Getting The Sell On

999 steps before the Tianmen Arch

6-May 2009 to 8-May 2009: He straight away asked whether we'll pay in cash or credit. But we already hesitated. And upon further inspection of the box, I had read that this stuff was Bear Bile Powder (which thankfully was spelled out in English [it was the only English words on there]).

That was the dealbreaker (not that there was any deal to begin with). I wasn't going to encourage the destroying of endangered animals over this. I wondered if there was some other "ailment" if they'd pull out Tiger parts or some other critically endangered organism going into their stuff...

It wasn't until around 11:20pm when we arrived at the airport in Zhangjiajie. Right off the bat, it was raining pretty hard and we had walk in the rain to board one of those buses they load you onto after disembarking the airplane (without a terminal gate connected to it).

After piling into the crowded and stuffy bus, we were quickly whisked away to the arrival gate. There, we saw the luggages were already out on the conveyor belt. We wasted no time grabbing our checked-in luggage - both of them wet with mine looking soaked. Ours must've been one of the unfortunate ones on the top of the pile in the rain!

Anyways, we met Jackey our guide and Mr. Wu our driver. From there, we drove an hour to our hotel and Jackey tried to explain to us some tour guide stuff completely in Chinese (his English was almost non-existent; kinda shows you how many English-speaking tourists come out this way).

By around 1am, we made it to our accommodation, which seemed very quiet. It actually took the driver several honks of the horn before someone finally opened the gate. At that point, we checked in, got to our room, got cleaned up, and finally slept around 2am.

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Entering the Huangshizhai part of Zhangjiajie Zhangjiajie was one of those places I didn't have a whole lot of expectations for. It was basically my parents who told us that we just had to come here because it was so beautiful. So based on their recommendation, we set aside some time (and some awkward scheduling as evidenced by our late night flights both coming in and out of here) on this trip.

Entering the Huangshizhai part of Zhangjiajie We left the hotel at around 8:30am and arrived at the nearby Huangshizhai (Yellow Stone Village) Park. There, we proceeded to go through the entrance gate then walked towards a bus that ultimately whisked us away to a cable car area. On the walk, we could see right away the finger-like sandstone peaks protruding up into the sky. It kind of whetted our appetite for what we hoped would come later on today...

Pinnacles towering over the park Based on the name "Huangshizhai," I thought we were being taken to some kind of local village where poor locals would hawk their wares and work something out with the tour company.

On the cable car approaching Huangshizhai part of Zhangjiajie But after queueing up for a cable car ride, it was apparent that this "village" was really a metaphor for all multitude of sandstone hoodoos protruding up to the sky. We could tell there were there by all the landscape paintings and photos on everything from art displays to posters to even our ticket.

Monkeys at the Huangshizhai Unfortunately, it was very foggy when we got there. Plus, the piling on of some 18 people or so to each cable car made things awfully stuffy to say the least.

A monkey mother and child Once we got up to the top, we caught our breaths and cooled off a bit once we got out of the crowded cable car. Then, we immediately started to notice monkeys begging for food along the wet walkways as we started moving.

Hint of some peaks piercing the mist Anyways, given the foggy conditions, we didn't linger for too long up here (where there should've been views) though we did get a glimpse of some of the sandstone formations through the mist at one of the overlooks. But it was kind of a pity that we didn't get to see some of the views in their full glory from here.

Back on ground level with some of the mist clearing At 10:45am, we were back at the entrance to the park. At that point, we then headed for the far northeast end of the Wulingyuan Scenic Area.

Riding another cable car towards the Wulingyuan part of the park Once inside some time around 11:30am, we rode a bus up a windy road towards the general park area where yet another cable car ride was waiting for us. Fortunately, unlike the first cable car ride up, this one was less crowded as it was just Julie, Jackey, and me.

Another cable car ride And with the weather improved over here (maybe even some sun in the offering?), we were able to see a bit more of the scenery around us. Maybe the weather forecasts for a rainy day today were wrong? At least we were hoping that was the case.

