Travel: Avoid the Crowds at Hunan's Zhangjiajie, China's Avatar Mountains
The UNESCO world heritage listed national park, officially known as Wulingyuan Scenic Area, is a vast, prehistoric warren of sandstone peaks and troughs, with thin monoliths piercing the sky like razors. Shrubs and stunted trees cling to the cracks within the peaks, and an impenetrable forest obscures most of the park’s floor. The atmosphere is so otherworldly that we half expected a pterodactyl to come swooping through the sandstone forest, and it’s easy to see why this landscape has been pegged as James Cameron’s inspiration for Avatar’s alien world of Pandora.
While never confirmed by Cameron himself, the film reference has permeated the park to such an extent that a section (now the busiest) has been renamed “Avatar Mountains” and it’s possible to pose for a photo on a life-size plastic purple mountain banshee. The tour groups have also descended en mass, and it can be tricky to evade the loudspeaker toting hordes, especially at weekends or on national holidays.
With such a large expanse of park to explore, however, it’s definitely possible to get off the tourist trail and find some serenity. Just be warned, if you’re used to the wild national parks of, say, Europe or North America, Zhangjiajie provides a far more sanitized and commercial experience. All the park’s routes are paved and kept in a spotless condition (staff members could be seen sweeping stray leaves off the paths), and it’s also easy to explore for those less mobile, as a network of (free) buses, (not free) elevators, and cable cars give you the option of skipping the strenuous climbs.
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There are four entrances to the park, each located in one of the major villages scattered around the perimeter. All of the entrances can be reached by rattling minibus (approximately one hour, RMB 12) from Zhangjiajie city bus station, and all of them are bristling with accommodation, restaurants, and stores selling tourist tat. It’s worth stocking up on snacks outside the park, as options are limited once you enter, but to experience the mountains in their full glory, you’ll want to ditch heavier bags at the entrance and set off with the intention of sleeping within the park.
Tickets will set you back a somewhat steep RMB 248 between Mar 1-Nov 30, and a more appealing RMB 139 from Dec 1 to Feb 28, but are valid for four days, allowing for an extended exploration of the incredible geological formations if time is on your side. We recommend the Zhangjiajie Village entrance as an easily accessible but less crowded and hassle-free route into the park.
Being firm believers in saving the best views until last, we began with Golden Whip Stream, a 3km riverside walk that’s straight out of Middle Earth, strewn with mossy rocks bathed in the golden sunlight of late afternoon and flanked by impressive peaks. While the tour groups head straight for Bailong Elevator (RMB 80), a glass box that clings to the cliffside, it’s possible to take a set of stairs that make a meandering steep ascent to the “First Bridge Under the Sun” and “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” viewing areas. While we were warned that the hike was too long and tough multiple times, the entire climb took a mere 40 minutes, and the rewarding views felt far more gratifying when earned through our sweaty ascent.
The wooden boardwalks bolted to the side of the mountain afford breathtaking views, but you’re sure to be fighting the crowds at this prime spot. Instead of taking the free bus back down, pitch up at one of the back-to-basics guesthouses at the peak, where you can see stellar night skies, eat homecooked food, and lay first claim to dawn vistas from deserted viewing platforms before the park opens at 8am the next day.
As the tour groups filter in, hop on the network of interconnected (and somewhat confusing) buses to ferry yourself to the west of the park. If you want to alight at the less trodden scenic spots, you’ll have to request the driver to stop, or he will barrel on to popular Tian Zi. The views from Tian Zi peak are said to be some of the best and most expansive, as it is the highest point in the park. Lunch options abound in this popular spot – including, incredulously, a McDonalds. If you’ve always wanted to know what it would feel like to slurp a McFlurry on Pandora, here’s your chance.
Which route you take back down to the park’s depths will depend on your level of fitness: choose between a long, steep staircase that offers multiple viewing points, the chance to get up close and personal with cheeky monkeys, and an almost completely solitary couple of hours, or a cable car (RMB 67) that will whisk you back down below in a matter of minutes and boasts a frustrating queue at busier times.
At the base of the mountain, it’s possible to hail one of the many passing free buses that will deposit you at any of the park’s exits, or, alternatively, you can end your visit where you began and re-trace your footsteps along the Golden Whip Stream.
Photos: Amber De La Haye, BookMundi