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An Instagrammer’s Guide to China’s Zhangjiajie Mountains

Photographer Jordan Hammond travels to Zhangjiajie National Park to shoot some of China's most famous karsts.

Zhangjiajie – home to kilometer-high karst pillars, dense forests, and fascinating hiking trails – is a great place to visit in all seasons. It’s pretty well known the region inspired James Cameron’s film Avatar; the government even renamed one of the sky columns after the movie in a bid to promote tourism. A mountainous national park in Southern Hunan, this area of China also boasts the tallest outdoor elevator in the world and some terrifying glass walkways perched on the side of sheer cliffs. There is so much to do, see, and photograph that one might easily spend a week in the area and not see it all.

Avatar Hallelujah Mountain

Named for the eponymous James Cameron movie, Avatar Hallelujah Mountain stands over a kilometer high and is one of the most popular spots in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.

Thousands of tourists flock to the pillar every day to get a first-hand view of the real Pandora. The pillar, as one might imagine, is also a great focal point for photographs.

The iconic viewpoint from the suspended bridge makes for an ideal spot to shoot the pillar, but it looks even more dramatic from a drone. The pillar is best photographed with a wide-angle lens, but even then, you won’t be able to capture it in its entirety.

The Imperial Writing Brush Peaks

The Imperial Writing Brush Peaks of Zhangjiajie National Park are a personal favorite of mine. The peaks are situated at the top of the cableway which takes you up to the mountains from the entrance. They are comparatively less busy than the famous Avatar Pillar, and if you plan your day so the brush peaks are the last stop before taking the cableway down, you are practically guaranteed to have the place all to yourself.

There are many viewpoints from which to photograph the peaks, and they are ideal for drone photography too. They are by far the most intricate and interesting shaped peaks in the area and a challenge for photographers.

Soldiers Gathering

ABOVE: Soldier’s gathering in Zhangjiajie National Park.

Soldiers Gathering is another Zhangjiajie National Park favorite but can be difficult to access, especially when travelling out of season. The area is a 20-minute drive from Sanchaku station in the park, but taxis can be few and far between. The scenery at Soldiers Gathering is magnificent, and as the name suggests it resembles thousands of ‘soldiers’ blanketing the area as far as the eye can see. The area does not get frequented by many tourists, a rarity in this park.

Cable car Road

ABOVE: Cable car road in Zhangjiajie National Park.

Whilst many people only visit Zhangjiajie City to go to the famous national park, there is also another marvel in the area named Tianmen Shan. Tianmen Mountain, which is only 8 kilometers from the city, stands tall at 1,500 meters. The main attraction at Tianmen Shan is the cave, otherwise known as Heaven’s Gate. To reach the cave, travelers must first take the cableway, which is the longest in the world, followed by 999 steps.

Tianmen Shan-5 (road)
Tianmen Shan-3 (road)

ABOVE: The cable car road is known as the ‘Avenue Leading to the Sky’.

The views from the cableway are just magnificent, and if you sit on the left hand side of the car, you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the windy mountainous road that brings the tourists back down to the city after a day at the cave. The road – otherwise known as the ‘Avenue Leading to the Sky’ – has an impressive 99 sharp bends, and is one of the most photogenic mountain roads in Asia.

Tianmen Cave

The world’s highest of its kind, Tianmen Cave is a natural cave at the top of Tianmen Shan and can be seen from Zhangjiajie City.

I’d recommend leaving the cave until last whilst on your trip to Zhangjiajie, as it tends to be less busy later in the afternoon, meaning you can shoot the cave from the bottom of the steps with few people disrupting the shot. We were lucky enough to find that the steps were closed the last time we visited, meaning we were able to capture the cave without another person in sight. Again, a wide-angle lens is your best bet in order to have the cave and steps in one frame.

Tianmen Shan-4 (View from Cableway)
Tianmen Shan-2

Though it’s not exactly off the beaten track these days, the living Pandora of China is definitely worth a visit and has even more to offer than one can see in a single trip. Next year, I plan to capture a snow-covered Zhangjiajie. Each season is a new surprise in this land of impossible mountains.