Like Islands Floating in the Sky: The Mist-Shrouded Columns of Rock That Inspired Avatar

Chinese national park
Image: www.gregoirec.com
Zhangjiajie wrapped in clouds

The mist is thick and swirling, obscuring all but the closest lush green vegetation. However, higher up it begins to clear, as hazy shapes become visible through the murky white veil. From far above they look like islands of rock, floating in the sky, each supporting its own miniature forest. With this angle, it’s easy to see how this spectacular national park inspired parts of planet Pandora in James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster Avatar.

Mist swirling round rocks
Image: Isabelle Cabal
The rocks resemble Pandora’s Hallelujah Mountains.

Even without its Hollywood connection, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China’s Hunan province is an incredible place. This 4,810-hectare (11,885-acre) area became the country’s first national park in 1982. The site’s most immediately eye-catching features are the quartz sandstone pillars that tower over the trees. Perhaps because of these and other interesting geological features in the region, the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and its surrounds became a UNESCO Global Geopark in 2004.

Small farm
Image: Tom Horton – Further to Fly Photography
A small farm in the sky

There are over 3,000 rock pillar formations spread out across the park, and a third of them are over 656 feet (200 meters) high. One of them, the Southern Sky Column – which was renamed “Hallelujah Mountain” (as seen in Avatar) in 2010 – is an amazing 3,543 feet (1,080 meters) tall. That’s higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, which is 2,722 feet (830 meters) tall.

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Chinese National Park
Image: Isabelle Cabal
Small rainforests perch on the peaks of the stone pillars.

The area experiences high levels of precipitation, receiving an average of 47 to 63 inches (1,200 to 1,600 mm) of rainfall each year. The climate is damp and misty year round. And thanks to the moist conditions, the park’s subtropical rainforests thrive.

Rocks in the clouds
Image: Tom Horton – Further to Fly Photography
The ghostly outlines of trees growing on rock

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Around three billion eight thousand years ago, all of this was beneath the ocean. Then, after several geological shifts pushed the sea floor to the surface, erosion began to carve out the peaks. The effect of water turning to ice and expanding helped form the striking columns, as did the vegetation that grows there. Clearly, Mother Nature is a very skilled sculptor.

Columns of rocks
Image: Tom Horton – Further to Fly Photography
Columns of rock reach up like fingers on a giant hand.

Although the towers of rock may be the most dramatic of Zhangjiajie National Forest Park’s features, its flora is no less impressive. There are 720 species of plants in the park. During the Quaternary glacial period, the area was a haven for many ancient species. Some still remain today, such as the dove tree, which is considered both a living fossil and a national treasure.

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river in Chinese national park
Image: Tom Horton – Further to Fly Photography
As well as the towering pillars, there is also streaming water in the park.

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There are also over 149 species of valuable fauna in the park, including mammals, amphibians and birds. Importantly, 28 of these species are protected nationally, among them the musk deer, the Chinese giant salamander (which is threatened globally) and the golden pheasant. Visitors may also spot monkeys swinging from the branches.

grassy column
Image: Isabelle Cabal
Some blue sky breaks up the mist.

Perhaps it’s Zhangjiajie National Park’s rather inaccessible location that kept most people away in ancient times and allowed the wildlife to remain safe – although there is actually evidence of human activity in the region dating back 100,000 years. According to local folklore, during the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), a lord named Zhang Liang lived and died there in isolation and is buried under a mountain.

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Red skies
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The park is bathed in a special quality of light at dusk and dawn.

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The park’s climate itself is another attraction, as it is claimed that the air is “rich in negative oxygen.” This is said to be beneficial for people with hypertension, since it apparently lowers their blood pressure. Of course, fresh air is good for everyone, and no doubt the tranquil and nature-filled surroundings don’t hurt either.

Eerie columns
Image: www.gregoirec.com
The pillars look eerie in this photograph.

Zhangjiajie takes its connection to Avatar very seriously. When another national park, Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) in China’s Anhui province, tried to claim that it was the movie’s inspiration, Zhangjiajie hit back. The park offered a reward of £10,000 ($15,343) to anyone who could prove that Zhangjiajie did not inspire Avatar’s planet Pandora.

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turtle rock
Image: Tom Horton – Further to Fly Photography
This boulder is known as “Turtle Rock”

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The national park’s association with Avatar has certainly been beneficial. In 2012, its tourist numbers were said to have risen by 80 percent in the wake of the movie’s screenings – so it’s not surprising that park officials make the most of the connection. Marketing posters state, “Pandora is far, but Zhangjiajie is near.”

Misty peaks
Image: Isabelle Cabal
Mist coats the tall peaks.

Some of the stunning rock formations in the park are linked by natural bridges – sometimes at quite considerable heights. The most famous of these are Xianrenqias (“Bridge of the Immortals”) and Tianqiashengkong (“Bridge Across the Sky”). The highest, Tianqiashengkong, is over 1,171 feet (357 meters) high and 131 feet (40 meters) long.

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Peaks in the clouds
Image: Isabelle Cabal
Natural erosion helped carve out these jagged rocks.

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For those who are not afraid of heights, there are cable cars to transport visitors between mountains. Or if you prefer, there’s the Bailong Glass Elevator, which rises an incredible 1,070 feet (326 meters) up the side of a mountain – definitely an experience in and of itself. There’s also a squeaky wooden bridge that offers breathtaking views of Hallelujah Mountain. Yet for people who find all this a bit too precarious, the park also offers a far less adventurous-sounding shuttle bus service.

finger-like peaks
Image: Isabelle Cabal
It’s a long way down…

Not all of Zhangjiajie’s tourist sites are up in the clouds. Some, like the Huanglong (“Yellow Dragon Cave”), are below ground. There are many karst caves in the park, but Huanglong is among the biggest. In fact, it is reportedly one of the ten largest caves in China.

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Columns in national park
Image: Isabelle Cabal
It’s a good thing the air’s so fresh, because the views are simply breathtaking.

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These days, the government is interested in protecting Zhangjiajie. A 49-square-mile (127-square-kilometer) buffer zone has been set up around the famous park. Sightseeing helicopters have been banned, and road travel in the park is limited to the shuttle buses. Also, commercial farming, mining and tree-felling are all now strictly prohibited. According to director James Cameron, Avatar is a movie with an environmental message, and in this part of the world, it seems like it has certainly had a positive impact.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

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