The views starting to clear up in the Wulingyuan part of the park Well, the ride up was scenic, and the cable car ride was also quite scenic. At least this ride only consisted of four people and not the stuffy 18 from the Huangshizhai Park.

The peaks in less misty weather But once we got to the top of the cable car ride, we could see that the fog was rolling in again. From Jackey's reaction, it seemed like this wasn't a good thing. Still, we followed his lead and got onto another bus.

Still more views of pinnacle-like spires at Zhangjiajie This short bus ride stopped at a walking area where we went down and up several slippery steps towards some statue as well our first mindblowing vista of the day (at least in our minds) - a series of more fingerlike sandstone peaks piercing the swirling mist.

A busy part of the park It started to plant in our minds that those scrolls with Chinese watercolor landscape paintings we had seen growing up (and continue to see in galleries throughout the country) came from something that was for real. Never mind the liberties you're given with the imagination when you're drawing, but what we were seeing for real seemed like it came right out of one of those landscape paintings!

More mindblowing vistas In a way, this reminded us of the Blue Mountains of Australia (namely the Three Sisters at Echo Point), except this was already on a grander scale.

Afterwards, we went to a real busy section with lots of hawkers with annoying loudspeakers, heaps of people from large tour groups (none of these are surprises), and some kind of pagoda. Not exactly peaceful here and we couldn't get to our lunch spot nearby soon enough! It was certainly a reminder of the difference between National Parks in the US versus the ones in China.

A big natural arch After lunch (1:25pm), we were whisked away on a longer bus that took us to another scenic area.

By now, the weather started to mist and drizzle and then rain (at least not heavily though but enough to concern me with water damage on my camera).

We went along more walkways with more steps. But at some point, we went to a viewpoint of the first prized view (at least as far as we were concerned) - a natural arch (or natural bridge as they call it)!

Julie and Jackey at an overlook at Zhangjiajie The signs here call this 50m wide 350m tall span the "No. 1 Natural Bridge in the World." Not exactly the most imaginative name nor the most modest one, but hey, it's their arch and they get to name it whatever they want. Apparently it was so named because it was they thought it was the largest-spanned limestone arch in the world.

Still more swirling mist in mountain scenery This was just the beginning of what seemed like a consistent stream of incredibly beautiful views one after another. There were views that showed vertical drops from the sky to seemingly pristine lost word forested ravines. By this point, I lost count of what view was what (not that we were really paying attention to signs).

More pinnacle-like scenery at Zhangjiajie Though I was wondering whether we might get to see the Yuanyang Waterfall, which was on our itinerary. No waterfalls so far on this excursion.

The walking added a little humidity and sweat to an otherwise fairly comfortable weather day (except for the rain). But in the buses, I was dying of the humidity.

Going over a bridge spanning a large chasm at Zhangjiajie The day eventually ended in a series of walking along tunnels and descending a really tall elevator that went down some 362m or so.

Speaking of elevators and other mechanized touring devices, we detected yet another thing about Chinese parks that differ markedly with parks we're more used to seeing - i.e. those mechanized contraptions.

Looking up at more pinnacles from the bottom of the elevator at Zhangjiajie In fact, we'd bet if the Chinese ran the Grand Canyon, they'd blast tunnels and put in some elevators, escalators, and cable cars. There was already a Taiwanese Group that put in the obnoxious Sky Walk. Bottom line is if there's money to be made somehow, they'll find a way to exploit whatever there is (even if it's tacky or messes with the natural balance of things).

We'll take the natural versions, thank you. But at least we got to see something different in a different country - what traveling is all about, we reckon.

At 4:15pm, we were done with our touring for the day. At this point, Jackey told us that the office had him relay to us that we were being treated to a foot massage. With some more walking tomorrow, it was thought that we were going to need this massage.

So next thing you know, we were driven to some building, went up an elevator with Jackey, and then into a room with a bunch of sinks beneath seats.

At that point, we were introduced to some well-dressed slick talking guy. All of it was in Chinese, and he even was able to speak Hainanese, which gave Julie a bit of a kick.

