Our fascinating itinerary through the far east could not have a more exciting welcome when we bade farewell to Hong Kong after spending 3 eventful days there and then flew to mainland China as Zhangjiajie as our first port of call. After a short stopover at Shanghai from Hong Kong, we reached Zhangjiajie late at night. This city in the north-west Hunan province of China is home to the Wulingyuan scenic area. The history of this place can be traced back to the Neolithic age. The first human races in this area have been registered about 100,000 years ago. The production designing team of the cult film Avatar confirmed that they drew inspirations from the quartz-sandstone columns of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, so director James Cameron featured the floating ”Mt. Hallelujah” in the world of ”Pandora”.
There may be a plethora of reasons of visiting China, but for us – we chose our destinations very carefully and wanted to make sure that we strike the right chords to unravel the most beautiful scenic symphonies of the Chinese natural heritage. Being introduced to China with Zhangjiajie as the first destination was a springboard to land of endless delights.
When to visit
Either autumn or spring is the best time to visit Zhangjiajie, so anytime around March-April or September-October would be ideal. June to August would be summer and exceptionally crowded with China’s own lion’s share of internal tourists so strictly avoid this time unless you have ample amount of time. Also November through February may be prohibitively cold.
Where to stay
Note that the Zhangjiajie Hehua International Airport is some 25 miles (40km) from the scenic area of interest. It would make sense to stay nearer to the national forest park and it would be best to arrive at Zhangjiajie in evenings so that you could start the exploration first thing next morning. We stayed at a hotel just a short distance from the entrance of the National Forest Park and we strongly recommend you do the same. Incase you are on budget, we recommend staying at the bright and cosy Zhangjiajie Maosao Inn and for luxury travellers, we recommend the Pullman Hotel which is even nearer to the entrance and has onsite restaurants serving much a variety of international / western cuisines along with usual Chinese dishes.
What to eat
If you are not into experimenting with your daily meals and that especially in a place like Zhangjiajie and in a country like China, well there is bad news for you. Incase you live in the main city, you may find lots of culinary options to your fancy but incase you live in Wulingyuan to stay close to the National Forest Park, then you will have limited choices incase you don’t eat meat and are a pure vegetarian for example. In our case, we went to the Pullman Hotel for our dinner on both evenings of our stay at Zhangjiajie. It turned out that only the bigger five star hotels with onsite restaurants served food more attuned to the palate of foreign tourists and guests.
How to travel
Zhangjiajie has daily flights from 11 major Chinese cities so no matter which city your entry point to China, you can very well get a same day connecting flight to reach the city. From Beijing for example, it is a 2.5 hours flight and by train it would be slightly more than a day’s journey. We arrived very late in the evening and the obvious choice was to get a taxi from the airport and it took us around half an hour to reach our hotel in exchange of some 200CNY.
If you are living in city center, you may either take a bus or hire a taxi to reach the National Forest Park. Taxis are widely available on the streets and run on meters to take you to the entrance of the National Park. Best to carry the address of the National Park and that of your hotel in Chinese characters. Before hopping into the taxi, just show the address in Chinese to the taxi driver and you will be taken to the destination without any fuss.
What worked in Hong Kong was not supposed to work in mainland because of the great FireWall of China which restricts access to many social networks such as Facebook and Instagram for example. We had installed VPN Express app both on our mobiles and Macbook even before leaving London and that is how we could bypass the Chinese firewall to access the sites of our choice.
Chinese – and that with a dialect. In other words, if you are travelling there and don’t speak any Chinese at all, think twice. In that case you will certainly need the help of a local tour guide who is bilingual i.e. English and Chinese. Shehzaad managed with his elementary conversational Mandarin skills to navigate through the barriers of communication but it did get very frustrating very often because the locals could not understand the foreign accent and we could not understand their dialect.
One full long day is a bare minimum to enjoy and experience the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Obviously if you have around 2-3 days, you can use the same entry ticket to explore various parts of the park. We dedicated the full day to explore our pre-selected spots of interest.
A warning that waiting times to get into shuttle bus and Bailong Elevator especially was very long. If you are pressed with time and patience – it is likely that it won’t change anything. Before you start the exploration, plan out the entrance and exit gates and take note of the opening hours which is from 7am to 6pm daily. Incase you plan to use the same gate as your entry and exit, be mindful of the time it will take to enjoy the scenic spots, queue up for the shuttle buses, time it will take for transfer and finally the return through the original entrance. For us, it took nearly 3.5 hours when we decided to return, including time to queue up for the Bailong Elevator, waiting for the bus and the journey back to the exit.
Now lets get awestruck by Avatar Mountains!
