[Wanderlust Tips March 2019] Since ancient times, Zhangjiajie has been a beautiful paradise on earth. Those who visit this place are struck by the majestic sandstone peak forest, by the sea of clouds covering the sky, and by the wonders people have built in this land. I made for Zhangjiajie, not with the mind of a wandering traveller carrying an oversized camera, i came here to find a paradise on earth, Zhangjiajie.
THE LEGEND OF ZHANGJIA
Zhangjiajie was originally named Luanchuan (rotten ship planks) Canyon. Legend has it that Zhang Liang, living in the era of Emperor Gaozu Liu Bang while attempting to avoid being killed by the enemy decided to move to the South as a way to survive. At first, Zhang Liang climbed Tianmen Mountain, then moved to the Luanchuan Canyon to settle down, pursue his religious beliefs and continue the line of Zhangjia’s descendants in this land. It is said that in order to make Luanchuan Canyon more beautiful, Zhang Liang planted seven maidenhair trees in the South. When the seven tall trees were fully grown, they became seven great canopies, beautifully adorning the entire region.
Many years later, a greedy governor named Truong Van Xung, wearing royal garb and sitting in a large palanquin, visited Luanchuan Canyon. After witnessing the fascinating scenery of this enchanting land with its seven maidenhair trees like seven giant protectors, he was overcome with the desire to usurp the whole area for himself. Van Xung invited a famous sculptor to engrave on each maidenhair tree in large letters: “The territory of Commander Truong Van Xung”, using those seven trees as markers of a 50-mile-wide area where people were prohibited to enter. At the same time, he chased away the Zhangjia to capture this beautiful place for only himself. When the ban was put in place, the people who lived in the surrounding area did not dare enter even when they went cutting firewood or walking their buffaloes, and the Zhangjia had to move on elsewhere to live.
One day, a hunter named Truong Gia Hung went to the mountain to hunt wild animals and came across the seven maidenhair trees. He saw flows of golden water dripping from the bark like tears and looking up he saw the wicked words that Van Xung had engraved on the trees, and he suddenly understood what had happened there. In a moment of anger, Gia Hung swung his knife changing the two words Van Xung into Gia Hung, and smashing the signs marking the territory. The people of the land stood behind Truong Gia Hung when they heard what he had done, which made Truong Van Xung fly into a fit of rage. He sent 300 soldiers to besiege Luanchuan Canyon and arrest the brave hunter, but his plan was unsuccessful. He exasperatedly vented his anger on the people, declaring that he would cover-over the words on the trees with the blood of the villagers.
As if striking down Truong Van Xung’s evil and ruthlessness, at that time, suddenly strong winds and heavy rain swept across the land, bright light flashed across the trees before plumes of golden water spouted from the seven trees sweeping Truong Van Xung’s 300 soldiers away into Jinbian Brook. People were frightened when they saw this, immediately kneeling down to pray under the maidenhair trees. Then from a cloud above, they heard: “Listen! Dear hearts! This land was created by God, a heaven on Earth, so this land will never belong to Van Xung and his descendants! My god has ordered the God of maidenhair trees to banish them to the great sea. Now this area belongs to Zhangjia and their descendants.”
After saying that, the prophet pointed his fly-whisk at the seven maidenhair trees and immediately seven great golden words appeared on the trees: “Heaven on earth, Zhangjiajie”. Since then, the entire Luanchuan Canyon has had a new name – Zhangjiajie.
GET LOST IN THOUSANDS OF SANDSTONE PILLARS
It can be said that the majestic sandstone pillars are the most characteristic geological beauty of Zhangjiajie. In the whole area, there are more than 3,000 towering sandstone pillars like a giant spike board pointing up to the sky. In particular, there are stone pillars which are higher than 800 metres, and standing hundreds of metres away, we can still see their shadows casting out over the land.
Those who have set foot in Angkor Wat of the Khmer empire (Kingdom of Cambodia) cannot fail to be enchanted by the architectural blocks covered with sculptures of the huge sandstone slabs in the temple. If we see Angkor Wat as a symbol of human power and ability, then Zhangjiajie is like an architectural, artistic symbol of heaven. It is not only the sandstone pillars which are as wide as the length of three human arms but also the hundred-metre tall natural stone towers with irrepressible trees in between.
The Chinese are very good at naming beautiful places, but perhaps in Zhangjiajie, those exuberant names cannot do justice to its mysterious natural beauty. The most majestic mountain located in the middle is named Tianzi Mountain, meaning the Son of Heaven. The name is an affirmation of the nature of this beautiful mountain which is up to 1,212 metres high and surrounded by a large range of towering sandstone pillars in the deep woods. At the centre of Zhangjiajie, we can find sandstone pillars of all shapes and sizes, and like precious treasures, each stone pillar has its own charming name such as Ngu But Phong, Tien Nu Tan Hoa or Thach Pham Xuat Hai.
Perhaps the beauty of the prophetic treasures fascinated and inspired the Hollywood film director James Cameron to create the magical planet of Pandora in the famous movie “Avatar”. In Zhangjiajie, the spectacular sandstone mountain “Pillar of the South Sky” is the inspiration for the legendary flying islands. Here, Chinese tour guides still tell foreign tourists about a “Pandora on Earth”.
