Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Zhangjiajie, China

I initially was not going to visit Zhangjiajie, a UNESCO-listed park filled with towering quartz sandstone peaks. However, the park, located in northwest Hunan province, was a good stopping point between Guilin and Beijing. It took me over 15 hours by train from Guilin to Zhangjiajie, and this included a connection in Liuzhou. On my first train, I sat on a hard bench seat. Luckily, the train was fairly empty, so I did not have to endure the crowds that I had envisioned (including many people standing). On my second train, from Liuzhou to Zhangjiajie, I slept on a hard sleeper. This is the most popular way to travel long-distance in China as it is the most economical and comfortable. Because of this, one usually has to buy hard sleeper tickets days in advance. Each hard sleeper compartment (rooms without doors) contains six beds, in two groups of three bunks each. The middle and upper bunks are not as comfortable as the lower bunks due to the fact that one cannot sit upright on them. The beds themselves are quite narrow--about two feet in width.

I arrived in Zhangjiajie city and took a public bus to the youth hostel. This was the only youth hostel I stayed at in China and it did not disappoint. The room and bathroom were clean and well-lit. The common area was cozy with wonderful d├ęcor. I later learned that many youth hostels in China are decorated stylishly, either modern or refurbished historical. This certainly beats many hostels in the West!

I visited Zhangjiajie park on two separate days. In fact, I was practically the only solo traveler and one of the few “foreigners”. Most people who visit join tour groups and even those who travel independently hire a guide at the park. I admit it was quite difficult to schedule a trip from Zhangjiajie city to the park as both public bus and park shuttle bus schedules are not posted. Thus, I had to constantly ask locals for information. On both days, I caught the last bus from the park back to the city (an early 5pm). On the second day, I had planned to catch an earlier bus, but that fell through as I exited the park at a different place (which a guide recommended) and then realized I had to walk 40 minutes to the bus stop.

On my first day, I strolled through the flat and boring Golden Whip Stream. This area allows one to gaze up at the numerous “spiky” quartz limestone peaks that is characteristic of the park. These peaks were formed thousands of years ago from water erosion. I then hiked up to Yuanjiajie and walked from one viewing platform to the next. The views up there were incredible, as I saw the tops of those “spiky” peaks. The effect of mist on the peaks was phenomenal. The most unique structure was the limestone bridge that arched its way to a peak with thousands of padlocks (apparently for good luck). There were moments during my walk through Yuanjiajie that I got the viewing platform to myself. However, as I progressed through the walk, more tour groups appeared, disturbing the tranquil environment. I accepted this, as there are always many people in China, as this is the most populous nation in the world!

On my second and last day, I visited the viewing platforms at Tianzi Shan, the highest point in the park. This area had the most spectacular views, with peaks likened to “calligraphy pens”. This area was also swarming with tourists and food sellers. I spent the afternoon hiking the much less touristed Yangjiajie. I climbed peaks such as “One Step to Heaven”. Yangjiajie was my favorite part of the park because one can get varying views of the peaks. Besides a birds-eye view, I was also able to descend in between peaks and end up at a valley of peaks. I was often alone on this hike, which made the experience more memorable, as I was able to concentrate on the beautiful scenery and not on tourists snapping numerous pictures of themselves.

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