This was my second trip to China and Anthony’s first, but because of other travel commitments, we unfortunately didn’t have as much time as we would have liked it China. Besides hitting the must do’s of Beijing (and the Great Wall), Shanghai, and Yangshuo in the South we didn’t have a lot of extra time to go anywhere new. I stumbled upon Zhangjiajie National Park when I was researching the most beautiful places in China and I knew if we went nowhere else, we had to go here. This park first gained popularity in the West when it was featured in the scifi film Avatar, and yet it is still relatively unknown. The incredible and surreal landscape consists of pillar like mountains that spear high up in the air into the clouds. Because of Avatar fame, one of the pillars (the main one featured in the film), was renamed the Avatar Mountain.
Located in about equidistant from Shanghai and Hong Kong, we reached Zhangjiajie by overnight train from Shanghai (it was about 20 hours). In the city of Zhangjiajie, there is a cable car up to the Tianmen Mountain located right in the city center (which we missed, but is considered one of the main sites in the area), but the park itself is about an hour away by taxi. Most people wind up staying in the main touristy village of Wulingyuan right outside the park, but if you’re looking for something quieter and less crowded try the Yangjiajie entrance. However should you chose the latter, definitely arrange for a transfer from the train station or airport with your guest house to avoid confusion.
We stayed at the Yangjiajie Inn, a family run guest house that we would recommend for being affordable, comfortable with private balconies and air conditioning, and good food especially for dinner.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
Entrance to the park is a one time fee of 240 yuan (about $50) which gets your park access for four days. The buses within the park are free, but any cable cars or elevators are an additional fee of about 75 yuan per person one way. The park has good infrastructure (possibly too good as it can feel a little over developed at times), and there are plenty of bathrooms and spots where you can buy water or food. The layout of the park with all the different buses etc can be a little confusing, but just get a map from the entrance for 10 yuan and keep asking people if you get confused. The park hours are 6am-6pm. If you’re hoping to stay for sunset etc, you will have to find accommodation within the park which can get rather expensive as I understand.
You can see the Avatar mountains in one day like we did, but you can also easily spend 2-3 days within the park. In addition to the main park, besides Tianmen Mountain which I mentioned above as an additional site, you may also want to visit the Grand Canyon with it’s popular glass bridge (an additional 240 yuan), or Lake Baofeng for a boat ride.
WHAT TO EXPECT
We got a little unlucky with the weather on the day we went. While all the mist lent of a level of eery mystery from below, it meant that we weren’t able to get a clear view of the Avatar and surrounding mountains from above (as you can see from our photos below, which are a bit disappointing to be honest).
The route we took was to enter the park at the Yangjiajie entrance, about a ten minute walk from our guest house, then took a bus to where the bottom of the cable car comes down, then directly another to the “Monkey Tunnel” where you walk about ten minutes along a wooden path with stairs where you will commonly spot the local monkeys (you never know where they will turn up within the whole park!).
Once you get through the “Monkey Tunnel” we took one more bus to the Golden Whip Stream trail head, and walked along a well made stone path for about an hour at which point you may chose to either take the stairs up to the top of the pillars like we did (a good if painful hour), or to take the elevator a little further up the path which is the tallest, fastest elevator in the world but I believe requires another bus at the top to the scenic area.
At the top of the climb, you follow the signs for the Enchanted Terrace. There will be many view points with epic views of these surreal pillar mountains, especially on a clear day. When it starts getting crowded you know you are reaching the main view point where you can see the Avatar Mountain. Further along you will also reach Nature’s First Bridge, a natural stone bridge connecting the main land mass to one of the pillars that you can walk across if you like.
From the top of the climb to the end of this scenic walk will take you about another hour or more depending on how long you stop. From there you will take a bus towards the top of the Yangjajie Cableway, then walk about 300 meters to the cableway which takes you down to almost where you started. We caught a van for 3 yuan each from the bottom of the cable car back to the park entrance. We did this whole loop in about 6-7 hours.
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Carina Covella is a writer and currently working on her forthcoming memoir, Love Dogs, detailing her six month transformational journey from Hollywood through India. Carina graduated from Barnard College, Columbia University cum laude with a degree in Art History. She also attended the Sorbonne in Paris and studied opera at the Manhattan School of Music through the university exchange programs. Until recently she lived in Mill Valley, California with her wonderful Welsh boyfriend Anthony in a house nestled in the trees, but now they’re off on a two year adventure around the world. When she’s not writing or traveling, she loves to cook for her friends and family.