Anyways, this guy was talking to us about how you can tell the health of your internals just by looking at the palm. He discussed things about the differences between the Western and Eastern medicines and how the Chinese have been doing the practices he's been talking about (relating to herbal and organic preventative and cleansing remedies) for some 5000 years.

Well, while this mostly one-sided dialog was going on, I started to suspect that maybe this foot massage wasn't exactly "free."

And when he was done with his discussion, he took us to another room where we (actually just I) was examined by some other guy who looked at my palm and diagnosed me with some kind of warm liver.

He mentioned that this resulted in my canker sores and muscle soreness and should be tended to.

We weren't quite sure exactly what this ailment was since we were being spoken to in Chinese and there were some things lost in our lack of fluency in the language. So we asked if he could write it down for us in Chinese so we could bring it home and get some further interpretation by our relatives.

He wouldn't do that. So that kind of raised our suspicions.

Next, we asked what can be done to address this "ailment." And shortly thereafter, out came the remedy.

It was some box of dry powder in vials. It was claimed that this would flush out my liver and consequently help out my kidneys that was somehow overburdened by my warm liver.

When we asked what the price was, he said it was 2400RMB (nearly $400USD at the current exchange rates).

Ha, we knew they were gettin' the sell on us all along!

He straight away asked whether we'll pay in cash or credit. But we already hesitated. And upon further inspection of the box, I had read that this stuff was Bear Bile Powder (which thankfully was spelled out in English [it was the only English words on there]).

That was the dealbreaker (not that there was any deal to begin with). I wasn't going to encourage the destroying of endangered animals over this. I wondered if there was some other "ailment" if they'd pull out Tiger parts or some other critically endangered organism going into their stuff.

So when it was clear we weren't buying, we were then taken back to the room with the sinks beneath the seats. That was when we were getting the foot massage (finally).

Of course, this was accompanied with a lady coming in to converse with us and try to push some more rubbing remedies. They knew we were hesitating so one person put something on my neck as a trial since I had mentioned I did have a prolonged spell of neckstiffness on this trip.

I don't know what was in it, but that stuff burned! Fancy effect, but I still wasn't buying their stuff.

Eventually the foot massage ended, and when it was clear that no sale was made, my masseuse in particular left the room a bit pissed.

Throughout the whole episode, Julie wasn't diagnosed once nor was she being hawked anything...

Sometimes I wonder why I'm the one with the sucker-shaped head? Hawkers always seem to come after me!

Mercifully, we left at 5:40pm and went to some nearby restaurant for dinner. Now it wasn't included in our itinerary, but perhaps this was the give and take with the tour company - get the sell on in exchange for a dinner on them. We didn't confirm this with them, but we weren't going to say anything...

Adding to the awkward and inadequate feeling of the day, it turned out that we didn't get to see the Yuanyang Waterfall since no one (including our guide) seemed to know about it. It didn't matter that it was on our China Tourism map since it wasn't consulted at all by this guide.

I had to admit though that I kind of suspected this waterfall might be missed on this trip despite being on the itinerary. After all, I haven't seen a photo of it in the literature, and I guess I still won't know what it looks like. So much for that...

But with this sour feeling in my gut, I did talk to Jackey about this waterfall as he insisted this was the same waterfall as the Baofeng Waterfall we're supposed to be seeing tomorrow. But when I showed him the map, he realized it wasn't what we were looking for and tried to justify his misunderstanding by saying that Baofeng Waterfall was typically referred to as the Yuanyang Waterfall (which I knew was BS).

In fact in hindsight, I began to wonder if this was merely a convenient misunderstanding so he could try to earn some commission with that "foot massage."

Anyways looking at the big picture, we will see a waterfall tomorrow (at least that's the plan). So I wonder what's to come...

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Our day began a little bit earlier than yesterday as we got up at 6:30am to some audible rain. That meant the landscapes were sure to be foggy and obscured. We were also worried that our day of exploring would be soggy and miserable.

At 8:15am, we checked out and left the hotel.

