After my days in urban Shanghai and Suzhou, the next stop on my Chinese Adventure 2015! itinerary was visiting the Avatar Mountains in the rural Hunan province. Located outside the city of Zhangjiajie in what had become China’s first national forest park in 1982, seeing the famous mountains was the next item on my list of round-the-world trip pillars.

As previously mentioned, Buzzfeed Travel has been a bit of an addiction of mine over the last few years; as the popularity of these unique rock formations grew, so did my interest in visiting them. Designated as a World Heritage Site in 1992, only a few decades ago this part of Hunan, a legitimate subtropical forest, was unknown to anyone but local Chinese villagers. Today over 20 million visitors come to the area to see the concentration of quartzite sandstone formations found nowhere else in the world. With some 243 peaks and more than 3000 karst pinnacles and spires, the park is now referred to as the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Interest Area.

After a two hour flight from Shanghai followed by an hour long cab ride from the Zhangjiajie airport, I arrived at my accommodation in Zhangjiajie.

Going out on a bit of a limb a few months back, I’d booked a newly posted hostel on Airbnb without any reviews. The location seemed perfect though, only a few minutes walk from the Yangjiajie entrance into the park, and at a super cheap rate with beyond amazing views. Because the posting had been in English, I’d also assumed that the hostel management also spoke some English…

Well the location was perfect, as were the views (as seen above), however I was alarmed to find no one at the hostel spoke any English. Now, if you’ve read my Suzhou post, you know this shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise at this point in my trip, but due to the fact that I was only one of two hostel guests, and there was no internet, I was suddenly on the edges of panic mode.

Internet issues had plagued me since I’d first arrived in China and learnt firsthand what it meant for the Chinese government to censor its usage (No Instagram?? No Facebook?? NO GOOGLE????) but being without any connection at all left me without my handy Mandarin translator app! Fortunately, the very helpful young man at reception had his own translation app and, between that and a bit of charades, was able to give me some directions on seeing the park the next day.

However that didn’t solve my most pressing problem: when planning my stay, I had greatly underestimated the total remoteness of the hostel, and soon found myself without any options for food and drink. The nice guy at reception kindly assured me that the tap water was safe to drink and that it came directly from the stream outside but, considering the pollution I’d seen getting there (not to mention the old man doing his laundry in that very stream 30 minutes prior), I decided not to chance it and opted instead to find some bottled water. Stepping outside, I looked around for the nearest convenience store.

(Cue full distress mode.)

Fortunately the hostel offered a cheap dinner option, and I was able to fall asleep after some rice, oily julienned potatoes, and lots of tea. Waking up the next morning, I was super excited to have something real to eat, and bounded down the hostel steps to a breakfast of… rice, oily julienned potatoes, and lots of tea. Moments later my heart almost lept out of my chest when I was presented with a single hard boiled egg, some small steamed buns, and real instant coffee!!!

Now, one of the reasons I was so excited to visit China in the first place was to be out of my element for awhile; after my fair share of traveling, experiencing legitimate culture shock has become an infrequent occurrence. For this reason I’d been looking forward to being surrounded by a different culture, different language, and different foods. Well, while that all sounded exciting and romantic in theory, by day 2 in remote Zhangjiajie, China was kicking my ass.

So far on my trip, after hearing that I’m traveling solo, people ask me the same two questions: 1) don’t you get bored? and 2) don’t you get lonely? To the first question I always answer truthfully: no, never. As a textbook introvert with an overactive amygdala I can’t imagine being bored regardless of where I am, and can’t even remember the last time I experienced boredom. To the second question, until China, I would also answer no, never. For the last three months, when I wanted company I’d find it, when I wanted to be alone, I would; it had been easy. But since Suzhou, and especially after arriving in remote Hunan, without even the option of company, I found myself super lonely.

Of course half of this I only realized in hindsight, but when you come to depend on iMessage, whatsapp, Instagram, and Facebook to stay constantly connected to family and friends, having your only lifeline to the outside world taken away (even if it is a wifi signal) is sure to affect a person. Throw on top of that a new dependency on what would ordinarily be considered inedible food and the inability to effectively communicate with a single person around you and, well, it starts to get to you. If this was culture shock, China was clearly winning.

But back to the park!

I soon learned that like many things, the Chinese do their national parks a bit differently. More like an amusement park/national park hybrid, arriving at the Yangjiajie entrance of the scenic area was a bit of a zoo. Tour groups run the show at most tourist sites in China and an individual traveler’s only options are to a) step aside and wait indefinitely for the crowds to subside or b) jump headfirst into the madness, elbows poised.

Once past any of the three park entrance gates (located on the north, west, and east sides of the huge park), a visitor is shuttled through the scenic area via a network of buses and cable cars. Compared to an American national park, where visitors show up expecting to get their hike on and leave somewhat dirty, national parks in China are suited more for siteseeing than physical activities, so tourists don’t have to hike an inch if they don’t want to. (Consequently, always the image-conscious crowd, I couldn’t believe how many Chinese women were sporting high heels!)

Some shots above and below from the Yangjiajie cable car, including the first views of the quartzite sandstone pillars!

As you can see, the ride is absolutely gorgeous, and just a sneak peek of the sights that await further in the park.

Instead of riding the cable car, visitors can also reach the top of the mountain platform by hiking up a series of steps, which takes about three hours. I opted to ride the cable car up then walk down the steps when leaving at the end of the day. A view from the Yangjiajie scenic area of the west side of the park is pictured below. Despite the smog, the views in all directions were incredible, my pictures don’t come close to doing the scenery justice!

