Far away from the roar of Beijing, secluded in the mountains of the Hunan province is the small city of Zhangjiajie. While I still can’t remember how to pronounce the name, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the fantastic sights we encountered here at the “Avatar Mountains”. While the ground level is bustling with people, food, and monkeys (!!!), thick fog clouds roll in from above, giving the mountains a more solemn feeling. The quiet pathways carved into the mountain side are damp, mossy and narrow, but provide one breathtaking view after another of the scraggly peaks.
From above the fog, I can imagine it really does look like the mountains are floating. For us, the day was clear, sunny and brilliant.
Be careful navigating the trail head. I got lost a few times, ending up summiting not one, but two different peaks in a day. If I had more time, I wouldn’t have been in such a rush to get the photos I craved, but unfortunately, I only had one day to explore Zhangjiajie National Park.
Remember that crazy friend I talked about, “Jay”, back at the Great Wall? He camped up at the top of the park- with a mag flash light to protect himself from the crazed monkeys, of course- for the better part of 3 days. There are some serious rugged views up there. Just a tip for all of your mountaineers!
The Avatar Mountains
In the city of Zhangjiajie, there are two different national parks. Tianmen Mountain is accessible by cable car from downtown, and Zhangjiajie National Park is a bit further away by bus. While both are equally gorgeous, Zhangjiajie has fewer tourists on the inclined trails. It seems that Chinese tourists avoid the climbs (and the descents…) and chose the newly installed glass elevator instead. Be prepared to wait upwards of 3 hours to use it.
My favorite resource for Zhangjiajie is this article by China Highlights
While you might find Tianmen Mountain to be crowded with tourists throughout the day due to the easy access, the slopes of the National park will be empty, except the monkeys. I realize this is falling on deaf ears…but stop feeding the f****ing monkeys, guys. They are aggressive. And I almost got attacked. Not fun. Be warned.
The actual park is quite massive- but has buses from location to location. You can access most of the park in a day or two. The famous “Avatar Peaks” are located in the southwest region of the park, within a half-day hike. Before you reach the actual ascent into the mountains, you might be lucky enough to come across some truly gorgeous flora near the river.
Besides being absolutely stunning, one of the funniest parts about climbing this particular mountain was the commercialization. The film, Avatar, launched this area into a tourism hot spot. In fact, I would have never thought to come to this particular city if it weren’t for the movie itself. Due to the movies’ popularity, at the photo booth areas near the lookouts, most of the options contained a very poorly photo-shopped picture containing one of the many dragon/blue cartoon characters from the film. I wish I had purchased a print of myself riding an Avatar-themed dragon. Then again, maybe not.
A dreamer’s city
In many ways, Zhangjiajie is what I pictured China to be before I had experienced it. It’s rugged. It’s fresh. It’s beautiful. I wish that the whole city was just the way the mountains were.
Despite being labelled “small-town”, Zhangjiajie has about 4 million people living there. It’s still considered “rural” China, and there certainly is a countryside vibe there, but the city itself is still developing. There is quite a bit of rubble throughout the city, as it struggles to reinvent itself in it’s new-found infamy.