Thursday, 6 December 2012

Wulingyuan - An Other Worldly Place

Just one of the awe inspiring views across
the park
Wulingyuan was stunning.  Cold and damp for some of the time but stunning nevertheless.  It really does live up to the description "other worldly" - there is no better way to describe it.

There was low cloud and mist when we arrived by bus from Fenghuang but it was really atmospheric.  We still hoped for better weather as we would be spending a lot of time traipsing about and we really weren’t equipped for the cold and rain (and didn’t want to buy any more clothes that, we hoped, would be redundant for the rest of our trip).  We were lucky and we did have a few days of clear blue skies and sunshine and no rain.

It remained fairly cold but on a couple of days, the sky cleared and we had at least two beautiful days with blue skies and pleasantly manageable temperatures.  Obviously we didn’t want it too warm because we would be walking a lot but it was nice not to be shivering the whole time.

Our fellow tourists on the karaoke boat at Baifeng Lake
The entrance fees for the park (as throughout China) seemed a little steep to begin with.  It's a national park so it’s a bit like having to pay to go to the Lake District.  We are just not used to this in the UK.  No one charges you to go to the South Downs or the Jurassic Coast or Cornwall.  Of course in the UK you usually pay a premium in accommodation, food etc but you get to enjoy the countryside for free, and if money is tight you can always camp and take a picnic.  Not in China.  If it’s pretty, they build a wall around it and charge you to get in – mountains, forests, lakes, anywhere that people will flock to, to escape city life, they will capitalise on it. 

A staircase constructed on the side
of a sheer cliff face
And sometimes they go further and take an already outstanding area of natural beauty and make it look like Disneyland by adding Bambi, Thumper, dragons and pagodas (I may have mentioned this before).   We are hoping that they will tone this down in the future (surely?).  On the other hand it has to be said that they do make lots of places more accessible by building paths and steps to get up and down mountains which would otherwise be too steep and difficult to tackle for a lot of people, as well as lifts and cable cars in order to enjoy views that normally would require full rock climbing gear to reach.  Anyway, we forked out 300 yuan each (£30) plus 4 yuan insurance for a 7 day pass to the Zhangjiajie National Park. 

It is worth every single yuan and you can easily spend 7 full days exploring the area.  The scenery is jaw dropping.  If I were to recommend anywhere in China I would recommend this place.   Of course you have to stump up extra for the various lifts and cable cars but if you didn’t feel like you were bleeding money like an injured haemophiliac, it wouldn’t be China.

And of course, there are plenty of places around Wulingyuan area not included in the entrance ticket such as Baifeng Lake which was another 70 yuan but that included a boat trip around the lake (at no extra cost to our utter amazement) and this was also beautiful.  

Baifeng Lake
The boat trip was a cultural experience in itself.  We visited the lake on our first day in Wulingyuan and we were squeezed onto a boat with about 60 other (Chinese) tourists together with a guide equipped with a (very loud) microphone) who proceeded to gabble away in Chinese the whole way around the lake, inviting audience participation including impromptu karaoke.  The Chinese are happy to go along with this, there were several volunteers to do a stint at singing.  It was a bit surreal but on the whole an enjoyable experience.
We encountered our first monkeys in the Baifeng Lake area but unfortunately there were about half a dozen in two plain cages empty of anything to occupy them.  They did not seem to be in there for any reason, they were not aggressive, and there were plenty of other monkeys roaming free.  Whilst it was clear they were well fed It was still a little upsetting to see this, and we suspected the only reason for keeping the few in captivity was to guarantee some monkeys for the tourists.  We couldn't really understand this as there was no shortage of monkeys and watching them roam free all over the National Park was much more of an enjoyable experience.
Monkeys in the valley
We didn't bother with the Giant Salamander Museum on the road on the way to the lake (therefore saving ourselves 95 yuan) because they have a few resident Salamanders within the lake area that you can gawp at.  They don't really do much and they are not anywhere nearly as cute as the monkeys.

After the lake we spent about 5 days exploring the park itself.  We also, against our better judgment, rode both cable cars which were as terrifying as the cable car at Hua Shan but they were somehow slightly less disturbing for us as we did not feel as we were going to be pushed over the edge by hordes of other tourists when we reached the top.  There was plenty of space at the summit for you to get your bearings and come to terms with the fact that you were a ridiculously long way from the bottom.  There were also a lot less people which made you feel less likely that you would be pushed over the edge.
More monkeys
In fact, there were (relatively speaking) hardly any crowds at the park at all and this obviously made our visit more enjoyable, not having to plough our way through the equivalent of a Glastonbury crowd.  Of course, there were the usual tour groups, but not nearly so many as it was out of season and as the park itself is so huge you could really lose yourself in places.  We often found ourselves wandering around on our own, bumping into people only occasionally.

