Zhaotong Hope School: Part 2

If you haven’t already, make sure you read my last blog post before starting this one; it explains the background and context to this trip, plus some great photos of the Yunnan countryside!

Arriving at the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong

After close to two hours of back-seat rodeo, negotiating rocky mountain paths and crawling through flash-flood streams, we arrived at our destination: the JLR Hope School in Zhaotong. Since the 2014 earthquake the region has received funding for improved infrastructure but the Hope School was so deep in the mountains that the final leg of our route there was more off-road than on!

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Photo courtesy of Acefoto

The team of photographers who documented our weekend used a drone to capture the stunning surroundings of the school and the photo below is one of my favourites; Zhaotong is largely agricultural (tobacco is one of the main crops), and the stepped fields transform the landscape into a work of art. The large building in the bottom centre is the school.

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Breaking the Ice

Our team-building event took place on a Sunday and the grounds were deserted. The headmaster and the volunteer teachers came out into the rain to greet us, then ushered us into one of the classrooms where they had prepared hot tea and set up some electric heaters (it was a cold, wet day, and there was no central heating).

Prior to our visit I’d helped the mentors and mentees to exchange contact details so they could introduce themselves by phone or WeChat (China’s main social media platform), but this was their first chance to meet in person. To help ease any initial nervousness we had arranged a series of games designed to raise the collective energy, build trust and – importantly – have some fun together. It was great to watch everyone participate so enthusiastically (even those who may ordinarily be a bit shy!).

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With the ice broken, we split the mentor-mentee pairs into two teams who then competed against each other in a series of interactive challenges. The stakes were high, as the winning team would receive the best ingredients from which to make their lunch! Over the next few hours they solved problems, hunted for treasure, configured rollercoasters from chopsticks and finally, once the challenge was complete and the ingredients had been won, the two teams threw themselves into the final test – to work together as one team to prepare and cook their meal, from scratch.

The Hope School has a small kitchen where meals are prepared each day for the children and staff. The teachers often pitch in to help the cooks at mealtimes and so are familiar with the recipes and they taught the JLR mentors how to make the local dishes (an insight into their daily life). I’m sure the significance of this activity wasn’t lost on the mentors; we have hundreds of restaurants on our doorstep and the most difficult part of our lunchtime is deciding whether to have sushi, sashimi or grilled salmon. Here, if you don’t gut the fish and scale the fish, you don’t eat the fish.

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As you can see from the photo, they all pulled together and succeeded in creating a delicious and well-deserved feast.

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Bon appetit! (or rather, 好车 ‘Hǎo chē’ )

Teacher’s Day Ceremony

The following day we returned to the school again. We had planned our visit to coincide with China’s National Teachers Day (Monday 10 September, 2017) and watched as the children lined up in rows in the yard and sang a song to give thanks to their teachers. Teaching is a historically respected vocation in China dating back to Confucious; however, during the Cultural Revolution the pursuit of intellectual growth was repressed and teaching condemned. Teachers’ Day was established and awarded national status in 1985 as a government-led effort to reestablish the status and dignity of the profession, and is an important date in the academic calendar. A few children wearing bright red sashes raised the Chinese national flag of the same colour, and later we presented the mentors with a certificate to recognise and celebrate the commitment they had made to the teachers.

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Teacher for a day

Prior to the team-building trip we had tasked our mentors to collaborate with their mentee to design a lesson which they would co-deliver to the Hope School students. They were given free reign on the subject matter, and the lessons ranged from English language to martial arts; this was another great way to give the JLR colleagues a glimpse into the daily life of the graduate teachers.

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Students learned some key facts about England and China, and drew the Chinese and British flags. They did a great job!

The photos below were taken during the lessons which our JLR mentors facilitated.

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 The First Foreigner

During the break-time we had an opportunity to meet the students and play games together. My colleagues told me that I was likely to be the first foreigner that the children had ever met, which was clear from their reaction; they were nervous at first, running up to me in a group and pushing each other forward in my direction before running away squealing and laughing! But it only took one kid to take hold of my hand and after that I was mobbed for the rest of the day…

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Say “cheese”! (or, in Chinese, 茄子 ‘qié zi’ – which is used as it sounds like ‘cheese’, though it actually means ‘eggplant’. Cheese is 奶酪 ‘năilào’ but that won’t trigger a smile in photos).       Photo courtesy of Acefoto.
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This game involved jumping on an elastic rope stretched between the ankles of two people stood a metre apart, and was very similar to a game I remember playing when I was at school.
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This little girl had an incredible smile. Photo courtesy of Acefoto.
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The students had to wait outside the canteen while we finished our lunch, but it was hard to concentrate on the food with such an eager audience so I soon went back outside to play!

