Zhangjiajie's Huangshizhai: majestic beauty, terrifying heights
The painterly mountains of Zhangjiajie, as seen from Huangshizhai. Photos: CRI
Hunan province's Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is one of those places that wows the senses. It's defined by its mountains, which are the very definition of vertical. Impossibly thin pillars of stone stretch up toward the heavens, creating the sheerest of cliffs. For centuries this place has captured the attentions of Chinese painters, and more recently has inspired floating mountains in James Cameron's blockbuster film, Avatar. It's obvious why this place was chosen to become China's first national forest park, and accordingly developed to show it off.
Huangshizhai (Yellow Stone Stronghold) is part of the park which exemplifies what Zhangjiajie is about. Huangshizhai is a small village that is perched 800 meters above the base of the mountain, hedged in by overhanging precipices and with the lushest of vegetation sprouting up from its perches. Locals say "if you haven't been to Huangshizhai, then you haven't really visited Zhangjiajie."
A steep hike up to the area takes about three sweaty hours to complete, but most people today opt for the swift five-minute gondola ride which is less scenic, but much easier on the calves.
At its top, Huangshizhai offers a three-kilometer pathway which runs a circuit around the peak. The route offers some of the most beautiful of Zhangjiajie's sights, as well as some of its most terrifying heights.
The pathway system edges along winding curves that at times border a hundred meters or more of free fall. Lookouts may include glass panel flooring or fencing that allows viewers to lean out over distances that are so tall that the distant ground below is obscured from view by passing mists.
In fact, mist (at times heavy) is common in Zhangjiajie's mountain heights. The subtropical climate temperatures range between 10 and 18 degrees throughout the year, and clouds, mist and drizzle all contribute to a moisture level near the saturation point.
The moderate and moist environment allows tropical vegetation to flourish on tiny elevated platforms of rock, often sprouting out of cracked cliff faces.
At the center of Huangshizhai visitors won't find much of a town anymore, but they will find a variety of tourist amenities selling local snacks, crafts and trinkets. People can also enjoy "free" local culture song and dance performances after taking in the mountain's sights. The site has clearly been developed for tourists, but it has clearly been developed well. The treacherous heights that the paths constantly skirt and their well-thought-out design impressively bring the sights of Huangshizhai to the masses.
And the masses do come, with all of their good and bad habits. But even at the busiest of times, the web of Huangshizhai's paths offer corners of solace and stillness to gaze out on fingers of stone poking out of a sea of mist.
Getting to Huangshizhai (Yellow Stone Stronghold( 黄石寨 )):
From Zhangjiajie train station, catch a bus to Laomuwang. From Laomuwang visitors can either hike up following signs to Huanshizhai, or take a free shuttle bus to the lower cable station to catch the gondola lift.
245 元 to enter National Forest Park (Senlin Gongyuan ( 森林公园 ))
50 元 to use the gondola lift (1 way)