Have you ever used Pinterest? If you haven’t, it’s basically an bookmark/mood board site which you can use to save visual links to your favourite things on different themed boards. Like a pretty reminder of all the recipes you will never cook, clothes you will never buy, parties you will never throw and DIY ideas you will never try out because you’re too busy wasting time on the internet. Well, among all that I started a travel board about 3 years ago, and on it I had an amazing picture I had found on someone else’s board labeled as ‘China’. I hasn’t really thought much of it at the time, this was back when the trip was a daydream that I never seriously thought would ever come true.
I had had Guilin recommended to me for awesome Chinese geology, and unfortunately that hadn’t really worked out (far too misty to see anything at this time of year I hear), so I was pondering alternatives and remembered the photo, which it turns out was Zhangjiajie national park in Hunan province. Well why not? I’d found out last minute that I was heading towards Guangzhou and Zhangjiajie is sort of on the way. It took me two night trains to get here (with a brief stop in Changsha where i saw Chairman Mao’s old headquarters), but my God it was worth it.
The park entry costs roughly £25, but that gives you access on 3 consecutive days and buses within the park are included (but they don’t all join up, so if for some bizarre reason you don’t want to walk you’ll have to pay extra for the cable cars and tourist railway). I stayed in the YHA youth hostel in Wulingyuan, near the north east entrance of the park and I highly recommend them as Victor who works there is amazingly helpful and possibly a lifesaver. You can buy cheap maps to show the walking trails and I started off with the nice easy valley floor route before starting to climb up to Huangshi village.
This is about halfway up the 4000 steps on the first day. In case you can’t make it out, there is someone ahead of me carrying 2 tables on his back. I never caught up with him.
On the way up to the ‘star picking terrace’, which is just the sweetest name for a view point ever. I think the next few photos may be mixed up over the 3 days I was here.
If you’re thinking ‘Wow, it looks just like Pandora in Avatar!’, well, the tourism board agrees with you. Although Mr Cameron mentioned another part of China when talking about his inspiration, the Zhangjiajie officials reckon he must have taken something from here as well, and I think they have a fair point*. Not that that gives them an excuse to do this…
Um. OK then.
After my successful first day I was feeling confident enough to climb the main mountain, Tianzi Shan – apparently 9000 steps (it was a long way, but I’m not sure it was that long). Victor wasn’t around to give walking advice in the morning, but I had a look at the map and thought I could see a nice round route to go up the mountain one way, along the ridge at the top to see various view points and then come back another way.
Up was no problem. A lot of hiding and puffing and regular breaks and wondering why on earth I was doing this to myself while spritely old Chinese couples bounded past me, but no problem in general. I was about half way down my planned route at around 5 when I suddenly couldn’t find the path that was supposed to branch off to the left. After about an hour walking back and forth and screaming in frustration that every path I went down ended in another lookout I eventually gave up and decided that the map was wrong and it didn’t exist. Instead, I could carry on down the path I was on and take a slightly longer route back to the bottom. 10 minutes later I came across a landslide blocked off dead end. Oh shit. That’s two paths on the map that do not exist at all! At this point the buses and the cable car had stopped running, so even if I retraced my last two hours to the top of the mountain I wouldn’t be able to get down that way either, so I would potentially have to either sleep in the park or climb back down the mountain for five hours in the dark. Oh hell no. There was a road way above me, so after a bit of fretting (to put it mildly), I decided my safest option was to climb the stairs to the road and trudge back in the vague direction of the entrance, and I would hopefully make it back to Wulingyuan at about 3am, but if I didn’t, well at least I wouldn’t fall off a cliff before the morning buses started to appear.
About 15 minutes later in what I thought was the right direction I ended up in another dead end. This dead end was special though – it was where the buses hid away for the night! Although they’d stopped running, there were some drivers hanging around chatting and smoking, and after some desperate miming I managed to explain to them that I was lost (not strictly true, I knew where I was, just not how to get out), and that I needed to use a phone. I had laughingly accepted Victor’s phone number the previous day in case I needed translations even though I told him I didn’t have a phone, and I’m so so glad I did. After some passing around the phone, he told me that although I couldn’t get back to Wulingyuan, there was another youth hostel inside the park boundaries and the bus driver had agreed to take me there for the night. Hallelujah! 40 minutes of white knuckle speeding around the mountain roads, I was safe in another hostel and vowing never to trust a map again.
One highlight of staying in the park, was that it meant that I was up early enough the next morning to see the number one tourist sight of Zhangjiajie without another tourist in sight. (Also, since I didn’t have to go through the entrance, no one checked my ticket, so you could sneakily get extra days in the park by staying here… just saying)
This is the pathway over the ‘number one natural bridge under the sun’, which I’m sure sounds more poetic in Chinese. People lock padlocks onto the railings here for good luck, and judging by the numbers of locks, it must get horribly crowded here. I even saw a sign on the way to the bridge apologising that because of the increased crowding, they now had to charge extra for this area. I was there so early that there were no staff members to take my money though. Ha.
Number one natural bridge! I hadn’t even realised I had gone over it until I had walked further on and turned round, I thought it was going to be something in the distance I could just stand and look at.
And that’s the end. Here have another picture, just because it’s that spectacular.
P.S. about half way up the mountain I stopped for a breather and thought, ‘Huh, that stick looks like a fox’. So I had to take a picture to prove to myself that I wasn’t hallucinating due to exhaustion. So what do you think, am I mad?
*Obviously, no matter how much it looks like it, Avatar wasn’t actually filmed here. As everyone knows, Avatar was filmed in its entirety by inserting a camera into James Cameron’s brain.