The real-life inspiration for Avatar: the incredible landscape of Zhangjiajie (張家界)

In China by Richard6 Comments

The First Bridge Under Heaven (the second highest natural arch in the world) with one of the thousands of vast rock pillars in the area, at Zhiangjiajie

Right, I’m going to keep this short: if you ever get the chance to fit Zhangjiajie (張家界) into a China trip, leap at the chance! However to get the most of it, you’d do well to be super-fit and have a couple of days to enjoy the experience to the full, because (although you’ll run the risk of getting pinnacled-out if you stay too long) Zhangjiajie is HUGE, and there’s a lot of magnificent walking to be hade here.

On Yaozizai mesa

Zhangjiajie lies in the northwestern corner of Hunan Province, in Mao Zedong country, four hours by bus from the provincial capital Changsha (長沙), or (these days) just an hour or two by plane from almost any major city in China. That’s how convenient it is to get here nowadays.

Such convenience of access should make Zhangjiajie hellishly crowded in summer, and yes, some areas (especially the Golden Whip Stream and the Tianzshan area, near the road) are bursting with loud and obnoxious local tourists (as well as many surprisingly well-behaved ones – the Chinese are really improving in their social skills these days). However, the enormous crowds in the most popular places make not a jot of difference: Zhangjiajie is still an absolute must-see, and one of the great hiking experiences in China. Believe me, my photos don’t begin to do this place justice – it’s truly awesome!

Once you’ve got here, do your self a favor and leave the Lonely Planet guide in the hotel room. I’ve had a number of  issues with this publisher over the years, but the section in the China guide describing Zhangjiajie is  just plain wrong. The little sketch map of the park (which doesn’t seem to have changed for many years) marks very few places in the scenic area, but it includes the tiny Yuanyang Waterfall, which has been inaccessible for a long time (the path has long returned to the jungle) while missing out many of the greatest sights, such as the First Arch Under Heaven, the world’s second highest natural bridge.

The view from the Corridor in the Sky takes in the point when the amazing landscape of Zhangjiajie suddenly end, leaving rolling, grassy hills and terraced fields stretching to the horizon.

There are several places you can be based if exploring the park, but for most travellers, Zhangjiajie village is  surely the only realistic choice. At the southern edge of the scenic area, it’s just a couple of minutes from the entrance to the magnificent Golden Whip Stream path, and although a bigger place than it was on my first visit to Zhangjiajie five or six years ago, is still quite a quiet, one-street kind of town, and even on a busy weekend in July we easily found a comfortable place for RMB150 or so for a twin. The main alternative bases – Suoxiyuan village and Zhangjiajie city, simply don’t cut it unless luxury is a ‘must.’ Both are much noisier, less atmospheric, and a lot further from the action. One good alternative is the youth hostel inside the park, near the viewpoint across to the great Natural Arch, but it’s beside a big road, inconvenient to get to, and you’ll be stuck there for food in the evenings.

Now to really get the most out of Zhangjiajie you need to really enjoy walking. Luckily most of the Chinese tourists that visit this wonder of the natural world don’t enjoy hiking so much, so even on a weekend in the heart of the tourist high season, we had no trouble getting away from the crowds very quickly.  The first time I visited, I worked out a great loop trail that looked fantastic on the map, and was even better in reality, but it took far longer to complete that we could have imagined – at thirteen hours (no rests) it was the longest day hike I’ve ever done. It’s a long and intense day’s walk, but I’m convinced there’s no better way to explore the park, and so the four of us retraced that same route this time around. At over thirteen hours and (we estimated) around 28 kilometers in length, it’s hard work, but wow – what a day!

A view from One Step to Heaven

The route is pretty simple to follow, as long as you pick up one of the maps of the scenic area while in the village (get the version with English translations; there’s a scan of the map at the bottom of this blog entry). Starting at Zhangjiajie village (when the scenic area opens at 7 am – don’t waste a minute if you’re going to do the whole route!), enter the scenic area (the basic ticket (RMB250 or so) is valid for three consecutive days in the park) and follow the Golden Whip Stream ahead. After about ten minutes turn right immediately after a small side stream and a concrete path (yep, they’re almost all surfaced paths here)  starts climbing through a deep valley to the top of the great mesa called Yaozizai. An hour or so later a side path at the top of the pass climbs up onto the flat-topped massif of Yaozizai, and circles the edge of the awesome cliffs for an extraordinary first taste of Zhangjiajie’s best scenery. And the crowds are conspicuously missing, since this path is off the radar of most tourists.  If the idea of a thirteen-or-more hour odyssey seems too much to handle, the best way to shorten the hike is to leave off this first hard climb, and simply follow the Golden Whip Stream out to the trail that climbs up to the Back Garden and the First Arch under Heaven, although by so doing, you’ll miss some dramatic viewpoints.

