When you tell your friends that you`re going to Zhangjiajie, their normal reaction is: Where? And then you start explaining about the amazing hanging cliffs that probably inspired James Cameron to create the wondrous world of Pandora and how the Chinese even renamed one of these cliffs as “Avatar Cliff”. And then they get it. But what they don`t get is, what it takes to get to the world where the magical blueskinned catlike creatures don`t really live.
In our case all it took was a bus from Changsha to Zhangjiajie with an approximate travel duration of around three hours. Before going to the parks entrance near a place called “Zhangjijajie village” (which is 30 kilometers away from Zhangjiajie city), we had to get some cash. Luckily in China you can find some banks that are open on Sundays and the second bank that we entered even was willing to exchange Euro for local currency. As you could expect, currency exchange in China takes more time than it would take in Europe, as you have to fill a form with your address in China and lots of other information. So some fifteen minutes later we had no more European currency but we were much better equipped to visit places where currency exchange would be impossible.
At the extremely creepy Zhangjiajie bus station we employed the already proven as safe strategy of showing everyone our guidebook with the village name written in Chinese, and soon we were sitting in a mini bus which was to drive us to the park. There was a bit of a confrontation between our driver and one of the passengers who happened to carry around two bags containing live chicken. The driver was clearly not happy with the presence of birds on his bus, but after some shouting the old man got the better of the driver.
Despite the rather poor weather that we were having, the park was quite crowded with tourists from all over Asia, we didn`t see any “Caucasians” - I still find this word slightly funny – during our visit to the park. I`ve read that the Chinese are using the popularity of “Avatar” to attract Western tourists to this park, but so far it seems that their strategy isn`t really working.
The entrance fee to the park is at around 250 Yuan per person and it gives you a 2 day pass to the park premises, but it doesn`t include the services of the sky elevator and the sky tram, so be ready to bring some more cash along. At the entrance our fingerprints were taken in order to stop you from giving your card to someone else on the second day. The toughest part getting into the park was battling of women try to sell us raincoats and some plastic sacks that you can put on your feet to protect your shoes from the rainy weather. As geocachers we certainly were not afraid of a little bit of Chinese rain and we knew perfectly well that the “shoe protectors” would fall apart in less than 30 minutes time (as we later observed, so they did indeed).
In order to see as much as possible within the park, we had a perfect strategy for our visit – both our guidebook and Wikitravel suggested staying in a hostel that is located in the heart of the park – so on the morning of the second day we would be already in the park and wouldn`t spend time getting there. The only problem was that Wikitravel advised walking to the hostel (and it didn`t say how to get there another way) – a walk that should take around 3 hours, involves a rather long and steep climb and is recommended only if you don`t have heavy backpacks. Obviously we did have such backpacks but we thought that we could handle it nevertheless. The park is vast, beautiful and great in every way, except information for English speaking tourists. We enjoyed the views, admired the scenery and had a great time. And then came the stairs. We were more or less prepared that the would have to walk hard in order to get to the hostel, but it turned out that it was way harder than we expected. It was a very, very, very long climb during which we began to wonder, how on earth could there be a hostel at the end of these stairs, and were we in the right place at all. We were deadly exhausted when we finally arrived at the top only to find the hostel closed. Was it closed for winter or closed forever – who knows? And we certainly didn`t care, as all it meant under the circumstances was that we had to find a different place where to stay the night (our initial plan was to stay 2 nights at the hostel, but we hadn`t made a reservation there).
When we had reached the closed hostel, it was already nearly sunset time, so we thought that it would be best for us to exit the park and head for the village to find a hotel there, as there`s not that much that one can do in a forest park in the dark, especially if there are no geocaches there. But that turned out to be much easier to say than to do. We were somewhere in the middle of the park, without a map (as one wasn`t sold upon entrance), our GPS had no maps for this area, and we certainly didn`t want to go back to the exit by the stairs that got us to the top. So we stopped a bus that we hoped would lead us out from the park. So we asked the park administration employee, how we could get to Zhangjiajie village. He pointed us to enter another bus which took us to a very similar place but with a ticket booth to what we believed to be the sky tram. Since we didn`t want to go even higher up, but back to the village, we didn`t want to take the tram (and pay 50 Yuan each for this), so we took another bus, that brought us back to the previous location. There we tried to explain again that we needed the exit, but all we got instead was being pushed back into the bus to the tram. We were getting seriously annoyed by our current situation, and at this stage the “can I take a picture of you?” kind of Asian tourists were seriously getting on our nerves (especially since none of them are usually able to help you with directions, as they don`t speak any English).
