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Delving into the Wilds

Hunan’s beautiful peaks are famous for inspiring Avatar, but the region’s mountains offer far more wonders than just cinematic glory

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

If you saw the movie Avatar, you would have seen a bit of Hunan in it. Set on the fictional, beautiful, wild planet of Pandora, the movie’s most amazing sight was the floating Hallelujah peaks. The inspiration came from the towering sandstone peaks in Wulingyuan National Park, though of course they don’t float in the sky like in the movie. And in a case of life imitating art, the park authorities actually renamed one of these peaks “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain,” both in Chinese and English.
The southeastern province of Hunan is probably best known for being the home of several famous national leaders and spicy food. Its main city Changsha is notable mainly for being a transportation hub. But as well as Wulingyuan, Hunan boasts the scenic village of Fenghuang and lovely rural scenery. 
While the movie may have made the park famous, Wulingyuan is much more than just the “Avatar” peak. Comprising four sites totaling over 650 square kilometers, near the town of Zhangjiajie, you can spend days trekking and hiking across the park, and the entrance ticket is valid for four days. The four areas – Zhangjiajie, Suoxi Valley, Yangjiajie and Tianzishan – feature different highlights. Zhangjiajie and Tianzi-shan are best for viewing giant sandstone peaks, which soar like natural towers, while Suoxiyu is good for hiking along streams and forest located in canyons.
In case some readers are wondering, let me clear up something with the names. The entire park is called Wulingyuan and is located near the town of Zhangjiajie, which has a train station and airport. However, within Wulingyuan, one of its four sites is also called Zhangjiajie, where the Avatar peak is located. 
Zhangjiajie has other major sights besides Wulingyuan. From within the town, a cable car goes up all the way to the imposing 1,518-meter-high Mount Tianmen. As the world’s longest cable car, the ride is half an hour and probably as much as an attraction as the mountain itself. I wouldn’t know because I took the shuttle bus up, then took it back down because I didn’t want to wait two hours for the cable car (the admission ticket had a return time stamped on it that was six hours from when I bought it). The shuttle bus journey is quite an adventure itself. The bus zigzags through what is said to be 99 bends along the mountain route, though admittedly I did not count because I was too busy both admiring the fine views and being worried about skidding off the road and plunging to the depths below. Thankfully the drivers are not daredevils, or at least mine wasn’t. The bus stops below the stairs to Tianmen cave, which is actually a huge hole on the mountain. After going up the steep stairs and reaching the cave, you take a series of eight escalators to get to the actual top of Tianmen. 
As Mount Tianmen is a plateau, there is an oval route on top which goes along cliff edges, bridges and forest. In the center is Tianmenshan Temple, which was first built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) then rebuilt in the mid-20th century after being destroyed by war. Visitors can test their nerves by going on several glass skywalks perched along the cliff walls. The weather was overcast and foggy while I was on Tianmen, so when I went on one of the glass cliff walks, the effect was not as terrifying as the bottom was obscured by mist. 
Zhangjiajie also has a glass bridge, which is a little further away, and only opened in August 2016. Named the Grand Canyon Glass Bridge, the bridge is fully transparent, which is great for viewing the canyon floor 300 meters below, but not so great if you are scared of heights or have heart problems. There is some good trekking that can be done as well in the canyon.
Besides Wulingyuan, Hunan’s other famous attraction is the village of Fenghuang. Often featured in pictorials and described as one of China’s most beautiful villages, Fenghuang is indeed very attractive. However, it is also very commercialized and a far cry from the isolated rural village I had foolishly expected. Instead, the old village lines the banks of the Tuojiang River, surrounded by modern buildings and apartments. 

The 300-year-old village of Fenghuang is home to a sizeable number of the ethnic Tujia and Miao people. From a bridge overlooking the old village on which you approach the Nanmen (South Gate), Fenghuang looks pleasant enough. The village’s traditional wooden homes near the waterline, which are propped up on stilts, are especially attractive. At night, I was told the village is decked out in bright lights and comes alive with music as people throng the restaurants and bars. 
The village buildings may look charming from afar, but each of them along the riverbank is a store, restaurant or hostel, which, to me, does hamper the atmosphere. In addition, there is a giant concrete wall built along one riverbank that completely blocks the buildings from the river. However, there are several authentic tower gates, remnants of the village’s old wall, and historic buildings such as the former residences of Sheng Congwen, a famous 20th century Chinese writer, and Xiong Xiling, a former premier of China, both of whom were born in Fenghuang. The historic buildings are located in the inner lanes, as the village becomes more interesting as you get away from the stores near the riverbank. 
Changsha is Hunan’s noisy and bustling capital. It certainly won’t rank on any of China’s top city lists for travel, but there are a few sights worth seeing if you do happen to be there. 
Almost every Chinese city boasts a historic walking street and Changsha is no different. Taiping Street features renovated old buildings that house food stores and bars, while nearby the larger and more gaudy Huangxing pedestrian street features mostly chain stores. A particularly interesting Chinese restaurant can be found on nearby Pozi Street. Huogongdian (Fire God Palace) Restaurant is said to have been built on the site of an ancient fire temple. Apparently, Hunanese in the past had a tradition of worshiping the fire god, which is fitting given their hot cuisine and temperament. The red complex houses an actual temple as well as a stage for Chinese opera performances, in addition to the restaurant. 
For a more natural experience, the 300-meter Yuelu Mountain is a place for light hiking as well as visiting one of China’s oldest places of learning, Yuelu Academy, which was founded in 976.
The Hunan Provincial Museum is renowned for its 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty Mawangdui tomb remains, though I missed out on seeing that since it was closed for renovation. The museum renovation was supposedly intended to be completed in late 2017, though previous notices on websites had said the same thing about it the year before. 
With its mountainous terrain and scattered villages, Hunan people are said to be tough and clannish. I guess this is probably the cause of some of the grumpiness I encountered. But I can certainly pay tribute to Hunan’s rural scenery and the majesty of Wulingyuan, which is the most impressive natural area in China I have ever visited.