The only thing which threatened to spoil this amazing experience on occasion (but only a little) was the fact that the park committee clearly thought it was a good idea to pipe music throughout some of the more popular routes.  You therefore found yourself wandering around, sometimes completely isolated for minutes at a time (a long time in China), with only the birds for company and a soundtrack of really bad classical music emanating from a speaker cunningly disguised as a rock.  Only in China.  You’ve gotta love ‘em.
And more monkeys
Our first day in the park was spent walking through the river valley and where we encountered the free roaming monkeys with not a cage in sight.  Monkeys are the only mammals we have seen wild in China (apart from the rat I saw in the rubbish heap in Dali but that doesn’t really count).  Most wildlife we have seen is either unfortunately in a cage for sale as a pet (as in Kunming) or in a cage doubling up as a menu.  We suspect that there are many species indigenous to China but that they keep very quiet because they know that they will either end up in the wok or on a stick (depending upon their size).  Look what happened to the panda.

The valley walk
Indeed, our research had warned us to expect the restaurants around the park to be offering various delicacies for sale, some of which were suspected to be endangered, and sadly this did seem to be the case.  We didn’t see any mammals but there were plenty of huge cane toads, turtles and tortoises, snakes keeping fresh and alive (for now) in basins of water outside the various restaurants, there were dried bats on display, and pictures of other mammals such as pangolins and rabbits which presumably they could rustle up at a moment's notice.  Again, we were not tempted.

But thankfully no monkeys were on the menu.  The monkeys we encountered were very cheeky, very tame and very brave.  I actually thought they were a bit scary (they are wild monkeys after all) and we did get followed for ages by one particularly fierce looking female with a nasty scar on her face but she lost interest eventually and went off to beat up one of the other monkeys.  She was a bit of a bruiser.
The little ones were of course incredibly cute, and there were lots of little ones, which means that monkeys are doing much better than pandas and could teach them a thing or two.  The males look a bit mean too, but we had no problems with any of them – they just sauntered by looking very important, with a little glare in our general direction. 

The karst mountains
We fed the monkeys by hand although I was a bit reticent.  We had lots of fruit and nuts which they couldn't get enough of.  I’ve rarely seen monkeys in the wild and it’s been a long time since I’ve visited a zoo so found it quite amazing to watch them carefully take the fruit and nuts with their little hands, crack nuts or peel oranges just like we do, and chewing dates and spitting out the stone.  And their eyes betray a wary intelligent that is really quite unsettling.   

Much of the time the monkeys paid no attention to their human cousins, preferring to sit around foraging for food in the forested areas of the park, or snuggle up together grooming each other and picking salty residue from each others’ coats and eating it (which is apparently what they are doing when it looks like they are combing each other for fleas).   It was good to see that they seem well protected (in this part of China anyway), that there are hundreds of them, and that they all look very healthy.

Looking over the forest of karst mountains
The valley walk was an easy stroll following the river, crossing over several times, and encountering monkeys all along the way.  We walked for about 15km but no hills were involved so it was a breeze, even for us.

On other days we were a little more adventurous, braving the cable cars and walking up and down mountains using the paths and steps thoughtfully provided throughout the park. 

Paul spent one day at the park by himself and climbed all the way to the top of one of the mountains, getting the cable car back down before the buses back to the gate stopped running.  He climbed about 4000 steps to the top and his knees are still paying the price now.

Karst mountains as far as the eye can see
On other days we rode the cable cars to the top of two mountains and then followed the paths around the top (accompanied by the aforementioned soundtrack emitting from the speakers cleverly disguised as rocks).  The concrete paths direct you to various viewpoints (viewing platforms which were usually at the edge of a seemingly precarious precipice) from which you can enjoy staggeringly beautiful scenery, impossibly narrow shards of limestone karsts covered with trees and other vegetation. In some places it feels like you are suspended in mid air looking over the top of forests of steep karsts as far as the eye can see. 
These “viewing platforms” are places where you step out onto a rocky outcrop reinforced with concrete (you hope) with a 180 degree outlook, and with what looks like only a rickety waist high bamboo fence between you and certain death.  The fences are actually reinforced with steel but obviously for Paul some of them just reached past his knees which didn’t help the vertigo but wasn’t quite so much of a problem for me.  Some of the paths to the viewing areas led to steps down to the platform but the steps were out of view so that it appeared you would simply walk over the edge.

