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Zhangjiajie, our hike in the heart of Avatar – China

Our journey in Western and Central China took us through Hunan; a province of an incredible beauty, inhabited by several ethnic minorities, endemic animal and plant species. It’s also in this subtropical climate province that we found the popular forest park of Zhangjiajie – whose natural elements are unmistakably reminiscent of the setting of the film Avatar. Curious, we let ourselves be tempted by a visit to the park. A visit under the sign of rain, mist, but also (and fortunately!) of wonders… and we can say it, of a real visual slap in the face!

Avatar park, between myths and truths

We already imagined ourselves strolling in a huge park, lost in the middle of a dense jungle, full of wild animals, at the foot of the famous sandstone peaks covered with exotic plants, lakes fed by gigantic waterfalls… A dream inspired by the supernatural landscapes of Avatar movie. We really believed it, when we read everywhere that Zhangjiajie Forest Park would have inspired James Cameron, the movie director, to create the planet Pandora… Except that reality, as is often the case, is a far cry from fiction.

Zhangjiajie Forest Park is a protected national park (inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1992) and above all, it’s a well delimited area. Tourists can access the park only on presentation of an individual pass, which can be obtained at one of the 5 ticket offices, located near the entrances. Once inside the park, you will find a modern and “disneylandised” layout, as only the Chinese have the secret: signposted walks, shuttle buses, cable cars, restaurants and hotels built in pasteboard (or rather concrete-plaster) and even… panoramic lifts. Not sure that James Cameron dreamed of his beautiful planet when he saw this – besides, contrary to what people would like to make us believe, karst peaks of Zhangjiajie are not the only ones to have inspired the famous scenery of Avatar!…

Our hiking route, off the beaten paths

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Our two-day itinerary (highlighted in yellow on the map)

Day 1: entrance to the park, walk to the Yellow stone village and the golden whip stream

After an early wake-up and some shopping in the city of Zhangjiajie to carry our future meals, we reached the main park entrance by bus (entrance called “Forest Park”, the closest one to the city). On this grey and cold December day, there were no crowds at the cash registers: we paid a discount entrance fee (low season price) in exchange for a personal magnetic card on which our fingerprints have been recorded. We entered the park with our bags, camping gear and food without any problem – our immersion in Avatar Park has just begun!

At the crossroad of the first hiking trails, we panicked: where to go? Fortunately, paper maps were available to visitors, free of charge, at a wooden tourist information hut. Everything was written in Chinese, but we found our way around: the steps in front of us lead to Huangshizhai (or Yellow stone village). Only after a good hour of walking, we were wondering about our choice: we hadn’t even walked half the distance according to the map, and few tourists we met on the way down made us understand that a thick fog at the very top prevented everybody from seeing the other peaks… Go back to the crossroad – this time, to take the flat path along the Golden Whip stream.

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Hi, sweeties!

On the way along the river, we had a rather unexpected encounter with some rather mischievous macaques – ready to rob tourists of their technological gadgets and food. We watched them for a moment climbing trees, swinging over the void and shouting, before resuming our walk to the steps leading to Yangjiajie. According to our map, the stairs should lead to the elevators, close to the most beautiful and popular lookouts that remind us of the movie. There was no way to take these aberrations: we will rather take our courage in both hands, and start to climb up the stairs. Only the sun set eventually cut off our momentum: once we arrived at the edge of a small empty restaurant, we set up our tent under a canopy and put our food in a safe place – thus protecting us from the rain, and our food from animals hunger during the night.

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Day 2: Yuanjiajie, Avatar viewpoint, and the abandoned house

After a rainy night and an early breakfast, we started climbing the stairs again towards Yuanjiajie. We reached the first viewpoints around 9AM, well before the arrival of chinese tourists. The weather was still not good, but it didsn’t matter: we stopped at each new viewpoint, watching with impatience for the fog to lift. “The enchanting terraces”, “The forest of the Stone Peak”, the Avatar viewpoint, the natural bridge, “The Monkey Man looking at the moon”, “The terrace of three views”… We saw as many signs that evoke strange names as unusual landscapes standing in front of us. Majestic landscapes, of a rare beauty, powerful, indescribable…

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The abandonned house

Around noon, we decided to walk back down the canyon via another path from WulongZhai station. As the road to get there was not made for walking, we were dropped off there thanks to the free bus shuttle. Proudly snubbing shops and Yangjiajie cable car, we walked down the steps at our own pace to the bottom of the canyon through other viewpoints: “The corridor in the cliffs”, “The tiger facing the dragon”… We didn’t run into anyone: no tourists, no sellers, no guides. Nobody either in the abandoned house, located in the canyon bottom, at the crossroads. Here we were alone on lost paths, venturing on wet and slippery stone steps, surrounded by dense tropical forest, crisscrossing at the foot of these huge karst peaks we admired earlier. And we savored every moment, every moment spent in the middle of this grandiose scenery, before taking the path along the Golden Whip Creek and Zhangjiajie at nightfall…

Review of two full days in Avatar

In two days we clearly couldn’t do everything: we didn’t walk on the glass bridge, we didn’t climb the steps leading to the Paradise Gate, we didn’t go to Tianzi Mountain. In fact, we only visited a (very) small part of the Avatar Park – but which part, my friends!…

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Because despite the rain and persistent fog, slippery stairs and challenging visiting conditions, we were anyway truely amazed by these surreal karst peaks, monkeys jumping from branch to branch and multicoloured birds flying over dense, tropical vegetation. Even the fog, which certainly prevented us from seeing more than we had hoped for, had its own little effect – leaving us with this feeling that we were in an unknown and mysterious jungle, creating total surprise as soon as it dissipated!

Nature lovers and on a small budget, we preferred the thousands of steps to modern lifts, our tent to hotels, our impromptu picnics to restaurants. We’re not going to lie to each other: it was hard, intense… But this experience, alone in the middle of nature and off the beaten track, was so worth it!
In the end, we may have set foot on the planet Pandora and lived James Cameron’s dream of living in harmony with our environment!

Useful informations:
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Entrance fee: 118 yuans/person from 1st December to 28/29 February ;
228 yuans/person from 1st March to 30 November.
Free paper map to be retrieved inside the park. Free shuttles.
Duration: from 1 to 3 days with the same pass between March and November,
from 1 to 4 days with the same pass between December and February
Access: by bus, car or hitchhiking from Zhangjiajie

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* Post written according to our personal experience *

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