One thing we loved (and will probably miss) about this hotel was the sparse occupancy, which resulted in some relative peace and quiet as well as the surprising lack of cigarette smoke. The free internet access (once we figured out what was wrong with our laptop settings) were also a welcome bonus.

At the Baofeng Lake area entrance Anyways, about 30 minutes later, we arrived at the entranceway to Baofeng Lake. This was the place we were supposed to be seeing some kind of waterfall, which would've been my excuse to tie in waterfalls to the Chinese watercolor landscapes for the Zhangjiajie area.

Not surprisingly, the entrance area was crowded as there was a multitude of Chinese tour groups as well as the odd Korean group. Ahead of them was a narrow ravine and what looked like a series of uphill walking.

The fake waterfall near the Baofeng Lake area entrance The rain was off and on at this point between being drizzly and coming down fairly hard (but not an outright downpour).

Soon after getting through the ticket gate, we could see the waterfall. But upon looking at it, we could see that it was pretty much manmade. Even the place where the water was coming down could now be seen as a natural impossibility as there was no drainage funneling to the waterfall. It was merely a water pump and a bunch of pipes sucking water from the nearby lake.

Closer to the fake waterfall at Baofeng Lake That was rather disappointing and made the Yuanyang Waterfall miss seem bigger. Seriously in hindsight, we probably could've ditched Baofeng Lake to try for the Yuanyang Waterfall this morning.

As we continued past the waterfall, the uphill walking on the wet and slippery concrete and stones continued. We were accompanied by some cheezy Chinese music along the way, which seemed utterly unnecessary and over the top. Sometimes Nature should be allowed to do its thing, we reckoned. And in this case, silence is golden.

The ascent up to Baofeng Lake on the way back At the apex of the walk, we could see a small bridge leading to a series of stone steps leading steeply upwards. Coming downhill were the tour groups that took the bus up and were about to join us.

After working up a sweat, we finally descended to a boating area where we could see the pretty Baofeng Lake surrounded by steep mountains.

The Baofeng Lake We then boarded a canopied boat and listened to an attractive Chinese tour guide speak into the bullhorn in Mandarin and explain away at the landscapes and other tidbits about the area.

Mist swirling about on Baofeng Lake During the boat ride, there were a couple of moments where other employees got out of their lakeside tents and serenaded us with some kind of Chinese song. It seemed like something out of a Chinese movie or show, but again, it was a bit over the top and utterly unnecessary when all you really need is Nature's songs of birds chirping, silence, and water lapping.

Someone serenading us while on the Baofeng Hu boat ride In a way, this kind of reaffirmed that we probably shouldn't have gone to Baofeng Lake, especially in lieu of the Yuanyang Waterfall. Plus, all that time spent yesterday getting the sell on us at multiple shops was further annoying.

Another person serenading us while on Baofeng Hu I did wonder what the scenery would've been had it not been so misty and rainy. But then again, all those Chinese watercolor paintings we saw on scrolls growing up kind of reaffirmed that they were painted that way because it was probably the most likely condition in which they'd be seen. In a way, it was like that was the way it was supposed to be seen.

Descending down to the base of the cliffs At the end of the boat ride, we went down a bunch of steps in a really narrow ravine, finally arriving near the foot of the fake waterfall.

We could see a bunch of seats facing a stage backed by the waterfall and this must've been where they put on some kind of night and light show performance in the evenings.

The fake Baofeng Waterfall All told, this part of the trip felt a little bit fake, and like I said earlier we probably could've done without it in hindsight.

Immediately afterwards, we quickly walked in front of the entrance gate and towards some unassuming building. It wasn't long after 10:15am at the time so clearly it wasn't lunch. This could only mean one thing...

We were gettin' the sell put on us again.

Sure enough we walked into some kind of jade or whatever jewelry store. I think they kind of knew we weren't going to buy anything but they didn't stop trying to convince us to try to buy something for the parents.

Unfortunately, they were preaching to the wrong audience. After all, we're not fans of jewelry and disdain the idea of displacing tons of earth for a shady industry that tries to convince you that wearing fancy rocks somehow makes you look good or gives you higher status than those who don't have them.

