There are more than a few beautiful and utterly bonkers natural marvels to be found dotted around the world, but the psychedelic Rainbow Mountains of North-West China are something a bit special.
You haven’t tumbled down the rabbit hole and, no, these images haven’t been doctored on Photoshop to make them look more impressive than they really are – the otherworldly splash of blues, magentas, oranges, rich reds and lemon yellows that colour the mountains within Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park are as real as you and me.
The jagged technicolour peaks of the Rainbow Mountains are something of a paint palette geological wonder of the world, surely at least the equal of the world-famous Grand Canyon. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Danxia mountain range is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a bucket list destination for many Chinese and international tourists, but this remarkable feat of nature has only begun to capture the world’s attention over the past decade or so. This may explain why World Heritage Site status was achieved only as recently as 2009.
So, let’s get down to brass tacks: how did the Rainbow Mountains of Danxia come to be? The geological explanation behind the unique colouration of the site is predictably fascinating. Here goes: over the space of millions upon millions of years, different types of rock, such as red sandstone and an array of other mineral deposits formed on top of each other, creating a layered effect that you will find in any ordinarily cliff or mountain. Nothing to see here so far.
However, somewhere around 40-50 million years ago, geologists found that the movement of the world’s giant tectonic plates set India – then a large island separate from the continent which it is part of today – on a slow-motion collision course with the Eurasian landmass. For an idea of the sheer force that the impact generated when the two plates bearing India and the Eurasian continent collided, we need look no further than the Himalayan mountain range which runs around the northern perimeter of India – a vast rift of fractured, jutting rock thrust thousands of feet into the air by the combined pressure of the two tectonic plates over millions of years.
The Rainbow Mountains of Danxia are the product of a similar crumpling effect, as opposing plates forced the creation of vast mountain ranges in what is now north China. In the case of the Danxia mountains, the crushing force severely disrupted the layer cake of red sandstone, and its accompanying layers of rocks and minerals, which subsequently led to the creation of the strange patterns and colouration that we see today. A fitting comparison might be if we you scrunched up a painting into a ball, and then observed the patterns – the principle is the same.
So, there you have it. The immense power of the Earth’s natural forces, at the right place at the right time, can lead to incredible results. If ever you visit the Rainbow Mountains, try to take the time to appreciate a piece of art which was more than 50 million years in the making.