Zhangjiajie Park: Head In The Clouds Or The Sky At Your Feet. Bai people’s timeless rural idyll in the dreamy landscapes that inspired the Avatar movie

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You may not know Zhangjiajie National Forest Park by name, but its dream-like mountainous landscapes where stone pillars emerge from the mist will be strangely familiar. The national park lies in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area of Hunan, one of South-West China’s inland provinces and serves as the model for the fairytale image we have of Chinese nature at its most serene. Its field of pillars inspired the underwater world of Pandora that director James Cameron created in the Avatar movie. One sandstone pillar that towers at 1,080 meters has now been officially renamed the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain.
Drawn by its peacefulness and beauty, tourists flock to explore Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. They can hitch an easy ride to the top on the Hundred Dragons Elevator, the highest outdoor lift in the world. Visitors can also brave their fear of heights by walking the length of the Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge, that juts out from the rock over a sheer 300-metre drop.
For those who live in Zhangjiajie, communion with nature is a way of life. Li Junsheng’s sandstone and gravel paintings have made the landscapes world-famous. He has also founded the local school of sandstone painting, Junsheng Art Academy. Whatever the weather, the artist scrambles in the river beds of the park in search of the natural materials he will grind into colours for the works of art he creates in his studio.
The area is also home to the Bai people, a small ethnic group that has perpetuated its rural traditions there from time immemorial. The Bai interact with nature on a daily basis, by fishing for carps with their bare hands, tending ancient tree specimens or celebrating the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival in brightly embroidered national dress. In Episode 3 of the This is China series, season 2, RTD meets some of Zhangjiajie’s happiest inhabitants, to learn the secret of simple living.



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