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Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, spanning an area of roughly 130 square kilometers, is the second-largest subsection, after Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve, of Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Spread throughout the forest park are numerous mountain-peak remnants (remnants of aeons of erosion), some as freestanding sandstone "pillars" and many as large, massive tree-clad blocks, albeit, some of the latter of which are crowned, as it were, with an assemblage of semi-freestanding sandstone "pillars". Simon Winchester, writing in the Travel section of the New York Times in July, 2007, has likened these freestanding mountain-peak remnants to skyscrapers, and curiously, I arrived at the same metaphor myself, entirely independently of Simon Winchester!*
Originally, the forest park was much larger and encompassed most, if not all, of what is today called Wulingyuan Scenic Area, meaning that Zhangjiajie National Forest Park was a precursor to Wulingyuan Scenic Area. After some time, Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve and Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve were separated out of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and the new umbrella construction was called Wulingyuan Scenic Area. It was first in 1992, after the creation of Wulingyuan Scenic Area as the umbrella entity, that the site was recognized by UNESCO as a World Natural Heritage Site.
Vegetation everywhere is the salient feature of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Over 90% of the surface area of the park is covered in one form or another of vegetation, which is quite impressive when one considers the number of mountains, sandstone "pillars", rivers, creeks and lakes that abound in the forest park, but of course, a large part of the surface area of the forest park's mountains and sandstone "pillars" is also covered in foliage.
The forest park is home to over 500 species of trees – by comparison, more than twice the number of tree species in all of Europe – including the dawn redwood tree (Metasequoia glyptostroboides) that is a cousin to the giant redwood trees (Sequoiadendron giganteum) of California. Shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the dawn redwood was believed to have become extinct in China, but in 1948 it was re-identified in the country, and later still, large numbers of the tree were found in the area of present-day Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. The forest park's dove tree species (Davidia involucrata) is believed to stem from the Karoo Ice Age (360-260 million years ago), or the Fourth Ice Age (the current ice age is the fifth such age), the ice age that ushered in plant life on a large scale and thus made animal life possible on the planet, since plants produce oxygen and consume carbon dioxide.
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is home to roughly half of all of the seed-bearing plant species of the world that belong to the gymnosperm group, or the group of seed-bearing plants whose ovules are not enclosed in an ovary, but which sit on the surface of the seed-bearing organ (commonly a cone) and which naturally facilitate the reproduction (spread) of the plant. The arguably largest group of plants belonging to the gymnosperm group (as opposed to the angiosperm group, whose ovules are enclosed in an ovary) are the conifers (cone-bearing evergreen trees). There are some 3000 species of other plants in the forest park distributed across the five major flora types: the rose family; the pulse family (the legumes); the grass family; the orchid family and the composite family. Over 80% of all of the plants naturally occurring in Hunan Province can be found in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
With such a rich flora, it can be expected that the forest park is also home to a rich fauna, and this is of course precisely the case, though pandas, given their reliance on a diet of fresh bamboo shoots (not to speak of the presence of leopards), are not present in the forests of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
There are over 150 types of so-called chordate animals (creatures having a spinal cord or a spinal column (vertebrates), which naturally includes a great many acquatic animals along with most land mammals), including 28 species that enjoy state level protection as threatened species, such as the golden pheasant (Chrysolophus pictus, aka Chinese pheasant, a member of the large family Phasianidae), the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), the rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta), the Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis inermis), the Asiatic wild dog (Cuon alpinus), the common leopard (Panthera pardus), the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa) and the giant salamander (Andrias davidianus).
Note that the forest park's population of clouded leopards is small – very small – since none have been observed, though incontrovertible evidence exists of the presence of this very reticent animal in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
There is one main subsection – Yuanjiajie ("Boundary of Yuan") Scenic Area, with its own separate page (see the link farther below) – and three main scenic sites within the forest park, some of which feature a number of lesser sites. The three main sites are: Huangshizhai ("Yellow Stone Fort"); Jinbianxi ("Golden Whip Stream", but note that any WWII-vintage American soldier would instantly have dubbed Jinbian Stream as "Jim Beam Stream" :)); and Yaozizhai("Sparrow Hawk Mesa") Village.
