Zhangjiajie: Where Paradise Meets Avatar Meets an Olympics-level Performance!

Zhangjiejia Tower, China

Written for HEE Travel Company, New Jersey, ( ) who organized my tour in Nov. 2011. Both small group and independent travel assistance. Excellent accommodations and guides! Highly recommended!

By Sally Ross,, 2/15/12

Do not quote or use without permission of the author.

SEARCH my galleries for more photography from "Zhangjiajie."

We left Shanghai bustling with glitz, style, money, and 21st century architectural marvels, and we arrived two hours later in a land beyond time and beyond imagination: Zhangjiajie.

Developed in the last decade and declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002, Zhangjiajie, and the surrounding Wulingyuan Scenic Area, is a gem in the Chinese crown, surrounded by natural wonders, stunning ways to access and experience them, and at least one over-the-top, outdoor production that makes use of the mountain setting in miraculous ways. As the infrastructure catches up with Western tourists’ wishes, I’m willing to gamble that this will be one of the major, must-see destinations in this amazing country. So leave the glitz, the history, the ancient kingdoms behind, and join me in unveiling Zhangjiajie: the natural side of China.

Layers and layers of mountains faded into the dusk as we arrived at the tiny airport, having no idea what to expect. Even after having been there, I’m not sure what I saw! Here China is completely different from any place I have ever traveled. Imagine yourself in the valley of an ancient Chinese painting, surrounded by misty mountains that disappear into the distance. Imagine: holding your breath at the top of a roller coaster, looking down not at the rest of the ride, but down sheer cliffs. Imagine: gliding to mountaintops in sleek, modern cable cars and a 1000-foot high outdoor elevator. Imagine: lush vegetation, fantastic sandstone pillars stretching for miles, pristine waters, and incredibly talented local people eager to introduce foreigners to their world.

The Tienman Mountain National Forest in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area has to be one of the top ten natural wonders of the world. And the Chinese have made it accessible in unique, modern, and creative ways. We drove into the country each day in our own tour bus, then transferred to a series of Eco busses, an outdoor glass elevator that went straight up a cliff (at 1000 feet, the tallest in the world), and magnificent cable cars that went up, and then further up! Wheh! We rode a tiny electric train out the valley of the Ten-Mile Natural-Gallery and walked back along the fine path to slowly enjoy the mountains rising above us. After riding up another mountainside, we climbed 168 steps for a lovely boat ride on Lake Baofeng where singers greeted us from parked boats along the way. We basked in the scenery and the easy path along the 50-minute walk back down.

But I think the highlight for all of us was at the top of the Tienman Mountain Nature Reserve. One day we reached the top and walked along well-built paths (with railings, thank goodness). Every so often, there was a constructed viewing area where everyone clamored to take pictures. We were among the first to walk along the portion of the path that is now made of Plexiglas—all the better to see straight down! Even further up by bus, we arrived at a view of a huge hole in the top of the mountain. Many walked the 999 steps to the top, the “Door of Heaven.” I sat that one out!

The next day, we approached the mountain from a different place and walked two hours around its cliff tops. Literally breathtaking, the scenery up here was stunning. This is the portion of the reserve imitated by Director James Cameron for Avatar and the Hallelujah mountains. Red rock towers stood close to one another with incredibly sheer, eroded spaces between. At the bottom was a tiny river. Clinging to the towers was a vast array of fauna, even in our November visit. If you have been to Zion National Park, Angel’s Landing is some 1200 feet tall; these paths are 2600 feet from the floor, a harrowing, and constant view as we walked right around the edge. Glorious scenery, this is Zion on steroids! We crossed natural and manmade bridges hanging precariously above sheer drop-offs. And we passed hundreds of Chinese reveling in their own travels. Then to come down we needed more busses, and a different cable car, making us aware of how high up we really were!

So we had lived in the mountains for a couple of days. That night, we sat at the base of the same towering mountains surrounded by an oval open-air stage as the sun set. A “Greek” choir of 100 local girls in jangling headdresses entered their bleachers to our left. A young man joined them and sang plaintively. Luckily, the Chinese have graciously put up screens with translations of the songs so we could follow the classic Chinese tale of the Fox Spirit, a fox who becomes a woman and entrances a woodcutter. A cast of hundreds emerged along the cliffs, upon the lake in the middle, and from the charming village hanging off the left side. The stage and backdrop literally run from the front gate of the Tianmen Mountain Scenic Zone to the top of Tianmen Mountain. Action occurs everywhere and we were carried away with the fantastic music, brilliant singing, passionate acting, and stunning staging. I’ve been to Broadway, to London, to outdoor theater, but I’ve never experienced anything as powerful as this evening was. When the doomed lovers stare and sing at each other from separate cliffs high above us (for 10 thousand years I think), we were so touched. The end it seemed. But then the cliffs move! The curse is broken! Somehow (how DO they do this?), the cliffs meet in the middle and then the singers….fly! Enough, I don’t want to spoil it for you.

It is truly worth the trip to Zhangjiajie just to attend this once-in-a-lifetime performance! And on chilly fall nights, the Chinese even thoughtfully rent out good, warm army coats to make you comfortable on the expansive bleacher-like stands.

To cap off our last day, we went underground! Yellow Dragon Cave is the reverse of the karst geology from above. Here, lit by fabulous light shows, we walked from room to room and took at boat ride on one of several indoor rivers. In all, this mammoth cave system is almost a mile in length. It is beautifully prepared for tourists with excellent walkways going in, supporting signage and viewing spaces throughout, and things to do outside in the lovely park surrounding it as well.

Imagine: Zhangjiajie. A national and natural park system. A welcoming, talented, and devoted populace. Surprise and adventure at every turn. Imagine: China’s future ready to be discovered, not only in her extraordinary cities, but also here in its heartland. Don’t miss it!

Sally Ross,, 2/15/12

Do not quote or use without permission of the author