Enduring a journey from hell to discover a view from heaven

Oh my.

No, I’m not referring to the breathtaking scenery in the pictures above (I’ll come onto that later) but the extraordinary means with which I got there. Okay, so it was still via train. But this time it was in hard seat class, which is essentially the Chinese equivalent of fourth class for overnight trips. And it lived up to its standard, or lack thereof.

Yes, it’s my fault for not planning ahead far enough. I knew Chinese trains sell out well in advance, even in the off season, but didn’t figure it would also to the relatively obscure tourist town of Zhangjiajie too.

The carriage itself was decent, the seats were average (small, but not hard as the name suggests) and not overly smelly. But the main issue was the volume of passengers well exceeded the number of seats. For 19 hours I was trapped in my window seat surrounded by what seemed very sleep deprived locals. One of my shoulders had been hijacked as the pillow for the guy on my left, so I resorted to tying my buff over the pointy coat hook and using that as mine. With the tiny table in front of me occupied by several more heads, it wasn’t even possible for me to reach down to by bag and grab my iPad. I was as close to trapped as I’ve ever been.

Hard life

Hard life

Many had it worse. The corridor was impassable with people eking out some space to rest their head on the floor with their children in their arms. When they weren’t sleeping or casually smoking in the carriage (it seems like everyone in China smokes), they’d be munching on various bizarre shaped and smelly meaty snacks. I didn’t see a single foreign face at all during my journey. I’d be pointed at and presumably murmured about – clearly not many foreign travellers have been as unprepared as me to travel in this class.

One cheerful young lady called Dora a few rows ahead of me spotted my disconcerted look and happened to speak great English, which was a relief. She helped me converse with some of the other passengers and also helped arrange the following leg of my trip. We spoke through a loud conversation across the carriage through to 2AM as I tried to talk about anything just to pass the time. Thanks to some sleeping pills I did manage to get four hours of broken sleep, until the cabin attendant had the nerve to grab his megaphone at 6AM and blast a 30 minute sales pitch for his bag of toothbrushes. I swear I’ve seen it all now!

Bleary eyed, eventually I made it to my guesthouse in Wulingyuan, right next to the national park entrance. It was a no frills stay, and for the first time in 5 weeks I actually had a room to myself which felt a little strange. It would have been an idyllic stay if it weren’t for the voice of a screaming Chinese woman playing on loop all day from the shop opposite my room. The owners were super friendly and helpful, though.

You might recognise the unique scenery in Zhangjiajie from the 2009 film Avatar, and perhaps have heard about it recently where the worlds largest glass bridge just opened (I couldn’t make it there sadly). The park is dominated by sandstone peaks and canyons which are home to various fauna and wildlife. For three days I trekked through the wilderness and was constantly taken aback by the truly gorgeous setting. There was just something about becoming part of the environment, feeling the clouds pass around me, hearing the exotic birds, breathing the crisp fresh air and seeing the most jaw dropping, eerie landscapes imaginable.

The park is well connected by buses but the main stops can be packed with tourists. Thankfully, almost all are domestic Chinese and I quickly learned that most don’t have an appetite for physical hard work on their vacation, so the trekking trails were pretty much exclusively mine. It was quite depressing to see the amount of rubbish dumped next to the trails though. I really wish that visitors make more of an effort to clean up after themselves.

Setting off on a late afternoon hike through the valley, I was warned in a thick Chinese accent avoid the “many crazy monkeys!” As it turned out they were crazy, but not nearly as much as some of the tourists who would make the mistake of opening their bags to fetch food, only to be mugged shortly afterwards.

As the old saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words, so I won’t throw around any more superlatives to describe some of the most alien yet beautiful landscapes I’ve ever encountered. The Zhangjiajie and Wulingyuan national parks are tucked away treasures that any miserable train journey would be worth enduring.

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