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Home / Trip Diary / Hunan / Phoenix City and Avatar Mountains, The Sights of Hunan
Narrow walkways from the old town across the river

Phoenix City and Avatar Mountains, The Sights of Hunan

Days 117-119; Nov. 12th-14th; Fenghuang, Hunan-Zhangjiaje, Hunan-Cili,Hunan-Wuhan, Hubei; 25,276km-26,037km

Two sets of traveler’s tips in this post. Scroll down to the bottom for our tips on visiting Phoenix Old Town and Zhangjiaje National Park (aka, site of the Avatar Mountains) in Hunan Province

Balancing Record Breaking and Sight Seeing

View of the city wall and old town of Phoenix City

View of the city wall and old town of Phoenix City

One of the challenging things for us on this trip is that we’re not just trying to ride a high number of kilometers through a single country, but we would also like to take this opportunity we’ve been given to see as much of China as we can manage to fit into our schedule. If you take a look at our Command Center page and scroll down to the “Visited Destinations” map, it looks like we’ve been relatively successful at this goal. It can be a difficult balance for us to reach though- wake up early, pack some stuff up, take a bus or shuttle to the sight, walk around for a couple hours, back to the hotel to pack up the bike, and ride another 200km in the afternoon. Most of the places we visit deserve more than just a morning, and sometimes even more than a full day when we have time to give that, but it is what it is!

The old Phoenix Town (Fenghuang City) is no exception. Opened up for tourism only earlier this year, it had one of the most expensive entrance tickets we’ve experienced on the trip thus far, over RMB200. Before the local government added the security and ticket booths, the old town was just a functioning village with shops, a main square, restaurants, and an old city wall. It’s definitely a nice walk and if you have time, at least try and spend one full day there.

There’s lots to do as you walk down the old narrow streets. We went into a local minority food shop for some breakfast. The majority of the population are either of the Miao minority or Tujia, and you can find local crafts and food of both as you stroll through the city. Apparently Fenghuang was the site of a failed Miao rebellion back in the second half of the 19th century and the city is quite revered by the Miao spread throughout SE Asia.

Back To The Road

Hello there Slash!

Hello there Slash!

It was sprinkling a bit as we were wandering through the streets of the old town, a continuation of the rain from yesterday. We walked from one gate down to the other and then up to a little hill overlooking the town before heading back to a main street to get a cab back to our hotel. Still raining as we packed everything up onto the bike and continued our way north.

Hey, remember our competition that we met way back in Xinjiang? Sean and Slash had made their way up to the North East already and were on their way back down. Sean had to head out of the country for visa renewal purposes but Slash was in the same area as us. We had been keeping in touch and planned to meet up on our way up north towards Zhangjiaje National Park. Slash himself also had never visited the park so we planned to meet up and ride there together.

We met for lunch about half-way down the road from Fenghuang and then continued together the last 100km to the main town that was the launching point for the park. Unfortunately, it seemed that the road leading into the city was closed for construction. In typical Chinese fashion, there were no, or at least very poorly, signed detours and nobody near the closed off road could tell us how to actually get into the city. This is the biggest city in any direction for about 100km and no one could tell us how to get there. This is not a joke. Even with Slash, who is Chinese, we couldn’t get a straight answer from people on how to get in. An hour of wandering around in the dark finally got us into the city where we got a hotel to stay at.

Bumbling Our Way To The Avatar Mountains

In the cable car up through the Tianzi Mountains

In the cable car up through the Tianzi Mountains

The whole experience at Zhangjiajie park was a bit marred by the difficulty in getting straight answers from people about what we wanted to do. Because our schedule is a bit out of the ordinary, only having a half a day to spend enjoying the park rather than the 3 days to a week that the ticket allows for and most people take advantage of, finding the best way to accomplish our main goal while there proved difficult. The main attraction is the area known as “Avatar Mountains” for the Chinese named so because the landscape in the park served as the inspiration for the floating “Hallelujah Mountains” backdrop in James Cameron’s Avatar. The vertical pillars of sandstone were a definite must-see for us while in Hunan but finding out the best way to get there proved difficult.

We had to argue with people at one of the main gates who, rather than give us directions, told us he could take us there, for a fee. Oh yeah, and we should stay at his house too… for a fee. Well, we ignored him and finally got directions from another tourist and took our bikes to the closest entrance to the mountains. From there we parked the bikes, bought our extortionately priced tickets and hopped on a shuttle bus to the cable car that would provide a view of the mountains.

