Zhangjiajie in China’s Hunan Province is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, without a doubt. Well, not the city itself, but the natural parks in its vicinity. Within its boundaries is Wulingyuan (武陵源) Scenic Area, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, and is ranked as an AAAAA-site on the Chinese tourism scale. The park’s scenery provided the backdrop in popular film Avatar a couple of years ago, spreading the word of central China’s impressive peaks.
Zhangjiajie’s peaks merged in the fog
I visited the scenic area with friends in April 2014, and was amazed at how extensive the park was. We got the train here from Beijing, which took nearly 23 hours in total. For all those hours spent, the train was affordable though: we paid around 300 RMB per hard sleeper, and surprisingly enjoyed the trip as it was a great experience to talk to fellow train travelers, and watch the Chinese countryside roll by. We thankfully did pack some snacks and beer, as the food on the train was terrible, as one of my friends discovered, and they stopped selling beer after the restaurant cart closed at 10 pm.
The timing for our trip was perfect, as the weather in April was beautiful – it wasn’t too hot, nor was it cold. Mornings saw some fog around the mountains, providing an extra mysterious atmosphere and leading to some great photos. We decided to take three days for the park, as we wanted to see different aspects of it, and take the time to enjoy nature, something we had missed living in the bustling metropolis of Beijing.
While we were staying in Zhangjiajie, we stayed in Zhangjiajie Zhongtian International Youth Hostel (Zhāngjiājiè Zhōngtiān Guójì Qīngnián Lǚshè; 张家界中天国际青年旅舍) (Phone: 0744-8321678; Email: email@example.com). It was relatively basic, but we booked our a whole 6-person dorm room which met all of our needs. The hostel was on the fourth floor of a building, but surrounded by greenery, creating a generally relaxing experience in the evenings.
Zhangjiajie Zhongtian International Youth Hostel
Entrance to the park
The park itself has many different areas, and it can be hard to decide where to go first, and which areas to skip. The best thing to do is to buy a ticket to cover access to the whole park, so that you can come and go as you please over multiple days. Within the park, we started off with Yuanjiajie (袁家界) Scenic Area, famous for its peaks, one of which is Avatar’s Hallelujah Mountain.
The highest elevator in the world: Hundred Dragon Elevator
Although many travel guides recommend against the Hundred Dragon Elevator (Bǎilóng Tiāntī; 百龙天梯), we decided to brave the predicted 2-hour queue for the ride up to the top on one of the highest elevators in the world. And after 1.5 hours, when we shot up the side of the mountains, I was glad we did. I’m sure that I will never again in my life ride a glass elevator for 335 meters, along the side of a mountain. If you have a serious fear of heights or have a tendency to distrust technology, I would recommend against taking this elevator as two minutes is a long time to be terrified! Thankfully we were all fine, and as you’re squeezed in with as many people as they can fit, there was not much to be scared of except body odors and aggressive selfie-takers.
The view as from the back of the elevator
Once up here, we followed the signs to visit the First Bridge Under Heaven (Tiānxià Dìyī Qiáo; 天下第一桥), a bridge high up between two peaks that provides some incredible views of the peaks and valleys. We crossed the bridge a couple of times, as you can even see the stunning valley underneath your feet.
The bridge connecting peaks is not for the faint of heart
The walk up around the mountains in this area can get crowded and busy, but is still worth it as it provides the best views of the park. We passed a bunch of restaurants and shops along the way to take plenty of hydration breaks, and there were attractions along the path, such as a bridge with love locks, reminiscent of Paris, or some Avatar statues which are a little bit tacky, but provided for some great photo opportunities to send home to friends. Avatar mountains and Zhangjiajie have really become more famous following the films’ release.
Lovehearts fill the bridges throughout the park
The best thing to do in this area is just to wander around all day, following the signs to scenic platforms and picture areas. One of the landscapes is named the Lost Souls Platform (Míhún Tái; 迷魂台), where visitors tended to get lost back in the day and find it incredibly difficult to find their way back, hence the name. Thankfully there is plenty of signage these days, so we had no problems at all.
The next day we went to Gold Whip Stream (Jīnbiān Xī; 金鞭溪), which is located at the foot of the mountain and is a largely flat walk. The walk took about two and a half hours, and parts of it were a little bit busy with large Chinese tour groups and their guides with speakers. We really enjoyed it though, as the walk gave us a different view of the mountains, and was relaxing. As with the other walk, we took plenty of breaks to sample some local snacks such as potatoes (tǔdòu; 土豆)and stinky tofu (chòu dòu fǔ; 臭豆腐).
After three days in the park, we took the train to Changsha, in order to get the high-speed train back to Beijing. This train only takes 7 hours in comparison, a pretty big difference, but costs about three times as much.
The greenery in this park is just as impressive from the ground as from up high
On our final day, we decided to take the cable cars up Tianmen Mountain (Tiānmén Shān; 天门山) which was incredible. The long cable car goes up onto a mountain so high that you disappear into fog and clouds.
The cable cars are worth the journey in itself
From the top of this mountain, it is actually hard to see to the bottom, adding to the mystique of the area.
If you do have a fear of heights, the fog can be so thick that you don’t even realize how high up you are, so fear not
And, even better for nature lovers and daredevils out there, there is an incredible glass skywalk around this mountain. If you dare, walk around the side of the mountain on a huge glass path to top off your experience in Hunan’s Zhangjiajie.
Margaux Schreurs is a translator, editor and writer living in Beijing. She was born in the Netherlands, and became interested in China and Chinese culture after her first Chinese language class while living in Singapore. She holds an MSc in the anthropology of China from the London School of Economics, and since then has written for several publications throughout the world about her travels and about current affairs, in print and digital media.