Baofeng Hu (Lake) - Part II
The lake is reached by walking up the gorge on a massively solid concrete road, flanked by a massively solid concrete pavement and a massively solid concrete spillway for the dam. It is easy to forget nature entirely. Halfway up, entrepreneurial rickshaw men wait under the trees: they know that most tourists at the bottom will not want to be carried, but might change their minds by the time they get a long way up the hill! A monkey zoo – not visited – is on the right hand side of the gorge, satisfying that eternal need in China to have something for everyone at any tourist site, no matter how crass and unnecessary. It seems there is some minor link with ‘The Monkey King’ as the movie was filmed here. Good thing Pretty Woman wasn’t filmed here, I suppose. Or The Exorcist.
On the left hand side, a small hump-back bridge leads to a steep flight of stairs, known as the True Man Stairs – because if you can manage them after the long hike up the hill, you are considered a true man. The bridge, it seems, has a legend attached to it. If you cross the bridge with your lover and hold hands as you cross it, you will be lovers for ever. If you don’t have a lover you must clasp your hands. The legend goes back into the depths of time. Except for the troublesome fact that the bridge is across a spillway of a dam constructed in the 1980s and that there would have been no bridge before then. The necessity to invent legends is somewhat pathetic in a country so rich in real stories and legends. Ultimately, it’s actually just insulting the intelligence of visitors. One day, the visitors might just get fed up with being patronised.
Baofeng Hu (Lake) - Part III
The True Man Stairs leads through a narrow crack in the gorge – more impressive than any half-baked legend made up in the office of the park authorities, but completely unmentioned – and opens out onto a seemingly impossibly small dam, walled in between the steep cliffs. A particularly ugly wharf and another motley collection of shacks and grandiose buildings leads the visitor towards a boat for the tour of the lake.
The commentary on the boat is only in Chinese, but it amounts to very little more than telling everyone the name of every rock, pinnacle and crag around the rather beautiful lake. Naming rocks for tourists is big business in China, and it seems that domestic visitors are unable to appreciate natural features without being told that a certain rock looks like a lizard sitting by a dragon holding a pie...or something equally improbable. Of course, the constant shrill commentary shatters the peace and quiet that would create a very special moment on this narrow, and exceptionally deep lake. The water is 113 metres deep in the central part - about the height of a 23 storey skyscraper.
Baofeng Hu (Lake) - Part IV
At one point, a boat is passed where a woman from the Tujia woman sings a love song as you pass by. Despite the slightly absurd setting, it is actually quite an appealing moment. Traditionally, the man is supposed to pick up the song as she finishes to return the love. "Row, row, row the boat" didn't seem to do it for her though.
If the man doesn't sing the reply, he is destined to nine years isolation: three years collecting firewood, three years cooking the meals, and three years giving the woman a massage. The guide wasn't sure if it was possible to do this in reverse order though. On the return journey, the boat passed a smaller boat where a man sung for a wife. It seems he was five years into his solitude. Another year and he can get the baby oil out, so life's not all bad. Passing the woman's boat again, the men were invited to sing to attract the Tujia woman out on deck again, but the guide added "in Chinese" just in time to prevent another unusually poor karaoke version of my same song.
The boat returns quietly to the north side of the lake and visitors return to the big plaza by descending impressive flights of stairs down at least 70 metres. China’s parks are nothing if not ingenious.
Is it worth the visit? Well, RMB62 is about the cheapest entrance fee in Zhangjiajie and the network of paths suggests that there is much more here than I was able to see, and most of it away beyond the dam. The lake tour was scenically impressive and relaxing. If you can look beyond the penchant for scarring every surface and building all kinds of fake structures, waterfalls and malls, then Baofeng Hu is good for an afternoon. Despite my cynical moaning – and I do this only out of sheer desperation….China is an awesomely beautiful country if people would just leave it alone! – I enjoyed myself here, and there aren’t the crowds seen in the main part of the National Park. Baofeng Hu is actually inside the park boundaries but is managed as a separate zone.
Golden Whip Stream - Walk - Part I
This is probably the most popular single attraction at Zhangjiajie, and it is simply a long walk - around 2 hours - along a path known as the Golden Whip Walk. The Golden Whip is a feature of the story of Qing Shihuang, and the stone column at the Zhangjiajie end of the walk does look the part. Just behind it is The Hawk, which looks as if it is watching over the whip.Most people seem to prefer the walk down the ravine from Zhangjiajie, but by walking uphill (and it's actually barely noticeable that you are going 'up') you save some of the nicest parts to the end. For the adventurous and those seeking more peaceful routes, it is possible at numerous points to head off to the north into valleys. Most are dead-ends but some make it possible to climb up to the plateau level. Remember that at Zhangjiajie there are basically two levels: the plateau and the valley floor.
The Golden Whip Walk has, sadly, got a rather bad reputation in the hallowed world of sustainable tourism for the damage to the environment. However, a study published in 2003 (Jinyang Deng, Shi Qiang, Gordon J. Walker and Yaoqi Zhang (2003) "Assessment on and Perception of Visitors' Environmental Impacts of Nature Tourism: A Case Study of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China" in Journal of Sustainable Tourism. 11 (6) 529-548.) suggests that the damage is not as bad as feared and that the damage is worse on trails in other countries (using various indices of environmental damage, including vegetation diversity, soil compaction and human-inflicted damage to trees among others). I hardly noticed scarring on trees (i.e. graffiti) at any part of the walk...and I was looking for it.
Golden Whip Stream - Walk - Part II
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.
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.
The Emperor's Writing Brushes at Tianzishan
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).
Yuangjiajie - Part I
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!
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.
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.
The Tianmenshan Cable Car
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.
Baofeng Hu (Lake) - Part I
Baofeng Hu is a delightful spot, but don't expect to get back to nature. If you find a spot of mud anywhere, fear not: it will be concreted over before you can take a photo of it. The scale of the surrounding karst mountains and cliffs means that the impact of the extensive built tourism environment is mercifully reduced, but there really is no chance of getting in harmony with nature. Baofeng Hu is actually off the beaten track - probably less than 1 in 100 visitors make it to this curious area. However, the stunning beauty of the lake - actually a dam - and the climb down afterwards make this a worthwhile afternoon. I suspect that the furthest reaches of the area may be more natural, but don't count on it. The RMB62 entrance fee gets you access to the whole park and a 30 minute ride on a boat.
The only way in is up, past a vast arena that includes a rather nice natural waterfall spoilt by an almost jaw-droppingly inappropriate artificial waterfall appearing out of the cliff-face another 50 metres higher up. It's like someone though "Now how can we best really screw this place up good and proper?". What must have been a remarkably beautiful spot has been turned into a rather unattractive concrete pool complete with odd bridges and a hotchpotch of hard landscaping. Just to wring the very last drop of possible ambience out of the place, every group is led by a loudhailer-touting guide.
Yuangjiajie - Part II
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)
Tianmenshan National Park
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.
Cableway in Tian Zi Mountain
This is a modern cable car that whisks you atop Tian Zi Mountain in 8 minutes. It offers a grand view of the Zhangjiajie Park. Historically, this is where Xiang Dakun and Xiang King met and planned to resist the Ming imperial court in the Ming Dynasty.
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