China (part 3) : Otherworldly mountains and rice terraces

To Zhangjiajie ! From Kunming, it’s only 19h on a sleeper train. This time we spent a little more and took “Soft Sleeper” tickets, some kind of a first class. Only 4 people per cabin (yes, it is a cabin, with a door that can be closed to isolate yourself from the noise), beds with enough space above to sit upright, lots of space to put our bags, an electrical outlet in each cabin, access to super clean western-style toilets, etc. Luxury !


Zhangjiajie is in Hunan province. For those who want to get there and are a bit confused with all the different but similar things to see/do around there, here is a quick summary. From Zhangjiajie city you can visit:

  • Tianmen Mountain
    From Zhangjiajie city (right next to the train and bus sations), there is a 7km long cable car to access the mountain. This place is famous for its 3 glass skywalks with a 1000m drop underneath them. Fee: 248 Yuans/person for 1 day of visit.
  • Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon
    It’s the new ‘big’ tourist attraction in the area. It has the longest (380m) and highest (300m) glass bridge in the world. Open in 2016, it is already very famous in China. When we were telling people we were going to Zhangjiajie they only talked about this bridge. Fee: 248 Yuans/person for 1 day of visit.
  • Wulingyuan Scenic Area
    A UNESCO World Heritage site since 1992. It comprises 4 different national parks:
    – Zhangjiajie National Forest, the first national park in China (1982)
    – Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve
    – Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve
    – Yangjiajie Scenic Area

    James Cameron presumably got the inspiration for the floating pillars of Pandora in the movie Avatar from photos of the more than 3000 sandstone pillars in this area that is often immersed in fog. The entrance ticket to Wulingyuan Scenic Area is 248 Yuans/person for 4 days of visit. It includes shuttle buses inside the park but does not include the cable-cars, tourist train and Bailong elevator (the longest outdoor elevator in the World).

It’s only when we got there that we realised that thes 3 different sites were not located at the same place and that the prices, although identical, are indeed separate fees for each one of them.

Wulingyuan Scenic Area

The park is divided in two main parts: the upper and lower ones. Each one has its own separate shuttle bus system to move around. To go from one part to the other, you can either take one of the 2 cable cars (20€ each way), the Bailong elevator (20€ each way), hike all the way (about 1000m elevation difference between the 2 parts) or get carried in a canopy chair (price varies depending on the distance, but it is generally quite expensive).

The first day, because ot the terrible weather, we decided we would not go to the upper part and concentrate with hikes in the lower one (hikes in the ‘Zhangjiajie National Forest’ and along the ‘Golden Whip Stream’). With our picnic ready and waterproof clothes on, we were waiting for the bus to leave when the rain really started to pour like hell. After a few seconds hesitating, we cowardly gave up and went back to the hotel. In the end it was probably a good idea as the rain did not stop all day.

The second day, the weather was only cloudy, so we went inside the park. As were are a bit cheap and were somehow convinced we were in excellent physical condition, we decided we didn’t need to take the cable-car and would hike all the way up.

The first half-hour is a paved trail in the middle of the Suoxi valley, going along the tourist mono-rail tracks, called the “Ten-mile gallery”.

Luckily for us, it is not ten mile long at all (5.8km according to the signs that are trying to get you to pay for the train, but only walked for about half an hour). This part was not very interesting because it was completely full of people, we had to queue most of the way. Finally, at the ned of this trail we found the stairs to go up to the Tianzi Mountain area.

Suddenly, we were alone. Well, almost, we were going up with two Chinese women who seemed to have as much trouble as us to climb these infinite stairs. At the first view point, they asked us to take a selfie with them and kindly offered us a tissue to wipe the sweat off our faces. Why are we the only ones sweating like hell around here ?? It’s only after a while that we realised the signs 台阶 written on our maps meant “steps”, and that the number 5998 was written next to it… How much was the cable-car already ? 🙂 We enjoyed the wonderful viewpoints along the way, which unfortunately don’t look that great on our pictures.

