Zhangjiajie – A visit to the Avatar Mountains

Zhangjiajie – world famous as the Pandora Mountains from the movie Avatar – is a stone forest with needles of quartz sandstone which reach up to over 1.000m. Despite all warnings, we decided that it is the place to go over the May holidays and we – the brave – were rewarded by small crowds, magnificent views and thigh pains worse than almost anything we have ever experienced.

Things to cross of the bucket list

  • See the Avatar mountains at Zhangjiajie National Forrest
  • Sit on the world’s highest and longest glass bridge at Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon
  • Walk the 999 stairs at the Heavenly Gate at Tianmen Shan

Things that went well are:

  • The hotel, which was very conveniently located.
  • Taxis were easy to come by. On the last day we booked a driver to wait for us at Huangshi so we could leave our luggage in the car (however, there were luggage stations at the park entrances and at Tianmen Shan).
  • We feel we saw most of the famous and spectacular places Tianzi, Hallelujah, Huangshi, Baofeng Lake, Grand Canyon and Tianmen (which was exhausting but amazing) but also very, very much enjoyed our hiking. Its helpful to have a good plan, since the are is large and there are many things to see.

Things we would have done better in hindsight are

      • train thighs for the millions of stairs and
      • plan a full day for Tianmen Shan

      Here is the full story

      Day 1 (28.04.)
      Directly from the office to the airport – that’s how we role. We catch a night flight and arrive in Zhangjiajie Airport at ca. 23.00. The taxi drivers do not use meters but 100RMB get us to our hotel (Pullman Wulingyuan), ca. 1h away. The hotel location is very convenient, 15m by foot away from the park entrance, about 30min from Baofeng Lake and on the road to the Grand Canyon.


      Day 2 (29.04.)
      We start early. We meet Yvonne and Miguel at 7.30 for breakfast. Following the hotels advise, we use the beautiful sunshine to visit Tianzi Mountain and Yuanjiajie, two of the main attractions in Zhangjiajie National Forrest Park. The park is expensive (four day pass costs ca. 250RMB per person plus cable car / elevator fees) but provides a well organized bus system to get around. We take the cable car up to Tianzi Mountain.

      At the Tianzi Mountain Viewing Platforms, we encounter a small crowd but still can enjoy the view of the magnificent quartz stone needles. To escape the crowds, we decide to hike down the mountain via the South Heavenly Gate (at maybe 30m high hole in the cliff) and the Latent Celestial Bridge (right out of a fairytale). Where is beauty, there is pain – in Zhangjiajie this pain comes from the thousands of steps we needed to walk down, which made our legs shake and thighs burn.

      From the bottom of Tianzi Mountain, we caught a bus to the Yangjiajie area. The Bailong (“Hundred Dragons”) Elevator catapults us 326m up a cliff in ca. 50 seconds (it’s the world’s tallest outdoor elevator). We have lunch at a roadside restaurant before we hit the major festival crowds at the Hallelujah Mountains, which inspired James Cameron’s Avatar Movie. Crowds are heavy and we need to push our way through. Monkeys watch tourists passing by, snatching the occasional cookie or ice cream (the latter involuntarily from a small girls hand). The views are impressive, in particular on the over 1.000m high “Southern Sky Column” and the natural bridge “First Natural Bridge under Heaven”, which we can walk across.

      Exhausted, we have to backtrack and take the elevator back down (pay 72RMB, again), then take busses to the park entrance. We go directly to dinner and afterwards fall into a deep sleep.

      Day 3 (30.04.)

      The morning is painful. The alarm rings at 6.45. In the evening, we had – enthusiastically – decided we wanted to beat the crowds. But the legs are sore from yesterdays stairs and won’t move a millimeter. Finally, we make it to breakfast and then to our taxi, which takes us to the Grand Canyon with the world’s tallest and longest glass bottom bridge.

