The area and it's unique mountain ranges were the topographical inspiration for the "Pandora" planet in the kinda-crappy-in-hindsight James Cameron movie Avatar. Here's some shots from the movie. It's basically Zhangjiajie on steroids.
A few of the scenes were evidently filmed in Zhangjiajie, and people are roundly pretty pleased about it even still. There's all kinds of Avatar swag for sale around the city and mountain ranges, and there's Avatar billboards and stuff all around. The success of Avatar really boosted the tourism to the region and serves as a little side industry for people to make a bit of cash.
But anyway. So these mountain. Pretty damn neat. It's like visiting a really nice Windows screen saver. You should do it up in a package tour -- three full days aught to do it. Here's a rundown on a few of the key points to check off on your tour of Zhangjiajie.
Tianzishan ("Son of Heaven Mountain") climbs upwards to over 1200 meters above sea level and boasts those misty mountain views that everyone's looking for. The main deal is you take this teetering cable car all the way up the mountain, which is a pretty bracing experience. More than once I was going to paint the inside of the cable car in barf, but I'm not very good with heights...
The cable car actually goes up into the clouds. Pretty crazy.
So you get to the top and indeed it is a very pretty place...
...or it would be if we had better luck. It was pouring rain on our visit, and thus this was our view. Alas. We were pretty much pressing our face into these clouds looking for these damn mountains. No luck.
Ah well. Still, the ride up in the cable car was great. Here's a YouTube clip of the ride, filmed in better weather conditions.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
Next on the itinerary is Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the first park in China recognized as a super legit forest park or something. Basically, it's this looping trail along, around, and through the mountains, with plenty of opportunities to take pictures.
Or you can just cheat and get one photoshopped.
As is customary with China scenic areas, there's all sorts of auspiciousness going on. For the lovers, you can buy a padlock and put it on the guardrail of the path. This ads some longevity to your relationship, apparently.
People seemed to be very into this idea.
Really into it.
Here's the "first bridge in the world", so deemed because it's a naturally formed bridge between two peaks. Jeebus made this bridge it's so damn old.
Then there's "The Immortal Pine"...
Here's "The Immortal Pine", just hanging out being a total badass, like he's the Gandalf of pine trees or something.
Some of the local wildlife. Was really lucky to get this shot.
Here's some "Magic Turtles", which were just swimming around doing absolutely no magic. Bullshit.
Teasing the wild monkeys is frowned upon.
Baofeng Lake Scenic Area
Following the bouncing blue flag onwards, next up is Baofeng Lake Scenic Area, which, for me, was the highlight of the trip. Taking about half a day, you're basically just wandering around this lake area, strolling along winding paths through the greenery.
As with everywhere else in Zhangjiajie, these paths are on these huge drop offs into bottomless chasms.
And here's the lake, which is clean and beautiful. You take a lil' boat ride around the thing for 10 minutes or so and then it drops you off on the other side to continue your trek.
As part of the boat ride, you ferry past this little water hut and a young girl in ethnic dress comes out and sings a traditional, ancient Chinese song of awkwardness.
Beautiful blue skies and clean mountain air. Forgot what clean air tasted like. My lungs were all, "what's this shit?"
The stairs are cut into the mountain. Here's a particularly photogenic set. You couldn't get on these ones though. Stairway denied.
There's also little houses and pagodas buried into the mountains. No doubt inhabited but some super serious dudes taping into the secrets of the cosmos.
And that's pretty much it. Zhangjiajie. Nailed it. There's a few other areas of interest you can get to if you like but, basically, it's a nice, clean mountain town getaway, great for people looking to wander around some forests and cliffs and things. Time-wise, you should budget at least three full days to get to it all. Best way to go is to book a package tour, and go with a guide who can give you the background jazz on all the stuff, as well as take care of entry ticket fees to the various scenic spots. We went on a package tour from Ctrip, who offer a few variations on how to do Zhangjiajie, as well as handle your hotel, food, tour guide, and traveling around.
-We went on a weekend and it was really crowded. Like really crowded. Lots of lines for stuff. Did a lot of waiting, shoulder to shoulder. There were times I felt I had a whole rural Chinese village rammed up my ass. I would recommend trying to go during the week to avoid some of that. Or consult with your tour agency on when you can go to avoid some of the crowds.
-Weather. One of our days there got pretty much rained out, and with the extra rain, the fog was super thick which negated some of the views. It's hard to plan for rain, but if you budget three full days, you can switch around your schedule to do something more weather-appropriate on a rainy day and then get to the outdoor stuff if you luck out with some better weather.
When to go: The climate and scenery of Zhangjiajie change with the seasons, but you can go at any time of the year. Summer is a bit warmer. Spring is when everything blooms and it snows during the the winter, so you can enjoy some snow-peaked mountains if you go then. I'm thinking about heading back for the winter. Looks pretty incredible...