"We were wanderers on a prehistoric earth, on an earth that wore the aspect of an unknown planet. We could have fancied ourselves the first of men taking possession of an accursed inheritance, to be subdued at the cost of profound anguish and of excessive toil."
From Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
Wulingyuan Scenic Area is situated in and around the city of Zhangjiajie in the northwestern corner of Hunan Province, somewhat close to the common borders with Hubei Province and Chongqing Municipality. It is a very large geographical area, spanning some 370 square kilometers, and includes four subsections: Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve, Tianzi ("Son of Heaven") Mountain Nature Reserve, and Yangjiajie Scenic Area. Wulingyuan Scenic Area sits on the cusp of two distinctly different crustal topographies: an uplifted, mountainous area and a depressed basin, or lake area, providing the visitor with spectacular natural landscapes from both of these topographical extremes.
Here are mountains numbering in the thousands – many with innumerable, jagged peaks – and even mountains upon mountains (quite literally!), deep ravines, countless rivers (and an even greater number of babbling brooks), magnificent waterfalls (and gentle, unimposing waterfalls), pristine lakes, karst caves and strange rock outcroppings. Clothing it all are trees everywhere, including thick copses and large swaths of dense forest, some untouched.
Elsewhere, China has what is called stone forests, or densely packed outcroppings of rock slabs that stand vertically, resembling a short-toothed hairbrush for the gods, as it were; Wulingyuan has similar, slighly less densely packed stone outcroppings (think of a long-toothed comb, or rows of long-toothed combs, instead of a brush), except that these vertical rock slabs are mountain peaks that over the aeons have been whittled by the forces of nature into narrow shafts that reach far up into the sky, like nature's own skyscrapers. Even here, vegetation takes hold, with diverse plants and shrubs as well as grotesquely shaped coniferous trees sprouting out of every nook and cranny, bending toward the sun regardless of the position of their respective footholds on the craggy surfaces of every "storey" of these "rock skyscrapers".
Paths, stone walkways and bridges connect the scenic sites, with pavilions, benches and viewing platforms discreetly placed here and there so as to facilitate the visitor's enjoyable sojourn through this magnificent landscape, the overarching aim being that the manmade footprint should enhance, not dominate, the beauty of mother nature's handiwork. Wulingyuan also boasts 14 hiking trails for those who wish to escape from the beaten path and who are dressed for it, the most important consideration being a pair of good, well broken in shoes.
Wulingyuan is home to over 850 species of plants and 146 species of vertebrates, of which 56 species and 40 species, respectively, are under national protection. Some of the scenic area's precious plants are the Chinese yew tree (Taxus chinensis), the cherry tree, the dove tree (Davidia involucrata), the dawn redwood tree (Metasequoia glyptostroboides, cousins to the giant redwood trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) of California), as well as gingko, the bark of eucommia (Eucommia ulmoides), glossy ganoderma (Ganoderma lucidum) and the tubers of multiflower knotweed (Polygonum multiflorum) and elevated gastrodia (Gastrodia elata).
Among Wulingyuan's rare animals are the giant salamander (Andrias davidianus), the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), the rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), the Tibetan antelope (Pantholops hodgsonii), the South China tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis, aka Amoy tiger or Xiamen tiger), the common leopard (Panthera pardus), the golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus, aka Chinese pheasant, a member of the large family Phasianidae) and the Tragopan, also a member of the family Phasianidae.
In 1992, Wulingyuan Scenic Area – specifically, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (the province's largest forest), Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve, Yangjiajie Scenic Area and Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve – were recognized by UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage Site. There are many such UNESCO sites the world over, including many such sites in China in fact, but Wulingyuan Scenic Area stands out as exceptional; it is truly a unique place on earth, a Jurassic Park without the park (and, fortunately, without the dinosaurs!), i.e., an ancient, prehistoric-looking piece of nature that looks today – less the few manmade additions – as it might have done when the 'first of men' laid eyes on it. Wulingyuan Scenic Area is a work in progress, since only a partial list of scenic sites have to date been developed. Of the sites that have been developed, access is facilitated by more than 30 different tour routes, meaning that Wulingyuan Scenic Area, which covers an immense geographical area, is never crowded, ever.
As indicated in the above, it is a good idea to bring along a pair of good, well broken in hiking shoes if one intends to hike the back trails of Wulingyuan, but even if one only wishes to walk the regular pathways and walkways of the scenic area, it is a good idea to wear sturdy, sensible shoes. Wearing layered clothing is in fact a must if one wishes to enjoy one's sojourn at Wulingyuan to the maximum, for no one likes to freeze or be baked for more than a few minutes at a time, and on lengthy walks, it can be a long way back to one's hotel. Similarly, a light, easy-to-store rain suit or a large umbrella is highly recommended, since rain showers can sometimes be a daily occurrence.