Tour Operators in Zhangjiajie - Part I
I prefer to guide myself around places in China, but Zhangjiajie is the kind of place where having things arranged for you and having a tour guide saves a lot of time and effort.
Local guided tours vary in quality. Tour guides generally know their way around, the names of key rock formations and not much else.
If you want to get off the beaten track, it is best contacting the park authorities in writing in advance to discuss the possibilities. Despite all that has happened at Zhangjiajie (or perhaps because of it all) the authorities are very amenable to arranging special tours. However, you should e prepared to pay high costs for any special arrangements, and these could run into thousands of RMB per day per person.
Most tour guides cost between RMB140 and RMB300 per day, and you should only pay the upper rates for a licenced guide who can speak your language. There are many unlicenced guides in the area but remember that you will have to pay for all their tickets (licenced tour guides are allowed to use all facilities free of charge and you should not pay for any tickets for them as a result), so taking an unlicenced guide can cost much more. If you do use an unlicenced guide, test them out first! Actually the unlicenced guides anywhere can be excellent because they have the complete freedom to interpret everything their own way rather then the official canned storylines that many licenced guides feel obliged to use. Caveat emptor, basically. Most local tour operators are difficult to deal with from afar because you can rarely get past the dopey receptionist who despite recognising a foreign voice on the phone, uses that trusty old trick of assuming that rather than find someone who can speak your language, foreigners will eventually understand if they just repeat what they are saying much more loudly. I can recommend one particular agency: good value, good guide, excellent car. RMB200 per day for the (licenced) guide, RMB800 for three days car-hire and RMB450 per night for four-star hotel and airport pick-up and set-down thrown in for free. I have had a lot worse deals in China, and Zhangjiajie is quite an expensive place. You have to pay for all the entrance tickets though. E-mail me for details and phone number.
Zhangjiajie sees simply huge numbers of visitors, probably averaging 50,000 each day, and most of these are 'bottle-necked' badly at the very start of the day at the cable-cars and the Bailong elevator (yes, there is an elevator up one of the cliffs). Basically, everyone needs to get up to the plateau level to look down and across the valleys, and there are few ways to do it except by these means. From 8.30am to around 10am, expect to queue for a long time (I queued in the heat for 90 minutes at the Tianzishan cable car) but after that the queues are much less. In fact if you can't get in early, then think about seeing another part of the park (or perhaps even a village outside the park) and then arrive after 10am. All along the plateau level, there is a regular hop-on, hop-off bus service between the different parts. The buses are driven at insane speeds along narrow slippery dusty roads. It is not allowed to take private vehicles into the central part of the park, which is probably a good thing, given the precipices.