Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, PRC

Some places don’t really need too much of an introduction or historical context: they’re just damn pretty. Zhangjiajie could stand on its own as a destination, with pictures doing most of the talking. However, per usual, I like to give slightly more deliberation.

Millions of years ago, the park was flooded with that giant ocean of yore/history. Slowly the waters started to carve the land into the spires and spikes we see today. Thank goodness they did because it’s truly a stunning spectacle. As China comes to the forefront of international politics and pop culture, its stunning areas such as Zhangjiajie and Daocheng Yading will become to be known on the same level of brilliance as The Grand Canyon and Yellowstone.

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I went with a friend and a tour group, and although I’m somewhat loathe to tour groups, it was for the best, as this park is massive and nearly impossible to see all you want in just 2 full days without help. It was also somewhat serendipitous to find a Chinese-American family on the trip as well. We get in the van and a guy my age starts talking in Chinese to my friend asking where I’m from. Then, he just starts with perfect American English that he works in Boston, and I realized this is straight up an American family.

It’s a small world, after all. His folks were from Beijing but have since moved to Houston, which I think is home to more and more Chinese, especially as mainlanders are turning to countries like Australia, New Zealand, Spain and the US to buy up relatively cheap houses, compared to Shanghai and Beijing.

Avatar was filmed in this park, but seeing as how 110% of that movie is CGI, it’s probably more apropos to say it was the inspiration of the movie. (Slightly facetious.) The peaks tower up hundreds of yards from the bottom, which is usually shrouded by fog or greenery. It’s absolutely breathtaking, if not frightening occasionally. The park is home to the words tallest natural bridge, a rock path between two monster spires, with a ravine spelling your death if you were to fall below. (It’s not that easy; you would literally have to jump overboard.)

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It’s a seriously vast park and I imagine you could easily spend a week there hiking, if not eternity. I think this is an instance of where pictures are worth a thousand words, so just drop your jaw at my mediocre photography.

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Monkeys = thieves. There are monkeys all over the park, and having never seen one in the wild before, it was pretty surreal. They were just little guys, but still pretty scary, especially since they are pretty aggressive. They will literally steal from you, snatching food from a bag you are carrying or they will open your bag and rip out the insides with obvious disregard for anything in there. One almost sent a man’s electronics straight from his bag careening down 1,000 feet, if not for a few people’s help. They will do anything for food.

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Fossils. The pathways are made using stone quarried from the area, and apparently this was a biologically active place in the past. The fossils present in the rock were abundant, and because this was used to make the walkways, they themselves were littered with fossils. So just walking along you could see all sorts of prehistoric creatures’ outlines under your foot. Pretty cool.

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Foggy and rainy. One thing about traveling to a place for its beauty is possible inclement weather. If the weather isn’t cooperative, you’re pretty SOL. If you go traveling to see the Northern Lights and they aren’t there that week…well, sorry.

The first day, we had absolutely lovely weather. The second day, not so much, with dense, heavy fog shrouding the park’s majesty. You could occasionally feel a breeze whip by, revealing a towering stone peak, only for a throng of tourists to scurry over for a photo op, thus blocking your view again. The gust would die again, and the fog pulled the curtains back over.

It also rained pretty heavily, but if anything it gave us a glimpse of the other side to this park. If the weather had been the same as the previous day, so too would have been the views. But the fog gave a different view, and a different kind of beauty. It was pretty sobering, being on the slippery precipice of a soaring stone spire, literally hidden among the clouds, and not being able to see the bottomless ravine underneath, never mind a tree but fifty yards away.

Building government offices. Zhangjiajie is a young city, pretty much growing solely from the fact that there is a truly one-of-kind national park on the outskirts. If not for this park, there would be no Zhangjiajie City. So ostensibly with the popularity of Avatar in China and across the globe, a growing number of tourists necessitates more infrastructure in the area. And so as we pulled away from the city, aboard the old slow trains, I saw government offices and police stations being constructed donning the emblem of China.