Note that to get to Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, which lies between Yellow Stone Fort and Mount Tianzi, the easiest though longest route is to follow Golden Whip Stream to the scenic site, Shui Rao Xi Men ("Stream Winding Around Four Gates"), where you can catch a bus to Bailong Tianti ("White Dragon Sky Elevator"), the amazing, outdoor elevator built in the open truss style of the Bird's Nest in Beijing (or in the style of the Eiffel Tower, if you prefer). Once at the summit, take the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area bus, which will deposit you at the scenic site, Mihuntai ("Enchanting Platform"), which marks the entrance to Yuanjiajie Scenic Area.
If you prefer to walk the entire trip to Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, then follow Golden Whip Stream until you arrive at the scenic site, Qian Li Xiang Hui ("Pining Couple Meet Again") where you will see a sign directing you to Yuanjiajie Scenic Area (note that you will encounter the Pining Couple Meet Again scenic site long before you would have reached the Stream Winding Around Four Gates scenic site, and note also that this alternative route, though shorter, involves a bit of an incline).
Yellow Stone Fort
Yellow Stone Fort, aka Yellow Stone Village, is situated at the western side of the forest park. It's scenic area (it is also a village – see below) consists of numerous specific natural features such as Five Fingers Peaks, Front Garden, Echo Wall, Clouds Drifting Cave and Golden Turtle in the Sea of Clouds, to name some of the most prominent of these. Taken as a whole, the assemblage of natural features at Yellow Stone Fort represents a large grouping of angular, weathered sandstone obelisks and blocks as seen elsewhere at Wulingyuan Scenic Area, the main difference being that the Yellow Stone Village outcropping has slightly fewer freestanding sandstone obelisks, and in some cases the upper part of a large sandstone block will end in a clutch of mini sandstone obelisks.
Another feature that is more common at Yellow Stone Fort compared to other parts of Wulingyuan is that the tops of the obelisk-and-block rock formations – especially Front Garden – tend to be covered in dense vegetation, mainly in the form of shrubs and dwarf, or bonsai, trees, giving Yellow Stone Fort in general, and Front Garden in particular, the aspect of a potted landscape on stilts.
Essentially, all of the bedrock of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is made up of this building block material; it just takes different forms in different places, an expression of the utter randomness of the aeons of erosion that carved these strange geomorphological shapes out of the sandstone bedrock – but it is all, very, very interesting, and the visitor never tires of what shape the next section of bedrock will take (in the umbrella article, the Wulingyuan Scenic Area article, I compare Wulingyuan's strangely eroded rock landscapes to Jurassic Park, less the park (i.e., not neat and tidy), and that is certainly true of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park as well).
There is also, as the alternative name suggests, a village here, Yellow Stone Village, said to be the remote village where a renowned Taoist master, Huang Shi Gong, aka Master Huang, once produced elixir. Besides being a renowned Taoist master, Huang Shi Gong is known for having passed down the art of warfare to a disciple who would become even more famous, namely Zhang Liang. Zhang Liang served first as a military advisor to Liu Bang, a rival to the second two (last two) emperors of the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty (the first, Ying Huhai, ruled from BCE 209-207 while the second, Ying Ziying, ruled briefly in BCE 207), then became became Prime Minister under Liu Bang cum Emperor Gao, founder of the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty that succeeded the Qin Dynasty, and finally, Zhang Liang was crowned the "Marquis of Liu" for his long, loyal service to Liu Bang cum Emperor Gao.
It was not uncommon in those days for Taoist masters to try and unlock the secret of what was believed to be the elixir of life; they all seem to have firmly believed in its existence, and that it was only a matter of mixing the right substances in order to hit upon the potion that could confer immortality. Alas, not a few of them died in the process of this quest through quicksilver poisoning (i.e., by breathing the vapors released by quicksilver, or liquid mercury) and the like, achieving not immortality, but its opposite – and that in a hurry and often gruesomely painfully!
