A dream trip to Zhangjiajie, the “Avatar mountains”
Zhangjiajie was on my bucket list ever since I landed in China on December 14, 2015. It took three and a half years to get the opportunity. We had a four consecutive days labor holiday from 1st to 4th May 2019. I booked the trip that looked quite reasonable (1750 RMB excluding food and entry tickets). Our good friend Amy at FCN was helpful in booking.
For those who are unfamiliar, Zhangjiajie (张家界, Zhāngjiājiè) is a small city in Hunan Province, China. It is very popular due to the richness of stunning nature, mainly, Tianmen Mountain and Wulingyuan. The city’s name was Dayong until 1994, when it was renamed to link it to the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (after a tiny village by name Zhangjiajie Cun). It was the first national park of China, created in 1982. Zhangjiajie is famous for its 3,000 vertical pillars formed by erosion, each hundreds of feet tall and covered in thick greenery. The 2009 James Cameron movie, Avatar used these amazing mountains as the backdrop and since then Zhangjiajie became famous as “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain”. Now it draws more than 30 million tourists every year. To attract more tourists to the area, a new attraction, the longest glass bridge in the world, was built in the national park in 2015. Now it is the second longest, as the one in Hongyagu is longer. Ancient history of Zhangjiajie says that the first human existence in this area has been long ago. According to a legend, Zhang Liang, a well-known strategist of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-24 AD), lived here after leaving the imperial court. As he feared Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han dynasty, who had ordered some of his subjects to bed executed thinking that they might revolt against him. Zhang found Qingyan (now Zhangjiajie) mountain as an ideal refuge due to inaccessibility. He became a hermit inspired by its haunting beauty and serenity. It is said that he planted seven ginkgo trees here and was buried below the mountain after his death. Zhang’s descendants also are believed to have lived here. Thus, the name Zhangjiajie originated. Zhang for Zhang Liang’s surname, Jia is family and Jie represents the border.
I was aware that due to the holidays, the place will be crowded, but didn’t want to let go the opportunity. Our group size was small, only 11 people, and a leader, Ada Yang, whom I had known from earlier Qinghai trip. The team had people from Belarus, China, Germany, Italy, Spain and Ukraine.
On Tuesday, April 30, we gathered at Beijing west Railway station at 11:30, and Ada gave us the tickets. The train K 267 left sharp at 13:22. Our team was in different coaches, and I and Hema had middle and upper berths in the same place. The journey was enjoyable as the train, as always, was clean and tidy, except for the fact that the slow trains ( speeds between 150-200kmph) in China allow smoking in the designated areas. The scene outside was breathtaking. After about 23.5 hours Zhangjiajie station at 12:40 the next day. We were picked up in two 7-seater cars and were taken to the first attraction, Tianmenshan. It took about 40 minutes by car to reach the parking lot. During the travel, we could see that the city of Zhangjiajie was very clean and looked beautiful with flower arrangements everywhere.
Tianmenshan (天 門 山 , Tiānmén Shān) means gate of heaven mountain. There is a cave slit on top of the mountain that indeed looks like a gate. This is a place where as per legends, the gods meet humans.
Ada gave us all card tickets that could be used for all four days. We entered the tourist area of Tianmenshan and waited for the bus to take us to the base of Tianmen cave. We got into the bus at 14:20. What followed was the most thrilling bus ride I ever had!
Tianmenshan Big Gate Road (Tianmen Winding Mountain Road) is 11 Km long from the bottom to the top. The start point is Tongtian Avenue (Avenue toward Heaven). The highest point of the road is at 1.300m above sea level, and the lowest point is 200m. The construction of the road took eight years, finishing in 2006. This road has 99 turns, symbolizing that Heaven has nine palaces. This road has been considered as one of the most spectacular roads in the world by the dangerousroads.org. It was amazing to see so many buses cruising both ways (no divider in between) effortlessly. They have speed monitors in the curves along with the speed limit. The view on the way was unbelievably beautiful. The 11 km journey too 20 minutes, and we were at the place where the 999 steps (as Tianti, or the Celestial/Heaven Reaching Ladder) start. We decided to the take the escalator that runs through a tunnel in the mountains. This is one more architectural marvel. The tunnel is 897 meters long and goes to a height of 340 meters. It is equipped with 16 sets of 30-meter heavy-duty escalators and three sets of 20-meter ones. These escalators can carry 3,600 tourists for one-way trip per hour, running directly from Tianmen Hole to the top of Tianmen Mountain. After the first section of the escalator, we reached the famous Tianmen hole, spent some time there and proceeded further.
