China: Organizing Your Photo Days in the Mountains of Zhangjiajie (Part 3)
Updated: Nov 24
The Zhangjiajie National Park, located in Wulingyuan in the Hunan province, is another geological wonder of China. Recognized as a cultural and scenic area of interest, it is characterized by its unique rock formations, consisting of sandstone columns adorned with ancient trees. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site, these sandstone pillars served as the inspiration for James Cameron's 2009 film, Avatar, in the depiction of Pandora's mountains. A journey through time and mists.
Tirage Fine Art © O. Robert
Although still relatively unknown outside of China, Zhangjiajie National Park is a geological marvel nestled in the heart of China. Like its counterpart Huangshan, this park is also an ideal embodiment of what traditional Chinese painting has depicted over the centuries.
Enveloped in an almost perpetual mist, gigantic rocky peaks rise from nowhere. Results of a fascinating geological history, these remnants continually spark curiosity among the scientific community as well as artists.
Made famous by the movie Avatar, which drew heavy inspiration from these rock formations, Zhangjiajie National Park is now inevitably swarmed by a staggering number of tourists, mainly Chinese.
This massif comprises several thousand of these natural pillars, reaching hundreds of meters in height. These natural settings are undoubtedly an endless source of inspiration for landscape photography. Journey into the heart of one of the most significant inspirations for traditional Chinese painting for centuries.
My library: Transmedial Landscapes and Modern Chinese Painting.
Whether you are a fan of black and white or color photography, in Zhangjiajie you will find all the ingredients for endless photo sessions and exciting hikes. A personal favorite place where time seems to have stopped, where all our references of distance and scale merge, and where the stifling humid atmosphere intoxicates us for our utmost pleasure.
What are the Zhangjiajie mountains? How to get there and where to stay to make the most of the best conditions? How to organize your visits in the national park? Here are my tips to optimize your trip through a series of 3 articles that I invite you to discover and read in chronological order.
1. History, characteristics of the national park, and how to get to Zhangjiajie
2. How to get to the mountains from Wulingyuan and where to stay
3. What to do on-site and how to organize your photo days (this article)
Contents of this article:
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
Descending the Peaks on Foot
As you already know if you have read my Lifestyle articles, I place great importance on physical preparation. Having good physical condition is essential to ensure active, productive, and quality photography. Here's another reason that confirms what I deeply believe.
At the end of the day, if you want to discover other viewpoints of the mountains beyond the tourist spots and marked trails, plan to descend on foot using one of the trails composed of thousands of steps carved directly into the rock.
Each time, I can't help but think of the workers who shaped these stairs over decades, carrying the materials on their backs. It's a feat that defies imagination, but one that we have come to expect from the Chinese as they have pushed the boundaries of the impossible in terms of construction.
This is an opportunity to thank them once again for these technical feats that offer us the possibility to traverse regions or landscapes inaccessible without their intervention.
My equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. Essential for walking hands-free and quickly accessing your camera.
The most interesting trail to take for the descent starts from the observation site called "Helong Park," where the "Emperor's Pavilion" is located, a bit before the "Tianzi Mountain Office."
This site is one of the most popular. You will find shops selling all kinds of souvenirs, cafes, restaurants, and even a McDonald's!
Plan several hours for the descent. In addition to being exhausting, it will make you want to stop 50 times to set up your tripod and capture these timeless scenes over and over again. After a few minutes of descent, the path splits into two. You can choose one of these trails based on your preference, or rather based on the destination, as they don’t really lead to the same place, even though they aren’t too far apart.
I recommend taking the right trail on your descent. The panoramas are breathtaking, and there's no shortage of photo spots. Several platforms have been set up away from the stairs, allowing you to admire the most beautiful landscapes of this national park.
Unlike the platforms on the summits, here you can comfortably set up your tripod and take all the time you need for your framing. Great moments of meditative inspiration and connection with a surreal landscape await.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
In spring and summer, while the air's humidity is stifling and conducive to photography due to the magical clouds it creates, it is also a paradise for insects. During your descent through the forest, mosquito repellent is absolutely necessary, especially when you remain still for long minutes to photograph.