The day of our exploration, we woke up very early and went to the main entrance which was already packed with tourist buses and tourists. One thing became clear from the very touchdown in mainland China was that there were too many people everywhere! No wonder it is the country with the largest population in the world so may be that was expected.
The entrance ticket was for CNY248, valid for 2 days and also included the price of the shuttle buses inside but note that it didn’t include the price for the cable car tickets and the Bailong Elevator. Immediately after entrance, we found ourselves part of a sea of people who were rushing towards the queue for the shuttle buses which were supposed to carry tourists inside the 48 sq km. national park. After some 10-15 minutes of ride, we arrived at the cable car station which would take us to the Tianzi Mountain area. As usual, there were queues everywhere and we had to patiently wait until our turn came to get into the cable car.
The ride itself appeared to be an ascent to paradise, to a mysterious and rather misty land. The slow pace with which the cable cars were carrying the awestruck guests through the series of jagged quartzite sandstone columns was no less than monks approaching a shrine in a state of steady devotion.
We arrived at the cable car landing station of the Tianzi Mountain to be exposed to the jaw dropping sights of the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain that stood in front of us. The way clouds were playing hide and seek with the pointed peaks made the experience all the more otherworldly. Every scenic spot was well guided with instructions in mostly Chinese and in dubious translation in English.
We also soon found out that the mountains were not the only sights the domestic Chinese tourists had arrived to see. Without much apprehension or shyness, they approached us for taking pictures together. Foreign tourists in China themselves could be good subjects to take photographs of and we were on the receiving side of this merely harmless gesture at the Tianzi Mountains. Later we found the bus station to join the shuttle bus to the next destination and we joined the queue of the sea of mostly domestic tourists.
The bus dropped us at the Yuanjiajie scenic spot where we descended towards the edge of the view point. There were a number of restaurants preparing mostly local cuisines as obvious from their unique and sometimes overpowering smell and there were street vendors selling their handicrafts. Once we arrived at the edge, a scene unforeseen unveiled in front of our eyes.
Like massive toothpicks stuck on a delicious soft sponge cake, the sandstone columns were there stacked next to each other in close proximity. Each one with their varying shapes and heights was enough to leave us wondering how exactly this was formed in the first place and how long it might have taken!
We kept walking along the guided path and climbed up at the massive bronze statue of Marshal Helong. Standing tall at 6.5m, the statue symbolises Marshal’s military life and no wonder he might have had a better view of the landscape within his eye’s reach.
Next stop, the shuttle bus took us to the Yangjiajie area where we found the residents of that fictitious world called Pandora in the movie “Avatar” – the hybrid of humans and Na’vi – called the ‘Avatar’ species had their statues installed on top of the reception hall at the scenic area. Still holding the posture of attack with a bow in hand, the experience of Zhangjiajie could not become any more surreal with these (artificial) creatures in sight.
The location also had a cultural center of the local indigenous Tujia community and local girls in colourful traditional attires were seen bringing delights to the guests as they wanted them to rent out the traditional Tujia ethnic attires for photo opportunities. Immersion is incredibly powerful as they say ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’. So when in the Tujia country, do as the Tujia do – Tanusree donned this local attire and held the umbrella to seal the deal with the beautiful and majestic mountain peaks of Zhangjiajie.
Our next stop was the Bailong Elevator which claims to be the highest and heaviest outdoor elevator in the world. The glass elevator built along the sides of a huge cliff stands tall at 326m (1070 ft). This was not covered under our entrance ticket so we had to buy the single ride tickets worth CNY56 for each separately. Towards the ending phase of our daylong exploration, the final queue to get into this elevator turned out to be a pure spoilsport. The queue was a simple Tsunami of people – atleast 5000 people were elbowing each other to withstand their space. It turned out that there were only two lifts in the installation and the way people were rushing towards the vacant lifts was no less than wild animals set free. Without any regard or empathy for foreign tourists, the behaviour of the local crowd undoubtedly left a bitter taste in the day’s experience. The 2-3 minutes worth of descent itself in the Bailong Elevator was nothing extra-ordinary as one could not see much due to being packed like sardines and we were simply waiting for the ride to reach the ground.
Although the swarm of people seemed overwhelming at first, the sight of the Avatar Mountains turned out to be undoubtedly overwhelming. It had the power to make one believe that indeed the mythical world called Pandora existed, so did the Na’vi people. What eyes could see for us on this day could not be completely captured in a camera, let alone be described in a 2 hour film reel. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is luring millions of visitors every year. So if you are thinking of visiting China soon, forget the big cities, start with this world hidden inside the own world of China – deep within the National Forest Park of Zhangjiajie! It was love at first sight!