Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Zhangjiajie...

We certainly would have heard of terms like sandstone, quartz, stalactites, and stalagmites during our geography classes but very few of us would have actually had a chance to experience them. I'm glad that I'm one among those privileged few. Monstrous sandstone rocks, colorful limestone caves, exhilarating forest treks, exuberant screams from mountain tops, its reverberating echoes, natural oxygen bars - all packed into one name - Zhangjiajie.

Located in the northwestern Hunan province, this geological national park is an abode to numerous flora and fauna. A forty-five minutes bus drive from Zhangjiajie city is all that is required to reach this park. A quick ticket (costing RMB 245) check at the entrance of this magnificent verdure nature reserve throws the gate open and all you have is unending chain of sandstone rocks, man made alleys passing among them, taking you to newer heights with every step you take. The incline made us perspire despite cold weather.

The sandstone rocks are lean though gigantically tall, brownish red colored, uneven surfaced and are clad with shrubbery scantily across the length and densely on the summit, giving it a feel of a tiny boscage. The miracles of nature, for me, were limited to magazines and television, but Zhangjiajie gave me a chance to witness such miracles in reality. There were rocks that had a semblance to a tortoise, a human face, a candle, a whip (the famous golden whip), dragon and several other forms. I continued my stride spellbound by nature's vivid manifestations. At some juncture, gradually, with every step I took, a sort of a bridge connecting one such tall mountain started unveiling itself. I was about to damn the tourism department for having spoilt the intrinsic beauty by building such bridges. As I got closer to it, I realized that it was a natural one, to add, it is the world's highest natural bridge. I was awestruck by the architectural capabilities of our mother nature. I allowed my camera to have a quick glimpse of it and raced towards it to have a privilege of treading the world's highest bridge. The thin metal balustrades of the bridge were fully clad with pairs of locks, signifying the everlasting bondage among the couples who lock them. This natural super structure brought our first day's trek to a halt. We checked into a tiny lodge, which provided us with sleeping space, hot water shower and sumptuous food. Unfortunately there was no heater, mercury levels fell below zero, outside rain and snow mingled and fell from heaven. I still remember that night to be one of the coldest nights I've spent.

A hot breakfast of noodles with omelet helped us beat the cold and realize our second day's itinerary to Yangjiajie scenic area. The red dusty roads that I witnessed the previous day were now turned into slurry - mixture of ice, water and red soil. My black Nike track shoes were now brown and our pants had artistic patches of slush. The shuttle service gave us a warm ride to Tianzhi Mountain that lasted, sadly, for just 30 min. The warmth of the bus made me reluctant to alight, but I had to. The fog was so dense that our visibility was limited to a few feet. We boarded a bus to Yuangjiajie had more picturesque and diverse collection of rocks than Zhangjiajie. While the latter had splendid landscapes formed by collection of sandstone mountains, each rock of Yangjiajie had its own personality and distinctive beauty. This is the place where we got up, close and personal with the rocks - we walked amidst them, tread them, touched them, and got photographed with them. A Cock Heralding the Day welcomed us to this scenic spot. It resembles a cock proudly standing atop a tall stone pillar welcoming the dawn The journey ahead was a bit adventurous and added thrill to the trek, we had to walk on the slippery rocks, ascend steep and wet steps, had to maneuver to get through the weird rock formations. The cold dense fog greatly reduced the visibility, the humongous mountains appeared like apparition revealing hazily from the moving mist.

On the way to Tianbo mansion, we ran into a courtyard enclosed by wooden structures on all four sides. It housed traditional Chinese wedding attire and other bridal materials which were quite fascinating, but the best of all was a charcoal heater, maintained by a local person, which mitigated my shivering and gave me much welcomed warmth.

The "Tianbo mansion" is located atop a very huge rock. Metal stairs lead to the summit, which is almost a ninety-degree incline. The view from the summit was again a hazy one due to the weather but occasionally the passing clouds gave us a glimpse of the landscape hidden by them, which was both mysterious and interesting. The other equally beautiful spot was "One Step to Heaven", truly lives up to its name.

"Wulong worshipping Buddhism" was another fascinating spot from which we could see the summit of another rock from a very close distance. This particular rock has a sparse growth of bushes, unfortunately some ignorant tourists had littered that green rock top with used water bottle, I hope that would be cleaned someday. We took an offbeat route inside the forest from here and got lost for some duration, which again added some kick to the trek.

The place I liked most was "Corridor in the cliff". A very spacious corridor, atop the mountain, to which an adventurous twenty minute trek is needed to reach. It is a natural reverberation hall, the echoes resound harmonically. The passing clouds play a peek-a-boo revealing the terrific landscape below. The thought that struck me at that time was, how much more gorgeous this landscape might have been if the sun wouldn’t have lost the battle with the clouds.

Our second day had a happy ending, with a hotpot of assorted vegetables that gave life to the cold slothful cells of my body. A hot shower and a sound sleep quickly followed the dinner.

The third day was the day of descending. With an add-on, made of rope, to the shoes, to prevent slipping due to ice, and backpacks in position we started gravitating the depths of Zhangjiajie mountains. It took nearly two hours for this job. It was extremely cold and snow kept falling. The descent was mostly by steps, which were a bit too slippery and the green forests were so thick, that the surrounding landscape was almost hidden by them. A shuttle bus drove us to suo xi yu, a small town. After rambling for about an hour in search of a hotel, we checked into a posh but affordable hotel in the outskirts. The dinner included some spicy vegetables and fish, cooked in authentic Hunan style.

Yellow dragon cave was our destination on fourth and final day. A taxi hitchhiked us from the town, the tickets to the cave cost RMB 65. This cave consists of quartz stalagmites and stalactites, which were lit by colorful lights. There were numerous of them with vivid colors, various shapes & sizes. The boat ride was something that I had not expected, inside the cave. The cave is not illuminated dazzlingly and I had to pump up my ISO rating to 1600 for photographing, carrying tripod is surely worth the pain. It takes more than two hours to fully traverse the cave. A countryside motor rickshaw dropped us back.

Hunan food, as all of us know, is very spicy and sumptuous. The taste of final dinner in Zhangjiajie city, is still lingering in my mouth. The Hunan style fish head, with chilly-soy sauce, noodles immersed in it.... ummm.... it waters my mouth every time I think of it. Not to forget the Changsha mifa (Changsha rice), which again is a very authentic, delicious cuisine of Hunan. The taxi drove us to airport and there ended my four days of a memorable Odyssey to Zhangjiajie. I'm an avid trekker and have witnessed various landscapes, but the one I saw in Zhangjiajie, the sandstone mountains and caves were something very new and exciting to me.

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