Interestingly enough, in what was the most remote area I visited in my entire time in China, I encountered an internet signal! (How funny that I could find excellent wifi on the top of a mountain but not clean water at my hostel… though by this point I was stocking up on the Chinese equivalent of Gatorade as I passed by the abundant national park vendors.)

I’d read about the crowds that could gather within the national park but not even this had prepared me for the actual experience. Tourists there didn’t appear to be as into the beautiful scenery as much as taking a selfie with a mountain in the background. The viewing points are so tiny it was often like a wrestling pit trying to see over the edge. The good news was the groups were in and out in a matter of minutes, but the bad news was the tour groups were neverending so waiting for a break in the crowd was futile.

After the hassle I’d experienced in Suzhou, I still wasn’t letting people take pictures with me, and soon found that being able to convincingly pretend to not understand when they’d ask was the first actual benefit of no one around me speaking English!

Some of the more interesting scenes within the park pictured above and below. As mentioned earlier, visitors to the park aren’t required to walk at all if they so choose; sedan chairs are available for hire throughout the viewing points, often carrying people between bus stops and up or down flights of steps. Separately, pictured below, outside the Tourist Information building (and KFC?!), a huge projector was set up playing Chinese music videos dedicated to the beauty of the park. Not random at all!

Speaking of Tourist Information, I once again found myself in trouble after completing my round of my first stop, the Yangjiajie scenic area. Based on the directions from my hostel, I knew that I needed to catch a bus to head to the next viewing point to see the famous Avatar Mountain range, but got stuck when I arrived at the bus stop and (shockingly) found all information provided in Chinese. I thought I’d lucked out when my hostel had provided me with an English language map of the park but, after actually entering and seeing that all signage was in Chinese, I had no way of comparing the English names on my map with the Chinese names shown on the signs! One would think you could simply marry the maps up with one another and compare sites and routes, but for reasons unknown the entire park area is without an official tourist map, and unfortunately the half dozen versions readily available are less than detailed and barely match up! I was so happy to find the Information desk until, after waiting awhile, I finally accepted that just like every other Information desk I’d seen so far in China, it was more for show than practical use.

Knowing I had a 50/50 chance of getting to where I wanted to go based on the two long queues available, after unsuccessfully asking for directions from nearby tour guides and tourists, I bit the bullet and just got in a line.

And chose right!

After a 15 minute bus ride I was in the Yuanjiajie scenic area and on my way to seeing the famed Avatar Mountain!

This part of the park was easily my favorite and made all the stress and chaos of getting there 100% worth it. The views were INCREDIBLE, again my pictures don’t come near to doing the mountains justice.

From the Yuanjiajie scenic area visitors get on a two hour walking path through a series of mountain platforms snaking through the tops of the rock pillars, hundreds of feet in the air! One of the coolest spots is pictured below, called the ‘First Bridge of the World’.

After countless years of wind and water erosion the two rock formations shown are now only connected by a thin chunk of rock; visitors have to walk single file across with the below drop on either side! Not for the faint of heart.

And below, the iconic Avatar Mountain, renamed after James Cameron’s blockbuster film, Avatar. The mythical setting of the movie, Pandora, is said to be based on these very out-of-this-world rock formations.

After taking in the awesome views I ended the day by returning back the way I came, but this time taking the stone steps down the mountain instead of the cable car. Beautiful and exhausting, I couldn’t imagine having gone up that way earlier in the day!

Later that night it started to rain. Hours later when morning came, it was still raining.

For THREE DAYS it didn’t stop raining.

While the rain did lend itself to some super dramatic views, for the most part visibility was nonexistent (being soaked through and getting repeatedly poked in the head by umbrellas on the narrow mountain paths didn’t help the situation).

On my last day in Zhangjiajie I officially cracked.

After eating only oily potatoes and rice for three days (and a small order of popcorn chicken, thank you KFC!), I had come to depend on those small steamed buns and instant coffee every morning. Due to the language barrier and inconsistent wifi signal, I hadn’t had a real conversation with anyone in days and the constant rain was steadily wearing me down. I’d just come down to breakfast to find my beloved instant coffee stash locked up, with a ¥ sticker on top. Breakfast was supposed to be included in my room price, but at my rate of consumption, they must’ve seen an opportunity to start charging for it. The obvious solution for anyone in their right mind would be to walk back upstairs and get their cash, however I was definitely not in my right mind at this point of the trip and instead sat down stupidly at a table. Minutes later the cook came over and placed the regular plate of oily potatoes in front of me; I looked up puzzled and tried to sweetly signal ‘where the f*ck are my steamed buns?’ to which she sweetly signaled back ‘I’m sorry! there are no more‘ and walked away.

At that moment I looked over to the table next to mine where there were three Chinese tourists with a plate between them piled high with steamed buns. And that was the exact point when China broke me. Before I could stop them single tears were silently rolling down my cheeks. Defeated, I casually pivoted my chair away from the table to hide my tears and turned to watch the rain fall into the open courtyard before me. (After awhile the cook came over offering some instant coffee free of charge, but the next table never did share those steamed buns…)

Even at the time I knew the entire situation was ridiculous. Wars are being fought, refugees are having to abandon their homes, people are being killed and here I am crying over steamed buns and Nescafé. Even so, those few days were hard enough emotionally that I avoided even thinking about them for a few weeks. In that time I realized that despite being on this trip solo, thanks to the love and support I receive every single day from my family and friends, I’m never really alone. And for that I’m grateful.

Needless to say, after four days I couldn’t wait to leave Zhangjiajie. I’m happy I went, and that I was able to come out of the experience a stronger person for it, but to anyone planning a visit to the area please heed this advice: Go with a friend or loved one and bring a Chinese speaking guide. And maybe some snacks 😉

Thanks for reading!

xo Carrie