Ultimate guide to Zhangjiajie
How about spending a few days in a fairytale? Or in a real-life movie? There are some places in the world where it is possible. One such place is called Zhangjiajie, located in the Hunan province in south-central China. Around the city of Zhangjiajie, there are a few fairytale places: the national forest park Wulingyuan, where the movie Avatar was shot; Tianmen mountain with its famous glass planks; Baofeng Lake with incredible waterfalls;some amazing ancient villages (which I wrote about last time). The most famous among these is definitely Wulingyuan, the birthplace of the movie Avatar – the film whose huge success was based on a poor storyline and beautiful CG images. The scenery in this movie is indeed computer-generated, but is based on a real place. And the real original place is worth a visit.
Wulingyuan – landscape of classical paintings and modern films
When you mention Zhangjiajie in China, everyone will think of traditional Chinese paintings, pointed peaks (there are over 3000 of them), and clouds resembling a dragon flying around. It is one of the most beautiful sceneries in China, so naturally it has been painted often by Chinese artists. Precisely for this reason, visitors must be prepared for something very common in China – people! The quantum of people! China is the country with the largest population, the majority of which live only on less than a half of its territory. There are many great national parks in China, but still not enough to make all the people disappear.
There are lot of paths and many entrances to the forest national park of Wulingyuan. Some are more popular, some less. It usually depends how much you have to walk when taking them. One of the most popular is the one with the white dragon elevator, apparently the highest outdoor elevator in the world. Its construction started in 1999 and it was finished after three years. It has 330 meters in height and is glazed with glass, so when taking it you can see the whole area of scenery around.
However, you have to wait in line for it. How long you will wait depends on when you are visiting; the first time I was there I stood in line for two hours. But the next two times there were no people, since it was during winter or late autumn. The way up is quite fast; the elevator has tremendous speed. At the top you have to take a bus to go to the first sights. The national park is huge in area and there are regular free buses going between the various sights. They are all very different, so you should spend at least three days here to explore them all. The ticket is actually valid for three days. The most famous ones are the First Bridge under Heaven and the Tianzi mountain area. But in these two places, you have to be prepared for loads of people. On the other hand, places like Fields in the Heavens or the Wulong Village are empty. In Wulong Village there are paths where you have to walk a lot and in some parts you even have to climb. Stairs, ladders, bridges… you will find everything here. It is impossible just to talk about trails; you should download the map for better reference. Anyway, there is not much to write. Pictures are worth a thousand words. Just be sure to have two to three days to explore only this park. And sleep on the top of the mountain – don’t stay in the town of Wulingyuan.
Romantic Tujia minority
The name Tujia can be translated in two ways – either “local people” or “people of the earth.” The second name is linked to a legend about the origin of these interesting people. According to a Taoist legend, once the Yellow Emperor was very angry with the people and sent down tremendous rains and floods. Most people perished. However, two of the few who survived were brother Basuo and sister Yongnee. The god of marriage persuaded them to marry. And so it happened. “A pile of meat” was created by their marriage. They cut the meat, mixed part of it with sand and created ethnic Chinese people – the Han nationality. Part of it was mixed with trees and thus created the Miao minority (they also live in Zhangjiajie). The last portion was mixed with soil. It is from this part the “People of the Earth”, the Tujia nationality, was born. Over 8 million Tujia people are considered the most populous minority in China.
They are known for their musical talents, traditional dances and love traditions. It is said that every man knows how to compose a song. No need to mention singing – traditional Tujia songs are sung through dialogue and conversation, and are often about love. Almost every song mentions the slopes in the Zhangjiajie Mountains, which are very important to the Tujia people.
The Tujia minority used to have all sorts of marriages: group marriages, polygamy, monogamy. But they were always characterized by one thing – marriages between Tujia were free. This means that partners could choose themselves freely. Marriages were concluded on the basis of love. Now it may seem like nothing special, but even 100 years ago it was something unprecedented. At that time a place where young Tujia people could meet were the markets. The Tujia were quite conservative in some ways. Young women were not allowed to sit with men. Pregnant women were not allowed to sit on the doorstep. A man was not allowed to enter a building if he was wearing a straw coat or was carrying an empty bucket. During holidays they used to expel cats; they believed that meowing brought bad luck. And because of all these taboos, and due to the strict separation of men and women, markets were the only places where young people could meet. Meetings were either conducted through a matchmaker or a woman lured men with her songs. If a man liked a girl, he would come over to her and indicate his feeling by slightly touching her feet with his. If she did the same, it meant there was mutual affection. The whole relationship was marked by singing. By singing they expressed their love. Singing, however, with respect to any relationship, is succeeded by crying. No, I do not mean that as a metaphor. Before the girl’s wedding, it was required for her to cry. To weep. The louder the better. Sometimes parents hired an older women to teach their young children to cry properly. After the age of 15, girls met together and learned how to cry. It was the necessary knowledge for every female. When engaged, a future wife had to start crying usually 10 days before the wedding, but some families started even two months before the wedding. The bride cried alone, cried with her mom, cried with a setter, cried with neighbors … she could cry by herself or someone could accompany her. The main actors had to cry hysterically, while the other women around were allowed just to wipe away tears. They were crying over the fact that the bride will leave her family and for her to express gratitude for life, which she received thanks to her parents. There were special crying songs, but a woman could also improvise. The knowledge of how to cry influenced the social status of any girl and her chances of marriage; it would express her femininity, wisdom and experience. For the final crying during the wedding day, the bride’s parents invited nine women to accompany the bride in her cries. It was called the ‘crying of the ten sisters.’ Weeping songs were full of complaints about the matchmaker who introduced couples. But although they swore about him in songs, such a matchmaker was highly appreciated.
