Changsha, the city where I live and the capital of Hunan, sits on the flat plains of the northwest of the province. But head west, and the plains are eventually replaced by spectacular mountains. Last spring, I visited the karsts of Dehang; this year, I saw their even more beautiful cousins in Zhangjiajie, also known as Wulingyuan.
The peaks are contained within a large national park (or three, it was never entirely clear) that is obviously set up for group tours. Without a guide, getting lost was easy, and most of our first day was spent trying to find our hostel. The Golden Whip Stream trail — one of the main scenic areas within the park — was packed with visitors. Along the main paths, opportunities were plentiful to take your photo with a Miao girl decked out in elaborate traditional metal headdresses. When we found ourselves on an elevator ascending 330 meters to the top of a peak, we wondered exactly what it was we were doing there.
The next day, we had a little more leisure to lose ourselves. Following the advice of our hostel’s manager, we followed a path that was supposed to lead us down the mountain. Eventually, it did so. But first it led us to the Corridor in the Cliffs, which offered a breathtaking, nearly 360-degree view over the tops of countless karsts and the valley beyond. This was the Zhangjiajie we had heard so much about. All of a sudden, eight hours on a bus — and a softball-sized bruise acquired on the rather slippery stairs — seemed worth it.
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