The Hope School

While the children and mentors were in class I explored the school grounds, which include the main school building, a separate ‘outhouse’ toilet block, the kitchen, the students’ and teachers’ dormitories and the playground, where a new dormitory wing is under construction. Students who live fairly locally can walk to and from the school each day; however, many live further away and they reside at the school full-time during the week.

I wrote previously about the devastating 2014 earthquake; the insult to injury here was that this part of China was already incredibly poor; in 2015 the average disposable income in Zhaotong was only 540 yuan (61 GBP) per month and more than a quarter of inhabitants fell below the poverty line. One consequence of this is that many young people migrate to Southen or Eastern Chinese cities in the hope of finding better paid work, leaving their children to be raised by grandparents or relatives. There are 176 of these so-called “left-behind children” and the Zhaotong Hope School, who see their parents once or twice each year. A recent JLR China crowd-funding initiative has helped to buy telephone watches for each of these children so they can more easily call their parents, and help them to maintain their relationships despite the distance.

The dormitory building was life-changing for many children, enabling them to more regularly attend school (I was told stories of some children who would walk for 3 or four hours across the mountain each morning and evening before the dormitory was built). However, keeping the children in school over the long-term is an additional hurdle; as their families often need them to support with the farming and so pull them out of school early.

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As we made to leave the school on our final day I was suddenly seized by a clamour of tiny hands and dragged into a classroom, the children chanting a chorus of “teacher please don’t leave us!”. I’ve never been particularly child-savvy and was completely helpless – they were surprisingly strong!. Luckily one of my colleagues came to the rescue and negotiated my release – on the condition that I sing a song. Mind racing (what do you sing to small Chinese children who maybe know a couple of words of English!) I settled on “heads, shoulders knees and toes”, and got them all to join in, which seemed to go down a treat (phew!). It was a sweet and funny end to the visit.

A lasting impression

This wasn’t my first time in Yunnan – Matt and I spent a weeks’ holiday there in 2016 – but this was my first glimpse of life deep in the countryside, far from the tourist-friendly cities of DaLi and LiJiang. As we made our way back to Shanghai I reflected on the significance of schooling and education in China. Even the most basic education – being able to read and write – can make a monumental difference in a persons relative prosperity and quality of life; the more highly educated the person, the better their chance of boarding the economic juggernaut of modern China and accessing the boundless opportunities available in the big thriving cities.

The Chinese education system is notoriously grueling (google ‘GaoKao’ to get some idea of this), and if you’re not from a privileged background then it takes an admirable amount of grit and application to get a university degree – your golden ticket to a well paid job in a blue chip company. Through conversations with Chinese friends and colleagues we’ve learned that the norm is, having emerged successfully but battle weary from the educational gauntlet, you find yourself at the bottom of a huge ladder (the career ladder), ideally with a respectable company/job. You then need to gather your wits and get climbing as far and as fast as you can to reach your goal of achieving level X by age Y.  This makes it all the more remarkable to me that the volunteer teachers have chosen to take an atypical path, to do something decidedly altruistic at just the time when society dictates that they should be climbing that ladder the fastest.

The two days I spent at the Hope School were a great experience for me. For the teachers it will surely be an incredible character-building step, and a powerful foundation for their future careers. The 28-year old headmaster was testament to this; he has a huge amount of responsibility to deal with for someone so young, and moved me with his genuine humility and resilience.

While driving through Zhaotong we witnessed highways being built which will eventually traverse the mountainous prefectures and connect traditionally remote areas (such as Qiaojia 巧家县, where our hotel was locatedwith cities such as Kunming. This will bring new economic opportunities to the region, but any entrance is also an exit which may entice more people away from these remote regions. It will be interesting to see how the tourism industry develops here over the coming years – the natural beauty of the area is immense – and what impact this will have on the local life. In the meantime I look forward to supporting the JLR-Hope School Dream Mentor programme, and I hope this brings lasting rewards for both mentors and mentees.

