I decided to find the place that influenced Chinese landscape painting, so I went to Zhangjiajie in Wulingyuan.
They walked through a thick, blazing green pine forest, looking at scenery that they’ve only ever seen before in paintings. They climbed up past gnarly, wind bend trees into the clouds, only to get to the top of the mountain and scream bloody murder.
This is just what the Chinese do: they yell at nature.
Where mountain tops are almost sacred places of quietude and introspection for those acculturated in the West, in China, they seem to be places to hear your own voice reverberate against the beautiful scenery down below. Like so, the mountains of China can be very noisy places. Even in areas that are not packed full of tourists you are often shaken out of your nature induced daydream by the sound of someone screaming their heads off from a nearby mountain peak or overlook.
I’m not sure exactly where this custom comes from. I was told that it’s what the ancient hermit poets used to do, and the object is to see how long you can hold out your shout for. It’s kind of the Chinese equivalent of a yodel, only without the communication properties or the musical qualities. It’s really just an incredibly drawn out, tone deaf howl. It’s really really a jarring thing to hear when immersed in one of the most beautiful places on earth.
I ended up in the Zhangjiajie section of Wulingyuan after staring at a landscape painting in a pagoda in Taizhou, Jiangsu province. I was standing there looking at this painting of stelae-like mountains cutting up though white clouds, complete with knotty, grotesque looking pines bowing in the wind all over the place and I said “I am going there.” A couple of days later I am walking into the Wuling Mountains, digging those towers of rock and listening mindless screaming.
“Once you get to Zhangjiajie you will have no feeling about other mountains.” This is printed on a big sign at the entrance to the park. It seems as if the Chinese really believe this to be true, and there is one thing here that all visitors are going to feel, and that’s a lot lighter in the pocket. This place is expensive. It’s like 250 yuan for three days or 300 for seven. I went for seven, and handed over the $50 worth of RMB with more than a touch of reservation:
I could just walk around the side, bushwhack through the pines for a couple kilometers, and get into this place for free.
I have no moral qualm against subverting the high admission prices of attractions in China, as they are truly getting ridiculous. Fence in a section of the natural world and charge enough to keep it beautiful, excellent; hike up the admission price to intentionally limit the number of people who can afford to visit, onerous. But it was raining. I thought of myself out in the hills dripping wet and cold, and decided not to be a miser — for once.
Once inside the park I took a free bus to somewhere. I didn’t really know where it was going but everybody told me to get on. It took me on a 20 minute long, swerving ride to a cable car. I walked around in a circle a couple of times asking for directions on how to get to where I wanted to go (a youth hostel in the park). Everyone just pointed to the cable car. A ride on the damn thing cost over $10. I’d already dumped a ton of cash to get into this place, and I didn’t want to pay even more just to get to the place I was sleeping at. But nobody was telling me another way around. “You have to take the cable car,” they all said. I refused to believe that I would be charged another $10 just to really get into the park, so I bought a map for five yuan and navigated by bus to a place that seemed to be near where I wanted to get to.
It was here that I was stopped short by an elevator. It was the Bailong Elevator. It’s famous. 72 RMB. WTF? I was in a tourist trap. I had to either pay an additional $11.50 or spend the next three or four hours hiking up the mountain. It was raining, daylight was fading fast. Even genuinely helpful people working in the park told me that it wouldn’t be a good idea to attempt this hike on a wet night, and I sort of concurred.
I had camping gear, but this just meant a tarp and a sleeping bag. A tarp will keep you dry enough on a rainy night, but it won’t keep you dry. Now I’ve been through many stormy nights under a tarp, and I’m not squeamish about sleeping this way, but I have to admit that a tarp is more of a fair weather/ last resort type of portable shelter, rather than something you plan to use in an all night long battle against nature. In point, when you have a warm and dry $5 dorm bed waiting for you on a rainy night, you just get to it.
I let out a long sigh. Sometimes when you’re in the dragon’s den of tourism you should just be a good little tourist, do things how everyone else does them, smile, take pictures, enjoy the ride. Part of the wisdom of long term travel is knowing when to blaze your own trail and when to follow in line. Fighting against the tide in these types of overly developed tourism scenarios is often enough to be whisked out to sea: i.e. being drastically inconvenience, piddling away loads of time, AND paying a lot of money anyway. I wasn’t going to win on this night. I was already wet.
The tourism infrastructure is designed to be difficult to subvert, that’s how it makes money.
The following morning I found myself bewildered.
“Friend, this is a natural oxygen bar with a rich content of negative ion.”
I read this on a rock. I wasn’t sure what it meant, but if it had anything to do with the thick, impermeable blanket of fog that was covering everything I’d believe it. Seriously, everything was a blanket of white. I understood that I was visiting a foggy place, but this was like riding an airplane through a cloud. Looking out from a mountain peak or scenic overlook just meant twenty feet of visibility blanked out by condensed water vapor.
I went to the location of the famous Avatar rock — the scenery that the Chinese say Hollywood ripped off for some movie about blue hippies. There actually could have been blue hippies bouncing around out there for all anyone could tell: nobody could see a damn thing. I was standing in a crowd of over a hundred people oohing and ahhing at nothing but a wall of white. You couldn’t even see the outlines or shapes of any of the famous pillars. We were in the middle of a cloud, and there was no seeing out of it.
