The city of Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, is located in the northwestern corner of the province, relatively close to the borders with Hubei Province and Chongqing Municipality.
In geological terms, Zhangjiajie straddles the juncture of two crustal extremes: the upwardly thrusted Yunnan - Guizhou Plateau and the downwardly thrusted, or depressed, Donating Lake area, the latter process being more commonly known as subsidence, though the term "depression"
belongs to common parlance when speaking of a clearly delineated, specific area of subsidence such as the Turpan Depression located in Xinjiang ( Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region).
Quite naturally, this overarching geological feature of crustal extremes defines the natural landscapes of Zhangjiajie, and – as the reader can well imagine – they make for a varied landscape that is at once beautiful and perhaps a little terrifying. The highest point in Zhangjiajie measures roughly 1900 meters above sea level, while Zhangjiajie's lowest point measures but 75 meters above sea level.
Zhangjiajie is a not uncommon (in China) political entity that spans several rural communities (counties) as well as the city of Zhangjiajie proper, but it also stretches across a large part of the aforementioned plate tectonic "cusp" between two crustal extremes, producing a topography that is characterized by tall mountains with multiple, jagged peaks and pristine rivers, lakes and forests, or what one typically refers to as a geological park. Indeed, a section of the Wuling Mountains reaches into the city of Zhangjiajie proper. Yet agriculture makes up one of the important pillars of the commerce of Zhangjiajie, as does animal husbandry, the development of commercial fish farms and sustainable forestry, as well as Zhangjiajie's latest pillar of commerce: tourism.
The city of Zhangjiajie is both old and new, that is, the towns that were merged to make the new city were themselves old. The new city of Zhangjiajie came to be in two stages: first, in 1988 the nearby city of Sangzhi, which lay close to Tianzi ("Emperor") Mountain, was merged with the city of Dayong, which is where the city of Zhangjiajie proper now sits (one of the main streets of Zhangjiajie – the street where the cable car company is situated, in fact – is named after the older city of Dayong); in 1994, the thus enlarged city of Dayong was renamed Zhangjiajie, meaning "Zhang family homeland" (the "Zhang" in question being none other than Zhang Liang, the famous military advisor to Liu Bang cum Emperor Gao, founder of the Western Han (BCE 206 – CE 009) Dynasty, and where Zhang Liang was eventually crowned the "Marquis of Liu" for his long, loyal service to Liu Bang cum Emperor Gao).
Zhang Liang settled in the area of present-day Zhangjiajie and begat the first generation in a long lineage of Zhangs, therefore the city was eventually named in honor of the famous personnage who would become the Marquis of Liu.
The newly created city of Zhangjiajie is not part of a larger local political entity (county or city), but exists independently, i.e., answers only to the provincial administration of Hunan Province.
Zhangjiajie is home to two celebrities, as it were: Marshal He Long (1896-1969), who rose to the position of Vice Premier in the early years of the founding of the People's Republic of China; and Du Xin Wu, the famous martial arts master who served as a bodyguard to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, China's late Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty – early Republic of China military strategist and national hero who is a sort of combined George Washington/ Thomas Jefferson figure in the eyes of the Chinese people (Dr. Sun was also admired by Mao Zedong himself).
A large part of the city of Zhangjiajie is taken up by Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (sometimes referred to as Zhangjiajie Geological Park), itself a part of the much larger entity, the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, which comprises, besides Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, also Suoxi Valley and Tianzi Mountain, each of which subsections of Wulingyuan Scenic Area in turn consists of numerous individual scenic sites, including Yellow Dragon Cavern (the largest cave in all of Asia) and Baofeng Lake. Besides the Han Chinese, who are the ethnic majority in Zhangjiajie, there are large populations of Tujia, Bai and Miao ethnic minority groups living in Zhangjiajie, as well as 29 other ethnic minority groups, comprising, in all, some 60% of the population of Greater Zhangjiajie (i.e., the city of Zhangjiajie as well as its immediate environs).
It is tempting to say that Wulingyuan Scenic Area puts Zhangjiajie on the map, meaning that without the scenic area, the city of Zhangjiajie would have little to offer the visitor in the way of tourist attractions, for Wulingyuan Scenic Area truly does have a great deal to offer the visitor. But such a characterization would be grossly unfair to Zhangjiajie's closest neighbor, Tianmen Mountain, which lies a mere 8 kilometers south of the city. Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park and Wulingyuan Scenic Area are as different as night and day as regards their respective topographies; whereas Wulingyuan is a strangely eroded block-and-obelisk landscape composed chiefly of sandstone bedrock (a certain section of Wulingyuan, Yuanjiajie Scenic Area, is claimed to have been the inspiration for the floating Hallelujah Mountains of Pandora in the 2009 blockbuster film, Avatar, by James Cameron), Tianmen Mountain presents a more gently-sculpted tableland-mountain landscape, albeit with sheer cliff faces and some jagged peaks, and the vegetation on Tianmen Mountain is considerably denser and lusher.
