Zhangjiajie and Wulingyuan National Park
Zhangjiajie - or Wulingyuan as it is also known - is a large area of karst scenery that is also a UNESCO World Heritage listed natural heritage site, although one that hovers close to being put on the "World Heritage in Danger List" because of major tourism exploitation and resultant environmental damage and significant negative social impacts. The authorities continue to conduct a major clean-up and removal of inappropriate infrastructure, hotels, cafes and shops inside the park, and the prospects for the flora and fauna in the area - and local people - are considerably brighter than a few years ago.
Many people arrive at Zhangjiajie with little knowledge of what exactly is there. Most people have seen a few photographs of the quartzite sandstone crags with pine trees hanging improbably from tiny crevices hundreds of metres above the ground. In a sense, that's actually about it. The Lishui river has incised an incredibly deep rift through the limestone plateau and most of the different parts of Zhangjiajie are simply different panoramas of the same valley or smaller side valleys. It is possible to get bored with the scenes fairly quickly, no matter how breathtaking they may be. Like many National Parks in China there is a curious sense of total isolation from nature, and visitors are shepherded along solid and often wide concrete paths lined constantly by heavy steel railings. At depressingly regular intervals along the way - and at almost every major viewpoint - vendors have set up shop, aggressively hawking their wares to every passer-by. Most of them also play music through loudspeakers and there is the constant shrill jarring of tour-guides shrieking through loudhailers if the wind blows in these lonely and gorgeous ravines, you will not hear it: there are large parts of Beijing's CBD area that remain considerably quieter than Zhangjiajie. If there was once wildlife in these areas, it has now long gone to where there might be peace. In nine hours at Zhangjiajie, I heard little birdlife and saw only two. Rather curiously, the birds I saw were at one of the noisiest parts.
There are now, fortunately, fairly large areas of Zhanjiajie (notably in the Yuangjiajie area) that are completely off-limits to all humans, including scientists, so fulfilling at least some of the obligations to actually use the park as a nature reserve.
Zhangjiajie is not an extensive area of high mountains, but there is the lofty Tianmenshan (1518m) on the very outskirts of Zhangjiajie city if you need real height. At Zhangjiajie, the height comes from the sheer cliffs, sometimes around 700 metres and the heavily eroded limestone massifs, all clothed in trees and vegetation. However, I also feel that the best time to see Zhangjiajie is in the winter when there is more contrast and more of the cliff-faces visible. Photographs of the place in winter are truly magical.
It may seem odd that the name Zhangjiajie refers only to one part of a group of four different entities, all of which are actually parts of the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Area. The name Wulingyuan has been less promoted over the years, so now the whole area, including the former city of Dayong, are now known as Zhangjiajie.
A two-day pass for the first three areas costs RMB253 per person now.
1) Tianzishan Mountain Nature Reserve
This is the central eastern part of the park, and is reached by the Tianzishan Cable Car (RMB52 up, RMB42 down) whose lower station is in the area known as Zhaigongwan. There are regular buses (when they fill up) from the Wulingyuan entrance. The Tianzishan area has views over the karst formations in the Gan Stream.
The Helong Park is now free with the main park entrance fee.
2) Yuangjiajie Scenic Area
This is the central western part of the park, and the most recently developed area with a long walk above the spectacular formations of the Shadao Ravine. It is reachable from the Tianzishan area by bus in 40 minutes and ends with a 5 minute bus ride to the Bailong Elevator, the 326 metre elevator down the side of a narrow gorge to the valley floor. There is a less travelled area of the Yuangjiajie section on the western edge of the park.
3) Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
The south-western part of the park, reached from the Zhangjiajie entrance. This is the busiest part of the park and includes the Yellow Lion Stockade Route and the Gold Whip Route.
4) Suoxiyu Nature Reserve
The main part is not open to the public, but this reserve includes the mountain slopes and valleys around Wulingyuan and Suoxiyu Villages. It also includes the area around Baofeng Hu which is open to the public. Baofeng Hu is immediately to the south east of Wulingyuan Village and costs RMB62 to get in. The main park pass does not include access here, but the RMB62 includes the boat ride. The Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) Cave is at the far eastern end of the Suoxiyu Nature Reserve, and much less visited than anywhere else. Note that access to both Baofeng Hu and Huanglong Cave are not included in the main ticket price for Zhangjiajie.