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As it turned out, the cable car tickets were only one way. When we were up at the top we also found out that you couldn’t even take a shuttle bus back to where our bikes were parked, you could only buy another one way cable car ticket back down the mountains. Complete rip-off especially since, as we found out later, the best view of the mountains aren’t actually from the cable car but a free (included with original ticket) viewing area near where we got off the cable car.

We were all a bit miffed by the whole experience and felt quite cheated. The biggest disappointment was that Zhangjiajie Park and the Tianzi Mountains (the actual Chinese name for the “Avatar Mountains”) are extraordinarily beautiful sights. Cheapening it through over-commercialization (there was a McDonalds at the top) and overpriced and opaquely priced tickets was a real shame.

Putting Hunan Behind Us

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So with a bit of a sour taste in our mouths, but some nice pictures to look back on, we eventually found our way back to the parking lot where we had left our motorcycles. We followed a nice windy mountain road that led us out to the provincial S306 which led in one direction back to the city of Zhangjiajie and in the other back east. There we waved goodbye to Slash who was continuing his journey west towards Chongqing as we began our way north east to our next province, Hubei.

One thing about the area around Zhangjiajie is that it made for some fantastic riding. The roads were generally in very nice condition and the S306 took us winding around the feet of some mountains of the same time as those on James Cameron’s fictional planet of Pandora, massive pillars of sandstone covered in moss, grass, and trees.

From Cili, where we stayed that night, for about 100km towards Hubei, the roads widened and flattened out. Unfortunately, heavier truck traffic also emerged on the more traveled National Road which was deteriorating under the pressure. In some places it looked like it had been hit by an earthquake, with sections of pavement split, cracked, and shifted into different levels. Not fun at all.

As we crossed the border, there was the entrance to the expressway calling us away from the overworked National Road. So, with a quick weave around the tollbooth barrier, we hopped on and did a quick 300km through flat plains and farmlands to Wuhan, the capital of the province.

Traveler’s Tips: Hunan’s Phoenix City and Zhangjiajie

    Fenghuang/Phoenix City

    The streets of Phoenix City

    The streets of Phoenix City

  • Take around a week to visit this area. A full day for Fenghuang, a day to get to Zhangjiajie and then 3+ days to go around and see the sights of the park.
  • Try the different foods around Fenghuang old city. The local minority specialties are really nice. We tried some special Miao rice dish plus some different Zongzi, sticky rice buns wrapped in banana leaf.
  • Stick around the town for when the sun goes down too. The city gets lit up at night time, particularly nice around the river with all the old buildings overlooking the water.
  • Take full advantage of your expensive ticket to see all that it gives you access to including the museums, temples, and calligraphy displays.

    Zhangjiajie/Avatar Mountains

    The Son of Heaven's Attic offers a great view of the mountains

    The Son of Heaven’s Attic offers a great view of the mountains

  • Get yourself a map of the park ahead of time to plan out your route. There is a network of roads that goes around the park. You cannot drive through the park yourself though and not all the roads connect with each other.
  • There are lodgings throughout the park and on the outskirts. Plan the section you want to spend the most time at and find lodging there.
  • The Avatar Mountains are only one section of the park. They’re called Tianzishan (天子山) or The Prince of Heaven Mountains. We would recommend skipping the cable car and going straight to the upper area, The Prince of Heaven’s Attic or 天子阁. You can get the best views of the mountains here.
  • Expect to spend a lot of money here. You pay about RMB250 for the entrance ticket which gives you access to the shuttle bus, but extras such as the cable cars, shuttle train, and sky elevator are extra costs which you will need to spend to connect to the other networks of road.
  • If you have the time, hike around the various walking paths. Unlike Jiuzhaigou, there are walking paths through the Zhangjiajie park that can offer a different experience from the shuttle roads and viewing platforms. To get to the actual Zhangjiajie forest is about a 10km hike, which a round trip hike would make a full day affair.

About Buck

Buck, originally from New York, first came to China in 2006 traveling with some friends and immediately fell in love with the country, returning frequently including a semester studying at Tsinghua University in 2009. He finally moved to Beijing after graduating from the University of Toronto in 2010. He has a passion for adventure and travel, completing numerous long distance motorcycling and hiking trips around the U.S., Canada, and China including a circumnavigation of the U.S. (13,840km) and a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail (3,500km). When he's not wandering (and sometimes when he is), Buck works as a web developer and marketing consultant in Beijing.