Since the village sits atop one of the massive stone blocks in question (at an elevation of 1080 meters from the valley floor, or about 1300 meters above sea level), it provides an unparalleled vantage point for viewing the local terrain. If time is not of the essence, you can traipse up to the village on foot, otherwise there is a cable car that will take you there in minutes. When you reach the top, you will fully appreciate the truth behind the axiom: "a visit to Zhangjiajie without a trip to Yellow Stone Village is like not having been to Zhangjiajie at all!"
The local scenic sites at Yellow Stone Village are the following: Needle Peak (aka Magic Sea-Suppressing Needle), Five-Finger Peaks, Tianshu Baoxia ("Heavenly Book and Precious Box"), Jingui Tanhai ("Golden Tortoise Exploring the Sea") Imperial Edict, Tranquil Trail in Fir Forest, and Southern Gate to Heaven (a manmade gate – an arch, in the typical Chinese style – not to be confused with the South Pillar of Heaven, located in Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, a famous obelisk that now has an Avatar-inspired name). Southern Gate to Heaven is located at the edge of the forest park where it borders on Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve, and if one wishes to proceed from Zhangjiajie National Forest Park to Tianzi Mountain via Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve, the route goes via Southern Gate to Heaven.
Golden Whip Stream
Golden Whip Stream is a 7 ½ kilometer winding brook located in the eastern part of the forest park with a walking path alongside it, which, in places, passes between sheer sandstone cliffs (sandstone blocks and freestanding sandstone "pillars") and in other places passes gentle waterfalls. The stream, or brook, is named after a prominent rock by the same name. Golden Whip Stream flows from Laomo Gully to Shui Rao Xi Men ("Stream Winding Around Four Gates"), then on to Suoxi Brook, finally emptying into the Li River, one of the four main rivers of Hunan Province. The local scenic sites include Golden Whip Rock, Rock of Welcoming Guests, Reunion Rock and Purple Grass Pond.
Sparrow Hawk Village
Sparrow Hawk Village, aka Sparrow Hawk Fort, is a visit that is decidedly not for everyone, since the only way to get there is on foot, and it is something of an arduous climb. The trip up the mesa is not a little spooky since the cliffs are sheer, so if heights make you dizzy, you should pass this trip up in favor of a less daunting climb. But if you are in good shape and do not suffer from a heart condition, you can easily make the climb of some 300 meters, and it is said that if there exists a scenic site in all of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park that is worth every kilojoule of expended energy, it is without doubt Sparrow Hawk Fort, partly because the view from the summit is so spectacular that it is impossible to describe it without descending into hyperbole, and partly because of the freshness of the air on the mesa, which is 98% clothed in vegetation.
The panoramic views from the summit of Sparrow Hawk Fort are absolutely incredibly beautiful (I warned you about the hyperbole). The mesa has a very large surface, or "tabletop", measuring 100 meters by 1400 meters, which allows numerous perspectives, something that is not possible everywhere at the forest park. Both the flora and fauna on the mesa are richly varied, with over 500 plant species, some 30 species of animals and over 40 species of birds, many of which nest on the mesa. The air remains fresh here even in summer, thanks to the rich vegetation and thanks to the fact that the temperature never exceeds 18 degrees Celsius.
Sparrow Hawk Fort was only opened for tourism in 2003, partly because the authorities wanted to ensure that opening the site to tourism would not spoil its pristine beauty and partly because the authorities were a bit unsure of whether it was entirely safe as a tourist site – and, as well, whether there would be any interest in visiting it. As it turns out, the site's very inaccessibility limits the number of tourist willing to make the on-foot climb, and the safety concerns – at least for all those who do not suffer from severe acrophobia (fear of heights), sometimes referred to as vertigo – have been adequately addressed.
