Zhangjiajie - mountain and forest adventure in Hunan


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September 7th 2008
Published: March 23rd 2009
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Giorgos is taking a rest on one of the viewing platforms
Zhangjiajie is situated in the northwest of the Hunan province, just south of the Yangtse river. The forest park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992. It is a well known in China, but not so much outside China. It is a bit difficult to get to, although there are connections by plane and a few trains connect the area to Changsha and other Chinese cities. I had read a little about it somewhere and because I love mountains and forests it seemed a place worth visiting. It is a big place, the park and surrounding areas cover 398 square kilometers, so one really needs a few days to really visit the major sights. As all Chinese parks we have visited it is very well organized, with buses and cable cars connecting the various spots, the trails are clearly marked and it is fairly easy to walk around, although here as in many other places there are a lot of stairs to climb.
We left Hong Kong by bus and a couple of hours later we had checked in at the Shenzhenairport. Our plane to Zhangjiajie was delayed. The passengers were clearly mostly Chinese holiday makers and fortunately a family of three took mercy on us as all the information was in Chinese. The family consisted of a very chic and beautiful mother which we believed was a company executive or government official (clearly used to be in charge), a daughter and son in their late teens, the daughter with a punk hair style. The children spoke excellent English and passed on all the information. We would meet the family every day in Zhangjiajie and exchange our experiences, it is often said that Chinese people are not very friendly, but this is not our experience. We have often been approached by Chinese people who just want to talk. Of course our ignorance of the language is a problem as so few people in China know good English. But every now and then we meet someone with whom we can talk and it is always interesting. The family in question was really surprised that we had three weeks to spend on holidays in China, because they could at most get a week of vacation.
After several hours of waiting in the airport we had another hour of waiting in the plane, which passed quickly as they showed the new Indiana
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"Please do not cross the railing"
Jones movies and we got some snacks and beverages. When we finally arrived in Zhangjiajie we realized why the plane had been delayed as thick fog enveloped the area. I was glad we had ordered a car from the hotel as it was close to midnight and we had no idea where we were going. We drove about half an hour in the fog through the forest - it was quite magic. Finally we arrived in Zhangjiajie village at our destination and the driver woke some poor girl up to show us to our room.
The next morning we were given a briefing by Vivian, the assistant manager. She was very helpful and provided us with a map (in Chinese) and ideas of what to do. It seems Zhangjiajie is not much visited by Westerners and the Hunan province doesn’t seem very interested in attracting foreigners. The information I managed to gather about Zhangjiajie and other Hunan destinations was very scarce and consisted of some blogs and a few not very informative pages here and there on the net. A pity, because our experience here was really very positive, people were friendly, the food fantastic and there are lots of
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The unfinished bridge
interesting things to see in this province. Zhangjiajie is probably the most beautiful scenery I have seen and I have been to some spectacular places in other parts of the world. The mountains are made of quartz sandstone which has been weathered during millions of years to form the most amazing formations. In addition there is an enormous diversity of plant species, quite different from my European experiences where natural forests usually consist of one kind of tree or at most a few.. This is really a forest park with many of the trees labeled to the joy of those interested in botany, like myself. The people populating the area belong to several minorities, which certainly give a special flair to the area.
The first morning in Zhangjiajie we walked down the road to the entrance. Giorgos was shocked by the size of the village, it is probably the smallest place in China that we have ever visited. A main street with a few stores, a couple of hotels, a bazaar area with minority women selling their handicraft. That is all. There were no cafes nor restaurants. However, there were beautiful mountains surrounding us giving us a taste of what was about to come. The entrance fee of 250 Yuan bought us a ticket which was valid for two days and for identification we gave our electronic fingerprints . Very high tech. There were some “guides” trying to offer their services but we knew that the national parks in China are very well organized so no guide is necessary. First place we visited was the Yellow Stone Stronghold. Never could figure out why it is called like that. Nevermind, it is a rock standing high above the surrounding valleys with its sides being near vertical. We took the park bus to the cable car station and after a five minute or so ride we reached the top of the cliff. At the first viewing platform we met the family from the airport! The next three hours we leisurely walked around the summit among the trees. As soon as we got a bit further away from the cable car station we were alone, while the Chinese tour groups obviously were doing a shorter round. At regular intervals were viewing points giving uninterrupted views of the surrounding peaks, some just a few meters across and making up the strangest formations. I also appreciated that there were signs with information about the geology and biology of the area at intervals. Because one does wonder how anything like these rocks can be created.