The view on top of Yunmeng fairy peak was spectacular. We could see the winding Tianmen Shan Big Gate Road and the town. The place was very beautiful with greenery all over, wild flowers and birds. We also had long photo sessions there. We could see the Tianmen temple on a nearby hill to which there was an open type cable car. I asked Ada if we could go there. Though that was not in the itinerary, she obliged, and we took cable car to the Tianmen temple. As it was an open car that offered all round view (forest sightseeing cable car), it was very enjoyable. We first went a bit ahead, through a very scenic wooden path and visited a stille and a wishing pond. The route was further leading to the cave of goddess of mercy, but we came back to the main temple as it was already getting late. The Temple was first built in the Tang Dynasty as a center of Buddhism in western Hunan. The present Temple is rebuilt in the same place in the Qing Dynasty style. The temple has an imposing, beautiful structure. The Buddha figures were beautiful. We spent some time there and took the cable car back to the Yunmeng fairy peak and walked to the cable car station. There were many people waiting and we were given a time slot ‘N’. The wait was for an hour and we got our turn a 19:55. took the cable car back to the entrance of the park, which was close to our hotel. This cable car was an amazing experience too. The cableway in Tianmen Mountain is the world’s longest at a length of 7,455 meters. It runs between the city downtown and the peak. The cableway throughput is 1,000 passengers per hour, and it averages 28 minutes per trip. It was quite dark, and we couldn’t see the scenery around, but the city lights were looking beautiful. At times the car went through very dark places. After the exciting ride, we reached the lower station at 20:23, exactly after 28 minutes.
Ada had already ordered dinner in a nearby restaurant and it was 22:00 by the time we finished our dinner and walked to the hotel (1982 First Hotel). The room was comfortable, and the décor had the typical local design.
The breakfast the next day was in a nearby restaurant, the coupons for which were available at our hotel for 15 RMB. While the breakfast of mantou, egg, vegetables, porridge was good, it was surprising to see all the cutlery being single use plastic.
After the breakfast, we walked through the market to the entrance of Zhangjiajie national park at Wulingyuan. We were at the gate by 7:45 and took a customary group pic in front of the impressive Pagoda. The entry needed the card and scanning one’s finger. As expected, there were lot of people in the queue, the crowd much bigger than the previous day. It took about 30 minutes to get our turn into the ferrying bus. The bus took about 25 minutes through very scenic locations, crossing hills and lakes, to a place, where we could see emerging tall mountains. We reached the Yuanjiajie area where there was a queue for the Bailong elevator.
The Bailong (Hundred Dragons) Elevator is a 335 m tall glass elevator built onto the side of a huge cliff in the Yuanjiajie scenic area. The construction started in October 1999, and it was opened to the public in 2002. There are three lift rooms that can take 48 passengers at a time to the top, with a speed of 3.0 minutes per second. It is the world’s tallest outdoor sightseeing elevator and the fastest passenger elevator with the biggest capacity.
The journey took about 2 minutes. It was an amazing feeling seeing the light and the scene outside after the dark beginning. We had few minutes at a view point here, and I and Hema did a video shooting where they super impose our video into that of Zhangjiajie’s 3D scenery with wonderful effects. The cost was 240 RMB for a flash drive with the 3 minutes movie. Ada was already waiting for us and we had to rush back quickly to proceed for the further spots. The sigh seeing was along a wooden path overlooking the major sights of Yuanjiajie, also known as “Natural oxygen bar”. This is also the place that was used as the backdrop in the movie “Avatar”. Huge rocks with unique shapes rising from deep valleys and surrounded by higher mountains. Offers a breathtaking sight and looks like a painting. We saw the key attractions “Qian Kun Column” (The Pillar between Heaven and Earth) or Southern Sky Column, enchanting terrace (when you stand in this observation platform, the soul will be fascinated by the landscape), an iron bridge that leads to the No.1 Bridge under Heaven. This natural stone bridge, connecting two mountain peaks, is 3 meters wide, 40 meters long, and 5 meters thick. People believe that walking on this bridge will bring good health and longevity. This bridge leads to a place where people have tied lot of wishing ribbons to the railings. Ada had stayed back and few of us had proceeded to the next bus stop. We messaged Ada to join us and has a lunch break at the KFC there.
