China has a lot to offer to tourists, but what we were craving to do was to be outdoors. Having left the national park of Jiuzhaighou for last, we headed south for Zhangjiajie National Park. The park gained worldwide fame due to the Avatar movie, because it is said the filmmakers took inspiration on it to create those rocky, vertical lush landscapes.
About 30 minutes before we reached our destination, the view was already captivating – the clear blue water of the river was surrounded by lush, green mountains, small villages and crops.
We arrived to Zhangjiajie city, where our host was waiting for us. She was the daughter of a family who runs a small hotel not far from both the bus and train stations, so we arrived to the hotel by foot. The “city” felt more like a village, with tons of street food as you walked by. We also saw a lot of stray dogs, and this saddened us way too much. The area comprises different scenic areas, but they are usually referred to as “Zhangjiajie Park”.
Tianan’men Mountain is one of these areas. It is famous for a glass corridor in the mountain and for its “hole” in the rock, to which you can climb through 999 steps. The park was accessible from Zhangjiajie city on cablecar, but 1 day costs as much as the entrance to Zhangjiajie, valid for 3 days, so we went with the latter.
As with all places with a touristic interest in China, getting a bit further from the most accessible areas is what helps alleviate the crowds. Therefore, we decided to start our visit from the North entrance of the park. It took us over 2 hours in a minivan that stopped in small villages, always surrounded by beautiful mountains. This was culturally very interesting as well, as you could get a hint of the lifestyle here. Many peasants would get on the bus, among which you could see tons of old women, their backs bent, carrying heavy baskets of legumes or fruits, while other people would put grains of corn or chilies at their doorstep to dry.
We arrived to the entrance, religiously paid the expensive tickets—this time the student trick did not work—and took a bus to the center of the park. Not speaking Chinese here makes things way more difficult than they already are; routes are not clearly explained, shuttle stops may be non-existent, and the little English there has been translated automatically (more about this coming soon in the blog.). Once we managed to arrive, we went away from the touristic hub (an “ethnic” village, overpriced cafes, a McDonald’s -really?-).
We walked along the road for a while until we found the trailhead. It was not too far, but the road was narrow and we had to avoid all the park shuttles constantly coming through. However, we were rewarded. Suddenly, the trees started to bend progressively across and above us, some branches cracking here and there, scared eyes looking at ours, full of fascination. Some macaques live in this forest, and we had them all for ourselves for a minute before they disappeared again.
We hiked down to the Southern and more popular entrance of the park. We probably didn’t see more than 3 people. Better let the pictures speak for themselves.
The second day we were not that lucky, as we had a 40-minute queue to take the cable car up that felt like a theme park (not that bad for what we’ve heard) and everything was packed of people from start to finish.
Something we realized is that, despite the area being national park, there are houses inside its boundaries, and there is trash everywhere, no matter if it is a road, a remote curve of the river, a hole in the rocks or a puddle looking down from a view point. This is very different from national parks in the US, where only the rangers or other staff can live permanently and visitors usually respect the environment (using trash cans or taking it with them, not approaching nor feeding wildlife, making fire in allowed areas only, etc). Likewise, we saw no rangers whatsoever, but instead tour guides with microphones, souvenir stalls and carriers to take you down the stairs if you didn’t feel like it.