We exit the #Zhangjiajie airport to a swarm of eager taxi drivers offering their services. After swatting them away, profusely reassuring them we have a ride, we continue to wait an hour for our driver. He finally arrives and greets us by unceremoniously tossing our luggage in the trunk before returning to the driver’s seat. We shrug and sit in the back for our ninety minute tour of rural #China. Our driver lays on the horn relentlessly as he weaves through cars parked helter-skelter on the street. The air is thick with smog. We pass ramshackle buildings abutting the road and the odd chicken thrown in for good measure; there is no denying it—we aren’t in Shanghai anymore. After the bumpy road disintegrates into unpaved dirt, and the air becomes so thick with burning rubber, you can feel it catch in your throat, we take a few more turns up the winding mountain pass and arrive at the gates of Zhangjiajie park. Just on the other side is the understated, yet charming, Tongfu Inn.
Carol, our contact and hostess, is out, but we are shown to our room. It’s average size and clean. The chill from the mountains seeps in and I already decide to sleep in full winter wear that evening. The most surprising trait is the eastern style bathroom—complete with a squat toilet and a shower nozzle placed practically above.
The “inn” may be more aptly categorized as a hostel. There is a communal atmosphere and we trade stories with other travelers in the evening over dinner prepared by Carol’s mother. She is a one-woman restaurant, taking our orders by showing us a menu (considerately translated into English) before whizzing away to the outdoor stone kitchen where she begins chopping up vegetables amidst the clattering of pots and pans. She returns with two dishes that should last for two meals; but we both clean our plates. Satiated, we turn in early to prepare for our full day of hiking in the morning.
In the morning, we see the sun rise behind the mountains; though the ever-present smog diffuses its rays. I am disheartened that even up in this remote region, the notorious pollution shrouds the views. We walk along the road a short distance to the sky tram, which carries us to a bus stop. Tourists following brightly clad tour guides pour in, and we are transported to our next destination within the park. As we careen around impossible turns at top speeds, I can’t help feeling like Harry Potter on the Knight Bus.
Zhangjiajie park (also referred to as the “Floating Mountains” or the “Avatar Mountains”) is gorgeous. It is connected via a system of buses, sky trams, and monorails to provide easy access to its miles of natural beauty. However, it doesn’t take long for me to question whether the benefits of easy access to nature outweigh the detriment to its preservation. Stalls line the walkways selling an array of street food and tchotchkes. Any peaceful communion with nature is interrupted by voices blaring through megaphones and hundreds of tourists stopping to take photos every step of the way. I look on in dismay as park patrons gleefully toss plastic wrapped food to the resident monkeys and leave behind the garbage. Within minutes, I am tired of the din and we frantically seek solace away from the crowds.
We find a path just one minute from the bus stop where the crowds immediately disperse and the sounds of megaphones no longer mar the silence. In fact, after spending the morning jostling for the perfect photo of the mountains that inspired James Cameron, we find ourselves almost alone with a gorgeous view. Another couple sits alongside us in silence.
My overall impression of our time in the park teeters between appreciation for its beauty and concern over its commercialization. As we traverse the beautiful 10-Mile Gallery corridor, the whirring of a monorail every three minutes interrupts the stillness. After we ascend thousands of concrete steps to the highest point of the park, we are rewarded with a fast food meal at McDonald’s. Has the ease of accessing natural wonders created a greater appreciation for their preservation, or has it created another form of entertainment for mass consumption; just another quickest, easiest way to get an Instagram-worthy photo? I don’t claim to know the answer, but visiting the park did leave me with many questions.
On the evening of our final day, we arrive back at the Tongfu Inn. The sun has set, and as we approach, we can smell food wafting from the kitchen. The sounds of laughter greet us and everyone offers a warm hello while they quickly make room for us to sit. Carol sits at a round table with her friends who eagerly ask us about America (and quiz us on every Chinese-American professional athlete). Together, with Carol translating and lots of laughter, we cobble together a language we all understand. Andrew pops open a local beer and toasts with our new friends. Before long, we are taking photos and meeting families via video calls. Though separated by thousands of miles, and as many years of history, beneath the unique (and fascinating) cultural differences, we are all very similar. Happiness, family, and safety are universal values. After a final round of toasts (and a final bout of pictures), we take our leave for bed. Another day of hiking awaits us with the sunrise.
As I fall asleep, it isn’t lost on me that here, in this tiny inn in the middle of rural China, we enjoyed the most authentic experience of our entire trip.