Road to Pandora – The Surreal World of ZhangJiaJie 张家界

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The Glass Bridge of Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon (张家界大峡谷) has intrigued me since its opening in 2016 August. After watching so many comical videos online, I was curious to see if I am gutsy enough to walk across the 430m transparent glass bridge. I decided to visit the famed bridge in 2016 Christmas but Tracy booked us a flight to Vietnam instead. Finally, after a long 18-month procrastination, we finally made it to Zhangjiajie this Easter holidays (thanks to the swift and decisive action of Chowpo).

It was a tourist’s nightmare to travel during the Chinese Tomb-Sweeping holidays. Everywhere was packed with Chinese travelers. Knowing my fear to fly, my wonderful and considerate travel companions accommodated me on a longer route to Zhangjiajie.

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The entire journey took us over 12 hours. First, we crossed over to the border of Shenzhen. From Lowu, we took a 30-minute taxi ride to Shenzhen North Train Station where we boarded a 3-hour speed train to Changsha City (the capital city of Hunan Province). From Changsha City, we then took another 15-minute subway train ride to downtown where we hopped on a 7-seater van that we rode for another 5.5 hours before we arrived at Zhangjiajie National Country Park. We started our journey at 7am and by the time we arrived at our hotel, it was almost 10pm.

Weather in April is always tricky and unpredictable. My friend Hovman was at Zhangjiajie just a few days before us and he warned me about the blazing scorching sun. I packed very light clothing and even brought along a pair of shorts. To my horror, the temperature plummeted from sunny 28 degrees to 7 degrees overnight. It was so cold and wet. A deja vu of my Easter holiday at Xian 4 years ago.

Expectedly, I got the unhappy stares from my two female travel companions who took my advice to travel light. The next morning, we made a desperate run to the nearest shop to buy winter jackets and shoe covers. (This explains why in many photos, we were seen wearing the same design of 3 different colours.)

The hotel we stayed wasn’t exactly 4 stars as it stated. It reminded me of the typical Taiwanese home-stay accommodation (民俗). The bed was hard and there were ants, spiders, and bugs crawling on the walls and floor. Shower room was uncomfortably small. The shower head was installed right above the toilet bowl. A big group of noisy family resided right beside our rooms and they were extremely rowdy.

Day 2

Early next morning, we arrived at the infamous famed Glass Bridge where many macho men failed to conquer. It was still drizzling and we were warned of the slippery glass surface. Every visitor was given a pair of protective shoe-gloves to prevent damage/scratches to the glass surface. Security check was strict here. Any heavy, sharp or large object that poses a risk to the glass bridge is prohibited. I had to leave my walking sticks, DSLR, drone and gimbal video camera behind. I can only vlog the entire experience using my mobile phone.

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From far, the glass bridge looked like any suspension bridge. Spanning over 430m across, it was once the world’s longest glass bridge (currently the second place to the new 488m long Hebei’s HongYaGu Glass Bridge). Suspended 300m on 2 vertical cliffs, the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge still holds the record of being the world’s tallest glass bridge.

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Despite my fear of flying (acrophobia), I suffer no acrophobia. I have absolutely no fear taking the walk of faith. It was a surreal experience to walk across the mountains and canyon river on the solid glass. It felt very safe and sturdy. There were still many visitors chose to walk across the bridge on the metal sidewalks.

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Getting rid of the horde of unwanted photo-bombers was easy. All it took was a couple of heavy loud jumps in the middle of the glass panel, the nearby crowd will immediately back off in fear.

After crossing the bridge, we took a 2-hour scenic riverside hike at Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon. It was a gentle hike with lots to see – the unique rock erosions, the cascading falls on the side of the cliffs, the turquoise lake and lots of old abandoned bandit caves. At the end of the hike, we took a short boat ride to the exit of the park.

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After a tiring morning hike, we had a relaxing tour in the afternoon. Our guide brought us to another iconic attraction, the Baofeng Lake (宝峰湖) where we sat on a 30-minute scenic boat ride around the spectacular basin. There were little wooden huts scattered along the rocky bank where local performers sang (山歌) for the audience on the boat. Even though none of us understood the songs or its story, it was indeed a unique waterfront musical concept.

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By evening time, we were so exhausted. Our muscles were sore and aching badly. We visited the night street market opposite our hotel and retired early for the night. What a tiring but rewarding first day.

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On the second day of our tour, we checked out of the hotel at 7:30am and made our way to the most famous site of Zhangjiajie, the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve (天子山). Gained worldwide fame by the blockbuster movie, “Avatar”, the quartzite sandstone towers of Tianzi Mountain inspired the surreal world on Pandora.

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True to its divine reputation, Tianzi Mountain didn’t disappoint. The 8-minute cable car ride over its enchanted sandstone obelisks was an unforgettable, priceless and mesmerizing experience. Nature is indeed the Grandmaster of Art, perpetually sculpting these majestic pillars through time. I was very lucky to be able to fly my drone over the sea of “stone forest” and see Nature’s masterpieces from different angles. (At the same time, my drone flying stunt attracted lots of tourists who also want a glimpse of what I saw through the drone’s camera lenses.)

