Known for the Hallelujah mountains, which were later renamed as the Avatar Hallelujah mountains after James Cameron’s Avatar film.
Access to Zhangjiajie national park requires buying a four day pass for 248 RMB which is quite pricey if you aren’t planning to stay for four days. Friends and I only stayed for 2 days and tried to get our money’s worth by spending 12 hours each day in the park. It was pretty exhausting but definitely worth it.
Where to stay:
It is better to stay in Wulingyuan as you can walk to the National Park from there. Zhangjiajie city is a 40 minute bus ride away. You also have the option to stay in the National Park but this could be quite pricey in comparison.
Things to see and do:
The most popular route is to take the free shuttle bus from the entrance to the cable car, take the cable car up Tianzi mountain and then hike down the mountain, get another bus at the bottom of the mountain to the Bailong elevator, go up the elevator and then hike to the Hallelujah Mountains (renamed as the avatar mountains) and then hike back down. But there are a variety of ways to go about the park. (Cable car and lift prices are separate to park entrance fee)
My experience at this park was somewhat surreal as I was still travelling with friends that I had made in Beijing.
We arrived at Zhangjiajie Railway station at 6:30 am (we had left Chengdu at 12pm the day before and had to switch trains during the night) and then had to get a 40 minute bus ride to Wulingyuan as we booked a hostel close to the national park. Once we arrived at our hostel, we checked in, dropped our bags off and headed straight out to the national park despite having very little sleep.
The park entrance was packed with tour groups and tour guides. It was already 10am by this point and we were stuck outside the park gates. After waiting for 20 minutes we were all allowed inside, we bought our tickets and went through the barrier verifying them with fingerprints.
We had entered absolute chaos. People were everywhere, the free shuttle buses were packed with people, there was no organisation, buses were passing each other on the cliff roads at great speed, horns blaring at people walking along the roads and tour groups pushing and shoving each other. We had absolutely no idea how the bus systems worked or where we needed to go.
Eventually we decided to just keep walking up the mountain via the road like the locals, and chose to dodge the various cars, buses, bikes and other people. It definitely wasn’t what we had expected. We had imagined a peaceful hike, with amazing scenery that we could just get lost in. Instead we were part of a massive herd trying to block out the horns blaring from behind us.
Moral was definitely low, we were getting frustrated and just wanted to escape the madness. Eventually MD (who I had met in Beijing the month before and was traveling with ever since) saw a staircase down to a lake, so AR (who I also met in Beijing) and I followed him down to get some spectacular shots.
It was a nice break from the crowds and as we took our photos and marvelled at the scenes, MD managed to converse with some elderly locals through his translator app and asked if we could board the boat that they were taking to the other side of the lake. One of the locals then handed me a rather large stick of sugar cane which I debarked (the hard layer) with my teeth, chewed the delicious soft bark, releasing the delectable sweet juice before spitting out the dry bark off the edge of the boat (like the locals) and offered it around whilst enjoying the scenery.
Once on the other side of the lake we followed the locals up the hill. They were carrying large sticks with sacks on each end, so MD and AR helped to carry them.
We then rested on the top of a hill. The locals had a smoke and AR decided to get out his drone to record some of the scenery. The locals were quite impressed as the drone flew off into the sky.
After bringing the drone back, the locals told us to continue following them, we were under the impression that they were taking us to a road so that we could get back on track, instead we ended up at their house which was surrounded by forestry, a rustic barn, a vegetable patch and a few dogs. We were asked to sit down on some chairs, were given some tea and some snacks as we sat under the sun. the locals didn’t speak any English but we somehow managed to communicate.
We ended up staying for lunch with them as we felt too rude to say no. We were losing daylight and still had to see the Hallelujah mountains but the experience was too humbling to run away from. The locals ended up cooking us a delicious hotpot full of meat, stock and vegetables, A variety of side dishes with other meat and vegetable combinations and a bowl of rice each. They gave us beer and let us try some home brewed spirit which sent fire to the pit of my stomach.
After spending 2.5 hours with our new friends it was time to go. It was already 4pm and we only had 2 hours of daylight left. So, we started to say our goodbyes to which they looked visibly upset by but we had to go. And as we started to walk down the hill to the boat the three of us decided to head back to see them the next day with gifts to show our appreciation.
We got the boat to the other side and managed to randomly get onto an empty shuttle bus whose driver took us to wherever we wanted to go as there was nobody else around. We ended up getting off at the bottom of the Bailong elevator, paid to go up and then queued for a ridiculous amount of time before being the first to get onto the elevator, securing a perfect spot for the view.
But we weren’t any closer to the Hallelujah mountains and still had to walk for a while. After 30 minutes of walking along the road we headed down some stairs and found the perfect spot to view the Hallelujah mountains and set the drone off again. By this point it was already 6pm and it was getting darker, so we jumped onto a bus and ended up back at the elevator bus stop. But we didn’t want to have to pay for it again so we asked if we could get a bus down the mountain. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a bus that would take us down, so we decided to walk down in the dark with torches... two wrong turns later without a map we ended up heading back up and taking the elevator down.
At the bottom of the elevator the queue for the buses to take everyone down the mountain was ridiculous. We were right at the back and decided that we should try and walk down again, sticking to the road. We stopped 15 minutes later to take some night shots of the mountains when suddenly a bus packed with people randomly stopped and picked us up. We couldn’t believe our luck. The entire day had been a rollercoaster of emotions, but we managed to get everything done and be back at the hostel by 9pm.
We started our day by picking up our gifts for our local friends (some spirit and some red date tea) and then headed straight to the park. This time we were mentally prepared for the chaos to ensue and the impending rain. But when we got to the park, everything was calm.
The buses were parked up in rows, people were in queues, there were signs for which bus went where, the bus drivers were helpful and there were no horns blaring. It felt like a different place.
We got on the bus which took us to the bottom of the cable car before realising that the hiking path wasn’t there, got another bus to the hiking path and had a wonderful hike to Tianzi mountain. We stopped along the way to get the drone out again to get some spectacular footage of the mountains before walking around at the top to enjoy the views.
We then started to hike back down just as it started to lightly rain, took a bus to the lake, saw one of our local friends by the boat, boarded the boat and hiked to our friends house. We gave our gifts, stayed for a cup of tea and a freshly baked rice cake and then said our goodbyes.
I’m not sure to this day what happened at the park on day one where it was absolute chaos but our local friends who lived up on the hill turned our day around. They melted our frustrations away despite the language barriers and opened their home to us. It truly was a humbling experience.
Zhangjiajie National Park is something you must do at least once. The views are incredible and the hikes are definitely worth it.