Hunan: A trip to the planet Pandora


Hunan Province is one of the most popular tourist destinations in China, both among the Chinese themselves and among foreigners. For the citizens of the PRC, Hunan is, first of all, the birthplace of the great Chairman Mao. And residents of other countries are attracted by the opportunity to see the ancient cities of the small peoples of China and the natural beauty of Hunan. The main attraction of this province is the rocks in Zhangjiajie Park, which served as a prototype for the landscapes of the planet Pandora from the movie “Avatar“.

The views in the park are truly fantastic: hundreds of thin peaks surrounded by dense vegetation rise more than 1000 meters into the sky. In cloudy weather, when the rocks are partially covered by clouds, it really seems as if they are floating in the air.

Zhangjiajie National Park is part of the Wulingyuan Conservation Area, which covers a vast area of ​​almost 400 square kilometers. In addition to the Avatar Park itself, Wulingyuan has about 40 caves, several waterfalls, and many lakes and rivers suitable for rafting. The park is equipped not only with numerous hiking trails, but also funiculars, the world’s highest open-air elevator, and even its own railway, which runs free tourist buses.

A few weeks will not be enough for you to explore the entire park. The minimum program for those arriving for 1-2 days usually includes a natural bridge connecting two rocks, the Golden Dragon Cave, and a glass elevator 350 meters high. If you are limited in time, we recommend using the main hiking trails, such as the scenic, albeit very crowded, Golden Whip Gorge trail. If you have more than two days to explore the park and you are in good physical shape, choose the longer paths from the map, they are less popular, so you can admire the scenery in peace and quiet.

Not far from Zhangjiajie Park in the territory of another nature reserve, Tianmen Shan is the sacred Chinese mountain Tianmen. It is famous, first of all, for the world’s highest cave “Heavenly Gates”, formed as a result of the collapse of a part of the rock. There are two ways to climb Tianmen Mountain – by cable car or along the winding narrow “Heavenly Highway” or “99 turns road.” 

At the top of the mountain, you can walk on foot along the paths laid along the steep cliffs. If you are not one of them faints of heart, we strongly recommend walking the “glass heavenly path”. It is a 60-meter stretch of tempered glass trail, and walking along with it over the precipice is an unforgettable, albeit intimidating experience. Descend from the top of the mountain to the foot of the “Heavenly Gate” cave will need to take a long staircase with 999 steps.

To explore both parks, you will need to stay in the Zhangjiajie area for at least one night. You have a choice of three different options – guesthouses inside Zhangjiajie Park (great views, but spartan living conditions), hotels in Zhangjiajie village (good views and conditions, but overpriced), or in the city of Zhangjiajie itself (a large selection of hotels at different prices, but the city does not differ in beauty). No, we are not mistaken, there is indeed some confusion typical of Chinese place names. Zhangjiajie is the park itself, and the village next to the park, and the city, and finally the administrative district. Remember this when choosing a hotel.

Hunan Province is also known for the fact that several small people of China live here. Just west of Zhangjiajie is the Miao People’s Autonomous Prefecture and its famous tourist capital, Fenghuang City. The city was founded at the beginning of the 18th century and has changed little since that time, so it rightfully bears the title of one of the most ancient cities in China. Fenghuang (which means “Phoenix City”) is built on the banks of the Totjiang River, and houses on high stilts stand at the water’s edge, which is why it is called “China’s Venice.” If you are an experienced independent traveler, it is not necessary to book a city tour, it is better to just wander through the narrow streets and take a boat trip with one of the local fishermen at your pleasure.

Unfortunately, the town very quickly turns into an attraction for Chinese tourists, and during the “restoration” the ancient monuments of architecture are replaced with modern fakes. So hurry up to visit this amazing place while its temples, towers, walls, and pavements still keep the spirit of ancient China. You can get to Fenghuang from Zhangjiajie by bus – the trip will take about four hours, or you can fly to the nearest airport Tongren from the capital of Hunan, Changsha.

The city itself Changsha is notable for two things – a beautiful statue of a young comrade Mao memorial park “Orange Garden” and a vibrant nightlife. But the most valuable thing here is, of course, the restaurants of the world-famous fiery spicy Hunan cuisine. People from all over China flock to Hunan to sample the great helmsman’s favorite foods, such as Chairman Mao’s Red Pork.

The best months to visit Hunan are June, September, and October. If you are not afraid of the heat and humidity, then July and August are also quite suitable. In winter, the park is not very comfortable, and when there is a lot of snow, it is closed to tourists for safety reasons. You shouldn’t go here for the May holidays either; China is on vacation these days, so monstrous crowds are guaranteed.

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