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After a long stop at “Pandora”, we hiked further to experience another multiple world records breaker – the BaiLong Elevator (百龙天梯). Installed on the side of a massive cliff in 2002, the 335m-tall BaiLong Elevator currently holds 3 Guinness World Records as the world’s tallest outdoor elevator, the world’s tallest double-deck lift, and the world’s fastest (pax & speed ratio) lift. Each lift can take up to 50 passengers and it takes only 66 seconds per trip. At a ticket price of RMB72/pax, that’s about RMB1.10 per second. This is the most expensive elevator ride I have paid to descend. Still, it was worth it, considering the knee-torturing steps down the mountain.

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At the base of Tianzi Mountain, we took a slow sightseeing train to view the sandstone pillars from another perspective. The entire 5.8km journey took less than 20 minutes.

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Our last attraction of the day was a 2-hour outdoor folk musical at the base of Tianmen Mountain (天门山). Debuted in 2009 with Tianmen Mountain as its stage backdrop, the Fairy Fox Musical is very similar to another real-scene show directed by world’s renowned director, Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) at Li River, Guilin (丽江, 桂林). Having watched both musicals, I preferred the songs and special effects of the Fairy Fox Musical more. The tragic love tale between a Fox Spirit and a woodman was easier to comprehend compared to Zhang’s Liu Sanjie Musical. Overall, it was emotional, beautiful and magical.

Day 39

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Just when we thought we ended our second day of activities, our tour guide surprised us when she checked us in a very new and clean “love hotel”. Although the hotel was filled with family groups (with young children), the hotel decor and amenities (circular bed and big jacuzzi tub) were very suggestive. All of us had a great laugh over Wechat the second we walked into our individual room. Every room has a unique portrait of a naked lady. I enjoyed the thoughtfulness of our tour guide, after all, I am desperate for a good hot tub to ease my muscle aches.

Day 38

We woke up even earlier on the third day of our “not so free and easy” tour. At breakfast, Chowpo told us that she couldn’t walk anymore. She wasn’t used to the long strenuous walk. With the aid of 2 walking sticks, she paced herself slowly and painfully along the way.

Unfortunately for her, our hike at Tianmen Mountain was more strenuous than any of the hikes before. Our helpful and friendly tour guide plotted a route that minimizes walking. To survive this hike with the least effort, we need to take 2 cable-car rides, 10 super long escalators and a very scary drift-driving roller-coaster minibus down the mountain.

We started our hike on the world’s longest cable car ride – Tianmen Mountain Cableway (天门山索道). Covering a distance of 7,455m, the entire ride took 28 minutes and it accented to a height of 1,518m! That’s twice the height of the world’s tallest building!

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While we were in the cable car, a few of us stood up to shoot the scenery outside. It caused a minor panic among the other passengers as our abrupt movement caused the cable-car to sway side by side. As the cable car accented, the temperature dropped drastically. We felt a sudden chilly draft entering into the cable car. Throughout the journey, we need to adjust the pressure in our ears. Without any doubt, It was a breathtaking and scary ride! Certainly not for the faint-hearted passengers. I personally thought to ride the cable car ride was 10 times scarier than walking on the glass bridge itself!

At the peak of Tianmen Mountain, we hiked a short distance to the second glass bridge of our trip, the West Glass Skyway (玻璃栈道). There are currently 3 glass bridges on Tianmen Mountain (east, west and Panlong Cliff). As the distance to the other 2 other glass skyways was a few hours hike away, we decided to give them a miss.

Compared with the Grand Canyon Glass Bridge, the 60m-Glass Skyway on Tianmen Mountain was much more terrifying – both psychologically and physically. First, it is built almost 5 times higher than the Glass Bridge at 1,430m above ground. And it hangs itself with lesser support by the side of the cliff. There is no additional harness that supports the Glass Skyway from the top. There aren’t solid sidewalks for those who want to walk on solid ground. It is a narrow one-way route and jam builds up easily. We found ourselves sandwiched between a group of slow shutterbugs and a group of terrified thrill-seekers who wanted to bail out frantically. Surely, this is not a good place to be stuck during a catastrophe or a mad panic attack.

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Thankfully, most of the glass floor was scratched so badly that it looked almost frosted. So visually, it wasn’t very intimidating. Nevertheless, there were still many terrified “cliff-huggers” who crab-walked across the Skyway. A terrified old lady grabbed my arm unapologetically as she looped over me frantically on the bridge. She continued holding on to the other strangers’ arms as she made her way to the exit. Another strong hunky man in his 30s found himself stuck on a tiny stone slab as there was no more solid floor ahead and he was desperately begging his friends to U-turn. Drama on this bridge was much comical than scary.

After surviving the dramatic glass walk, we proceeded to the next thrilling walk – the Cliff-Hanging Walkway (鬼谷栈道). The cement walkway was built on the sidewalls of the vertical cliffs. The 1.6km long, 1,400m high walkway offers beautiful, unblocked panoramic views of the valleys.

