An otherworldly experience in the heart of China
Zhangjiajie – as difficult it is for Non-Chinese speaking people to pronounce its name, as hard it is to describe the beauty of this place in the Wuling mountains of Hunan province. Not quite well known to foreigners under its real name, yet it looks familiar to almost everyone. Thanks to the 2009 movie “Avatar”, whose director James Cameron is believed to have taken the picturesque sandstone mountains of Zhangjiajie as a role model for his “floating mountains”. And it is true, at this captivating place you’d except one of those flying dragons to come and pick you up any minute…
Visiting the Zhang Family
Whereas people refer to the whole national park as “Zhangjiajie” (which literally means “territory of the Zhang family”), this area actually only accounts for a small part of the 397sq km Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Nevertheless, it has been a synonym for the national park ever since its proclamation as China’s first Forest National Park in 1982 or the award of the UNESCO World Heritage status in 1992. You can get here either by plane via Zhangjiajie Hehua Airport, which is served by some domestic airports, or by train and bus coming from several relevant cities. In my case, I arrived here from Changde, which is a two-hour bus ride from the East.
In order to get the most out of your stay in Zhangjiajie I recommend arriving in Zhangjiajie City latest around 12pm, since from here it will still take you about an hour by taxi or bus to get to the national park entrance. Otherwise, I’d suggest staying one night in the city which used to be called Dayong but was renamed to Zhangjiajie (City) in order to benefit from the popularity of the major tourist destination. Then, you could leave for the national park very early on the next morning. I arrived in the park at 2pm on the first day and stayed here until 6pm of the following day. However, I would consider myself physically fit, but still I would have liked to have a little bit more time, so I’d recommend two full days for the journey I’m about to describe.
Golden Rock village
I enter the park through the main gate near Zhangjiajie village, one of four possible entry gates, yet the most popular and most easily accessible one when coming from Zhangjiajie City (senlin gongyuan). Having purchased the ticket for around 250 RMB, I already see some of the iconic mountains looking down on me. A few metres after the entrance gate, there is one of the many bus stops within the national park. Buses reliably connect the major points of interests at the respective levels in the park. To get a level higher, you can take cable cars or hike all the way, respectively. For starters, I let one bus take me to the lower cable car terminus leading up to the “Golden Rock Village" (Huangshizhai). As one information poster puts it, “He who does not visit Huangshizhai need not have come to Zhangjiajie in the first place!” Alright, I’m in!
During the cable car ride (which sets you back by 65 RMB for one-way or 118 RMB for a return trip) I’m getting a little anxious due to its steep gradient. Another example for my naïve faith in human engineering skills, but so far I’m still alive… Huangshizhai is a high plateau at 1,092 metres above sea level. You can walk around it in a circle in about one and a half to two hours and will be rewarded by breathtaking scenery. Moreover, the rock formations most worth seeing are called by such interesting names like “Golden Turtle in Fog Sea”, “Fairy maiden presenting flowers” or “Five-finger Peak”. Everything’s calm and silent and I marvel at the beauty of nature until eventually I reach a place called “Echoic cliff”. Here, practically all Chinese tourists feel challenged to roar at the top of their voice in order to create the most remarkable echo. In my opinion, most remarkably embarrassing, but anyway… At 4pm I make my way down again, taking the cable car. Surely, you can also walk both directions, but most probably you won’t suffer lack of exercise in this area, so I suggest you take the cable car as long as you can afford its price. As I haven’t realized any ATMs inside the national park, make sure to take enough RMB in cash with you before entering Zhangjiajie!
The First Bridge below Heaven
Not knowing how long the cable cars will run, but knowing that my hostel is on the second level, I decide to go and find it, before I won’t get there anymore in the end. Therefore, back in the valley I take the bus in the direction of Yangjiajie which first takes me to a bus stop from which I have to hike fifteen minutes uphill to another bus stop. The buses leaving from there finally take me to the lower cable car station which eventually brings me to Yangjaijie (for 70 RMB one-way).
After exiting the cable car I soon reach another parking lot connecting Yuanjiajie with the famous Bailong Elevator. Only a few minutes‘ drive away I find the „Hostelling International” logo at “Wangqiaotai” bus stop, indicating that this is the place I’m looking for. After a quick check-in I still have time to take the next bus to Yuanjiajie, where I find the highest natural bridge in the world. Or, as the Chinese put it, the „First Bridge below Heaven”, at 357 metres above the valley ground. An information display tells me that stone formations like these have evolved in the course of 380 million years due to the continuous impact of weather and physical erosion. This is in contrast to other remarkable landscapes in China (like the area along the Li river around Guilin).
Back at the hostel and just in time before sunset I discover a hidden path to another two stunning viewpoints. At the Eastern-facing one of the two I enjoy the last beams of sunlight before sun sets behind the mountains. Exhausted and tired, I quickly fall asleep in my hostel bed which is a good thing, as there are still plenty of things to see and to the next day!
One dangerous step – and many disgusting ones
The next morning, I would check out of the hostel very early after a strengthening breakfast. It’s a pity, as the hostel and its owner were very charming although the place itself was not quite luxurious. From Yangjiajie, I take the bus uphill. Passing beautiful mountain lakes, we eventually reach the Grand Sightseeing Platform (daguantai). From here, a hiking trail leads down to the viewpoints “Cock Pecking” and “One Dangerous Step”. The latter had but only once been dangerous, today there’s a thick iron grid safeguarding your step over the one meter wide cleft. From all mentioned viewpoints, the vistas are superb. I stare open-mouthed and enjoy the view, grateful to be here, simply thinking: “Holy shit!”
