The World of Zhangjiajie

A magical trip to the real Avatar mountains

By now you’ve probably heard about the world of Pandora which recently opened at Walt Disney World, and you’ve probably already been. But did you know that you could actually visit the real life Pandora in the mountains of China?

The Heavenly Pillar and the many other mountains of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park are said to have inspired the world of Pandora and the floating Hallelujah mountains shown in the film. This forest is China’s first National Forest Park and I would definitely recommend going if you’re planning a visit to China. Zhangjiajie is in the Hunan Province of China, pretty far from Shanghai and Beijing where the more popular tourist sites are, but it does have it’s own airport and a small train station. I went with some coworkers and we took a two hour flight from Nanjing. If you plan to go I’d say you need at least three days to explore this lesser known city. The main attractions are spread out around the city and takes at least an hour or two to get from one place to the other by public transportation. We stayed in downtown Zhangiajie which was about 20 minutes from the airport and about an hour and a half from the National Forest Park. It was however very close to Tianmen mountain, which is less popular but also very beautiful and features cliffside glass walkways and the worlds longest cable car up the mountain.

We arrived in Zhangjiajie in the afternoon after some stress about where our hostel was located, since it wasn’t visible on any map. We stayed at Hostel Geographer, which was much nicer than expected, the staff was very kind, and the owner spoke English. We exchanged numbers and was very helpful when we were lost in the city and the mountains, sending us Chinese characters for our bus route, and even talking to a local store clerk to arrange a taxi back to the hotel. On our first night in Zhangjiajie we took a walk to experience some local food. If you’re traveling to Zhangjiajie be prepared that English is extremely rare. Make sure you at least have a translator app, a guide book, or just be daring enough to pick random things from a menu and hope for the best. After using the combined Chinese that we all knew and help from our translating apps we ordered some food. Not much luck on the vegetarian side but there of course was rice and we had a really nice spicy corn and peppers dish. Like most of the vegetarian options in China it wasn’t enough for a meal, so by the end of the night the hostel owner was making me egg fried rice. After our first local meal we freshened up and headed to Tianmen Mountain to see their nightly show Tianmen Fox Fairy. If you’ve ever seen Fantasmic! at Disney, you’ll understand when I say it was like an extreme version of Fantasmic. Its a telling of a Chinese Love Story set in an open air theater at the base of the Tianmen Mountain. With the mountains as a natural backdrop, the set is huge, and you never really know where to look. I thought it was really entertaining. Their use of lights, water, fireworks, projections, and sound was amazing. They also had a live chorus whose costumes were bedazzled with bells, which meant all of their movements were also choreographed. The show is of course in Chinese, but there is a projector with some translation off to the side. I really enjoy watching shows in other languages, which some people don’t understand. But I think there is something really special about experiencing another cultures entertainment.

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The next day we woke up early to take a bus to the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. There are a few options for getting to the top of the mountains, we took a cable car up. I’m probably going to write this over and over again but the views are incredible. The whole ride in the cable car I was in awe of these magical pillars just how thin or thick, tall, and full of life they were. The Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is huge and will definitely take at least a full day to explore. If you want a more relaxed approach there are hostels inside the park where many people will stay to break up their hike into multiple days. We didn’t have much time for relaxing so we tried to explore as much of the mountains as we could in one day. Our first stop of course was McDonalds. Yes, there is indeed a McDonalds on top of the mountains of Zhangjiajie. After lunch we set out and explored. There is a tourist shuttle that runs throughout the park and will take you to various sections to explore. If you get motion sickness, well i’m not sure what to tell you because the bus drives much faster than I expected through the ever winding roads up the mountain. I didn’t get sick, but I did get in trouble for sticking my hand out the window while trying to take pictures.

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The whole park was incredible. Every turn you make there was something else to see. With each step the mountains looked more and more incredible. The higher up the mountain we climbed, the different it looked. There were so many paths to take, stairs to climb, and trees to hold as you make your way to the edge. The weather also played a part in the magic of the mountains. The day started with a light drizzle and a little fog. As the day went on the fog got thicker and the rain got heavier, until finally there was nothing to see but white fog everywhere. After the rain let up many hours later and we were thoroughly soaked, the mountains again looked different than before. When the fog rises throughout the mountains it’s impossible to see their base and because of their shape and size it makes them appear as if they’re floating in the clouds. It’s truly amazing. There’s another part of the mountains which features a natural land bridge, where the mountains have created their own bridge linking one side to the other. I’m still in awe over the beauty of this place and the mystery and magic of these mountains.

