Goosey Goosey Gandalf


Desperately in need of some fresh air (and a detox) the mountains of Zhangjiajie were set to be just what any unsympathetic doctor had ordered. Having whipped in and out of the city, leaving our big packs behind and taking only the necessaries, we bounced up to the entrance to Zhangjiajie National Park (I say bounced because, dear God, the suspension on those buses needs looking at). We had received brief instructions on a route to take on arriving at the park but, who could have possibly guessed it, our trusty map was about to let us down YET AGAIN! Will we ever learn?! Now, a precursors note to any reader considering venturing to China: if you don’t like stairs, don’t go. After a 20 hour train ride, 3 buses and a world of self-inflicted pain and dehydration we were faced with a seemingly never ending wall of stairs, floor to sky, toes to the tippity top. That unsympathetic doctor was having a right laugh. We hefted our still-hungover bodies up the steps, ever hopeful that the scale of the map would prove true and it would be a mere 200m climb. We never, ever learn. An hour later, puffing, panting and cursing the day we left the warm embrace of shanghai, we were met with an obstacle, a gnashing, clawed, red-eyed obstacle. A gruesome, cruel beast with an evil stare and deadly jaws. This animal is known to be the cruellest of Zhangjiajie’s inhabitants and had come to face us. It was the elusive panther of Zhangjiajie, NB: read goose. As the beast stood astride the bridge we had to cross to reach the top and stared us down, he may as well have roared “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” Alex and I were fully prepared to accept this instruction as we backed away in the general direction of Shanghai but Matt, the unexpected hero of this tale, reasoned with the animal, then threatened it, then thought better of threatening it as he attempted to sidle past, guarding the women folk who cowered behind his improvised shield, NB backpack full of smelly boxers. It was triumph. We had looked death in the eye. And if we could look death in the eye we could damned well climb some more stairs. What seemed like days later, we reached the peak where we were met by the lilting sounds of Enya, the soundtrack of Zhangjiajie National Park (never had I thought such inoffensive music could be so grating!) There we were met by a shuttle bus which ferried us to our hostel. “Ooh! It’s a bit nippy!” We all proclaimed when we arrived. Little did we know we would be spending the next 48 hours in at least 4 t-shirts, 2 jumpers, jacket, hat and gloves (regardless of colour though I won’t have a bad word said about my fetching tangerine pair!) We adopted a very British approach though and decided tea was certainly the best thing for it. There is surely no ill in the world that a nice, hot cup of tea cannot cure. And so began the charade of exchanged phone calls. It would seem that not a soul on top of this mountain spoke English so each time we approached a member of staff they quickly armed themselves with their mobile phone and selected the “phone a friend” option. Our tea and coffee orders, dinner requests and queries about sunrise trips were quickly communicated, translated and actioned. Quite simple really! Or it would have been had the friend, carefully selected from the phone book of self-proclaimed English-speakers, had a clear grasp of foods, times or numbers. A quick skype call would have been ideal. Nevertheless, we managed to stay fed and watered with a combination of charades, “phone-a-friend”s and forays into the kitchen to point and gesture wildly.

We started day 2 with an early morning trip to watch the sun rise over the Stone Peaks. Though our photos could not do it justice, it was a beautiful and serene experience (except for the arrival of a Chinese family who turned up and dangled their children dangerously close to the edge – cue 3 incredibly tense westerners trying not watch). We headed back for a power nap and breakfast, and can now say with complete confidence that getting out of bed in a room that can’t be warmer than 3 degrees is almost as hard as climbing steps from sea level to kingdom come. Our first stop was the series of viewing platforms over to the East of the park, child’s play to those who had previously conquered the Chinese Goose Panther. Despite the crowds, the views were breathtaking. Some sights warrant crowds clamouring for a look and a photo and the mountains of Zhangjiajie are among these sights. So we joined the grandmas, unleashed some deadly elbow jabs and hustled to the edge to catch a glimpse of it all. Worth every trodden toe, broken nail and black eye. Afterwards the soothing sounds of Enya carried us to a more remote location in the park, a 3 hour loop taking in some more incredible views. Being more remote, it was also quieter and perhaps even more awe-inspiring for it. One step to Heaven Viewpoint was a certain highlight, especially given our previous Beijing misgivings of being destined for the flames. In the fresh air of Zhangjiajie we had conquered demons and were One step closer to Heaven…great success. With tired little legs we headed back to the hostel to resume our game of charades. Tea in hand and pork and chicken on the way for dinner (imagine the charades if you will), the day was safely labelled a day of successes.

We checked out of our hostel on our final day and headed back down the mountain, emulating the route we had intended to take on our way up, which effectively entailed a game of follow the Avatar memorabilia, as we passed statues of the characters and posters depicting the Hallelujah Mountains with their scenic inspiration as the backdrop. We took the scenic route back to the park entrance from the bottom, cutting up between two peaks and leading to a wonderful view of the mountain pass before dropping back down to the gates to the park where monkeys and brides alike posed for photos. The monkeys were beautiful. We made the bumpy ride back to Zhangjiajie city to unpack, repack and reroute to Yangshuo. A speedy turnaround and god were we glad for it. Of all the cities we passed through, Zhangjiajie city is not one I would like to find myself stuck in. The Hallelujah Mountains seem all the more apt and poignant when set alongside such a dive. We made it out of the city in one piece. Hallelujah indeed.


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