We hadn’t encountered a single person who spoke a smidge of English since arriving in Basha, so it was with significant apprehension that Stefje, Manon and I began the journey to Furong Zhen, the next stop on our trip. It’s difficult to understate how difficult traveling in China is compared to every other country I’ve been to, so maybe a few enumerated points will help:
1. In rural communities almost no one speaks English, so it’s vital to have plenty of patience and a translation app handy.
2. Because the language’s characters are completely different, we also have to write down our destination in Mandarin before departing.
3. Without the aid of Google, most of our core internet servcies like maps and search don’t work and the best alternative (Baidu) is only available in Chinese.
4. Curiously, many Chinese think that if they write down the information in Mandarin we will understand, so we have to indicate with painstaking signaling that this strategy won’t fly either.
With all this top of mind, perhaps it’s possible to grasp how challenging this leg of the trip was. We began by haggling for a taxi with a man consuming boiled chicken feet; his greasy fingers punched the calculator app on my phone to indicate he wanted 40 yuan. We acquiesced and headed to Conjiang. At the bus station we were objects of intense scrutiny. While I handed over a piece of paper with two Chinese characters that could have said “pork knuckles” but hopefully said Sanjiang at the ticket counter, Stefje and Manon were accosted by a group of men shoving 20 yuan notes in their face. Whether they wanted to buy the pair of Dutch girls for 20 yuan apiece or show them the 20 yuan viewpoint in Yangshuo, I’ll never know.
The next bus was the first one that wasn’t air-conditioned, serving us a warning that we were now far away from the comforts of the tourist trail. Soon we were rumbling along unpaved roads which offered splendid views of a fertile valley and a broad murky river.
This continued for more than 3 hours, exhausting me but also unveiling a different side of China. Here the major economic forces of infrastructure have yet to hit and life felt infinitely more relaxed: groups of women gambled over card games, lone farmers in typical straw hats tended vibrant green fields, and warehouses were stacked high with bags of rice.
What has surprised me most about traveling in China, the most populous and urbanized country in the world, is how green and wild most of the land still is. It seemed as though every time I looked up another forested hillside had popped into my view, stretching wide across the distant horizon. With relief we arrived in Sanjiang, only to discover we had to take another taxi 10 kilometers out of town to reach the train station.
We arrived at the tiny ticket office at 8pm yet the next train wasn’t leaving until after midnight, thus beginning one of the creepiest transit layovers of my life. Our choices were to wait instead a sweltering room echoing with the shouts of Chinese people or under a tin roof that was a popular breeding ground for mosquitos, so we ended up sitting on the ground, buying beers from the only store in sight, and passing the time by playing cards.
By the time we boarded the 12:17 AM night train to Jishou, we were all thoroughly tired and eager to pass out on the hard beds. As we awoke and stepped out of the train, grown men stared with jaws agape, young children turned to look at us over and over again with wonder in their eyes, and women giggled furiously as we ordered breakfast on the street outside.
In an incident that was indicative of how few foreigners these people encounter, three school age children followed us for half an hour. When they finally worked up the courage to approach us, one asked Manon “where are you from?” And then ran away laughing hysterically as soon as she could spit out “The Netherlands.” I honestly believe you could land a UFO in midtown Manhattan and the aliens could pop out and stroll the streets with less fanfare.
2 more modes of transportation, a bus and a shared minivan, brought the total number to 6 over 24 hours as we finally made it to Furong Zhen. Thoroughly coated with grime and desperately in need of some privacy, we set off to look for a guesthouse and ended up relishing in the comforts of gorgeous, classically designed apartment.
Two of the most sought after attractions while traveling are ancient cities and waterfalls; I dare you to find a place that better mixes the two than Furong Zhen. Formed a thousand years ago on the steep cliffs of a precipitous three-tiered wall of rock and water, the city’s pagoda style structures rise up from cliffs drenched in vegetation. We began our exploration by working along the Eastern banks, which opened up to offer spectacular views of the entire riverside.
Especially when compared to other tourist destinations in China, we found the involuntary silence imposed by the constant presence of rushing water to be utterly enchanting. Adding to our enjoyment of nature was tremendous architecture; each building was traditionally designed with cool wooden interiors, balconies of carved wood and the ever present Chinese lanterns which hung from every conceivable location. By progressing down the waterfall’s side we were able to gain an excellent vantage point peering back up at the tiered force of nature, then uncovered a trail which led directly beneath the water.
From here looking up was a religious experience; every drop seemed to flow slowly down into pools below and the clash of water against rock echoed through the cavernous underbelly of the beast. Our feet brought us under the falls and then across to the Western bank of the enchanting town, where broad views of the harbor, a placid light green river, and a background of forested hillside became the newest objects of our affection.
Around the corner, an extensively touristy street consisted of souvenir shops, fish swimming in tanks too small for them, and fresh teas laid out for drying and tasting. The shopkeepers were unmoved by our presence, only looking up from their phones when we asked the price of certain objects. Quickly I grew disenchanted with the overwhelming commercialization, but our savior soon arrived in the form of freshly ground coffee beans.
Aptly named Silencio Cafe was perfectly positioned above the falls so that we could barely hear ourselves speak. We had no choice but to just sit back and enjoy the view while indulging in a much needed shot of espresso after a rough night of travel. Our main compatriot on the picturesque balcony was a bright green frog who quite literally dropped in, falling from the ceiling onto Stefje’s arm and then posing for us in a crouched position on the floor.
With evening coming we enjoyed a leisurely meal at one of the many restaurants overlooking the waterfall, then found an excellent vantage point to soak in the scenery as the sun set and the lanterns lit up the town with a friendly glow.
Two busses away from Furong Zhen, we found ourselves in the town of Wulingyuan on a Thursday evening after a relaxed day of traveling deeper into the Hunan countryside. Once a derelict little town hemmed in by mountains, the area is now one of China’s fastest growing destinations. A long walk around the central area revealed sprawling development of hotels, restaurants, and shops, with almost every single square foot of real estate catering to tourists. The big draw here is Zhangjiajie national park, a collection of sandstone rock spires spread across luscious mountain terrain.
Entering the national park on Friday morning bore a striking resemblance to a music festival. A striking 7 story pagoda formed the main entrance, tour guides waved flags to lead groups through the chaos, thousands of well-dressed Chinese prowled towards the security checkpoint, and a palpable energy filled the air.
A few minutes later we were aboard an electric bus that was packed to the brim with other visitors. We wound up the mountain, skirting along the edge of a lake and then curving like a snake to the first drop off point. Stefje, Manon and I disembarked at the Ten Mile Gallery to enter a sea of chaos.
Tour guides screamed into their handheld microphones and visitors snapped pictures from every conceivable angle as we did our best to navigate towards the trail. The crowd swelled while we walked side by side with an electric monorail. To our left we got our first taste of the soaring cliffs and dense undergrowth which make the park such a draw, but we were too preoccupied by the massive throngs of people to truly enjoy it. At the 3 sisters viewpoint everything swelled to a crescendo. The sound of a roaring crowd was audible far into the distance, making us feel like we were in a soccer stadium instead of a national park.
Fortunately for us, it was also here that we were able to begin a steep uphill hike that repelled every single tour group and left us alone in the steamy jungle. As if to mark the new beginnings, a grotesque frog stood on one of the first steps headed upwards. After sidestepping the beast, there were still 3,700 more steps to go! The trail was interminably long and punishingly steep, leading us straight up the side of one of the scraggly cliffs and deep into the natural beauty.
A dark green canopy of trees shielded the sky from our view, ferns stuck their roots into rocks and mud alike, and the air was thick with the smell of moist soil. But the predominant force was the insects: gnats buzzed around out eyes, caterpillars curled down from the sky like extreme bungee jumpers, tiny white bugs hugged the railings, and huge spiders scared us silly. Clearly, the flora and fauna of this region were still symbiotically interacting in a diverse ecosystem.
Soon the intense foliage and broad-leafed trees were our savior, because the heavens opened up with buckets of rain. We were chased from one reasonably dry point to the next, all by punishing our calves and hamstrings. Three solid hours of hiking and climbing had us soaked in two ways: once from the sweat and then another time from the rain.
Just as we were starting to lament that we passed by some of the park’s top viewpoints in a storm, the clouds slowly parted and we were granted with our first impressive panorama from up high. Now we could reap the rewards of all that ascension: we were above some of the clouds and eye level with a jagged set of columns known as “The Emperor’s Writing Tools.”
20 steps away on the other side of the same platform, a broad landscape opened up. We could now glimpse groups of these gravity-defying peaks long into the distance, each one supporting a wide diversity of plant life on every ledge, nook and cranny. The greenery continued deep down into the canyon, where it absolutely flourished and prevented any sunlight from reaching the forest floor.
We jetted back and forth between the two viewpoints as the clouds shifted, with the sun shining through and the views getting progressively better. Further along, we came to the day’s top attraction: Tianzi mountain. Here the intense onslaught of tour groups returned, but we were able to squirm our way to the ledge and look out over the spectacular view. Again monstrous towers of rock rose up, this time all the way from the depths of the valley to our eye level almost 800 meters high. Just like a city skyline, the beauty came in the diversity. Some peaks soared due to the support of buttresses on either side, others were wide flat pancakes where the rock appeared hammered out, but the most impressive were the individual skyscrapers which rose straight up in sheer defiance of the laws of gravity.
The view was awe-inspiring and left us feeling amazed by what is clearly one of the master works of mother nature. To cap the day we took the bus to a primarily unvisited viewpoint. Even though the location lacked the popularity of other destinations, the views here were no less spectacular. We were now peering back at the same valley we had admired earlier in the day, giving us a different angle of the same dramatic landscape.
With no crowds around we were able to launch our drone, which provided us with mind-blowing angles that made us feel small and precarious perched upon such a large, thin rock spire.
Flashes of sunlight across the valley combined with the solitude to craft a scene of immense beauty which served as the ultimate highlight for the day. The expanse of nature extended as far back as our eyes could reach, the whole scene green and rocky and overwhelmingly spectacular.
On our second day in Zhangjiajie, we awoke physically tired after traversing more than 20 kilometers the previous day, but we were excited to return to the park. Once again our first few minutes were overrun with people and shouting tour groups as we made our way through another popular section of trail.
Here packs of wild monkeys thrived off the food from tourists, creating the incredible scene of 7 Chinese tourists holding smartphones at a single monkey, forgetting that they are actually wild animals.
Nevertheless, the thriving monkey population meant that there were plenty of undeniably cute babies.
The Golden Whip Stream Scenic Route was not necessarily golden, but it was exceptionally scenic. The river gurgled by us on the left hand side, hemmed in by hundreds of meters of sheer cliffs which raised up to the heavens at impossible angles. The forest raged on our right side with an immense diversity of plants. Once we turned off the main trail and began another ascent, nature once again dominated.
Ferns, weeds, flowers, and trees bounded upwards from the forest floor, all existing in harmony with each other. There was a strong caterpillar population, as evidenced by holes in many of the bright green leaves. Moss crept in on the rocky trail and tree roots began to upturn parts of the path, proof that even though man has tamed sections of this wilderness temporarily, it was eventually be reclaimed by a proliferation of vegetation.
Once again, our task for the day’s hike was strenuous. We had to traverse from the riverbed to the topmost plateau, which consisted of more than 2500 steps in an almost vertical trail. At times we ran parallel to the imposing cliff faces, which hung over our heads and rained droplets of water onto us.
The intensity of the climb ensured our solitude: for the entire morning our only companions were insects and the only sound was the low rumbled of the river slowly fading away. Barely any sunlight permeated the tree canopy, but I still worked up a sweat so intense that by the time we reached the first viewing platform my shirt was a darker shade of orange.
The views here were splendid. At times connecting to form curious shapes and at other points creating nightmarish vertical walls that not even shrubbery and moss could penetrate, a new type of forest was unveiled. This one consisted of sandstone instead of oaks and was portrayed on such a massive scale that our eyes had trouble grasping the grandeur.
For the next hour we moved Westward along the edge of this cliff, slack-jawed in wonder at the spectacular landscape and intensity of the terrain. Soon we were joined by a few thousand other viewers. This vertigo-inducing stretch is one of the most popular in the park, meaning we were gradually surrounded on all sides by hordes of people
By keeping our eyes firmly trained on the grand formations of dizzying towers on our left, we could block out the chaos of screaming, pushing, and selfies unfolding on our right. Half an hour of this madness brought us from one great viewpoint to the next as we slowly gained a number of perspectives on the unique geological formations.
The entire way we were amazed by the splendid infrastructure this park includes: long walkways and railings are built into cliffs that rise more than a thousand feet straight from the forest floor, leaving me wondering what kind of physical and financial sacrifices were necessary to make our visit possible.
Now it’s one thing for me to describe the landscape here as “alien”, but it’s quite another for James Cameron to use it as a filming location for scenes set on another planet. Our next pit stop was heavenly mountain, the spot where they filmed parts of Avatar. Even without the accolades this individual pillar was mind-bending in the way it continuously rose from the depths of the earth, never widening from its already thin base. Truly, landscapes like this just don’t exist anywhere else on our planet!
The finally landmark on this stretch was the “World’s #1 Highest Natural Bridge.” While hundreds of people plowed across the footpath, we stared in shock at the precipitous drop right below their feet, supported only by a limestone arch that seemed ready to crumbled at any moment.
At this point the overwhelming crowds were grating on us, so we tried to escape to a nearby pavilion. This had the opposite effect: thousands more people were milling about here, smoking cigarettes, indulging in KFC, and creating the loudest commotion I’ve ever encountered in a national park.
A bus led us out of the hubbub and onto the trail to Tianbo mansion. Having now progressed to another part of the park, we could now glimpse a few inhabited stretches of valley beyond the imposing mountain vistas. The first viewing platform gave us an excellent view of “The Great Wall of Nature”, a collection of thin rocky blockades which worked together to create an impassable stretch from the mountaintops to the rivers and grasses below.
With the sun peeking through a usually impenetrable cloud cover, we enjoyed the relative quiet and absolute beauty.
From here the trail swerved down a steep alongside a steep tower, then made its way up through a particularly tough section. First we had to squeeze through claustrophobic natural rock tunnels, turning sideways to shimmy through. Second we held our breath while climbing iron ladders fastened straight into the rock.
The last brought us to the lookout point known as Tianbo mansion, which offered death-defying views of endlessly straight cliffs. A broad panorama also graced our eyes: abundant green foliage was only interrupted by rock towers which stood impervious to the effects of erosion.
The sweeping panorama left us immensely satisfied with the day’s exploration and after two hard days of walking I’m sure we all would have been happy to helicopter straight out of this remote location and onto a comfortable couch. Needless to say, that wasn’t an option.
For the next 3 and a half hours we had no choice but to retrace our entire route. Fortunately most of the crowd had dispersed, leaving us with long stretches immersed in the wilds of the jungle. Flies buzzed around our sweltering games, empty gullies led us straight down the mountainside, and a thick forest filled our lungs with the cleanest possible air.
We emerged from an impossibly long staircase back at the riverbank, where the lower elevation offered us different angles of the mountains that were no less spectacular. The setting sun shimmered across their surfaces, lighting everything up with a gorgeous natural glow.
Our third day in the park was starkly different in three distinct ways. First, we began the day by taking the bus from Wulingyuan to Zhangjiajie city and entering the mountainous region from a different entrance. The city of 1.7 million people is unremarkable except for the fact that almost a hundred cities in China are exactly like it. Despite the fact that it has almost twice the population of Amsterdam, it has no museums, notable architecture or other tourist sights to speak of. As has grown customary in China, I was most astounded that there was never a single apartment building under construction. To take advantage of economies of scale, they pop up in blocks of 10 or 15, each one 40 or more stories high and a testament to the country’s growing urbanization.
Second, we entered the park early in the afternoon, which meant that few others were in sight. Gone were the long lines, the madness of crowds, the shrieking of tour guides, and returned was our sanity.
Third, the cloud cover on this day reached much lower into the atmosphere. Although this wasn’t immediately apparent from our vantage point on the ground, we opted to take a cable car up after walking more than a marathon’s worth of ground over the last two days.
We were propelled upward into the sky, instantly awed by the sight of rock towers soaring into the clouds.
The pillars appeared out of the mist, approached us like giants on the move, and then slowly retreated behind us as we moved higher and higher. Visibility was soon reduced to almost zero.
Even though we could sense the presence of the mountains all around us, all we could see was the cloud that engulfed us and a long cable car protruding from the vast emptiness.
From the mountaintop, the views were much the same. Viewpoints looked out into large expanses of bright white cloud cover, rarely betraying any signs of what lay beyond the mist. At time solitary mountaintops peeked through the dense fog to reveal only their treelined silhouettes, ensuring that we were facing drastically different views after 2 days of relative similarity.
No matter how much we squinted into the distance or hoped for sudden gusts of wind to come sweep the thick white clouds away, there was nothing we could do to penetrate the spooky valley. A long trail wrapped around the edge of the mountain and we progressed around it, slowly resigning ourselves to the fact that the best views of Zhangjiajie were simply inaccessible today.
Gradually we found solace in two silver linings. First and foremost, the poor weather ensured many visitors didn’t even bother to make the trip; we were greeted by utter silence throughout the majority of the day. Second, the trail wound through a dense and fragrant pine forest which was impressive in its own right.
Clouds obscured the tree tops and made everything more than 10 meters away look like it was shimmering into oblivion, giving the whole experience a delightful ghostly feeling. Eventually we had no choice but to retreat down the hillside, this time moving on foot. We traced the outline of singular rock spires which rose to unknown heights, staring up in wonder at the risk of slipping down the frictionless rocks.
The path cut through a dense forest that would have otherwise swallowed every inch with vegetation. The constant precipitation and airborne moisture ensure that a shocking 98% of the park is forested, and now it was easy to see why.
More than 2000 steps led us back to the park entrance, but as I began the final descent I couldn’t help but pause numerous times to soak in the majesty of nature. Surely I will never across landscapes of this formation, scope, and grandeur ever again, so I can only say that I’m deeply grateful to have lived in the fairytale world of Zhangjiajie.