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Hiking into the Movies

A trip to the otherworldly Zhangjiajie may bring you closer to heaven, or to alien worlds

By Julie Wolf Updated May.1

Tianmen Cave, Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, September 12, 2021

Tianmen Mountain, Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province

I’m sweating, my legs are shaking and I’m gasping for breath. The app on my phone says I have already climbed the equivalent of almost 200 flights of stairs and it's only noon. But as we crest the top of the mountain all I can think is “worth it!”  

This was not a trip I would have planned on my own. But due to the pandemic, it had been half a year since I was able to go anywhere outside of Beijing. So, when a group of friends I lovingly refer to as “The Camel of the Month Club” (don’t ask!) decided to spend a long weekend hiking in Zhangjiajie I couldn’t book my ticket fast enough.  

A short and uneventful three-hour flight took me from China’s capital to this small mountainous region in Hunan Province. Its claim to fame is that it is home to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, China’s first protected forest park designated in 1982. It has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s unique, almost surreal mountain landscape is said to have inspired the setting for the James Cameron movie Avatar.  

I arrived late in the evening at our beautiful accommodation, Whispering Mountains Boutique Hotel, and was greeted by friendly staff who showed me to an elegantly simple, clean room with possibly the most comfortable bed I have ever experienced in a Chinese hotel. The next morning, I woke up to the most spectacular view out my window. The mountains were golden and purple and green and just barely touched by morning mist. I could have happily stayed in my comfy bed, watching the sunrise but the smell of breakfast and hot coffee enticed me downstairs.  

After breakfast, my friends and I spoke with a gentleman at the front desk who helpfully drew us a map to the park and said, “you don’t need to pay for the shuttle, it’s a five-minute walk.” He then sketched out the best route to follow once inside the park and told us to ignore the ropes and “Do not enter” signs. According to him they had been up for years and didn’t mean anything.  

At first, the forest was relatively normal. Pretty. It had moss-covered stones and was dotted with old collapsing huts and small family temples right out of a fairy tale. But 30 minutes into our hike I looked up and gasped. Just like those fairy tale forests from our childhood books this one had pulled us in and then transported us. The million-year-old striated rock formations are inverted. Narrow at the bottom and wide at the top, some of them go up higher than most skyscrapers disappearing into the mist. Even the most jaded members of the Camel of the Month Club were awed. We continued on, because it was early in the season we rarely saw other hikers but plenty of wild monkeys found their way to us looking for food – some more aggressively than others. Along the way, we passed amazing bridges covered in red prayer flags, small shops selling water, and much to my German friends’ delight, beer. 

Pan-handling Monkeys 
After about three hours of well-paced hiking, we found ourselves on a viewing platform staring at the famous South Sky Pillar now known as “Avatar Mountain.”And it was incredible. Perfectly balanced, almost magically suspended, it was impossible to believe this tower could stay upright for a day much less a thousand plus years. After we caught our breath and spent some time making fun of a friend who was seriously intimidated by the pan-handling monkeys, we decided to take the glass elevator down to the golden whip brook trail. Supposedly the highest and heaviest outdoor elevator in the world, I’ll be honest it was underwhelming. A one-way ticket costs 72 yuan (US$11) and the ride is about a minute long. Only half of the descent actually allows for a view because the last 30 or so seconds are you passing through a dark hole in the rock. The actual brook however is lovely with lots of small shops to grab a quick lunch before taking the two-and-a-half-hour easy, scenic walk back to the entrance.  

That night we all gorged ourselves on truly great local food at the cozy hotel dining room and then sat in front of the fireplace to play mahjong and drink several bottles of wine.  

The next day was rainy and cold and the guys of the Camel of the Month Club revolted. Refusing to hike in this weather, they opted to find a quiet tea house and play cards. But being the adventurous amazons we are, the ladies headed for Tianmen Mountain, also known as Heaven’s Gate. I may never say this again but, the guys were right. It was freezing, the rain was coming down harder and just the initial climb up to the iconic viewpoint is 999 very steep, slick, marble steps. Once we reached the first platform, we could no longer feel our fingers or toes and the weather was so bad we couldn’t even see the mountain. So, we wimped out and took the escalators the rest of the way up. At this point the guys were sending us photos of hot tea and delicious-looking steaming dishes filled with pork belly, cauliflower and eggplant smothered in whole cloves of garlic so we decided to take the gondola down. This was by far the best choice of the day. For a mere 25 yuan (US$4), we rode the world’s longest cableway through the same incredible mountains we had hiked the day before. The novelty of seeing the peeks from a different angle was incredible and because the cars were warm and dry we could enjoy the cinematic effect the rain had on the view.  

That night we boarded the plane back to Beijing. Exhausted, sore, and very happy to have had the experience. When the borders reopen and friends and family can visit once again, I will most definitely be suggesting they leave time in their itineraries for the “Avatar mountains.” I will however suggest they pack a warm fleece, good shoes and explore it with friends. Because while seeing the mountains was incredible, the real value for me was the people I got to share this experience with.