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Here be dragons: China's mythical southern mountains

In China's southern provinces, mythical landscapes abound. From the verdant peaks lining the Yangtze River to the towering pillars of Zhangjiajie — inspiration for the film Avatar — the region's motley mountains conjure up some fanciful visions

Published 2 Apr 2019, 11:44 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 12:20 BST
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Image: SuperStock
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. Image: SuperStock

Dragons dance on sleepy mountains. Or so I'm told. I scan the contoured clay landscape, cut like giant stairs rising up from the Heping River to lofty plateaus. The waterlogged Longji Rice Terraces coil in all directions, reflecting a leaden sky. But I don't see dragons.

"You need China-style imagination," insists my cheery guide, John, from our spot at the Nine Dragons and Five Tigers viewing point. "Thirty percent is the imagery; 70% is the imagination." I squint again at the ripples of beige, blue and jade — nothing. John seems perplexed and decides another spot may prove more fruitful, so we continue our hike across these 700-year-old fields.

I've come to China's southern provinces for vistas like this — for the mythical mountains. I'm winding my way from these terraced heights near Guilin in the lofty Guangxi region, heading north up the towering pinnacles of Zhangjiajie, and then west through the peaks flanking the Yangtze River.

Our trek across these rice paddies begins in Ping'an, a tiny, 900-strong village of enterprising Zhuang and Yao ethnic minorities. On arrival, Yao women surround a group of tourists and, after striking a deal, unfurl their hair — twisted in complicated locks atop their head— and drop it, Rapunzel-like, to the floor. "They only cut their hair three times in their life," John explains — once at 16, again when married, and finally before death. "They have two secrets to keep their hair shiny: rice water and the seeds from camellia." 

The Zhuang women, meanwhile, wear embroidered black tunics and floral towels folded into hats. "They're the major ethnic group of the region," John tells me. It's lunchtime, and most of the Zhuang women are huddled over fires, poking at eggs, bamboo shoots and sweet potatoes. Power lines hang spaghetti-limp above stone roads; on either side of me, stalls are lined with enormous plastic bags packed with foraged flora: golden osmanthus flowers, star-shaped aniseed, longan fruit, dried goji berries. Red paper lanterns dangle from beams, relics from the recent Spring Festival.

We ascend through the village, past some of the first terraces created here, and century-old timber houses erected entirely without nails. The further we climb, the more languid the streets become, with just a few hopeful stallholders displaying tea leaves drying in bamboo baskets. The breeze carries the sweet scent of candied peanuts, as languid locals snack on river snails and play zi pai with long, finger-like cards. 

A hot, humid fug follows us to the summit, where, at 2,200ft we reach a cool bamboo forest, fringed with azaleas and pink peach blossom. Frogs croak listlessly, fiddlehead ferns curl like scrolls, and lizards dart into the darkness. We reach the Seven Stars with the Moon viewpoint, named for a group of hummocks that resemble celestial bodies. "Looks like the Big Dipper, see?" John prods, hopefully, counting the 'stars' in the fields. "Seven stars and the moon," he urges, as if repeating these words like a mantra would suddenly reveal a star-pocked landscape.

Instead, I see a burst of kaleidoscopic paddies; some scarred by upturned earth and a stubbly five o'clock shadow of slashed-and-burned shoots; others pooled with beige water and vivid red algae or emerald weeds. John looks at me expectantly. I don't want to disappoint, so assure him I've spotted stars, and we head back to Ping'an happy, the heady scent of burning grass chasing us across the sinewy hills.

Back on stone paths, I come upon three Zhuang women, sporting pink and blue hats, who sit in a row with bowls of leafy greens before them. I speak to one septuagenarian, who goes by her surname, Liao. "The whole village — 90% of them — are Liao," John translates. I ask her about life in this remote farming community. "She said it's good," he interprets. "Before tourism, she had a very simple life — growing rice — and didn't have the opportunity to have a little stand, to start a business, to make some actual money. But now she can do both."

Liao tells me that when tourism started in the 1990s it boosted a struggling community. "In the past, it was hard to export what we grew because of road conditions, but now with tourists, we can sell our products in the village. It's much more convenient," she says.

John suggests that life as a farmer has improved since the Communist Party came to power. "Land is so valuable in China," he explains. "We have 22% of the world's population, but only 7% of the world's farmland. So the government doesn't allow barren land. If you don't grow any crops, when your lease expires they're going to redistribute your land to someone else."

Out in the fields, a lone farmer beneath a bamboo hat turns over soil on his plot. "In the past, one family could own this whole village," says John, looking at the terraces. "After we established socialism, the land was redistributed to farmers. We call it the Land Revolution."

