7 Very China Moments in the Avatar Mountains
Updated: Nov 11
Traveling through China is very different from traveling anywhere else in the world. This should come as no surprise since China only opened its borders to tourism about 50 years ago.
Our recent trip to Zhangjiajie (also referred to as the Avatar Mountains) was a microcosm of China travel quirks (though not necessarily exclusive to China).
China (along with the United States) is one of the largest pollution culprits. If you expect crystal clear skies and fresh air during your trip to the Zhangjiajie Mountains, prepare for the opposite. The mountains are remote, but the town surrounding them must be burning rubber, because that is all I could smell. And all my photos from the trip feature a lovely gray haze (that I tried to digitally remove for aesthetic purposes, as I am sure you can understand).
Unedited for your viewing pleasure.
Paved Hiking Paths
Ok, China is home to over 1 billion people, and all of those people like to go to the same tourist sites. Between our “adventures” to the Yellow Mountains and the Avatar Mountains, I have noticed a disappointing pattern that true hiking does not exist (at least in the few places I have visited). Unlike our hikes in Patagonia, Iceland, and New Zealand, the mountains in China feature paved paths and stairs to accommodate the masses of tour groups. In fact, if you want to traverse the mountains, you barely have to walk a step! There are sky trams, buses, and monorails all within the park. Or, if you are really tired, you can pay someone to literally carry you up the mountain.
Right: This is me crying because there are so many stairs.
I realize that we have the same fascination (obsession?) with fast food in America. Perhaps we both share the common denominator that we have a LOT of people to feed. However, I was a liiiiiiiittle bit surprised to find a McDonald’s at the top of a mountain. But, there you have it. I would be lying if I said we didn't demolish some chicken nuggets and fries after the thousands of stairs.
This one is true anywhere you go in rural China if you are obviously foreign (bonus points if you have blonde hair or locs). Again, tourism in China only opened up in recent history, so most of the population has not been exposed to anyone who looks different. I talked about this in my article on perks and quirks of living in China, and I ultimately look at this as an interesting cultural exchange. These ladies were so much fun and after graciously snapping our photo (since Andrew and I rarely get to actually be in photos together), asked if they could get one with me. I happily obliged and used my (minimal) Chinese to speak with them, to their delight.
I’ve become rather accustomed to the accessibility of western style bathrooms while living in Shanghai. Even if there isn’t one immediately available, you can usually wait long enough to find one. Additionally, most tourist attractions and hotels have them. Imagine my surprise when we arrived to our inn and found this bathroom in our room! There was no escape.
Shanghai, and China overall, has a very low crime rate—with the most common crime being petty theft. As you might remember, my second day in Shanghai, I was pickpocketed and it was a little upsetting. During our Zhangjiajie trip, I mistakenly left my phone behind on the last bus of the night. Panicked, because I didn't know who to call (or even how to communicate in Chinese if I found someone), I assumed my phone would be lost forever and I would have to go through the process of replacing it all over again. Thankfully, some honest soul turned in the phone and our “inn-keeper” tracked it down on the mountain (her uncle worked at one of the stations and held it for us). This may have been on par with the time Andrew lost his wallet in Iceland and someone turned it in to the police station. I was amazed!
You’re On Your Own
This is probably one of the most interesting differences I have noticed in China and it manifested itself during our trip. Perhaps it is the lack of a libelous society, or the fact that it isn't a customer service driven culture, but there isn’t an abundance of over-caution (or maybe even concern) when it comes to safety. The general assumption is that you should know enough to take care of yourself. On our last evening in the mountains, we had underestimated the length of our hike, and found ourselves at the opposite side of the park with thirty minutes to get to the sky tram down to our inn. We hopped on the last bus of the evening, which dropped us off at the upper station. We tried to explain to the driver that the tram was no longer in operation, but he shooed us out of the bus and tore off up the mountain, effectively leaving us stranded…in the dark…on top of a mountain… in a country where we don’t speak the language. Great. I like to imagine that in the US some friendly park ranger would take pity on two unwitting tourists and drive us down the mountain (plus, losing tourists on a mountain would be quite the liability). But, alas, we are in China. We stumbled upon five other stranded foreigners (from Russia and Poland) and considered our options. Fortunately, one of the women had brought a headlamp with her, and most of us still had a bit of battery life on our phones. After purchasing a round of beer from one of the stores/homes at the top of the mountain, we did what we had to do. We busted out our sad excuses for flashlights and began climbing down thousands of steps, through the woods, in the pitch dark. The hike took us a little over an hour and we were able to find our way back to our respective hostels. It actually may have been the most exciting part of our day!
Beer for the journey.
While traveling in China, you should be flexible and come prepared for some unique situations (and with a sense of humor). But overall, traveling in China is not as “scary” as many people may think. The people are friendly and even without speaking the language; you can manage to get by. At the very least, you will definitely stretch your boundaries and learn how to get yourself out of sticky situations. Happy Travels!