I have wanted to visit Zhangjiajie since I discovered it’s existence 4 years ago, it looked like it could be one of the most incredible places on earth! I had high expectations, having already explored many amazing places it takes a lot to make me go wow. I was not disappointed after spending 7 whole days in the park.
I chose to go at the end of October, one of the best times to go for weather and not a crazy amount of people that can be found in the park. I had read of 3 hour wait times for cable cars so I wanted to avoid any waiting!
I arrived in Wulingyuan, the main gateway town to the park, at 7.30pm after a 4 hour flight and 5 hour bus ride from Changsha airport. After ordering way too much food at a nearby restaurant I went to sleep early so I could wake up at 6am to start exploring at first light.
Zhangjiajie was tough to plan for before arriving as there is so little information online in English, so I have arranged to spend a little time in all 4 sections of the park, Tianzi, Laowuchang, Yangjiajie and Yuanjiajie. I wanted to try to see everything!
The first day was cloudy which actually made me happy as it gives me time to explore and find the best spots to come back for when the light is good. After buying my 3 day entry ticket I jumped on a free park bus, they are included with your ticket price thought the park, and walked along the “10 mile gallery”, a 5km walk along a a valley getting my first glimpse at the jagged columns from below. I also got my first experience of huge chinese tour groups that engulfed me as they passed though, unfortunately the path was too thin for the amount of people that walked along it due to the rest being used for a train that goes up and down the valley. I continued to walk up a thousand stairs to the Three Sisters viewpoint where there wasn’t another person in sight, if I continue up another 3 or so thousand steps I would be a the top of the Tianzi mountain area, where I will be staying the next 2 nights, but with my luggage I am taking the cable car instead. The funny thing about this park is it caters perfectly to lazy people, as you can pay 2 men to carry you up the stairs for you! But on the whole trip I only saw 1 woman using it.
At the top of Tianzi mountain I couldn’t see much below it was so misty, I jumped on a park bus and showed the driver my hotel name in Chinese, the Xiangyuan Inn, so he would know where to stop. For most of the time I chose to stay in small Inns and homestays at the top of the mountains. You can stay in better hotels at the bottom of the mountain in Wulingyuan and get a cable car up each day but I want to shoot sunrise and sunset so this is the best option to achieve that.
I chose Xiangyuan Inn because it was the only place that came up bookable online on the Tianzi mountain side. It was’t easy to find in the small village as there were no signs, or at least non I could read, but after showing my booking slip to whoever I came across I eventually got there. The owners were very friendly, I used google translate to ask a few questions about the park and trails which was very slow, until a nice Malaysian man arrived and translated for me. I wanted to learn as much as I could about the park from the locals to maximise my 7 days since information in english is sparse online.
They had their own private viewing platform that they had created too, only a 2 minute walk from their house which in the summer they plan to serve dinners at as the sun sets. The dense mist gave me only glimpses of the landscape below.
I walked to the nearest official viewpoint that overlooked the “one finger peak”, before it got dark, even though the visibility was poor I hoped to get some moody shots of the landscape.
I walked back to the Inn to eat their home cooked dinner then jumped into bed by 8,30pm as it started to rain outside, I was waking up at 5am to join the other guests to shoot sunrise at Helong Park, the rain meant that we may be very lucky and get some beautiful low lying mist in the morning. Before I fell asleep I realised with the private viewing platform so close I could take some night time stars shots if the weather clears up, so I set my alarm for 2.30am. When it went off I check the radar cloud weather own my phone which looked good, got dressed and walked outside to find a completely clear sky so walked over to capture it. It’s not anything for the wall but I don’t usually shoot landscapes at night so it’s good practice.
I headed back to bed and slept for another 2 hours before waking up in the dark again to head out for sunrise, the owner had kindly offered to drive us to the main viewing points of the Tianzi Mountain area in Helong Park.
It was so misty that at first I couldn’t see anything, but eventually this mist rose as the sun heated it up and I could shoot the interesting shapes of the columns appearing from behind.
At sunrise there were around 20 photographers wondering around trying to get a shot, but soon after they all disappeared whilst I explored the rest of the viewpoints at Helong Park. Then I stumbled upon my first wow moment.
What shocked me the most is I spent over an hour here waiting for the sun to illuminate the scene and came back later in the day spending 2 hours here, and not a single person came to this view point despite it being in one of the busiest areas in the park with hundreds of people only minutes away. The peacefulness made capturing this scene even more enjoyable.
I walked back checking out all the viewpoints along the way so I could plan where to go the next 2 days. Some of the spots had 10 minute waits as people took selfie after selfie, someone even asked “why did’t you get a selfie?”. I even met a painter and is friends along the way, who like me had to listen to music to drown out the chatter in the busy areas.
I woke up at 5am again for sunrise to find it raining, still we headed out hoping for some amazing mist if the rain stopped. Sadly it didn’t and the light was dull. I transferred to my next hotel, the aptly named Pandora Inn, near the “Grand Sightseeing Platform” which was a 30 minute bus ride away. I was hoping with a name like that it the view would be impressive, and after 800 steps down it certainly was. I was excited to be able to come back here for sunrise the next 2 mornings.
For the afternoon I checked out the 2 other nearby viewing platforms, thenI decided to try walking a trail heading to Lauwochang on the map. I had been told was closed but I figured I could turn back when I couldn’t go any further.
What started out as a paved trail soon became a barley visible one, but the odd bit of trash reassured me I was on the right track. Eventually though I came to small cliffs where I realised why it was closed. One slip and I would be done for!
