At the beginning of my experience in China, I was eager to devote my travels to exploring its wilderness and, hopefully, wildlife. I scanned National Parks and came across incredibly surreal and absolutely stunning pictures of Zhangjiajie, in the Northern part of the Hunan province (famous for spicy food and Mao’s birthplace). When a friend of mine invited me to visit Hunan, I was set for it.
I had great expectations, already in awe at the prospect of seeing the marvellous pinnacles with small forests on top in the huge valleys of the park, carved by centuries of erosion. They are so unique, lush and beautiful that are famous for having inspired the settings of the movie Avatar.
So, after my week as a guest in Changsha (Hunan) and in a neighbouring village (you can read about it and Chinese hospitality here), my friend accompanied me at the railway station and waved her goodbye while I was jumping on the train to Zhangjiajie city, the closest town to Zhangjiajie Park.
The few-hours long ride passed between beautiful window views, from turquoise rivers to pristine forests, and sharing sweets and snack with the passengers without being able to find a common language (I don’t speak a word of Mandarin and most Chinese people in the country have not been exposed to English) – but it just made the experience even more rewarding.
In Zhangjiajie town, it was a short walk to the hostel I booked. I’m sorry I don’t remember its name but it probably was from the Youth Hostel Association China (YHA China) as they are allowed to take foreigners in (you’d be surprised to know how many hotels and hostels are not all across the country). I used it to sleep on the first and last nights of my few-days-long trip and store my luggage when I was in the Park, where I spent a couple of nights.
The day after my arrival, I left for the Park. On my bus from town to its gates, I met a Chinese couple that helped me to bargain with the receptionist to get a student fee for my ticket (I was a young student back there..). Inside the park, you move via old mini-busses that are declared ecological. I still have to figure out why. I was a bit startled during the ride, as I couldn’t see any wildlife besides these beautiful birds from the same family of magpies. Instead, there were plenty of free-ranged chickens and I wondered how they could coexist with the wildlife of the park. I still had to discover there is very little wildlife left there.
It was easy to reach my hostel inside the park and I used it as a base for my next explorations. Food can be a bit overpriced inside the gates so I brought my food from outside to be able to save money – I was loaded with food from my previous homestay.
I spent my days hiking but it was another sort of hike – and way sadder. There are no trails inside the forest but paved ways across the most scenic spots. There is no silence or sounds of nature, you can constantly hear tourists screaming from one spot to another and the ever present murmuring of their crowd. Where you’re enjoying the most stunning view –because sightseeing is indeed stunning- you’re surrounded by hundreds of people cueing with their camera ready to shoot and a huge McDonald beside you, literally on top of a peak.
So there is no wilderness experience, no connection with nature, no wildlife, no quiet. Nothing is untouched and tourist attractions are built all over the Park, from glass elevators to plastic Avatar monsters. Busses drive all over the place. I was immensely disappointed, especially trying to imagine how rich biodiversity must have been here in the past, with such a climate and unique ecosystems. Ad of course mourning the beauty of the place because, as I said, it is truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
So, when the crowd was too thick, I run away exploring the less touristy parts of the park, that is to say I discovered the villages of the people that live within the borders of the park, with their rice terraces and their careless look. One day I took on the challenge of the thousands stairs. They lead you deep down into the gorge and all the way back up. During my hike, I encountered hundreds of monkeys, diffident at first but more and more confident with the development of the path.
I could see that this coincided with the increasing density of tourists, getting monkeys used to receiving treats from human hands. At the bottom of the stairs, a huge park provides a place to rest and many tourist attractions. I took the chance to eat a snack, I was starving and enjoying my meal in anticipation…when a monkey jumped on me and stole my snack, looking at me while unpacking and devouring it. I died inside.
That’s all for my experience in Zhangjiajie. I didn’t try any of the attractions to avoid paying tickets and the crowd as well. I’ve read so many enthusiastic reviews of the Park and its settings are definitely worth the hype but beware if you’re looking for wilderness, experiencing nature, serious hiking and glimpsing at wildlife. It was a great disappointment for me and seeing such a beautiful place turned into a huge fun park for hordes of tourists was one of the saddest experiences of my visiting the incredible country that China is. Indeed, China has so much to offer and can present marvelous experiences –and wilderness- as opposite to this one.
Anyone that visited Zhangjiajie and had similar impressions? Or is there an apology for the way this park is being managed and experienced? Let me know!