On the morning of Sunday, July 7, I boarded an airplane at the Shanghai Pudong airport bound for the tourist area known as Zhangjiajie 张家界 in western Hunan Province. With me were 25 Chinese DKU students and three other trip leaders, including our undergraduate dean Dr. Marcia France and our Health and Safety officer, Wayne Phan, as well as our travel agent, Nathan. The students had just completed their first year and the first year of our new undergraduate program. This was one of several “Wow!” trips that we provide for our undergraduate students. Over the next three days, we would climb or rather ride up several mountains, cross the highest glass bridge in the world, taste the singular spicy cuisine of western Hunan, sing and dance with Tujia minority people, and get to know each other much better. All in all this was truly a “wow” experience. I summarize it briefly here in this entry.
Zhangjiajie is famous in China and also known worldwide as the place that inspired the impossible mountainscapes of the mega-hit film, Avatar. This connection is made very clear when you visit the place. The area has taken full advantage of its global notoriety and a tourist boom is in full swing. Everywhere you go in the city, new buildings are rising, and the mountains are teeming with Chinese tourists and more rarely, international visitors.
The reason I chose the title “Avatar Disneyland” for this piece is because in every mountainous tourist area you visit in Zhangjiajie, you encounter long lines of people waiting for the transport vehicles and technologies that take you around and over the mountains. Mostly these are lines for buses and elevators or escalators to take you up or down the mountains, and these lines can easily take an hour long, sometimes more. So, be forewarned that much of your time will be spent waiting in lines, just as you would for a typical Disneyland ride in Shanghai.
Of course, unlike Disneyland, these mountains are the real deal. I need not describe them in detail—just look at the photos and you’ll see what I mean. They are composed of impossibly tall thin towers that jut up into the clouds, topped with green tufts of trees, like a landscape from a Dr. Seuss book. It’s almost as if a city of skyscrapers had been transmogrified into a rocky natural landscape.
Many of the viewing stations are built upon precarious cliffsides. If you suffer from a mild case of vertigo, as I do, you may want to step back from the edge of the cliff, which of course is protected by a fence. For me, I don’t mind looking outward over these views, but I find it hard to look straight down.
Despite my natural fear of heights (a trait I share with my mother, though her vertigo is a lot worse than mine), I was able to join all the hikes with the students and our leadership team, including the glass bridge and the cliff walks. So as long as your vertigo is not too severe, you too should be able to enjoy all that this wilderness theme park has to offer.
I’ll break up the trip into the four days as we experienced it, along with some tips and pointers for readers who may be thinking about visiting Zhangjiajie in future.
DAY 1: JULY 7
We arrived at the local airport around noontime after a two-hour flight from Shanghai and had lunch at a nice restaurant in town that serves wild mushroom hotpot. Afterwards we headed to Wuling village, where our hotel was located. This is a quaint little village surrounded by mountains with a main drag and a night market. The hotel was decent enough, though a bit noisy at night. That afternoon our local guide Gabriel took us into the mountains, where we took a couple of bus rides up the mountainside, passing alongside a gorgeous river and reservoir as we went up and up the mountain road. At the top, we waited in line to take a tram ride further into the mountains. We then splashed about along a rocky stream in the mountains, watching the monkeys as they climbed about the trees. This was a low-key day and we headed back to the hotel for dinner and a night walk in the local night market, which wasn’t too different from most night markets in China, though it specialize in selling silver. Our guide Gabriel explained that silver is a very important product in Zhangjiajie and Tujia people where silver bracelets and necklaces.
DAY 2: JULY 8
We took the buses back up into the same mountains as the day before, where we got inside a glass elevator built on the side of the cliffs and zoomed up to the top of the mountain. We then enjoyed a two-hour stroll along gentle mountain paths with viewing stations along the way that enabled us to look out across the panoramic mountainscape.
At one of the viewing stations, a male monkey that everyone was gawking at (there are many of them in the forest in this area) moved limberly along the fence that separated us from the vast precipice and stole a corn cob from an unsuspecting tourist. We watched as he munched on it nonchalantly while hunching over what must have been a 500-meter drop.
This sort of scene occurs often in these mountains, and of course many of the tourists feed the monkeys all kinds of snacks. Well, how different are we really from our simian brothers and sisters? After having lunch in a restaurant on the mountaintop, we headed over to another part of the mountains known as Tianzishan 天子山to catch more views. By the time we reached that area in the afternoon, the temperature had dropped and it began to rain. Fortunately for our group, there were plenty of stalls at the bus station selling cheap and colorful rain ponchos. They must sell thousands of them a day on rainy days, since very few of the tourists were prepared for this sudden change in the weather. I got by with just an umbrella, but in my t-shirt I was feeling pretty chilly and wishing I’d packed a rain jacket or sweatshirt. From then on, I brought my sweatshirt with me wherever we went, and that turned out to be a good idea—I recommend anybody coming to Zhangjiajie to bring a long-sleeve fleece shirt and rainjacket, the kind that can be compressed down into a little ball in your backpack or waist pack. The rain and mist made the mountain views even more magical, as you can see in these photos.
