Dramatic floating cliffs in Zhangjiajie, China

Have you ever unexpectedly stumbled across amazing photos on a website to the point where you are drawn to visit? This happened to me, with Zhangjiajie – a strange place of incredible natural beauty in central China, far from the major cities of this huge crowded country.

A Chinese landscape painting in real life – Zhangjiajie

Zhangjiajie is a large World Heritage Site with a dramatic geological landscape. Over 3,000 sandstone pillars rise over 200 metres above a valley floor – a geological marvel which is the result of the Australian and Indian continental plates pushing into Asia over tens of millions of years. In this part of China, lush mountain forests cross between temperate and sub-tropical climates, resulting in unique plant and animal life. The landscape is much like a real life Chinese landscape painting.

Rugged cliffs and canyons in Wulingyuan – a perfect place for a new landscape painting

Despite looking like an ancient Chinese landscape painting, there are no old paintings of the park, because the area was so remote and inaccessible until recently. The park has gained more recent fame, as parts of the landscape are said to have inspired some of the alien worlds in the “Avatar” film from 2009.

Geological drama in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

Although this is a World Heritage site, Zhangjiajie is generally not on the itinerary for foreigners with limited time in China. It’s quite a journey from the major urban centres of China and it took a fair bit of research, some courage and determination to go there by ourselves.  Even a basic grasp of Mandarin will help immensely if you are trying to navigate the park by yourself – but it is immensely rewarding, with very little chance of getting into any serious peril. The World Heritage site is popular with local Chinese tourists, even though the entrance fees are quite high.

Although this national park is located in the world’s most populated nation, it’s still possible to feel the immense power of nature – geological marvels will never be surpassed by human built buildings.

Getting there

Our journey involved a very civilised Cathay Pacific flight into Hong Kong and then onto Changsha with Cathay Dragon. Changsha is a fascinating “small” Chinese city of 5 million people in Hunan, which I will blog about another day.  After a busy weekend in this city, we took a local six hour train journey to Zhangjiajie city, which is about 40km from the national park of the same name. 

The train journey was enjoyable and comfortable, although we discovered that “No Smoking” signs are a suggestion rather than a prohibition in China – even the staff were puffing away in the corridors of the non-smoking section of the train. We experienced passive smoking inside the cabin, contrasted by views of harsh industrial city landscapes, dry rice paddies and endless orange groves. That’s a brief summary – but it was really amazing to trundle through a seemingly timeless rural landscape in China. Finally, the train passed through dramatic deep gorges along a long river until its arrival in Zhangjiajie city, which was formerly known as Dayong. 

Departure area of Changsha Railway Station – very organised and clean. Matching your ticket with the platform and time is essential, although the locals were quite eager to help out.

It’s still another 40 kilometres from Zhangjiajie city to the World Heritage Geo-park. Upon arrival at the railway station, we were thankful that we printed out a Chinese translation of our hotel’s location for the taxi driver. Our basic Mandarin skills were comical but useful in organising the 40 km journey to Wulingyuan, which is the main tourist town on the edge of the World Heritage park. We were spooked by the taxi driver, who took us to the hotel on a new freeway that was quicker, but a long diversion off the old main road. At one stage, I was worried that we were being abducted. Looking back now, I do realise that I may have been overly paranoid – I reckon it’s quite difficult to abduct and murder white tourists in China without other people noticing, as you are always the centre of attention outside the big cities. The Pullman Hotel was beautifully appointed and highly recommended – only ten minutes walk from the main entrance to the park. We arrived late in the evening and slept well, after a long journey.

Gardens in the Pullman Hotel, Wulingyuan – very well appointed with a small contingent of helpful English speaking staff.

Experiences in Wulingyuan Scenic Area

Wulingyuan town is next to Wulingyuan Scenic area, which is a vast 690 square kilometre section of the World Heritage area with over 3,000 quartz sandstone pillars that rise above deep gorges. 243 of these peaks are over 1,000 metres high. The mountain tops and cliffsides are covered in dense forests – quite different to the Grand Canyon in the United States, but equally inspiring. There are a wide variety of hiking tracks for all abilities and park amenities are very well maintained, even on the longer hikes that traverse more remote corners of the park.

Avatar cliffs in Zhangjiajie

The Chinese National Park IKEA Challenge

Sometimes it feels like beautiful places are being loved to death. As it located in China, I soon appreciated the huge challenges of balancing tourist visitors and protecting the environment. The local authorities have taken some courageous decisions to prohibit private vehicle travel in the park, which is quite sensible in a country of 1.3 billion people who are keen to travel here. However, there is no way to avoid crowds in some parts of the park, as you are in the most populated country on the planet.

