Wuhan (武汉) to Zhang Jia Jie (张家界)

This was a 8D/7N private tour arranged with Chan Brothers for two to go.

This trip to Zhang Jia Jie (张家界) came about more out of accident than by design. Our original intent had been to journey to Russia. However, the lack of formed up groups meant that there were no departures. Left with little time to plan, we turned back to the agent that organized our South American trip.

The proposition is for a two-to-go itinerary, customized route with eventual destination at the UNESCO world heritage site. Along the way, some of the “standard” sights would be covered but we had asked for an emphasis and longer stay at 张家界, to better appreciate the natural wonder that were used as inspiration for the Avatar movies.

And so now the journey begins, as we reach out to touch this part of China.

23rd May
A whole day of traveling by air to the capital of Hubei and getting to the hotel for a rest before our adventure begins!
Wuhan Dinner1 Wuhan Dinner2 Wuhan Dinner3
After a 4-hour flight, we checked into Sheraton hotel for a rest. Dinner was at the nearby mall adjoining the hotel and we had Xiang 湘菜 cuisine. As one of the 8 major regional cuisines, the emphasis of this region is spicy hot – so hot that your tongue may be numbed 麻辣 from the experience!
Too short an overnight stay in Sheraton Wuhan!

It has been a late arrival in the evening. As usual, the traffic in China is always a challenge. It does not get better in cities other than Shanghai or Beijing. There are just so many cars on the road!

But it was indeed a good introduction via dinner. For the next several days, we are going to have to get used to large portions that will not be fully consumed and probably dumped. Such is the culture now manifesting in China with regretful consequence of waste.

24th May
Today we are exploring Wuhan and the surrounds before driving west/southwest in the direction to our main attraction, stopping at the ancient city of Jingzhou in our road trip.
Today is the start of many more days of hearty meals, starting with breakfast. The fried dough fritters in Wuhan differs in that they are in the form of a ring – like onion rings!
After the hearty breakfast that we normally do not take, we headed off to the Yellow Crane tower 黄鹤楼
Wuhan Fried dough Wuhan Egg sticky rice cake2
This tower (or pagoda) is said to be one of the “famous 5” in China. It was built from the end of the Han dynasty (dated AD 223). Inscriptions of poem on stone slabs are on display as we ascended the hill.
Yellow Crane Pagoda9 Yellow Crane Pagoda10 Yellow Crane Pagoda13
Probably started as part of a defensive lookout that afforded views of the YangTze river, it was destroyed and rebuilt many times. It was under restoration even when we were there and this location is said to be 1km from its original site. Within the tower there are scaled models of how the tower would have looked like in the various dynasties.
Yellow Crane Pagoda6 Yellow Crane Pagoda20 Yellow Crane Pagoda25
Jing Zhou wall3Next stop is Jing Zhou (荆州), part of an ancient administrative region of the same name. In ancient times, Jingzhou as a region comprised nearly most of modern day Hubei and Hunan provinces.Jing Zhou wall16
The city was the seat of the ancient Chu 楚 Kingdom during its 411-year existence. Pleasure crafts line the river waiting for passengers.
Bridge over calm waters to the old city walls with gaudy pleasure cycle boats in the foreground.Jing Zhou wall4
Jing Zhou wall21 Jing Zhou wall25 Jing Zhou wall22
This region is criss crossed by rivers and was known as the land of rice and fish. Fought over by the 3 Kingdoms after the fall of the Han dynasty, the region was partitioned repeatedly. The ancient city wall is of 9.3km in perimeter and was rebuilt in 1646. It is 10m thick and 9m high! While we were there, we saw a “food expo” along the river/moat of the old city wall. It is a Saturday and rather busy with folks coming in for lunch (we were there around 12pm).
Jing Zhou food bazaar1 Jing Zhou food bazaar2 Jing Zhou food bazaar3
Lunch in Jingzhou4Lunch in Jingzhou5Is how the Hunan people have their typical meal?  Lunch was at a local restaurant near Jingzhou and one highlight is the serving of Chicken.You will note that all parts of the chicken – including the innards are served.
← The bowl in the picture on the right is actually chicken blood and liver, to be mixed into the boiling broth. In addition, the local specialty of rice tofu was also tossed into the mix.
Not something for the faint hearted and those that cannot stand the sight of blood. All this washed down with a fury of spicy broth.
Hearty mix of all parts of the chicken being prepared.Lunch in Jingzhou3
Then it was a long drive to the town of Cili (慈利) for our overnight stay – as it was too far to drive to Wulingyuan 武陵源.
Cili was a commercial centre in this northern part of Hunan before Zhang Jia Jie rose to prominence.Cili Hotel Lobby1
Since then, it has been a shadow of its former self, as this hotel attests.Cili Hotel Lobby2 With its colonnades that rise to a very high ceiling, this testaments to the “hey days” of the city. This hotel was said to have hosted President Jiang Ze Ming. We also discovered a series of water paintings of Zhang Jia Jie in the hotel lobby which we will find really useful as substitutes in the coming rainy days…Cili Hotel - ZJJ Painting3
Overnight stay in Cili Hotel at the new wing, won’t want to stay here again!