And when I say mosquitoes, I use a well-known reference, but I would be unable to describe all the other insects buzzing around...
Unless you are immune to these bites, long sleeves are appropriate, even indispensable, despite the heat. Unfortunately, the quality of photo work comes at this price. Without protection, you won't stay long to admire the show and will descend hastily, which would obviously be a waste.
Regardless of the season in which you visit Zhangjiajie, sturdy and waterproof protection against rain and moisture is also highly recommended. The fine, continuous rain that seems insignificant at first quickly becomes a constraint during your hikes in Zhangjiajie Park.
More so than in any other region of China (like Huangshan, for example), I have really experienced these weather conditions, which are, however, the ones I like and seek for my photography. After trying many solutions such as so-called waterproof clothing and jackets, backpack protection covers, and others, they all turned out to be impractical.
For this reason, and for a few years now, I have been equipped with rain capes that also cover the backpack and are worn like a jacket with a waterproof front closure. Nothing more detestable (for me) than having to pull rain protection over the head on top of a thick jacket.
I have chosen the FERRINO Trekker Rain Cape. Completely waterproof, impeccably finished, and so practical, these capes have a designated place for the backpack. As for the colors, it's a matter of taste. There are few choices, but elegance is not the priority, and yellow is very useful when visibility is reduced to 10 meters due to thick fog.
My equipment: FERRINO Trekker Rain Cape. The perfect solution, 100% waterproof with a front closure and backpack coverage.
A Pleasant Break
Once you reach the bottom of these endless stairs and are delighted with your collection of images, you will arrive in another very touristy area where, once again, you will find a variety of kiosks offering local food and drinks of all kinds. They are worth trying, and delicious!
After such exertion, everything tastes different, especially when you think about the luxury of consuming food and hot drinks amidst these mountains.
Then, once you've had your fill of these specialties, you can take the long narrow trail (4 km) that runs alongside the small train (monorail) to the first bus stop or take this monorail (for a fee) if your level of fatigue demands it. It is possible to continue on foot, but the scenery is unremarkable and the traffic (buses) quite heavy. From my perspective, at this stage, it is a waste of time to want to walk, and it's better to take the shuttle to another location.
Bailong Elevator © O. Robert
Descending by the World's Largest Elevator
If you dread the foot descent I just described or think you might not be able to make it, don't attempt it! You won't be able to turn back and won't find assistance along the way. In fact, there are quite a few tourists who descend on foot.
Although you will miss the best of the national park (from my point of view), you can then opt for the descent via the Bailong Elevator, or "Hundred Dragons" Elevator.
At 326 meters high, it was built from 1999 to 2002 and remains the largest outdoor elevator in the world today. Its construction was controversial due to the potential impact on the national park's landscape. But efforts were made in the design to best integrate the elevator into its natural environment. And the result is quite good.
The elevator can transport up to 4000 people per hour, giving an idea of the site's tourist importance. Due to its height and location in a World Heritage Site, the Bailong Elevator was recorded in the Guinness Book of Records.
My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3. The carbon tripod, ultra-stable, lightweight, and durable.
The Bailong Elevator is a technical challenge and an impressive architectural work in itself. The view from the glass cabins is equally impressive but it doesn't last long as this elevator breaks all records in terms of speed.
The "Hundred Dragons" then propel you in just a few tens of seconds to the top (or the base) of the cliffs, scrolling vertically and offering spectacular views. It is, however, quite difficult to photograph given the number of people around you and the impressive speed of the ascent. But the videos are always impressive.
The elevator is located in the Yuanjiajie area, not far from the "Avatar Hallelujah Mountain" Peak. You will probably need to take a free shuttle to get to the Yuanjiajie area if you are not already there.
You will then easily find the elevator by following the signs. However, a short walk is necessary to reach it from the bus stop.
