Destination Zhangjiajie

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014


ALL great journeys deserve a soundtrack, and if I were to choose one for a recent trip to Zhangjiajie, I’d pick the album Kveikur from the post-rock Icelandic band Sigur Ros.

The album has nothing to do with this breath-taking place in the south-central Chinese province of Hunan. It just so happened I was listening to the tracks from the inflight music selection that time, in fact, just minutes before Cathay Pacific’s flight CX920 landed on Hong Kong for a connecting flight to the city of Changsha, Hunan’s capital.

I was in the middle of track number five, Stormur, when Hong Kong came into view that gloomy afternoon, mountains and peaks towering above the city’s skyscrapers.

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No there was no storm, and there wasn’t going to be any in the entire six-day trip in.

Rather, Stormur – intense and numinous at the same time – and the rest of the songs on Kveikur roused something deep-seated, something that would prepare me for what I would see in Zhangjiajie, a city of 1.5 million upland souls.

I could not understand a word of what the Sigur Ros vocalist was singing, but the band’s music was a language I could understand, which is similar – but on a grander scale, of course – to watching the otherworldly view of Zhangjiajie’s mountains. There was something primal in seeing up close those massive rock formations millions of years in the making – they were magnificent beyond words, even with all the superlatives of China’s numerous dialects and languages combined.

Ever since that trip, I now bear this side effect: every time I imagine a scene from Zhangjiajie, snippets of Sigur Ros or something similar and unintelligible play in the background. The point-of-view is that of an omnipresent drone, hovering from one quartz-sandstone pillar to another in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, a Unesco heritage site, before cutting to nearby attractions in Zhangjiajie: the many chambers of the Yellow Dragon Cave with its karst formations and underground, pools, rivers and waterfalls, the islets of the misty Baofeng Lake, and farther down Tianmen Mountain from which a mystical arch called Heaven’s Gate can be found.

Several weeks after that unforgettable trip, I can’t help but wonder how it even became possible in the first place. Well, it was upon the invitation of Cathay Pacific courtesy of then Cebu manager Sally Wong. Connie Cimafranca, the airline company’s sprightly marketing and communications supervisor, joined our group of Cebu media practitioners – Honey Loop of The Freeman, Thea Riñen of Cebu Daily News, David Cua of Zee Lifestyle magazine, and Lyndon Angan of Make My Trip Travel TV – for the entire six-day trip that Century Holiday tours arranged.

Getting there meant boarding the CX920 flight from Cebu to Hong Kong, then to Dragon Air’s KA720 connecting flight to the prefecture city of Changsha, and finally the five-hour minibus ride the next day to Zhangjiajie that gave us a glimpse of China’s impressive infrastructure at ground level.

From one city to another, we saw what the Chinese have been up to all these years: meticulously planned urban and rural areas that – at least from where we sat – were as liveable as any Chinese citizen could hope for (well, except for the rush hour traffic along certain thoroughfares).

Shortly before the trip, I had imagined – industrial music playing in the background, again for added drama – a smog-covered metropolis of crumbling infrastructure and buildings, dead waterways, piles of trash, hordes of flesh-eating vagabonds roaming the streets, the early signs of the apocalypse. But along the 300 plus kilometers of road that our minibus traversed, I saw none of those. The only visible signs of death along that route were the burial plots that were seemingly scattered at random in the rural areas, mostly alongside typical concrete dwellings with ceramic-tile roofs. One of our guides later explained the burial plots were considered sacred ground and carefully selected using feng shui.

The same guide – Long was her name – apologetically warned us at the start of the road trip that while Changsha was a second-tier city, our destination, Zhangjiajie, belonged to the lowest category of cities. So imagine our surprise that instead of a backwater village – which would have been quaint, by the way – what greeted us was a modern city nestled in a vast expanse of green, 9,000 square kilometers of it. Still, it was a welcome surprise.

Then Long said matter-of-factly, “Some 100,000 tourists visit Zhangjiajie every day.”

At first I thought she made an error of fact, but when I checked the official figures, she wasn’t exaggerating. And most of these tourists are local Chinese, many from the megacities of Shanghai and Beijing. This place must really be something, I thought.

But why travel this far when China itself has so many points of interest all across the country? Amid the undecipherable din of tourists’ voices that’s a soundtrack unto itself, I shall soon find out. ((First of three parts)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on July 24, 2014.

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