Over a long weekend, I took a train from Beijing to Zhang Jia Jie (張家界) and back. There, in Hunan, is the world heritage site that inspired James Cameron’s floating mountains in Avatar.
The train was overcrowded although fairly comfortable. While I understand that China is the most populous country in the world, I never expected there to be so much crowding to get both on and off the trains. Queues are very much unheard of in the train stations and everyone just mobs the entry and exit clutching their tickets and loved ones. We slept in beds stacked three high in which only the bottom bunk was high enough to comfortably sit and talk in. I also glimpsed a non-overnight car and it was a confused muddle of too many people standing and sitting in overcrowded seats.
Thankfully, we traveled with a small tour group; only seven people plus our tour guide. We started in Phoenix City (凤凰县), an “old” village purposefully built rustically to attract tourists. There the streets were also overcrowded. However, the view from the Red Bridge (红桥) and the lights at night was very pretty.Next we visited a town inhabited by the Miao (苗) people, an ethnic minority. It too was built purposefully rustic at first glance but a few minutes’ walk past the first bridge revealed modern buildings and cars.
Finally we arrived in Zhang Jia Jie’s Forest Park and walked on a clear day at the foot of several rock pillars hundreds of meters tall. We saw several monkeys being fed scraps by tourists. I tried to take a video but I must have appeared too keen to a small monkey because suddenly a larger one (most likely its mother) came up and scratched the back of my leg! So now I’ve been attacked by monkeys twice, both in China.
The next morning we went to Bao Feng Hu (宝峰湖) with black swans and went along the water on a short boat ride. Along the way, two singers, a man or Ah Ge (ah ge) and a woman or Ah Mei (ah mei) greeted us with songs. Our tour guide explained that if you see someone you like, you sing them a song and if they respond and the songs match, the two of you get married. Two of the louder guys on my boat tried impressing the Ah Mei but couldn’t string even one line of lyrics together.
That afternoon we went up Bai Long Dian Ti (百龙电梯) a gigantic elevator built on the face of the mountain to see the rocks from above. The most crowded place there was the mountain where they had filmed Avatar and had even placed a replica ikran on the spot. However, all of the mountains looked equally beautiful and awe inspiring. The coolest thing we saw was a natural bridge that had formed between two mountains and overgrown with the most lush greenery and plants. We rode a cable car down and it was amazing to see how tall each rock was and how alone they all stood. I wish I knew more about geology to understand how they were formed.
As much as I enjoy history, the natural beauty of Zhang Jia Jie was by far my favorite part of the trip. However, I was a little disappointed that it drizzled the entirety of the second day. It was a pity the fog prevented us from seeing past a few of the closest rocks. They looked massive and I’m sure seeing an unobstructed view of all of them would have been a spectacular view. Before we left the park, we walked a path along a small but long, winding stream. The trees were very green and beautiful and where they opened, you could see the tops of the rocks and the names that had been given to each some long time ago.
It only rained heavily on our last day when we visited a house supposedly older than the Forbidden City. We also saw a 1,300 year old turtle who, I believe, must be very sad now in his captive life after a thousand years of freedom. All in all, we wre fortunate with the dfwerweather. Apparently we had just missed out on the storms right before arriving at Zhang Jia Jie and we left right after learning about the boat that overturned in the Yangtze River. So far, they’ve only found a handful of the more than 400 passengers on board.