In case you started your tour to Zhangjiajie in the early morning hours and not like me in the early afternoon, you may be able to visit all places until now still on day 1. After that, you could descend from the Grand Sightseeing Platform, passing “Celestial Bridge” and “Emperor’s Throne” down to Bailong Elevator, take that one up again and go back to the hostel by bus. I myself had to take a pass on this part of the area as I couldn’t combine it with the other travel plans I had. Generally speaking, it is impossible to see everything in this area in just two days, so you have to make decision and prioritize, even though it’s hard.
Now, my old Lonely Planet guide recommends a hiking trail leading in approximately one hour to Tianzi mountain which sounds attractive as it is said to be not that populated. I guess it is because nobody even finds it in the first place. I took me a quarter of an hour before I, rather accidentally, found the access to this trail a bit above “One Dangerous Step”. The trail itself is in supreme condition, but due to the fact that no one seems to have hiked here since the release of my Lonely Planet edition of 2010 I am constantly facing myself being exposed to spider webs. I could have just gone back to the Grand Sightseeing Platform to take a bus from there to Tianzishan what I would recommend to all of you fellow readers. Instead, I have to wipe spiders out of my face every few seconds and cannot even enjoy the views from here. I am just focused and trying to get to my target and out of spider country as soon as possible. Eventually I arrive in a small settlement from where I can take the first bus that has a seat available towards Tianzishan.
Miles of enchanting nature
Tianzishan is the peak of the park. Here you’ll find some nice eateries to refresh and a cable car station taking you down into the valley. But that would be boring, wouldn’t it? And you would actually miss a few of the most magnificent vistas (even if it’s hard still to believe in my superlatives at this point) of the whole national park! As going down shouldn’t be too much of a problem, I decide to go this way on my own two feet. Some crazy people come towards my way in the upward direction. They must be crazy! I was told the way includes about 2,000 steps! I admire and condemn their courage at the same time. Hiking poles are a good recommendation to all of you that plan in a similar way. In case you didn’t bring some, you may still purchase it from business-minded Chinese merchants along the way. Or you let yourself be carried uphill in a traditional sedan chair by some poor wretches.
Anyway, on your way down you’ll eventually pass the Platform of Heaven (tiantai), to which you should definitely ascend as this point will offer you unparalleled views on the so-called “Peak Forest”. Here, you’ll find about 3,000 sandstone pillars reaching skywards which look like they’re from another world: their sides are as smooth as if grinded by a stone mason, their tops are greenly vegetated (partly even with pine trees). This makes the pillars appear truly spectacular from afar. On foggy days they even seem to resemble lit candles!
A little further down you’ll have to decide whether you want to go left towards the “South Gate of Heaven” (nantianmen) or right along the “Ten Miles Gallery”, which actually only is 5.8 kilometres long, nevertheless offering mind-blowing views. As there are not too many highlights below the Southern Gate, I decide for the alternative to my right. After one and a half to two hours of descent you’ll reach a valley from where you can take a monorail for the last part of the way down. Alternatively, you can also walkt he twenty remaining minutes down to the next bus stop. From here, buses will take you either to Wujiayu East Gate of the national park or to the Bailong Elevator, which I simply HAVE TO see.
Record-breaking lift and the „Golden Whip“
Bailong Elevator is a 326-meters high lift, opened in 2002. The „Hundred Dragon Elevator“ is the highest outdoor elevator in the world, even being mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records. It takes its passengers to the top at Yuanjiajie in less than two minutes for around 70 RMB. While going up, you can enjoy the scenery of Zhangjiajie through the glass panorama window. Take a step back if you suffer from vertigo!
Having arrived at the top of the plateau, I take the bus to the stop at the First Bridge below Heaven which I have already visited the day before. Thus, I don’t pay any attention to it and rather turn left instead, hiking downhill towards the so-called “Golden Whip Stream”. This one-and-a-half-hours hike is no must and only recommendable to the insatiable ones that still need exercise. However, you’ll pass by a nice viewing point called „Enchanting Terrace” quite in the beginning. The lower you get the thicker the forest becomes and you will meet the resident monkeys that you can generally find everywhere in the area more frequently here. In spite of the rules in place, Chinese tourists unfortunately tend to feed them with anything which has made them very intrusive and even dangerous at times when they smell food.
Down in the valley you will reach the “Golden Whip Stream” at last, a romantic river course meandering through the valley. Follow this one towards the exit for ninety more minutes by foot as the day slowly but surely draws to an end.
Bottom line: Zhangjiajie = an absolutely unique experience
This national park is truly incomparable and photos are not even able to convey half of its sheer beauty. Nevertheless, I hope I at least come close to describing the magic of this place, but honestly nothing comes close to seeing it with your own eyes. Although there are plenty convenient bus and cable car connections within the park you should be of a good physical constitution when coming here. For instance, my fitness tracker showed more than 40,000 steps on the second day (while I’m happy to reach the 10,000-step mark on a “normal” day)!
During the time of my visit (end of April/early May) the weather was nice with pleasant temperatures and a lot of sunshine. Generally, it is rather mild here, not too cold in Winter, but also not too hot during Summer time. However, one should never underestimate the power of the sun in this mountainous region! There is always a danger of heatstroke and you should bring and drink plenty of water. And don’t worry if you get here on a day which is not bright full of sunshine. The mountains might become even more captivating when mysteriously shrouded into ghostly clouds and spooky mist. But be careful: the steep steps will become slippery and dangerous on these days!
Was my travelog on Zhangjiajie able to assist you with your planning of a visit to this place or do you feel that important information is missing? How about your experiences in Zhangjiajie? Please share them with me and other fellow readers, I’m looking forward to your contributions!
(Travel Period: May 2017)