ZHANGJIAJIE: THE FLOATING MOUNTAINS OF PANDORA

My friend Georg told me about this magical place when he learnt I was going to China for a few months. For those who don't know, the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is allegedly the location that inspired James Cameron's Hallelujah Mountains from his blockbuster movie Avatar. I carefully coined the term "allegedly" because - according to Academy Award Winning Movie Director - the wonderful scenic area of Wulingyuan might have inspired Avatar's fantastic planet of Pandora, but no footage was ever captured there for his movie. However, the fact that this only constitutes speculations did not stop the Chinese Government to bank on these allegations to boost their Tourist Industry in the region.

Path to Pandora

Zhangjiajie is about 12 hours away from Lushan - where I am currently located. This means the optimal way to get there was again the train. The first part of my commute (besides my usual drive of two hours to Nanchang) was between Nanchang and Changsha and only took two hours on a G-Train - the Chinese bullet train. The second part was about 8 hours and left from a different train station. Consequently, I took a cab from the Changsha Railway Station to the Changsha South Railway Station for about 30 minutes and 27 RMB - a tiny detail which will be helpful toward the end of this post. This time, I learned from my mistake and booked what locals call a "hard sleeper" - a suspended bed in a six-bed room with no doors. Another suitable option is to book a "soft sleeper" - a softer suspended bed in a four-bed room with a lockable door. The difference in price between both options is quite substantial, so I thought a hard sleeper was good enough and I was right. My commute went very smoothly and I arrived to Zhangjiajie in one piece on Friday morning at 7:00am. With a forecast of three days of rain, I knew I had to be quick on my feet if I wanted to make the most out of my visit to Pandora. I told myself I would assess the situation while getting out of the overnight train and decide whether I would go to the hostel first or directly start my first hiking day at the park with my luggage for the weekend on my back. Luckily, I always travel light, so both options suited me as long as I could take full advantage of my weekend here. Once again, adopting a minimalist lifestyle proved me right. The skies did not seem very promising so I decided to head directly to the Wulinguan Scenic and Historic Interest Area. The foggy atmosphere was just what I needed to capture the mystic vibe created by the sandstone pillars and legendary floating mountains. Let's just hope my bet does not bring me misfortune halfway through my hike.

The Hallelujah Moment

The bus station was only located meters away from the train station. Cellphone in hand, all I had to do was to go there and ask anyone how to get to Wulingyuan by showing a few pictures of my destination. So, I hopped on a bus in direction of the National Park for 20 RMB. Forty-five minutes later, I was at the entrance of the park. Only little problem was that I did not expect it to be that huge and therefore had no idea on what sight to start with. Good thing that the 250 RMB spent to get in granted me access for three days - a valuable piece of information that is neither written anywher nor communicated by anyone. The original plan was to visit both Wulingyuan and Tianmen - two beautiful scenic areas located at opposite directions from the city of Zhangjiajie. I found myself in front of a dilemma which got solved rapidly. I just had to remember the one reason that brought me here: the floating mountains. Sorry, Tianmen! You are now a reason for me to come back another time. Getting into the park requires passing a turnstile that not only scans tickets but also takes digital fingerprints to ensure tickets are not passed around or resold. Small side note: I noticed a lot of information gathering techniques which are meant for a targeted reason, but could also be used for another greather purpose (know what I mean, big brother?). Passed the turnstile was a bus station where I had to choose between many different shuttles which would bring me to different ends of the park. I could not afford to miss, or else I would waste tremendous amounts of time without taking full advantage of my day. So, I thought I'd ask one of the workers which bus to take. He instantly asked me where I wanted to go. Question to which I stupidly answered: " I don't know... where should I go? What is your recommendation?" I clearly did not make my research beforehand. The worker looked at me with the most clueless look in which I could clearly read: "Can't help you, bro!" At this specific moment came two ladies. One of them was a tall brunette with a pale complexion wearing adidas trekking shoes at her feet, a Jack Wolfskin backpack on her back, a fanny pack at her waist, a camera around her neck and a large map in hand. She was German! She approached the worker with the determination of a military officer and said: "Excuse me! We want to go THERE!" Exclamation which I seconded by informing her that I was going to follow them, given that these two clearly did their research and knew what to see. We ended up spending the whole day together and saw plenty of impressive scenes. Namely:

  • Bailong Elevator
  • Tianbo Mansion
  • World No.1 Bridge
  • Hallelujah Mountain

The strength of the number

At the end of the day, I still did not get a chance to check into my hostel. Knowing that the commute between Wulingyuan and Zhangjiajie takes about 45 minutes and 20 RMB, I strategically decided to look for a hostel around the park as long as the price was reasonable. Lena and Nadia - my two new German friends from Essen - suggested I have a look at their hostel to see if there was a free bed I could book. According to their recommendations, the hostel is very clean and comfortable, so why not have a look! There was indeed a free bed. My Project Management mind quickly made the calculation for the same total cost, I would save 3 hours of commute throughout the weekend. We later met their friend Kathrin and her hostel roommate - and also German - Alexandra. One thing leading to another, the crew quickly grew from three to five people who will spend the whole weekend together hiking around Pandora. The second day initiated with a heavy rain about five minutes outside of our hostel. So, we found shelter under the roof of a deserted sales booth for about half an hour. When it got a little better we decided to take advantage of this window to start our day before we change our minds. We once again spent a lovely day as we walked by the so-called Golden Whip Stream - a river crossing in between the sand pillars. I'm sure you can imagine how spectacular the view is while walking by the stream looking up at the pillars around us. I suddenly felt like a so little surrounded by giants. 

