The 5th of April marked the Tomb Sweeping festival in China, as a result our school here in Sanxiang was closed from the 2nd to the 6thof April (to allow people to travel home and celebrate the festival, which involves visiting ancestors and burning paper offerings for them to enjoy in the afterlife). They call this a holiday in China but it’s not a holiday as we might imagine it back home. In order for the school to be closed for five days during the week it had to be open both the weekend before and the weekend after the festival so that the kids didn’t miss any education time. This means a seven-day work week, a five-day break and then another seven-day work week. As you read this I am at the end of my seven-day long week and, if I’m being honest, it actually passed by pretty quickly, so I can’t complain. Our five-day break was completely jam packed and maybe not the relaxing holiday that some people might choose to sandwich between two long weeks of 9 – 5 work, but it was exactly what we were looking for!
Zhangjiajie is home to the sandstone quartz mountain pillars that were the inspiration behind the planet of Pandora in James Cameron’s “Avatar” and to visit it’s national forest park is to feel as if you have truly been transported to another world. As far as the eye can see the pillars extend into the haze of the jungle’s rising mist, from the top of these peaks the bottom of the valley is indistinguishable from the tops of trees that look small enough to be held on one finger. Wrapping your head around the scale of this landscape is not easy, it takes the eyes a while to adjust to just how high up you actually are.
We arrived in Zhangjiajie late on Sunday night/early on Monday morning and after a small confusion with airport pick-ups and check in times we were shown to our rooms for the night. We managed to fit in a couple of hours sleep before being up at nine thirty to begin exploring. The staff at our Hostel were so helpful, organising our tickets and supplying us with a map of the park before we set off in the morning. They told us how to squeeze everything we wanted to do into our short amount of time in Zhangjiajie, where the best viewing spots were and what days were best to do what activities on! The rooms had everything we needed, we chose to stay in the dormitories, and you could order an extra mattress for your bed if you found it to hard (to be honest if you are not used to Chinese mattresses I would recommend doing this when you check in). If you are thinking of heading to Zhangjiajie yourself then I couldn’t recommend them enough and I have linked their website below if you want to check them out!
The main park entrance was only a five-minute walk from our Hostel past a busy little street of market stalls and small restaurants. We decided to stop here for some breakfast and to stock up on snacks for the day before heading to the park gate. From there you could catch a bus to just about any spot you wanted to visit in the park. We started our day by catching the cable car to the top of the sandstone quartz peaks and the views from the cable car were absolutely incredible. From here we caught another bus through the mountains to the first viewing point which gave as a panoramic of the mountains with pink blossoms framing the landscape perfectly.
The next stop was the walk up to Tianbo Mansion which boasts one of the best views of the peaks in the park. The walk totalled about one and a half hours, up and down, including multiple stops for photographs and a break for some spicy tofu in the shade of one of the many food vendors. For the most part this walk was fairly easy, if steep in places, but the last five to ten minutes involved an arrangement of metal ladders that had been welded to the side of one of the stone peaks. It was well worth the climb though with a 360 view of the mountains and forest below them. For a small while we even had the top of the peak to ourselves, a secluded island in a sea of trees and tourists.
After this I thought “there is no way the views can get better”, turns out I was wrong. The next and final stop for the day was the famous “Avatar Hallelujah Mountains”. This was the longest walk of the day, we had been told we needed three and a half hours to complete it, we did it in two and a half. The walk started much like the others had that day with a collection of souvenir stalls and places to buy food, but it soon faded out into a wash of reds mixed into greens of the trees as we approached “the natural bridge”. Red ribbons with wishes written on them were tied to any free branch, beam or fence post with the belief that a higher power will grant them. With a slight breeze blowing gently around the mountain top and the sunlight dappling the path through the trees as we walked along it, it definitely felt like if a wish was going to come true anywhere, it would be here.
As we crossed back over “the natural bridge” we saw exactly how it got it’s name and, to be honest, my stomach did a mini flip as I realised what I had just walked over. Two peaks are joined by a thin, in comparison to the peaks themselves, natural walkway of sandstone that crosses above the sheer drop into the forest below.
Rounding the corner we were greeted by the “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” itself, marked by one of the blue “mountain banshee” creatures from the film waiting to welcome visitors into the area. Not alone on top of the peak, the “mountain banshee” had plenty of company in the form of Macaque monkeys that took advantage of the tourists and their food. They were not afraid of us at all and I even witnessed one dive bomb a man in order to steal his cake, plastic wrap and all (they are to Zhanjiajie what seagulls are to Aberdeen, only maybe slightly cuter).
From this point there was the option to take a cable car down to the bottom of the peaks or to walk down the steep steps into the valley. We chose to do the latter, purely because we didn’t want to pay the 72 yuan it cost to take the cable car. This turned out to be the best decision we could have made because as we began our decent we were treated to the most fantastic view of the day. Dozens of sandstone quartz peaks with forest running through them like rivers of green stretched out before us as far as we could see and we were the only people there to see it!
It took us about half an hour to get to the bottom of the valley, from which we could finally see the scale of where we had just been. On all sides we were surrounded by stone peaks towering above us like the skyscrapers of London or New York City. A river ran through the valley and we stopped for a while to take in the scenery, fully believing that there was no way we would make the last bus back to the hostel at half six. We followed the river between the peaks and finally in ones and twos started to see other people heading in the same directions, maybe we would make the bus after all.
About ten minutes from the end of the path we came across another group of Macaques, with a lot less people around to distract them from our presence one monkey took quite an interest in us and actually ended up on top of Karin’s head, leaving me with no idea what to do and my bananas were about one hundred meters back in Justin’s back pack. So for about five minutes Karin stood with a monkey on her head while I panicked about it doing a pooh in her hair! Finally the boys caught up and unfortunately I lost a whole bunch on bananas to the Macaques of Zhangjiajie’ National Forest Park.
Traumatising monkey experience over all that was left to do was walk back to the bus and try to process the incredible first day we had just experienced. We’re still not entirely sure how we managed to do a three and a half hour walk in just two and a half hours but somehow we did and I had the sore feet to prove it!
- Zhangjiajie 1982 Chujian International Youth Hostel : http://www.booking.com/Share-ayycez 135 yuan (£15 for 3 nights)
- Zhanjiajie National Forest park ticket: 248 yuan (about £27.60) allows entry to the park for 4 days.
- Cable car ticket: 72 yuan (about £8)