      Getting through security is a Chinese experience. The security guard stops me to look at my backpack and my camera, then refuses to let me in and tells me to “put your things in the bus”. Problem is (1) I have no bus and (2) we want to hike through the canyon so we will not even end up at the same place, again. It turns out that my camera is a problem (its neither very big nor professional) – not the cameras of all the Chinese visitors passing through (smartphones are allowed, anyway). Pointing this out to the security only returns a painful stare. Ok, we give in, I go back in line and let Michi go through first, with the backpack. Now the guard tries to tell her that the backpack is to heavy and that our bananas are not allowed. Ok, thousands of cartoons have taught us the danger of bananas. Finally, in second try, we smuggle our camera and backpack through security.

      Inside, we buy our tickets (ca. 140RMB for the glass bridge and 110RMB for the Grand Canyon). We get shoe covers and step out into an arena overlooking the bridge. The bridge hangs 360m over the canyon and spans 430m. It is designed to hold 800 people, but apparently the Park Administration have tested it with a lot more. We are lucky; the crowd is small. We walk across the bridge, taking selfies on the glass. Michi gets over her fear of heights and also sits on the glass. As the other side of the bridge is closed, we cross back and through the Grand Canyon Entrance gate. Stairs take us all 360m down the cliff into the canyon. Inside is a very beautiful walkway, which takes about 1 to 2h past steep cliffs and waterfalls to boats, which take us out of the Canyon.

      We get some snacks and hire a local black cab to take us to town, where we have lunch. As Michi and I cannot get enough of the beautiful scenery, we to a quick sprint (it is already 15.00) to Baofeng Lake, which is located right next to the Wulingyuan town. We take the bus up to the lake and join the little cruise. The electric boat glides past sheer mountain cliffs over beautiful blue water. At two random locations, Chinese singers appear and sing a tune. It is very relaxing after all the hiking of the past 1,5 days.

      Back at the hotel we have a foot massage… I am sure the women have done the best job, possible, but I feel that it hurts even more. Nonetheless, we walk (crawl) to town to have dinner. The best rated restaurant in the food-finder App Dianping offers live groundhog. We pass and find another place. After dinner, we fall into bed. Sleep is interrupted, because every movement sends spikes of pain into the thighs.

      Day 4 (01.05.)

      It feels like we need one hour to make it from our room to the breakfast – which, today is, inconveniently located in a room a full 5 – 10m further than yesterday. After breakfast, we take a taxi to the South Entrance to visit Huangshi – the Yellow Stone Village. We are greeted by a large sign “If you have not visited Huangshi, you can claim not to have visited Zhangjiajie”. The elevator ride proofs that this are not empty words. We ride through the stone forrest upward. On top, there is a ca. 1.5h round walk. The sights, such as the 5 Finger Peak and the Front Garden, are amazing.

      From Huangshi, we drive to Zhangjiajie town; a small (1.4M inhabitants) and dusty place full of construction sites. Our taxi driver drops us off at the cable car station. We grab a bite to eat before we embark on one of the world’s longest and most intense cable car rides. The cable car first passes over the town of Zhangjiajie, over a hill and into remote suburbs until it reaches the Middle Station. From there it passes over a small hill and a valley, before it swings upward along the face of Tianmen Mountain. The ride upward is not for the faint at heart but rewards the brave with incredible views on the mountain and the Heaven Gate – a giant hole in the mountain – and some sweaty palms.
      On top, we take the cliff walk towards the escalator (unfortunately, our time is a bit short). The view is breathtaking – a cure for any fear of heights or Chinese construction. A glass walk is less spectacular. We take the escalators (7 in total) down to the Heaven Gate and – deciding that we have not walked enough steps – walk down the 999 steps to the base (9 is the highest, ergo most heavenly number, reserved for the Emperor). At the bottom, we take the bus down the famous 99 bends.

      In town, we have dinner and go directly to the airport. Our flight is only delayed a little bit, while Yvonne and Miguel are tortured by a long delay on their way back to Beijing. I pass out, as soon as I hit my seat – not even woken up by the drink and meal calls of the stewardesses.

      Last but not least, there is poetry in the park signs. Only those who can appreciate both, nature and man’s art of words can truly experience the beauty of Zhangjiajie. Here is a selection:

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