China: Zhangjiajie, a Journey into the Mountains of Avatar (Part 1)
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.
Fine Art Print © 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 (this article)
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
Contents of this article:
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
What is Zhangjiajie National Park
History and Characteristics
Zhangjiajie National Park was established in 1982 as China's first national park. In 1992, it was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as part of the "Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area" due to its unique geological formations and biodiversity.
The park covers an area of about 4810 hectares and its altitude varies significantly, ranging from 183 meters to over 1000 meters above sea level.
The rock formations of Zhangjiajie were formed about 380 million years ago during the Paleozoic era by physical erosion caused by the expansion and contraction of freezing and thawing over thousands of years. Water erosion has also played a major role in sculpting these structures.
The national park has a humid subtropical climate, with frequent mists and abundant rainfall, which contributes to the erosion and the characteristic aesthetics of its rock formations.
The geological richness and varied topography of Zhangjiajie National Park not only offer spectacular views but also provide a diverse habitat for numerous plant and animal species, some of which are endemic. This contributes to the unique biodiversity of the region.
Conserving the park's exceptional natural features remains an ongoing challenge, balancing environmental preservation with the economic benefits of tourism.
My equipment: GITZO Adventury. The ultimate 100% waterproof backpack for photo adventure.
A Matter of Name
The national park was named after the largest city in the area: Zhangjiajie. Although this city is located more than 1.5 hours away by road. Served by an airport and a major train station, this city was chosen by the Chinese government to name the natural site. However, it is actually the city of Wulingyuan that one must visit to see these mountains. It is located at the foot of this mountain range, and once there, it's puzzling why this national park wasn't named Wulingyuan National Park...
A Cinematic Reference
The "Southern Sky" peak, over 1000 meters high, particularly captured the imagination of the directors of photography of the film Avatar, released in cinemas in 2009. It served as the model for the portrayal of floating mountains in the sky. Consequently, this peak was renamed by China as the "Avatar Hallelujah Mountain". Since then, the Chinese have embraced this cinematic reference to talk about this park, advertise it internationally, and bring in floods of tourists every year.
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
This international reference has had the direct consequence of the massive development of the small town of Zhangjiajie and its surroundings. And when the Chinese develop, they spare no expense. Thus, gigantic infrastructures have been built in the national park to manage tourists, prevent mismanagement, and especially to avoid accidents. When one becomes aware of the park's terrain, the need to secure the area becomes apparent.
Be that as it may, these infrastructures are perfectly integrated into the landscapes. They do not disrupt our perception during our photo hikes in any way. The materials used are also of high quality. Moreover, the logistics are top-notch. A cable car allows visitors to quickly reach the top of these mountains, passing through, if you're lucky, a sea of clouds that transports you into a dream. Traditional and calm music is played in the cable car, wonderfully accompanying the ascent and adding a significant contribution to this waking dream.
Once at the summit, a system of free shuttles runs throughout the national park all day long. You can hop on and off at your leisure as you visit.
Apart from this aspect, China once again demonstrates that its territory boasts some of the most spectacular natural formations on the planet.
My equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. The secure solution for hands-free hiking in the mountains.
Structure of Zhangjiajie National Park
The national park can be divided into four distinct and interconnected parts:
1. Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
2. Yangjiajie Scenic Area
3. Yuanjiajie Scenic Area
4. Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve
The latter is particularly recommended for photographing the rocky peaks emerging from the sea of clouds and mist. These four zones have a total of 5 entrances, and the ticket allows access to each of these entrances without any conditions for 4 consecutive days.
Also noteworthy is that the Wulingyuan region also offers other sites of interest, such as the Yellow Dragon Cave, the Grand Canyon and its glass bridge, Baofeng Lake, and Tianmen Mountain (not to be missed).
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
Getting to Zhangjiajie by Air
Getting to Zhangjiajie is not necessarily complicated, but it's not straightforward either if you don't speak Mandarin. Here are some tips to help you navigate if you wish to visit the splendid mountains of Avatar.
The Wulingyuan National Park is accessible only by road from the city of Zhangjiajie. It takes about 1.5 hours by minibus from the Zhangjiajie bus station. I strongly recommend getting to Zhangjiajie by air, taking a flight from Shanghai Pudong Airport or less frequently from Shanghai Hongqiao, depending on flight availability.
If you are arriving from Europe or by an international flight, chances are you will land at Shanghai Pudong Airport. So, you are probably already in the right place. If your flight to Zhangjiajie is scheduled from Shanghai Hongqiao, you will need to plan for the transit between these two airports by bus. Be aware, you are in China. Everything takes time due to the long distances.
My equipment: JOBY GorillaPod 3K PRO. The lightweight, convenient tripod that attaches to anything.
Plan accordingly in your schedule and book your flight to Zhangjiajie several hours after your arrival at Shanghai Pudong. Paid shuttle buses (approx. 14 RMB/person) provide transit between the two Shanghai airports throughout the day and several times per hour.
The organization of transport between the two airports is perfect, but regular traffic jams make the duration of transport unpredictable. Read my article "Traveling to the Mountains of Huangshan (Part 2)" for more information on this topic.
If everything goes smoothly, the journey between the two Shanghai airports takes about 1 hour. The flight to the city of Zhangjiajie from Shanghai lasts about 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
Getting to Wulingyuan from Zhangjiajie City
It is essential to transit through the city of Zhangjiajie to reach Wulingyuan, located at the foot of the mountains and the real starting point for visits.
Once you arrive at Zhangjiajie Dayong Airport, you will need to take a taxi to the bus station. Unfortunately, you have no other choice. Be mindful of the rates. Chinese taxi drivers are friendly, but they do not speak English, and negotiating is common. It's something to get used to.
Upon arriving at Zhangjiajie bus station, you will need to navigate through a multitude of information and ticket counters. Do not waste your time queuing at a counter in the main hall. Tickets for the local minibuses are taken directly on board. It's important to know this... or be able to read it in Chinese if you can.
My equipment: URTH Filter Kit. High-quality filters for landscape photography.
To find your minibus among the dozens of vehicles lined up, once again, you will need to ask a driver directly. There's no need for full sentences, as no one will understand you. Just announce your destination (Wulingyuan) and they will direct you to the right bus.
The ticket is purchased on board (about 20 RMB/person). If you're lucky or arrive first, you'll be able to put your luggage in the compartment provided for this purpose. Otherwise, your suitcases and bags will be placed in the central aisle between the seats, preventing other passengers from getting out of their seats. But no problem! The Chinese are not complainers and adapt to all situations.
At worst, you might end up making the entire journey with your legs squeezed between suitcases. So, it's advisable to travel light. Although long, the journey in these minibuses is interesting. The spectacle of life in the Chinese countryside that you will pass through is striking.
In the following article, you will find the necessary information about accommodation (hotels) and how to get to the national park from the city of Wulingyuan.
My library: Zhangjiajie Majestic Mountain of Hunan, China.
If you liked this post, feel free to leave a comment below and share it on social media. This helps me continue my work. Thank you in advance for your support.