The Land of Floating Mountains


There is one major problem with all the places I have passed, visited and seen on my travels in China, which I have done my best to describe to you.  All the superlatives in my vocabulary are rapidly becoming devalued.  Everything is beautiful or spectacular or extraordinary.  This makes it rather difficult to emphasise to you when something is entirely of another order or type.  In describing the next two or three days that I spent in Wulingyuan park, the best way to do this is to set it apart from everything else.  I have seen many beautiful places, but a stunning mountain in China does not look wildly different from one in Europe or North America.  Wulingyuan, on the other hand, is a landscape which, simply, I have never before encountered. 


I rode from Zhangjiajie out to the town of Wulingyuan (after which the park is named).  It is only 30km and it was a beautiful day.  However, about 15km in on the steady climb uphill I stopped for a quick drink and noticed a little tweak in my Achilles tendon.  This proved to be the beginning of a relatively serious injury which was to take me off the road for more than a week.  It was probably the result of the excessive distance from the day before and insufficient stretching on this day.  Silly me! 


After climbing for about 20km, the ride took me through a tunnel about 1,500m long and when I emerged the other side, the road angled down into a steady descent all the way to the town where I was staying – which was a mercy for my increasingly painful ankle as I could free-wheel almost the whole way.  During this descent I saw for the first time the sandstone stacks of rock characteristic of the area looming up left and right, towering hundreds of feet above me, as I whizzed along the tree-lined road that was cut deep into the gorge. 


The place I was staying was near another famous landmark called the Baofeng Lake.  I was a bit disappointed that my hostel was not “lakeside” as I suppose I had chosen to believe it would be.  I was later to learn, it wasn’t that kind of lake.  Having got installed by early afternoon, I rode my bicycle the short distance up the hill towards the lake.  I was stopped by a gate and ticket office, where (quite rightly) all and sundry had to pay for the privilege of seeing this amazing sight. 


Entering the park, dark overhanging rock faces shot up all around me forming almost a 360° sheer-faced amphitheatre, and down one of its walls a waterfall plunged hundreds of feet into a steady stream that completed its final descent in a cascade of smooth flows over angular rocks and under a stage that had been erected for evening time performances of folk shows and concerts.  Immediately on my right was a flight of stairs that went up and up and narrowed and narrowed until it disappeared up a chimney between two leaning faces of rock that almost kissed one another.


No one was taking this way (as it did look like damn hard work) but the little slave driver in my head said “no, you’re going up it.”  So up I went.  This was evidently a very bad thing from the perspective of my injury but I don’t regret it in the least.


Climbing step after step through the narrow chimney and onward where it opened out into a wet and green jumble of trees and bushes, I eventually got so hot I stripped to the waist in an effort to preserve my only shirt and sweater from being drenched in sweat.  No one was around so I don’t think I offended (or excited!) anyone.  After 40 minutes, I finally reached the summit of these stairs and whoooooaaaaaa………!


A glorious view as far as the eye could see of sandstone peaks and chimney stacks to the west and the setting sun.  A vast sea of broken rock with valleys so deep and dark I wondered whether some of them had ever known the footsteps of men.  I walked on along the path cut into the rock face, through tunnel staircases blasted through the rock, and climbing up inside dripping and darkened rock chimneys that would have suited the Sheelob as a lair very nicely.  The path led round and through cracks between the peaks and then down and down again. 


Quite quickly I came to a Buddhist temple lodged in a small clearing, completely cut off from the sunlight by the towering faces that enclosed it.  There was no one about and the temple looked quite shabby and unused.  I carried on my rather precarious descent by now.  Still on stairs, but the stairs went straight down rather steeply as far as I could see ahead.  If I lost my footing here, there would be a lot of broken limbs before I came to a halt. 


On the way down I passed another Buddhist temple, this time much more actively maintained with a few monks in attendance and some other tourists who had come up from the bottom.  My ankle really was getting sore by then so I wanted to see the lake and go home and rest it.


It was a short walk up some more steps, which surprised me, to the lake.  The Baofeng Lake is in fact naturally dammed hundreds of feet above the entrance to the area.  Included in the entrance ticket was a free ride on a boat around the lake.  It is only a short trip – probably 15 minutes – but you get a sense of the lake.  Beautifully placid green water closed in by more of these huge peaks.  It reminded me of a smaller and more isolated version of the Königsee near Berchtesgaden. 


I returned to my hostel quite impressed with what I had seen, but already was a little worried about my tendon.


The following day I was to head into the park itself.  I caught the bus to the huge entrance which stands under the imposing sight of a 7 or 8 storey pagoda.  From the little I knew about the park, I figured I would probably be doing a lot of walking so I bought a walking stick just outside for 8 yuan (80p!) hoping that this would help protect my ankle.  I am not entirely convinced it worked but certainly I got in some good practice for later in life.


From the entrance, one catches a bus to take you deeper into the park, and most people get off at the foot of the cable car.  The park is very roughly on two levels.  If you imagine something like the Grand Canyon, there is the level of the upper plateau, and this is around 400m above the valley floor below.  There are three ways up.  By cable-car, by elevator (the highest in the world) or by hiking up one of the trails on foot. 


