Buried deep in the world’s highest populated country, China, lies an otherworldly landscape. Thousands of striking monoliths covered with lush green foliage rise from the ground and blast through the clouds to reach heaven’s gates. The landscape is surreal to say the least.
In 1982, China decided to build a national park to preserve this scenic area and thus the Zhangjiajie National Park was born. Word has it that this was the landscape that inspired James Cameron to create the Hallelujah Mountains in the award-winning film, Avatar. Was Pandora real after all? A 20 something girl decided to find out.
Note: There are many places to cover in Zhangjiajie National Park and many routes you can take. I would highly recommend taking a map and planning out a route before heading to the park. You can opt for trails that include a ton of hiking but due to my never-to-recover ankle injury, I followed a route with minimal hiking and it is perfectly feasible.
Zhangjiajie National Park – day 1
Tianzi mountain and Yuanjiajie (Avatar mountains, sky bridge and Bailong elevator)
A bit of background: I came across Zhangjiajie National Park about 6-7 years ago while looking for unbelievable places around the world. I printed out a picture of the Hallelujah mountains and pasted it in my so called bucket-list diary. I promised myself I would get there one day and 7 years later, when I realised I can actually make this happen, I didn’t hold back.
I knew I won’t have a lot of time which would mean I will have to spend two full days travelling in and out of Zhangjiajie and will get only 2 days in Zhangjiajie. I prepared myself for this exhausting journey and asked my Chinese friend who lives in Shanghai to join me. I hadn’t met her since our graduation and this would be a nice opportunity for a reunion while also exploring a magical destination. She agreed and we both flew down to Zhangjiajie for the long weekend.
Cable car ride to Tianzi mountain
We woke up early in the morning, grabbed some quick food along the way and along with hundreds of other tourists (mostly local), walked through the chaotic gates of Zhangjiajie National Park.
There is a station for all the shuttles right beside the entrance. We took the one that goes to Tianzi mountain which dropped us near the cable car station. The cable cars don’t stop at the station, they just slow down so that travellers can hop on it. The cable car journey was our first glance a the magnificent landscape of Zhangjiajie.
When you dream about a place for years, sometimes you wonder if the place will live up to the expectation in real life. Will it make you gasp at the very first sight? Will it make you fall in love at the first glance? Will it make your long journey worth it? For me, Zhangjiajie was a sure shot yes for each of these questions.
As the cable car passed through scenic mountains and gigantic stone pillars that went on for hundreds of meters, we couldn’t decide whether to simply sit and stare at this unbelievable sight or whether to take out my camera and capture every single inch of it. This was Tianzi mountain, our first stop at Zhangjiajie National Park.
Somewhere between gasping at the scenery and snapping pictures, the cable car dropped us at a station. We followed the road and it led to one lookout point after another. Eventually, we reached the thousand-meter cliff, another scenic viewpoint. The plethora of crowds here made it nearly impossible to take pictures!
The Avatar mountains of Yuanjiajie
We pretty much followed the crowd which led us to a bus station and the bus dropped us at Yuanjiajie. The most famous attractions of Yuanjiajie include the Sky Pillar of Hallelujah mountains (think Avatar), a natural bridge, and Bailong elevator.
The Southern Sky Pillar in Yuanjiajie is said to be the prototype of the “Hallelujah Mountains” in the famous Hollywood film Avatar. In January 2010, the Southern Sky Pillar was officially renamed as Hallelujah Mountains. It arises 1074 meters above sea level, over 150 meters in height. In the shape of a pillar connecting heaven and earth, this peak serves as a defining geographical landmark of Yuanjiajie Scenic Area.
Other than the Sky Pillar, Yuanjiajie offers various other platforms that give way to sweeping vistas of odd stone peaks in various shapes and sizes. I distinctly recall a set of pillars being in the shape of Mount Roraima of Venezuela/Brazil/Guyana.
Another fascinating sight is the sky bridge which stretches across two mountains. While it may not appear special at first, when you think of this natural bridge being formed at a height of about 350 meter and linking two mountains, it is easy to mistake this it for a bridge to heaven.
While the scenery in Yuanjiajie is breathtaking, this area also suffers from severe mass tourism and some of them are not as considerate as you might want them to be. It is not uncommon to see big groups of people being led by someone with a loud microphone, thereby ruining the Pandora like feel of Yuanjiajie.