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Photo courtesy of Acefoto

– Emma

 

Zhaotong Hope School: Part 1

Last year I was fortunate enough to be able to work on a pretty special project; to design and launch a mentoring programme which would match eight employees from the company I work at with eight volunteer teachers at an underprivileged school high in the mountains of Yunnan province, South West China.

In general I try to avoid talking about work in this blog (Matt and I agreed from the outset that we wanted to focus on documenting our life in Shanghai and our travels around Asia, rather than giving our view on what it’s like to work here); however, getting to visit the school in Yunnan was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, opening my eyes to a rural community and way of life that the majority foreigners to China (especially expats) will ever get to see, and so I am making an exception.

First a bit of the background…

Project Hope

Corporate Social Responsibility or ‘CSR’ (whereby organisations support social and environmental initiatives as part of their corporate strategy) is commonplace in Western companies, but less so in emerging markets. That said, Chinese companies are starting to get on board with certain types of CSR and Project Hope – one of the better recognised public service projects – is a pioneering example of this. Launched in 1989 by the China Youth Development Foundation (CYDF) and the Communist Youth League (CYL), it’s goal is to seek non-governmental financial support to give children in very poor, typically rural communities the opportunity to go to school and receive an education.

It’s an opportune and important initiative in modern-day China, where the income inequality between the ‘Tier 1’ cities like Shanghai and the interior countryside regions is severe (recent statistics show that the richest 1% of mainland households hold one third of the country’s total wealth, with many having benefited from owning multiple properties during the recent real-estate price inflation). China’s gradual approach to economic reforms post-1978 have enabled unprecedented and prolonged economic growth; however, it’s estimated that more than 30 million children aged 6-14 are unable to attend school or drop-out early to support their parents at home, with over 80% of this number coming from the countryside.

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Provinces in blue show where average income exceeds the national average (unsurprisingly these include the coastal areas), while those in orange show where it is lower – the darker the orange, the lower the income (map produced by Matt Hartzell, based on 2011 data).

 

The Jaguar Land Rover Dream Fund

So back to my trip.

For a region already at a significant economic disadvantage, 2014 brought a new and tragic challenge to the people of Yunnan. On 3rd August, a 6.1 magnitude earthquake hit the impoverished Ludian county, claiming 617 lives, injuring over 3000 and damaging or destroying around 80,000 houses. As part of the recovery effort, JLR (my employer) in collaboration with Project Hope, funded a school to be built in Zhaotong – a city close to the epicentre – and in 2016 the ‘Dream Class’ project was launched, placing 8 qualified volunteer teachers at the school.

The volunteer teachers are recent university graduates who sign up for a two-year placement to live, teach and help to care for the children of Zhaotong Hope School. It’s a serious commitment – the school is isolated from Zhaotong city due to the near-inaccessible mountain roads, the environment is unforgiving and the living conditions are basic – so the intention of the ‘Dream Mentor’ programme was to offer the teachers a friendly ear and sounding board; someone they would be able to talk to about their aspirations and dreams for the future, and figure out how to make it happen. With around 2000km separating the Shanghai-based mentors and Zhaoting-based mentees it was essential that at the start of the programme they had an opportunity to meet each other face to face. The solution was to arrange a team-building event at the school, which took place last September.

The journey

When I was invited to accompany the mentors to the team-building event, I received words of warning from some colleagues who had visited the school a few months earlier; “the mountain road is so bumpy that my step tracker thought I had walked for miles, even though I didn’t leave the car”, one colleague told me, holding up a screenshot on her phone as proof. But the risk of being considered a fraudulent stepper wasn’t enough to deter me; I was intrigued by the Hope School, a place I had heard so much about but still could hardly imagine.

On a drizzly day in September I flew from Shanghai to Kunming (the capital of Yunnan, which hosts the nearest airport), and from there we boarded a fleet of cars which would take us the rest of the way to the school. Having exited the city, we zipped along quiet highways, cut straight through the mountains.

After a few hours we left the highway and started to climb winding mountainside tracks, passing though ramshackle roadside villages, huge quarries and beautiful lakes. The drizzling rain which had pursued us from the city subsided, revealing a brilliant clear blue sky.