Since this is a road trip, we were driven. We had a driver and a guide all to ourselves. So pretty good huh? This is private tour at its best, and in China!

The guide told us that this form of travel is rare, as most folks who are accompanied by guides usually move in large group tours. Otherwise, the alternative is self travel (train, drive even) that many travelers from the west seem to relish the freedom to do so. Seems like there is no middle ground and we are the exception.

25th May
We enter Hunan today and commenced our exploration of the UNESCO site of Zhang Jia Jie, starting with the Tianmen 天门 area followed by 老道湾.
It was a 72km drive from Cili to Zhang Jia Jie city. We are here today at the Tian men 天门 area to explore one of the most spectacular Karst structure in the region. As it is usual, it is very crowded and the queue snakes around for our wait of almost an hour.Tianmen Cable car ride up2 Tianmen Cable car ride up8The cable car to Tianmen starts in the town area near the railway station and ascends ~1279m up to the mountain.
It is ~7.4km long and there are said to be 98 cars (each seats 6) circulating along the route.
The route up affords the passengers great views of the surrounding Karst mountain range.
We crossed over valleys where farmers continue to till the land or tend orchards. You can see them working in the fields.Tianmen Cable car ride up3
Tianmen Cable car ride up11 Tianmen Cable car ride up21 Tianmen Cable car ride up22
Tianmen Cable car ride up20 Tianmen Cable car ride up16 Tianmen Cable car ride up17
As we ascend up the mountain, a giant hole emerges near one of the peaks. We crossed over valleys where farmers continue to till the land or tend orchards. At one point, the cable car ascends an ~37° gradient and we can feel the heave of the car pulling its weight upwards.
Tianmen Cable car ride up23 Tianmen Cable car ride up24 East route Scenic view1We passed a mid station on the way, for which we will use on the way down. Our final stop at the end station will be the starting point of a slow walk back down to the base of this hole in the mountain.
Tianmen East routeOnce up on the mountain we took the “east” scenic route. The pathways hugging the crest of the cliffs.East route Scenic view7
It is said that these pathways can be used to walk all the way from the base of the mountain to the top where we are! The scenic route affords us views of the entire Zhang Jia Jie valley and the river estuaries that run through between the mountains.
East route Scenic view13Lucky we did not have to climb!
Glass Cliff2East route Scenic view23 Glass Cliff3 One of the highlights of the walk on the scenic tour is the glass cliff pathway.  At ~4700ft, the glass cliff is a structure of pathway that hugs the crest of the Tianmen mountain cliff.
Its floorboard is made of reinforced glass instead of the usual concrete and rock.
As you walk along the path, you can see through to the bottom of the cliff (well, the unblocked parts anyway). One favorite photo pose is to sit down laid back on the glass floor.
Hard to illustrate how this is like from static photos. Unfortunately we were too busy with photo taking that we did not film down any videos! Hopefully this gives perspective of how the views would be like. Imagine the slippery glass on wet days!Glass Cliff4 Glass Cliff5 Glass Cliff11
View of Tianmen arch3Walking next to the big gapping hole in the mountain. As we walked along and further along the scenic route, Top of Tianmen natural arch1 we came upon the hole in Tianmen mountain.
Then it dawns on us that the glass cliff and pathways thereafter was traversing over the peak where the hole is located! The natural hole is very large and said to be ~131m high – enough for perhaps a small plane to fly through!
Our destination is the base of this arch and to get to the base of the hole in the mountain, the quickest way is to use the series of elevators carved into the mountain, if one is not to use the pathways…