I went up the cable car and then caught a bus at the top to one of the main viewing areas.  As you ascend in the cable car and then all along the edge of the plateau, you are witness to the spectacular and unique sight of stack after stack of sandstone rock chimneys that rise up from the valley floor.  They look like the broken pieces of a shattered canyon – mighty yet precarious.  The sandstone stacks vary in size enormously from slivers that look like they might topple at any minute to areas called “mesas” – these are more like platforms of around 2-3km2 with sheer sides that drop 350-400m to the valley floor. 


The whole park used to be used for forestry until in 1992 it was made a UNESCO world heritage site and, perhaps better known to a lot of you, last year it was used as the scenery of part of the world in the movie Avatar.  You may recall the scenes where there were floating mountains.  In the movie, this was simply CGI footage of the mountains from this park with their “roots” cut out of the picture. 


I spent the morning hobbling up and down stairs to the various viewing points being looked at rather dubiously by the armies of domestic tourists who were surprised to see an otherwise able-bodied looking man creaking around like an old cripple.  From these I took as many photos as I could but they didn’t seem to do justice to the magnificence or majesty of the landscape.  Still, once my web-host pulls his finger out and fixes the issues with uploading photos (for which I apologise and hope will be rectified soon), you can judge for yourself. 


Certainly these rock formations were quite a sight.  It is easy to see, as one peers over the edge of a plunging face which narrows as it falls away from one, how it doesn’t take much of a leap to imagine these peaks with no base at all – but rather that you are there floating in the sky. 


That night I spent in a little hostel in one of the two villages within the park.  Here I met a German man of about 25 called Richard.  He was pretty good company and we had a good chat over a few beers.  He tried his best to explain why I had bought a camera that was not up to the task of taking photos that would do the trip justice, though I have to confess that the nuances of photographic optics are still beyond me. 


The following day, despite my ankle, which wasn’t getting any better, I got up early, and together with Richard we walked down from the upper plateau into the valley below.  With my ankle slowing me up, and him suffering from an old football injury on his knee, we didn’t progress very quickly, but it was actually a spectacular walk downhill – and much better doing it down than up as you can see the valley the whole time. 


We followed a little stream, past gin clear rock pools and past little placards that indicated look-outs (or look-ups by then) at the peaks.  All the peaks have names (as elsewhere in the areas of great natural beauty in China).  “Peacock with fanned-tail”, or “Five Daughters welcome the Generalissimo” or “Old Man Gathering Herbs”, or “Two Lovers Meeting After a long Separation”.  These last two I could see. 


There are also periodic placards around the park on the various walks which purport to describe how this mysterious landscape was formed but the translation is so poor (despite many geological words being there in the text) that I am none the wiser – at least not yet.  Suffice to say, water and weather and a great deal of time made it what it is today.  I did wonder though how one could be sure to be well out of the way if ever one of these monumental stacks comes tumbling down – as surely they must over time. 


Our walk was very jolly till eventually we joined up with the main tourist trail and, just as Richard had predicted, we were met with the raucous masses of tour groups already teaming up the Golden Whip Stream.  We walked in the opposite direction and soon parted company as he was staying in another village. 


The Golden Whip Valley is undeniably lovely and the many other tourists can barely spoil this walk.  The stacks tower above, rising into the sunlight, while the water runs smoothly and surely over rounded boulders, through deeper rock pools and under picturesque stone bridges.


Within a couple of hours, I felt very much that I had seen enough.  And I had an overwhelming urge to be pressing on in my journey.   My leg was sore and tired.  I was happy that I had seen some incredible natural phenomena in Wulingyuan.  But the full throttle tourism does eventually get too much (and I was seeing it in relatively low season). 


Nevertheless, what an incredible place!  If you get a chance, look up some images of Wulingyuan online (or wait for my photos!).  It is so far from anywhere that it takes quite a committed Westerner to make it to this place, but it is certainly worth it. 


But I was beginning to feel tired.  Tired of the cycling, tired of staying in endless and average hotels, tired of packing and unpacking my bags.  I felt I needed to focus on completing this leg of the journey to Xi’an.  At the time, I estimated I had another 1,000km to go.  In fact it was more.  And I knew there were a number of mountains between Wulingyuan and Xi’an.  Again, I underestimated quite how many.  I knew that any uphill slope is relatively slow and hard going and realised the route I had set myself would be tough and increasingly cold the longer I left it. 


That was fine.  I was ready for that.  What I was more concerned about was my Achilles tendon which was worse that evening that at any time before.  I struggled to go up or down stairs, and I could only limp when I walked.  I knew that when I got back on the bike, the repeated motion would only make it worse still.  The pain was not the issue.  I resolved that pain I can deal with and put up with.  But there was no point in suffering pain if it was just going to cripple me.  If I was going to ride my tendon to the point that I couldn’t function, then there was no value in being able to endure the pain.


Nevertheless, despite the state the ankle was in, I decided I couldn’t stay where I was, and I had a clear and determined desire to be away from there as fast as I could.


The next morning I set out first thing.

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