Quarter of a century ago when I was living in China, I first heard of a wondrous place called Zhangjiajie (张家界) in Hunan province. It is the first National Forest Park in China and an official UNESCO recognised World Natural Heritage, famed for its canyons and towering pillar-like formations from many years of erosion, creating nature’s unrivalled beauty.
An unrelenting desire to visit had been born but two eagerly anticipated trip had come off the rails, first due to an unexpected pregnancy, and second sudden illness, and finally in the Spring of 2008, we booked a five-day guided tour to avoid further disappointment.
Visitors to Zhangjiajie have described it as majestic, mysterious, magical, eccentric, tranquil, delicate and wild. I would just use one word: AWESOME, perfect description here but probably overused by some Americans ! These gigantic peaks, lucid brooks, abundant fauna and flora and hospitable climate all add to its’ unique attractions to a constant stream of tourists all year long. The peak seasons are May and October national public holidays when Chinese visitors fill up numerous hotels, mostly modern and built in recent years.
Early each day we were picked up from our hotel by a mini bus and transported to a designated scenic point, from where our efficient guide led us to highly challenging ascending, descending, and occasional stopping for photos. No longer 20 years old and having spent the best part of my days in front of computers in recent years, I found myself struggling and my legs wobbling, showing how unfit I had become.
“Miss, Miss,” I heard several people addressing me at once: “Take my lift. I’ll carry you up to the top for twenty Yuan.” I looked at them, each standing or sitting by the narrow path, with their bamboo-made sedan chair and sun-shade. I shook my head: there they are again. John’s abrupt and repeated rejections had not deterred them. Some of them had followed us uphill, and others were stationed at different points along the way, grabbing customers. I felt sorry for them, making a living in such heat and competitive manner. Still, I had not come here to be carried uphill, and I was determined to get to the top by my own effort.
The hectic tour schedule was not only physically demanding but mentally stressful, especially the compulsory visits to local factory outlets at the end of each day. The driver dutifully deliver us from one location to another, from jewellery super-stores to show-rooms full of dried kiwifruits or other local produce. In one demonstration, the saleswoman waved various knifes in front of our faces and shouting through her loud-speaker -it nearly drove John off the edge.
Once we were taken to a foot massage place, a much welcome treat after a long day’s mountain climbing and the stiffness of our limbs. A group of young girls positioned themselves in front of each of us, soaking our tired feet in hot water in the washing basin; adding dark powders. We were given a soothing massage, a real luxury, except that at the same time a woman dressed like a doctor did a presentation of the different pressure points on our feet, as packaged medicines were passed around for each tourist to inspect, with the masseurs telling us how wonderful they were and what special offers we could get if we bought more than one. Always a soft ear and an even softer heart when it came to such up close sales technique, I quickly paid for one such over-priced packet, so our group could get away without being shown their darkened faces or worse, told off.
One evening, John and I went to a Variety Show at the local Grand Theatre. The performances varied from singing to energetic minority folk dances accompanied by Tujia (one ethnic minority group) drum beats and Miao flutes, sword –swallowing and fire-eating dare-devils, and death-defying acrobats. The stage was lit up with multi-coloured costumes and lighting, and the atmosphere electric. One stuntman ended up with 1000 kilos of concrete on his chest with six people standing on top. The audience was completely enthralled and John took several pictures trying to capture these moments.
It was a memorable trip and hope you have enjoyed the pictures and video (Awesome Zhangjiajie on YouTube).