Zhangjiajie, located in the west of Hunan Province, is one of China’s natural wonders. A forest of narrow karsts reach hundreds of feet into the sky, towering over crowds of hikers meandering along the valley below. When surrounded by fog, the effect is mystical. If you can get off the beaten path, this is a beautiful place to explore. (For more on how Zhangjiajie was formed, check out Simon Winchester’s 2007 article in the New York Times travel section.)
However, the infrastructure is really designed for group tours, not individual travelers. Without a guide, we found it unusually difficult to find our way around and to see as much of the park as we would have liked. Read below for more on the problems we encountered.
- Exploring the Park
- Inside the Park: Restaurants and Accommodations
- Zhangjiajie City: Restaurants and Accommodations
- Getting There
- Slideshow of Zhangjiajie Photos
Exploring the Park
Since you are paying a whopping 248 RMB for two days’ access (134 RMB with a valid student ID), it is imperative to make the most of your time in the park. Unfortunately, that seems to be easier said than done, unless you have a tour guide. The lack of good maps is the biggest problem. Some paths run on the valley floor, while others are situated on top of the peaks, yet the maps do not indicate elevation. Because of this confusion, we ended up wasting most of our first day in trying to find our hostel. If I could do it again, I might choose to spend the night in Zhangjiajie City and return to the park first thing in the morning. You would still get two full days of hiking, and wouldn’t have to waste precious daylight hours tracking down a place to stay.
But logistical hurdles aside, Zhangjiajie is definitely worth a visit. Some highlights within the park:
- Golden Whip Stream Path: This path is one of the more crowded in the park, since it is easily accessible from the main entrance. It runs alongside a stream, with the karsts looming overhead. Because it is so crowded, there are plenty of small shops and food stalls along the path. This is a good place to get your photo taken with a “local” dolled up in traditional garb, if that’s your thing.
- Bailong Elevator: If you need to get from the valley floor to the peaks above, your options are several hours of climbing up stairs or a 90-second ride on this elevator. It claims to be the world’s highest outdoor elevator. For 32 kuai, it might just be worth the saved time, though you may feel a little silly as you watch the scenery whizz by.
- Corridor in the Cliffs (空中走廊): We stumbled on this spot as we hiked down from our hostel on the second day. From here, you have an almost 360-degree view of the tops of countless other peaks. It’s really what Zhangjiajie is all about. (I honestly can’t tell you how we got here, but it is marked with its Chinese name on maps of the park.)
- Slideshow of more photos from my trip to Zhangjiajie.
Inside the Park: Restaurants and Accommodations
Inside the park, prepare to spend a pretty penny on everything, from snacks and souvenirs to meals. The one exception is water, which was universally priced at a very reasonable 2 RMB per bottle. At one restaurant, an eggplant dish and a plate of spicy tofu cost an astronomical 70 RMB — about the price of a single meat dish on the same menu. Admittedly, that’s only about $10. But it’s far more than you would pay in a typical restaurant in this part of China. Eating at our hostel was a little cheaper than eating in the larger restaurants, but regardless, you’ll need to budget more than usual as long as your in the park.
We spent the night at the Yuanjiajie Zhongtian Youth Hostel inside the park. A three-bed dorm room cost 150 RMB (50 RMB per bed). It was basic but clean, and almost empty in the off-season. If it were full, the two toilet-and-shower rooms would not have sufficed. The biggest problem with this hostel is the location, which is not near any of the major sites within the park. It easily takes 2 hours to find the hostel from the park entrance. You can book rooms at Hostelworld or at the sister hostel in Zhangjiajie City.
Zhangjiajie City: Restaurants and Accommodations
Most visitors to Zhangjiajie will need to spend at least one night in Zhangjiajie City before entering the park in the morning. It is also possible to visit different sections of the park on two successive days, returning to the city to spend the night. Although the city is definitely decked out for tourists (think plenty of neon), competition means that you will be able to find reasonably priced meals and accommodation here.
After an afternoon bus ride from Changsha, we checked into the Zhongtian International Youth Hostel for one night. Aside from a funky location on the 4th-6th floors of an office building, this is a very standard Chinese hostel. It was clean and fairly well-maintained. The staff did not speak much English. A bed in a three-person room costs 45 RMB per night. (You can book rooms through Hostelworld.) Once you get here, you can make reservations at their sister hostel in the park.
Most travelers will arrive in Zhangjiajie from Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. From there, you can get to ZJJ by bus, train or air. The bus is the quickest option, taking 4 1/2 to 5 hours to make the journey (120 RMB). Buses to Zhangjiajie depart from many of Changsha’s bus stations, including the West Station (西站, Xi Zhan). An overnight train takes longer, but could be substantially more comfortable (5-6 hours, between 120-170 RMB for a hard sleeper).