With primeval forests, rocky crags and rushing streams, Zhangjiajie is a sublimely beautiful place to explore nature's bounty. Be sure to bring lots of film and a good pair of shoes.
Stashed away in a remote northwestern corner of Hunan Province, bordering Guizhou and Chongqing, is the Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve, better known as Zhangjiajie. Wisely set aside in 1982 as one of China's first nature reserves, Wulingyuan protects an astounding variety of flora, fauna and minority tribes. The area has been given a UNESCO World Heritage listing, so extensive protection is in place, such as a complete fire ban (including smoking), conveniently placed rubbish bins and flagged erosion-resistance paths.
The reserve is home to three of China's minority groups, the Tujia, Miao, and Bai who continue to carry on their traditional ways. In Zhangjiajie Village, there is a Museum of Tujia Culture focusing on traditional handicrafts. Traditional song and dance performances are held here and are a great way to get a taste of the local color. This is not simply a show to make the tourists happy, but is a family run center with aims of cultural preservation. The Tujia are suspected by some to be the last remaining descendants of western China's mysterious prehistoric Ba Kingdom.
Low cloud coverage and an endless array of streams often leave the reserve covered in a primordial mist. Original vegetation still covers 60%of the park and includes some 550 different species of trees. Some highlights include rare dove trees, ginkos and dawn redwoods, which were, until 1948, believed to be extinct. Highly prized medicinal herbs used in Chinese traditional medicine spring from the valley floor and grow on the high peaks. In the less crowded parts live wild animals and many species of rare bird. Rhesus monkeys, giant salamanders, civets, golden pheasants and tragopans populate the vast expanse of forest. It's a fairytale land of sandstone cliffs and fractured limestone pinnacles and lush subtropical foliage laced with clear, fast green streams covers the forest floor.
As would be expected from a nature reserve, most of the highlights are scenic spots. Atop a mountain peak, one of the most popular is Huangshi Village. For those inclined to hike, it'll take around 2 hours to get up the 3,878 stone steps, or for those who prefer to watch, a cable car whips you up to the top for RMB 48.
Located in the northern section of the reserve, the highest point, Tianzi Peak, at 1,250m, provides stunning views of the park and a top-of-the world feeling for those who make the climb. As in most Chinese parks, poets and artists have been visiting for thousands of years and have given imaginative names to many lookouts, gorges and peaks.
For fans of caves, Zhangjiajie has enough to please. Jiutian Cave, featuring Asia's largest chamber, is a massive limestone affair. Somewhat more accessible and located on the main trail in from Tianzi Shan Village is Shuanghe Cave. Suoxi Valley features the Yellow Dragon Cave, a series of limestone caverns interconnected by a subterranean river.
Another option growing more popular by the year is whitewater rafting. Although Zhangjiajie's rivers have not earned much renown, the neighboring Mengdong River is one of China's most popular stretches for river rafting. While the rapids are nothing death-defying, the clarity of the water and solitude of the high mountains and lush forests that continues to draw visitors. In these sparsely populated cliffs and gorges, it is not uncommon to see monkeys swinging through the treetops and reaching into the water for fish.
ZHANGJIAJIE'S HEAVENLY TRAILS
For sheer highlights and a chance to more fully take in the awesome splendor of Wulingyuan, few options surpass hiking along the numerous trails interlacing the mountains, gullies and forests.
The high plateau surrounding the reserve only serves to accentuate the dramatic pinnacles and crags of Zhangjiajie. It creates the illusion that the ground is opening up at the valley floor, shattering the earth into forested towers of rock.
For hiking and exploring Zhangjiajie, there are numerous trails waiting to be traversed. From Zhangjiajie Village, the road leads down to the park entrance where single and multi-day passes can be purchased. Sedan chairs can also be hired to carry you along the trails for around RMB 100.
Branching left after the main gate, on the trail to Huangshi Village is a 4-hour circuit winding through a lush, forested valley. The crisp, clear Pipa Stream gurgles along to the left of the path, crossed by several bridges. Along the way, there are numerous pagodas and viewing platforms ideal for a rest stop or a picnic lunch beneath the shadows of the mighty Double Pagoda Peak.
To the right of the entrance are several different paths. The shortest, also clocking around 4 hours, follows the Golden Whipple Stream. Filled with colorful fish and the occasional turtle, this stream also makes a great bathing spot in the warmer summer months. Following a heavenly valley for several kilometers, the path then branches off and returns to the entrance beneath the Yearning Couple. These two rock pinnacles face each other in a longing gaze telling the story of forbidden lovers who chose to be frozen as rocks rather than face a life apart.
Another option, bearing left from the main trail, crosses the Bewitching Terrace, named after vistas so stunning that it is haunting to behold. The Shandao Valley is a lesser-visited section of the park and though it's physically more challenging, it reveals Zhangjiajie in its scenic splendor and silence. Tracing the western edge of the plateau, the trail continues through marvelous scenery to the Black Dragon Village, a small mountain hamlet of wood and stone homes, before returning to the park gates. Possibly because it's a full day's walk, this route is less popular and you should have it more or less to yourself.
To explore the north and east of the Wulingyuan reserve, it's best to base yourself at Suoxi Valley. Though it has many of the food and lodging options as Wulingyuan Village, being off the tourist track has helped to better preserve its idyllic feel. Although it's only 10km to the park entrance, the walk takes several hours. Set amidst river-filled gorges, there are opportunities here to raft in between the numerous rocky peaks. It's also possible to hike up a precipitous staircase to the mile-long Baofeng Lake where, in the early morning hours, giant salamanders occasionally bask on the lakeshore.
From Suoxi Valley, a 30kmtrail in the TianziShan region, takes travelers to the highest peak in the reserve. Following the Ten Li Corridor, the trail leads past the Spirit Palace Bay, where dagger like rocks point up from the valley floor.
Next to the actual Tianzi Peak is the Immortals'Bridge, a narrow rock ledge bridging a cavernous gorge. Trying to cross the bridge is ill-advised but, it's a stunning scene combining Zhangjiajie's grotesque rock formations, spiny pinnacles, valley floors and swirling streams. From here continue on to Tianzi Village where lodging can be had for the night. Hike out of the village the following morning and return to Zhangjiajie by foot or catch a bus back to civilization.
Hiking options in Zhangjiajie are numerous and many unmarked paths also lead to fantastic scenes. For those who prefer less strenuous activity but still want to explore the park, pick up a map and watch for trail signs. The trails are generally well marked. Take it at your own pace and don't forget to stop every now and again to take in the majestic scenery that awaits.
Watching the sun go down over the Immortals' Bridge.
Hiking up to Huangshi Village as the early morning mist burns off in the rising sun.
Rafting on the Mengdong River while the guides sing local songs and monkeys scramble
through the trees.
A dip in any one of Zhangjiajie's clear streams on a hot summer's day.