Zhangjiajie, China

We were unsure whether or not to visit the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park during our time in China, but almost two years on I am still incredibly glad we did. The contrast between Beijing, Shanghai and (although it’s not officially part of China) Hong Kong and Zhangjiajie could not be greater. I feel there is something extra spectacular about East Asian cities, and I absolutely love visiting them, but to be in the wilderness around nothing but other people and an untouched landscape was a welcome change from the madness that is unavoidable in the city. Reading extensively about the park and discovering that it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site persuaded us to stop there between our city breaks to Beijing and Shanghai.

Our flight with China Southern Airlines from Beijing departed at 6am and took just less than three hours. On arrival at Hehua airport we haggled for a taxi from CNY 300 to 130 to get to our hotel which was in the area directly surrounding the park, away from the city centre. In the car, which looked to be older than both Paul and myself, we drove for around 45 minutes through the main town and then towards the mountains. The higher we climbed, the more narrow and winding the roads became with huge coaches teetering in front, beside and behind us. The closer we got to the park the better understanding we began to get of the sheer size of it, with the rocks beginning to rise up from the hills the closer we came to it. When we arrived at the hotel just after 11am and despite having not slept in over a day and a half we dumped our bags and headed straight to the park. The area was still in the process of being built up, and instead of solid structures most of the shops were stalls. Hotels were sprouting up the whole way along the road ours was on and although the area seemed like it was far from completed, it was evident efforts were being made to improve upon it.

A four day ticket cost CNY 245 per person for all the parks excluding Tianmen Mountain National Park, for which a ticket had to be purchased separately and discounts were offered for students, children and older people. We only had a couple of days and so wanted to make the absolute most of our ticket purchases, so after buying our tickets we headed straight into the main park. Just at the main entrance there were tons of monkeys being fed by tourists which we were able to photograph up close and it was refreshing to see the animals so closely without them being held in a cage or pen.

Although you can see the beginning of the rocks from outside, you don’t really get a true sense of the size of them until you’re past the barriers. With no roads, humongous trees lining the paths filled with seas of tourists, you’re almost immediately submerged into a world of green. The beauty of the place is undeniable and so unlike anything I had ever seen before – vast, towering rocks reached out like fingers and were irregularly covered in green. Each individual peak was different in height, colour and shape. Some disappeared behind clouds while so many others faded into the background into a sea of greys and greens. Because the first day was the only full day we had at the park, we chose to travel upwards so we would have as much time as possible to look out across the mountains. We travelled upwards in increments, taking several free shuttle buses and eventually a glass cable car to the peaks at a charge of 72 CNY. I am absolutely petrified of heights, but even I couldn’t help but gape out of the surrounding glass at the view around me. All we could see in every direction was mountain after mountain. I almost resented paying extra once inside the park considering the cost of the admission tickets, but soon came to be incredibly thankful we made the decision to do so.

The crowds had thinned somewhat at the top of the cables, and to be able to sit at the top in relative peace and quiet and actually realise what an incredible adventure we had embarked on together was indescribable. We had only left home five days ago and already seen so many brand new things, and we still had nine more weeks of adventures to go.

Much to our dismay the credit card machine at the ticketing office at the peak wasn’t working, and a severe language barrier prevented us from getting on a car, so we wandered around aimlessly for a while trying to find someone who could speak English to help direct us in how to get down. We ended up walking the whole way back that the ten minute cable car had taken us, but actually this accident ended up making for one of the highlights of the visit to Zhangjiajie. We used the pillars that supported the cars as our guide and climbed through the forest down to where we could get a shuttle bus again. Although terrifying, we got to see what went on underneath those bursts of green in the mountains. We passed some houses, some families eating together and passed by two men with workhorses carrying food up the hills. I have truly never regretted not taking a photograph of someone I had encountered ever in my life. We finally reached a clearing that we recognised from our journey up that offered an unbelievable view of the mountain we had just came from, and others fading behind it.

On our second day we took a flatter route as we were both carrying 15 kilograms on our backs, which didn’t really bother us until we discovered the left baggage section at the entrance. We followed a river through the woods with firstly trees, and even higher the mountains towering over us. Along the trails down here were far busier, but in my opinion much more beautiful than the ones we had followed the day before. If I had only looked at the forest I could have believed I was anywhere in the world, and I liked being reminded of the green and rockiness of home. There were stalls every so often selling embroidered clothes, food and drinks as well as play areas for kids and picnic benches.

I felt that the two days we spent in the park was plenty, and was pretty eager to get back to the mayhem of the city. It was a wonderful break from rushing around and was refreshing to take a step back and enjoy nature. It’s expensive to get to and from Zhangjiajie, but if you can work it into your travel plans and budget then it certainly is not one to miss.

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