High society

The following morning, a bullet train rockets me north to Hunan province in a blur of pastoral scenes: passion fruit trees; farmers hauling bottles of golden-hued honey; and bare-skinned locals zipping by on scooters. Having left John behind in Guilin, I meet up with my next guide, Samantha, whose black hair is pulled tightly into a bun. She's taking me to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, a few-thousand-strong crop of pillar-like pinnacles fringed with dense foliage.

We reach the top of one of these quartz-sandstone formations in the Bailong Elevator, an incongruous, modern, glass contraption, and emerge overlooking a stone forest. It's a mad, moist world of natural bridges, lush valleys and mesa mountains that seem to float above swirling clouds like ships at sea.

Our first stop is lunch at a simple, wooden farmer's house, where I meet a man of the mountain — an unlikely character living in an unlikely place. Farmer Chen wears a gold ring, panama hat and blue jeans. He greets me with a smile, takes a long drag of his cigarette and leans against the doorway like James Dean reincarnate, before guiding us to our table. He then disappears into the kitchen amid a flurry of clanging pots and sizzling stir fry before reappearing with a series of dishes: mounds of sticky rice; wild greens spiced with chilli; pork sautéed with green pepper; and tofu lightly browned and sprinkled with spring onion. As Chen's granddaughter skips across the room, I ask him how long he's lived on this isolated peak.

"He was born here," Samantha translates. "But the government wants them to move from here. They don't want to." She tells me Chen and his family are being asked to relocate as part of an effort to conserve this UNESCO-listed park. "They're negotiating," Samantha adds, explaining that the deal may be sweetened with a house and money.

I leave Chen's and head off for a lofty loop around the park, where endless freestanding peaks poke the sky. "Three hundred and eighty million years ago, this place was a vast sea," explains Samantha. "About one million years ago, a huge earthquake brought the mountain at the bottom of the sea to the surface." The result is this topsy-turvy topography — a place once home to aquatic creatures, not the macaques and elusive clouded leopards of today.

"Have you ever seen Avatar?" Samantha inquires. When I tell her I have, she seems pleased. "That's from there," she says, pointing towards a 1,240ft-tall pockmarked pinnacle, a sky-high Jenga-like block dominating the landscape of spires, renamed Avatar Hallelujah Mountain after it inspired the fictional floating rocks in the film. Its peak bursts with a healthy head of green foliage and pink flowers, while vines and roots reach, in vain, into thin air in search of soil.

"From here, you can see two stone turtles, and the faces of five ladies," Samantha states. I unsuccessfully scan the rock-column forest, where other scenic-zone names apparently include Scholar Collecting Books, A Couple Meeting from Afar, and Peacock Displaying its Feathers. I take Samantha's word for it, and follow her towards a rock bridge whose 10ft span straddles two mountains.

"This is the number-one natural bridge in the world," she enthuses, as we reach a formation that stretches over a sheer, 1,300ft drop. I start across it, clinging to the handrails, my heart punching my chest. Attached to the barrier are love locks and thousands of red ribbons scrawled with prayers, fluttering in the breeze.

At the trail's end, a shuttle whizzes us to Tianzi Mountain, where we disembark amid stalls selling grilled meat, stinky tofu and sweet rice cakes. Just beyond, an enormous 23ft-tall bronze statue of He Long, a Communist revolutionary, is silhouetted against an overcast sky. "Look at his eyes," instructs Samantha. "They're looking south west to Sangzhi County, his hometown."

To the side of the sculpture, I clock a sign pointing the way to our final viewing platform. On it is a stern warning: 'Regret throughout life in case of failure to visit the scenic spot'. Heeding the advice, I reach the viewing platform and — as Samantha insists — scan the vertical peaks for one shaped like an ancient ink brush. I don't see it, but I'm perfectly happy with what I do: precarious pinnacles rising from a bottle-green forest and the Golden Whip Stream tumbling through a lush valley.

Tales of the river

A few days later and a few hundred miles north, I'm above the emerald waters of the Shennong Stream — a tributary of Asia's longest river, the Yangtze — searching cracks and crevices for ancient tombs. The canyons here are strung with coffins; the landscape a giant mausoleum.

My guide, Nancy, points towards a shallow cave and I spot one: a small, rectangular, wooden box that appears suspended. As our boat inches closer, I see the casket is balanced on thick, cantilevered planks. "That coffin is about 2,000 years old," Nancy says. "It was a custom of the Ba people, the Tujia people's ancestors." Many of the Tujia minority live in the mountains of Zhangjiajie, and can trace their lineage back to the Ba clans that once thrived in the Sichuan Basin.

"Some people say the coffins were lowered down from the top of the mountain," Nancy proffers. "Others say the water level was much higher." There's no definitive explanation for these gravity-defying graveyards. Along the tributary we spot more; some stacked high in caves; others jutting from vertical rock walls — an impressive feat, given that corpse and coffin would've weighed several hundred pounds. 