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It took around 4 hours in total to reach Zhaotong and it was almost evening when we crawled the last few kilometres towards our hotel, under the casual gaze of locals sat out in front of their homes and the chickens scratching around in the street. Our hotel was the most modern-looking building in sight, and doubled-up as Zhaotong’s KTV (karaoke bar) – open throughout the night, as I found out the hard way!

 

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That evening we crowded around a circular table and ate a feast of typical Yunnanese food, which was spicy, oily and quite delicious – the sticky eggplant (top left) was my favourite. The restaurant itself was a bit of a stretch outside of my comfort-zone; the air was thick with cigarette smoke (smoking indoors is still normal in this part of China) and the ceiling was dotted with hundreds of flies; however, to my surprise my stomach survived without incident!

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Early the next morning we set off for our first day at the Hope School –  a 90 minute drive away through progressively more difficult mountain terrain. We bumped and bounced in the backseat and by the time we arrived my insides were thoroughly churned!

 

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September is the back end of the rainy season and we knew that the roads would be vulnerable to landslides. At one point, not far from the school, we were forced to double-back on our intended route as the road ahead had become completely blocked but fortunately our drivers – local men and women who are familiar with the mountain – soon found an alternative route. We got some great photos out of it too!

 

 

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The time and effort it took for us to reach the Hope School gave me a powerful sense of the isolation that the graduate teachers are living in here. Even sat in luxurious cars, it was quite gruelling just being a passenger! While some of the teachers were originally from the countryside, others had grown up and attended universities in Tier 1 and 2 cities, and the disparity between the two environments is monumental. I’ll talk more about this in Part 2, as well as the enduring impression it left on me.

– Emma

 

ZhāngJiāJiè and Wulingyuan National Park, China

This blog covers the final part of a four-city trip which Matt and I took with my parents earlier this year, starting in Shanghai then in turn visiting Beijing, Pingyao, Xi’an and Zhangjiajie. I’m a bit embarrassed that it’s taken me 5 months to complete this series of blogs, but time runs away with you in this tenacious city (especially when you spend most of that time at work!). Actually, we’re creeping up to to the mid-point of our 3-year work assignment which is at the end of October… a significant milestone. I’ve suggested Matt writes a blog on ‘What we’ve learnt in these 18 months’ but he seems to prefer writing about intestines and feet so maybe I’ll do that one.

So, Zhāngjiājiè ( 张家界)On a recognition spectrum whereby Beijing is 10 and Pingyao is 1,  I would guess that this prefecture-level city in Húnán Province sits somewhere around 4. Every Chinese person I’ve spoken to knows of it (or at least they do once we’ve gotten past the total confusion of them trying to decipher ‘Zhangjiajie’ once it’s been through the mangle that is my best tonal mandarin), and many have been there. British people on the other hand will have likely never heard of it. Case in point: my parents, when I told them that it would be the fourth stop on our China tour.

Zhangjiajie is around 12,000km as the crow flies west from Shanghai. When visiting this area, you can choose to stay in Zhangjiajie city itself, or inside/close to the Wulingyuan National Park (which, fyi, is what people are actually referring to when they talk about going to Zhangjiajie). We decided on the latter.

No.5 Valley Inn

Nestled deep in the mountains and only 2km from the entrance to the Wulingyuan park, to reach the No.5 Valley Inn we faced a 50 minute off-road car ride from the airport. Uncomfortable: yes. Scary: a little (especially as it was dark). Worth the bruises and residual carsickness: absolutely!

In the light of the next morning, we discovered that the Inn is actually a number of individual wood-and-stone buildings varying in size which are clustered around a central hub housing the bar and reception. We stayed in the building below, which had a number of private bedrooms over two floors and a communal living space-come-dining area, looked after by a dedicated ayi (housemaid/ cook).

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After 9 days traversing Beijing, Pingyao and Xian, absorbing all the commanding history and arresting architecture that China could offer us (invariably in the company of teeming crowds of fellow tourists), the clean and quiet surroundings of No5 Valley Inn had an almost tranquilizing effect. In fact, while Matt and my parents ventured out to explore, I spent the morning dozing in bed, drinking herbal tea and feeling generally contented!