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
When to Visit Zhangjiajie National Park
Whether you decide to visit Zhangjiajie in winter to enjoy the rare snowy landscapes or in June to photograph the mountains in the mist and clouds (the best time), you will never be disappointed by your visit. These unique landscapes in the world are worth the detour, regardless of the period, whether through your lens or not. With a humid subtropical climate, there are on average more than 200 rainy days per year.
However, in June, although the season is ideal for mists and clouds, it is also more challenging to endure. Temperatures around this time can approach 30°C, and the air humidity level is very high.
Regarding Photo Equipment
Be careful with your equipment! It is essential to avoid constantly changing lenses, as humidity will quickly invade your camera body and ruin your day of photography, not to mention the potential damage.
Everyone will naturally do as they wish and carry the equipment suitable for their photographic pursuit. I only have experience in black and white landscape photography and speak accordingly.
My accessories: GITZO Mini Traveler. The must-have carbon mini tripod in your bag. Ultra-lightweight and very handy in difficult situations.
Planning to carry two camera bodies equipped with complementary lenses is an excellent initiative. Filters will likely be unnecessary if you are looking for high contrasts. The magic of natural light will do its job. Moreover, it's impossible to attach any filters to the lenses in such high humidity conditions without risking them getting fogged up.
Traveling with a waterproof backpack is also essential. The fine rain and constant humidity quickly invade bags, whether opened or not. So, it's better to already have the waterproof quality of the fabric and closures.
After 30 years of photography in these challenging conditions, I personally use GITZO equipment (see my articles on this topic). I am an unconditional fan of this brand for its impeccable manufacturing quality, the durability of their products, and their history.
As for the backpack, the best compromise I have tested over time is the GITZO Adventury. This is the bag I travel with for all my winter or tropical photo hikes. I've never had a problem with humidity or frost, despite intense use and often having the bag soaked by rain or left on the ground in the snow for a long time.
My equipment: GITZO Adventury. The ultimate 100% waterproof backpack for photo hiking in all conditions.
Here are some details about the climatic conditions you will encounter in this national park, depending on the season of your visit:
Average temperatures range from 4°C to 9°C in January, the coldest month, and from 22°C to 30°C in July and August, the hottest months.
Extremes can drop below 0°C in winter and rise above 35°C in summer.
The park receives an average of about 1400 mm to 1600 mm of precipitation annually.
The period from June to August is the rainy season, where precipitation is most abundant.
The average relative humidity is around 80%, contributing to the characteristic mist that envelops the park's rock formations.
The park is known for its 200 days of mist and fog per year, particularly in the higher mountainous areas.
The park occasionally experiences episodes of frost in winter and thunderstorms in summer, continually influencing the erosion of the rock formations.
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
The City of Wulingyuan
In the evening, a stroll through the city of Wulingyuan is a must. Numerous traditional restaurants offer high-quality local food that is a must-try. The ambiance of the small alleys is very pleasant.
Although the Wulingyuan region has been inhabited for millennia, it only became a major tourist destination after the creation of Zhangjiajie National Park in the 1980s. Before this, the area was relatively isolated due to its challenging mountainous terrain.
The designation of the region as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 propelled Wulingyuan onto the global stage, increasing its importance as a tourist destination and putting it in the international spotlight.
Wulingyuan has a rich local culture, with ethnic communities such as the Tujia, Miao, and Bai, contributing to the region's cultural diversity with their traditions, languages, and cuisine.
Zhangjiajie National Park, with its majestic sandstone pillars and poetic mists, embodies the fusion of the permanent and the ephemeral. Silent witnesses of past eras, these ancient structures rise towards the sky, defying time while constantly undergoing the whims of erosion. Their changing shapes, influenced by weather peculiarities, invite us to reflect on the mutability of our existence and the impermanence of everything around us.
Zhangjiajie symbolizes the resilience of nature, offering a lesson in humility in the face of Nature's vastness. It reminds us that in the unalterable flow of time, harmony with our environment is essential for the preservation not only of natural wonders but also of our own species.
My library: Zhangjiajie Majestic Mountain of Hunan, China.
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