Exploring: The Mountain Highs of Zhangjiajie (B)
Hello! It’s Spring in China, which means more opportunities to get out and go places and experience the best weather most parts of this country has to offer. Last Fall (which is of roughly similar pleasantness), I bucked conventional expat wisdom and chose to do a Golden Week holiday in Zhangjiajie, one of the best known tourist attractions in China. This seems as good as any a time to recount that experience.
This is Part 2 of that recount, where I give notes about the area where you can find the famous “Avatar Mountains.” Part 1, about Zhangjiajie City & Tianmen Shan, can be found here.
HOW TO GET THERE
There are two main ways to get from Zhangjiajie City to Wulingyuan, where you should be staying if you want to explore the mountains.
Take a minibus from the bus station in Zhangjiajie City for 10rmb. The ride takes 1 hour, with buses departing every 15 minutes from approximately 8am – 6pm. The bus station is in the center of the city, about a 20min walk from the entrance of the Tianmen Cable Car.
Take a taxi for roughly 100-200rmb.
And look at that, you’re in Wulingyuan, which refers both to the town and the Wulingyuan Scenic Area.
Fair warning, this place is not as quaint as you think. Zhangjiajie may be barely known in the West (at least compared to The Great Wall), but here in China it’s one of the Big 5A Tourism Favorites. And if anything is well known in China, that means that hundreds of millions of people cross the threshold of this attraction a year. So don’t expect a sleepy little mountain town with naive and friendly inns people gawking at you, gosh, a sudden visitor to their lands. These folks are READY. FOR. YOU. (Though, in fairness, they’re plenty friendly anyway).
Assuming you’re there not to soak in the culture of a peoples whose sole purpose is catering to your visit, there are three things the town is good for:
Lodging - There are a plethora of very nice boutiques and established hotel chains (including the Pullman) there for all price ranges, and due to probably a bit too much enthusiasm constructing hotel rooms, they’re actually inexpensive even at peak tourist times. The whole town is not huge, but I would suggest staying somewhere by the river.
Food - Zhangjiajie is known for a drypot called 三下锅 (san xia guo) and there are several restaurants on every street serving it. Looking through the food review app, Dianping, they’re all roughly the same quality so I can’t recommend any diamonds in the rough - but this is Hunan hometown cooking anyhow. Unless you’ve got an expert tongue, just expect every restaurant to be satisfyingly spicy and salty.
Massages - Lawd nothing feels as good as coming down a mountain to have someone ease the lactic acid buildup out of your legs. Massages are cheap as heck here and it’s easy to tell from the doorway if the environs are clean (and not seedy).
There is also a bar street, though don’t expect anything particularly quality from it. If you’re a bit of a rager, it might be worth bringing your own booze (bottles of wine at the store were quite overpriced) and finding a room with a balcony overlooking the water.
The Mountain Area
And now we get to the real deal!
The Wulingyuan Scenic Area consists of four parts: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, Suozi Valley Natural Resource Reserve and Yangjiajie Scenic Area. This is all just FYI because one ticket gets you into all of those areas for four days anyway.
One ticket was 248rmb during October Holiday in 2018.
The ticket includes usage of all the electric buses (which look like regular public buses that hum as they slide down the road) around the park, but not any cable cars, trams or elevators, for which you’ll pay extra.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of exploring these 690 square kilometers, some quick tips:
Get a hotel in the town, get the hotel to connect you to a place to spend a night up in the mountains.
You will not find a good map guide to the hiking trails around here. The front desk has a very beautiful one (this site has a high resolution version of it), with lines that ostensibly mark out paths, but nobody seems to have any idea which trails might be closed. Try to be zen about possibly needing to turn around somewhere half way.
There is a lot of beautiful hike/walks to be had though, and going on the trail instead of bothering with cable cars means you’ll leave 95% of the crowds behind.
Avoid the Bailongshan Elevator as rigorously as possible. Make sure whatever route you go to Yuanjiajie, you aren’t there past 4pm because the buses stop and you’ll have to pay 72rmb to ride the lift or else hike the entire way down. The hike is beautiful, but you’re only going to want to do it if you hadn’t already hiked all the way up.
There are copious snack huts along all trails, a McDonalds, a KFC, and your mountain hosts will most likely be able to cook dinner for you too. Only bring food if you’ve got some specific dietary restrictions.
Make sure you keep two bottles of water on you at all times - some trails go for a while before you hit the next rest stop, which can be especially punishing if you’re hiking upwards.
When I went, my friend and I spent a total of two nights in the town and one night up in the mountain. We ended up missing out on the entire Yangjiajie Scenic Area, mostly because I was lacking key info on the accessibility of various routes. We ended up retracing our steps through Yuanjiajie a lot because that’s apparently where everything goes through.
So rather than tell you what I did, I think I’ll structure the rest of this piece with how I WOULD have planned this trip if I knew what I know now.
DAY 1 - YANGJIAJIE
You’ll stay the night in town.
Enter through the Wulingyuan main entrance, which should be walkable from your hotel. Take the electric bus to Yangjiajie and cable car up to its peak. Being one of the newest and farthest parts of the Nature Reserve, this is allegedly also one of the least crowded. It’s also one of the less built up areas so, assuming you’re coming into Zhangjiajie antsy to really get in touch with greenness, this seems like it’d be the place to go.