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In addition to the larger communal buildings there were also some private lodges, a KTV bar and an outdoor swimming pool. Venturing a little further in the grounds, we came across a wooden walkway which wound down the hillside, cutting through green terraced fields, muddy ponds and fields of tiny yellow and pink flowers: it was pretty magical.

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One other thing I really enjoyed about staying here was the evening meals. As I mentioned earlier, each residence had a dedicated ayi who rustled up a delicious dinner made from fresh locally-grown produce, for anyone who happened to be around in the evening. We were served rustic Hunanese food, though with the chilli and offal toned down a bit for our foreign palates! Each night was different, but usually we had a selection of preserved pork, beef, goose or tofu, cooked in the local style (spicy and salty), with a variety of local fresh vegetable dishes such as lotus root, eggplant etc. All washed down with a potent home-made rice wine which ensured the conversation flowed between strangers who soon became friends.

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The white and blue bottle you can see on the table, we had bought in Xi’an. It was a kind of flower-rice-wine and was delicious! On this evening we were joined by a couple from America who were great company!
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The ayi in our building was very impressed with Matt’s efforts to speak Chinese – aided by translation apps they were chatting for ages and the other ayis all joined in!

Okay, I think I’ve confessed my love for this place enough(!). Moving on to the real reason we came to visit Zhangjiajie…

Wulingyuan National Park

A quick online search for the ‘must-see’ attractions in Zhangjiajie will tell you there are three big ones: Wulingyuan National Park, Tianmen Mountain the Grand Canyon Glass Bridge. A word of warning here… these are not exactly in close proximity to each other! and so we only ticked off one out of the three (Wulingyuan) while we were there.

A 4-day pass to the park costs 248 rmb (around £28) and includes internal shuttle bus rides (hop-on-hop-off) throughout the park. These buses are essential given there is a lot of park to cover; 690 square km of forest, rivers, valleys, pathways and caves, not to mention some 243 peaks and over 3000 craggy quartz-sandstone towers, which have formed over the last 380 million years, each one wonderfully unique. Matt and I found the park so big that – even with a map – it was all too easy to hop on a bus and find yourself literally miles in the wrong direction! This could be a bit frustrating given that there weren’t many English signs and even less English speakers, but luckily we always managed to find our way back to the start point!

At certain times of year, the damp and humid climate cloaks the mountains in a dense mist, which is certainly beautiful (and has inspired Chinese artists for centuries) but it did make taking photos a challenge (I have lots of photos of cloud!). I’ve included some of my favourites below, but they don’t really do it justice; if you search online for Zhangjiajie you’ll see the landscape in other seasons.

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Precipitous tree-topped peaks, shrouded in infamous Zhangjiajie mist.

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If the tree-topped sandstone pillars look familiar, it might be because they inspired the vertiginously suspended forest landscape of the fictional moon ‘Pandora’, from the 2009 sci-fi movie Avatar:

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The floating ‘Hallelujah Mountains’ in Avatar were inspired by the Heavenly Pillar peaks in the Wulingyuan National Park (above image courtesy of Pinterest.com) and some of the film was shot in this location. FYI, we didn’t see any dragons or blue people.

If you have been following the blog for a while, you may remember that when Matt and I visited Shangri-La last year we discovered that the city was originally called something along the lines of ‘Middle Yak Meadow’ (in Chinese, obviously), and was only given it’s new, decidedly more exotic name in 2001 to promote tourism. The same thing happened to Zhangjiajie, which was known as Dayong (大庸) until 1994, when the name was changed to give it more prominence befitting it’s recently acquired UNESCO protected status. Likewise, some of the mountains have been renamed since James Cameron’s film, to reflect the names of the Pandora region.

The Padlock Zone (“For Longevity”)

Today more than 20 million visitors come to Zhangjiajie each year to see the famous Avatar mountains, therefore crowds were inevitable (mainly Chinese tourists, in loud and conspicuous organised tour groups). Unsurprisingly, the area dedicated to tying bright red ribbons around the trees and latching golden padlocks to the fencing was particularly popular… for longevity,  you understand.