When we were already thinking that we would spend the rest of our days on the bus between these two points, Liene finally found four Chinese youngsters that spoke some English and promised to help us exit the park.
It turned out that the supposed sky tram was in fact and elevator that went down closer to the park exit, so we bought the tickets and followed the youngsters. From the lower entrance of the elevator there was a bus that went to the park exit. The only problem was that as it turned out – it wasn`t a bus to Zhangjiajie village but to Suoxiyu Cun – a completely different village on the other side of the park. Still it wasn`t probably that much of a problem, as we had no idea where we would stay the night anyway. Despite it already being quite late, once again at the bus stop we were greeted by a man offering lodgings, whom we had to fight off, and we went to search for a hotel on our own.
The first hotel that we found seemed way too fancy for us (and the walk-in prices listed at the reception only confirmed such a suspicion), so we went further until we ended up in a different hotel that at first seemed to be suitable for our requirements (i.e., just spend a night there, as we had already decided that we would make a change to our plans and go sooner to our next destination – Fenghuang, and stay just one night in the forest park area). It was difficult to understand the prices of rooms at the hotel. The girl at the reception wrote a number down on a piece of paper. It seemed that the number was “150”, but the Chinese have a strange manner of writing numbers – although you see Arabic numbers written everywhere, when they write them by hand, the numbers are sometimes difficult to understand and this was certainly the case here. So I asked again – how much is it exactly? Then the girl showed us the walk-in price of 480 Yuan – much more than we were willing to pay. So we showed her a line in our guidebook: “Can you lower the price?” So she wrote down another number that reminded us of “140”, but asked us to pay 300.
Our room was very far from good – it was cold (the air conditioner stated that the temperature in the room was 17.5 degrees), dirty, damp, the linen seemed used, there was no water in the toilet and there was a stain on the ceiling. We hadn`t eaten anything all day, but we were too exhausted to go and search for a restaurant, so we ended up eating a rollton that we had bought in the morning, and some rather poorly tasting cookies from the convenience store next door. By the way – a problem we encountered in China was in the fact that as a Westerner you can`t buy much in a convenience store – unless you`re enthusiastic about such delicacies as duck feet, of course. You can`t make sandwiches, as there`s no bread, no butter and nothing that you`d normally put in a sandwich. You can`t buy a yogurt, because there`s no milk. The only thing you can buy and be sure that you`ll be able to eat it is fruit.
So we went to sleep partly hungry in a wet, cold and stinky (yes, there was cigarette smoke in the room as well), and we couldn`t sleep very well in the night as someone was constantly banging a door somewhere not far from us so hard that I had a feeling that one some occasion the whole building would collapse.
Obviously we didn`t want to stay too long in this rather creepy hotel, so we popped out from there as soon as it was possible. At the check-out it turned out that we had indeed haggled for a price of 140 Yuan for the night, as the rest of the sum had been “the deposit”. So at least in addition to being quite crappy this hotel had also been cheap.
Since the village in which we had spent the night was located on the far side of the park, away from most of its attractions and our only plan for the park for the day was to use the sky tram and take a look at everything from above, we had to get back to Zhangjiajie village. By taking a bus first to the center of Suoxiu Cun and then the next one – to Zhangjiajie village, we got there in approximately 40 minutes, once again having to say “no!” to the raincoat selling women (yes, the weather was even worse than on the day before, the air was highly humid and some rain was also present), having our fingerprints checked (at first they did not correspond as Liene had produced the ticket with my fingerprint), and so we went back in (and again – with our backpacks). Only this time we were wiser and we bought a map of the park, so we could at least later point out to someone where we want to go. Finding the sky tram was easy, on the way there we met some wild monkeys (who are represented quite well in the park), and up we went (by the way, the sky tram is quite pricey at around 100Yuan for a two-way ride). Because of heavy fog the view from the top was nearly non-existant, all we could see was fog and Chinese tourists. And we could only imagine what breathtaking views were so close nearby, yet so impossibly far. Thus after some 30 minutes at the top of one of the cliffs, we decided to go back down and away from the park, and so we did.
This time we had no trouble finding the right bus and we managed to leave the park without the troubles of the previous day. So we got on a minibus back to Zhangjiajie city. In the city we tried to find an Internet cafe in order to modify some hotel reservations because of our changed plans, but as the six people whom we asked for one all gave different directions, we decided that we could find one in Fenghuang where we were heading next. Thus we hopped on a bus and the trip went on.