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Avatar. In real life @ Tianzishan (Zhangjiajie)

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It was one of those wake up and look out the window mornings.

Pulling back the curtains of our immense hotel window, I stretched to a view of sunshine and mountains. No tall buildings in sight. No people rushing to work. No tasty smog. This was a pocket of calm that had to be relished.

After spending two weeks in China’s major metropolises, we were now fully out of the city. 20 miles removed from the downtown of Zhangjiajie – a small city 800 miles from Shanghai – this was as close to total immersion in nature as you can get for a tourist destination.

Zhangjiajie (a bitch to pronounce unless you speak Chinese) is home to the famous landscape that inspired the breathtaking scenery in Avatar. You might remember the images of those majestic green pillars floating among clouds, seemingly suspended from the sky. Well that’s not fantasy people. This place actually does exist.

The day showed plenty of promise. After a gluttonous meal at the breakfast buffet, we were off with full stomachs and high hopes, walking towards what could only be the certainty of visual nirvana with the midday sun on our backs.

A scenic and reckless shuttle bus ride brought us to our first stop inside the park, Tianzishan. Translated “Mountain of the Son of Heaven”, this feature loomed high overhead and snubbed any pre-existing aspiration of trekking up. There was of course, a better option.

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Now I know that cable car rides are a typically good, sometimes great, experience. I mean the beauty is built into the design. But man, this ride broke every possible standard of what a beautiful experience means. First off, we were seeing for the first time a landscape that’s the stuff of fantasy. Second, we’re in a tiny little box ascending through the sky, passing these structures within a proximity that only birds can brag about. We might as well have been flying through freakin’ Middle Earth on the back on a dragon.

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Having seen enough beauty to last me a week, we continued on in high spirits. Another bus ride brought us to He Long Park, named after the notorious Marshall He Long. I’ll give you a few moments to chuckle.

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You can generally judge the degree to which tourism has infected an area by a few cues: high number of merchants, signs written in multiple languages, and of course the presence of the one thing that ties people around the world together:

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Even in fantasy world, you can still get your cheeseburger and fries.

We hung around He Long Park (which lived up to its name in size) for the remainder of the afternoon. There were lots of merchant’s wares to look through, questionable food to avoid, and of course your pick of scenic spots and viewpoints.

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With the afternoon winding down we pondered our options for the best way out of the park. After some investigating we decided to trust to local folklore and take the walking path down the mountain. It turned out to be a path that probably hadn’t been used in months.

Down, down the mountain we go. It was a race against the impending sunset and a battle of navigational wits. There was not a person in sight. No signs to guide us. Just a lingering certainty that we did not want to be caught in this foreign wilderness after dark.

“What kind of animals live in these woods?”

No answers seemed appealing.

We moved with a sense of urgency, keeping our eyes on the path and occasionally glancing at the dwindling sun. How stark a contrast it was to see those pillars above us so radiant and yet our own surroundings were darkening and coming to life! It seemed impossible that only an hour ago we were having coffee at McDonald’s, safe and in the company of Chinese tourists. Now the only company we had were mosquitoes. And the only shops around us were crumbling shacks long abandoned, leering at us with their dark, neglected interiors. We did not want to stop. We were actually quite frightened.

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At one point we reached what looked like a prominent landmark. A massive stone gate loomed above us basking in fading sun. And there was actually a sign! Southern Heavenly Gate. A quick check of the map showed that we were indeed going the right way. We weren’t going to die after all.

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The sun caught us perfectly while we stopped for a few moments to savor our relief. We were in a safe place now with a great view. Nothing to worry about, nowhere to rush to. A flock of crows flew by. Hi crows. They cawed at us with a sudden violence that broke the spell. “You haven’t made it out yet. Flee while you still can!” We took that as a hint and got out of there.

 

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