Hiking with the Na’vi

时间:2022-09-09 09:49:23

The majestic beauty of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park appears instantly familiar, if only because its towering karst pillars, some more than a kilometer high, have inspired countless scroll paintings sold at tourist sites all over China.

Anyone who has seen Avatar will also have an inkling as to the park’s stunning grandeur, as the movie’s Hallelujah Mountains, which appear to float suspended in midair, are said to have been based on its unique landscape.

Still, there’s no substitute for the real thing, and despite a possibly unwise decision to rename one of the larger karst formations “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain,” Zhangjiajie is it.

The park’s association with James Cameron’s epic blockbuster has done wonders in terms of international recognition, possibly even trumping the wider area’s nomination as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992.

All in the Timing

However, the subsequent influx of tourists has led to complaints that overcrowding spoils the park’s hikes and views, with foreign visitors bemoaning the jostling and commotion that accompanies busloads of Chinese tourists.

All over the park there are signs requesting that hikers “stay in line,” and many of the entries listed on TripAdvisor note hours spent queuing for cable cars or other attractions.

I was apprehensive of all this before I flew into Zhangjiajie town’s airport, but as it turned out, timing my visit just after an early January snowfall was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Upon arrival, the landscape was blanketed in snow, which slowly melted over the course of my three-day trip to reveal lush subtropical forests reminiscent of Jurassic Park. It is honestly hard to avoid clichéd movie references when describing Zhangjiajie, as its vistas are often so mind-blowing as to appear computergenerated.

Far from having to dodge the crowds, two friends and I often had trails completely to ourselves, and on more than one occasion hiked a popular route without seeing a single soul. Quite how rare this is anywhere in China is hard to explain to those who have yet to visit the country, but suffice it to say I left feeling incredibly lucky.

It is worth noting a few logistical issues. A ticket for the park retails at an eye-watering 248 yuan (US$30) and, though this gets you three days, it is consequently worth planning your excursions with something approaching military precision. Hostels and travel agencies will provide you with a map of the park, as well as adjoining areas that require additional entrance fees, and will arrange tours, some including rafting trips, during peak season.

The map lacks any hint of contours, a somewhat glaring oversight given that to properly appreciate the karst peaks it is necessary to climb to the top of some of the highest formations.

Initially, I lamented the networks of stone steps that crisscross the mountains, especially as these proved a nightmare to descend when covered in ice, but it soon became clear that they were the only option to negotiate the sharpest gradients.

Monkey Business

We opted to climb up to Yellow Stone Village, the closest attraction to the park’s main entrance at Zhangjiajie Village. This turned out to be a two-hour hike up nearly 4,000 steps, but I maintain the trek is worth it for the slow revelation of astounding views that accompanies the ascent. The alternative is a 45-yuan cable car ride.

Macaques were an ever-present danger during the climb, and a friend fell victim to a stealth assault during which she lost possession of a bag of dates. Monkeys aside, the park has a reputation for housing some rare species of flora and fauna, not least the clouded leopard, pangolin and giant salamander. None of these made an appearance during my visit, though scanning for a sight of the giant salamander, known locally as the wawa yu, or baby fish, for the crying sound they produce, became a recurrent theme of the trip.

The second day called for a more ambitious route, and we planned a circuit beginning at the Golden Whip Stream. The clear water running along the river and lush undergrowth provided a welcome contrast to the previous day’s dizzying heights, and we had a lot of fun trying to work out the reasoning behind the names of scenic spots along the way, of which“Five Ladies Visiting the Generalissimo” and“Commenting Freely on a Dominant Position” were particular favorites. Numerous bright-colored bird species, including the state-protected “carrying water bird,” flitted over the riverbed, and their chirping combined comfortingly with the brook’s gurglings.

At the Jinbianxi confluence, we headed off the main path and up a winding route of countless steps, eventually emerging next to the youth hostel just south of Wulong Village. For those aiming to stay there overnight, the hostel appeared clean and comfortable, and provided a decent lunch of vegetable soup noodles. From there we walked over to the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, which boasted meandering cliff-top views that, however hard I tried, were simply too epic to capture without a preposterously-proportioned wide-angle lens.

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