Long before the jungles of Pandora were making it tough for earthlings, the landscape that inspired ‘Avatar’ was thrwarting a much more dangerous foe.
Long before the jungles of Pandora were making it tough for earthlings, the landscape that inspired ‘Avatar’ was thrwarting a much more dangerous foe.

The real-life Avatar world you have to see

LONG before the jungles of Pandora were making it tough for earthlings to mine unobtanium, the fairy-tale landscape that inspired James Cameron to make Avatar was thwarting the progress of a far more dangerous foe.

During the early days of World War II, when the Japanese military was conquering countries from the Philippines and Burma to Korea and Singapore, it was the Zhangjiajie peaks that stopped Emperor Hirohito's troops marching across China.

"Since ancient times the Hunan mountains were famous for bandits and when the Japanese invaded China they could not move further than here because these mountains and the bandits stopped them, so they turned around and surrendered in this province,'' my Wendy Wu Tours' guide Li says with obvious pride.

 

Cable cars going up to the avatar mountains in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
Cable cars going up to the avatar mountains in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.

We are standing on the side of the plateau that sits in the heart of the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park gazing over a valley filled with slender peaks.

The bases of these sinuous columns are so far below it feels like the rocky formations are floating when I focus on the hazy horizon.

Skeletal trees and lush shrubs crown the top of each pillar, with delicate yellow blooms decorating the branches closest to me, and the vegetation cascades through the gorges below following the fluid curves of the rugged landscape to make it look like a green wave of water is washing through the ravine.

My day in China's first national forest park comes halfway through a Wendy Wu Tours' itinerary that's taking me from Shanghai to the Yangtze River, and we reach this lofty lookout in a glass lift that sweeps visitors to the highest level of the sanctuary.

The Bailong Elevator looks like it comes from Gustav Eiffel's notebook - it was built in 2002 and rockets 50 travellers at a time to the best panoramas in less than two minutes - and I'm at the front of the long queue when the doors open so stand against the car's glass walls to get an unobstructed view as we whiz the 326m from the valley floor.

Wulingyuan national forest park in Hunan province, China.
Wulingyuan national forest park in Hunan province, China.

For the first few seconds there's only the darkness of the concrete shaft before the lift pops into bright daylight and we ascend following the prehistoric lines of the surrounding columns so I'm soon peering at the top of peaks that were towering above only moments before.

From here we walk from one lookout to the next, ride the public shuttle buses that move tourists around the park, and take a lunch break to sample Hunan's famously-spicy cuisine in a noisy restaurant packed with boisterous visitors.

There are detours to locations made famous by the movie - including the fabled Hallelujah Mountain which, with its middle regularly wrapped in cloud, often appears to be hovering - then board the cable car that drifts down from Tianmen Mountain to finish the circuit.

We have a compartment to ourselves and start the ride in silence, listening to the breeze whistling around the columns standing only metres on each side of the cable, before Li tells me this is her favourite part of the reserve she visits dozens of times every month during autumn and spring.

"Riding the cable car never lets me down and regardless of the weather, on sunny days or when it's raining, the views are always different here and it's so quiet,'' my 20-something host says.

Zhangjiajie National forest park at sunset, Wulingyuan, Hunan, China.
Zhangjiajie National forest park at sunset, Wulingyuan, Hunan, China.

"Spring is my favourite season because the mountains are covered in the blossom that lays of carpet of so many colours across the valley, and even when the cloud descends we still see the peaks here because they are so close.

"I don't work during summer - it's too hot, too crowded and too noisy in the park so I stay home to teach English to students on holiday from school - and when I return in autumn to see the view from this cable car I remember how lucky I am to be born in such a beautiful and famous part of China.''

ESCAPE ROUTE

Zhangjiajie

Wendy Wu Tours include Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in a selection of guided group and private itineraries including Dreams Of Nature, a 23-day trip perfect for those returning to China for a second visit, and my bespoke expedition that starts in Shanghai and finishes with a four-night cruise along the Yangtze River. wendywutours.com.au

The Yangtze River in China
The Yangtze River in China

When it comes to accommodation travellers are advised to "readjust their standards'' before visiting the mountain village 1200km west from Shanghai but the Pullman Zhangjiajie - it's on the edge of town walking distance from a selection of local eateries - is agreeable with moderns rooms, a selection of dining options, and swimming pool. pullmanhotels.com

Travellers visiting this remote region should tour the glass bridge spanning a cavern known as China's Grand Canyon, dine at Wulongshanzhai restaurant which serves regional cuisine including warm vegetable juice and silky tofu, and wander Zhangjiajie's Old Quarter to sample Hunan's anhua dark tea and see traditional craftspeople at work.

This article originally appeared on Escape and has been republished here with permission



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