DAY 3: JULY 9
That morning, we checked out of our hotel in Wuling village and took a 30-minute bus ride over to area known as Grand Canyon 大峡谷featuring the glass bridge. To be honest, I was nervous about walking over the glass bridge, although I knew that it wasn’t all glass. After donning specially made overshoes to protect the glass (by the way you can’t take cameras or iPads with you, but you can take your mobile phone), we started the walk across the bridge. The students all got caught up in taking photos of themselves standing or lying on the glass partitions, as most tourists do. I stayed on the non-glass part and tried not to look straight down the gorge as I walked across the bridge. This turned out to be the right way for me, and probably anybody who suffers from mild vertigo can make it across the bridge in this way. If you have a strong case of vertigo, you will not want to cross this bridge.
It was only after looking up at the bridge from the canyon below that I truly realized how high and how narrow it was, and I think that if I had approached the bridge starting from below, it would have been much harder to muster the courage to cross it. Our students and my colleagues on the other hand seemed to have no trouble at all with the bridge. After we finished the crossing, we took a cliffside stroll down narrow stairs to an elevator that whisked us down to the bottom of the canyon.
The walk through the verdant and steep canyon runs along a stream and features some fine waterfalls cascading down from the mountains. It ends with a short riverboat ride to the exit station. This was hands down my favorite walk of the four-day tour. After the glass bridge and Grand Canyon walk, we had lunch back in Wuling village at a Tujia restaurant, where one of the waitresses treated us to a local mountain song. After lunch, we headed by tour bus to Zhangjiajie City where we checked into our hotel, and some of us took advantage of the afternoon break to get in a proper foot massage at a nearby massage parlor.
DAY 4: JULY 10
This was by far the most exhausting day of our four-day journey. We awoke at 6 am for early breakfast and checked out of the hotel at 7 am. By 7:20 am, we were all on a bus bound for Tianmenshan 天门山, a tall and imposing mountain area rising up steeply and imposingly not far from the new city. To get to the top of the mountain, you have two choices. You can take the cable car, a 30-minute ride from the city center up to the top of the mountain. Or you can take a bus that winds it way up the steep mountain road with its 99 harrowing hairpin curves. We took the bus up the mountain, and I was sitting on the window seat on the right side of the bus, which meant that every time we traveled along a steep cliffside or did a hairpin turn, I was exposed to the precipitous drop below. Needless to say, by the time we reached the top, my palms were all sweaty, and I heaved a sigh of relief to be off that bus.
There is a large viewing platform at the area of Tianmenshan where the buses drop you off, and from there you can climb a set of 1000 steps (or maybe its 999 as the Chinese like the number 9) to the base of the gigantic hole that forms a natural bridge in the mountain. Some of the students chose to climb the steep stairs, but I and most of the others took a set of escalators through the interior of the mountain up to the base of the hole. From there, you have to walk along a precipitous cliffside to get to the entrance of a second set of escalators that takes you up to the top of the mountain. There were at least five long escalators that we rode up to the top.
Once you find yourself on the top of mountain, you can walk all around the flat mountaintop and stop at viewing platforms to take in the views. Our guide Gabriel took us on a wooden walkway built onto the cliff edge, from where we could catch the views of the steep mountains rising around us as well as the long view overlooking the city far beyond. We then walked along a short glass walkway, once again donning protective shoe-covers. I was under the impression at first that this would be another glass bridge running over an impossibly deep precipice, and that made me quite nervous, but it turned out that the glass walkway hugs the side of the mountain. Still, I found myself grasping on tree branches that stuck out as I walked along the glass part. I remember one Chinese tourist looking straight down the cliffside and remarking to his companion in Chinese that if one were to fall off the edge, by the time one reached the bottom, one’s body would hit the ground and completely disintegrate like a splash of water. This was just the sort of image I needed in my head to get through this walk.
After that, we had a couple more cliffside walks, which aren’t so scary as the walkway is rather broad. Still, you have to jostle with hundreds of other tourists as you make your way around and over these walkways. Finally, after catching some more mountaintop views, we ended our tour in a waiting area with a large tent and plenty of seating, while our guide Gabriel bought our tickets for the cable car. He had warned us there would be a long wait, and that turned out to be the case. You have to buy tickets that put you on a waiting list for the line for the cable car, which itself takes over an hour. Waiting for your letter to be called to get in line can take a few hours given the size of the crowd, and so I recommend sending somebody to do that early on rather than after finishing your tour of the mountaintop. I believe we waited under the tent for around three hours before finally getting in line.
By that time, we were all quite anxious to get down the mountain to catch our 7 pm flight. Once we got into the cable car, we were whisked down the mountainside to the middle of the city in 30 minutes time, accompanied by stunning views of the landscapes as we descended into the valley below. This was far preferable to taking the bus back down those 99 hairpin curves. As we flew along in our little airborne bubble, we could see the buses working their way up and down the mountain along the curvy roads. Fortunately, we had time for one meal—our only real meal of the day—at a local restaurant before getting to the airport just in time to catch our flight back to Shanghai.
All in all, this certainly was a fabulous if exhausting tour of a fantastical and legendary mountainous area in China. My only caveat is that it would have been nice to have more interactions with local cultures and people, but we certainly did get in plenty of mountain views, though it meant standing for hours in many, many lines. So, if you don’t mind the long waiting times, can handle large crowds of tourists, and don’t have a severe case of vertigo, Zhangjiajie is a uniquely beautiful place for you to visit.