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China: Your ultimate guide to surreal mountainous landscapes

By Fashila Kanakka 23 September 2020

Header image courtesy of Semester at Sea

China is undoubtedly home to some of the most unearthly mountains you can explore. With its unique rock formations and dangerous yet fascinating curves and edges, these mountains will take your breath away (quite literally if you plan on hiking up to their summit)! Gear up because we have compiled six surreal mountainous regions, scattered all across China for a serene escape from city life.

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Zhangjiajie, Hunan (张家界, 湖南)

Were you in awe watching James Cameron’s Avatar, wanting to traverse across beautiful, lush Pandora? What if we told you that the Avatar mountains actually exist in China! In fact, Zhangjiajie (张家界) served as an inspiration for the floating mountains in Avatar. These narrow and steep hills sure looked out-of-this-world on the big screen (well, technically Pandora is in space) but they will captivate you just as much, if not more whilst you’re there.

What to do

Zhangjiajie National Forest Park was declared China’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a vast 12,000-acre piece of land, so be prepared to spend at least two days trekking around this park. There are free buses to take you from point to point throughout the park. China sure knows what’ll attract tourists and they’re not afraid to think outside the (glass) box!

To start off, there’s a long stretch of glass—430 metres—standing sturdy at an altitude of 1,180 feet! There’s also a provision for bungee-jumping that dips 285 metres from the glass bridge, definitely not your average brisk walk in the park. If you’re looking for some thrill without moving a muscle, then you can get atop the mountains by hopping on the various cable cars that take you around the park, offering a fantastic panorama view of the mountains. An alternative is the Hundred Dragon Elevator, which is the longest outdoor elevator in the world spanning 326 metres in height.

Find more information on the ticketing prices for Zhangjiajie National Forest Park here.

Furong, Hunan (芙蓉, 湖南)

Often overlooked by local and overseas tourists, Furong (芙蓉) is an hour and a half bus ride from Zhangjiajie. Furong is home to three major ethnic groups, the Han, the Tujia, and the Miao people, with the Tujia people being the original settlers. This small town takes about two to three hours to get around. Explore Tujia culture and customs in this town that is frozen in time with its traditional streets and architecture.

What to do

Furong has some beautiful waterfalls, the biggest in the west Hunan region. They are about 40 metres wide and have a drop of 60 metres. What’s special about these waterfalls is that you get to walk inside them! There’s a cave inside the falls that has bronze statues representing the Tujia people as they used to live inside caves in the ancient times.

Wulichangjie, or Wuli Slate Street, is a 2,500-metre long street lined with local traditional shops lined on both sides of the road, selling souvenirs showing Tujia culture. There are also local restaurants where you get to try delicacies like rice tofu. You get to immerse yourself in the daily lives of the locals and you also get to visit some old houses, now open to the public to marvel at the traditional architecture. The steep road eventually leads to the pier of Youshui River which is a perfect vantage point for seeing the Tusi Palace and the Furong waterfalls.  

Lastly, make sure to stop by the Xizhou Bronze Pillars, which was built upon the ceasefire of a battle between two neighbouring kingdoms in the 10thcentury. The bronze pillar was built to mark the border between the two territories and 2,500 kilos of copper were used to build this pillar that symbolizes the agreement. However, the original pillar was eroded by water and sank, so what stands now is a replica.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the guide 👇

By Tautvile Daugelaite 16 September 2020

Zhangye National Geopark, Gansu (张掖国家地质公园, 甘肃)

Looking like a sea of fire, China’s Rainbow Mountains are the result of the erosion of sandstone and mineral deposits piling on top of another. Repeated weathering and water erosion formed mountains and steep rocks. The dramatic hues of red and orange are best seen during sunrise and sunset. There are wooden stairways and well-paved pathways for visitors to reach mountain tops. Fun fact: Gansu is the western ending point of the Great Wall of China, with a total of 1,334 beacon towers to ward off enemies!

What to do

There are a total of four viewing points at the national park. The first viewing point is at ground level and is the closest to the entrance, merely a 10-minute walk away. The fourth viewing point offers the most spectacular view of the rainbow mountains—this is the place to be at sunrise or sunset. You will need to take the sight-seeing buses at the national park as no other vehicles are allowed. Frequency for each bus is about 20 minutes.

Zhangye National Geopark just held its second hot-air balloon festival this year. The 12-day event started on July 26, 2020 and ended on August 6, 2020. The festival had 100 vibrant hot-air balloons hovering over the marvelous mountains, this once in a lifetime bird’s eye view of the rainbow mountains is not to be missed!

Find more information on the ticketing prices for Zhangye National Geopark here.

Yangshuo, Guangxi (阳朔, 广西)

Time to walk onto these unique karst landforms, which are undeniably photogenic. You may recognize these mountains from China’s 20 yuan notes. Located in Guangxi county in southern China, Yangshuo has become a famous tourist destination for all the right reasons. There is plenty here to satisfy the adventure seekers and its lush greens are a feast for your eyes (and lungs!).

What to do

No trip to Yangshuo will be complete without floating across the pristine waters of the Li River. There are cruises from Guilin City that take you to Yangshuo along the river, there are lunch buffets available and the cruises leave at around 10.00am in the morning. The whole cruise journey takes approximately four hours. If you opt for a shorter and more traditional alternative, there are bamboo rafts which take you around the river in an hour. You will catch glimpses of village homes, cormorants (aquatic birds) catching fish for fishermen, and water buffalos strolling on fields.