We took the bus for the next stop, the Yanjiajie area. The journey was scenic. We reached the place that led to Wulong village and Tianbo mansion. This was through very narrow openings between the rocks. Hema decided to stay back as the trail was getting tricky. Wulong Village is supposed to be one of the most dangerous attractions of Yangjiajie. It was a refuge of thieves in ancient times. The area is ~300 meters high and is surrounded by steep cliffs. In most places, the climb was through stairs made of rods. The next was Tianbo Mansion, a set of rocks named after Yang Family’s Mansion in Tianbo. The actual gallery, Tianbo mansion is through a hanging bridge between two peaks. Some of us crossed the bridge but returned as the gallery was too crowded. We found a much calmer place to see the Tianbo Mansion. We could see the 10 parallel stone wall peaks like city walls.
We came back, joined Hema and move to the next spot, the Tianzi mountain. The first stop was at the bronze statue of Marshal Helong, created by Pan He, a professor at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Art. Next to it was a beautiful Pagoda in which silver artefacts and souvenirs sold.
According to a legend, Tianzi Mountain gets its name from an ethnic Tujia man named Xiang Dakun. The Tuija are an ethnic minority, and in the 1300s, Xiang Dakun led his people in a peasant uprising. He and his men fought against the Emperor’s soldiers for 40 days before they were finally defeated, fought until he was forced back to the edge of the mountain’s cliff and then fell to his death. After his death, his lover covered the cliff with flowers, which supposedly explains the flowers that cover the place today. Another legend states that the Tianzi peaks are Xiang Dakun’s writing brushes, which turned to stone after his death. Yubi Feng or “Emperor’s Writing Brush Peak” is the most famous peak here.
It is the legend that gives Tianzi Mountain its name. “Tianzi” means “Son of Heaven” and is a title usually reserved for the emperor. But, in revolt, Xiang Dakun chose to own the name by calling himself “Tianzi.” The mountain sometimes is also called as Emperor Mountain.
Around 18:00, we took a bus back to the entrance of the park. The journey was for about 30 minutes, though lakes and mountains while the sun was setting. After returning, Hema and I had dinner at a local restaurant.
Next morning, once gain we had breakfast at the same restaurant, and a bus picked us up at 7:45 at the hotel. The journey to the gate of the Grand Canyon took about an hour. The cameras were not allowed at the glass bridge, so we left it on the bus. Once again, there was long line for entry to the glass bridge.
The Glass Bridge across the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon was the longest (430 meters) in the world when built. It is 6 meters wide and has a height of about 300 meters (tallest in the world). Designed by Israeli Haim Dotan Architects in 2012, the bridge can hold 800 tourists at a time and a maximum of 8000 persons per day. It provides amazing views of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. We entered the bridge at 9:45 and spent around half an hour clicking pictures with the mobile phone.
We walked down through a kind of cave to reach an elevator within the hills, that took us down to the Grand Canyon. From there, we started walking along the golden whip stream. It is about 5.7 kms long wooden walking path with mountains on the right and the river on the left. On the way, there are scenic spots like “Flying Fox Rushing Downhill”, “Pearl Wall & Waterfall of Butterfly Spring”, “Swallow Cliff”, “Bandit’s cave” etc. After walking for about two hours in pristine nature, at 12:30 we reached a spot where we took a houseboat and sailed in tranquility for the next 45 minutes.