Escalator down Tianmen1There are 5 flights of escalators and they snake downwards ~131m and end with a pathway sideways to the hole in the mountain. This is definitely easier than traversing down the steep pathways. Built to accommodate faster commute, it is also a safer way to ascend or descend in the event of adverse weather conditions.
It took us the better part of ~20 minutes to use the escalators and make our way down!Escalator down Tianmen3
Tianmen Arch base1
Tianmen Arch base6 Many special events had been held here in this natural hole/arch. Most events focus on negotiating to fly through the hole in the mountain – either gliding through or parachuting.
From the hole/arch, there are two options – take the elevator down for RMB32pp or walk down 999 steps.Tianmen Arch base16
999 steps down waterfall2
999 steps down waterfall3 Being up to the challenge, we chose to walk down the narrow and steep stairway.
The stairway is so steep that you can get the feeling of losing your balance!
However, the view from the stairway is stunning and whether you look up or down, the views are great for photos.
Near the bottom of the arch/hole, there is a waterfall from which rain run offs flow in a torrent. Imagine if there were to be heavy rain!
999 steps down Tianmen23.JPG
Bus to Cable stn3 Bus to Cable stn2 Bus to Cable stn1
As in anywhere in China,Bus to Cable stn8 there seems to be a Bus to Cable stn7  constant pace of construction. Here it appears restaurants and other “recreational facilities” are being built. Perhaps when you visit these will be ready!
The roads that you see in the photos curve ~99 times (so says the brochures) and runs for about 11km from the base to the hole in the mountain. Mini buses run frequently.
It is via these roads that we got back to the 2nd station of the cable ropeway for the onward journey back to base.
Bus to Cable stn4Bus to Cable stn6 Bus to Cable stn9Mushroom lunch1 Mushroom lunch3Mushroom lunch4
Back to town for lunch. We had a special mushroom meal of Stone fungi 石耳, a kind of lichen. This lichen thrives on humid rocks and is said to have tonic attributes. It is also said to lower blood pressure! The color of the lichen is such that it is black one side and grayish black on the other.
Laodaowan Canyon entrance2After lunch it was time to head to the next stop of老道湾 canyon.
This is an uninhabited canyon area and developed as a walking tour. Not particularly spectacular and not sure why this was even in the itinerary.We walked through the Fairy canyon walkway, a series of narrow passages cut into the rock. Ascending the pathway to the top we continued on the to the viewing pagoda for a aerial panorama.
Laodaowan Fairy valley1
Laodaowan Fairy valley3 Laodaowan Fairy valley2 Laodaowan Fairy valley6
Laodaowan PavilionMore views of the mountain and enjoyment of crisp fresh air. View from Laodaowan Pavilion7View from Laodaowan Pavilion3 In a strange twist, visitors are offered an option of walking down or taking a “slide luge” (for those who in the know).
This slide is made of stone slabs and thus not an easy task to slide due to the friction of the gaps between slabs.Slide down Laodaowan2
Back down Laodaowan4 In any case it had been a tiring day of walking and we needed to take some rest after dinner.
The Pullman hotel is one of the best hotels in the area and an excellent launch pad to get to the national parks. It will be home for 3 nights!Pullman Hotel fascade
Pullman hotel Pool area1Pullman hotel Pool area2
Overnight stay in Pullman hotel, nice!

Ok, so far the weather has held up. This region is notorious for the misty rain that is suppose to give the photographic effects of “needles” pointing out from the clouds.

We are surprised with the organization of traffic flow at Tianmen (天门) and the 5 flights of really long escalators is a must experience. The glass walkway was sort of anti-climax for us, though we have to admit that the views are pretty good.

Next up, we will venture into the heart of the reason for our journey. It should be a real adventure to walk amongst the clouds soon. Continue reading here.

May 2015

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