To catch the best viewpoint of Yangshuo, hike up Xianggong Mountain. It takes around an hour, and you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the karst mountains and the Li River. The hike is steep but short, made up of stairs all the way to the top with handrails all throughout the path. This is overall, a family-friendly hike.

Ever thought about hiking inside a mountain for a change? Silver Cave in Yangshuo has 12 peaks and ascends as high as 16 floors. You will constantly be ascending and descending rows of stairs, whilst marvelling at nature’s artwork. The total “hike” inside the mountain takes an average of two hours, depending on the crowd. And in these two hours, you’ll feel like you have transcended to another world—the karst formations mimic towers, waterfalls, and even human figures. Silver Cave has well-paved stairs but they can be moist, so appropriate footwear is necessary. It is family-friendly, but strollers will have to be left outside the entrance.

Find more information on the cruise ticketing prices here.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the guide 👇

By Rosslyn Sinclair 8 September 2020
By Nanda Haensel 26 August 2020

Mount Emei, Sichuan (峨眉山, 四川)

Declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1996, Mount Emei is one of The Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, regarded as a place of enlightenment. It has an elevation of 3,099 metres and there are two main routes to get to the summit with various sections, with varying difficulty. Mount Emei is home to 26 Buddhist monasteries, and also 5,000 species of plants and more than 2,300 kinds of wild animals. Some of the trees residing in this region are over 1,000 years old! Mount Emei will be a unique geological experience and a spiritual journey, due to its significance in Buddhism, whether you're a believer or not.

What to do

A golden statue of Samantabhadra who was a Bodhisattva (a person who was on the path to Buddhism) sits atop Mount Emei, as it is believed that he meditated on this mountain and he has been named the protector of this region since. The vibrant golden statue gives the name The Golden Summit, and the statue reflects a beautiful glow during sunrise and sunset. You can take a bus to Leidongping and then it’s two hours of steep steps to the top, or you can take a cable car. There are hotels in the summit area, for people wishing to stargaze.

Mount Emei is renowned for its sacred temples, one of which being the Baoguo Temple. Baoguo Temple is the largest temple in Mount Emei and serves as a gateway to key Buddhist pilgrimages in the mountainous region and many congregations are held here. There are five different halls in this temple, each one being dedicated to a different Buddha. There are authentic Buddhist vegetarian meals served at the temple site for reasonable prices.

Traveller’s tip: The temples are considered to be a sacred place for worshippers. Tourists are expected to show respect and be considerate towards the worshippers. Also, in Buddhist culture, it is disrespectful to leave unfinished food on the plate.

The Leshan Giant Buddha is a must-see for its architectural brilliance. The 71-metre statue is the tallest pre-modern statue in the world. The statue depicting Maitreya (who was a Bodhisattva) sits on the hillside of Xijuo Peak. It was carved in the eighth century CE in the Tang dynasty and took about 90 years to complete. Aside from the intricate details, what’s equally remarkable is the hidden drainage system. There are gutters and channels in the Buddha’s head, arms, clothes and behind his ears. The system drains out rainwater to keep the inside of the statue dry so as to prevent it from eroding. Kudos to the thoughtful craftsmanship!

Find more information on entrance fees and transport information to Mount Emei here.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the guide 👇

Huangshan, Anhui (黄山, 安徽)

Time to walk you into a traditional Chinese painting which is home to one of the most dangerous hikes in the world! Huangshan directly translates to “Yellow Mountain” (not named after the colour of the mountains but named after Huang Di who was an emperor in 747 AD), these mountains have made several appearances in historical Chinese art and literature since the Tang Dynasty. Consisting of 48 separate peaks, Huangshan is a granite massif often covered in mist and a sea of clouds.

What to do

Yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in China since 1990, hiking Mount Huashan is not for the faint-hearted. At one point, the path was made up of narrow wooden planks, and the only thing keeping you from plummeting to your death is a little safety harness. There are three different routes to hike up the mountain—the western steps (around seven hours to hike), the eastern steps (around three hours to hike) and the west side canyon. There are cable cars to get around the mountain but you’ll still be subject to some hiking. There are also hot springs at Purple Rock Peak, standing 650 metres above sea level.

Xidi and Hongcun villages in Huangshan have about 300 ancient houses (124 well-preserved ones) from the Ming and Qing dynasties, over 900 years of history combined! The houses were built from wood, stones, and bricks with motifs like birds, flowers, and grass. There are two streams flowing across the village, ensuring a tranquil getaway. Tickets cost 104 yuan per person for entrance to the villages.

Huangshan is not only famous for its ancient villages and surreal sceneries, but also for its tea. There are many variations of green tea grown here, one of it being the Maofeng tea, which translates to “Yellow Mountain Fur Peak” as it resembles the peak of the Yellow Mountains. Some of its health benefits include improving blood circulation, lowering blood sugar, and having anti-ageing properties. Did someone say tea time?

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Fashila Kanakka

Contributor

Fashila was born in India but raised in Hong Kong and shares a strong bond with both her home and birth land. She loves hunting for hidden gems and finding the road less travelled. When she’s not breaking her back from educating and shaping little earthlings, you can find her loading up on succulents at the Flower Market, buying yet another book to rest on the shelf, or making calories come to life by baking.

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