When I first started planning our trip to China, and searched for places to visit, Zhangjiajie popped out immediately. Just minutes after reading and seeing pictures, I fell in love with this place, and knew I had to add it to our itinerary. When still planning the trip, it was the highlight. However, with the bad weather there, things changed.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, located in Hunan province, is considered one of the most majestic places in China. It is famous for the fog across hundreds of towering sandstone pillars topped by trees, grandiose peaks, dense forests, and splendid mountains. The park has been renamed “Avatar” after being the inspiration for the floating peaks seen in the movie.
After hours of research, I figured out that there are two sites in the area that I particularly wanted to visit: Zhangjiajie City, where the Tianmen Mountain is located, and Wulingyuan, 19 miles from Zhangjiajie City, near the entrance to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Based on this, I booked one night at a hotel in Zhangjiajie City and two nights in Wulingyuan.
Getting settled in Zhangjiajie City
The first thing that we noticed as we arrived was that not many people spoke English in this area. It was already dark at Zhangjiajie International Airport (DYG) when we showed the hotel address to our taxi driver. To avoid any driver extortion, we asked airport staff to give us an idea how much the ride should cost. Outside, to agree on the price with the driver, our fingers were our best friends. We were very proud of ourselves—it worked.
The check-in was challenging because only one employee spoke English (and miserably at that). It was quite late by the time we got settled, so we decided to grab something to eat in the restaurant downstairs. It was a buffet (in name only) but the food was not very appealing to us. It seemed the food was sitting there for hours. We skipped dinner that night and went back upstairs. We ended up eating crackers, nuts, and cereal bars while sitting on our beds.
Tianmen Mountain: beauty vs. fog
Next morning, we walked from our hotel to the station to buy tickets up to the mountain. We chose ticket B, which entitled us to a bus ride up and cable car down. Tickets cost 260 yuan ($40).
The seven mile long road took us to the base of the Tianmen Mountain in a zigzagged path called 99 Bends, one of the most impressive mountain roads I have seen. We felt a bit confused (and disappointed) when we got off the bus because the fog was dense and we had no idea where we were. The clouds moved slightly and we realized we were standing at the foot of the 999 steps (9 is the lucky number in China) that would take us to Tianmen Cave, aka Heaven’s Gate.
There was an option to take escalators to reach the cave, but we decided to climb the 999 steep and narrow steps. Although the view wasn’t great due to the haze, it was still fascinating and mysterious. Surrounded by other tourists, we made our way to the top, hoping until the last minute that it would clear up. Alas, it did not happen. The wind would blow the mist just enough for us to get a glance of the cave entry every few minutes on our way up.
West Line and Glass Skywalk
After hanging out at the top for a little bit, we started walking towards the famous Glass Skywalk. We took the West Line, a concrete walkway with a railing, attached to the side of Tianmen Mountain. This incredible walkway is about 1 mile (1,600 m) long and 0.9 miles (1,400 m) above the ground.
Along the way, trees with red ribbons could been seen. Each ribbon symbolized a wish. People write their wish on the ribbon and tie it on a tree, hoping that it will come true.
We reached the Glass Skywalk called “Walk of Faith” and rented a pair of reusable red shoe covers to protect the glass. It was a small, crowded section of the walkway, and unfortunately, we could hardly see through the glass due to bad weather and scratches on the glass.
I would still recommend the walkway for the unique experience, simply knowing how far above the valley you are standing on just a piece of glass (and watch terrified people leaning against the cliff as they walk).
Tianmen Mountain Cable Car
It was time to go back to Zhangjiajie City and hop on the longest cable car in the world. The visibility was still the same. The ride took about thirty minutes for over four miles, descending over mountain peaks, the 99 Bends, deep valleys and even some villages. Tianmen Mountain started disappearing behind us and we could barely spot the Heaven’s Door through the mist.
Because we were there during the low season, we didn’t have to wait too long to hop in the cable car. We even had one just to ourselves.
