A THOUSAND STAIRS & STARES: JOURNEY TO AVATAR MOUNTAINS
My travel buddy, Regi and I, have each traveled to more than 30 countries. We’ve seen landmarks like the the Great Wall, the Egyptian Pyramids, Angkor Wat, and the Blue Lagoon; but none of those compared to the collective 3-day experience we had in Zhangjiajie, China.
Members of my “Swisher travel family” know me to frequently propose ambitious travel plans; plans that they readily respond to with
“Yeah, you’re doing too much”
“I don’t think so…”
or my personal favorite
“My bank account can’t support you on this”
Never one to be deterred, I still move forward on planning the trips, because they ALWAYS come around to saying “yes”. Trip planning has become something of an art form for me, and I usually end up surprising them and myself when I put together something that’s affordable and hard to say no to.
If I told you a month before the proposed departure date to spend 6-weeks traveling with me in the summer time and that we would visit 10 countries and have 13 stops on our trip, you like my “Swisher travel fam” would think that there was no way to do that affordably. Here’s the thing though, that 10 country, 13-stop flight itinerary this summer came out to be a mere $2,200.
It took me from Dallas → NY → Paris → Bangkok → Siem Reap → Kuala Lumpur → Bali → Singapore → Hanoi→ Hong Kong → Shanghai → Zhangjiajie → Taipei → LA → Houston
So, as part of this larger itinerary we made our way from Shanghai to Zhangjiajie. There, we stayed in a hostel (Zhangjiajie 1982 Chujian International Youth Hostel) Personally, I’m not a fan of hostels, but I was able to find one that rivals most four star hotels.
For the low, low, low price of $17/night, per person, we had a family room with a private bath that looks like this:
With a 9.2 rating on booking.com, it is better than the 5-star hotels in the area. It also happens to be a 15-minute walk from the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park that hosts the Avatar Mountains.
In the spirit of having nice things, I made sure that we had the infamous Bruce Tian as our tour guide for the three days we were there. You honestly couldn’t ask for a friendlier, more flexible, and more knowledgeable guide. Don’t believe me? A quick google search of ‘Bruce Tian TripAdvisor” will show you exactly what the hype about him is.
Regi and I hiked up and down the surreal Zhangjiajie National Forest Park hoping to capture the inspiration behind Avatar’s Pandora. Nothing could have prepared us for what we found. A landscape, framed by a never-ending sea of quartz sandstone pillars; wild monkeys swinging through an unspoiled forest looking to exchange a photo-op for a meal; and a stream of golden water that weaves through the mountains, crowning this undisturbed panorama. It’s an image that still lingers in our minds, forever holding a special place in our hearts.
What was a dream experience for us could easily be a nightmare–should you be afraid of heights. Our time there included jumping and climbing on the world’s largest glass bridge—“because the floor was LAVA”, walking down thousands of literal stairs to the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon, taking a romantic boat ride—complete with serenades—down Baofeng Lake, riding up a luxurious cable car up to the Tianmen mountains, walking on a cliff-side glass walkway that threatened to reduce men to tears, traveling down an ungodly long escalator—built into the mountains—to the “heavenly gate”, then barreling down even more steep stairs before capping off the experience by spiraling down the infamous “99 Turns Road” by bus.
Now, before you pack your bags and purchase blue body paint in an attempt to visit the ultimate Avatar cosplay destination, it is my duty to remind you of the adage “people make your experiences”. As of now, the overwhelming majority of visitors to Zhangjiajie are Chinese nationals. Even having lived in China previously, the sheer number of people staring, touching and taking pictures of you in those enclosed spaces can be disconcerting to say the least. I’m Houstonian by way of Nigeria and the soundtrack in my head the entire time was “back back back back, gimme 50 feet” by Lil’O. ← Side note: congrats if you know this song and sang it in your head in the rapper’s voice.
Anyway, while understanding of the fact that it wasn’t every day that they saw a “Waiguo” (foreigner) that was black—who happens to speak Chinese and is sporting black and silver braids while being accompanied by a 6’2 Hispanic guy—by the thousandth time, all that staring was just aggravating. I swear there were moments where there was an accompanied stare for every stair I took…and I took a lot of stairs.
All that being said, there are quiet moment when you connect with a joyful, wide-eyed Chinese child and their family and you’re reminded that what transcends our differences is our shared understanding of the marvels that exist in this world and the experiences we can have in it. Zhangjiajie and the Avatar Mountains that it houses are one of those marvels and truly deserves to be experienced by all.
SUMMATION: TIPS AND ADVICE
The entrance tickets you buy for the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is good for 4 days. There is a lot to see in the park but we just chose to spend one day there and then spend our time at the glass bridge and Tianmen mountain on days 2 and 3 respectively
- Do get a tour guide. The area for the Avatar Mountains are huge and unless you speak Chinese you are going to feel lost in more ways than one.
- Avoid going on ANY Chinese Holiday
- If you want to see the Avatar Mountains at sun rise, you should book a hotel inside the park
- The food in Zhangjiajie is acceptable but not exceptional
- Don’t visit on a rainy or foggy day for obvious reasons
- Take cash because most places won’t take your foreign card and the ATM fees are high (we got charged $10-14)
Even if you can only visit Zhangjiajie for a day during a China trip, I recommend it still. The Avatar Mountains are surreal.
NOTE: A VISA is required for China. A visa on arrival is not an option so do prepare accordingly.