Zhangjiajie, the real world Avatar, China, 2010

zjj12010 in Zhangjiajie was still the year of Avatar–the movie of the blue humanoid species living on Pandora that broke box office records and surpassed Titanic as the highest-grossing film of all time–because James Cameron has cited the quartz-sandstone formations as his inspiration for Pandora. Heck, the Zhangjiajie even renamed the “southern Sky Column” mountains to “Avatar Hallelujah Mountain” for a brief moment in time. The pillars of Zhangjiajie extend as high as 3,540 feet into the sky and have been molded through long years of erosion has been caused by expanding ice in the winter and the dense foliage that grows on the rocks.

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Your trip through Zhangjiajie begins with taking the 百龙电梯 [bai long dian ti] up 326 stories to the top of a cliff. The Bailong, aka Hundred Dragons, Elevator is a glass elevator that is claimed to be the highest and heaviest outdoor elevator in the world. But once you get up there, you  truly do feel like you’ve been transported into a different planet of floating mountains flush with greenery.

I wish I had pictures that better represented the beauty of Zhangjiajie, but it was such an overcast day that my point-and-shoot Canon simply couldn’t get the job done.

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We spent about 5 hours walking through the park, most of which was on level ground, even by the cliffsides. No strenuous hiking trails were taken (lucky me because I otherwise would have never made it down).

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To see the “First Arch Under Heaven”, we had to cross an old steel bridge that hung over 3,000 feet in the air. Don’t look down.

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We eventually took cable cars down into the valley of Zhangjiajie, to see the mountains from below rather than above. The valley is so deep that we probably spent about 10 minutes in the cable car–although my memory isn’t the clearest so don’t take my word for it. It was a very long ride though. While the view from the top was priceless, I definitely enjoyed the view from below even more. It’s a whole other feeling to see these colossal columns towering over you and to marvel at how unfortunate a death it would be if they chose to topple over at that moment. We also walked down a “healthy path”,  建康步道 [jian kang bu dao]. You’re supposed to walk across the 元寶 [yuan bao], or gold ingots, to stimulate the soles of your feet and promote better circulation. There was another path operating under the same principle, of just sharp stones sticking out of the ground. Not recommended if you’re wearing flats or sandals; I could feel it even through the thick soles of my sneakers.

It was over an hour past noon when we were finally done exploring the park. Hungry and thirsty, we were treated to a wonderful meal of Hunan dim sum.

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Pretty different menu from the Cantonese-style dim sum most people are used to. My mom and I were handed these wonderfully fluffy 包 [bao] stuffed with spicy red chilis, mushrooms, and tangy, pickled vegetables that gave the filling a crispy texture. Also delicious was the kudzu 葛根粉 tart: think of egg custard tarts, but with a clear, gooey filling that has sweetness of brown sugar.

My favorite was the purple and orange yams deep-fried in a shape of the spring roll. So amazingly delicious and unfortunately not available in restaurants I’ve been to other than this one. And can’t forget the vegetarian 叉燒酥 [ca sao su]–more commonly known as char siu–! Golden layers of flaky pastry coddling vegetarian ham marinated in a mixture of honey, five-spice powder, 紅腐乳 [hong fu ru] or red fermented bean curd, and dark soy sauce. Piping hot, sweet, sour, and savory all in one. What a meal.

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