It was close to 15:00, and we were at the “oxygen square”, entrance of the park now, and had to walk through the park for couple of hours to the next bus stop. Some of them had forgotten their access cards and Ada was dealing with it. She asked four of us, who had our card, to walk through the park next to the river. She showed it in the map and it looked OK. We (I, Hema and Anna, Julie-the two Ukrainian girls) started on a natural trail, next to the river. The route was beautiful, but surprisingly there was no one. The route was getting more scenic, but slippery trail at some places due to the green moss grown. We didn’t see the landmarks that we were supposed to see based on the map. In many places, we also saw the buses moving on the road at a distance. We knew could see based on some of the landmarks and the map that we were not in the right route. The two girls seemed to enjoy the adventure, while Hema was tired and was upset with our judgement and situation.
We saw some monkeys on the way and after about one and a half hours walk through wild trails, saw people and realized that it was a bus stop. I checked with a staff there and realized that we need to go to Oxygen square again by bus, so that we can walk in the right path! I messaged Ada, and she was still at the Oxygen square. We caught the next bus and reached the oxygen square bus stop at 17:00 and started walking with Ada, this time through the right path, i.e., along the golden whip stream. Obviously, we saw many people walking both ways on this road. Also, we could witness the landmarks mentioned in the map. The key one is the “Golden whip rock” due to which the stream gets its name. This rock looks like a Chinese ancient weapon Bian (鞭，or Whip). It is said that Qinshihuang (Emperor Qin, the first emperor of Qin Dynasty) passed by the stream on thinking to fill the sea with mountains. He was drunk and left his weapon Bian. The weapon turned into a stone peak, the Golden Whip Rock. To the left is a hawk-shaped stone peak. This is called the “holy hawk guarding the whip”. All along there are boards explaining the scenic spots like “Water Winding Four Gates”, “The Welcoming Guests Rock” etc. The whole place is maintained with immaculate cleanliness. We reached the bus stop around 18:45 and reached the Wulingyuan entrance by 19:10. Most people wanted to eat Pizza. Ada, Hema and I went to a restaurant that was crowded and looked popular. They said the waiting time would be an hour. So, we moved to the next restaurant, which didn’t have many people. Here they didn’t say the waiting period, but the delivery was after an hour (😊). Ada, knowing our food restrictions, had ordered for a chicken and a vegetable dish, and asked for spicy as we liked it spicy. After about half an hour the chef came and explained Ada that the dish can’t be made spicy! (The city and the province are known for spicy food). We had walked ~34,000 steps (~25 kms) by the time we reached the hotel room.
Next day was our last day at Zhangjiajie. We checked out in the morning and packed few dumplings and milk for breakfast from a street vendor in front of the hotel and proceeded to the Park. We were at the intersection of the Ten mile gallery around 8:00. The “Ten mile gallery” (十里画廊, Shi Li Hua Lang) is a 5.8 kilometers long wooden path that allows visitors to view the beautiful dense forest and over 200 rock peaks that are named based on their unique shapes. This looks like a natural art gallery. There is also a mini train along this path that allows people to view the scenery with out having to walk.
Some of the rock names are: Longevity Man Greeting Visitors, Herb Collecting Old Man, Immortals Worshipping Guanyin (a Bodhisattva), Conch Peak, Monkey Slope, Ferocious Tiger Roaring, three sisters (the left is the eldest sister who has great hair carrying a child ready to return to her family. The middle is the younger sister who takes her baby in her arms to look forward to the safe return of her husband. The right peak humps just like a pregnant woman, this is the little sister who is just married) and Mouse Watching the Sky. The walk to the other end took about 20 minutes. There is a place that sells snacks, fruits and souvenirs. We spent some time clicking pictures and walked back.
Journey to the railway station took about one and a half hour. Our train scheduled for 12:38 as late by few minutes. We ate the instant noodles and self-heating rice before we got into the train. The journey back to Beijing was comfortable and we reached at 12:00 on Sunday, 5th May. The subway station had long queues for the security check as expected. We reached home in about an hour and half.
The visit to Zhangjiajie will remain green in my memory forever. The haunting beauty of the rock pillars/peaks is unforgettable. It was really a dream come true to have witnessed this natural spectacle. Thanks to FCN and Ada for the opportunity and guidance, and to the teammates for the nice company.