In the land of the Yellow Dragon:
A Visit to Zhangjiajie
By Emily Grey
Photos by the author
I was a Chinese greenhorn. That is to say, I am an American who recently visited the People’s Republic of China for the first time. In mid-autumn, an unsuspecting journey took this hardy, fearless person and four newly met companions to the central southeast section of this most populous and increasingly powerful nation.
There, in northwest Hunan Province, lies a Shangri-la like no other earthly place. In my nine years as a global traveler, I’ve “collected” six continents. Until China, I had never seen “floating mountains,” an underworld more glorious than the ground above, and a series of other firsts and superlatives.
My destination was Zhangjiajie. The name refers to both a mountainous region and a city with over 1.6 million inhabitants, about 77 percent of who are minorities. The meaning of Zhangjiajie (Zhāngjiājiè ) is interpreted as follows: “Zhang” is a common Chinese surname, “jia” means family, and “jie” connotes “homeland.”
Circa 220 BC, the village government was formed. But it was not until 1988 that Zhangjiajie City, formerly called Dayong City, was founded.
In 1994, Zhangjiajie City officially received its new name. Neighboring Wulingyuan Scenic Area was created and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and World Biosphere Reserve two year earlier. Dramatic ravines, gorges, and waterfalls characterize this incredible spot. Over 760 wild animals and 3000 plants inhabit the bounteous woodlands. Shortly after the scenic area opened to the public, tourism took flight throughout Zhangjiajie.
American film director James Cameron saw the uniqueness of Zhangjiajie’s “floating mountains” when filming the all-time high-grossing blockbuster, “Avatar.” Scenes were shot at Hallelujah Mountain, previously known as South Sky Pillar. Zhangjiajie people opine that this place resembles the lush alien moon Pandora featured in the movie.
After a rain, ethereal ringlets of soft, wispy clouds encircle Hallelujah Mountain and the surrounding rocket-like, forested sandstone crags. Jutting up like skyscrapers, these freestanding, strangely shaped rock formations appear to be floating effortlessly above stunned earthlings and verdant grasslands, meandering golden-whipped streams, and placid lakes below. Undeniably, there is a coolness and supernatural look and feel to this area.
Zhangjiajie has a subtropical monsoon climate with an average temperature of 16 degrees centigrade (60 F). There is a plethora of astonishing treasures to behold year round. Besides therapeutic hot springs, ancient villages, and the unparalleled Hallelujah Mountain, three distinct natural wonders stand out.
YELLOW DRAGON CAVE
My discovery of Zhangjiajie began after a rain, which would have left some travelers crestfallen. For me, the refreshing crisp, moist air and lack of shadows produced a pleasantly haunting and soothing effect.
In 1983, the local militia discovered Yellow Dragon Cave, known locally as Huanglong. First made accessible to the public in 1984, this remarkable cavern is nestled in the Suoxi Natural Reserve. Part of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Yellow Dragon is touted as China’s and the world’s “magical karst cave.”
Resident villagers believe the grotto was the holy home of a yellow dragon and spirits. According to legend, during the Southern Song Dynasty a monk from Yellow Dragon Hill in Jiangxi Province arrived at the site and decided to build a temple. Out of nowhere, a yellow dragon pounced on the earth, transforming the abyss below into the present-day cave.
Strolling past an aged water wheel, I mentally prepared to enter the underground. I was born in the Year of the Dragon, a venerable distinction according to the Chinese. Surely, the Yellow Dragon or its spirit would welcome me.
Outside, the cave is framed with a variety of bamboo. A gentle spring flows from the cracked rock mouth of the yellow dragon. Engraved on the stone is the following message: “Regardless of the depth, Divine is the dragon pool.”
Upon ducking through the lighted passage of longevity, I was immediately awestruck by a mysterious fairyland. A rainbow of hues softened hundreds of otherwise menacing stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and chambers. Yellow Dragon’s magnificent colors and enchantment remain constant despite the weather and other uncertainties outside.
A sturdy walkway and numerous illuminated steps facilitated travel, yet allowed a vigorous workout in the dank atmosphere. The cave’s wholesome circulation helps regulate temperature, creating warm air in winter and coolness in summer.
Considered the longest of its kind in Asia, this 20-square-kilometer wonder is part of a subterranean maze of intriguing features. Recognizing the Bell Rings Among Ice, the Path Sandwiched by Bamboo Grooves, and the Dance in the Dragon Palace evoked childlike amazement from every observer. Tramping over the Fairy Bridge was reminiscent of “Lord of the Rings.”
A small pond, three waterfalls, four pools, 13 grand halls, and 96 corridors grace the inner sanctum. Of the cavity’s two rivers, the Xiangshui provides ideal habitat for the protected giant salamander.
For a nominal fee, a quiet boat ride ferried us through a dimly lit environment. We soon stood near the base of an incredible stalagmite.
Insured for one hundred million yuan, “The Tower of Strength” is 19.2 meters (62 ft.) high, with a 10-centimeter (4-inch) diameter. Cave experts state that it takes at least 200,000 years to grow this high. The vertical height of the cave runs 100 meters (325 ft.) and higher.
Exiting through the door of happiness ensured amicable relations with all dragons. The complexity of Yellow Dragon left me yearning to see yet another contrast of Zhangjiajie.
Tickets cost around 80rmb per person. Allow two to three hours to explore the cave.
Also within the Wulingyuan Scenic system and Suoxi Reserve, Baofeng Lake was formed when local people filled small faults with concrete to store water and the level eventually rose. Today, a dam encloses the 2.5-kilometer-long lake for crop irrigation.
After trouncing up and down cave steps, it was an agreeable change of pace to drift gently over water. The afternoon’s partial overcast foreboded a benign eeriness as my group, guides, and I boarded an aquamarine canopied vessel.
