Zhangjiajie Park: The polluted version of the movie Avatar



Both Foo and I were interested in making a trip to Zhangjiajie Park, renowned in China as “the real life Avatar” (like, the movie) due to the massive natural pillars that jut up from the park and an entrance fee to match it (~$40). We were tired from cruising down the Yangtze but also tantalized by the photos that we saw of the park, so we agreed to a tour that would take care of all of the logistics to the park and overnight for only about $15 more than if were we to do it alone as figured from Foo’s Lonely Planet. We never should have done it, and it just reinforced my aversion to tours.

Our first mistake was assuming that the same company that did the boat trip also did the trip to Zhangjiajie, which was not the case. We also assumed that they described the trip in an honest, straightforward manner, which was definitely not the case. Even double confirming in my terrible Mandarin didn’t help. It started off well when we were personally picked up in Yichang and given our train tickets, but after that it was pretty much downhill.

We killed some time by going back to the center of town to use the internet and grab a bite to eat (Foo refused to eat anything besides McDonalds and KFC, and I was kind of in the mood for it too) before the night train, which left at 1 am. We were told that the train would arrive at 6 am, allowing us to get a decent amount of sleep before exploring the park the next day, but we were actually awoken by the piercing screech of the train attendant just before 4am and hurriedly pushed out the train. We found our arranged driver outside the train station in Zhangjiajie City and he drove us around 5am to what we thought was our hotel for the next night. We were both hoping to check into a room and get a few hours of sleep before we set off to the park in the morning, but were instead put into a dingy dining room with flickering fluorescent lights and Chinese pop music playing with a few other Chinese tourists and forced to wait hours before being offered some sort of dark green breakfast goop (both Foo and I refused).

We tried to arrange the chairs to lie down on, but alas 8:30 am came and we were put on a bus towards the park. The park itself was quite stunning, but as I was sadly coming to understand, essentially the entire populated area of China is covered in smog and the views were miserably hindered. And just like at the smog-covered Three Gorges Dam, there were photo booths set up to digitally paste a tourist’s picture into the scenery of the park on a clear day. It was sort of sad and just provided another example of Chinese rejection of authenticity. Perhaps much of the Chinese citizenry is deriving enough financial gain to look over the environmental costs of growth and just take the smog-covered views as given, but it still surprised me that none of the Chinese tourists were at least agitated about paying to see pollution. I mean, it was quite expensive (~$40) to enter the park and I felt cheated out of the entrance fee, but most everyone seemed to pretend that everything was normal.

We were also not allowed to wander on our own from the group, since the guide (not the brightest, and rocking his shirt proudly tucked into his underwear) was always setting times to be in certain areas. We were only really in the park for a few hours, but I easily could have spent a whole day or two just wandering around the areas we didn’t get to. Since most of the tours all go at the same time of day, we were also forced to endure massive crowds at the best viewing points, and it was first time that I was actually asked to move from a viewing point to make way for a new crowd. After really only sampling the park, we were herded back on to the bus and forced to endure several hours of forced shopping trips where the bus would stop at some kitchy museum built to sell poorly made knickknacks to unassuming tourists. After the first stop, Foo and I just decided to wait on the bus for the rest, and the whole process took four more hours in a few different tourist traps.

Our patience reached the breaking point when they led us to a hotel far from the city center, not in the center like we were told it was going to be. We needed a quick connection to the train station the next day so it was essential we stayed close to public transport in the center, so we just broke with the tour and headed to a hostel in the center of Zhangjiajie City. We thought we were just being stuck-up foreign tourists, but found we weren’t alone when we also saw a young Chinese couple that was on the tour also leave the hotel out of frustration. They helped us navigate back to Zhangjiajie City, and we reciprocated by showing them the great, cheap hostel downtown that we all stayed at.

I’ve never been dehydrated in a desert, but getting to that hostel was the closest I’ve been to feeling like I found an oasis. The next day Foo and I split up, glad that we had at least been on a bad tour with someone to laugh about it with; he continued south, whereas I got an overnight train to Beijing. Re-reading this I sound quite bitter, but Foo and I were actually laughing a good majority of the time because we had both read warnings about trips and tours like these and all we could do was joke about how bad the trip was. Next stop: Beijing.

Update: Since I sound really whiny and biased in this post, I thought I should add some perspective from a friend of mine of Chinese decent, Lian, who visited the park with her family a few years ago.

"I'm actually pretty upset you had such a bad experience at Zhangjiajie. I really liked it when I was there and didn't get the impression it was polluted (but then it again I also went five years ago...). I also had a better tour guide, or actually I don't remember much about him/her because me and my family wandered off after the first temple and hiked up and down the mountains until late afternoon (five or six) when we met back with our group at the designated time. I don't think they were extremely happy with us for wandering off but they didn't set such strict restrictions either.

There is a huge problem I think with Chinese tourists themselves though. They don't like roughing it, and when I went with my cousin to explore the not so cleared off paths people thought we were nuts. Like actually, legitimately crazy. The women walk around in high heels, even if we're going to be climbing ten miles of stairs that day and there's always too many people. I'd like to go visit nature in China and actually be allowed to camp there and see unspoiled territory. But that might not be possible.

I kind of miss the days when my parents were in their 20s and tourism wasn't exactly in the up and up (since it was only a few years after the fall of the communist revolution). My mom tells me about how she'd sleep on trains and hike up and down the mountains in the day. They'd let her and her friends crash in the temples and they could go off the designated paths without any problems."

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