As well, Tianmen Mountain has a cultural significance both to the city of Zhangjiajie and to the region, as well as to the entire country, at least as regards the past, since it was a place that was frequented by scholars, artists, famous monks and even emperors – and from the Tang Dynasty period to the Ming Dynasty period, Tianmen Temple served as the center of Buddhism for all of western Hunan Province.
Besides these two main pillars of tourism, the city of Zhangjiajie has a few other interesting sites to offer (see farther below).
Zhangjiajie belongs to a subtropical-humid monsoon climate, but with a slight twist: like the typical subtropical-humid monsoon climate, Zhangjiajie has a long, rainy and oftentimes humid summer, but unlike the typical subtropical-humid monsoon climate (due mainly to its more northerly latitude, but also due to the presence of mountains), Zhangjiajie has a relatively short, cold winter. The spring and autumn periods are even shorter, transitional periods.
Because of the area's northerly latitude, the difference between nighttime and daytime temperatures can be striking, and this is naturally more pronounced at higher elevations, which suggests that visitors to the area should dress "layered", such that one can add on or peel off layers of clothing in keeping with the dictates of the local climate – and a good raincoat or umbrella, as well as galoshes (a pair of slip-on/ slip-off rubberized shoe coverings) are highly recommended during the late spring – early autumn period, when rain showers can be a local daily occurrence.
Besides the two famous scenic areas, the city of Zhangjiajie is home to Puguang ("Ever Bright") Temple, a unique temple that was erected in CE 1413 during the early years of the Ming (1368-1644) Dynasty as an all-embracing place of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucianist worship. Though Puguang Temple was built during the Ming Dynasty, its style – as well as its all-embracing religious spirit – harks back to the Song (CE 960-1279) and Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasties, a progressive era when China eagerly embraced multiple religions, also at court (for example, Islam gained ascendancy in China under the rule of the Mongol Yuan emperors, who, though they themselves were Lamaists, or Tibetan Buddhists, regarded Muslim scholars in a highly favorable light, appointing them to high positions).
Other tourist sites in or near to the city of Zhangjiajie include the Former Residence of He Long, the Former Residence of Du Xin Wu, the Tujia Folk Customs Park and Jiangya Natural Hot Springs, the latter located in nearby Cili County. The most exciting Zhangjiajie attraction for the active tourist is without doubt the drift tours down the Maoyan River, a tributary to the Li River, in the Yongding District of Zhangjiajie. This is not whitewater rafting, therefore it can be enjoyed by everyone, even if it might entail the occasional exhilarating run through a smaller rapid. As anyone who has ever tried it will know, a drift tour offers a unique, unspoilt, back-door glimpse into nature.
The drift is about 25 kilometers long, perfect for a day's outing, and passes through four local "wonders": Bangtou Spring, Jianxie Spring and Yan Spring, as well as Pen Wu Cave. Despite the "four wonders" of the Maoyan River, the most popular site along this stretch of the river is in fact Shui Dongzi ("Water Hollow") Waterfall, though a large part of the attraction of Water Hollow Waterfall are the large boulders on the opposite bank that serve as a perfect observation platform offering some great views of the river valley below.
But few if any tourists come to Zhangjiajie to visit these local sites alone, however interesting they may be, except perhaps for Jiangya Natural Hot Springs and the delightfully fun drift tour down the Maoyan River; most people who come to Zhangjiajie do so in order to visit Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park and the UNESCO acclaimed Wulingyuan Scenic Area, both of which, together, define the city of Zhangjiajie.
It should be said that Wulingyuan Scenic Area is a work in progress in the sense that there are numerous physical features of the scenic area that remain to be developed to their full potential, so the reader should consider this when perusing the relatively short list of attractions that are highlighted in the current official tourism programme for Wulingyuan Scenic Area. But of course, the rights bestowed by the UNESCO recognition of Wulingyuan Scenic Area also carries a corresponding responsibility – which the government of the PRC as well as the provincial government fully understand and gladly embrace – to ensure that the natural beauty of Wulingyuan Scenic Area not be spoiled by over-development.