12 July 2012

ZhangJiaJie: Vacation Wonderland 张家界

The last five of my precious days in China I vacationed in ZhangJiaJie, in part because the National Forest Park there was the inspiration for the Hallelujah Mountains of Pandora in the film Avatar. If you ever have the chance, GO THERE! The landscape is stunning, there are many ethnic celebrations and performances, the food is excellent, and the people are friendly.

The film scenery:

really does look remarkably like the real place:

There were other reasons for my visit. My minority pre-graduate elite program students ZhuYiZoe

and ZhaoLuConstance

are from ZhangJiaJie and they generously offered to guide me in their homeland.

ZhangJiaJie Forest Park
This area of northwest Hunan is home to several species of wild chestnut trees, and I wanted to help volunteer Gary Robertson and staff member Sara Fitzsimmons of the American Chestnut Foundation by scouting the forest.  The Chinese trees are closely related to the nearly extinct American species, yet the Asian trees are resistant to the blight that kills American trees and this resistance might geko re-establish American trees. Sure enough, at least two species of wild Chinese chestnut trees are locally abundant, including Castanea mollissima:

and Castanea henryi:

 My treks included Tianzishan, Tianmenshan, Huangshizhai, Gold Whip Stream, and Yellow Dragon Cave. The scenery of ZhangJiaJie National Forest Park was stunning:

My enjoyment of the area was heightened by my two excellent guides, who knew some out-of-the-way trails where we escaped the crowds, drank pure mountain water:

enjoyed beautiful wildflowers:

and came to appreciate trail warning signs:

Where did that come from? Oh:

Anywhere in the park, troupes of monkeys are likely to show up. They are not troublesome, so long as you do not hold food in your hands or tease them:

Hmmm.... and what do they think of us?

eLuXing Bar/Hotel--and a backcountry hike
My enjoyment was also heightened by staying at the eLuXing:

Drinking at the bar, you could gaze up at the fish swimming above you:

Or enjoy a little quality time with the bar kitten:

The owner, Yi, is an accomplished mountaineer who led me on a hike into the backcountry, beyond where the road crumbled away:

Where a failed development (built streamside in a mountain flood area, really? how is that bribery of local officials for a building permit working out for you?):

has been replaced by a newer one (without, currently, a road to it):

Initially, much of the hike followed the would-be road:

And then the river:

And then a steep, slick, limestone creek:

Occasionally, there was a remnant of a trail:

The views were amazing, though I did not have the extra day it would have required to camp and then summit a prominent peak:

We saw no other hikers, and on our way down passed by some remote farms:

And eventually came to the backwater of a dammed river where we caught a boat:

To the dam and a waiting shuttle:

Readers who want to know about arrangements for hiking/mountaineering from the ELuXing can contact ZhuYi"Zoe" at 011.86.[need to find the number]--tell her Pat referred you.

The ELuXing's theme song was "All things are better than you imagine" by WanXiaoli  万晓利. Give it a listen on YouTube (complete with translated lyrics). AWESOME TUNE!

Entertainment and Culture

The Tujia, Bai, Miao minority peoples (among others) call ZhangJiaJie home:

The minorities put on some incredible shows and there are local museums where you can learn more about the culture. The theater shows include several excellent venues, including the Grand Theatre:

They have the excellent choreography I came to expect in China:

In addition, several shows make allusions to the world of Pandora in the Avatar film (only fair, given that the local mountains served as inspiration for the Hallelujah Mountains in the film):

One show also included a particularly impressive Penis Home Tree:

My favorite venue was the expansive outdoors amphitheater set for the musical (based on a traditional Tujia folktale, The Fox Fairy, complete with a village built into the hillside:

And great voices and choral music:

Tusi Castle was another favorite stop:

I liked the dragon rainspout:

Folk music performance at the teahouse:

And the reenactment of the traditional crying ceremony (a bride-to-be spent a week or so crying each day with her female relatives):

ZhangJiaJie has its own native son painter, Li Junsheng 李军声. He uses natural materials, including sand and plant fibers, in his work:

I especially liked his paintings that integrated the human and natural landscape, in the best Taoist tradition but with a distinctly modern look:

YuanFen 缘分: Goodbye, China (until we meet again)
I will miss my students, the landscape, the culture, and the wonderful food of South China. The Chinese have a delightful concept of fate called "YuanFen." The ancient poets wrote, "It takes hundreds of lives and rebirths for two people to come to share the same boat together." In so many of my interactions with Chinese people and places, I felt a haunting sense of familiarity and strong sense of belonging.


John Bardsley said...

Thanks for keeping us posted.

Arija said...

It would take a book to write all I feel at reading/seeing your post. There definitely are places and people outside our 'normal' experience that evoke incredible familiarity and love in use. You have reaped a very rich reward and wonderful memories from your decision to teach there. China is such a vast, diverse and wonderful country.

sandy said...

You sure picked a grand way to end you time in China.
What a beautiful place that is! It looks so remote, that I was surprised to see tourist packages and hotels when I googled ZhangJiaJie.

A lot of us learned from your trip. Thanks a lot!

BLD in MT said...

Your posts from China have all left me with a "Where do I start to comment on that!?" type feeling. I mean, do I start with the unbelievable scenery in the park? Or the penis house? Or the awesome rain downspout? Or to ponder the implications behind a bride's week long crying display? Or the beautiful garments of the minority women?

There is just too much awesomeness in there.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Secret Agent Woman said...

Ugh. I came to the comment section to tell you how much I enjoyed the travelogue (and I did - it was wonderful) and hated having to follow that misogynistic goombah who posted before me about being threatened by American women. But I guess I should feel sorry for him.

Janie said...

The national forest park is truly beautiful. I can see the Avatar connection.
What a great way to end your China experience!

Judy said...

I have loved spending time with you in China! Your descriptions and adventures have been fascinating!! Now I am wondering how you integrate back into Montana culture...

P.N. Subramanian said...

Wonderful travelogue. Quite exhaustive too.

Merri said...

beautiful! I've never been to China... made it to Hong Kong while it was still British-ruled.
- The Equestrian Vagabond

Leslie said...

ZhangJiaJie looks quite a lot like Guilin and the Li River area with those spire mountains. Thanks for the interesting posts. China sure has changed since I was there in '86.