After 2h, we finally reached the top to arrive at the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, and we looked like this:

But we’re proud we did it !

The first thing we noticed is the big McDonalds set up just in front of the big stone pillars (but why not after all), and the crowds of people. We were next to the main viewpoints of the Tianzi Mountain area, accessible by foot from the cable-car, and we were surrounded by Chinese tour groups. Each one of these groups had a guide with a megaphone, to make sure that everyone could hear properly. This created a rather loud background noise quite close to the one you can hear in a schoolyard. After a while we got tired of being pushed and of hearing the tour guides shouting, so we hopped on the bus to go to another part of the park, still inside the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve.

We got off the bus near a group of viewpoints a bit far from any cable-car or elevator (look for Grand Sightseeing platform on The two most beautiful viewpoints there are “Cock Pecking” (or “God Chicken Pecking”, it varies from sign to sign inside the park) and “One Dangerous Step”, which gets its name from the fact that you need to walk on top of a metal grating above a sheer drop. The views were fantastic and we were completely alone to enjoy them.

We then continued walking around there to see the “Emperor’s Throne” as well the “Celestial Bridge, which are pretty good as well.

After that it was time to make our way back to the hotel. We went back to the cable-car station, and for some reason (we can’t remember why) in the end we decided we would walk down. The way down we took was slightly different than the way up, and brought us to the “South Heavenly Gate”, an impressive natural arch.

We finished under the rain, and took the shuttle bus back to the hotel, completely exhausted after so many stairs during this very long day.

The next day, we started by taking the cable-car up to Tianzi Mountain. The cable-car itself is pretty crazy (we are not sure how they managed to install poles on top of the gigantic pillars), the views from the cabin were incredible, and our legs thanked us profusely.

From there, we took the bus to go to “Yangjiajie Scenic Area”. You need to ask the driver to stop upon reaching your destination, otherwise the bus just goes on (and as few drivers speak English, you either need to shout and move your arms around, or you can ask a local to help you). This is the most recently developed part of the park, and you can feel it from the infrastructure. Everything is made to be a bit more thrilling: small ladders, small plank bridges, paths along the cliff side.

The only annoying thing was that when there were two ladders side by side, nobody seemed to think that using one to get up to the viewpoint and the other one to go down would be more efficient, so it was a constant fight (this made Tracy crazy). Apart from that, the views were great and quite different from the ones we had seen in Tianzi Mountain area.

We had kept for last the most famous area of the park, where you can see the “Heavenly Pillar”, better known under the name “Hallelujah Mountain” in reference to Avatar. The walk starts next to the KFC (we’re not joking) and is about 3km long. The views were undeniably gorgeous but the crowds really spoiled everything. We had never seen so many people being so incredibly rude. As if being in a constant queue wasn’t already a bit annoying, the tour groups kept pushing us, shouted and burped in our ears, and it seemed we were scowled at whenever we stayed more than 3 seconds to admire the landscape. As Clement did not have a camera with him he actually got pushed away from the viewpoints on several occasions (this time, it’s Clement who started to go completely crazy).

When we reached the “Avatar” viewpoint, we felt like we had entered another world. A sculpture of one of the blue birds from the movie had been installed there to allow people to climb on it and take pictures. But the wait is quite long and the tour groups only have a limited amount of time in each place: who will be the lucky winner to bring back home a picture on this weird looking bird ? The “queue” quickly turned into a mosh pit with a surprisingly high average age. This was pretty hilarious to watch, especially because the bird sculpture was not even placed in front of the view of the “Heavenly Pillar”…


We got away from the crowds by taking the path that went down towards the lower part of the park. After a few viewpoints without many people on the way, we reached the “Golden Whip Stream”, surrounded by impressive pillars rising vertically on both sides. The landscape there is so big that you can’t really appreciate it in one gaze. We felt very tiny during this nice one-hour walk.

The next day we decided not to go visit Tianmen Mountain, not because of the price but because we were too afraid to have to deal with even bigger crowds (the glass skywalks are famous for being completely overcrowded), knowing that if it was the case it would completely ruin our experience.