Descending the north side of Youzizai through another spectacular gorge, the path eventually descends back to the valley of the Golden Whip Stream, several kilometers upstream. Turning left here, it’s a short but spectacular walk beneath the pinnacles until a path on the right climbs all the way to the top of the main table mountain in the park, passing the Back Garden with its series of viewing platforms offering awesome panoramas over the wild landscape, and culminates by crossing the First Arch under Heaven (天下第一橋), the second highest natural arch in the world (the highest, the recently (re-) discovered Shipton’s Arch is also in China, near Kashgar in the far, far west).

From here there’s an unavoidable bit of road walking (follow it westwards); alternatively you can try flagging down one of the electric minibuses that are the only transport allowed on the roads in the park. In 20-30 minutes, turn left down a short trail beside the Youth Hostel which ends at a viewpoint across to the First Arch, indescribably impressive with the tiny, ant-like people swarming  over and  beside it.

On Yaozizai Mesa

A little further along the road is the entrance to the magnificent Wulong Village (烏龍寨) and Tianbo Mansion (天波村), actually a natural, exceptionally well defended pinnacle of rock that was once a hideout for a group of bandits.  It’s hardly surprising that the crowds return here, because it’s a popular stop off on the electric bus route around this part of the park, and partly because it’s such damn spectacular fun, clambering up all those tiny cracks, up ladders and around the edge of sheer cliffs with vast, sheer drops below.

From here a path strikes out into much quieter countryside, however, eventually reaching one of the highlights of the day – a rock formation called One Step to Heaven (一步登天). A pair of ladders climb the sheer face of the rock, and the view over the mass of vast, naturally eroded rocky pillars, each several hundred meters high, peppering the surrounding gorges is quite unforgettable.

One Dangerous Step is a free-standing pillar of rock maybe 300 meters high, detached from the parent cliff by a crack a meter or two wide but hundreds of meters deep. The ‘dangerous step’ onto the pillar is now safe, as there’s a grill underfoot to stand on as you step across.

By now the afternoon will probably be turning to dusk, but there are a couple more incredible sights before the final push back to Zhangjiajie village. An extraordinary place, the easily missed Corridor in the Cliffs (空中走廊; it’s a short diversion on the right along the cliffside, off the main path) gives a jaw-dropping view over the point where the crazy landscape of eroded pinnacles of Zhangjiajie suddenly gives way to an utterly unremarkable landscape of smooth, rolling hills and terraced fields. The transition is so sudden and unexpected that it’s hard to believe it’s real!

The Celestial Bridge is a slender and delicate blade of rock suspended over a horrible drop hundreds of meters high. It’s officially closed (because crossing it is pretty risky) but it’s easy enough to climb round the barrier and onto the natural bridge!

It’s already been an intense and very long day, but there’s one last challenge to meet before it’s all over. The path descends from the Corridor in the Sky into a deep wooded valley, from where it’s a punishingly steep climb up to one final pass (marked by an unexceptional ruin called the Moon Viewing Platform 月亮台) that connects finally back to the Golden Whip Stream and  the easy but spectacular walk along the stream below towering pillars of rock to reach – at last! – Zhangjiajie village. Take a torch, as you’ll almost certainly do the last stretch of the path in the dark!

The Celestial Bridge from the side; the only way on the bridge is via a rather dangerous little scramble down a rock at the edge of the natural arch.

This long day hike is a hard trudge, but an absolutely extraordinary one, and it’s hard to follow that up with something as good, let alone better, but there’s plenty more outrageously spectacular scenery to explore if the legs allow. Tianzishan (天子山), in the north of the park is one of the most crowded parts of the entire park, partly because it’s very close to a road, but also because Zhangjiajie’s unique landscape of giant, needle-like pillars is at its most dense and astonishing hereabouts. It’s a pain to get here from Zhangjiajie village (first a bus to Suoxiyu village – you may need to change buses midway,  then a taxi or walk to the entrance gate to the scenic area, then another bus to the lower station of the cable car, then finally a cable car to the summit), but it’s worth all the hassle. Alternatively a couple of paths (the better and quieter option is the route via the Southern Heavenly Gate (南天門) natural arch) make for a much more rewarding way to the top of the mesa.

The Emperor’s Throne; an indescribably magnificent place!

A series of short trails leaving the road to the west of Tianzishan give access to a number of awesome formations such as the Arranging Battles Platform (點將台), but the main reason to venture along this road (catch one of the free electric buses that ply it – it’s a long walk on tarmac otherwise) is to see the Grand Sightseeing Platform (大觀台), One Dangerous Step (一步難行), the Celestial Bridge, and the Emperor’s Throne ( 天子座). I’m not even going to try to describe these astonishing sights, but will just say that they’re well worth the hassle of getting to.  And I haven’t mentioned the wonderful independant mesa known as Huangshizhai (黃石寨; Yellow Stone Village)….