Entrance to Wulingyuan Scenic Area in Zhangjiajie – beyond the gate is a large bus terminal, where you can take buses throughout the park – essential in crowded China

For foreigners, travel within the park can be challenging, as there are a series of bus routes, cableways and elevators that takes the majority of tourists on a massive circuit of the park. It’s much like IKEA on a weekend, except slightly larger – once you start the big circuit, it was be difficult to find you way to a specific section. And the names of places and things are just as mysterious as IKEA as well!

On day one, we took the main route from Wulingyuan town, by bus to the cableway that goes up Tianzishan (Tianzi Mountain), before boarding another bus to the western side of the park over mountain ridges. The scenery is spectacular and we were glad we arrived at 8am sharp to avoid the crowds.

Dramatic cableway ride through the canyons up to Tianzi Mountain – there was a huge diversity of beautiful trees that were breaking out in autumn colours.

Upon arrival from the cable car at the top of Tianzi Mountain, we were amazed by a series of lookouts with views over many strange, remarkable rock formations. The top of the mountain is heavily forested, so it’s really pleasant for a leisurely stroll. And, yes, it does have a McDonalds, much to our initial disappointment, but we do confess to getting an iced coffee later in the day.

Imperial Writing Brush Peaks in Wulingyuan – view from Tianzi Mountain

The views are incredible and the names given to the the rock formations also conjure up magical Chinese images: Imperial Writing Brush Peaks, Mouse Watching the Sky, the Celestial Bridge, the Turning Head Lion and the Warrior Taming Horse, amongst many others.

After Tianzishan, we boarded another bus to continue the IKEA circuit. The buses leave every five minutes, so we stopped off at some intermediate bus stops to soak up the silent mountain atmosphere. This is highly recommended if you need some peace and solitude.

Another short bus journey delivered us to an area that allegedly inspired some of the floating mountain landscapes from the Avatar movie. Thankfully the landscapes are more inspirational than the storyline of the movie – the hiking was spectacular, despite being busy – beautiful forest landscapes, dramatic cliffs and deep canyons. One natural sandstone bridge crosses over a gap that is 357 metres to the valley below.

A celestial bridge crossing a deep sandstone canyon that almost defies imagination. Although its very popular and crowded, the grand scale of the mountains still enable an enjoyable visit – locals have placed red tags along the pathway.

Lemmings and elevators

After hiking along the top of the dramatic cliffs in the afternoon, we realised that all pathways funnelled everyone to the end of a cliff where the authorities have built a huge elevator that takes you down to the bus station exit. Unfortunately, the elevator is an “optional compulsory extra”, costing over US$20 for a 40 second ride down the huge cliff. (There was also a huge line up). We would have been quite happy to walk down a stairway, but this did not appear to be an option on the map. I’m glad we had our credit card handy, as otherwise we may have been abandoned on a mountain top when the sun sets. All part of the IKEA Chinese National Park Challenge I guess.

Challenging but rewarding

To sum it up, the scenery within this World Heritage listed park is truly remarkable, and still enjoyable, despite all the discomfort and crowds that are common in China. Our visit in November was not too crowded, in comparison to other places we have been in China. However, navigation can be challenging and food options can be limited, so you really need to be a keen outdoor person to appreciate this park.

If life is about memories – little snapshots in your mind – like photographs – Zhangjiajie certainly delivers. The memories of these landscapes still hold an emotional tug in my heart: I still have an emotional reaction to the first time I stood on the edge of these cliffs and experienced the wonder of this park first hand.

A local worker retrieving a camera lens for a careless tourist:
China is yet to be bombarded by occupational health and safety political correctness.

Links and practicalities:

UNESCO Listing on Zhangjiajie: Details on the park and it’s significance to the planet.

China’s Ancient Skyline: An informative article on Zhangjiajie, by the New York Times in 2007.

Ctrip train booking site: Excellent booking service for train tickets in China. Tickets can be purchased with foreign credit cards, for collection in Chinese cities when you arrive in the country – print off the confirmation and collect at any train station in China. Very reliable and safe website.

Basic map of Zhangjiajie: This map of Wulingyuan Scenic Area may seem a bit confusing at first, but you soon learn to go with the flow.

Our Hotel in Wulingyuan: Pullman Zhangjiajie – this well established hotel was located in a town on the edge of the park. There were many other hotels nearby, catering to all budgets. If you stay in Wulingyuan there are plenty of food options, especially for the adventurous diner.

2 thoughts on “Dramatic floating cliffs in Zhangjiajie, China

  1. We went to China a few years ago met the travel group in Beijin and was very nice. I haven’t been Zhangjiajie. Wow… how impressive, and you traveled on your own (I guess).

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    1. Yes, we managed to get around by ourselves – quite challenging but great to spend more time in places we liked. Group trips can be very hectic in such a large place like China.

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