To capture the allure of this sweet haven, I stood on the bow. Like a slowly opening fan, more and more stone peaks and evergreen trees gradually emerged, caressing opposite shores. Shimmering reflections glistened atop the water, as the sun peeked tauntingly from behind a cloud.
Gliding in the sampan over this beautiful, peaceful lake of tree islands, cascades, and mist created a surreal image. The pure air, clear water, and absence of crowds, commercialism, and noise are a rarity in China and almost anywhere.
The Mount Baofeng backdrop with a little stone bridge and waterfall in the foreground was as attractive as any Currier and Ives print. Glancing starboard, I noticed the mischievous grin of the lady of the lake, cleverly sculpted on a tall stone.
Soon, we approached a smaller boat tied along the shoreline. A pretty young woman smiled and waved.
Tujia are a major minority group inhabiting Zhangjiajie. Adorned in native apparel, this girl serenaded us with a Tujia folk song. Singing mountain, love, war, and labor songs is one of the Tujia people’s favorite traditions. Our Chinese guides interacted with the entertainer by “cross singing.” Though I could not decipher the language, it was fun to watch the young people in both boats singing, laughing, and conversing.
Tickets cost around 74rmb per person. Allow about two hours to explore the lake area.
We boarded a cable car at the rail station in Zhangjiajie City. With a little jolt, we were off.
A 28-minute ride to the top of Tianmen Mountain aboard the world’s longest cable car (7.5 kilometers – 4.6 miles –long, 1290 meters – 4200 ft. — high) was spine-tingling and spectacular. Peering in all directions, it was easy to see why this part of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area is often called the “Soul of Zhangjiajie.”
Never was there a more all encompassing view of steep, massive cliffs with encircling alpine forests and patches of wildflowers below. Understandably, Tianmen means “Gate of Heaven” in Chinese.
In the distance lay a peculiar natural structure with an enormous oval hole, resembling a mirror. Tianmen Cave is actually a huge water-eroded gap in the mountain. Rising suddenly from 200 to 1100 meters (650 to 3600 ft.), it is credited as the highest cave elevation on the planet. In 1999, 800 million worldwide viewers watched a live telecast of three airplanes flying through the chasm during an aerial show.
Zigzagging like an elongated dragon’s tail, 11-kilometer (6.8 mile)-long Tongtian Avenue leads to the cave. Between “wows” I stood to glimpse and shoot images.
The roadway’s 99 serpentine turns are in accord with an old Chinese saying that Heaven has nine layers or palaces. Built by the persevering Tujia people, the 180-degree turn is often described as a “miracle” and the “number one road wonder in the world.” Special buses ferry tourists along this whimsical route.
Our excursion ended at the Air Garden, located at the 1533-meter (4,982 ft.) pinnacle. Immediately, we headed on foot to a new attraction.
In November 2011, China opened a narrow, 200-foot-long transparent glass skywalk in the park. One of the highest in the world, this manmade wonder hugs the side of a cliff. The brave are rewarded with a view 1230-meter (4,000 foot) straight down view to the bottom of a ravine. Wearing cloth slip-ons over shoes helped prevent slipping and maintain clean glass.
On this heavily overcast morning, my companions and I disappeared through fog, which swallowed our narrow passageway. Hoping for a clearer glance below, I gingerly stepped onto a tiny platform. Clouds appeared to chase other clouds, and for a fleeting moment, we saw a conspicuous outline of the rugged landscape. Tied to trees and blowing gently in the wind were bright red banners encrypted with “good wishes” by Chinese tourists.
A separate planked trail meandered about a primitive forest comprised of rare tree species, medicinal herbs, and various flora. On the western side of the summit the newly reconstructed Tianmen Temple offered shelter from the blustery wind and cold. Worshippers drifted in and out, lighting incense and praying.
Boarding the cable car for my descent to Zhangjiajie City, I rejoiced. Clouds had dissipated allowing the grandeur of Tianmen Mountain to shine. Red maple foliage, golden leafed shrubs, and Chinese fir enhanced the majestic cliffs.
Fittingly, this final leg of my brief discovery of Zhangjiajie was the crescendo of the trip. I could ride the cable car and hike the heavens out of Tianmen Mountain until I dropped.
The ticket cost of 258rmb per person includes all scenic spots in Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park as well as all cable car and shuttle bus rides. Allow three to four hours to explore the mountaintop.
Back at the Sunshine Hotel in Zhangjiajie City, my guides, colleagues, and I feasted on Peking duck, squab, and a delicious assortment of other Chinese delicacies. Similar Americanized dishes are not nearly as tasty.
Afterwards, we were treated to a musical production called “Charming Western Hunan.” Written by a handful of local people, the play’s explosions of fire, drums, and colorful acrobats were as exciting as many a Broadway performance.
Upon departure, my hosts gave me an embroidered framed picture of Hallelujah Mountain. Crafted by the Tujia people of Zhangjiajie, the Chinese interpretation reads: God is in the mountain.
I learned that there is much more to see in China than adorable pandas and the outstanding Great Wall. Zhangjiajie was my trip of a lifetime. Every activity and scene was truly a surprise to this discerning dragon.
IF YOU GO
A small airport, primarily with night flights to and from Beijing and Shanghai, is located just outside Zhangjiajie City. A train station services other parts of China. Buses and taxis whisk visitors throughout the city and region.
In 2012 (Year of the Dragon), local tourism plans to entice more Americans and Europeans to their wonderful Zhangjiajie. Strategies are being implemented to build more high-end infrastructure. Currently, there is adequate lodging, tour services, shops, and restaurants catering to eastern and western tastes.
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