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Unfortunately the trip had some not so magical moments. Including the hike down, that took almost four hours when we were told it would take 70 minutes. We of course didn’t make it to the last bus back to city center, and we discovered we wouldn’t when we were only about halfway down the mountain. But at this point we were also too far to make the last shuttle bus, mountain escalator and elevator, or cable car down the mountain. All of the pit stops and vendors that had been selling food throughout the mountains were of course closed by this time too. I was really loosing faith at this point and really thought we were going to be stranded on the mountain, but our only option was to keep going so we did. Everyone was suffering, my knees were killing me and I was really struggling to walk without feeling like a bowl of jello, my friend was having trouble breathing, and another had hurt her ankle. When we finally made it out of the mountains we found the only store that had been open for what seemed like days. I’m pretty sure the woman in the store told us there aren’t any taxis that pass by and that we had missed the last bus (we of course already knew this so it wasn’t a real shock when she seemed to think we were SOL). After calling our hostel owner and buying some water, we ended up getting a ride home from the storekeepers husband (one of the many things that seem normal in China that definitely would have frightened me back home). By the time we returned to the hotel we all were tired, soaked, and grumpy.

The next day was our last in Zhangjiajie and our flight was scheduled for around 5pm that evening. The weather again was rainy and foggy when we left the hostel. My legs were shot after the hike down the mountain so I opted out of going to Tianmen mountain. Instead a friend and I went to Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon to walk the worlds highest and longest glass bridge. We bought tickets through our hostel so we didn’t have to wait in too many lines. You’re required to check all your bags, which would suck if you’re using the bridge as the starting point to your hike down the canyon. I didn’t really understand how they could expect people to hike the area without any of their things. Fortunately we were only there to walk the bridge so I wasn’t too concerned with leaving my things behind. The weather worked to our favor. When we got to the bridge it had finally stopped raining and we were able to walk the bridge without too many other people and without waiting in any lines at all. The bridge was pretty incredible to see. It’s huge. I mean it’s the worlds largest glass bridge, of course it’s huge. I surprised myself and wasn’t scared on the bridge, except for when these two jerks started jumping on it. The whole bridge shakes when someone jumps because hello, its dangling between two sides of a mountain, its not attached to anything below. One thing I’ve noticed about Chinese people while living in China and especially on this trip, is that even if the signs are in Chinese, they still do not read or maybe do not care to follow directions. It doesn’t matter what it is; don’t feed the monkeys- they will feed the monkeys, don’t stand in front of the yellow line- they will stand in front of the yellow line, no bike parking – they will park their bikes there, don’t jump on the glass bridge- they will definitely jump on the glass bridge. There are signs everywhere warning you not to jump and do other sorts of obvious things like not hang onto the sides, and of course there were people doing all of those things. Though most of the bridge is glass, there are walkways that are not for obvious safety reasons and also seem helpful to those who are afraid of walking on glass (this of course doesn’t save you if some jerk decides to jump on it). Overall I enjoyed my time on the glass bridge. You’re given a time limit, I guess to help with the over capacity issue and to keep the line moving. Oh and I can’t forget the shoe covers that they give you to I guess try to keep the bridge clean and scratch free. We were lucky we came when we did because by the time we left the line was wrapped throughout the entire ticket building. After a very exciting walk across and back the glass bridge, we made our way back to the hostel. If you have more time it seemed that there was a lot to explore in the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon itself, including bat caves and some waterfalls. We didn’t have much time since the glass bridge was also pretty far from out hostel and it took about two hours to get there.

We left with plenty of time to gather our things and make it to our flight. We were early so of course our flight was extremely delayed. There had been a huge storm in my province that was delaying lots of flights. It rains a lot in China, especially in the summer, and it’s not uncommon for flights to be delayed because of it. When we finally took off, it was one of the worst flights I’d ever been on. We ended up having to stop at a random city for two hours and wait out the storm before we could take off again. We finally got back to Nanjing so much later than expected and again we were all very tired and grumpy.

Overall I loved my trip to Zhangjiajie. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. I think about those mountains all the time. It really is something straight out of a movie. If you ever get the chance to go to China, please please please take the trip to Zhangjiajie. There is something so wonderful about getting lost in these magical mountains of China (besides that not so wonderful hike down.) Zhangjiajie is one of the favorite things i’ve done since living in China. The pictures really do not do it justice. (Especially since it was raining so hard I had to hide my camera and could only take out my phone every so often.) Also, whoever created the signs in the National Forest Park did a really great job in terms of keeping me entertained. I especially enjoyed the sign that said “please don’t harass foreigners to take photos with you.” 

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There are so many things I wanted to do with my time in China, and I definitely won’t get to do them all before I leave in October, but I’m so satisfied knowing Zhangjiajie is one of the things I did get to do.

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