Guest contributor Agness Walewinder has lived in China off and on since 2011, exploring extensively most corners of the country. Here, she shares her travel tips for a luxury visit to the fairytale Avatar mountains, Zhangjiajie.
Zhangjiajie is a real hidden treasure for everyone who loves mountains, nature and, above all, hiking. This little town is located in Hunan province, China, and its mountains are well-known for being featured in one of the biggest movie hits ever – Avatar.
Yes, the world of Pandora is absolutely real, and you can see it live in Zhangjiajie!
Avatar mountains, Zhangjiajie
Ideally, you should allocate four days to visiting Zhangjiajie for the best Avatar mountains travel experience.
This will give you ample time to fully explore the Zhangjiajie mountains, as well as the city and its surroundings.
Day 1: Explore Changsha
The best place to kick off your Zhangjiajie travel adventure is Changsha, the capital of Hunan province. Located on the Xiang River, the city is located some 300 miles from Zhangjiajie.
Check in at the InterContinental Changsha or the Sheraton Changsha – they have everything you need to enjoy your stay in the city. Both hotels offer top-notch customer service, a private guide, car with a driver, spa with Chinese massages, as well as traditional goodies served throughout the day.
You’re in China.
So go Chinese and begin your day with a Chinese breakfast at the hotel. Baozi (Chinese dumplings) and congee (rice porridge) with a bowl of fruit could be a great option. Don’t forget to try some Chinese tea or coffee, both very aromatic and strong.
Then take a cab to the hot springs in the city center. If you don’t feel like going on your own, book a tour with a guide at your hotel.
The hot springs will relax you and prepare your muscles for hiking in Zhangjiajie later on.
Now go for a stroll around the city center.
There are plenty of street performances where you’ll see local women wearing traditional Hunan clothes, dancing and singing mountain songs. These performances take place daily and you can have a chat with the dancers afterwards.
Changsha city center is also filled with small souvenir shops so you can buy a few gifts for back home too.
Finish off your day with dinner at the Golden Sun Restaurant. It’s a glamorous place offering top Chinese dishes cooked by the best chefs in this part of the country.
I highly recommend you try the crispy sesame duck fried in peanut oil, served with plum sauce.
“Golden duck” is served in small pieces with grilled veggies and a bowl of rice.
Day 2: Travel to Zhangjiajie
Take a taxi to Changsha Airport, where you’ll fly straight to Zhangjiajie.
Where to stay in Zhangjiajie?
You’ll have the entire rest of the day to explore the city. You can go shopping. Or you might want to rent bikes to cycle around.
Whatever you decide to do, don’t forget to pack your camera as the city scenes, against the backdrop of the Avatar mountains, are worth capturing.
Just be sure to get an early night, because the next day you’re going to be exploring the National Forest Park with a guide booked through your hotel – and you’ll want lots of energy for this!
Pssst! Want to do a Yangtze River cruise in China? It’s one of the best river cruises you can do – read next!
Day 3: Visit Zhangjiajie National Forest Park
No words can quite describe what it’s like to hike through the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
The Avatar forest park is part of the huge Wulingyuan Scenic Area (an area larger than 100 square miles). Stuffed with more than 3,000 rocky pillars rising up between deep ravines, Wulingyuan was designated China’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.
But I can tell you the Zhangjiajie National Park landscape of giant sandstone pillars sprouting thick green foliage is amazing. Many are more than 600 feet high!
Do keep an eye on your belongings though, as the wild monkeys like pinching things.
Photos of these unique stone columns inspired the floating Hallelujah Mountains in the Avatar film by James Cameron.
In particular, the Southern Sky Column – which rises 3,544 feet high – caught the attention of the movie producer and his production team. In 2010, the Chinese renamed this column the “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” after the highest-grossing film of all time.
You’ll pay a quick visit to the mist-shrouded Golden Whip Stream, a clear ribbon of water running through what is called “The Most Beautiful Valley in the World.”
You’ll also stop at Huangshi Village and Natural Gallery, a small village that can only be reached on foot or by cable car. At 3,500 feet above sea level, it has incredible viewing platforms overlooking the pillar-like rock formations.
If time and your energy level allow, continue on to explore the Tianzi Mountains. These mountains are also characterized by old, towering sandstone pillars and well-known by locals for its breath-taking scenery.
Don’t worry about admission fees for all these sightseeing spots as they’ll be included in your guide price.
A fine way to end this day is with dinner at Zhangjiajie Hua Mei Lou, a charming restaurant made of bamboo where you can enjoy delicious fish and bacon dishes.
Day 4: Cruise to the Yellow Dragon Cave
Today is all about the boat cruise on Baofeng Lake and exploring Yellow Dragon Cave.
The boat cruise is very relaxing – you’ll see waterfalls and reflections of the mountains in the water. Inside the Yellow Dragon Cave, marvel at its enormous caverns and magical stalagmites and stalactites.
As this will be your last Zhangjiajie Avatar mountains travel day, don’t forget to visit the famous Charming Xiangxi Theater to see colorful folk performances that will give you a brief introduction to the culture of Zhangjiajie.
Day 5: See Fenghuang (Optional)
If you wish to travel more around the area, on your fifth day you can move to Fenghuang – an ancient Chinese town frozen in time, located about 125 miles away.
It’s not a far distance away, but you’ll end up in a completely different world than the world of Pandora you just experienced in Zhangjiajie.
Photo credits: All photos, except where noted, are courtesy of the author