China’s wild heart

Rupert Parker finds the real-life inspiration for Avatar’s otherworldly landscapes and more in picturesque Hunan


Zhangjiajie (Photo: Unsplash)

As the early morning mist clears, I see I’m surrounded by thousands of narrow limestone pillars, rising proud from a carpet of green forest, pine trees clinging desperately to their tops. Over the millennia, this enchanting landscape has been home to countless legends and myths.

Although for most visitors, the reason it might look familiar is because it was recreated using CGI as Planet Pandora in the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar.

The original is in Hunan, a land-locked province in the south central part of the country, surrounded by mountains, with the fertile Yangtze River to the north. This is picture book rural China, a major agricultural centre for thousands of years, growing rice, tea and oranges.

My trip starts in the capital, Changsha, a bustling city of over 10 million, bisected by the Xiang River. Chairman Mao was born in the countryside 70km away and arrived here in 1911 when he was 18, in order to attend college. On Orange Island, in the middle of the river, there’s a huge bust of a young Mao; apparently he used to go swimming here after a hard day’s study under the orange trees.

He wasn’t quite good enough to earn a place at the Yuelu Academy though; founded in 976, it’s one of the oldest universities in China. It’s situated in a leafy park above the city, a pleasant stroll uphill where students make wishes under the statue of Confucius, begging to pass their exams. As well as being able to look at the interesting collection of original buildings, there’s also a museum of education on the site.

More fascinating though is the city’s Hunan Provincial Museum, a treasure trove of historical artefacts and cultural relics. Among its most prized exhibits is the 2000-year-old mummy of Lady Dai (Xin Zhui), an aristocrat from the Han Dynasty.

Discovered in the early 1970s in a tomb at nearby Mawangdui, her body was enclosed inside a series of four wooden coffins buried deep under layers of charcoal and white clay

Wrapped in 20 layers of clothing, bound with silk ribbons, she is the most well preserved ancient mummy ever found and now lies in the museum’s imaginative recreation of her tomb. Despite being over two millennia old, her skin remains elastic, with visible veins underneath, and there’s still hair on her head.

Buried with her were over 1,600 precious artefacts, including silk garments, lacquerware, musical instruments, all on display here.

While the area’s history is well worth discovering, Hunan is perhaps more famous for its spicy cuisine, with copious use of chillies — and the highlight is Stinky Tofu, made with fermented bean curd. It turns black after being marinated and then it’s deep fried and topped with chilli, ginger and coriander. You can smell it a mile off but it’s certainly worth a detour.

But one of the biggest highlights in Changsha is a night cruise along the Xiang River. It starts at dusk in the heart of the city, and cruises around Orange Island, taking around two hours.

Most impressive of all is the outdoor light show which transforms the skyline into a canvas of light and colour. Perfectly synchronised and coordinated LEDs, set on the facades of the many high rises, create intricate animated light patterns.

As the boat cruises past Orange Island, the lush greenery contrasts with the bright lights of the city. Dominating all, is the towering sphinx-like statue of the young Mao peering out over the river, while in the distance, on the west bank of the river, the silhouette of Yuelu Mountain and the ancient Lushan Temple can be seen.

Although there’s plenty to do in Changsha, what I’m really here for is to see Huanan’s natural wonders, all in the north west of the province.

It’s a fast two-hour bullet train ride to the city of Zhangjiajie, whisking me there at speeds of over 200km per hour, to explore what they call the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area — it’s huge, covering 185 square miles and is Unesco listed.

In the side of the mountain is Tianmen Cave, or Heaven’s Gate, a huge hole wide enough for a fighter jet to fly through. Measuring 131.5m tall and 57m wide, it’s the world’s highest natural arch.

From the cable car, the Glass Skywalk, a 60m long glass platform, clings to the side of the cliffs. Walking on the transparent glass feels like stepping into the void, with the valley floor a stomach-churning 1400m below.

A series of escalators, cut deep inside the mountain, brings me to the foot of the arch, perfect for photos — and from here, another 999 steep steps lead downwards to a second cable car.

Then the otherworldly scenery of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, an hour’s drive from the city. The Unesco Global Geopark is best known for those towering sandstone pillars clad in greenery, with several places to drink in their majesty.

I start by taking the glass-sided Bailong Elevator, the world’s tallest outdoor lift, which rises up 326m for an unbeatable view of the pinnacles.

Throughout the whole park, there are more than 3,000 of these narrow limestone pillars, many over 200m high. But the most famous of these is Hallelujah Mountain, renamed after the huge success of the Avatar movie in China.

Local tourists hire colourful costumes of the indigenous Tujia people to have their pictures taken at the viewpoint. Concrete paths lead to other viewing platforms and there are shuttle buses to transport you around, should you feel weary.

Recently Zhangjiajie has also become a hotspot for adventure seekers — the centrepiece is the Glass Bridge, the world's longest and highest, spanning 430m between the cliffs of the Grand Canyon.

Dare to look down and, 300m beneath your feet, is the lush river valley. Those looking for more adrenaline thrills do bungee jumps from the midpoint but I’m content to just enjoy the spectacular view — rows of limestone peaks stretching into the far distance.

After crossing the bridge, there’s also the option of returning to the other side by zip line. It’s not for the faint hearted; after being fitted with a safety harness, the initial rush of speed is exhilarating.

But I’m soon gliding gently through the air with the wind in my face and the canyon below. On the other side there’s yet more fun — a winding transparent tube slide gets me back down, literally by the seat of my pants.

Nearby, at the foot of the mountains, Boafeng Lake — or the “Jade Pool of Heaven” — is an artificial marvel, created by a dam project. Its crystal clear waters reflect the surrounding karst peaks rising dramatically upwards, frequently topped by mist.

A boat trip takes me past strategically situated locals dressed in Tujia attire, calling out traditional greetings. It’s all a bit too touristy for my taste but the natural beauty more than makes up for it, as macaques hang from the trees and colourful birds whirl overhead.

As I take the bullet train back to Changsha, it’s easy to see how life in China has changed, as well as the pace of its transformation.

Identikit tower blocks cram new town centres, giant roads on stilts straddle the paddy fields and everything is sparklingly pristine. I first came here back in 1975 and the difference is astounding; from the area’s wild side to its modern face, I can’t wait to come back.

Getting There

Direct flights from Heathrow to Changsha cost from around £515 return with Hainan Airlines.

Changsha and Zhangjiajie are included in Wendy Wu's 16-day Gems of China Tour starting from £3,990 per person.

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