To conclude, although our visit was a bit spoiled by the amount of people (the park hosts 20 million visitors each year) and the bad weather, we don’t regret going to Zhangjiajie at all, and we thoroughly enjoyed its uniquely beautiful landscapes.


We stopped in Fenghuang because it was on our way to the Longji rice terraces and allowed us to split the trip in two. We spent only one evening there, not expecting much of this ancient city known for being extremely artificial. We started by walking along the river, lined on both sides with old houses which light up in fluorescent neon colours at night.


Then we entered the heart of the old town. It felt like there was one main street with the same tourist shops as in Lijiang, Dali and Shangri-La, but as soon as you get out of it you can easily find poorly lit paved back alleys full of charm and very photogenic.

Longji Rice terraces

These rice terraces bear the name “longji”, which means “Dragon’s backbone”, because when they are seen in spring, full of water, the reflection makes them look like the scales on the back of a dragon. Construction of these terraces began about 700 years ago, and they are still being used today.

To get there, we had read in guide books and online that we first needed to go to Guilin then take a bus to Heping. We had bought a bus ticket to Guilin, but when we saw on our GPS that we were going to pass by Heping, we asked the driver if he could drop us off there. No problem for him, and it saved us one day !

We shared a minivan to Dazhai, a village mostly inhabited by people from the Yao minority. We then walked up in the middle of the rice terraces to reach the village of Tiantou. The scenery is great, but… no water.

At this time of the year, the rice paddies are supposed to be filled with water to allow for the new plantation of the young rice sprouts. All the rice paddies we had seen lately had been filled with water, why not these ones ?

We’re not 100% sure, but it would seem that the villagers are protesting against the way the site is being managed by the local government. The latter set up an entry fee that keeps increasing (95 Yuans now against 50 in 2010) and subcontracts operations to private tour groups, but does not give any of the benefits to the local population who works hard in the terraces.

The rice terraces are not profitable anymore (few machines can be used in these oddly shaped rice paddies), and the rice produced is not exported anywhere. Hence, the villagers delay or even cancel the flooding of the paddies, in the hope that the tourists’ disappointment might impact the government’s revenues and force it to share the profits. However, it is very hard to find reliable sources on this topic and we didn’t manage to get more information when we were there. At the end of May (26th to 30th), some of the terraces were flooded but we didn’t have the dragon’s scales effect we were expecting.

Even without water, the amount of work the construction of these terraces on the side of the mountains must have required is simply astonishing. We even got to appreciate that view from the window of our room 🙂

We took a day to hike between Dazhai and Ping’An, the other main village in the area. The hike is about 10km and takes you through the rice paddies and a few forested areas. The landscapes are not as beautiful as what you can see from the viewpoints near the villages but it’s a nice walk nevertheless. Once we arrived in Ping’An, we realised there was much more people here compared to Dazhai (the day trips organised from Guilin usually go to Ping’An). The official viewpoints were not that great but we got some great pictures while walking between them.

Yao women : 
Yao women are famous for their very long hair. Cut only once during their life (at 18), these women hold the record of the village with the longest hair in the world (the length can reach 2m10). To do their hair, they bring it all at the front, use one strand as a hair tie and then go around their head several times, making it look like a turban made of hair. For a few Yuans, they can detach their hair and let you take pictures. In Ping’An (which is originally not inhabited by Yao women by the way), we saw many offering this, but it felt a bit like a production line… On our way back to Tiantou, we met a very nice Yao woman who, instead of the traditional clothes, was rocking a “cash for cream” sweatshirt and had a wonderful smile. After talking with her for a few minutes, she offered to detach her hair. We couldn’t resist. She seemed very happy to have made the sale, and so were we 🙂


Our first 30 days in China were drawing to a close, and we had to quickly get out of the country (we really didn’t want to play with fire and overstay). We thus went to Guilin to catch a high speed train (aka bullet train) to Shenzhen. From Shenzhen we crossed into Hong Kong.

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