China // The Yangzi basin //

Wulingyuan (Zhangjiajie)

Hidden away in the northwestern extremities of Hunan, Wulingyuan Scenic Reserve (武陵源风景区, wŭlíngyuán fēngjĭngqū), widely known as Zhangjiajie (张家界, zhāngjiājiè), protects a mystical landscape of sandstone shelves and fragmented limestone towers, often misted in low clouds and scored by countless streams, with practically every horizontal surface hidden under a primeval, subtropical green mantle. It’s so otherworldly that it is claimed (spuriously) these pinnacles provided inspiration for the landscapes in James Cameron’s movie Avatar. The park however, is stunning enough without the injection of science fiction: among the 550-odd tree species (twice Europe’s total) within its 370 square kilometres are rare dove trees, ginkgos and dawn redwoods – the last identified by their stringy bark and feathery leaves; now popular as an ornamental tree, until 1948 they were believed extinct. The wildlife list is impressive, too, including civets, giant salamanders, monkeys and gamebirds. The region is also home to several million ethnic Tujia, said by some to be the last descendants of western China’s mysterious prehistoric Ba kingdom. On the downside, despite the UNESCO World Heritage listing, a total fire ban (smoking included) and a generous number of erosion-resistant paths, Wulingyuan is beginning to suffer from its popularity. Depending on your point of view, the giant Heavenly Elevator constructed up the side of one of the peaks (at 326m, by some reckoning the tallest in the world) is either a wonder of modern engineering or an outrageous blot on an otherwise unspoilt landscape; as well, more accessible parts of the reserve are often almost invisible under hordes of litter-hurling tour groups, despite the exorbitant admission fee.