I watched the crowd trying their hardest to peer through the impenetrable haze and couldn’t help laughing. One lady shrieked with excitement when she realized that she could lean far over the railing and look down through a thin gap between cliff face and the fog to see a few tree tops in the valley below. These poor schmucks (myself included) traveled all the way across this country to look at a cloud curtain that had been pulled firmly shut in front of the show we came to see.
But, in typical Chinese fashion, there was a big sign next to the overlook that had pictures on it of what supposedly laid out there beyond the mist. The tourist took their pictures in front of this sign board instead.
I had enough. I retreated to the hostel and drank beer. At least I could see what I was trying to look at.
“This is China’s Grand Canyon,” an American pipeliner on vacation from his project in Sichuan province spoke in the hostel. I couldn’t disagree.
Zhangjiajie forest and Wulingyuan sit 270 kilometers northwest of Changsha at the northern fringes of Hunan province. This area was declared China’s first national park in 1982 and made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage Site list a decade later. It is 100 square miles of quartzite sandstone pillars in karst formation, forests, rivers, endangered animals, rare plants, and abundant amounts of clean air. This place is the antithesis of what you think of when the word “China” is mentioned.
This isn’t a far perception, as there is a lot of green space, mountains, and forests in this country. In fact, most of China is virtually uninhabitable. Nobody but hermits and a few scattered minority tribes really lived in this stretch of the Wuling range until the 1950s.
Now tens of thousands of people from all over China descend upon this place daily. One interesting aspect of going to the big Chinese tourist sites is that they are sure to have an incredibly diverse range of visitors from every part of the country speaking an incredibly diverse range of languages and dialects. It is in these places where you can observe a cross section of Chinese society all around you.
Though just about everyone is still arranged in groups wearing matching yellow baseball caps following behind leaders shouting out orders through microphones and amplifiers.
This is mass tourism: China style.
Which means that everybody goes to the same places, does the same things, at the same times. Wulingyuan is packed with visitors but they are not everywhere. This is an element of Chinese tourism that ironically bodes well for the traveler going their own way. If you walk away from the main lookout points you pretty much have this entire park to yourself.
It’s set up that way. Not wanting to have a scenario where hundreds of thousands of people are using (damaging) the entire park, the designers set thing up so that the visiting hoards are centered around a few dozen hot spots accessed by bus. So if you do this park the standard way, your day is going to look like this:
Hop on a bus, ride to a scenic location, get out, look around, get back on a bus, repeat.
It is a pretty amazing system in that it successfully keeps tourists in their place and leaves most of the park visitor-free.
But there is nothing that says that you can’t go anywhere you please, it’s just that there is little encouragement or support for you to do so. Though there are trails. There are nice, mostly stone lined trails. They cut through much of this park, connected the prime attractions with the back country, but there are very few people actually on them. Walk down these trails and during the course of a few hours you may see a small group of university students, a couple making out, a a few stray hardcore hikers, and that’s about it for people. Mostly, you’ll just be walking around by yourself.
This is what I did throughout my days in Wulingyuan. After two days of rain, the landscape dried and the sun broke through. I was given a clear day, and was able to see what lies behind the fog. To put it basely, it was enough to rank as one of the most beautiful places that I’ve ever been in 13 years of world travel.
I hiked into green ravines and climbed to towering ridges, but what was truly the quintessential element of this place was the sandstone quartzite pillars that rise in cylindrical towers for hundreds of meters. These are the mountains of Chinese landscape paintings. These are the skyscrapers of nature, rising up from the floor of wind gutted valleys like some kind of primeval metropolis. Their shear height and thin width made them look unstable, as if someone just planted a bunch of baseball bats on end and expected them to stay upright. But they’ve stayed like this for millennia, and I have to say that this only lent another degree of wonder to their mystique.
This landscape is called karst, and it is created by thousands and thousands of years of gentle erosion.
Karst is a landscape formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks including limestone, dolomite and gypsum. It is characterized by sinkholes, caves, and underground drainage systems. Karst topography is a geological formation shaped by the dissolution of a layer or layers of soluble bedrock, usually carbonate rock such as limestone, dolomite, or gypsum, but has also been documented for weathering-resistant rocks, such as quartzite, given the right conditions. –Wikipedia
Karst formations are everywhere in Wulingyuan, jagged, quartzite teeth in the jaws of valleys. Clumps of trees and foliage still grew on the tops of these stone pillars, which added a sense of understanding as to what had happened here: these towering islands did not rise, the land around them just eroded away.
This was the exact scene that was painting on that mural in Taizhou, the artistic rendition that sent me traveling across this country just to see if places like this truly existed. As I looked out upon a ravine full of shear cliff faces, towering pillars, blowing clouds, and gnarly, twisted pines, it was clear that the old Chinese landscape painters did not exaggerate the object of their art. If anything, they downplayed their splendor, as these landscapes are almost more unbelievable when seeing them for yourself than they are in paintings.