The highlight of any visit to Hunan province, the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Zhangjiajie (technically known as the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area, which encompasses four national parks, including Zhangjiajie) is one of the most spectacular natural wonders in China. Known internationally as the inspiration for the "floating mountains" in the film Avatar, Zhangjiajie is actually a subtropical forest packed with over 3,000 quartzite sandstone pillars, created by centuries of weathering. With a thrilling mixture of exploration and innovation (the area is home to the world’s tallest outdoor lift and longest scenic cableway), the region offers something for everyone.
The Zhangjiajie region is located in the northwest of Hunan province, which is home to both Zhangjiajie City and Zhangjiajie Village. Zhangjiajie City is the transport hub for the national park, located 30km south of the village. There are minibusses that connect the two regularly throughout the day, leaving from the Zhangjiajie City long-distance bus station and taking around an hour.
Flights: Zhangjiajie airport is located 4km from the city. Several domestic carriers operate flights to major destinations such as Beijing (3 hours), Guangzhou (1 hour 40 minutes), and Shanghai (2 hours).
Trains: The train station is located 8km away from the city. There are sleeper trains to Beijing (22-27 hours) and Guangzhou (14 hours).
Buses: The long distance bus station is located on Huilong Lu. There are overnight buses to Shanghai and Xi’an (both around 20 hours).
As well as the fantastically atmospheric karst peaks jutting from the subtropical forest, the wildlife within Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is a joy to behold. Monkeys can frequently be seen along the paths and many other animals can be spotted off the main tourist tracks. The park’s many hiking trails are great for botanists and bird enthusiasts. For others who just want to experience the fantastic scenery, there are glass elevators and footbridges. You’ll get an extra special tingly feeling when looking down between your feet and seeing the three hundred meter drop below! The area is also the home to several minority groups so it is a fantastic place to experience China’s diverse culture.
Zhangjiajie village serves as one of two main access point for the national park so it is a good place to base yourself.
Tianmen Mountain: Reached by the world’s longest passenger cable car from Zhangjiajie Railway Station, Tianmen mountain offers visitors some easy hikes on the several kilometers of paths that snake around its peak. The terrain is definitely less challenging than the hikes in Wulingyuan scenic area, but the several glass walkways still make for a hair-raising experience. Look out for the Coiling Dragon Cliff glass skywalk.
Huangshizhai Scenic Area: Situated just inside the park entrance near Zhangjiajie Village, Huangshizhai offers spectacular views over the misty karst peaks. Reached by a two-hour hike or scenic cable car, it's a great option for those trying to cut down on the copious amounts of hiking to be done in the park. A single ride on the cable car costs 48 CNY.
Golden Whip Stream Trail: Taking about three hours to follow, the trail meanders through a valley beside a picturesque stream. Surrounded by huge peaks, the area offers a gentle reminder of nature's awesome presence. As the trail is mostly flat, it is a comfortable way to hike through the area. Following the trail will takes you to the Bailong Elevator.
Bailong Elevator: Clinging to a 326-meter-tall cliff-face, the Bailong (Hundred Dragon) Elevator is the world’s tallest outdoor lift. It carries visitors from the Golden Whip Stream Valley to Yuanjiajie. A ride on the elevator costs 56 CNY.
Yuanjiajie Area: Arguably more scenic than the more popular Tianzishan (though it seems unfair to pit them off against one another when the whole region is breathtaking!), Yuanjiajie is situated at the heart of the park. It is the perfect place to take the route-less-travelled, with many trails branching off of the main path, allowing for some great exploration.
Ten Mile Gallery: This 5.8km lush green stretch offers a stunning perspective from the foot of the Tianzishan Peaks. The level terrain makes it an easy hike, however, there is also a scenic tram that will take you the length of the route. The tram is 23/33 CNY for a single/return journey.
Tianzi Mountain Area: The area is incredibly popular and with good reason. Offering the quintessential view of the park’s famous “floating mountains”, the vista is other-worldly. Like Yuanjiajie, it can be reached by cable car, for those with tired feet.
There are a large number of local eateries dotted around Zhangjiajie village, many of which serve dishes from the Tujia people. The food of Hunan province is spicy, so be prepared for lots of chilies! If you need a break from spicy food, there are some Western restaurants in Zhangjiajie City. There are many Hunan-style dishes one should try in China; below are just a few suggestions, alongside some local Zhangjiajie specialties:
Pijiuya (Beer-braised duck): This dish was allegedly invented by a Qing dynasty emperor who accidentally knocked his sorghum wine into his duck dish and believed it improved the flavor! Beer-braised duck is perfect for those trying to avoid the heat of Hunan cuisine, as it is usually not spicy, being instead relatively sweet from the sugar and soy sauce used in the braising liquid.
Sanxiaguo: This is a hot pot style dish from the Tujia ethnic minority. With the quintessential fiery and sour taste of Hunan, the dish traditionally includes bacon, tofu, and radish, but may also include pork or tripe. A must try for adventurous foodies, this dish definitely packs a punch.
Sour and Salted Fish: This dish is made with locally caught fish that is packed in salt and left to marinate for several days before being deep-fried to give it a golden color. With a vinegary, fragrant smell and taste, the dish is literally mouth-watering (its sour note makes sure of that!)
Mala Chicken: This chicken dish is a quintessential example of Hunan’s love of spice. It uses both fresh chilies and the infamous Sichuan peppercorn (mala means “numbing and spicy”) so prepare yourself and your taste buds.
Since the primary reason to visit the Zhangjiajie area is the spectacular natural scenery and many outdoor activities, there is not much in the way of nightlife. However, you will find a lot of local activities, such as nightly theatrical performances telling the stories of the people of the area. Look out for Mei Li Xiang Xi, a show about the folklore of the Tujia people.
April to October are the best months for trekking between the karst peaks, with both the first and last month being the optimum time to visit; expect temperate weather and fewer crowds. Zhangjiajie is a very popular tourist destination for both Chinese and foreign travelers, so avoiding Chinese school and public holidays is a good idea if possible. For an up-to-date list of public holiday dates, click here
Festivals: Zhangjiajie’s diverse cultural makeup means that there are many minority festivals all year round. For example, the Bai people celebrate torch festival on the 25th day of the sixth lunar month, during which time they light torches and congregate in the streets to pray for health and prosperity over the next year. The Tujia people celebrate the new year in style, with three celebrations throughout the year, in June, October, and on the traditional Chinese date.
The historic town of Fenghuang is a four-hour bus journey from the Zhangjiajie region and is well worth the trip. The crumbling charm of the village, with its waterside location and winding ancient streets, has made it an extremely popular destination. If time allows, try to spend the night in the town as it is spectacularly illuminated at night. Buses run here several times a day from Zhangjiajie long-distance bus station.