We took the cable car down although there were walking trails also, but we knew it would be lots of stairs and bad on our knees. The next spot was the walking path next to Golden Whip Stream. This was a lovely walk next to the stream among the trees and with the vertical rocks soaring high above us. There were quite some people walking this trail, and it is understandable as it is so peaceful. It was raining during our walk but that was just refreshing as the morning had been hot and it made the place even more magical. This is a 5 km walk and at the end you take the bus. We took the bus to Wulingyuan, without really knowing where we were going. This is the most central village in the Forest Park, and if I go back I will stay here as it is easy to reach the various areas. The ride there was also charming, a river widened to a lake, there were small
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In this simple restaurant the food was delicious and the girls were very cheerful and even knew some English
farmhouses scattered among the fields and people in minority dresses working in the fields or just walking on the road or sitting outside their houses.
In Wulingyuan we jumped into a taxi to go into the city. We didn’t really know what to expect, but we were in dire need for a Chinese phone card. After about 30 minutes the driver dropped us off at a big avenue. Was this the city center? We weren’t sure, it didn’t really look like other Chinese city centers, no big stores, not much traffic. We started walking quite without aim and found ourselves inside a small department store and indeed, there was a China Unicom shop there. The man in charge knew as much English as we know Chinese but somehow Giorgos managed to get him to understand what he wanted, which was a phone card. While he was sorting this out I tried to find a restaurant. The avenue did have a couple of places, but it didn’t seem a commercial district, there were imposing government buildings, I figured at least, some hotels and some vacant lots. The town seemed to be going through an overhaul. Finally Giorgos got the card and
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The park at the entrance
we walked in another direction, passing some restaurants and teaplaces. Nothing too inviting, but when it started to rain it seemed we had no choice and we entered the first place we encountered. Here we had one of the best meals we have had. We are not sure it is what we ordered, but it was tasty! Underneath a heavy layer of red hot chili peppers was a big fish cooked in a thick broth. I can’t really describe the taste, it is just different but great. As the rain continued we got into another taxi to return to our hotel in the village. This was a scary ride, the darkness was setting and the unlit road was full of people. Not many cars, but pedestrians, cyclists, buffaloes, motorbikes and pushcarts. It seemed a miracle no one was hit, but indeed the driver didn’t drive very fast.
We decided, or rather Vivian at the hotel decided for us that we should go to the Tianzi mountain on our second day in Zhangjiajie. First we had to go back to Wulingyuan, and then take the bus on the same route as the day before. But this time we passed the Golden
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The spicy delicious fish we probably never ordered
Whip Stream bus stop and continued to the cable car station. The buses within the park are free but the cable cars are very expensive, comparing to the general level of prices in China. However, the cable cars do save on walking a lot of stairs and we prefer to concentrate on the most beautiful spots. This morning was foggy again, and going up the cable car which was a ride of about 10-15 minutes we didn’t see much than the very close by rocks - they were still impressive. The Tianzi mountain massif is a big area and would need days to be covered on foot. There are villages there and small farmsteads, fields and forest surrounding them. But again certain areas had been developed and viewing platforms and trails organized. So up on the top we jumped on another bus that took us to the first viewing platform. The path to the platform went through various shops with minority handicrafts and food stalls. As always nicely organized with stone laid paths, flower beds and trees giving shadow. The buildings were in minority style. This was clearly a main tourist spot judged by the number of people visiting. The view was disappointing, the fog shrouded the peaks which would have been spectacular I am sure as we would look out towards the steep rock which we had ascended with the cable car. We decided to take the bus to the next sightseeing spot Vivian had suggested, it was a long ride through the landscape of the summit. Passengers would get on and off so I guess there were other spots worth visiting but we continued to the end. It took something like an hour and we were quite happy when we reached the end station. We had reached another shop/food stall area but outside of it was a trail on the edge of the mountain which was just soo beautiful. The trail was partly very narrow and the cliffs were vertically descending into the Golden Whip Stream valley. We could barely make out the trees down there. The most amazing of it all was the First Bridge, a natural rock bridge leading out into a solitary peak - a wonderful sight and an experience to pass the bridge over the void. I had joked with Giorgos and said that they should build elevators on these rocks and indeed, that
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First Bridge, a natural bridge over the valley of Golden Whip Stream
was what they had constructed at the far end of the trail, the Baoling elevator. A dream like experience. First we could look out from the windows of the elevator as we descended the rock and then the last part of the trip was inside the rough rock.
