For the third time on Labour Day weekend, I was teetering above the clouds, mouth hanging open at the most striking landscape I’d ever seen. And yet I felt like I’d seen it all before, or rather, like I was stood in front of a vast screen watching a 3D film. Much of contemporary experience can feel like this, thanks to ubiquitous CGI, but in this moment it was a valid sensation, as I was in Zhangjiajie in Hunan province, whose soaring limestone pillars had inspired the backdrop for the film Avatar.
Not that I’ve seen Avatar, having so far maintained a traditionalist’s rejection of 3D, hoping it would quietly go away so that my zeitgeist-sensitive conscience wouldn’t guilt-trip me into trying it. But in Zhangjiajie I felt like I got to know the film, as we watched clips in the queues for cable cars, and at key panoramic viewing spots we dodged Avatar statues that you paid to be photographed with. Hunan province, I learned, was also the home of Chairman Mao, but the region’s promotional tagline belonged to the dudes in blue. And also McDonald’s, who had one of its largest and busiest branches at the top of the mountain in the shape of a toy palace lifted straight out of Disneyland.
But apart from the commercialisation – aspects of which I was grateful for, not least the clean toilets – Zhangjiajie gave to DD and me a taste of rural China, and an idea of just how incredible the country’s wilder nature must be, if a mere long weekend out of Beijing can transport us to lush landscapes of fluorescent greens and bemused monkeys.
We had my dad to thank for this trip. Currently also working in Beijing, he’d previously gone on holidays around China with a Japanese-speaking guide, and this time he’d let his daughter and son-in-law tag along. We admired him for being more ready to break the seasoned traveller’s vow of avoiding guided tours, having recognised the need for logistical support in a country where the language barrier can be absolute and transport systems oblique. “We should do this,” DD and I kept saying to each other as we rejoiced in being taken to the right places at the right time via the right route, before retiring to the right restaurant serving authentic cuisine that didn’t give us stomach upsets.
Not that this stopped DD’s delicate intestines playing up on the flight out, which left dad and I going up the mountain a couple of times on our own. The severity of DD’s state turned out to be a blessing in disguise though, since if he had been just strong enough to come out, he would have been stuck in two-hour-long queues for cable cars and lifts with no toilet in sight. Our guide had warned us of public holiday crowds, but it was still a big downer to be shuffling forward an inch every ten minutes in the rain in badly managed queues four people wide, where if you relaxed for a second three people would squeeze in front. Still, we did some father-and-daughter bonding over a word game that went on way after we lost interest, and dad entertained himself by eating four tea-boiled eggs that he bought off a wandering vendor.
But dad was regretting this moment of desperate distraction a few hours later when, with dry feet and a full stomach, he sat down to a huge spread of Hunan cuisine. Culturally, the Chinese like to cook more than can be eaten as a sign of respect to guests and, according to the guide, they make a good go of finishing it all anyway. But with DD already out of commission and dad looking queasy, I had a hard time of even making a dent in the feast. This proved the case for most of the meals we had which, though delicious, seemed much too wasteful. This picture was taken at lunch on the final day after we had all eaten ourselves to oblivion, and before they shocked us by bringing yet another dish:
It was perhaps naive of us to use a public holiday to head to such an iconic tourist destination – the guide said Bill Clinton would have visited if the runway at the local airport had been long enough for Air Force One – and maybe we could have done without DD’s stomach troubles. But we know that these things might well happen again on future trips around China, and that it shouldn’t put us off. Zhangjiajie showed us that it’s no good pretending to know China without venturing out of Beijing.
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