When the noise does stop though, the pin drop silence, the mighty wind at a height of thousands of metres above sea level, and hundreds of unique stone pillars rising to the sky all around will convince you that you are indeed in another world.
Bailong elevator is officially the world’s tallest outdoor elevator. It’s a cliff-hugging elevator that takes you up and down one of these gigantic rocks of Zhangjiajie. While it is a nice experience to have, the elevator is extremely crowded and the glass is a bit dirty. It isn’t as scary as you would imagine but it’s not a bad experience.
Tujia food and cultural show
Evenings in Wulingyuan are spent in either dining or watching cultural shows. We bought tickets for a famous show called the charm of Xiangxi and it truly exceeded our expectations. The show went on to introduce the different minority groups of China and showcase their lifestyles and traditions through performances. From fire dances to soothing Chinese folklores, this show had it all.
We returned to our hostel and found a restaurant nearby to try local food. Till date, I can not recommend Tujia food enough! It has the perfect level of spice (not the mouth-numbing spice of Sichuan but just enough) and almost everything tastes fantastic. Even today, I continue to search for Tujia food in every country but unfortunately, it isn’t as popular as I had hoped.
Zhangjiajie National Park – day 2
Golden Whip Stream
Although I had very less time in Zhangjiajie, I had heard so much about the Golden Whip Stream, I didn’t dare to miss it. The second day, while my friend got stuck in the hostel with some urgent office work, I took the map and headed to the Golden Whip Stream for a quick tour.
During the bus journey, something amazing happened. Two high-school Chinese girls started talking to me, curious about the only non-Chinese person on-board. After a 15 minute discussion, the cheerful girls asked me if they can click a picture with me!
Now I had seen this happen plenty of times in India with foreigners but as an Indian, I had never really experienced it myself. Surely I would have felt awkward if random people on the street tried it but after the conversation with these friendly girls, I didn’t really mind. We clicked a selfie right before I got off at the bus stop of the Golden Whip Stream.
Golden Whip Stream is a narrow stream peacefully passing between a forest on one side and the humongous stone pillars on the other side. The initial walk is a bit disappointing but as you venture deeper into the woods, the crowd begins to disappear. Suddenly you are surrounded by dense forest on one side and humongous sandstones on the other side.
Unlike the other parts of Zhangjiajie where you get to observe these formations from a sky-high wooden platform, here you actually have the chance of looking up at them. This is where you can truly feel the scale and grandeur of Zhangjiajie.
The second part of the day was spent in exploring the famous Glass Bridge of Zhangjiajie, Zhangjiajie Canyon and Baofeng lake.This deserves it’s own post, so lookout for it.
Demystifying Zhangjiajie – how were the Avatar Mountains formed
Now, if you are looking at the pictures wondering how on earth does such landscape even exist, the following is for you. This is for the geography buffs, if you aren’t one, you might want to scroll through.
About 400 million years ago, quartz sandstone stratum was formed in this area. About 250 million years ago, carbonate formation such as limestone and dolomite were formed, and the crust uplifted to become land in about 210 million years ago.
The Himalayas movement dated from about 65 million years ago has formed a three-level planation surface in the region with the altitudes of 1,200 metres, 1000 metres, and 800 metres respectively.
The earth’s crust uplifted intermittently and the cap strata above the quartz sandstone was eroded off. Along some interlaced joints flowing water cut down in the strata and split the ancient planation surface into primary mesas and peak-shaped ridges of different sizes, and along joints the marginal parts were split into the rudiments of the rock dykes and the stone pillars.
Regional tilting and uplift continued and resulted in the stunning landscape we see today, consisting of dykes, natural bridges and arches, valleys, and stone pillars.
One for the bucket lists
A trip to Zhangjiajie is like none other. The scenery makes you gasp. It convinces you that you are on another planet. The culture is unique, with a number of minority groups each with their distinct characteristics. The food is different from other parts of China and absolutely delicious. If there is one place that must absolutely be on your bucket list, it should be this surreal place known as Zhangjiajie.
P.S: If you want to find out all the practical information needed to visit Zhangjiajie, check out my post on: Everything you need to know about visiting Zhangjiajie National Park.