Zhangjiajie is stunning when the sun shines. It loses much of its charm in the fog and rain
Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon Glass Bridge - the world's longest and highest glass-bottomed bride - is as thrilling as it is terrifying.
With its captivating landscapes and amazing nature, Zhangjiajie in the northwest of China’s Hunan is supposed to be at its very best in October when the weather is pleasant and the scenery autumnal. This year, unfortunately, the weather failed to live up to its promise and during our recent four-day trip, the famed Heaven’s Door on Tianmen Mountain and the Southern Sky Column used for the floating “Hallelujah Mountains” of Pandora in James Cameron’s “Avatar” remained stubbornly hidden in the mist.
The itinerary was organised by Thai Smile Airways to mark the new timetable of its full-service flights connecting Bangkok with Changsha, the capital city of Hunan province. Right now, the airline offers direct flights twice a day with the sort of highlights – baggage allowance, seat selection, inflight meals and Royal Orchid Plus miles – you don’t normally expect from a budget airline.
“Our flight schedules are designed to enable travellers to plan for festive seasons or long holidays. We are seeing a dramatic rise in Chinese travellers and want to also meet the needs of Thai travellers looking for new, exciting destinations. China is always on the list of preferred destinations for Thais," says Charita Leelayuth, acting chief executive of Thai Smile Airways.
We travelled before the seasonal change in the airline’s schedule, flying out of Suvarnabhumi Airport in the evening and only travelling as far as Changde, roughly halfway between Changsha and Zhangjiajie.
The following morning we boarded a bus for the two-hour drive to Zhangjiajie, home to the famed Wulingyuan Scenic Area encompassing thousands of jagged quartzite sandstone columns, caves filled with stalactites and stalagmites, two natural bridges, and many endangered plant and animal species.
This was my second trip to the area and I was looking forward to revisiting the breathtaking scenery. This time, though, was very different from the glorious weather of July, with rain lashing down and a definite chill in the air.
China was known as the Land of the Divine in ancient times, and Chinese people believe Tianmen Mountain, which literally means “Heaven’s Door Mountain”, is really the door to heaven. Its name refers to the colossal doorway through the rock, which requires climbing up 999 steps. Last time, with a blue sky adding to the splendour, I had no hesitation about walking and taking in the panoramic views. The time, already wet, I took the world’s longest cableway. The ambience on summit was eerie, the mist completely blocking our view of the surrounding landscape and we were disappointed that we couldn’t even see heaven’s gate. Another point of interest here is the 100-metre-long “Coiling Dragon” Cliff glass skywalk, which was so crowded with tourists that we gave it a miss.
Fans of extreme sports love this area. One of the most memorable events organised here was the 2013 Red Bull Drifting Race between Italian racer Federico Sceriffo and Hong Kong’s James Tang along Heaven Road with its 30 hairpin curves and 13 sharp turns.
Others have included the World Wingsuit League (WWL)’s Wingsuit Flying Championship, the Red Bull Tianmen Mountain Ladder Downhill Cycling Competition along the steep path leading to Tianmen Cave and shows by Hungarian aerobatic pilot Peter Besenyei, the French Spiderman Alain Robert and American professional skydiver Jeb Corliss who jumped out of a helicopter at 6,000 feet and glided through a 100ft wide archway in Tianmen Mountain. Russian wingsuit fliers Gleb Vorevodin and Ratmir Nagimianov have also put on amazing spectacles by jumping from the top of the mountain.
None of those feats would be been possible in this weather though and it comes as little consolation to hear from our Thai guide that the rainfall is unusual for the time of year.
That night, we sit in the outdoor amphitheatre as rain continued to fall to watch the Tianmen Fox Fairy Show, a love story between a woodsman and a fox fairy.
The highlight of the trip, at least for me, came on day three with a visit to the longest and highest glass bridge in the world – 430 kilometres long and 300 metres above the floor of the canyon. As thrilling as it is terrifying, walking on the bridge has gained widespread popularity since its opening in 2016 with many viral videos showing tourists peering through the glass floor below.
The Chinese guide tells us that the six-metre-wide bridge, which connects the two sides of the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon and has a steel frame supported by four pillars on the edges of two cliffs, can support 800 people at a time. With a triple layer of more than 120 glass panels, each consisting of two-inch-thick tempered glass, it has proved its strength and safety with a car driving with passengers across the bridge and people smashing the glass panel with sledgehammers. Visitors are provided with protective shoe covers before they walk across.
It was the only place where we enjoyed a good experience during our stay as all the other sights were blanketed in thick fog, even the Southern Sky Column at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park that we visited that afternoon. The 3,544-foot column is one of 3,000 in the forest park that became the inspiration for the magical “floating peaks” in “Avatar” and was later renamed “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain”.
Five hours later we were back in Changsa and ended our trip with a shopping expedition to the walking street on Huangxing Road where, as luck would have it, it was neither foggy nor wet.
IF YOU GO
- From Sunday through March 29, Thai Smile operates WE616 on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 2.30pm and 6.45pm. WE617 leaves Changsa at 7.50pm and 10.45pm.