At least they showed us that real jade can cut glass and is cold to the touch. Not that we're ever interested in buying jewelry at all. Plus, it didn't seem as long and as painful as the foot massage yesterday afternoon. These folks weren't quite as pushy. But getting the sell on like this in lieu of sightseeing some of the things that were on our itinerary didn't make me a very happy camper.

We then left for Zhangjiajie City. There, we were gettin' the sell on against us yet again. But at least they were taking us to something remotely more interesting than the previous two shopping excursions - Chinese landscape art.

After seeing some of the unique creative style of some guy who managed to glue rocks, fine stones, and sand into Chinese landscapes rich in texture and depth, Julie decided to buy one of the small ones. I guess the third time's the charm and some commission is being made for all the efforts of the tour company (or for Jackey, I'm not sure how they worked things out).

At 12pm, we walked across the street (playing Frogger) for lunch.

Somewhere on the way to Zhangjiajie City By now, the weather seemed to be improving and the threat of rain seemed to start to go away.

We still weren't sure whether enough fog would lift for us to see the Tianmen (Heaven's Gate) Mountain, but we were gonna do the excursion regardless.

The cable car ride At 12:45pm, we were dropped off at some cable car station in the city. We didn't waste much time getting on the cable car and were then whisked away into the open fields and jagged mountains up ahead on one of the cable cars.

We noticed this thin waterfall on the cable car ride up to Tianmen Arch The cable car ride wasn't much at first, but as it started to steeply climb, we started noticing rising mist weaving between ghostly peaks, thin waterfalls tumbling before weaving between snake-like winding roads, and the big arch affectionately termed "Heaven's Gate" or Tianmen.

The Tianmen Arch with some tiny cascades beneath The arch itself looked quite big from the cable car and the waterfalls beneath them seemed like they were exaggerations in the landscape art gallery we had just visited.

Thin cascades as seen from the cable car Once at the top station, we got off the cable car and proceeded to do a really long loop walk. But right off the bat, we could see that it really did feel like we were somehow up above the clouds and way in the sky. I guess that would be one of the fringe benefits of being carted up to places that would otherwise be inaccessible without such contraptions put in place.

At the top of the cable car and now looking above the clouds Anyways, up here, it was cool. But the sun started to show itself after all the rain we had been dealing with. Could it be that we got here at the perfect time for landscapes and that "Crouching Tiger"-like scenery?

Looking down at the end of the cable car ride At first I thought the walk wasn't long and was happy snapping away photos from our lofty vantage point of the mountains and mist below us.

More birdseye views of scenery And to make matters even better, it seemed like the skies continued to clear up a bit more so we were able to see a bit further than before. Add to that the effect that some patches of clouds were still clinging to the mountains below, and we had this strange effect of Chinese watercolor scenery with some hint of sun!

Cliffhugging pathway But soon enough, the path started to hug vertical cliffs (I swear it seemed like we were suspended thousands of feet above ground). It was tough not to get butterflies looking down from the trail, but it just seemed like the hits just kept coming with the landscapes.

With the bitter taste in our mouths of having the sell being put on us three times while not seeing any truly legit waterfalls in this part of the land, I guess the crazy skyhigh landscapes kind of erased those sentiments.

Looking back at the high up cliff walks at Tianmen Dong Indeed, Zhangjiajie's Chinese watercolor landscapes acted like the Great Eraser of all those past sins (well, not quite), and we were probably quite lucky at getting to experience it more or less for two straight days despite the rains on both days.

More cliffhugging walkways amongst the mist Eventually, we got to a place where the cliffhugging trail intersected with this glass protrusion (much like the Skywalk at the Grand Canyon). We took some obligatory photos here, of course.

Thin waterfall springing from a hole in the cliff Looking towards the cliff, I noticed there was a small natural arch. I think this would've gotten some love in Arizona and Utah, but here in Zhangjiajie, it didn't get a sign and it was totally ignored by the Korean tour groups that happened to be here.

