THE BLOG
07/24/2013 05:30 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

Zhangjiajie, China, More Than Astounding

Those of us who love traditional Chinese scroll paintings have an emotional relationship to "mystical mountains;" those shaggy pillars and abrupt granite projections, partially hidden by cloud and mist; transcendental and otherworldly. In traditional folklore, these mountains were the homes of scared beings, all immortals and god-like creatures that possessed the privilege of living close to heaven. Even today in a communist secular society, many Chinese consider these mountains sacred.

There are several places in China to experience these dramatic landscapes. Two are well known to western tourists: Guilin on the Li River in Guangxi Zhuang Province and Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in Anhui Province. Another one , equally spectacular -- is relatively unknown, not even mentioned in many tourist books. But you've been there, if you saw Avatar. Think about those extraordinary pillars of quartz-sandstone.

The film was a worldwide success due to its filmmaking technology and astonishing scenery. What most people don't know is that much of Pandora's landscape was modeled after a real place: Zhangjiajie (pronounced as "chang jaw jay) in the Hunan province. The mountains of Zhangjiajie (specifically, the 3,544 foot high "Southern Sky Column") became the basis for the floating Pandora's "Hallelujah Mountains." The Zhangjiajie government tried to rename it "Avatar Hallelujah Mountain" but this turned out to be a very unpopular decision.

There are several day trips one can make inside Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, using gondolas, ski lifts and a transparent elevator to ascend the mountains. From the top there are sub-tours to various scenic points and to Baofeng, surely one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Tianmen Mountain has a 500-year-old Buddhist temple nestled in the mountain where spiritually inclined Asians come on pilgrimages to burn incense and pray. One of China's newest tourist attractions is a skywalk on Tianmen Mountain, a "glass" bottomed walkway wrapped around the side of the mountain with a 4,000 ft. drop. "Don't look down!" people scream to one another.

Clouds and rain give the mountains their supernatural quality and viewing them is often best on an overcast day. Spring and autumn are the best months to visit Zhangjiajie, otherwise you'll be experiencing the grand scenery elbow-to-elbow and back-to-back with other tourists. All you'll see on the transparent walkway will be other people's shoes. If you're a westerner, be prepared to have little children stare at you, especially if you are fair-haired and tall. There are very few non-Asians tourists in Zhangjiajie and virtually no one speaks conversable English.

It is wise to hire a guide -- trained and certified -- and this can easily be arranged through your hotel. Without a local guide to orient you, you won't be able to communicate with taxi drivers and you might miss certain cultural experiences including the utterly sensational music performance that goes on every night in an outdoor theater. The event is advertised on posters and billboards throughout the city but until you are strongly encouraged by a knowledgeable local to purchase tickets, you might pass on it, mistaking it for a Chinese kitschy Disneyland act. And that would be a terrible mistake.

The performance is a drama that integrates the elements of folk music and modern art.
The story, The Woodcutter Liu Hai, is based on a well-known Hunan folk tale and Huagu opera, about a confirmed bachelor that falls in love with a lady fox. Running continuously since September 2009, it is a big production with a budget of 120 million Yuan to support 530 people in various roles as actors, dancers, singers and acrobats, supported by a technical crew whose phenomenal expertise in lighting and sound make them equal partners to the play's performers. The Music Director is Hunan born composer, Tan Dun, known outside of China for composing the music for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon that won him an Oscar.

Under the stars at the foot of Tianmen Mountain, the performers fill an area measuring
1 kilometer in depth, width and height respectively; an open air "stage" with waterfalls, streams and a lake, blending perfectly with the natural landscapes in an area that totals 10,000 sq. meters. At various points in the performance, the audience gets an enormous full moon, a blizzard and mountain cliffs that grow together -- actually move - from opposite sides of a valley.

The stage is too large for conventional microphoned sound so the music is pre-recorded. A 100-woman chorus stands to the left of the stage, wearing ethnic Tujia costumes with silver headgear that shimmer in the light. The chorography is mesmerizing. One hundred bodies move in perfect synchronicity, using elaborate hand gestures and torso movements to express the lyrics. They lip-sync to a recording so the sound mix of 100 voices with instrumental music is perfectly balanced and uncompromised by the distance. A translation of the lyrics into English and Korean are projected onto a flat surfaced rock, allowing non-Chinese audience members to keep track of the story.

Visiting Zhangjiajie's extraordinary mountains and listening to the woodman opera gives the traveler an aesthetic and poetic experience, essentially Chinese. Both Daoist and Neo-Confucian elements put emphasis on how inferior the human presence is, considering the vastness of the cosmos.