In high school, I worked at the only Chinese restaurant in my very humble town called “Hunan Village.” I neither knew what, or where, Hunan was at the time.
Fast forward six years later, and I meet the inspiration for my foray into China: a man named Chen. Through our friendship, he inspired me to not only self-study Mandarin in Japan, but also to study abroad in Beijing and later take the plunge and move to Shanghai. Honestly, without Chen, China wouldn’t even be a part of my life.
Chen is from Hunan.
For years, Chen has been urging me to see his homeland, so when I told him I was going back to China this summer, he and his wife invited me to go–and I did. I finally made it to Hunan province, the hometown of the infamous Mao Ze Dong, the land of hot peppers and spices, a province full of minority tribes and ripe with national parks.
The trip was a wake up call for me. Chen’s father father lived in a crumbling, concrete apartment building from communist-era China, covered in mold and black decay. Despite all of the wealth in Shanghai and the coastal cities, it was then I realized that although China has managed to lift 250 million people out of poverty, most of its citizens still live in staggeringly poor conditions.
Chen’s family was more than generous. They invited me into their home, prepared the best Chinese food of my life, and made many toasts to my travels.
After visiting his family, Chen encouraged me to see Zhangjiajie, a UNESCO world heritage site and the pride of his home province. Although he was unable to accompany me, I was able to persuade J to escape from Shanghai and follow me to the countryside.
And by far, Zhangjiajie was one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had in China.
Zhangjiajie is a city located in northern Hunan province and is a five hour bus ride from the capital city of Changsha. The national park Wulingyuan within Zhangjiajie City was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992. The first city here dates back to 221 B.C.–so yes, this place is really, really old. Zhangjiajie is also home to one of China’s minority tribe which, unfortunately, also means it’s the poorest region in Hunan.
Most know Zhangjiajie as the inspiration for the movie Avatar, and it’s easy to see the similarities. Zhangjiajie is a natural playground of rock formations. Like fingers reaching up to touch the heavens, the jagged, quart-size sandstone columns hidden in the ephemeral mist of this rural piece of China makes for a mystical landscape indeed. Some of these columns are almost 600 feet (200 meters) high!
The Good: Must See, Jaw Dropping Views
The scenery at Zhangjiajie was, simply, the most badass thing I’ve ever seen. Yes, this place is “touristy,” but like the Grand Canyon or the Notre Dame in Paris, it still doesn’t fail to impress. Compared to other places in China, it wasn’t even that bad. Hawkers didn’t harass me at every turn and corner and I was able to enjoy nature without someone trying to sell me something every five minutes (which happens everywhere else in China, trust me).
Highlights included Jinximen, a path at the base of the sandstone formations that runs alongside the bubbling brooks and rivers. Although there were some slight showers while J and I hiked the trail, it was a blessing in disguise because we were awarded with the mist factor. A touch of mist, the mountains above, the rivers rushing by us–my god, it was perfect.
The view from the top of the glass elevator was excellent.
Another must see view was tian guan tai (天观台）, a fairly empty (yes!) viewing spot where J and I sat on a rock, dropped our backpacks, and stared at this magnificent view in utter silence for almost fifteen minutes. We were very impressed.
My favorite hike was, without a doubt, the aptly named “10 mile painting.” From the peak of tian guan tai down to Wulingyuan City, this
long ass strenuous descent down into the City is hard on the legs, but easy on the eyes. Every time J and I rounded a corner we had to whip out our cameras. Every step led us into a new landscape, a fresh perspective, a beautiful painting. The most photogenic hike ever.
The Food and People
Years ago, I traveled to Guilin and was assaulted by the worst of China. I was ripped off by the hostel owner and was overcharged for everything. I even took a candid photo of a farmer woman with her ox, and she chased me down demanding that I pay her for my photo (I told her to get lost). Like most of China, the people weren’t the friendliest and I realized that China would sell their country and culture out in a second to make a quick buck.
But wow. Zhangjiajie. Totally changed my mind. Hands down, this place has the nicest people I’ve ever met in China.