Zhangjiajie is one of the world’s more spectacular sights, and photos (especially mine) can’t possibly give a fair and accurate idea of just how magnificent this place is. Any first trip to China is bound to involve a busy schedule, with Beijing and the Wall, Shanghai, Xian and the Terracotta Warriors, and Hong Kong all more-or-less compulsory stops, but don’t forget to include one of the country’s indescribably spectacular mountain areas. Huangshan (黃山) is probably the best-known, but don’t overlook other places such as Zhangjiajie. A visit could very possibly prove to be a highlight of the trip.

For those that care about such things, James Cameron said that the inspiration for the surreal landscapes in Avatar came from the famous Huangshan mountain in not-so-distant Ahui Province. Forgive the poor confused man! Anyone whose been to both places will immediately know that Huangshan looks nothing like anything in the movie. On the other hand, if you could detach Zhangjiajie’s countless pillars and somehow make them hover in the air (or alternatively simply be lucky enough to come on a day when the pillars rise out of low-lying cloud) well, there’s Pandora right in front of you. I seriously doubt there’s anything quite like Zhangjiajie elsewhere; in our world, at least.

GETTING THERE:

There are no longer any excuses! Zhangjiajie these days is simplicity itself to get to – flights from most of China’s big cities connect with Zhangjiajie City, from where it’s an easy 45 minute shuttle by bus or taxi to Zhangjiajie village, where walkers should definitely stay.

Despite what I said above, less able walkers would probably do better  staying in Suoxiyu Town (索溪峪), since this is the terminus for the electric minibuses which provide the only transport inside the scenic area (apart from the Tianzishan and Huangshizhai cable cars, a small electric train at Ten Mile Gallery, and the mighty lift at Bailong).  Electric buses run to the Ten Mile Gallery (where a path climbs to the top of Tianzishan), and to the lower cable car station below Tianzishan. From the top of Tianzishan another electric minibus goes back and forth along the upper road connecting the cable car and the Bailong Lift, passing the trails to One Dangerous Step, the Celestial Bridge and the Emperor’s Throne; Wulong Village and Tianbo Mansion, and the First Bridge Under Heaven. Although often packed full, you should be able to flag a bus down anywhere on the road, and if you can get the driver to understand, you might be able to get him to stop between the ‘official’ bus stops on the route – very useful for cutting down some of the longer road walks in the park.

The gates at Zhangjiajie village and Suoxiyu town both open at 7 am; try to be there a few minutes early though. The buses at Suoxiyu into the park in particular are enormously popular and by 8 am (during the peak summer season at least) you’ll be jostling for a place omn a bus with vast and impatient crowds.

Not all the trails marked on the tourist maps of Zhangjiajie still exist, so take the existence of the small (green) routes on the map with a healthy pinch of salt. The routes described above are all clear (almost all are also surfaced) and easy to follow, with English signage. However (for instance) the rather tempting route that connects the Emperor’s Throne through Laowuchang with Yuanyang Waterfall and the Bailong Lift is overgrown and no longer passable, and the section near the Emperor’s Throne (at least) is very dangerous!

The Imperial Writing Brush Peaks at Tianzishan

zjj english mapMap (click to enlarge). Note that not all trails still exist!!

Comments

  1. Takes my breath away! i just got back from 6 weeks in the alps, near lucerne, i drove over the saint gotthard pass, which was thrilling… but these are the most spectacular mountain scenes i ever saw. Thank you!

  2. This is now on my list! Will most definitely come back to you for advice when I actually plan a trip. Do you know if any part of it is developed for rock climbing? I’m drooling at those rocks. Nice for you to work out a loop that’s truly off the beaten track. It sounds really nice! We are too spoilt in NZ… :-p You ought to come one day 🙂 Most of the time we have the mountains to ourselves when we are out.

  3. Thank you for writing this down! We went there a month ago and enjoyed it so much! We did the first part of the hike untill the paved road. There we took a bus to the northern part and continued our hike all the way down. Thanks again! It really helped us plan our hike.

  4. Hi, thank you for the beautiful description. Can you share the loop map with us? I am debating between Huang Shan and Zhang Jia jie. I only have 2.5/3 days and love hiking. Can you make a recommendation for Oct 26to Oct 28th? thanks!

    1. Author

      Thanks; glad you you found the post useful! The only maps of Zhangjiajie are ones like the one I scanned at the bottom of the blog entry, I’m afraid. Hopefully the route described will be enough to trace the basic route we took. You could easily spend two-plus days in either Zhangjiajie or Huang Shan and both are incredible. My personal favorite is the first, but I’ve not been back to Huangshan for about a decade, and new areas have apparently been opened up that look really amazing. Have a great trip!

  5. That is absolutely gorgeous! I can totally see that as an “alien world” (or, at least, inspiration for one). Thank you SO much for sharing!!

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