I decided to try to continue on anyway for the adventure, after three ridge crossings the trail was no longer visible at all and I was just using my instincts and the fact that I could’t get any higher unless I climbed a 50 foot rock face. After 2 hours of no longer seeing a trail I started to wonder if I should turn back as I may have missed a turn, it was now 3pm and I didn’t want to get lost here in the dark. I looked on my map to see how close to the end I may be to see a road above me somewhere, it was steep but I really didn’t want to have to go all the way back along those scary ridges or get stuck here in the dark. After almost an hour minutes climbing a 45 degree angle grabbing hold of trees and bushes to not fall I finally made it to a path they had just paved, the concrete was still wet! The workman looked impressed that I had done the trail and everyone else I told after. It certainly was an adventure, just a shame there was no amazing sights along the way.
I continued walking down the road to Lauwochang village, it was cloudy and the light was terrible, but the view incredible so I plan to come back one afternoon when the sun is out to get more dynamic pictures. On the way back to my hotel I hitched a ride with a kind man who stopped for me saving me another hour uphill in the dark. I ate dinner and was in bed by 8pm to get enough sleep before I wake up early again, there really is nothing to do around here after dark anyway.
I headed out at 5.30am to catch sunrise at the “Grand Sightseeing Platform”. The visibility was poor from the top so I am not sure why I wasted the 800 steps down and back up. I froze and got nothing for the 2 hours I waited. I eventually gave up after the thought sparked that Helong Park may be a better option and rushed over by bus. The columns were much closer here so I had a better chance of getting something amazing in this misty weather. I set up my tripod and waited for almost 2 hours capturing the scene as the mist moved upwards revealing the jagged mountains. It was exactly the moment I had hoped to capture!
Once the mist had risen I was left with a cloudy day which was no good for any of the spots I wanted to shoot in Lauwochang, so I headed for the the west side of the mountains, called Yuanjiajie. This was the busiest side where the Bailong Elevator quickly and easily brought people up from the valley below in less than 2 minutes.
It had tacky Avatar themed statues and after 2 hours walking though the viewpoints I decided I didn’t need to come back so I cancelled my 2 nights stay at the Inn nearby. This side of the mountain was much more vast and hard to capture, muchmore impressive to see with your own eyes. The amount of people didn’t make it enjoyable though, and it was sad to see trash on the mountains below.
I headed back to capture sunrise at the “Grand Sightseeing Platform”, being the only great viewpoint I haven’t got the best light in. It was clearer this time and I captured the beautiful mountains in silhouette as the sun rose.
After I walked down to Lauwochang village to capture the jagged pillars close up, one of the 4 best views in the whole park! The only thing that ruined the scene was the Bailong elevator running up the side of the mountain. It’s impressive for it’s height but a scar on this beautiful landscape.
Having shot everything I wanted to on the mountains I was now ready to do a great hike through them. I didn’t know which would be best but based on my map one 15km looked like it could be incredible walking amongst the pillars of Yangjiajie and Yuanjiajie all the way from the top to the Golden Whip Stream at the bottom.
I had a hotel reserved in the town at the east entrance so I left my luggage and just took my digital camera, some snacks and a jacket with me. It felt great to travel so light for a change leaving my panoramic camera behind.
Wow is all I can say. Pictures can’t even do this trail justice. Walking in the forested valleys with the pillars soaring above was constantly wow at every turn. The thousands of steps up and down seemed like they would never end but everyone one was worth it, my mind was blown for the whole 4 hours. This was the highlight of the trip, I could’t believe so few people walk it as I only saw 2 other people!
I arrived at the East Park entrance just as it was getting dark and walked to my hotel to collapse after close to 30km of walking for the day. At least 10km must have been stairs alone.
The forecast was for clouds today so I decided to take it easy and lay in past 8am. I only walked 17km around the Yellowstone Village and along the Golden Whip Stream with very few steps, the light was not spectacular but I did’t mind as the scenery wasn’t either compared to what I had already seen. The cable car ride through the mountains to the top was the highlight here.
I went up the Bailong Elevator and caught the last bus back to the Pandora Inn to stay for a 3rd night to try my luck one last time at the “Grand Sightseeing Platform”.
It seems I was all out of luck, the light was just dull and the mist just too subtle.
I packed up my luggage and headed back down the cable car to stay my last night in Wulingyuan Town, the light on the way was beautiful and soft illuminating the fall leaves.
Days 8 and 9
I caught the 2.30pm bus to Fenghuan, it took forever because for some reason the driver chose to stay below 50km an hour the whole way. I arrived in Feghuang at 8pm and went to find my hotel in a small alleyway right inside the ancient town. No cars could drive anywhere inside which was nice, but the crazy number of tourists made it difficult to enjoy walking around. It’s very tourist here with he streets lined with shops selling what I can only describe as crap. I stayed in the cute Fenghuang More Inn which was nice, quiet and cosy in the middle of all the madness.
I spent my 2 days here walking along the river to capture the old chinese architecture, I had hoped it would be quiet at sunrise but it was just as busy as any other time. I did manage to find the nice quiet side where the light was best to capture the ancient feel of the town.
Even in this small town I managed to walk 20km each day searching for interesting scenes to capture. I must have totalled 200km in the whole 9 days and who knows how many thousands of steps. I am looking forward to the 10 hours of travelling I have back to Singapore where I can rest.
Mountains will never be the same again after Zhangjiajie, only places like the Grand Canyon or the Canadian Rockies can compare to it. Our planet is truly amazing and if you have the chance you must visit, even with the hordes of tourists that come with it!