China: Zhangjiajie, Getting to the Mountains from Wulingyuan (Part 2)
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
2. How to get to the mountains from Wulingyuan and where to stay (this article)
3. What to do on-site and how to organize your photo days
Contents of this article:
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
Where to Stay in Wulingyuan
Once you arrive in Wulingyuan, you will need to find your hotel. I suggest walking there. You could also find a taxi, but personally, I enjoyed this first walk through the city, which allowed us to soak up the very interesting general atmosphere. The town is not very large, and most hotels are located in the same area.
As for the choice, it depends on each person's budget. However, China has very good quality hotels at very affordable prices. I highly recommend staying at the Crowne Plaza ***** hotel. Perfectly located, a maximum of 2 km from the starting point of the shuttles to the Wulingyuan National Park, it offers, in addition to comfort, a modern environment and high-quality food (buffet style).
My equipment: URTH. High-quality filters for landscape photography.
The rates at the Crowne Plaza Hotel are of course not among the lowest, but they remain affordable. And the comfort you will enjoy is essential to fully recover from your exhausting days. And recovery you will need, as walking remains the best way to get around the peaks without losing too much time.
As of the date I am writing this article, it is the best compromise we have found, although there are many other hotels as well, for all budgets. However, the alternatives seemed very touristy and prone to noise, given their location. It is also worth noting that during our stay, many hotels were still under construction.
Fine Art Print © O. Robert
Getting to the Zhangjiajie Mountains from Wulingyuan
From your hotel, you can easily walk to the shuttle bus station that takes you to the mountains. These shuttles will take you for free all day to the park entrance you choose. By free, it means that the trips are actually included in the entrance ticket.
To acquire this precious ticket, you can go to one of the many ticket counters. The organization is perfect and various information is translated into English, even though the staff does not speak a word of it.
A Minimum of Four Days
Surprisingly, we never had to queue despite the impressive number of Chinese visitors (no foreigners during our visits). The price is 245 RMB/person for 4 consecutive days from March to November and 136 RMB/person from December to February. This is the all-inclusive basic ticket. There are no alternative offers.
My equipment: GITZO Mountaineer S3 and S3 ball head. The ultra-lightweight, strong, and durable carbon tripod.
This is actually a great thing because you will need at least four days to visit the various spots and trails on the peaks of the Zhangjiajie park. Even though the climate is conducive to mist and clouds for most of the year, it remains unpredictable and changeable. Therefore, to take advantage of all the lighting conditions, I strongly recommend planning four full days for photography.
Then choose your first entry point and head to the appropriate bus in a maze of metal barriers that suggest the potential size of the crowd.
A Waking Dream
I advise choosing the entrance through the Tianzi Mountain area. There, you will take a cable car that will finally bring you to the top. You will still have to pay for the cable car ticket, either one-way or round trip (72 RMB/person for one-way).
Opt for the ascent only because you will undoubtedly want to descend by yourself, walking down the thousands of steps that wind between the mountains in a picturesque setting. The descent will then take at least 2 hours with breaks and photos (see article 3).
As I mentioned earlier, once in the cable car, prepare yourself for the show. Guaranteed emotions.
Tianzi Mountain Cable Car © O. Robert
If you are lucky enough to visit on a day of intense mist and low crowds, you may, like us, get a cabin to yourself. During the roughly 20 minutes of the ascent, you will appreciate the soft traditional Chinese music played in the cabin and be struck by the surreal beauty of the rocky peaks emerging from the clouds.
You'll have the strange feeling of floating in a 3D traditional painting. An indescribable spectacle that is a must-experience in a lifetime if you are sensitive to this kind of scenery. As a photographer, you will undoubtedly want to take out your camera. Don't hesitate because the spectacle that awaits you later from the marked trails only offers views from the top. And the feeling of immersion is far from the same.
My equipment: PGYTECH Camera Clip. The secure solution for hands-free hiking in the mountains.
Once you reach the top, you will discover that the mountains can only be viewed from a main road that serves a number of sites from which you can access the grandiose viewpoints offered by this national park.
The shuttles that take you from one site to another are free and run continuously. Don't hesitate to make full use of them to minimize travel time and strategically avoid crowds. This will be valuable because you will spend a lot of time photographing or waiting for the movement of the mist or clouds.
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
What to Do Once There
The site offers several viewpoints that are a must-visit, distributed across these four geographic zones. You will easily move from one to another without realizing it. Be sure to have the map of the site, which is provided with your ticket purchase. It also contains valuable information about bus stops.
With a short walk away from the tourist crowds, you will always find a more secluded spot to photograph peacefully and set up your tripod.
In China, you're never alone. Or if you are, there's probably a problem.
Guided tours and tourist groups are unpredictable. Observation platforms are sometimes narrow, and it's futile to hope to monopolize them with a tripod for long minutes. You'll need to compete in patience and strategy.
Fine Art Prints © O. Robert
You will therefore have to deal with the flows of visitors and families who are absolutely not concerned about others. Their only concern is to get photographed in front of the spectacular scenes or take selfies. And that's perfectly respectable.
But as we know, photography is a matter of patience. The Chinese population is adorable, and I have deep respect for their culture and history, as you will undoubtedly have understood from reading my various articles.
But you have to get used to this lack of consideration for others. The overpopulation of this country has probably generated this social phenomenon. This strange feeling at first is neither aggressive nor unpleasant. It's just a notion of ignorance of others that catches our attention and to which we are not accustomed.
On the other hand, I have always traveled in China in an absolute climate of safety. Which is very appreciable and unfortunately not universal.
In the following article, you will find the necessary information to descend on foot and discover the most beautiful landscapes for photography, in total immersion. I also discuss the world's largest elevator, the best times to visit the Zhangjiajie park, and the charming city of Wulingyuan.
My library: Zhangjiajie Majestic Mountain of Hunan, China.
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