Destination Zhangjiajie: All roads lead to places real and re-imagined

“THOSE are the Three Scissors,” I heard our guide Glory say several paces behind me. A mini-electric train that brought tourists along the “Ten-Mile Natural Gallery” "was heading towards us."

There’s a train a thousand meters up high in the mountains, I thought. In the distance were quartz-sandstone pillars rising from a thick forest of pines and redwood, one of the many clusters in the Suoxi Valley at the foot of Tianzi Mountain.

“Use your imagination,” Glory, a Zhangjiajie local, urged.

I looked around. I couldn’t make out peaks or pillars the shape of oversized shears. I turned to Glory: “The Three Scissors, where?”

“There,” she said pointing at three irregular identical columns. “One of them is pregnant, see? Use your imagination.”

“Oh you mean ‘Three Sisters,’” I said, finally spotting the trio, wearing patches of evergreen. They did look like sisters off to see the world.

“Yes, yes, sisters,” she said, rather embarrassed and apologetic over her pronunciation, as though she had just committed a crime. Glory, a university student with a tiny, slightly stooped frame and sporting a boy cut, was on her internship as a tour guide. She had been nervous during the entire five-hour trip from the big city of Changsha the day before (“Do you understand me?”), and our lean band of media practitioners from Cebu had to reassure her each time she addressed us in English that she was doing exceptionally well, which was true. (In contrast, most of us hardly knew a word of Xiang Chinese.)

When I realized my mistake, I felt like throwing myself into the gorge. Good thing Damon, Glory’s superior, quickly ushered our group to a mini train that was picking up passengers who opted not to walk the 5.8-kilometer route. Damon only joined us that morning as the other tour guide, Long, had an errand for the weekend.

As the electric train hummed its way across this outdoor gallery of otherworldly rock formations shaped by subtropical wind and water and the shifting of the earth through millions of years, I left that silly little incident behind, although these natural towers of Babel were constant reminders of how confounded speech can easily muddle things. But one, even the tactless, must move on.

At this point, I had yet to appreciate how indispensible our guides and their knowhow are in the Zhangjiajie tour. It didn’t take long for me to find out: it helped a lot that Glory and Damon were good at what they do, as they eased us through a rather complex itinerary, owing to the scale of the area we were bound to see.

It is difficult to imagine how a Unesco World Heritage Site can be this expansive – the entire Wulingyuan Scenic Area, which encompasses the Suoxi Valley, the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and several other natural reserves, is 397 square kilometres, slightly bigger than the entire city of Cebu.

I’d be happy to see just one of those spots in a day, but the Chinese have something else in mind: they want Zhangjiajie’s visitors to see as many scenic areas as possible in the least amount of time. How? By setting up infrastructure that is merely the stuff of dreams from where I come from.

At the foot of Tianzi Mountain, the Chinese put up a railway for mini trains. To provide access to Tianzi’s peak, the highest area of the reserve at 1,098 meters, they set up cable cars and paved an optional nearly 4,000 steps of stairway. For the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, they built on the side of a cliff the 330-meter Bailong Lift, the tallest outdoor elevator on the planet. All these are apart from the kilometers of footpaths and roads with free round-the-clock bus rides.

And with tens of thousands of visitors daily, mostly local Chinese, the scale of operations for Zhangjiajie’s full-blown tourism industry is just mindboggling. And they just keep on coming, whether to see the most famous spot, the “Avatar Mountains,” which inspired the floating mountains in Canadian director James Cameron’s eponymous movie, or just to experience for themselves everything they’ve read and heard from those who came before them: a natural land bridge that connects mountains up in the sky, clusters of 3,000 quartz-sandstone pillars amid ravines, gullies and valleys, a beautiful upland lake surrounded by karst peaks covered with mist, where lovely maidens peer out the windows of floating houses and sing songs to travellers on board traditional boats.

It can be hard to envision such a place, so I thought about what Glory said about using one’s imagination. This time, though, it’s a re-imagining of sorts: sights that inspired awe, cold air on skin, the scent of sky. Sometimes, the mind doesn’t leave much room for places that sound too good to be true. But there is such a place – in Zhangjiajie. ((Second of three parts))


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