I remember watching Avatar back in my final year of university and being spellbound by those ‘floating mountains’ and the dramatic landscapes created in the fictional world of Pandora. I almost wished that I could go to Pandora just to see the mountains and avatars, for surely no such landscapes exist on our Earth. Never did I imagine that despite all of its majestic beauty, landscapes like those seen on Pandora, actually existed on our earth.
Then one day, in the midst of Avatar setting all sorts of records at the Global Box Office I was reading the Daily Mail online and a headline grabbed my attention.
I clicked on the article, and much to my amazement, discovered the landscapes created in Pandora were inspired by a mountain range in China. I was blown-away by the pictures, of course the mountains weren’t floating (which was ahem, a ‘minor’ disappointment) but nonetheless, I added yet another place onto my seemingly endless list of places I dreamed of visiting.
When the opportunity arose to come to China, visiting the Avatar Mountains (known as Zhangjiajie National Park, within China) was one of the first things I looked up. How do we get there? How far away from Nanjing is it? What’s it like to visit?
I quickly found it’s a long way from Nanjing – over 1,000km. There were no bullet train links, and it would be an absolute mission to try to do it overland. So we decided to fly, and spend a significant part of our Easter Holiday there.
We arranged to meet a couple of Amelia’s school friends, who were on a whistle-stop trip around China. Hiking the Avatar mountains sounded appealing to them, and a nice contrast to the huge metropolises of Beijing and Hong Kong, which they were also visiting.
Zhangjiajie was quite simply, absolutely stunning. I have never seen somewhere quite so unique, that amazed me with its beauty, but also dumbfounded me, in that I struggled, and am continuing to struggle to comprehend how the hell these mountains even came to be formed in the first place?! They are a natural wonder of the world, surely. UNESCO has rightly awarded the peaks World Heritage Status.
The peaks are precariously balanced, some seem barely as thick as a car, yet tower to over 1,000 metres in height – skyscrapers of karst rock, of varying thickness, standing vertically over densely forested ravines, through which streams, wildlife and Chinese tour groups rush through.
I thought of the mountains as giant dominoes, some of the peaks looked as though they would merely need a gentle push (from a very strong man, admittedly), and they would topple into the others. Looking out from some of the viewing platforms; the views were dramatic. All I needed was an Avatar to come flying through a ravine, and I would have felt like I was in the closest thing to Pandora.
The weather conditions were not ideal for photography, so the pictures below don’t quite do it justice!
Fortunately for the first two days we were able to appreciate the majesty of the park. On the third and final day the fog and rain clouds descended in on us to the point where visibility was reduced to 50 feet. The views weren’t quite so spellbinding at that point.
The only problem with this place is, 35 million other people (99.999% of whom are Chinese) also have this experience, or something close to it – every year. The park was spectacular, spellbinding, marvelous, majestic and wondrous. The development that had taken place around it, and at times, in it, is sadly a tragedy.
You can’t begrudge millions of people wanting to visit one of the most spectacular sights in their own country, because ultimately we are tourists ourselves. However, the monstrous development that has taken place in recent years around here, has led to UNESCO warning it may lose World Heritage Status. Naturally, you would assume authorities would heed this warning – perhaps they have. Regardless, at the summit of one of the most popular peaks we witnessed a large McDonald’s under construction, which will be opening within the next week or two. Whilst I’m not going to lie and say that we wouldn’t have enjoyed eating a Big Mac over Fried Noodles from a small local vendor making a living from selling snacks, it begs the question, is nothing sacred in China?
Despite my complaints, Zhangjiajie National Park was awe-inspiring. Just don’t expect it to be a great nature reserve. Expect it to be a ‘National Park with Chinese characteristics‘, and you won’t leave disappointed.