Soaring towers of rock grasp at the sky like stony fingers reaching up through the earth. Their sheer faces, 200 meters high, bear the scars of the millennia of weather erosion that created them. Once the bottom of an ocean, a series of tectonic shifts forced the bedrock to the surface. All that now remains are the veins of sandstone and quartz that resisted the onslaught of the wind and rain that slowly wore away the surrounding limestone. Topped off with pine trees, these ocher-hued columns are divided by plunging ravines and gorges filled with lush forests, streams and waterfalls and an amazing array of wildlife.
One of the densest and most dramatic examples of karst mountain scenery anywhere in the world—or out of it; the fantastical peaks are said to have been the inspiration behind Avatar's floating islands—Zhangjiajie in northwestern Hunan Province is truly a sight to behold. These are not the mellow karst peaks of Guangxi that rise up through the low-lying, smooth rice fields of Yangshuo, but a 26,000 hectare field of tightly packed, awe-inspiringly prehistoric geology, a place that until fairly recently was inaccessible to man. That has all changed now with a maze of sightseeing pathways that wind their way around the mountaintops, delivering camera-toting tourists to view points where they can take in the breathtaking landscape, have their photo taken with a girl in the local Miao or Tuija costume and buy snacks and drinks for three times the price they'd cost three hundred meters lower down.
Most arrive at the top by way of the roads that now wend their way up the gentler slopes beyond the park to the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, where the mountain plateaus and ready-made villages filled with hotels and restaurants jostle side-by-side for your attention. Others might take the controversial glass elevator that whizzes to the top or the cable car that offers a more sedate ascent to take in the views. Few stick to the good old-fashioned method and walk, which is what we did on our trip, and if you want to get some of this amazing scenery to yourself, then this is what you should do too. However, a guide is recommended as it's easy to get lost in the network of paths that crisscross the narrow valley floors and there's seriously no-one around to find you—rarely trodden, the moss-covered slabs get quite slippery after the rain and in the damp, humid climate.
Technically, Zhangjiajie is the name of just one section of three that make up the Wulingyuan Scenic Area (the others are Tianzi Shan and Suoxi Yu) but is often used to encompass the whole area. Zhangjiajie village is the entry point to the park, where masses of people swarm around the ticketing area in schools of different colored matching caps, moving as one with their tour guides, whose distorted voices screech into a completely unnecessary microphone.
There are plenty of freelance guides milling around and you'll likely be approached. Some speak a smattering of English, French, Japanese or Korean, and for RMB 100 a day, they'll take you around the park they know like the backs of their hands.
Once through the gates (where they don't just scan your ticket but your thumb too) the crowds will thin a little as you head along Golden Whip Brook, stopping once in a while to try and figure out what the everyone has stopped to stare and take pictures of—if your Chinese is not up to much, the plaques in Chinese and Chinglish along the side of the path will enlighten you of what you're looking for exactly (usually the shape of an animal, person or scene in the rocks) and though some scenes require a pretty robust imagination, others are plain to see.
Further along, Golden Whip Brook is joined by the Shandao Gully—this is where we parted ways with the main drag, heading out along another stream that leads to Yuanjiajie village. Twisting and turning, it leads you along a gorge whose precipitous cliffs are rarely more than 30 meters apart; the brook babbling across its boulder strewn bed and the birds singing are the only sounds around. At a small rest stop with toilets, the path forks and from here you head eastwards and upwards, as the the pathway begins a steep ascent up through the forest of jumbled vines where monkeys laze about in the warm afternoon sun. It's a tough climb, but well-worth it when you stop to catch your breath and take in the majestic sights that surround you... cameras, especially on a hazy day, will never do a place like this justice.
Once at the top, you're a short bus ride away from the tourist melee of the "First Bridge in the World", a natural stone bridge that joins two mountain tops around which the tourist trails loop. Before you brave the crowds though, there's a viewpoint directly opposite which hangs off the cliffside and offers a moment or two of quiet contemplation.
Tips for Zhangjiajie
- Walk up and down the mountain.
You'll avoid the crowds, see some stunning scenery and feel mighty pleased with yourself when you make it to the top.
- Get a guide.
Don't waste time getting lost. These guys know the mountain and figuring out your way round with Chinese only maps and a very confusing bus system is not worth the RMB 100 per day it'll cost you for the guide. They can also set you up with digs on the mountain top. Be sure to tell them you want some peace and quiet and not too many tourists around. Those things do exist, though there's no avoiding the mob all of the time. Our guide was Mr. Chen. you'll need a Chinese-speaker to help make arrangements but once there you can manage with basic Chinese (Tel: 1378 795 4338).
- Pack light.
There's a lot of climbing so heavy bags are a bad idea (trust me).
Where to Stay in Zhangjiajie
If you are flying to Zhangjiajie in the evening, head to a hotel in Zhangjiajie village to spend the night—you'll wake up virtually on the doorstep of the park. We stayed at the HollyEar Hotel (RMB 218, Tel: 0744 5718111)
On the mountain we stayed at Tian Zi Xiao Zhai, a great little place along a quiet stretch of road overlooking the mountains. (RMB 150, 3-bed room; Tel: 1587 449 8298—Chinese only).
The Wulingyuan/Zhangjiajie scenic area is vast and, if you're keen to hike, you could spend 2-3 days exploring... even more. The mountain-loving Korean tourists that frequent the area often gear up and spend an entire week searching out every nook and cranny. On our trip, two days were all we had. Well one-and-a-half actually as after one night on the mountain top in a quiet hotel, we caught the bus to Fenghuang the next afternoon.
That morning we descended the mountains by foot once more, our guide first taking us to a stunning viewpoint accessed by a steep metal ladder afixed to the cliff. The climb takes you to the top of one of those strangely flat, needle-point peaks, as if it had been lopped off by a giant sabre. From here you get a 360 degree view of the valleys all around, and with the sun finally making an appearance, this was definitely a high point (pardon the pun). The same path heads down the mountain but first a quick detour takes you along a pathway, cut like a one-sided corridor in the cliffs, leading to a vista that spelled out the end of the craggy mountains as they merged gently into the surrounding countryside. This is where most people turn around and head back to the relative comfort of a bumpy bus ride back down the hill, but it's well worth the knee-strain to make your own way down, picking carefully down the often steep steps in the shade of the majestic peaks. The path gradually flattens out and the landscape bursts with colorful wildflowers.
Our guide kept disappearing off only to return with handfuls of wild amarynth and other herbs that he'd be cooking up for his dinner. Quiet and deserted, this path had seen busier times with a few boarded up restaurants and guesthouses dotted along the way. Our local guide came in handy here too as there is no public transport from the quiet village where the path ended and he had a van waiting to transport us back up the hill and into the park where we could pick up the route again by foot, to make our way back to Zhangjiajie village and head off for our next destination: Fenghuang, or Phoenix Town.
For more information about traveling in Zhangjiajie, check out our comprehensive Zhangjiajie travel guide.
All photos by Aimee Groom.