By Duncan Gordon
Many people have been awestruck by photographs of the mountains of Zhangjiajie that are plastered all over the internet even if they have never heard of the place. The name itself conjures up images of an otherworldly land. The area in Hunan province, central China, has grown in fame in recent years, drawing landscape lovers from around the country and abroad.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is part of the much larger (almost 400 square kilometres) Wulingyuan Scenic Area. The park’s impossibly vertical stacks and cliffs are said to have inspired the floating mountains of the planet Pandora in the 2009 sci-fi blockbuster Avatar. Shrouded in mist, the real-life mountains look as though they are floating. A forest of gigantic pillars covered with with trees and plants clinging on for dear life. The pillars are formed by weathering. The weather is moist year round, resulting in dense foliage whose roots destabilize the rock. In addition, ice that forms in cracks and crevasses in the rock during the winter expands to further deteriorate the cliffs. The combination of these processes over millions of years has formed the spectacular columns of stone seen today.
The most common way to reach the remote Zhangjiajie is via train from Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. The railway winds its way through hills and countryside, the foliage growing ever more lush and the mountains larger as the train approaches Zhangjiajie city. From the mountain city’s bus station, a fleet of minibuses stand ready to take tourists the 40 minutes to the park entrance. Visitors are surprised to encounter gangs of Rhesus macaques waiting to greet them when they step out of the minibus. The monkeys have grown accustomed to tourists feeding them, making them audacious. Tourists carrying backs of snacks are immediately surrounded by the monkeys, who have no qualms about ripping bags straight out of people’s hands.
Unlike many national parks in China and elsewhere, visitors are not limited to boarding a tour bus and taking photos at designated viewpoints. The 136 RMB entrance ticket gives you access to Zhangjiajie for three months and you are free to explore in your own way, at your own pace. Dozens of trails and footpaths lead to different viewpoints and mountaintops, each providing a new view on the surreal landscape. Guesthouses and youth hostels are dotted around the mountains, allowing tourists to spend several days immersing themselves in the environment.
Perhaps the highlight of a trip to Zhangjiajie is a Bailong Elevator. 72 RMB buys you a ticket on the Bailong Elevator, the tallest elevator in the world at 326 metres. The glass elevator shoots skywards within the cliff before you burst into the open air and a breathtaking panorama straight out of Pandora. The views from the cliff at the top of the elevator are just as unforgettable.