In fact, that tour group (given their power in numbers) eventually disturbed the peace we were enjoying. Small natural arch near our turnaround point We went up lots of steps back to the upper cable car station where we had ourselves a restroom break and a quick chat with Jackey.

He taught me a fun little Chinese tongue twister that said something like, "Shi shi shi, shi shi shi, shishi shi shishi, shishi shi shishi, shishishi shi shishishi..." (i.e. "4 is 4, 10 is 10, 14 is 14, 40 is 40, 44 is 44..." in Mandarin Chinese). It was one of those tongue twisters where if you didn't get the concept of tones in the Chinese language, you're screwed. It also kind of fit in with his pretty happy-go-lucky nature.

Another waterfall coming out of the cliffs at Zhangjiajie I guess I was having a little too much fun with the Chinese language games and sayings because when Julie was done using the restroom and we had to get to the cable car, I managed to forget our plastic bag carrying a pair of our rain ponchos.

We realized it just when we got into the cable car and Jackey had to make some calls on his cell phone to inform the Tianmen Mountain staff.

A cascade beneath the big arch When we got off at the Middle Cable Car Station, we took some photos from a platform that let us view a waterfall right below the span of the massive Tianmen Arch. Then, we got onto a bus, which would go on the snake-like winding road up numerous switchbacks ultimately reaching the base of the 999 steps to the base of Tianmen Arch.

At the start of the 999 steps up to the arch During the bus ride, there was a TV screen and video showing that airplanes (the propeller kind as well as some special military ones) were able to fly through the arch! Looked kinda cool, but I wondered if that might have any destabilizing effects on the rocks holding up the arch.

At the end of the road in front of the Tianmen Dong By the time we made it to the bus stop, we proceeded to make the climb up the steps up to the arch.

Incense sticks before the Tianmen Arch While we were up here, it seemed like there was a wide plaza area that allowed us to look back down the way we came up as well as looking upwards towards the 999 steps that led up to the span of the Tianmen Arch. In typical Chinese fashion (that we were starting to appreciate now), it was another mix of convenience versus the sanctity of leaving Nature alone.

Embarking on the climb up to the arch The number "9" was significant in Chinese because it sounds a lot like "jiu," which also has more of a longevity connotation.

Jackey also explained that other numbers with meanings include:

"8" for money as it sounds close to "fa" or get paid.

"6" for well-being as it sounds close to "liu" or something flowing.

"4" for death as it sounds close to "si" which means die. Definitely a number I'm sure superstitious Chinese types would want to avoid.

"2" for hunger as it sounds close to "e" which means hungry.

Anyways, that was why they put 999 steps instead of a 1000 here.

The steps went up beyond some incense burners and then straight towards the base of the arch. The steps looked like they were divided into series of steps where each series alternated in steepness. I guess that was supposed to keep you on your toes.

Right at the base of the arch Once at the base of the Tianmen Arch at 4:15pm, there were the usual decorated Chinese girls looking for photographs for a fee.

We also noticed that the roof of the arch seemed to be seeping through water, resulting in a little bit of a sprinkle depending on the way the wind blew through the arch.

Some monuments were put where it looked like the water droplets tended to land.

On the other side of the arch, we could see more mountains. There were also more steps, but no one was on them as it just seemed like more unnecessary exercise.

The twisty road to get up to the base of the steps to Tianmen Dong Eventually, we got back down to the awaiting Jackey, took a few more parting photos, and then took the bus back down to the Middle Cable Car Station.

Finally, we were back at the awaiting driver at the main station in Zhangjiajie City at around 5:30pm.

After a Hunanese dinner, we were taken to the airport. With several hours to spare, we just waited and hoped we wouldn't be too exhausted for Suzhou tomorrow. That was because we wouldn't arrive in Shanghai until 20 minutes 'til midnight and then drive all the way to Suzhou to check in and spend the night.

It was a crazy part of the itinerary and we were still sticky from our exercise today. Guess we'll have to suck it up and hope for the best tomorrow...

To be continued...

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