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“Tourism Etiquette Rules for Chinese Citizens”

The huge numbers of tourists have apparently prompted the park’s Lǎobǎn (bosses) to sit down and consider what exemplary tourist behaviour looks like, and subsequently engrave a set of guidelines into a large, stone sign at one of the busier park attractions. Matt and I stumbled across this, and must have stood there for 10 minutes reading every line (it took a while, what with all the giggling). We couldn’t get all of its magnificence into a single photo so I’ve transcribed it here. This is honestly one of the best thing’s i’ve read in China in my life:

The cultivation of a congenial and harmonious travel environment benefits every tourist. It is our bounden to be a tourist with refined manners! So please observe the following tourism etiquette rules:

  1. Keep the environment clean and tidy. Don’t spit about or spit out chewing gum. Don’t drop litter. don’t smoke except in designated areas.
  2. Observe public order. Don’t yell or shout out loud. Always join a public queue for good order. Don’t walk abreast on a sidewalk. Don’t talk loudly in public.
  3. Preserve the ecological environment. Stay off public lawns and refrain from picking flowers or fruits. Don’t chase, catch or throw stones at animals or feed them irresponsibly.
  4. Protect historical sites and cultural relics. Don’t inscribe anything or scrawl graffiti on them. Don’t touch or climb on top of ancient relics and heed the restrictions when taking photos of them.
  5. Be careful with the use of public facilities. Don’t smear or break objects in hotel rooms. Don’t vandalize or damage public facilities. Don’t attempt to make off with public belongings. Conserve water and electricity by using them effectively and don’t waste food.
  6. Be respectful to the people around you. Don’t try to snapshot pictures of foreign friends without their permission. Don’t sneeze into the face of others. Don’t occupay public facilities for long. Esteem the work of service staff. And respect the local religious customs.
  7. Show courtesy to others. Be dressed appropriately. Don’t go barebacked in public places. Be considerate towards the aged, the infirm, the sick and the disabled and give priority to them. Be chivalrous to the female by following the rule “lady first”. Never use vulgar language.
  8. Take part in healthy environments. Say no to feudal superstitious activities. Stay away from pornography, gambling and drugs.

Told you. Brilliant! We didn’t see anyone else reading the sign so you do wonder at it’s efficacy… however, during our time in the park I can confirm that no-one sneezed in my face or threw stones at animals, so maybe it’s having an effect.

Speaking of animals, the park is home to hundreds of protected macaque monkeys who were bold enough to get quite close. I’m guessing that some less than joyful interactions with between over-curious visitors/monkeys were behind the large signs exclaiming: “Wild monkey infesting area, Caution! Do not tease feeding the monkeys”

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Wild macaque monkey

The Golden Whip Stream

On our last day in Zhangjiajie, Matt and I took a walk along the Golden Whip Stream. I think we were incredibly lucky – the weather was damp and drizzly so we had the place largely to ourselves. The stream meanders through verdant forest, polishing the bed of stones and rocky boulders as it flows towards the Li river. We walked for miles and miles, only stopping to buy snacks from some of the vendors which crop up en-route.

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A bridge over the Golden Whip Stream. And Matt.

Despite the muggy weather, I did get a few cool shots and I’m particularly proud of the series below, taken along the Golden Whip Stream. The almost-bare branches of overhead trees against the murky fog took me back to biology class, in their eerie resemblance to the internal structures of the lung; the remaining leaves like the alveoli at the ends of the respiratory tree.

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“Take the Bailong Lift, for viewing the Forty-Eight General Rocks”

We had read about the Bailong elevator – a glass lift built into the mountain with a vertical elevation of 335m – before our trip to Zhangjiajie, and planned to give it a go as apparently the views going up are spectacular and you can walk along the ridge of the mountain at the top. However, you can see from the photo below that we wouldn’t have seen much! The same applied to several of the other higher attractions (such as a McDonald’s at the top of one of the mountains); in cloudy weather we were better off staying at ground level and enjoying the atmosphere.

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Huangshi Village

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Despite having spent a couple of days exploring the mountain area, in the end, we didn’t climb Mount Huangshizhai or reach Mount Huangshi Village. Unfortunately for us, it seems that in neglecting to do so means that we have not visited Zhangjiajie after all… at least if the signs around the park (copied below) are to be believed! So, maybe rely on another blog when planning your visit?

“He who fails to climb on Mount Huangshizhai need not have come to Zhangjiajie”

“Not getting to Mount Huangshi Village means not having really been to Zhangjiajie”

“It is no avail of your trip to Zhangjiajie, unless you come to the summit of Mount Huangshi Village”

– Emma