It’s a long weekend, and the earliest my alarm has been set since arriving in China. My bag is packed and I’m ready for the regular struggle of acquiring a taxi. As I (and two friends just as tired as me) stumble into the street I’m silently debating the likelihood of a taxi coming by at this time of the morning. Within moments one pulls up with a local and as he’s paying we slide ourselves onto the backseat before he even has time to retrieve his bag. The argument lost in translation begins. The driver clearly doesn’t want us in his car and my face clearly holds an expression of defiance. I show him the location to Wuyi square, unchanging my look of absolute refusal to leave. He submits finally and takes us to join the gathering of co-workers that has assembled in the square. We have a flight to catch. The destination: Zhangjiajie, Hunan province.
This is the first time I will explore another province outside of my current residence of Fujian. The school I work for have organised a trip to the famed scenic area of Zhangjiajie National Park, home of “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain”, named so for lending it’s inspiration to the 2009 Avatar movie. The weather here is cold and wet. It’s a crowded and uncomfortable bus journey to the hotel once landing. I think on how easily we portray travelling as a glamorous, exciting life. Although I do not deny that travel enriches your life greatly, I also can’t help but acknowledge how little fun is experienced in the long commutes. We arrive, we unpack, we sleep. Tomorrow is a day of exploring the fascinating and mysterious scenery of Zhangjiajie.
Breakfast is early but it could easily be lunch or dinner. In China rice has become the side dish to every meal. It’s not uncommon to have seafood and meat along with a selection of vegetables for the first meal of the day. My personal favorite is fried sticky rice with nuts, found mainly in the towns and villages. Coffee is not so much a thing here and so once I’ve eaten I run to the nearest street stall to find bottled cold coffee. I’m in luck on this occasion and pack two for the days journey to Zhangjiajie’s scenic spots.
As though the gathering of my fellow employees isn’t enough, we have decided to visit during a public holiday. The crowds are enormous. It wouldn’t matter if you didn’t know the way, you would be shuffled through as though on a conveyor belt to your destination. We settle on a bus and before long we are transported through a sea of clouds broken by towering pillars that creates a celestial hidden world. Among these sandstone pillars sits, in complete contrast, the world’s tallest outdoor elevator. Bailong elevator, also know as Hundred Dragon Sky lift, is 335 meters in height. Clinging to the mountainside, peering through the glass elevator car you are given a view to Spirit Soldier’s Gathering, a formation of 48 rocky towers that stand like soldiers.
I have never seen mountains quite like these. There is a mystery to this valley that is only matched by its beauty. It is easy to see how it became an inspiration to the Avatar movie, and that very mountain featured I am soon to lay eyes on. The hike is rich in wildlife and the mountains continue to vary in form. Pillars become square and start to look like the steps of giants, descending to open valleys and mountains in a tinted shadow from a sea of mist. Ignoring the fact I am surrounded by tourists, this place truly draws a comparison with the mythical Pandora in that it does not seem like a land where humans should dwell. Although completely grateful for having the privilege to see this ethereal world, I can’t help but think the popular tourist site will become affected negatively by our presence.
The clouds are beginning to drop back. I’m finally face to face with the majestic 1,080-metre Southern Sky Column (Avatar mountain). This pillar with its lush garden atop is nothing short of breathtaking. Although summers light would give such life and color to these views, for me the mist adds to the otherworldly feel. These mighty pillars partially hidden in the clouds are like floating gardens, those of which I had only seen in painting of ancient China. To be here in Zhangjiajie is a moment I will treasure.
Being here with so many others though is some what unfortunate. We are continually rounded up together so the guides can keep track of us. I would have been much happier hiking along the river up to to mountains and not taking the modern structure that is the cliff side elevator. This is a national park that you could hike for days and with the proper kit I would have loved to stay on the mountain for the night. This is the type of environment you want to explore at your own time and take in every part of its landscape. It should be noted that Zhangjiajie Park is a part of Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area and has much charm to all its sections, not just the pillared mountains. Pagodas, pavilions and bridges are all sights not to miss while roaming the park.
While on the mountain we had the company of Chinese women in Tujia traditional dresses, coming down however we are met with a different kind of congregation. Monkeys have started to gather circling the many tourists on the mountains open balcony. They don’t seem phased by us at all, even those carrying their young. I couldn’t help but feel yet again that we don’t really belong here. People are falling over themselves for photographs and it’s not long before the security men start to set off firecrackers. Whether they were doing this to protect the monkeys or the tourists I’ve never quite decided on.
Leaving this natural wonder behind we head back to the hotel. Tomorrow we are heading to explore Tianmen mountain, just south of Zhangjiajie city. Although excited for more unearthly natural beauty, its hard to imagine mountains that could ever impress more than the pillars of Zhangjiajie National Park.