The tombs befit their dramatic environment: the sky hangs low and a chiffon mist unfurls over steep mountain walls, which part like stage curtains as we approach.

Nancy announces we're entering Parrot Gorge. I ask her if the name means the colourful birds are found here. "Use your imagination," she chides. "Two mountains like wings, so we call this the Parrot Gorge." Rising up all around our ship is bare limestone, sketched with russet, black and white streaks, then suddenly alive with rampant forests of medicinal herbs, cypress and bamboo. "See, this is real beauty," a fellow passenger muses. "It has the 'land that time forgot' sort of quality." 

The Yangtze and its waterways may appear untouched by man, but this area has undergone rapid transformation over the past decade. When the controversial Three Gorges Dam was completed in 2012, it became part of the world's largest hydroelectric power station. But meeting the demands of an energy-hungry country came at a cost — submerging scores of towns and around 1,300 archaeological sites, in so doing displacing an estimated 1.3 million people. "Here the water was only one or two metres," Nancy tells me. "So the Three Gorges Dam changed a lot — now the water is 70 metres deep."

The final feature of the project arrived in late 2016 — a new hydraulic ship lift that raises and lowers gargantuan boats weighing up to 3,000 tonnes nearly 400ft in just 40 minutes. Crossing the locks, meanwhile, can take a laborious four hours.

Back aboard the Victoria Anna, the vessel that's taking me on a four-night journey along the Yangtze from Yichang to Chongqing, I head out on deck as we enter the 193-mile section known as Three Gorges (Qutang, Wu and Xiling). "To the right corner, there's a tiny pillar," explains Andy, the river guide, over the ship's speaker. "That's a real goddess herself. But your imagination is crucial, OK?" Goddess Peak is named after this sacred stone crowning the mountain; far beneath, tired trekkers lumber up steps for a moment with the deity.

Rocks that fold into loops and whorls prop up a group of four farmers' houses on the lush banks. "You can imagine how lonely, how different, how boring it is to live here," remarks Andy. As we sail upstream, the houses quickly disappear into the folds of the mountains.

The next day, the sun drinks shadows as it passes overhead, macaques skitter across retaining walls and schoolchildren's shouts of 'ni hao!' greet us as we dock at White Emperor City. On land, I meet Jesse, the guide who'll be taking me to explore this 2,000-year-old historical site at the mouth of the Qutang Gorge. 

"This used to be a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides, but because of the Three Gorges Dam it's surrounded on four," she explains, as we walk across a linkway bridge — splashed in pink, yellow and orange powder from an earlier fun run — that now connects the island to the mainland. "The old city was totally submerged in 2005. This county moved 140,000 people away from their homes," she adds as we climb up to a hilltop temple complex. Its peeling doors are carved with intricate flowers, Chinese characters and fearsome dragons. Beyond, I stroll through Zen gardens and admire stoic statues of kings in silent rooms.

Jesse ushers me to a viewpoint overlooking Kui Gate, a pair of high mountains guarding the gorge entrance. As we peer down onto the Yangtze, she tells me that back in the days of the Shu Kingdom, an official here saw white clouds curling into the shape of a dragon — a good omen — and declared himself the White Emperor. And for just a second, as I listen to the story, my imagination stirs. The faint outline of a dragon materialises in the cloud, dances across distant peaks, and then, just as quickly, disappears.  


Getting there & around
Air China, Cathay Pacific, China Southern and Asiana Airlines all fly indirect from Heathrow to Guilin. Return flights from Chongqing to Heathrow are direct with Tianjin Airlines, or indirect with Air China and Cathay Pacific.  
Average flight time: 17h.

There are shuttle buses from Guilin Qintan Bus Station and Guilin Railway Station to Ping'an for around 50RMB (£6). A three-hour bullet train runs from Guilin to Changsha South, where Wendy Wu Tours can arrange transfers to Zhangjiajie. From here, take a five-hour train to Yichang for a Yangtze trip with Victoria Cruises. 

When to go
A visit in spring or autumn is best, when the weather is mild and temperatures are around 20-30C. The Longji Rice Terraces are spectacular year-round, painted a different colour during each phase of the rice-growing season: silvery when waterlogged in spring, emerald green in summer, golden in autumn, and potentially covered in a white blanket of snow in winter.

More info 
Lonely Planet China. RRP: £14.69

How to do it
Wendy Wu Tours has a 22-day Dreams of Nature group tour from £3,490 each or a private tour from £5,490 per person. The trip includes guides, accommodation, visa fees, international and domestic transport, daily tours and some meals.

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Published in the November 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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