(long overdue summary of my travels during May 1st holiday)
Established in 1982 as the first national park in China, Zhangjiajie is often compared in importance to the establishment of Yellowstone in the US. Mist-wreathed crags of uplifted quartzite claw the skies above subtropical forests yet inhabited by some of the rarest and most endangered species in China--the pangolin and cloud leopard, for example.
Far more in evidence, in many parts of this park, is the common species: touristas horribilas Sinensis. In utter banality, these people flock to certain designated "must see" spots... and then proceed to ignore the wondrous natural phenomena all about them in favor of taking pictures--of themselves, and only of themselves. At the lookout point on Mount Tianzi, for example, I sat in the midst of their bustling activity... not ten feet from the edge of a thousand foot drop and needless to say gorgeous view. Group after group came to the edge, turned their backs to the needle-peaks behind them, and posed for the camera. After their chance to authenticate the trip for viewers back home had expired, they immediately lost any interest in the lookout point. The noise was incredible--one favorite activity was hooting at distant cliff faces in order to hear an echo.
Luckily, Zhangjiajie National Park, has something for everyone. The presence of a few well-defined scenic spots within the park that are easily reached by bus, elevator, and cable car, means that most tourists are rushed through a relatively small portion of the park with the ease of diarrhea through a slick bowel. Conversely, for the hiker willing to try something a little more strenuous, and to plot a course into the depths of the mountainous defiles, all the noise and ruckus can be left behind.
Day 1: I awakened to the sound of hotel doors slamming; the race to get into the park before the manifold hordes had begun. I was a bit tired, considering that I had flown into Hunan the night before and only found a place to sleep well after midnight.
Just inside the entrance of the park, I found myself in the midst of the tourists, taking the cable-way as an easy route to the top of the flat-topped mountain where the Huangshi village once stood. My estimation was that cherry-picking this spot in the early morning made the most sense, as it would only grow more crowded as the day went on. Why not?
I chose a route going clockwise around the edge of the mountain; fortunately this proved to be the less popular route for the tour groups. The path I walked, and the chasm beside it, were quiet except for the calls of wild birds echoing across the gulf.
I won't bother to repeat all the myriad names the park has given to the various pinnacles and vistas... one gets tired of 'fairy' this and 'monkey general' that after a few minutes. An hour and a half took me around the rim of the mountain. Another half an hour allowed me to scramble down a stairway into the surrounding valleys... through the predictable horde of tourists. Onwards, I searched for a route less traveled.
A pleasant path bumbled along the banks of a boulder-strewn creek. I noticed that the path was paved with limestone slabs containing the odd fossil ammonite. If the builders had known the value of such things, perhaps they would have chiseled these specimens out. The air was laden with healthful ions as advertised by a park sign. Monkeys hooted in the trees and tourists hooted back at them from the path below. Seeing food being thrown to the simians, it wasn't hard to understand why monkeys might congregate along the more touristed routes. I predicted that I might very well be witness to a monkey-bite by the end of my three day stay in the park.
Stopping at the base of a gorge to sketch the jagged walls and their encrustation of greenery turned out to be a bit of a mistake. All who passed by wished to disturb this strange artistic foreigner. Much like monkeys, foreigners are a sight not to be missed or left in peace. I began to predict that monkeys wouldn't be the only ones taking a bite out of the tourists.