View from the cable car
Because of our fear of heights, we were not sure whether we would be able to fully enjoy this part of the trip and, looking back, we are both a little amazed that we were largely able to put to one side the panic and dread usually associated with this type of adventure, and enjoy one of the most amazing places we have seen in China and we are so glad we did.
The cable cars were of course particularly terrifying for us but they are not to be missed either.  Despite vowing never to even consider riding in any stupidly high cable car rides after our awful experience at Hua Shan, after much discussion we decided to brave both cable cars at Zhangjiajie.  We both managed to keep our terror in check for most of each ride, only threatening mental breakdown for about the last minute of each ride (which obviously felt like an eternity).  The views were awesome, cannot be described or captured on camera, and have to be seen to be believed.  It was worth experiencing sheer terror just to see the park from that perspective.
More stunning scenery

We were also incredible lucky with the weather.  We did not experience the ghostly mists that hover just below the summits of the karsts in the springtime, but the low level mist we saw on a couple of days added a quiet atmospheric quality to the park which wasn’t present on the clear days.  But when the sun came out, all the colours came alive and the karsts took on a real three dimensional quality that was only revealed in the cold winter sunshine.
Once again, westerners were a rarity and we only saw about half a dozen in all the time we spent at the park (almost a week).  The village of Wulingyuan was obviously geared to the tourist industry and as it was out of season it was noticeably quiet when we were there.  Lots of shops and restaurants were closed for the winter but we ate mostly at street stalls.  Paul particularly enjoyed some delicious squid and we had the best beef kebabs since we’ve been in China at a small stall run by a young Muslim lad from western China who was obviously skilled with the barbecue.  We also had barbecue roasted aubergine and red pepper flavoured with spices, which was absolutely delicious.  Man, that boy could cook.

One of the viewing platforms
We caught the bus every day from outside our hostel to the park gates, along with the various locals transporting their children, shopping (sometimes huge sacks of fruit and vegetables and on one occasion a dead goat in a basket which was quite disconcerting because although it was clearly dead, it looked like it had been shaved (I think they blanch them to remove the hair like we blanch tomatoes to remove their skin) but otherwise it was completely intact and looked like it was grinning at us).  Our daily bus journeys were an experience in themselves.
On our last day we were catching a train from Zhangjiajie station to Changsha in the late afternoon and from Changhsa we were catching an onward train to Guilin. 

As our train did not leave until 5.30pm we spent the morning exploring one of the other sights in Wulingyuan – the underground caves.  I am able to tell you little about them as the guide was Chinese and there was no information in English anywhere but you can still enjoy the natural formations and the light show!  As usual, rather than leave something in its natural state, the Chinese lit up the caves with multi coloured lights in an attempt to show the various formations at their best.  It looked a bit like Santa's grotto but we enjoyed it nevertheless.  The tour included a boat trip in the underground river (at no extra cost, again, much to our surprise!).

Paul enjoying the scenery
We wandered around marvelling at the huge underground caverns, the underground river and the various stalagmites and stalactites throughout.  However, near the end of the tour Paul sidled up to me and said “I’m not sure all these are for real”.  I have to admit that exactly the same doubts had crossed my mind.  I’m no geologist (and although Paul has A level Geology he professes to be no expert) but the evidence pointed to a bit of creativity within the caves. 
This was a shame because no embellishment was needed as the caves were indeed impressive and we are sure that some of the stalagmites and stalactites were for real but a lot were a bit dubious, to say the least, even to my untrained eye.  But all things considered, despite our suspicions we were not disappointed.  We have come to accept this type of thing in China as part of the whole experience.  In fact, sometimes it just adds to it.  We believe that if you were disappointed every time you suspected the Chinese were being a little bit creative with reality you would miss the point about China.
Dawn trying to look relaxed 
Wulingyuan was a great stop on our trip and Zhangjiajie National Park somewhere we would have no hesitation recommending for a visit.  Although the entrance fee seems high, you can easily spend a week exploring the part as it is huge and you would be hard pressed to get bored with the stunning vistas.

Our next and final stop in China was to be Yangshuo where we were heading for two weeks before our visas ran out.  We had a long journey ahead of us – 2 trains and a bus, but there was nowhere we wanted to stop on the way and we would have plenty of time to recover when we arrived in Yangshuo.
A speaker cunningly disguised as a rock
This actually led to a staircase down
to a viewing platform

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