Places with names include Gate of Oolong Village, Tianbo Mansion, One Step to Heaven and Hawk Beak Peak. But, Tianbo Mansion aside, these are all rock formations and nobody has bothered to write up an intro to why they’ve been named such. A fun activity would be to improv your own story whenever you see a rock section with a name.
Exploring the area will require about 3-4 hours, assuming you’re not trying to power run it.
Then electric bus yourself back into the town, eat a delicious dinner, maybe hit up one of their bars, and otherwise get ready for the full on hikes over the next two days. Make sure to get the number/WeChat for a hostel up in the mountains, which will give you a chance to watch both the sunset and sunrise from the peaks.
DAY 2 – HUANGSHI VILLAGE, GOLDEN WHIP STREAM, YUANJIAJIE
Ideally, whichever farmer hostel contact your townie hotel arranged for you will have begun talking to you already about the rooms on offer. The price for us was about 100rmb per person, with 10rmb added on for each meal (dinner? breakfast?) you wanted to take at their place.
For your first day, get an electric bus to the Huangshi Village (黄狮寨) cable car stop and lift yourself up to the top of this mountain area. Travel west to make your way around the whole Huangshi trail, and then go towards the Star-Catching Platform, which has stunning views. There is a hike from here that meanders downwards towards the Golden Whip Stream (金鞭溪). It should take about 2 hours to see it all.
The Golden Whip Stream hike gives you a base-level view of all the mountains and is by far the easiest part of walking Zhangjiajie, so you’ll likely encounter a lot more people here. Don’t worry, this will be as crowded as it gets, and to be honest – watching massive tour groups fearlessly interact with equally fearless monkeys is its own attraction.
I suppose with the amount of tourists, these monkey tribes have become spoiled enough to be tame. In other countries, monkey mountains could quickly turn terrifying as rapacious hordes descend upon you to try and pick you clean.
In Zhangjiajie, the monkeys are so used to being fed that they’ll plop themselves in a circle of passer-bys and allow themselves to be petted while they feed on fruit offerings.
At some point, your walk will bisect – choose the trail that will bring you up to the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area (袁家界). This should take you about 2 hours, if you’re not stopping constantly to rest and take pictures.
Unless you’re on some fitness challenge, you might as well take it easy. Rest stops along the way have an assortment of noodles, buns and other snacks that can be taken as a light lunch. There is a KFC at the top too if you feel Hunan street food does you wrong.
But you really do want to take time along this trail, which will be bringing you through what most people consider Zhangjiajie’s main event: The Avatar Mountains. It’s hard to overstate how breathtaking and otherworldly these mountains look.
At around 4pm, get your hostel contact will pick you up at one of the electric bus stations and take you to drop off your stuff at their hostel. Get a bit of rest before the hostel then drives you to some other platforms to catch the sunset.
DAY 3 – TIANZI SHAN, SUOXIYU
The hostel will promise a wake up call, but set your alarm for the sunrise anyway. If you want a prime spot to take pictures from, you’ll have to go claim it from all the other “mingsu” dwellers while it’s still dark. If you’re fine just watching the colors change though, heck, hit the snooze button. Then it’s breakfast and, depending on how you’re feeling, probably another couple of hours to nap before you begin the rest of your hike.
Try to get the mingsu people to drop you off at an electric bus station that will take you to Tianzi Shan (天子山), rather than one that will only get you around Yuanjiajie (the area you were in the day before). This is imperative to avoid the Bailong Elevator, which is a big waste of 72rmb.
If you can’t get a car that will take you to the stop closest to the top, then go for the Tianzi Shan cablecar up. You might think that you’d gotten your fill of all the sites the previous day, but there’s something really really cool about the views Tianzi Mountain affords.
While Golden Whip Stream is mostly best when the day is sunny, Tianzi Shan actually looks better when you’ve got a bit of cloud. The rocks are even sharper and thinner in this area and when the mist drifts around them, you feel like you’re in some kind of land before time. Tianzi Ge, the temple, is where you’ll find most of the amenities, so if you’re already hungry by the time you reach the peak, you ought to try this place out.
Take your time to hike downwards and bask in the view as the elevation changes. You’ll reach Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve (索溪峪) at the foot of the mountain, where you can choose to ride a shuttle down the Ten-Mile Nature Gallery or, if you’re very ambitious, keep walking until you get down to Baofeng Lake, where you can choose to take a boat or just admire the water from the mountains.
I didn’t get to visit it this time, but Yellow Dragon Cave - a series of “Karst Caves covering about 4.7 miles” is also in this area and looks from pictures to be gorgeous in a mildly tawdry way.
Tired yet? You’ve already covered way more ground than I was able to! Get thyself to a massage back in town right quick and relax those walking muscles.
Is Zhangjiajie worth visiting? Absolutely. It was one of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever seen. Truly catch-in-you-throat gorgeous and, even now looking at pictures I took, I still feel my heart beat a little faster.
Was it worth visiting during rush time? I honestly don’t see why not! While Tianmen Mountain suffered from having maybe too many easily accessible sites, Zhangjiajie is chock full of trails that most people will not go on. You can bear the annoyance of one or two crowds for the rest of the trip.
Especially when the rest of the trip usually looks like this: