The school gave us an entire week off from teaching! Sadly, all of our vacation days coincided with Golden Week—a seven-day long vacation period observed throughout the country. The result? People everywhere. In spite of the crowds, we were determined to see the “Avatar Mountains” of Zhangjiajie (located in the distant Hunan Province) while we were in China, and this looked like our chance to make it out there. We made the circuitous journey to the Guangzhou airport to hop a plane on Saturday night. We stayed in Zhangjiajie until Tuesday, when we took a four hour bus ride to Fenghuang. After two nights in Fenghuang, we returned to Zhangjiajie until Sunday morning. By the time we had ridden the metro, train and two buses back from the Guangzhou airport on Sunday afternoon, we were completely exhausted. It had been a week packed with beautiful sights, tons of crowds, good and bad food, and insane amounts of walking. I have a knack for being verbose–there are just so many little details that make an experience memorable!–but after two weeks I’ve distilled the entire seven days into a few highlights and lowlights:
On Sunday morning, we left the hostel, grabbed breakfast and hustled over to the tram station, hoping to give ourselves an entire day to take our time and explore Tianmen Mountain. There are two options for visiting the mountain: 1) take the cable car up and ride the bus back or 2) take a bus up and ride the cable car back. Wanting to make the tram ride in daylight, we were determined to take the cable car up. In spite of our “early” start, we hadn’t beaten the crowds. People swarmed across the station grounds, pouring out of the station itself and overflowing from the bus waiting area. After waiting in line to get our tram ticket, we were informed that we wouldn’t be able to get a cable car until 1:00 PM. We decided to try again the following day, hoping for earlier tickets.
The next day wasn’t much better. Even though we were at the station hours before our arrival the day before, the earliest cable car we could snag was at 11:00 AM. We just went with it.
The cable car going up into Tianmen Mountain is located right in the heart of Zhangjiajie, giving the illusion that the mountain must be close by. In reality, the mountains are set a fair ways from the city, giving us a surprisingly long ride through the foothills before we began to climb into the mountains. It was pleasant to ride over the quieter foothills surrounding Zhangjiajie, even if the car was crowded. Sadly, the crowded cable car was just the beginning of our over-crowded day.
The trails of Tianmen Mountain were choked with people, an incessant stream that never really let up. Instead of taking our time to enjoy the vistas, we were propelled along at a continual crawl by the press of people around us. If we ever did want to see a view, we had to fight the current and cram against a guard rail. Unfortunately, the view wasn’t even worth the fight. The pollution misted mountains hardly rivaled the sere mountainsides of the Wasatch Front in Utah. Thankfully when we made our way to the West Trail, the longer of the two trails, the crowds had thinned and the views were slightly more appealing. The biggest highlight of being on top of Tianmen Mountain was the glass walkway. Although it cost an extra 5 yuan per person, it was entertaining to stand on the thick glass panes and see the open air below us. It was even more entertaining to watch the frightened people in front of us trying to limit their steps to the steel framing in which the glass was set.
The second big draw of Tianmen Mountain is Heaven’s Gate, also known as Tianmen Cave (which is really an arch rather than a cave). After fighting a push-and-shove mob of people (no exaggeration there) to get onto the insanely long escalators down the mountainside, we were deposited right in the mouth of Heaven’s Gate. Which was under construction. Little to see there. The staircase leading down from Heaven’s Gate on the other hand—that was unlike anything I’d ever seen before! I’ve seen long staircases in China (their mainstay in place of switchbacks), but the “Stairway to Heaven” was the steepest and longest set of stairs I’d ever seen. Not only were the steps tall, but they were thinner than regular stairs, making each step require your complete attention. At times the stairs ahead dropped out of sight altogether as they took on an almost ladder-like steepness. If someone were to trip on those stairs, I don’t think they’d be alive by the time they stopped rolling at the bottom…
All in all, Tianmen Mountain wasn’t worth the visit…
Fox Fairy Play
I’d read that the Fox Fairy Play, performed nightly at the base of Tianmen Mountain, was one of the unique experiences of Zhangjiajie. The play is in fact a musical, recounting a local legend about a woodsman and a fox fairy/demon that fall in love. I read that the set was impressive, the music decent, and the production entertaining and easy to follow (thanks to a projected English translation). After hearing all of this, it was the one attraction that I really put my heart into seeing during this vacation. I’ve always been fascinated by different cultures, and I’ve always thought that the stories a culture tells, along with the way it tells them, gives insight into the heart of the culture itself.
After our somewhat disappointing day on Tianmen Mountain, our hostel landlord helped us get the tickets and drove us up to the show. The theater leapt out of the total darkness of the foothills, every line of its traditional architecture illuminated by the golden beams of rope lighting. I was struck by a childlike feeling of excitement—it seemed so magical! Eager teenage girls in traditional Tujia clothing showed us to our seats in the center of the audience and the show began. The descriptions I had read didn’t do the production justice! The set was amazing, with several houses and whole hillsides included. The special effects were delightful, including “snow.” The music was lovely. The whole show matched that first feeling when I saw the theater: it was all magical.
Fenghuang, the Phoenix City, was one of the original sights that attracted Briant and I to China. The city contains a well preserved section of ancient city—dating back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties!—and it’s home to the unique Miao/Tujia culture. When Briant and I saw the pictures of Fenghuang all that time ago in Washington, it seemed to be the embodiment of the China we wanted to see and experience.
We stayed in a hostel right in the heart of the Ancient City, which proved both beneficial and unfortunate. On the one hand, we were right in the middle of the area we wanted to see most. On the other hand, as the main attraction of the area, the Ancient City was a prime location for energetic nightlife and one of the first places to awaken in the morning. That meant scooters honking, recorded advertisements blaring, and the general hum of a crowd outside our window from 6:30 AM until around 2:00 AM. We didn’t spend a lot of time in our room…
In spite of the sleeping arrangements, Fenghuang proved to be as amazing in life as it had been in the pictures. Ancient buildings piled atop one another and crowded the banks of the river, sometimes hanging out over the water. At night the water, the walls, the hillsides and the buildings were lit up in hues of blue, green and magenta, all of it reflected back again in the mirror-like surface of the river.
Most of our time in Fenghuang was spent walking the meandering alleyways between the buildings, looking for souvenirs for our families. The alleyways were lined with shops, choked with booths and crowded with people simply displaying their trinkets on a spread cloth. The air rang with the solid thunk of shopkeepers pounding out “peanut brittle” with massive wooden mallets. We ended up buying several bags of the familiar-tasting treat, which is apparently unique to the area.
Southern Great Wall
One of the highlights of our stay in Fenghuang was our visit to the Southern Great Wall. We knew we wouldn’t make it up to Beijing to see the Great Wall, so we thought we’d at least try to see something akin to it. The Southern Great Wall was built to separate the Miao/Tujia people from the Han people during the Ming Dynasty and although it’s less well-known, the Wall is still an impressive 190 kilometers long.
After a half hour bus ride into the farmland outside of Fenghuang, we found ourselves at a visitor center refreshingly free of crowds. We meandered through the open commons, where the barracks once stood, then made our way up the Wall to take in the fantastic view of the surrounding countryside. We watched birds, sat in the shade, enjoyed the breeze and watched the other visitors amble through the commons. A tiny archery range was set up in one corner, where visitors could pay to shoot, and an old man was giving rides on a stocky Chinese horse. Of course, I had to ride the horse. The Southern Great Wall proved to be the most relaxing aspect of our entire seven-day-long vacation.
Zhangjiajie National Forest
Like Fenghuang, the towering sandstone monoliths of the Zhangjiajie National Forest (which inspired the floating mountains in the movie Avatar) were an attraction that had originally drawn us to China. Unlike Tianmen Mountain, the tickets into the park are valid for four days, which lent a leisurely air to our visits–after all, we had two whole days to take in the park!
Our first day in the park dawned gray, with a true fog hanging over the mountains (as opposed to a pollution-induced haze)—it was even a bit chilly! We had an entire eight-person tram to ourselves and enjoyed the steep ride through the forested spires. The upper portion of the park is riddled with trails and buses that connect the trailheads. In truth, the “trails” were just paved walkways leading from one photo op to another. Occasionally there were plaques with fanciful names for the peaks featured at each vantage, but somehow the “Fairy Presenting Flowers” and “Wild Boar” both bore little resemblance to their namesakes. Whether it was the weather, the nearing end of Golden Week, or the size of the park, we rarely ran into much of a crowd beyond the most popular vantage points. With no further plans beyond exploring Zhangjiajie National Forest for the next two days, we took our time to enjoy the park. We watched a flock of birds on a distant ridgeline, stood at the guardrails to inspect a particularly fascinating spire, and peered over the edge of the suspension bridge. As we made our way down the mountainside—a trail composed entirely of stairs—a little boy and girl followed us down, speaking whatever English they knew and pausing to try and figure out what we were looking for in the trees (birds). “Monkey!” they would yell, assuming that’s what we were looking for. “Are you a monkey?” Briant asked the five year old boy. “No!” the boy said, with a laugh at the utter absurdity of Briant’s question. They kept us entertained the whole way, and apparently our responses to their English kept them entertained too.
The following day was similarly relaxed, in spite of the fact that we were going up the seemingly endless staircase to the upper reaches of the park this time. We had little interest in the crowded vantage points, having gotten as many pictures as we could ever want, and we were really just hiking for the sake of being outside. We were rewarded for our visit by intermittent troops of monkeys. It was the first time I’d ever seen so many wild monkeys!
They ran through the underbrush, slid down tree trunks, tussled in the branches and frightened or charmed tourists into surrendering their food. I even pet one—which screamed and jumped in fright. But the real highlight of Zhangjiajie National Forest? The birds! Usually bird watching in a forest means rare glimpses of a shadowy little form as it flits in and out of view among the branches. Along the Golden Whip Stream trail, Briant and I were able to watch several beautiful species as they bathed, sang, swam and chased each other. It was a bird enthusiast’s dream come true! Unfortunately, neither of us has a camera strong enough to get good pictures of the birds…
I wish I could capture every detail of this vacation—the grueling weariness of an entire day of walking, the satisfaction of sitting by the river to enjoy a unique flavor of soft-serve ice cream, the confusion and desperation of trying to get the wrinkled, flower-vending woman to stop trying to sell me a wreath—but I don’t know that I would ever be able to fully capture it all. Hopefully the pictures and notes here are enough to capture the essence of our longest vacation in China.