Zhangjiajie: The Avatar Mountains

China has such a variety of geological landscapes.  From the deserts of Gansu, to the karst mountains of Guangxi, there is an abundance of beauty here.  Mount Everest, Yellow Mountain, and Mount Emei are some of China’s most famous peaks, and the Yangtze and Yellow rivers are equally famous vast bodies of water.  China has a lot to offer tourists, although many skip these natural beauties, visit the Wall, The Warriors and The Bund, then peace out.  They don’t know what they’re missing. 

Admittedly, when I first moved to Xiamen in 2005, I didn’t realize how much China had to offer either, but through the years, I’ve come to appreciate the variety of landscapes the Middle Kingdom offers.  These past 2 years have been especially eye opening to me, because I haven’t been able to go home.  My summers are usually spent with family and friends in Canada, but with that being impossible for 2 summers in a row, Dave and I have opted to travel China, rather than to sit and sulk in Suzhou. 

There is one place though, that Dave and I have always wanted to visit, but always put off, mostly because of the crowds.  Zhangjiajie is located in Hunan Province, and although many foreigners haven’t heard of it, local Chinese tourists have.  It’s the busiest place we’ve been all summer, and it’s very easy to see why. 

Now, I had never heard of these mountains until a coworker of mine visited in 2015 (when we were living in Guiyang).  But although I had never heard of them, I HAD seen them, and just not realized it.  They’re featured in the movie Avatar. 

Spoiler: they don’t actually float in real life, but it can look like they do when fog sets in. 

There are a few things you should know, if you’re thinking of traveling to Zhangjiajie.  First of all, flights can be a bit tricky.  Unless you’re flying from a major city, you’ll have to have a layover in Changsha or Xian.  You can take the train as well, but once more, it’s a bit of a long trek unless you’re already living in Changsha.  That being said, it IS worth the trip.

Our train back to Changsha was mostly standing room only.  It’s a 3 hour ride so you’ll want to make sure to book early and get a seat. 

Another thing to consider is that it’s almost always crowded, especially during holidays (most people in China all get their holidays at the same time).  We went during summer, which was probably the least crowded of all the regular holiday seasons, but it was still crowded.  We got to the park before 8:30am, thinking we would be ahead of most of the crowds, but it was already packed by then. 

Lots of tour guides in that line, each with a stack of passports to get through. 

We also found Zhangjiajie to be a bit xenophobic at the moment.  The woman who looked at our documents at the train station didn’t want to let us through despite the fact that we are vaccinated, have a clean travel history and haven’t left China in a year and a half.  We also had COVID tests done 3 weeks prior, but she wanted much more recent ones.  She did let us in, in the end, but for anyone reading this and planning a trip to Zhangjiajie this summer, you might want to get a test done a few days before. 

This app tracks all the places I’ve been in the previous 2 weeks.  If I have been in any medium or high risk areas, it turns yellow or red.  It’s all tracked by my phone’s GPS.  I have 4 different versions of these apps and they ALL show green. We showed her the 2 most commonly known ones and she still wasn’t happy.  Most places are happy with the green code and vaccination record.  Not Zhangjiajie though!!

However, no matter how many little inconveniences we faced, I would still recommend Zhangjiajie to anyone who has a little patience and perseverance.  It’s really an out of this world kind of place to visit, and here’s why:

The Park is HUGE!

To counter my complaint about the crowds, I must also mention the size of Zhangjiajie.  If you take any of the hiking trails, you’ll be able to avoid most the crowds.  We spent a good portion of our day on the Golden Whip Trail.  A lot of it is flat so even if you aren’t super fit, you’ll be ok. 

The trail is about 7km long and follows a beautiful little river the whole way. You can get some really nice views of the mountains from below. The water is cold too, so if you start to overheat, you can dip your feet in to cool down. Golden Whip Trail was actually my favorite part of Zhangjiajie, and we did it twice. We went up and also down the river, rather than racing the crowds.

This isn’t the only way to get around, of course. There are buses that take you from scenic spot to scenic spot once you’re up in the mountains. They were making me really car sick though, so we avoided them when we could. There are also cable cars and elevators to get you up to the peak and most scenic spots, but there are often 2 hour lines to get into them. We took the stairs instead.

There were a lot of them, but we took it slow and stopped often for water, and it was fine.

The Scenery

We only really had time for 1 scenic spot, so we chose the Avatar Mountains. Also called Yuanjiajie mountains, these peaks were stunning. My favorite view of them was our first… Right when we made it to the peak, but before we met up with the swarms of tourists that had taken the cable cars up.

Not only was it stunning, it was also peaceful.

Once we were back in the crowds, the most scenic spots were all around, but it was hard for me to enjoy them with all the selfies and shouting and vendors trying to sell things. It was still beautiful, of course, but I would definitely have enjoyed it more if there had been fewer people in that small location.

For the next couple of hours, we moseyed along the park, hopping on and off buses to see the sights. Nothing we saw compared to the Avatar Mountains, but if we had scheduled another day at Zhangjiajie, we would have explored some of the more famous areas of the park.

It’s disappointing how commercialized this place has become. They have KFC, McDonald’s and so many shops and stalls… It just seems weird to me, given how beautiful of a place we were at.

We timed things well, and took the cable cars down one section of the mountain. At around 3pm, most of the tourists are seeing the major sights, so that’s when we booked our tickets down. The views were SPECTACULAR!

Once we were back down to the main level of the park, we decided to take the Golden Whip Trail back, rather than take a bus or a taxi (there were some there, which surprised me, but they were charging WAY too much).

As the sun started to go down, the trail was even prettier.

The Wildlife

Another thing worth noting is the wildlife at Zhangjiajie. There are countless macaques that will steal your food, and chase you if you get too close.

We’d only been at the park for about 10 minutes when we watched a mother with a baby hanging onto her back lunge at a tourist, stealing their snack and running off with it. It was pretty funny to be a spectator, but given how aggressive these monkeys can be, I’m glad I wasn’t the one holding the food!!

Other notable wildlife were the birds and insects in the park. There were cicada-type insects buzzing up a storm, and in the silence, I find the sound to be calming. It reminds me that I’m in nature, and that makes me happy!

This little creature can make a LOT of noise!!

Zhangjiajie is really an incredible place. There are plenty of great lodgings to be found in the areas just outside the park. We stayed at the Forest Glass Inn and loved it. There were about 700 stairs to climb to get there, but the view was spectacular and the hotel was lovely.

I’m very happy we went, and I would encourage anyone to go!

With views like this, who wouldn’t want to go here!?

Our next stop on our trip is a 10 day stay in Hainan! We loved it so much at Christmas that we decided to come back. I’ll also be able to finish some of my posts that I never had a chance to finish then! (Food poisoning affected our last few days there).

I’ll finally get to finish my post with all my best photos!

I’ll be back soon!!

2 thoughts on “Zhangjiajie: The Avatar Mountains”

  1. wow, great photos and a really indepth blog about Zhangjiajie have been wanting to go there for a while now. We will definitely look into doing the Gold Whip trail too when we do get there.

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