It’s nutty to see cities being built right in front of you, spawning from virtually nothing. It seems like that’s from the lore of yesterday: boom towns along rivers and lakes, gold rushes in the far west spurring massive cities. But here we are, with Brasilia having been built two, three decades ago, Egypt planning a new capital away from Cairo and Qatar building a brand new city in the middle of a desert, just because it can. In 50 years, I still can’t imagine we will ever see this kind of urban expansion die down.

Tujia and Miao People. I’ve mentioned this a million times, but China has such a weird mix of simultaneously celebrating its diversity, while systematically oppressing them. Articles have been written regarding this, so I’ll let you just go read them if you so desire. But for the purpose of this journal entry, let’s go with the celebration track. When I was in Guizhou, I mentioned there was the Miao/Hmong people to which my father mentioned Al Pacino was Hmong in a movie once.

The Miao/Hmong are all over Southeast Asia and southern China, including Hunan Province. Now, though I can introduce the Tujia nation. In fact, I’m not super clear on their origins, and I’m pretty sure they have much the same blood as Han Chinese. The Zhangjiajie National Park and surrounding areas in Hunan Province also included a sort of Tujia cultural studies park, if you will.

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In any case, they are a distinct and unique people; however, when I asked Han how different they are ethnically, they usually reply along the lines of, “ehhh they’re probably just the same as us.” They were known as being simple farmers in times of peace and ruthless warriors in times of conflict.

They also love(d) silver for a million different reasons: esthetic, practical, social and medical. (Crap, that’s only four reasons.) First, it’s just incredibly beautiful, and the more I travel Asia, the more I realized I actually like the look of silver much more than gold. Second, they all carry silver bangles on their wrists, and they could be used to guasha or rub skin off the body if you just so happened to want that.

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Socially, girls received bracelets at birth, when they married and when their (great/great/great) grandkids came of age, this signals just how loved you were. And finally, medically, the silver will change color over time, showing just how (un)healthy you are.

(Fun fact: did you know you could age silver underground like wine, and it changes color and increases in value?)

They were also a matriarchal society, meaning the woman held the power. Apparently if the woman liked a man, they would step on his feet and he had to marry her. If he didn’t, she brought him home to educate him for 9 years until he learned better. And on the wedding day, if the woman didn’t cry enough, it meant she didn’t actually love the man. Tough life.

Identity Mixup. I get asked a lot if I’m from Xinjiang Province, the region in the Northwest on the Silk Road that used to connect Europe and the Middle East to silk and gunpowder. The people are Turkic Muslims, (ie not Han Chinese) and have darker skin, curlier hair and the bridge on their nose is higher. Compared to the Han, I exhibit all of these. Further I speak Mandarin kinda funny, and the Uyghurs of Xinjiang Province aren’t generally native speakers of Chinese. So fair enough, I am confused for being from there.

However, I am never confused for being from other provinces, mainly since they are primarily Han, and I do not particularly look “Chinese.” And so on my trip in Hunan, a group of people saw me and asked if I was from Xinjiang. “No?” they realized and asked if I was from Chongqing, which is laughably wrong.

To find an analogy: imagine some dude from Tanzania was in Yellowstone, spoke just a shade of English but practically only Swahili. Now imagine you approach him out of nowhere and ask if he’s from New York. He says no, which is fair enough. It’s cosmopolitan so maybe he does live there, but also could just as well be from Dodoma.

When he says no, you follow up by asking if he’s instead from…Nebraska. (Sure, maybe Omaha has some diversity, but let’s be real. There are probably very few semiliterate-in-English, Swahili-speaking, American-born Tanzanians in the Cornhusker State…) This is basically what was asked of me.

Hunan – in particular Changsha and Zhangjiajie – is an amazing place. It is just unique from anything you’d see elsewhere in China. These landforms are found here, and here only. The culture, their dialect, their cuisine. It’s all incredible.

Like what you’re reading on China? Check out some other related articles in: The China Chronicles!!

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