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It is possible to stay in a "Tuo" minority's home inside the park and hence you can explore the whole area in two or three days. I stayed there in 2007 for two days but my guide does not speak English.
Hiking in the mountain area is a very pleasant experience. The road is good and well-maintained. There are also shuttle bus traveling around.
Updated Aug 11, 2009
Probably the best known single panorama at Zhangjiajie, the Emperor's Writing Brushes at Tianzishan are a breathtaking sight, spread along a valley. They do look like fifty paintbrushes sticking up from the forest floor and the mist creates an eery effect. This area is best seen in the morning (as the sun is behind you).
Updated Jul 8, 2006
Tianmensan has recently opened as a National Park, although there has been access for a long time to the Tianmen archway which lies on one side of the mountain. The new area is the "plateau" at around 1200 metres and reached by the Tianmenshan Cable Car.
The mountain is not on the intinerary of most tour groups so is considerably quieter than the Zhangjiajie/Wulingyuan Park to the north of Zhangjiajie City. During the summer 2006 the area is having the usual heavy, unnecessary "Chinese park infrastructure" installed: big solid concrete and stone paths, wastebins every ten metres, more signboards than a London Underground station, fences, toilets, and some huge building that may be a hotel or a museum. Lots of concrete and steel being poured and lots of concrete being clumsily disguised as treetrunks for various purposes.
However, the circular walk is great fun and it is peaceful, although the main viewpoints have been concreted over and have the obligatory photograph vendor, usually pumping out loud music. In China, VERY LOUD MUSIC improves the view you see, because with no VERY LOUD MUSIC how on earth would you know that you were at an important place?
Now Tianmenshan has also put up a good number of interpretation signs, with eco-information in Chinese and English. It is basic stuff but unfortunately, both the Chinese and English are very difficult to read because the information is carved on huge wooden boards and then heavily varnished, so it is a real struggle to read. Halfway through reading the first one, I just gave up and ignored the others. It's a pity that joined-up thinking is so absent in Chinese parks.
This park has a very big variety of trees and plants, and although there are many good wooden tree labels, there is no further information available from the park authorities. In China you need to come pre-armed with knowledge as you aren't going to receive a lot when you arrive.
Written Jul 8, 2006
Opened in December 2005, the ride takes 31 minutes along the 7km up to the Tianmenshan, although not to the peak which is reachable on foor to the north from the top of the cable car.
The cable car ride starts in the suburbs of Zhangjiajie City, on the south bank of the river. The ride up is pleasant, swooping over the city, the railway (and the new railway station under construction) and then over fields and villages, following a stream for much of the way. Watch out for small coal mines, each marked by small spoil heaps at the entrance.
There is a half-way station where the cars transfer from the lower cable to the upper one. After this, the ride goes from being charming to being spectacular and the last part is one of the steepest cable-car rides in the world. Watch out for the last cable tower, which is, itself, a masterpiece of civil engineering as it is constructed on a tiny ledge way above the valley. The last rise is about 1200 metres.
The ride costs RMB 31 and that includes acces to the mountain. Remember to keep the card for the return journey.
Written Jul 8, 2006
In December 2005, a 7km long cable-car route replaced the buses that used to wind their way up the "99 Bends" to the Tianmenshan, the huge brooding mountain that hangs precariously above the airport. The mountain is best known for the natural arch, 137m high that became famous in 1999 when aircraft taking part in the World Aerobatics Championships flew through the arch's 37m wide gap. It was an awesome feat but, curiously, I haven't seen any photographs of the stunt. Around Zhangjiajie you see many photos and posters of a formation of Russian fighter aircraft, sugesting that they flew through the arch. However, these are promotional photos for a March 2006 air display at Zhangjiajie. It was intended that at least one Su-27 fighter aircraft would fly through the arch, but the stunt was cancelled at the last minute. A Russian general cited their desire not to cause environmental damage, but the wise decision was probably because of the serious risk: it is one thing to fly a small propeller aircraft through the arch, but quite another to get a jet fighter through the gap. Even with full flaps down, the rising air currents would have made accurate positioning very difficult. I am sure one day that another aircraft will make it through.
The Tianmen arch can be clearly seen from the airport, to the south. The arch is now reached by getting off the Tianmenshan Cable Car at the midway point. The cable car stops just for a few moments as it transfers from the lower to the upper cable. It takes 20 minutes to reach the arch car-park but then there are 999 steps up to the arch itself.
The ride up the road is as spectacular, but it is easier to see the road from the cable car as it continues on up to Tianmenshan itself. Note that there is no access at all from the mountain to the arch, although you can cross the top of it. In fact, you cannot see through it on the mountain except by climbing outside a safety fence on the south side, with a sheer 80 metre drop - not recommended, although everyone does it.
Written Jul 8, 2006
This elevator was one of the facilities that has really angered many scientists and tourism specialists who cited it as being one of the most unnecessary tourism facilities in history. The 326 metre elevator runs for two-thirds of its height down the outside of a cliff and the lower third through the rock, ending in a damp cavern. A long tunnel leads out to the fresh air. The condensation in this tunnel is so bad that the visitor is almost sloshing about in the puddles on the floor. I suspect this elevator might have a rather short life as this amount of water just cannot be good for electrical equipment.
