On Saturday we woke up in Cili (慈利)
a town on the intersection of two rivers on the S306 in central northern Hunan, right at the eastern edge of where the province’s mountains really begin. We’d planned to leave early so that we could stop at Zhangjiajie, a famous “Scenic Area” (in some ways akin to an American
National Park), before driving down father into western Hunan. Packing and departing was delayed slightly though due
to the presence of our new biggest fans, two boys and a girl —ages six, seven and seven— who were extremely interested in what we were doing and why we were in their town.
Highlights from our conversation/Q&A session:
“Do you know Captain America?”
“[Nate] is your nose so big because you lied a lot when you were younger?”
To Jieming “Are you his wife?”
We ended up spending the morning playing, showing them how to record small videos, and, per request, drawing pictures of Captain America for them. Time definitely well spent.
After leaving we were treated to morning drive that cut back through a wide, winding canyon full of varying shades of turquoise and teal.
As the rain picked back up, the hills and river seemed to blend together in the mist --a feeling like diving into the water in the Florida mangroves with your eyes open.
The road took us to Zhangjiajie park. With heavy cloud cover looming over the hills, and thick fog, we were worried that we would see anything even if we went inside, but since we had already
come this far, we decided take our chances. We haggled a bit with the park’s security guards who eventually let us park in their staff compound in exchange for a tip, and also managed to charm
our way into acquiring two umbrellas for the trip in.
Although it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992, Zhangjiajie has recently become most
famous as the real life inspiration for James Cameron’s Avatar — which is how we heard about it. Let’s just say
it doesn’t disappoint. For those looking to find scenery that looks similar to a movie where the protagonist flies around floating rocks on an alien planet, this is undoubtedly your spot. For
others who just want to be blown away by unbelievable geological formations re-carved over by mist as it tumbles through ancient crevices widened over multiple centuries, this is probably the
number one place.
You could literally spend days in the park, and the tickets are valid for four days, but we only had one afternoon. Even so, Zhangjiajie lived up to it’s name. As we went up the mountain the fog tore and scattered, leaving perfect, nimble sections of clouds to spin and fall over the towers of tan stone. Hiking on a plateau (that we got to via a ridiculous 36-story elevator built into a cliff) we found ourselves tiptoeing above the formations, we got to see a full panorama of the inner landscape of that section of the park. From above it’s as if you’re watching the clouds dance on stilts, when hiking below the rocks mix with deep emerald vegetation to curl like primordial teeth towering up from every angle.
After staying the night in the area, we began another spectacular drive continuing through the mountains of western Hunan, which twist up in to almost perfectly conical sections – and only getting more bright green as we headed farther along the road. Passing through myriad picturesque mountain towns we set sights on Zhi’er, a Miao minority village deep in the mountains…