Crying is not the only wedding custom of the Tujia nationality. The second unusual habit is “stealing the wedding.” In Slovakia we have a habit of kidnapping the bride. This, however, is stealing a bowl of rice. The wedding reception first takes place at the bride’s house, where young men try to hide their bowls of rice under their coats. If they succeed and transfer their bowls of rice to the groom’s house, where the second feast takes place, the groom will reward them with pork. The more stolen bowls there are, the happier the marriage.
Gateway to Heaven
The next day trip is to a mountain called the Gateway to Heaven, Tianmen Mountain (around 1,500 high). Before only the rock climbers could get to the top. It is a large area on top of a rock, which has completely vertical walls. That is why they have built a 7 km long cable car. The cable car goes from the train station to the top. First, it hangs over the town itself, and then it goes over the mountain. The closer it gets to the end, the higher it is off the ground. Underneath you can see a road with probably the most curves in the world. It leads to the Window to Heaven. Everyone takes the road when going to the Window to Heaven, usually on the way back.
When not taking the cable car, you can take escalators. The first time I had to take the stairs (the cable car was being repaired), I was absolutely shocked. Only in China can you see several kilometer long escalators going through a mountain to the top. That is the future of tourism (unfortunately).
When you get to the top, you can take several paths. First, you take a scary concrete path that is hanging along the mountain. You have a few meters above your head and more than a kilometer and a half underneath. If you are scared of heights, you will have problems walking there, and then even more problems because soon it will change into a glass plank. First, you have to put on shoe covers so the glass will stay crystal clear. A lot of people do not dare go there, so there is also a boring path going around. While the glass plank is not long, everyone will remember it.
To take the whole journey around the mountain takes around half a day. It is around 7 km long, and at the end there is a magnificent temple. From there you can take a smaller cable car that goes to the highest point of the mountain and you can take a look around. After that you can take the first cable car and go halfway down. There is a parking spot with buses that go the crazy curly road to the Window to Heaven.
Window to Heaven
The Window to Heaven looks like, well, a window. But you have to take hundreds of stairs to get to the top. The eye inside the mountain, which is called the window, is truly spectacular. Just to demonstrate its size, a couple years ago an aerobatic squadron flew through, and so did the famous Red Bull flying man. Overall, this area attracts crazy people. There were climbers with no ropes, guys with skates attached to their legs, knees, elbows, palms, and backs going down the mountain, speed-car racers, etc. And even Jackie Chan in his last film Zodiac shot a short scene here.
We decided to take the normal stairs (there is also another electric escalator that goes to the top). The stairs appeared to have no end. And they were so severe that we actually climbed on both legs and arms. But the feeling of satisfaction at the end was worth it. It’s not the highest mountain here, but it is said to be the closest to heavens. Maybe it’s just because of the feeling that comes when somebody manages to climb those stairs.
The last stop you can do here is Baofeng Lake. I have to warn you though, it is very, very touristy. Baofeng Lake is a smaller natural park with great waterfalls and, of course, a lake. The scenery here is made up of the beautiful, typical mountain slopes of these locations around a huge lake. And the waterfalls are amazing. But everything is touristically organized. If you want to take a boat, you have to go on these large tourist boats. Even the admission to this park is really high. The admissions to Wulingyuan and Tianmen Mountain are all high, but they are worth it. I am not so sure about here. We didn’t have a lot of time, so we couldn’t explore the rest of the park. Maybe it would be great to wander around and take pictures during sunset and so on. But I am not sure if that is even possible since it is a private reservation. If you are a big fan of waterfalls, go there. If not, then Wulingyuan and Tianmenshan will be enough. You can also visit many ancient towns which are around. In any case, a trip to Zhangjiajie is like a trip to a Chinese fairytale.