I had come to Zhangjiajie mainly to visit the eponymous forest national park. You know, Avatar mountains. The film wasn’t actually filmed there, but the Hallelujah mountains were inspired by the rock pillars in Zhangjiajie, as well as by the karst formations in Guilin. As the national area is large I opted to hire a local guide for the day. There are shuttle buses in the park, but I wasn’t sure how well they would be accessible to someone who didn’t understand Chinese and I wanted to leave the navigation to someone else and just enjoy the scenery. I paid 200 yuan for the guide, and I was quite pleased with my bargain. My guide even spoke a little English which helped, and the rest we could manage with the clever translation apps.
There are a few entrances to the park as well, so you must be sure what you want to visit and take the entrance that makes it easiest to visit the part you want. I was meeting my guide at the Wulingyuan town entrance, and I took a public bus from the bus station in Zhangjiajie to get there. I was armed with a photo of the actual bus that my hostel helpfully provided. I found my minibus with no problems, just showing the photo to anyone official looking and they waved me onward. The minibus area is in the left corner of the main waiting room area, and you can just walk right on through to find your bus.
The ride to the park’s Wulingyuan entrance took a little over an hour. My guide was a little late, and I called my hostel to let her know where I was waiting for her. The minibus dropped me off at the minibus station, about 800 meters from the park entrance. Soon enough my guide found me. She was a lovely Chinese girl, who clearly knew where she was going. However, she was wearing a knee length skirt over thick hose, a long wool cardigan and a puffy west. As it was 3 °C that night, I thought practically bare legs were a bridge too far. I was wearing three layers of wool, my striped cotton pullover, the fleece and the windbreaker, with the pashmina wrapped around my throat. I also wore my hiking pants over my jeans, as they keep some wind out as well. I was fairly comfortable with all I was wearing, while my poor guide was occasionally shivering. Once we were in the park and walking briskly from site to site, we warmed up.
The two main areas which everyone wants to see are Yuanjiajie Scenic Area with the re-named Hallelujah mountain to cash in on Avatar fame, and Tianzi mountain. After paying the 4-day fee of 248 yuan (30 GBP), and being fingerprinted at the gate, to deter anyone giving their pass on to someone else, we hopped on one of the purple park buses and made our way to the Bailong elevator (Hundred Dragon Elevator ). The elevator (72 yuan, or 8.50 GBP, not included in the entrance fee) whisked us to the top of Yuanjiajie area in no time at all. There were some macaques begging for food at the area before you got to the elevators, but they scrammed while my guide took some photos of me. Dammit.
There is often at least an hour’s wait for this elevator and in peak times it can be 4 hours long! We just walked right through. Another win for my off-season travel plan. You can also walk up to the rim, but it would add a couple of hours to your day, and it would also be quite strenuous. I think most people take the elevator, which is why it is so busy. Due to good luck, and a timely push and “Go!” from my guide, I found a spot right at the window in the elevator, with great view as we ascended. It took seconds to scale the 335 meter high cliff, and I would have preferred it to be longer.
The views here are straight from Avatar, with soaring majestic rock pillars, which are often partly obscured by fog. And sometimes fully hidden, so I was lucky to have a good view. There are paved tracks going around the most popular views, and it took us a good couple of hours to walk through, if not all, then most of them. The great pillar dubbed Hallelujah mountain was the major draw, together with the First Bridge Under Heaven, a natural rock bridge spanning a gorge. The tracks often split into little side tracks that ended in a little platform, carefully surrounded by sturdy mock-wood railings, that afforded the best views. Luckily it wasn’t a very busy day, so often with a little patience, I could get the photos I wanted.
When we had seen the sights at Yuanjiajie, we hopped on a shuttle bus that runs on the mountain tops. As an aside, the buses in the park actually have English announcement as well. But I never quite noticed whether the buses have the destinations written in English. In any case, I was happy my guide was there to herd me through. The road was very winding, so I had to hastily don my motion sickness bracelets and keep my eye on the road and even then I was quite nauseous by the time we got to the Tianzi mountain stop. I was quite relieved to get off that bus, I can tell you! For a moment there, I was regretting buying that portion of fried potatoes before we boarded the bus. Potatoes! The last time I had anything with potatoes (barring the very occasional french fries) was in Angkor, and before that probably Australia. The potatoes were perfectly fried, hot and delicious, and just what I needed.
I had heard that food in the park was eye-wateringly expensive, so I had brought some snacks, and we shared some of my clementines as we got on the bus and departed. I had been eyeing grilled corn on the cob earlier, but when it came to it, the potatoes won. Hot roasted chestnuts also looked good, but I had tried them some years earlier and not liked the texture. Too dry. There was also a massive McDonald’s on the Tianzi mountain summit, but I saw very few eating there. Perhaps it would be more popular with western guests, but I only saw one western guy on our first shuttle bus, and a couple of western guys passing by when we got to the Tianzi cable car. I was again off the beaten path, or at least before the main western tourist rush.
My favorite view was the rock column gallery at the Tianzi mountain, but all the view points offer breathtaking vistas. I was lucky with the weather as it was not raining, but it was overcast with a slight haze. I could see all the rock formations from top to bottom, which was great, but photos didn’t turn out too well as they tended to disappear in the haze, especially the ones further away. Most of the amazing photos from this park are either in clear sunlight, or with a fog swirling around the bases of the rock columns, showing where the inspiration for the floating mountains in Avatar came from. But the park is worth visiting in almost any weather (except heavy rain or fog), and photos do not do it justice.
My day ended with perhaps my favorite cable car ride ever. The 2097 meter long, absolutely silent, cable ride down the Tianzi mountain is spectacular, and unlike the elevator earlier, goes on for several minutes. The cost is another 72 yuan. Sigh. We got a car to ourselves as we lucked on getting there at a quiet moment, so I could move around excitedly to watch the scenery. I didn’t even get vertigo, I was so taken with the view. There were two small window panes open on the right hand side, which was close to some spectacular rock pillars, so I was snapping photos of them as we passed. Some of the better photos are from here as we were almost close enough to touch them. I also took some photos through the window of the cable ride ahead.
After our ride down, we hopped back on the shuttle bus and drove back to the Wulingyuan entrance. My guide walked me to the minibus station and got me on the right bus. What a great day! As we passed by Wulingyuan village I was struck how very pretty it was and wished I would have time to visit it properly. Alas, I had caught a cold when I arrived in China and its mainly unheated hostel rooms and I had been coughing all day. So even though I would have had time to explore the town before it got dark, I wanted to get back to my (luckily) heated room, under covers and drinking hot tea.
It rained again the following day, so my visit to the park was perfectly timed!