Every so often an article listicle will show up on my Facebook newsfeed with a title along the lines of ’30 must see places before you’re 30’ or ’10 places you won’t believe exist’. Although these lists tend to be quite repetitive they do provide me with some great inspiration regarding where to visit on this world trip of ours. One of the places that always seems to come up on these lists is the Tianzi Mountains in Zhangjiajie, which you are probably more likely to recognise as the inspiration for the floating mountains in Avatar. It was for this reason that we added Zhangjiajie National Forest Park to our Chinese itinerary, which is where the mountains are located.
When we arrived in Zhangjiajie we didn’t really know much about the National Forest Park and just assumed that we could figure it all out by asking for advice from the hostel. It became quickly apparent that this plan wouldn’t work… Zhangjiajie was really small city by Chinese standards, with only a few hundred thousand people living there. Also, although the town is a popular tourist spot, they don’t get many westerners there, so the tourist information that is provided is all in Mandarin. As such, communication problems with the non-English speaking staff at our hostel ensued and we decided to go online to do our research instead. Dodgy wifi connections, VPN issues and an inability to use Google made this task quite difficult, so after a while we just gave up and decided to wing it.
The next morning we walked to the bus station, located near the main railway station. We attempted to buy tickets to the National Forest Park from the ticket office, but the ladies there indicated that we should instead go through security and buy our tickets somewhere on the other side of the building. After hovering for a while we couldn’t find anywhere to buy tickets so we walked outside, where a man easily spotted us as confused foreigners and indicated we should get on the mini bus. We got on without a ticket and away we went. Fortunately we were on the right bus and after about 10 minutes a lady got on the bus and collected our payment of 10 yuan each. All up the ride was about 40 minutes and we got dropped off right outside the Wulingyuan entrance to the Park, which is one of the main entrances.
When we arrived there were plenty of places to purchase tickets, which cost 248 yuan each for a 4-day pass. We found this to be quite expensive, costing us around AUD$60 each, but unfortunately it is not possible to buy tickets for only 1 or 2 days. Students aged 24 and under can get in for about 160 yuan, but must show their passports as proof of age. I tried my luck and gave them my student ID anyway, only to have the ticket office summon a staff member with a basic grasp of English to come out and tell me in no uncertain terms I was ‘too old’.
Navigating Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Armed with only a dodgy map of the park from our hostels and our smiles, we set out to find the Tianzi Mountains, which appeared to be located somewhere to the north. Although there were some large maps located near the park, these weren’t very good and only made us more confused about where to go. At this point is was clear that the park, like everywhere else in China(!), was designed for tour groups rather than independent travellers, so we gave up on the maps and just decided to follow one of the seemingly hundreds of tour groups around.
At was at this point that we saw a couple of white people who we approached hoping that a) they spoke English and b) knew where they were going. Luckily enough they had spent the previous day at the Park. They advised us to keep walking and then turn left down the path near the next set of toilets.
Following their instructions we went on our merry way, but it wasn’t until we were about 15 minutes in that we realised we hadn’t seen anyone else for a while. Where did all those pesky, slow-walking tour groups go? Looking at our map we determined that we must have been taking the older, more off the beaten track path, which suited us just fine if it meant getting away from the crowds. Then, after about another 40 minutes of walking we got to the stairs. Oh God, the stairs! It was at this point that it dawned on us why no one else had come this way… we would be taking the stairs all the way to the top of the very tall mountain!!
The stairs were HARD work. I have no idea how many we walked up, but my uneducated guess is that there were about 5,000 in total. As we climbed up them I came to appreciate the 2½ years of CrossFit I had under my belt and tried to focus my attention on all the calories I would burn after having spent the last two weeks eating my own weight in dumplings. At least this is what I did when I wasn’t cursing under my breath.
At last! We arrived at the top of the mountain! I’m not going to lie, as painful as the stairs were, I was quite proud that we climbed up them when everyone else there had simply taken a bus to the top.
We didn’t really know where we were so we flagged down a passing bus, which took us to the main tourist village at the top of the mountain. In true Chinese fashion this village was full of souvenirs and fast food – KFC to be exact. We contemplated rewarding ourselves for the climb with fried chicken, but then reminded ourselves of our very strict budget and instead splurged on a well-earned Tsingtao.
The Tianzi Mountains
From the tourist village we took the first path leading us to a viewing platform and, as we approached the side of the mountain, we got our first glimpse of what all the effort had been for. The Tianzi Mountains were tall, narrow, mysterious, and simply breathtaking!
My only real complaint was that the viewing platforms were so crowded that we could barely move at times, and it was almost impossible to take a photo without getting a selfie stick to the face. People were also really pushy at times, which is pretty scary when you are standing on a cliff face more than 1000 feet from the ground, separated only by a small railing.
The other stuff
After seeing the Tianzi Mountains we set forth to explore some other parts of the National Forest Park. In particular, we tried to go to the landmark ‘One Step to Heaven’, which the tourists we had asked for directions earlier had said was the highlight of the park for them.
Alas, it was not meant to be. We tried and we tried, but all the signs and maps said something different. We probably walked in circles for about 2 hours before simply giving up due to impending loss of light.
Getting off the mountain
Like everything else on this day, getting off the mountain also proved to be difficult. There was an elevator (welcome to China!) that went down to the bottom, but this would have cost us about 120 yuan each (about AUD$30) simply to get off the mountain. Not satisfied with this option, we tried to find walking directions to the bottom of the mountain and the Wulingyuan Entrance to the National Forest Park. At no point could we find a walking track so, fed up, we ended up having to take the cable car down for 76 yuan each. It wasn’t until we got on the cable car that we got a birds-eye view of the walking path below us that would have gotten us off the mountain. Sigh. Although the cable car ride was lovely, we were a bit peeved that there had been no signposting for the pathway.
Once we got off the cable car at the lower station, we discovered that we still had some way to go to get to the entrance. All up I think we took 3 buses with various amounts of walking in between to get to the bottom of the mountain.
Although the Tianzi Mountains were beautiful, when we reached the exit we were quite relieved to be getting out of the park. Initially we had planned to spend a second day there, but after the stress (and expense) of the first day we were quite firm in our resolve that we would not be stepping foot in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park again.