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We finally arrived at the final pitstop of our long scenic hike at Tianmen Mountain Temple (天门山寺) where we took a return 20-minute chairlift ride back to the summit of Tianmen Mountain (near the cable car station). From there, we then took a series of super long connected escalators, through the mountain, down to the entrance of the colossal “Heaven’s Gate” (天门), which is also the world’s highest elevated natural arch. There, we saw the infamous 999-step “Heaven’s Stairs” (天梯) where only the strongest and bravest souls ascend the treacherous climb to the gate of heaven. Well, the path to and fro Heaven is never easy.

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We decided to leave Heaven’s Gate the lazy way – by another long flight of escalators. Just when we thought all the terrifying commutes were over, we were dead wrong. I boarded the most horrendous ride of my life. It was like a deadly hell ride to the real Heaven’s Gate. The minibus sped down the notorious winding Tongtian Avenue (通天大道), maneuvered extreme 180-degree turn at every bend. For a few times, I thought we were going over the cliffs. I could see the fear on the faces of all the passengers. The 99-bend road wasn’t fun for me. Lesson learned – the lazy path is often full of deadly traps, twists, and turns.

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Just before we headed back to Hong Kong, we planned to spend our last night at another UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ancient town of Fenghuang (凤凰县). Located 3 hours drive away from Tianmen Mountain, the 300-year-old Fenghuang ancient town is a beautiful, cultural-rich riverside settlement with well-preserved ancient buildings and colorful ethnic Miao villagers. I can’t compare Fenghuang with Amsterdam or Venice. Or other similar water towns (like Suzhou Tongli 同里古镇 or Zhouzhuang 周庄) in China. The old water town is just different, it is charming, unique and mysterious in its own way.

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What impressed me most was the clarity of the flowing river and the locals’ way of life. Despite the dense settlement on its banks, the local kept the stream clean. Day and night, I saw local washing vegetables and clothes by the river banks. The streets were filled with little makeshift table-stores of local souvenirs and handicrafts. Price was surprisingly low, there was no need to bargain. The stall keepers were peaceful, humble, honest and friendly, unlike the typical aggressive ones I met at most Chinese street markets in first-tier cities.

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Sadly, this ancient town is undergoing major upgrading for tourism. Some parts of the town are overly “urbanized” and it loses its authenticity. For readers who are intrigued by this town, do come by soon before it loses its identity.

How I wish I could extend a few more days to explore this unique place. We did a very short 2-hour tour of the town before we took a long dreadful 12-hour return trip back to Hong Kong.

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This is a very rewarding and fulfilling Easter vacation for me. Thanks to our wonderful and thoughtful Chinese tour guide, this 5-day-4-night trip is more than what I expected. All I wanted was to satisfy my humble curiosity to walk on the new Glass Bridge but the long winding journey enriches me with many unexpected new discoveries and delightful experiences. It is a place where I truly escape from the chains of the city vacuum, where my mind wanders and interacts freely, appreciating life in a different time and space.

Pandora is indeed a unique world full of man-made marvels and natural wonders. It is not far away and it is a great place to discard the avatar in us. There is no place like Zhangjiajie.

8 Responses to Road to Pandora – The Surreal World of ZhangJiaJie 张家界

  1. Orly Gazit says:

    A very interesting travel story.Who was your guide? We plan to do a similar journey in September and we are looking for a recomended guide


    https://polldaddy.com/js/rating/rating.js

    • Wahbiang says:

      Hi there, here is our guide info. She speaks very little English. If you are interested, please contact Ah May at this Wechat ID: xlq1358896268.

  2. This trip looks absolutely amazing! I’m heading that way in a couple of months. I appreciate some of the tips and tricks. Thank you!

    • Wahbiang says:

      Hi there, we had a wonderful tour guide. She speaks very little English. If you are interested, please contact Ah May at this Wechat ID: xlq1358896268.

  3. Haidee Lim says:

    Beautiful blog ! And heading there this coming July .
    We want to bring a drone . We are from US but flying out of Manila Philippines with my classmates. Were you allowed to bring a drone to china and use it in the park ?
    I see you said drone now allowed in the glass bridge but I see a few photos that seem to be taken
    using a drone and the people are standing on a glass walkway.

    • Wahbiang says:

      Hi Haidee,

      Yes, you can bring and fly a drone anywhere in China as long as you are outside the “NO FLY ZONE”. Fly with care around the park (look for thin electrical cables that you can’t see from afar).

      Drone, DSLR is not allowed at Tianmen Mountain Glass Bridge. However, you can fly the drone at Tianzi Mountain Glass Skyway.

      Those photos you saw us standing on the glass panels are taken from a long selfie tripod using a 360 camera, that’s why the selfie stick is invisible.

      Enjoy. July will be a very hot month with tons of Chinese tourists (as it is summer holidays). Pack light cos every gram counts.

      Don’t worry about water bottle – there are a lot of shops around along the way. Do bring a big hat (not cap) if you are worried about the sun.

      Cheers!

  4. Irmengard Deinlein says:

    what a wonderful experience; thanks for sharing your fun!

    • Wahbiang says:

      Wish I can go to New Zealand to visit more beautiful places with my drone. 🙂

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