an added experience or if you don’t want to walk.
Mati Temple was another awesome surprise with just how incredible, fascinating, and fun it was to explore all the different temples and the surrounding scenic area. We had such a blast climbing through all the tunnels and caves carved into the cliffs. It’s not every day you get to climb through a temple built inside of a mountain!
4. Pingshanhu Grand Canyon
Often referred to as China’s Colorado Canyon, the 156 square kilometer Pingshanhu Grand Canyon is the largest canyon of its kind in China. It’s jaw-dropping to behold, and even more exciting to explore up close.
Pingshanhu Grand Canyon is a maze of red sandstone walls and pillars that stretch out as far as the eye can see. The canyon is one of China’s newest parks, having just opened to the public in 2014. Of the 156 square kilometers, only two paths have been made available for tourists to explore so far. One at the rim of the canyon with beautiful views from above, and one hiking path that makes a U inside of the canyon.
It takes about an hour and a half to drive here from the nearest city of Zhangye over some bumpy dirt roads (they’re working on building a highway), but it’s totally worth the trip. The 360-degree canyon views are incredible, and the hike around the canyon floor and back up through a narrow slot canyon and giant ladder was unreal. A truly amazing experience.
And to top it all off, there were camels hanging out along the side of the road by the park. Our driver thought we were crazy when we wanted to stop and take photos of them, but he obliged. Crazy tourists party of two.
5. Overhanging Great Wall of China
So remember when I said that Gansu used to mark the northwestern border of China? Well, the entire northern border of China is where the Great Wall was built, so guess what, you can see the Great Wall of China in Gansu Province!
The westernmost end of the Great Wall of China lies in the city of Jiayuguan. This section of the Great Wall is called the Overhanging Wall because instead of forming a single line, it branches out over the surrounding mountains like a web, ending abruptly once it reaches the mountain peaks.
The Jiayuguan Great Wall looks strikingly different from the wall most people have seen photos of in Beijing. Instead of grey stone, it’s constructed of yellow brick, made from the surrounding desert sand. The yellow wall blends in remarkably well with its surroundings, a feature that was most certainly a deliberate way to give China an advantage in protecting its border from enemies.
Like most of the Great Wall seen today, the Overhanging Great Wall in Jiayuguan was constructed during the Ming Dynasty. While there are many branches, both restored and unrestored of the Great Wall in Jiayuguan, only one of them is open for tourists to walk on.
The walk along the 750 meter long Overhanging Wall requires climbing 400 steps to the top of the mountain. The view from the top is a clash of ancient history with modern industry as factory smokestacks dot the surrounding landscape.
6. Wenshu Grottos
On our last day in Gansu Province, I asked our taxi driver to take us to a cool local spot outside of Jiayuguan city. We had already seen everything Great Wall related and I wanted to see something different, so I gave him the reins off we went, driving towards the mountains.
Granted, this could’ve gone horribly wrong. I don’t entirely trust the Chinese definition of “cool”, but luckily for us, it ended up being a really awesome experience. Our driver totally delivered and we ended up driving 45 minutes outside of the city to the Wenshu Grottos.
The Wenshu Grottos is basically a village of old temples and caves built on the mountainside. There are literally so many caves and grottos in the mountain that it’s basically an engineering miracle that the thing hasn’t collapsed in on itself. Literally, if you climb in one hole in the mountain you’ll see all these tunnels branching off of it that end at other caves, and this goes on throughout the entire mountainside.
I wouldn’t recommend actually climbing in these tunnels because the sandstone soil is super fragile and you can break through it really easily. You can tell that a lot of the tunnels have already collapsed. Definitely take a look though, it’s really cool how many of the mountains around Gansu Province are just pockmarked with ancient grottos.
7. Jiayuguan Fort
Your ticket to see the Great Wall in Jiayuguan actually includes three different wall related attractions: The Overhanging Great Wall, Jiayuguan Fort, and the First Outpost of the Great Wall. So, whichever stop you head to first, buy a ticket, and then you’re good to go for the other two as well.
Jiayuguan Fort is located just on the outskirts of Jiayuguan city. The fort itself has been totally restored, but the surrounding wall leading into it is completely untouched. It’s so eroded that at this point it just looks like a pile of dirt stretching out into the distance.
The fort has two levels, ground level, and a walkway up on top of the wall where all the watchtowers are. In the middle of the fort, they’ve got some cannons and traditional games set up you can take part in if you really want to get the full tourist experience. We weren’t about it.
I think the coolest thing about exploring Jiayuguan Fort was just seeing the contrast between the fort, perfectly restored to its former glory, and the dilapidated old wall left to slowly weather away shrinking ever smaller and less great by the day.
Bonus: First Outpost of the Great Wall of China
The First Outpost of the Great Wall basically has the most uncreative name ever. It is literally just that, the First Outpost of the Great Wall of China that was constructed in Jiayuguan.
When you first walk in through the entrance you’ll be greeted by a line of golf carts waiting to drive you down the road to the outpost. They charge a fee for the ride, but you don’t have to take them if you don’t want. We opted out and instead walked the beautiful 2 kilometers down the road to the outpost.
The road runs parallel to a section of old Great Wall, and the whole time we were walking straight towards the snowy Qilian Mountains. Once you get to the end of the road you’ll be staring face to face with the First Outpost, I promise. It looks like a giant dirt square, but that’s it.
I’m not quite sure why they haven’t restored this section of wall and the outpost yet. It’s just a bit anticlimactic to reach the end of the road and look at a dilapidated dirt mound. Needless to say, the outpost itself wasn’t super impressive, but the scenery around the outpost and the old wall was pretty amazing.
If you walk through the fence past the outpost there’s also an old wooden village that literally looks like it came straight out of the American West. I’m gonna go out on a limb and say it’s probably not historically accurate to the area, but it was pretty fun to roam around and see this random made-to-look-old town built in the middle of the Jiayuguan desert.
Get Off China’s Beaten Path in Gansu Province
Traveling in Gansu Province is one of the coolest and most memorable trips I’ve ever taken. I saw some of the world’s most unique landscapes and temples and was immersed in a variety of cultures all at once. Gansu is truly a bucket list destination full of endless adventure and mind-blowing beauty just waiting to be explored.
Do you want to head to Gansu? Ask your questions below and we’ll be sure to get back to you!
About the Author
Cara is an equestrian, photographer, and writer obsessed with eating and adventuring her way around the world. Currently living in China with her husband, Justin, together they are on a mission to get off the beaten path and travel the world on a budget. Cara shares all their experiences, travel tips, and destination guides on her blog, Crawford Creations, to help others plan their own off the beaten path trips.