Dinner experience: lost in Translation
Recalling our experience from the night before, we decided to have dinner in the city before heading back to the hotel. We walked up and down a street with some restaurant options, looking for one that would appeal to us. We made a decision and walked in. However, trying to order meals was a disaster. They spoke no English and our Chinese wasn’t any better. We tried some words in Chinese like “chicken”, but no success. If they understood what we were saying, we didn’t understand the answer. After a long fifteen minutes of failed communication, I got up, signed to the waitress to follow me, and walked around tables, pointing at other customers’ food. It worked. I really don’t know what we ate that night, maybe chicken, but it was delicious!
My scariest moment in China
If you’ve seen the film Avatar, you should immediately recognize the scenery at China’s majestic Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. That was where we were heading next.
Buses from Zhangjiajie City to Wulingyuan cost 12 yuan ($2) per person, but we decided to take a taxi early in the morning to make sure we would have enough time to explore. The hotel called a taxi for us and took off after we agreed to pay 150 yuan ($23).
The drive between the two cities was the scariest part of the whole China trip. First, the driver took a detour on a dirt road through a construction site. I was certain this was where the trip was going to end. There were huge construction projects everywhere and we went from rural zone to urban zone to rural again. At some point, a big construction vehicle blocked the road and we had go back through the construction detour and take another route.
If traffic rules existed, most drivers did not respect them. Our driver would frequently pass on two lane roads despite oncoming traffic. There must be unwritten rules that Chinese drivers follow that seem to prevent accidents. For example, it is possible to fit three cars side by side on a two-lane road.
Thankfully, we made it to our destination, the Pullman Hotel. It was too early to check in, but we could drop off our bags.
Bad weather in Wulingyuan
We packed some snacks and water bottles and walked to the park. We got there around 11am.
The four-day entrance fee includes the bus rides inside the park, but not the elevator and cable cars.
We entered the park on the lower level and took a bus to the upper level where we could take the cable car to reach the top of the mountain. We could have taken the monorail after the first bus stop, but we chose not to because we wanted to experience the cable car.
The cable car was very nice and once we got to the top we saw… nothing. It was completely socked in with fog. Sadly, the weather was our big enemy.
After wandering around for a bit in the middle of the gorgeous landscape (which we couldn’t see), we saw signs for McDonalds. We couldn’t believe that, on the top of the mountains, among towering sandstone pillars and dense forests, we would see such an commonplace name. We took a bus there, and it was impressively large. Normally I’m not a McDonalds person, but in Zhangjiajie I was very pleased to see one. None of the staff spoke English, but we met a small number of Western tourists.
For the next three hours we walked down in the hazy weather towards the 10-mile Gallery. Sometimes we got a peek at some of the rock formations. It was a long walk. We made some stops for pictures, but nothing beyond that.
The infrastructure of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is very good. The hiking paths are all paved and clean. After hiking two miles down from the 10-mile Gallery, we got back to the monorail.
The impressive Yellow Dragon Cave
It was our second day there and the weather was horrible. It was pouring rain. We didn’t even bother leaving the hotel for a hike, much less to see the amazing views.
The Yellow Dragon Cave wasn’t part of our itinerary, but at that point, it was the only thing we could do. For 40 yuan ($6), we took a taxi from the hotel to the parking lot near the cave.
We bought tickets for 80 yuan ($12) and walked through a small, picturesque park, with streams, a series of water mills, small trees, and a fish pond. At that point, we realized we were near the exit of the cave. Oops! We walked back to the entrance of the cave.
Although I’d rather have explored the beautiful mountains of Zhangjiajie National Park, I must say I was extremely impressed with the scale and beauty of the Yellow Dragon Cave. The interior of the cave is a fascinating maze of large caves, waterfalls, underground streams, pools, thousands of stalactites and stalagmites, and many other formations. It was a two-hour hike through the cave, including an underground boat ride and many stair steps.
A sad good-bye to Zhangjiajie
We were disappointed that we didn’t get to see as much as we expected in Zhangjiajie. We will definitely go back one day to see those splendid views, hopefully, on clear days.