The locals were cheerful and talkative with J and I, and instead of try to wheel and deal us with every business transaction, they were actually fair in their pricing and extremely helpful.
Usually in China the hotel staff try to sell you on any tour they can to make money from commissions; but in Zhangjiajie, they actually told us to avoid them. “Just rent a taxi it’s cheaper,” the concierge told us, “take the bus on this route, it’s less money and faster,” said another local. It was almost too good to be true.
Most of all, the people were warm and kind. Zhangjiajie is one of the few cities in China that isn’t polluted. The water is safe for drinking and the air is pristine and fresh. After visiting the industrial city of Changsha and the metropolis of Shanghai, Zhangjiajie was a nice change of scenery. Prices were reasonable, food was mind-blowing (every restaurant set a new standard for Chinese food in my mind, it was MUCH better than the restaurants in Shanghai) and the people were talkative and sweet.
“Living with the mountains, the trees, breathing in this fresh air and drinking clean water… I know I could make more money if I moved to the city,” our taxi driver smiled at us. “But I could never be happy with that lifestyle. This is my home. I’m so proud of it.”
Basically, the locals of Zhangjiajie restored my faith in China.
The Bad: Nasty Tourists
Excluding the locals, the Chinese tourists from outside provinces were absolutely awful. They were loud, disruptive, and rude. They cut everyone in line, littered and spit everywhere, and they were extremely disrespectful to the locals and their homeland. You can read more here about how Chinese hikers treat their national park.
And leave it to China to build a freakin’ McDonalds on the peak of this mountain. Can you imagine if we built a Burger King right smack in front of the Grand Canyon? Cause yeah, that’s what this felt like.
“You know what,” J told me as we walked past McDonalds. “China doesn’t deserve a place this beautiful.”
You may be thinking:
Damn! Harsh words for a foreigner to say about China.
But really, this sentence continued to echo in my mind throughout the trip. One of the ancient pagodas on the mountain was transformed into a gift shop. Tourists from the coastal cities were flinging garbage into turquoise lakes, trampling around with megaphones, blasting music on their phones.
It really made me wonder if what J said was true. I can only hope the next generation is better.
And the Ugly: Mountain Top Hotels
Staying on the mountain sounds quaint and peaceful, but despite Zhangjiajie’s popularity the accommodations int he park itself are modest. Like, hole in the ground toilet modest.
After stewing in our own sweat for over eight hours on our uphill and very humid hike, J and I dreamed of a hot shower and clean bed at the end of our first day on the trip–only to get this:
The bed sheets were moist. There were holes in the ceiling. Bugs everywhere. I probably ate a family of moths and spiders in my sleep that night.
But honestly, it was just me being a first world snob. The people that ran the mountain top hotel actually gave us the nicest room in the place. They themselves live in much worse squalor. We were uncomfortable, but grateful.
Hands Down, My Best Experience in China
Sure, it was touristy. Yeah, it was long (we hiked over 20 miles in 2 days). Yup, I couldn’t walk straight for a week. And hey, the Chinese tourists sometimes drove me bat shit crazy.
But was it worth these views?
Oh hell yes it was.
And honestly, Zhangjiajie revealed a part of China to me that I thought didn’t exist anymore. Zhangjiajie was so clean, I thought I was in Japan. The sky was so blue. The trees were a lush, vibrant green. The food was all organic and fresh, with most restaurants using vegetables freshly plucked from their personal gardens. Prices were fair (we rented a taxi for an entire day for less than $100) and the locals were genuine and kind.
Zhangjiajie is worth it. Don’t worry about it being too touristy or gimmicky, cause honestly, nature this epic doesn’t get more real than this.
So if you go to China, and you can manage to rough it out to Hunan, don’t pass up Zhangjiajie. It’s just too beautiful.
**Like Kumano Kodo, I was also very hard pressed to find information on how to do a Zhangjiajie trip. I winged it planning this trip and it somehow worked out, but man oh man, if I didn’t speak Chinese it would have been a terrible experience. Will write a guide post soon! ***