The bus from the elevator took us back to Wulingyuan. It was afternoon and we were definitely very hungry at this time, so we started walking through the little town. Several restaurants turned us down, as it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner or maybe they just catered for tour groups. Finally we found a place with some happy girls, of which one knew English, and a sleepy cook. We got some cold beer, a great treat on the hot day and after walking for hours, and some wonderful dishes, especially a woked cauliflower dish which was superb. After the meal we were just too tired to think of taking the bus back to the hotel so we got another taxi, despite the rather high price that the taxis cost us here. In fact we realized the day we were leaving that there are frequent minibuses plying the
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The elevator is built outside and inside the rock
roads to and from Zhangjiajie town from the village and Wulingyuan sot it probably wouldn’t have been too difficult. Still, it is a ride of 30 minutes from town to village, and maybe 20 minutes between the village and Wulingyuan so the distances are quite long.
In the evening I decided it was time to check my e-mail. We had noticed that in the village there was an internet café, so why not try it. This was a weird experience, the internet café was a simple concrete building with two stories, and inside were two rows of maybe 25 computers each on each floor. This was a very small village, but the café was full of teenagers, who knows where they came from. Interestingly the boys were playing computer games and the girls were chatting. The internet connection was extremely slow, by the way, but we paid only 20 cents for more than an hour.
Our third and last day in this wonderful place again saw us going to Wulingyuan. Only we continued past the town for another 5 kilometers or so, along the river to the Yellow Dragon Cave. The car dropped us off at a bridge over the river, and we walked over the bridge and onto a trail by the river. On the left was row after row of little shacks selling all sorts of souvenirs. Again it was a hot day and we were quite eager to get to the cave. To get to the cave we had to climb quite a few stairs, something not unusual in China. With the heat we were quite exhausted when we finally entered the cave. We realized that the other visitors were in groups so we decided to follow a group of people to find our ways. This was a huge cave, worthy of being the spot of a Tolkien tale. The first corridor led us to through stalactites and stalagmites to a quay where small electric motor boats were waiting for us. We joined with the Chinese people who got a briefing, while we just admired this fantastic ride on the underground river. About 50 meters above cut into the rock was the lit corridor and a bridge over the river, this was the trail we later took. We landed in another part of the cave and now walked on the trail we had seen from below. This
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The trail in the cave
took us through fantastic rock formations, a waterfall, and views of big cave rooms. This is the biggest cave we have visited and we have been to a few. We were impressed by a family having a child in a wheelchair, there were lot’s of steps, as usual, and they had to carry the little girl and the chair up and down these. A great experience.
We finally left the cave after a couple of hours, and found a taxi to take us back to Wulingyuan. We decided to go back to the restaurant with the cheerful girls and have some more cauliflower and beer to cool off. Just the thing you need after a long walk in a cave. The next place to visit was the Baofeng lake. The entrance to this separate park is just a couple of kilometers from Wulingyuan and it was easy to find a taxi to take us there. If it hadn’t been so hot we could have walked. We paid the entrance fee and walked up a hill to a magnificent waterfall. We realized this was probably the stage for some kind of show because there was seating areas in front and some
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Stairs leading to the lake
plastic bamboo on the side of the waterfall, which distracted some of the beauty of the place. I went on alone, as Giorgos decided to go back and rest at the hotel, to get to the lake which I realized was high above the entrance road. The waterfalls, there was another one along the trail, this time without plastic bamboo, were gushing down from the lake. So there were more stairs to climb, in the heat, and a drizzle gave you the feeling of being in a sauna. But it was only about a 10 minute walk through the forest to get to the lake, where there were little pleasure boats waiting (included in the entrance fee). As I was alone I had to wait until the boat filled up with a group of Chinese tourists, and then we set off on this pretty little lake surrounded by wooded peaks. A very pretty young woman was our guide, of course I didn’t understand much, but it seemed to be quite entertaining as the other passengers were having such a good time. At two different spots, boats were moored and when we passed a young man and a young woman came
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Our entertaining tour guide on the lake
out on the deck, dressed in traditional clothes and sang. Quite amazing, the rain was pouring, the surrounding peaks shrouded, and then the Chinese songs, which I have come to like despite the difference to Western music.
In the evening we tried out one of the open air restaurants in the village. Barbecues were set up along the main road, there is hardly any traffic in this little village once the tour buses have left. Simple plastic tables and chairs are put out for the customers. The other people seemed to be locals, my impression is that not many tourists stay in the Zhangjiajie village although there it is quite busy during the day. We chose our food from the plates laid out and it was cooked on the spot. It wasn’t anything special, but it was relaxing to sit there with the rocks towering above us, the night sky above, in this little place at the end of the world and we (at least me) sadly realized we were leaving the next morning.



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Baofeng Lake

This girl gave a fine performance of Chinese folk music
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Baofeng Lake

The lake amidst the surrounding peaks


7th April 2009

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