48 hours in Zhangjiajie National Park

Zhangjiajie National Park in Hunan Province is quite a daunting trip being such an expansive area. It’s not for the faint heart. Said to be the inspiration for the Hanging Mountains in Avatar, it appears other worldly. A densely packed mountain range offering narrow rocks sprouting from the earth high into the sky. The park itself is around 150 km away from the city of Zhangjiajie where there is an airport, train station and bus station. It is well connected but still growing in popularly with western travellers.

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The national park is becoming more well known with western tourists so there is some information out there about visiting this incredible area but there are several points I wish I had known prior to my trip. So here it is…

I spent two days in the area, flying to Zhangjiajie airport, which was very easy. I landed late at night, but there were still many taxis waiting, after walking through the thrall of haggling taxi drivers. “Where to?” “City?” Only English I heard. These taxi drivers rely on catching unassuming tourists so just ignore and keep walking until you see the taxi lights with their drivers inside. They offer you a flat fee according to the time you arrive. I was charged 40¥ at 10pm as a flat fee before getting into the taxi. During the day the price will be cheaper.

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The park is still a long way from the city, so it could be a good idea to stay in the city for a time before journeying to the park. I chose Zhongtian International Hostel, which was a little difficult to find but very clean with staff helping me with my onward journey.

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If you plan to spend the majority of your time in the park itself it’s better to stay in Wulinyuan, it took me under two hours to get there by bus from Zhangjiajie bus station, costing me 20¥.  The bus staff are used to foreigners asking to get to Wulingyuan so just pointed to a bus and I got on. For shorter distance buses like this, you pay on the bus when it’s started moving.

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Wulinyuan Zhongtian International Youth Hostel was a lovely place to stay, with bar streets, great restaurants and a good atmosphere. My hostel was great, run by the owner’s parents in his absence, who spoke no English yet were so smiley and friendly. They often called their son to speak English to help. All along the walls of the hostel are messages written by previous guests, making it feel very warm and homely. The room was not very clean and quite old-fashioned but the bed sheets were clean and the bed was comfortable.

The hostel equips you with a map and instructions on how to get the bus to the park and sends you off on your way. The bus takes 5-10 mins to get to the park gates, where you can buy your ticket, which is a card they scan and also take your fingerprint. The card lasts for four days so you can come and go as you please but you can’t sell on your ticket if you’re not going to stay for the whole time.

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Once you are through the gates there will be a number of different queues for the buses, which take you to different areas. There may also be guides offering their services for the day at about 200¥.

FYI: These buses do not run on a circular route around the park so you need to plan your trail before so you know you can get the bus back. I was caught out by this several times.

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The park is only now gaining popularity or recognition as a place to visit among western tourists, making it quite hard to navigate without Chinese. There are few signs or maps around, which give you enough information to plan your route. The Chinese friends I made relied on asking people, which I couldn’t do the following day when I was by myself. Though I had my map of the park, which I used to point to where I wanted to go, most of the bus drivers I tried to ask, presented me with a shrug and a finger to the door. There were very few guides or anyone around to ask other than tour guides or fellow visitors. I got the impression they were not used to foreign visitors, who did not speak Chinese, but I did visit in the low season at the end of August so perhaps there were more international tourists during the summer.

I spent two days wondering the park. The first day I did Yuanjiajie area and the Tianzi mountain. The second I climbed up to the Huangshi Village.

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Two days is enough to do the park with some determination and comfy shoes. A few extra days would allow a more leisurely trip. The majority of the connections between each section is walking as well so be prepared for long and tiring days, but the views make up for any doubts.

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What I wish I had known before visiting the park.

My tips for visiting the park would be take plenty of water and buy it outside of the gates. Inside the gates they don’t sell large bottles with the handle, making them harder to hold while you’re walking. It’s also a lot cheaper outside. It’s the same with food, be prepared for only Chinese snacks, i.e. lots of Chinese meat packets most of which is unidentifiable. The second day I took some crisps and fruit to keep me going. There are plenty of shops on the short walk from the bus stop to the park entrance. There is some fruit for sale, but it’s very expensive.

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I wish I had planed my route better. The second day I climbed the mountain up to Huangshi Village and continued on to the long walk around the top of the mountain. By the end it was getting late and I was very tired so I got the cable car down the mountain. However, once I got down I was told there was not bus to the Wulinyuan entrance. I had to leave through a completely different exit, which I then had to walk to. It took a good hour to get from the base of the Huangshi Village cable car bus stop to the Wulinyuan buses parked up on the side of a dirt track in the direction everyone kept pointing to. The buses were not linked to the park but took people around the different entrances for an extra 10¥. It took me back to Wulingyuan, taking another hour or so.

I wish I had visited Yuanjiajie earlier, as it is the most popular section of the park. I was there in the middle of the day surrounded by flag following tour groups.

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At the hostel I told some other visitors about my day and they informed me that generally people get the cable car up the mountain then walk down, which linked up the bus routes. I just followed signs around the park pointing to Huangshi village, which was where my first mistake lay. I’m glad I did the route I did but I would recommend others to follow a more conventional route to avoid getting into the problems I did with the buses, which extended my day by about three hour.

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Overall, it is a fantastic area to visit and relatively easy with Zhangjiajie city being well connected by trains and the airport. If you’re planning a trip alone or with a group I hope my tips helped. I visited alone and found it out of this world, you can connect back with nature and just enjoy being surrounded by natural beauty.

If I have missed any tips you have for visiting the park or if you have found this useful, please leave a comment. ♥

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