On our way back from the stream we ran into an Israeli couple on their honeymoon. We actually briefly met them the day before. We stopped to talk a moment and they finally decided to tag along with us." Awesome! The more the merrier!", I said. It started raining heavily and we needed to find cover for a few hours. We opted for the Yellow Dragon Cave (Huang Long Dong) as it was the perfect sightseeing activity for a rainy day. I must admit I was quite surprised with the beauty of this cave. I've never seen anything quite like it. Between the tunnels, stalagmites of 15 meters high, spiral staircases, and even a boat ride on a canal; it was definitely worth the visit. After visiting the cave, we have decided to stop for dinner. There were seven of us, so we have decided to have a traditional Chinese dinner with the Lazy Susan in the centre of the table. Toward the end of the meal, the couple admitted this was the best meal they've had so far in China. Oddly enough, this was the first time they had a Chinese-style meal in two weeks being in the country. It really intrigued me since all I've been eating for the past two months was nothing but traditional Chinese meals three times per day. I guess some people are more conservative when it comes to eating like locals. It was nonetheless a very enjoyable meal and it was actually quite nice to see both Germans and Jewish sitting at the same table to share a meal from the same plates. While travelling, it doesn't matter where you are from. All of a sudden, you are freed from any politics going on in your country of origin. After all, we are all currently in the same country, in the same city, for the same purpose of visiting the same sights. We are all travellers of the world. On that note, a famous phrase commonly used in rap songs came to my mind: "It's not about where you are from, it's about where you are at!"

On the last day, we have agreed to leave the hostel at 10:30am to go to the train station. Coincidently, I had booked the same train as three of my new German friends. So that gave Kathrin, Alexandra and myself a good three-hour block to hike up Tuanmen Mountain and come back with the cable car. The hike was quite enjoyable as we had some good conversations about life and relationships. At the top, we said goodbye to Alexandra as she was still visiting the park for a few days more and promised we would meet back in Germany. Kathrin and I walked to the cableway to be on time for our meeting with Lena and Nadia. You should see the view we had while descending back to the base. Astonishing! There was the pinnacle of my travel to Zhangjiajie as I litterally felt like flying through the clouds - over the sandstone pikes and vast backyard forest. And so, Lena, Nadia, Kathrine and myself left Zhangjiajie aboard the same train until I hopped off at the Changsha Railway Station.

Guards down for a second

As I just stepped out of the station to transfer to the Changsha South Railway Station, countless were the amount of fake-taxi drivers offering to bring me to my destination at a "tourist-friendly" flat rate. After a few shuffles, I finally managed to get rid of this malefactor with pain and misery. The taxi stand was just around the corner. I finally took place on the back seat of the first cab in line as the front seat was already occupied by another passenger. I normally sit right next to the driver to validate the path on my cellphone's GPS app and keep an eye on the meter. At this specific moment, the driver pulled the oldest trick in the book. If Michael Corleone was sitting right next to me, he would have probably said: "Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!" I have to admit I was quite exhausted from my commute and from the more than insisting fake-driver. From where I was sitting I could ensure the path taken was the right one, but could not have a clear view on the meter. As anticipated, we finally made it to the Changsha South Railway Station, where my second train was leaving in two hours. I had plenty of time still to relax and charge my phone so I can enjoy a few podcasts while seated on the tain. When the car stopped, the passenger handed 100 RMB to the driver. Then, they both got out and walked toward the back of the car where the driver gave the change back to the passenger before he left. The driver took his seat back and turned to me asking for 100 RMB as well. I immediately understood what was happening as I was simultaneously mad with myself for bringing my guards down for a moment. It was a scam and the passenger on the front seat was his accomplice. I snapped! I grapped my phone, fired up the translator app and typed the letters in like I would hit a punching bag:

"How stupid do you think I am?"
"I saw him give change back to the passenger at the back of the car!";
"I took this route before! I know it costs 27 RMB!";
"I should give him half of it since we were two in the car!"

The driver was furious and started getting agitated as he quickly noticed he did not catch the usual clueless rich tourist who pulls bills out of his wallet without asking himself if the price if fair or not. As he finally caved and reduced his price to 80 RMB, I grabbed the handle and menaced to leave the taxi without paying. He became more agitated and retained the door to prevent me from escaping. So, i told him: "Here is 30 RMB. The price I am supposed to pay! That's all!" After a very long argument, he finally reduced to 60 RMB. Good thing I had plenty of time for my transit. I can clearly see how this trick could perfectly work on a traveller with very little amount of time to catch his next train. Something the taxi drivers probably play at their advantage. I hate to be tricked and making a point in this fight was a matter of principle. From my standpoint, it was not worth getting into dangerous fields for a fistfull of yuans. As I reminded myself that a 30 RMB difference is only worth a little less that 4 Euros, I bit the bullet and left him the full 60 RMB he lastly asked for. I was in no desire of getting into trouble in a foreign country. I guess we can say I bought peace for a few yuans more.