I was woken by the morning light, rather paler than expected – strongly reminiscent of that special time just around dawn in the early hours of the morning. Oh, wait… The second time I surfaced (significantly later) the carriage was much busier, and we rolled into Zhangjiajie (Jang—jee-ah—jee-eh) some time after nine.

This was not quite us at our destination, though, and one very bumpy but quite enjoyable minibus ride later we found ourselves in Wulingyuan, a small settlement nestled in the foothills of the mountain forest park we had come all this way to see. Our hostel was conveniently placed near an entrance gate to said park, and we were welcomed in by owners – one chilled, fluent in English, and the other bubbly and inviting. Imagine every charm and motherly kindness compressed into one old lady with a local dialect and smile lines from years of laughter.

We meant to visit the park on the first afternoon, just after lunch (a few dishes common at banquets – shredded potato, egg and tomato, beef and peppers…), but tiredness got the better of me. I wavered in and out of consciousness in our hostel room until evening, when it was too late to go.

The next morning was an early start, if not as early as planned (apologies, Evie). Breakfast was a drawn-out affair, the others taking their time over the 15¥ buffet (excellent value for money), and then we were finally off. The queues were fairly non-existent and we were soon getting our half-price student tickets, by virtue of our University IDs (thank you, Edinburgh). Then it was on to the free tourist buses that shuttled us off to our first stopping point.

Tourist maps are never great, and with two paths diverging at an ambiguous point, it’s no surprise we missed our branch. No matter – wandering among the towering formations, tree-topped to sheer cliff faces, was breathtaking. I don’t usually feel dizzy just from looking, but Zhangjiajie’s vast scale did it for me – and we were still in the gentle, flat river valleys!

We swerved the tourist trap restaurant near the Zhangjiajie City entrance to the park (having by now walked there); besides, the owner would *not* leave us alone, going as far as waiting for us outside the loos. I was starting to get hungry, but by this point stubborness won. We headed back the way we came and turned off at the steps, which took us up the steep mountainside in zig-zags. And up. And up, and up, and then it levelled out in time for a conveniently-placed and horrendously-overpriced rest stop, which provided the sugar fix I needed to get up the remaining steps. That’s right: we still weren’t at the bloody top!

Having walked up the side I can confirm that the peaks are very high. It seems the park is split into lower and upper, although the map did not give any indication of this besides a small arrow next to the path we had just sweated our way up. Putting lunch to one side, we took in the view. If the peaks are impressive from below, that’s nothing compared to the view from the same height. You can breathe in and feel your blood cool off and your tensions release. Tranquil despite the other tourists and utterly unforgettable.

Lunch had been put to the side for long enough so we braved the overpriced stalls. With me interpreting, Evie accidentally managed to haggle an ice cream down to 5¥; unfortunately I thought the lady said 50¥ and so we only caused offence by refusing the offer (apologies, Evie). Still, with something eaten we started to think about getting back down. Jury was out between walking and getting the cablecar, but the shadows were beginning to lengthen and I know I had my eye on closing time.

Another bus around the peak (nearly an hour’s ride, all at the top) took us to the fork in the path: walk or cablecar? In the end, tiredness won, as well as curiosity, so we elected to cable down. Once again, our student IDs saved us half the fare (thank you, Edinburgh), and we were soon at the bottom, bussing back to Wulingyuan.

We ate in the hostel, taking the owner up on her offer of dumplings, although none of us were quite good enough with chopsticks not to make a mess of the soft outside (not pastry, not bread… almost like pasta?). We also stocked up on snacks at a nearby supermarket and treated ourselves to ice creams. I didn’t bother to identify the flavour until Evie brought it up: I think the closest thing I’ve had before is cake. Cake flavoured ice cream. China, you have outdone yourself. Needless to say, after our climb, we slept well that night.

Our final morning dawned early and cloudy – perfect for a stroll along the 10 Mile Natural Gallery, which is apparently closer to 5.7km in length. I suppose 10 miles sounded better, in the same way that 1,000 ships crossing to Troy also had more of a ring to it. There was a twee (but also kinda cool) monorail-railway thing from the start to the end, which ran along the path (which we took). The one upside of a gentle upward slope was knowing it would be downward on the way back.

The mountain views were just as stunning as the day before, and the end of the valley was marked with a large pavilion selling the same snacks and souvenirs as the rest of the park. An interesting addition came in the form of a ‘Monkey Garden’ which is fairly self-explanatory. They were only really interested in the tourists carrying food, which suited me just fine since they can be vicious – I saw a bunch of them bowl a toddler over yesterday to get at the iPhone she was clutching (presumably they mistook it for food).

After papping the primates for a while (who were, thankfully, free to roam the park as they pleased, not caged in a tiny enclosure) it was back down the valley, a bus to the gate and a short walk to our hostel to check out. From here we stopped for lunch at a Lanzhou pulled-noodle shop (what can I say, the cravings for Xinjiang food are strengthening) before catching the bus bound for Fenghuang, known as the Phoenix County.

Yours tiredly, dehydratedly and hungrily from the top of Tianzi Shan in Zhangjiajie park

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