Hidden away in the northwestern extremities of Hunan, Zhangjiajie protects a mystical landscape of sandstone shelves and fragmented limestone towers splintering away from a high plateau, often misted in low clouds and scored by countless streams, with practically every horizontal surface hidden under a primeval, subtropical green mantle. 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 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, Zhangjiajie is beginning to suffer from its popularity, with more accessible parts of the reserve often almost invisible under hordes of litter-hurling tour groups. Fortunately the reserve is big enough that even on the main circuit it’s easy to lose the crowds, and the majesty of the scenery comfortably overrides manmade intrusions. The reserve is best explored over two or three days, and you’ll need comfortable walking shoes and the right seasonal dress – it’s humid in summer, cold from late autumn, and the area is often covered in light snow early in the year.