Saturday, January 24: Our next two days at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park are to prove incredibly disappointing because of steady rain, heavy fog, and biting cold. We are barely able to see the beautiful karst formations on the first day, and on the second day, when we climb to the higher elevations, we are often not able to see anything at all. In some spots, all we see is a bank of white fog without even an outline of the mountains that are beautifully pictured on placards.
Outside of the park entrance, we are greeted by vendors selling cheap ponchos and shoe covers. We each buy a poncho, me blue and Mike yellow. I buy a pair of plastic camouflage-patterned shoe covers for my tennis shoes; Mike doesn’t because he has good waterproof hiking boots. I come quickly to regret this decision.
Inside the gate, we’re greeted on the walkway by the monkeys that occupy the park. They congregate where the tourists do, in hopes of getting some snack food, which they most certainly do. Chinese tourists love to share junk food with animals of all sorts.
According to China Highlights: Zhangjiajie, Zhangjiajie sits in the west of Hunan Province, 330 kilometers from Changsha, the capital of the province, and over 1,000 kilometers from both Shanghai and Beijing. The park is famous for its precarious peaks, limpid streams, dense forests, and large karst caves. In 1982, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park became China’s first national forest park.
Zhangjiajie was the inspiration for James Cameron’s movie Avatar. The park is known for its stone pillars that reach over 1km in height and resemble the ones seen in the movie; I haven’t seen the movie myself. The area has approximately 3,000 tall quartzite sandstone pillars. These are different from the karst formations in Guilin, which are limestone.
According to Wikipedia: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park: Although resembling karst terrain, this area is not underlain by limestones and is not the product of chemical dissolution, which is characteristic of limestone karst. They are the result of many years of physical, rather than chemical, erosion. Much of the weathering which forms these pillars are the result of expanding ice in the winter and the plants which grow on them. The weather is moist year round, and as a result, the foliage is very dense. The weathered material is carried away primarily by streams. These formations are a distinct hallmark of Chinese landscape, and can be found in many ancient Chinese paintings.
We are advised by Donald, an English-speaking Chinese manager at the Hotel Pullman, to take a 5 km walk today along Golden Whip Stream, since it will be raining all day. I’m interested in going to the higher elevations, but we’ll wait until tomorrow in hopes that the rain and fog will clear so we can enjoy the views. Golden Whip Stream is in Jinbianxi Canyon, a deep canyon surrounded by cliffs and peaks. A sign at the park says the distance from the peaks to the valley bottom is 350-500 meters and the width of the valley base is 30-80 meters.
More monkeys are in the trees around us. This mother is holding her baby close.
We can see some beautiful peaks along our walk, peaks with names such as Golden Whip Crag and Splitting Mountain to Save Mother, among others. They’re enshrouded in fog.
As we walk along the stream, it feels like my feet are getting colder and colder. They even feel like they’re wet, but how can they be? I have those plastic shoe covers on. I inspect my shoes and find that water has collected on the plastic shoe covers and is seeping into my shoes. They are soaked through and through. I take off the shoe covers, realizing too late that I would have been better off without them. My feet are soaked and will be for the rest of the day.
Even with all the layers of clothes, I am shivering, and now with wet feet, I feel even colder. But of course, we’re here to enjoy the walk and we must complete the 5km long path. There’s no easy way out to return to the hotel to change my shoes as there are no cars or roads along this trail.
Every once in a while we get a glimpse of color through the fog, and I foolishly hope that the fog will lift. It doesn’t.
Some of the peaks have interesting names. This one is Splitting Mountain to Save Mother.
After all our walking, we’re getting quite hungry. We come upon a little set of food stalls in the middle of nowhere and we stop for a snack of corn on the cob and boiled eggs.
We continue on our walk through more of the valley. The views would all be amazing if they weren’t so obscured by fog. I love how the Chinese give such interesting names to mountains. Along this trail, we see: Monkey Playing in the Chinese Yew Grove, Master and Apprentice Journey to the West, Pigsy Looking in the Mirror, Two Turtles Peeking at the Stream, Rabbit Watching Moon, Soldiers Gathering and Candle Peak.
Luckily, it has stopped raining by now, but my feet are still wet and I’m shivery cold.
The end of the trail deposits us at a parking lot in front of a little museum. We wander about inside looking at the exhibits describing the karst formation at Zhangjiajie. We’re also hoping to get warm here, but no such luck; the building isn’t heated.
We take a small bus to another part of the park where you can take a train for some more views. This is called the Long Gallery. Some of the peaks which we can barely see here are called Her Collecting Old Man, Three-Sisters Peaks, and The God of Longevity Welcoming Guests. Our views are even more hazy on this train ride.
When we get back to our hotel, I’m happy to take off my wet shoes and to take a long hot soak in that bathtub, drinking a glass of wine in the steaming water. I can open the slatted doors and chat with Mike in the room. It’s lovely. Then we treat ourselves to a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant.
Donald, an English-speaking manager at the Hotel Pullman, has been super friendly and helpful to us. As we only have one more day in Zhangjiajie, we ask him if we can hire a guide for the day to take us to the higher elevations. He arranges the guide for us, even though we all know that another rainy and foggy day is forecast for tomorrow and our chances of seeing anything are slim to none.
If you want to see some pictures of how this park looks in beautiful weather, I suggest you drop by to visit China Nomads: The Karst Peaks of Zhangjiajie.