WANDER ABOVE THE CLOUDS IN A FAIRYTALE LAND
On the journey to discover the wonders of Zhangjiajie, I stopped at the biggest souvenir shop in the national park. Coming here, looking at the artworks of Chinese artists and photographers, I found a special feature in all the pictures and postcards, clouds. Zhangjiajie would only be pillars of loneliness if it were not for the clouds enveloping them all year round. At all the famous attractions in Zhangjiajie like Tianzi Mountain and Yijiajie or Tianmen Mountain, everyone seems to be filled with happiness when they see the waves of clouds flowing around the majestic pillars.
In particular, on Tianmen Mountain, a giant sky gate 130 metres in height is located on top of the mountain. Every time when a large cloud passes through that towering heavenly gate, the surrounding space is covered by white mist while people standing only a few metres away are unable to see each other clearly, and the grass and trees reach out to catch the dewdrops from the clouds. Then when that cloud passes, the gate to heaven seems to open again, the sunshine radiates and gleams on leaves full of glittery dewdrops, the transparent droplets reflecting the golden sunlight. Those who are privileged enough to witness this magnificent spectacle of nature cannot express anything by words, only hurriedly take photos with their cameras. I suddenly remembered the old footage of Journey to the West in 1986 co-produced by China Central Television and The Ministry of Railways. The former director Yang Jie built an image of a luxurious, heavenly place with vast fields of clouds and mist. When I silently watched the scene of Zhangjiajie sinking in a sea of clouds, admiring the streaks of golden sunshine and pillars reaching the roof of nature, I realised that I was standing in paradise.
TOURISM SERVICES IN ZHANGJIAJIE
Tourism in China is particularly unique as travel companies and managers have to face not a few hundred thousand visitors every day, but up to several million. They have to find ways to satisfy billions of domestic and foreign tourists on a yearly basis and in a place recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site like Zhangjiajie, we can find an impressive array of services.
If in Vietnam we often strongly condemn human intervention in majestic natural landscapes such as the construction of cable cars and walkways in sightseeing areas, I saw no such opposition towards any of that in Zhangjiajie.
Here, in the area of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, a glass elevator named “Bailong” has been built which can take people to the height of 362 metres at the top of a mountain. The entire elevator car was made of glass so that tourists from the inside can experience the feeling of watching the sandstone pillars from the foot to the top of the mountain. The giant Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge is the tallest glass bridge in the world, joining two 300 metre high mountains and spanning nearly half a kilometre.
A 7.5-kilometre cable car has also been built up Tianmen Mountain for tourists to observe the primaeval forest, and after they can descend the mountain by 999 stairs from Heaven’s Gate and through 99 winding bends from the height of 1,300 metres to 200 metres, symbolising the 9 palaces of heaven. There is also the Coiling Dragon Cliff Walk, a glass walkway around the edge of the sandstone mountains. Going on the glass and then looking down is a nerve-wracking experience for those who are afraid of heights.
A special feature of all these artificial structures is that we cannot see them from other locations in Zhangjiajie. The Chinese build tourist facilities such as cable cars, glass bridges and elevators to maximise the ability to serve tourists and create new experiences while still respecting the natural landscape. Whether you choose to admire the scenery by walking around or travelling by modern forms of transportation, no damage to the wild and natural beauty of Zhangjiajie can be seen.
OVERVIEW OF ZHANGJIAJIE
Zhangjiajie is a prefecture-level city in the northwestern part of Hunan Province in the People’s Republic of China. It is famous for its majestic landscape of lofty mountain peaks, deep canyons, waterfalls and giant stone pillars as well as being home to many wild plants and animals. Therefore, Zhangjiajie has many famous natural wonders such as Wulingyuan (including Zhangjiajie National Park, To Khe valley, Tian Zi Mountain, Bao Phong lake and Golden Dragon cave) and Tianmen Mountian (belonging to Tianmen Mountain National Park).
BEST TIME TO VISIT
Zhangjiajie is a stunning destination where each season has its own unique and attractive features. You will love to admire its scenery covered in white snow but still exuding the magnificence of nature in winter. In the spring, the whole area of Zhangjiajie is covered in a deep green colour like a soft silk strip separating the sky and the earth. Summer comes with air which is neither too hot nor cold, suitable for tourists who want to take part in challenging activities such as climbing mountains or walking the glass walkways without being afraid of suddenly pouring rain or cold winds. Autumn in Zhangjiajie is warmly dyed with red leaves, and the weather is romantic. Each person with different interests and desires can choose to enjoy Zhangjiajie in their own way.
GETTING AROUND ZHANGJIAJIE
>> Depending on the location of your accommodation, you can access Zhangjiajie’s sightseeing areas by walking, taxi, long-distance bus or local buses.
>> Particularly in the area of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (belonging to Wulingyuan), there are many attractions such as Tian Zi Mountain, Yijiajie or Bailong elevator which are accessible by bus. The bus system in this area is numbered on maps very clearly; however, before starting your journey, you should get ahold of an attractions map and a bus map which are available at hotels and information booths. In particular, these bus routes are completely free as bus journeys are included in the price of the entrance ticket.
Not many local people speak English or any language other than their native tongue. You need to prepare some English – Chinese or Vietnamese – Chinese translation apps before you leave. However, you do not need to worry because tourism in Zhangjiajie is quite developed with signs often in English, and in tourist areas, there are also enthusiastic volunteers wearing orange or green who can help you in English.
D.N | Wanderlust Tips