Beyond all of the portraits of Mao in the indoctrinated land of Hunan lies a mountainous region with a history of human civilization tracing back to the Neolithic Age. There lies Wǔlíngyuán (武陵源), a region punctuated by countless ravines and towering sandstone pillars. Also known as Zhangjiajie, Wulingyuan was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 due its stunning scenery. Some of its pageant winners include a vast expanse of mountain ranges and karts, Asia’s largest limestone cave chamber, rare species of flora, and exotic wildlife. The region is bursting at the seams with natural wonders, and one small step into Wulingyuan feels more like taking one giant leap onto a distant planet.
But there’s even more to Wulingyuan than what Mother Nature offers. The area is also home to various ethnic minorities, most notably the Miao, Tujia and Bai, although a smattering of nearly 30 other minority groups have also taken up residence within this isolated region.
The three biggest and most prominent villages are Tiānzǐshān (天子山), Suǒxīyù (索溪峪) and Zhāngjiājiè (张家界), though the most important is the latter, which gives the area its namesake. This transportation hub of the district, is the best place to enter the park and has the best restaurants and hotels of the area.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park & Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve (Zhāngjiājiè Sēnlín Gōngyuán; 张家界森林公园)
There are several places to enter Wulingyuan. There’s an entrance in Zhangjiajie National Park, aka Forest Park, which is the most popular and most crowded. You can hike into the mountains from here or opt to take the cable car (¥50), which will zip you up to the summit of Huangshi Village (Huángshí Zhài;黄石寨) at 1,048 m (3,438 ft) in several minutes. The hike up to Huangshi Village takes a couple of hours and is far better than the cable car since you’ll pass through some breathtaking scenic spots.
Huangshi Village offers commanding view of the surrounding landscape and is crowned by a humble village with shrouded origins. The most popular myth tells a story of an eccentric government official who, seeking to avoid an endless flood of altercations with the imperial government, took to the mountains and began to research the secrets of alchemy. Eventually he was discovered and surrounded by imperial troops, but was rescued at the last minute by his supernatural power-wielding Taoist master in classic deus ex machina fashion, earning Huangshizhai a place on the map thereafter. While you may not believe the paranormal activity that allegedly took place in Huangshi Village, you better believe that the scenery here exudes a sort of magic in its own right.
After spending some time in Huangshi Village, head towards Suǒxī Nature Reserve (索溪) via the Golden Whip Stream Scenic Route (Jīnbiān Xī;金鞭溪), which is a manageable 7.5 km (5 mi) stretch. The stream was given its name from poets who were struck by the glinting curve of the stream as it caught the morning sunlight, and wherever the sun bears down upon the Golden Whip its crystal-clear waters transmute into a gilded sheen. The hike should only take a few hours, so enjoy it while it lasts.
From Suoxi, you can take the Bailong Sky Lift (Bǎilóng Tiāntī; 百龙天梯; ¥56), which is an elevator running up the side of a cliff, up to the center of the park at Yuanjiajie (袁家界), where your real foray into Zhangjiajie will begin.
Once you’ve made it to Yuanjiajie, congratulations! You’re in the middle of the extraordinary park, surrounded by a natural ampitheatre of misty peaks and verdant woodlands. Unfortunately, Yuanjiajie often feels as crowded as a real ampitheatre, and you will also be presented with massive throngs of domestic tourists.
One of the highlights here is the First Bridge Under Heaven (Tiānxià Dìyī Qiáo;天下第一桥) – a wind and water structure spanning two towering mountain peaks. Also in this area you’ll spot the Hallelujah Mountain, which has the reputation of being one of James Cameron’s main inspirations for the floating mountain range in Avatar (along with Anhui’s Huangshan). Regardless of the source of Cameron’s inspiration, the views you can catch here are definitely otherworldly. Another must-see in this region is the Yuanjia Village (袁家寨; ¥85), which is home to the local Tujia ethnic minorities. They put on dance performances here for ¥25, but to be honest you’re better off spending your time in the surrounding landscape after a quick look around.
Tianzi Shan Nature Reserve (Tiānzǐ Shān Zìrán Bǎohùqū; 天子山自然保护区)
Tianzi Shan is a little less crowded than some of the other areas listed here, and the mountain is riddled with waterfalls, natural bridges and cave formations. It will be easy to lose track of time as you check out the mountain’s more famous scenic spots, such as the Emperor Pavilion and West Sea, or set out off the beaten path, wandering from nook to cranny. It is said that 600 years ago, Xiang Dakun, the impassioned leader of the Tujia ethnic group, stumbled through the same nooks and crannies, fighting off imperial forces as his comrades were slain in droves all around him. Defeated atop the mountain, Xiang Dakun tumbled into Sheng Tang Wan Gulf, plummeting to his death. His nickname Tianzi, or son of Heaven, was passed on to the mountain he fell from, and to this day the locals honor his memory.
On a clear day, you will be able to see most of Zhangjiajie’s peaks from one of Tianzi Shan’s numerous vantage points, converging in the horizon and giving you the impression of being pressed on all sides by an endless wave of stone sentinels. A cable car (¥25 one way) is recommended for some, mostly because the vistas are phenomenal on the way up and because this region has some of the most challenging hikes (the routes here are traced with ladders and chain bridges). For something a little easier, take the Ten Mile Gallery tram (¥40) – a relaxing experience that flaunts more splendid views of the park.
There are numerous rafting opportunities (especially in the Tianzi Shan Reserve) which let you experience the park from an alternative view. Don’t expect any class-six rapids, though there is some white water in certain areas. Check out www.mdh.cn (in Chinese), or contact CITS (see Tour) for more info. Some of the best rafting trips are along the Mengdong River (here is your best bet for white water rapids, though still nothing to call home about) and the Maoyan River, as well as through the Yellow Dragon Cave and Jiutan Cave. Ask your tour provider about these specific spots.
Tiānmén Shān (天门山)
As the first mountain in Zhangjiajie to be recorded by ancient historians and cartographers, Tianmen Shan (admission: ¥258) has long been regarded as an unshakable emblem of Zhangjiajie. For centuries afterwards, legends of Tianmen Mountain’s cloud-piercing summits and variety of life were passed down from generation to generation and spread across China. With the establishment of a cable car (¥52) up the mountain two decades ago, you can now reach the summit with relative ease – so long as you’re not afraid of heights. Aside from your cable car, a few structural anchors and 7.2 km (5 mi) of steel cable, nothing separates you and the distant valley thousands of feet below you; as one of the longest cable cars of its type in the world, the cable car up Tianmen Shan is definitely not of the average ski slope variety. Once you have reached the mountain, narrow walkways zigzag along the cliff sides, and the planked footpaths eventfully give way to transparent glass walkways, offering dramatic views and an occasional increase in heartrate. Don’t worry though, everything from the cable cars to the glass walkways is entirely safe, and you can enjoy safe passage to the enormous natural stone archway that locals refer to as the Tianmen, or Heavenly Gate.