A common feature of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park – and indeed, of Wulingyuan Scenic Area in general – are the many, strangely eroded sandstone mountain peaks, some in the form of individual, freestanding obelisks (I have elsewhere referred to these freestanding, vertical shafts as pillars, or columns, but they should perhaps rightly be called obelisks except that an obelisk is generally either square or rectangular in cross-section, and though many of the mountain-peak remnants in Zhangjiejia are indeed either square or rectangular, roughly, in cross-section, some are more round than square, so the best term for these latter might instead be "tower") and some as large, flattened, highly eroded, tree-clad massive sandstone blocks, albeit some of these massive blocks have pieces or sections that are semi-freestanding. The most salient feature of these mountain-peak remnants is their distinct layering, and it is surely this layering that gives rise to the small ledges here and there that collect enough dirt to nurture various grasses and plants, from shrubs to regular trees – albeit, the latter often in dwarf, or bonsai, form.
We in the West tend to think of these strange mountain-peak remnants as something discovered relatively recently, but they have appeared in Chinese landscape paintings as far back as ancient times. To a Chinaman, they are as quintessentially Chinese as the glazed tile roof with upturned eaves is quintessentially Chinese to the Westerner. In Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the now most famous of these mountain-peak remnants/ sandstone towers is South Pillar of Heaven (referred to above), standing at 150 meters in height (or about 1075 meters above sea level), and which, thanks to the Hollywood blockbuster film, Avatar – whose floating Hallelujah Mountains are based partly (greatly!) on the mountain-peak remnants/ sandstone towers of Zhangjiajie – has now been renamed as Avatar Hallelujah Mountain.** South Pillar of Heaven/ Avatar Hallelujah Mountain is located in the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area subsection of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.
Together with the plethora of mountain-peak remnants (both massive blocks and freestanding towers), the placid lakes, the rivers and countless brooks and the many and varying waterfalls, the numerous interesting hiking trails of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park – not to speak of the lush, pervasive vegetation – make this subsection of Wulingyuan Scenic Area the most popular of the three subsections of the scenic area, even if there are individual parts of Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve, Yangjiajie Scenic Area and Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve that are supremely beautiful (of course, some say that the most spectacular part of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park is its now most famous subsection, Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, and not just because of the obelisk there that reputedly inspired a Hollywood film).
* I call them simply "rock skyscrapers" in the Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve article, and note that I got this idea entirely independently, just as did the author of the NY Times article in question, Simon Winchester, but of course this only means that the eroded mountain peaks in question obviously call to mind skyscrapers! But my coincidental – and of course entirely logical! – choice of metaphors to describe these tower-like "mesas" (the process that produces both the mesa and the "rock skyscraper" is the same: water erosion) in a separate (earlier) context is even more uncanny for me personally, for in referring to them in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area article, I compare them to China's so-called stone forests, which I liken to 'a short-toothed hairbrush for the gods', while likening the assemblage of "rock skyscrapers"/ tower-like "mesas" of Wulingyuan Scenic Area to 'a long-toothed comb, or rows of long-toothed combs, instead of a brush'. Well, hold onto your wig, dear reader, for the Chinese name for one of these these sets of 'rows of long-toothed combs' – located namely in the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve subsection – is Yubi Feng, or Imperial Writing (i.e., calligraphic "writing") Brush Peaks (the key word here being "brush", of course!).
** The Chinese authorities have apparently backtracked a bit regarding the alleged renaming of South Pillar of Heaven as Avatar Hallelujah Mountain. According to a press release, the local authorities are said to only have hung up a banner on South Pillar of Heaven with the Hollywood name that has apparently offended so many Chinese people; the site, according to this account, remains South Pillar of Heaven, though local authorities, it is said, are free to change it to anything they like, provided that the normal procedure for doing this is followed (Hallelujah for that, one can only say!). Only time will tell whether South Pillar of Heaven becomes Avatar Hallelujah Mountain. How about "South Pillar of Heavenly Hallelujah Mountain" as a compromise solution? : )