But having said that, this elevator takes a huge load off the mountain road network and creates a natural circuit. China is often criticised for its desire to put cable cars in everywhere, but cable cars and this elevator make access possible to major parts of this park. Without it - or them - more visitors would be funneled into the lower parts of the park, already heavily crowded. Few experts seem to make the same fuss about cable cars in other areas of outstanding natural beauty, including Table Mountain in Cape Town or in the Alps. The answer is surely not to restrain visitor access, but to create easier access to more sites. In fact, the western Hunan area is doing just this with more tours now to other parks and sites in the Zhangjiajie and Xiangxi areas.
At the base of the Bailong Elevator, there are buses to the various exit points and also to several other focal points, including the Four Streams Crossing, just 5 minutes downstream from here. To the Wulingyuan exit, it is a 20 minute ride.
Written Jul 8, 2006
In one or two places, the tourism people have simply runs out of superlatives and have erected signs that say, simply "Amazing View" or "Amazing Scenery". There's something in the Chinese psyche that seems to need to be told how to react to events. Like when Chinese friends say "I'm going to cook you a delicious meal". My inward reaction, because I'm not a nice person, is usually that I am relieved that they are not going to cook me a disgusting meal. Surely I am going to be the judge of whether something is delicious. But I am rambling now, aren't I? Yes. Where were we? Ah, yes, Yuangjiajie. The final part of this visit is a 5 minute bus ride to the Bailong Elevator (separate review)
Written Jul 8, 2006
This is now the prime high-level walk. The cable car to the east in Zhangjiajie broke down in 1997 and cannot, it seems, be fixed. The French company that built it went bankrupt. So the old high level walk is accessible only on foot - a good reason to do it if you can climb 300 metres. Perhaps best left to a season when the temperature is not 38 degrees Celsius with 88% humidity.
So Yuangjiajie (also spelt as Yangjiajie, byt the way) has to soak up the promenading proletariat. It's a fun walk along the very rim of the high plateau, with views westwards over the deep ravine. A long way below you is one of the closed zones where no access is permitted at all - absolutely none, not even for park employees and researchers. It all looks natural and unspoiled, and the difficulty of access means that it is just that. Along the way, the views become increasingly impressive, but there comes a time when you look out over the crags and the unfathomable depths below you and just stop taking photographs; it's all very similar really. There are several highlights on this walk, including (somewhat predictably), the Number One Bridge Under Heaven which is actually almost impossible to fully appreciate because you are so close to it. A natural bridge over a 350m chasm. Further on, a steel bridge crosses - on open grid work - a 150 metre drop: this could be unpleasant if you suffer from vertigo. Just walk briskly across, humming the theme tune to The Great Escape. No, really.
An oddity is the Korean Pavilion towards the end where every surface of the pavilion has been plastered with the business cards of Korean visitors. I have absolutely no idea why, but the Koreans have made this place home!
Written Jul 8, 2006
The cable car ride up to Tianzishan is probably the most exciting part of the mountain. Just as well, given that you can queue for more than 90 minutes to get on one. However, the design is such that the windows open on the right-hand side of each car, so photography of the spectacular columns is best on the downhill cars. In the morning, the bright sunshine washes everything out to the east across the valley, so sit back and enjoy the ride.
At the top station there is nothing of real interest nearby, and a short bus ride is needed to get to the area known as the Emperor's Writing Brushes. This area is heaving with people, but the little row of shops by the bus car-park is a relaxing place in the shade. Most visitors shoot off down the slope for the view, so this is peaceful. Nobody hassles you at these shops, and I was offered free watermelon after sitting chatting to the vendors for an hour.
This area provides igreat views over the valley, although a brand new pavilion detracts from the view rather than adding to it. It was built by the Shenzhen Government, but rather amusingly, the local authorities refused to allow it to be named the Shenzhen Pavilion.
Most of the best views are downhill, but remember that although it gets noticeably quieter the further down you go, there is a good reason: you have to come back up again. All the paths are stone flags, and the chances of you coming into contact with the natural soil or rock are minimal. A walk to the north brings you to Marshal He Long's statue. A placard tells you an awful lot about the statue, but nothing about the man himself!
A bus ride takes you for 40 minutes to the Yuangjiajie area. The bus journey is free and takes you through fairly unspoiled parts of the park, because there are no rock formations en-route. This is still farmed traditionally, and I would have liked to have got off and walked a bit.
Written Jul 7, 2006
Most of the damage to Zhangjiajie is institutional rather than because of visitor behaviour: the real damage is the building and some of the infrastructure is of incredibly poor quality or extraordinarily insensitive design. Perhaps the biggest impact on the environment of the Golden Whip Walk is simply the noise: vendors sell loud bird-whistles that are snapped up by visitors and all that can be heard for much of the day is the irritating baubling call of these whistles.
The walk is around 5.5km. The lower part, at Four Streams Crossing, is noticeably more open and feels more northern, becoming more humid and sub-tropical as you head towards Zhangjiajie where the valley closes in dramatically. It is important to spend a lot of the time looking up at the cliffs, as much as the most dramatic columns and karst is way above you. I did the walk in the morning, but reckon that this walk would be better in the late afternoon when the sun is low in the western sky. In the middle of the day, the high sun and the height of the cliffs makes it difficult to appreciate the peaks and crags.
There are three or four rest areas en-route - each more packed than Disneyworld on a summer Sunday - but there is plenty of interesting activity. People-watching at Chinese tourist centres is, in its own right, an interesting and rewarding experience.
A good number of the trees are labelled, which is helpful, although I couldn't find a label for the beautiful columnar coniferous trees at the Zhangjiajie end of the walk: pencil thin, tall trees that look furry from a distance - really elegant. I’d love to know what they are.
Written Jul 7, 2006
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