The whole park area covers 397 square kilometres, although the coire zone is just 264 square kilometres, and it was the first National Forest Park in China, designated by the State Forestry Administration in 1982, and six years later was designated by the government as a Key National Scenic and Historic Area. In 1992, Wulingyuan was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List and it became a World Geo-Park in 2001. The sites feature very similar landscape – huge, tall pinnacles of quartzite sandstone with heavy sub-tropical forest all around. Remember that despite the hype, Zhangjiajie is a tourist destination, not a place where you will feel educated or uplifted. There are wild parts of Zhangjiajie, but you will need to actively plan your visit and search them out.
Wulingyuan was formed by constant water erosion of its 380-million year old rock, mainly in the Lishui river valley and a handful of short subsidiaries. It is by no means unique, even in China, despite all the hyperbole and superlatives thrown at the visitor. The result is more than 4,000 columnar peaks surrounded by dense vegetation typical of a sub-tropical mountain monsoon climate.
"How it all went wrong at Zhangjiajie"
Zhangjiajie could have been one of the golden stars of Chinese nature conservation and sustainable tourism development. Instead, it has become a byword for unbridled tourism exploitation, inappropriate management and envirornmental damage. The situation becamse so severe that Zhangjiajie cam close to being placed on the UNESCO World Heritage in Danger List, something that would have been incredibly embarassing to the Chinese government and heritage and tourism authorities. Even the warning by UNESCO was a shock to the government who probably hadn't the faintest idea that what was being done was damaging. Even today, most tourism and heritage officials and politicians remain largely blissfully unaware of the impacts of tourism.
The critical issue at Zhangjiajie - as elsewhere - is that there is no concept of carrying-capacity. Over the years, government agencies and private enterproses were given permission to build all manner of structures including hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. This was all created with no thought given to the impact on water supply, treatement of wastewater, kitchen waste and solid waste. Even today, there are souvenir stands at every corner and the stream is used by many vendors for washing dishes. The streams became polluted, the vegetation was trampled, soil compacted and the environmental degradation accelerated.
In some respects, the litter created by visitors - blamed by the authorities for many of the environmental problems - is much less than might be expected; there are now plenty of waste-bins.
The warning from UNESCO is credited with bringing about a change of attitude, but the changes may be insufficient. A number of hotels and structures are being pulled down, but those permitted to remain are also poor quality construction. The street furniture and hard landscaping is almost entirely made of heavy concrete and then clumsily disguised as wood. There is something uniquely peculiar about China's penchant to have concrete waste bins disguised as trees, conrete footpaths disguised as boardwalks, concrete bridges disguised as wooden ones. If only the construction was done well, it might work, but it never is.
The most recent constructions are clearly of a superior quality, with attractive styling and more care taken to use natural materials, so the future Zhangjiajie will be better for visitors and the environment.
To cater for the 5 million visitors annually, more facilities needed to be built, and this has placed further brdens on the park. All the cable cars, the elevator, shops, restaurants and other facilities require electricity and water supply. The park is criss-crossed by HV overhead transmission lines, and fresh water needs to be pumped around the park. There is no evidence that environmentally-friendly building designs are being used, nor that eco-friendly water facilities or passive solar radiation have been built. Even the newest facilities tend to be heavy and with a tendecny to be in mock antique style that is no more appropriate to the environment here than a modern structure.
The interpretation of the natural heritage is a quite recent addition to the porftfolio of facilities and there are some good practices, including the use of wooden tree labels (although even these are heavily rusticated and varnished, providing quite a peculiar sight). There are regular signboards with information on different ecological topics, but it all seems a bit contrived, and the visitor is left with the feeling that everything is being 'presented' as some kind of synthetic showpiece: like n environmental version of the 'model tractor factory' so beloved by Soviet-era planners.