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.

Hunan Province, China, 2010

We left Sichuan Province after descending from Mt. Emei to visit Zhangjiajie 張家界 National Forest Park in Hunan 湖南 Province. Our group arrived and checked in fairly early at the airport; what was there to do with 2 hours to kill? Get a cheap 90-minute foot massage! Signet Tours even covered it for us. mosquito

But no one expected that we wouldn’t be the ones enjoying the massage the most. A swarm of mosquitoes–colonized somewhere near the airport–had apparently been drawn to the inviting smell of fresh tourist blood and poured into the massage parlor. It was a massacre. While the microscopic pests had won the battle, we eventually won the war after an arduous hour of swatting. We were fortunate in that the massage parlor carried electric swatting nets: instant death. For the entire duration of the massage, it rained dead mosquitoes. I swear I’m not even exaggerating when I say we killed over hundred. I alone zapped 30 to a crisp.

We were survivors, albeit with burgeoning, red and itchy welts starting to form over our bodies. Our reward was dinner at a wonderful restaurant in Zhangjiajie: 亭里香特色餐館 [ting li xiang te se can guan]. ‘特色’ means ‘specialty’ and ‘餐館’ is the word for restaurant. The specialties served here were very traditional Hunan cuisine.

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Appetizers began with green raisins, thousand-year-old egg, and homemade egg-tofu steamed with mushroom broth in a wooden pot. Thousand-year-old egg, or 皮蛋 [pi dan], is made by preserving duck, chicken, or quail eggs in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, quicklime, and rice hulls for anywhere between several weeks to several months. Its origins came from 600 years ago in Hunan, during the Ming Dynasty, when–as legend has it–a homeowner discovered that a shallow pool of slaked lime, used for mortar in constructing his home months before, housed duck eggs. He set out immediately to produce more after finding the creamy, custard-like yolk and translucent jelly-like whites irresistibly delectable. They sound and look strange, but they are, indeed, delicious.

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Included in our vegetarian feast was also 百页 ‘bai ye’, pressed tofu sheets that have a delightfully chewy texture, stir-fried with some fresh hot peppers. Hunan people are famous for not being able to not have chili or peppercorns in their savory foods. So if you’re not used to eating incredibly spicy food, you may want to pair your meals with a glass of milk. Two other traditional Hunan dishes that I particularly enjoyed were the black sesame, deep-fried mochi (top right) and the 葛根粉 [ge geng feng] soup. 葛根粉 is the “kudzu” vine: since 200 BC in Chinese medicine, it has been used to treat anything from hangovers to upset stomachs to diziness to vomiting. Some health providers today even use it by IV to treat stroke, as it is known for increasing blood circulation in the heart and brain. Gustatorily, it is a starchy, viscous and sweet soup made from just the kudzu powder, boiling water, and sugar. Worth trying–don’t be put off by the strangeness!