The #BiyaheAvatar tour was organized by Bridges Travel and Tours in partnership with outdoor footwear brand Merrell. Bridges also made sure that the group, especially the actors and social media influencers, stayed connected and updated followers with Apollo WiFi.
Avatar is real and it's in Zhangjiajie
Nathalie Tomada (The Philippine Star) - November 11, 2019 - 12:00am

ZHANGJIAJIE, China — Remember the experience of watching Avatar for the first time? The sci-fi epic that became the all-time highest grosser at the global box-office — that is until Avengers: Endgame dislodged it from its lofty spot in July — is turning a decade-old this December, would you believe?

The sequels are reportedly coming but you can always go for the film’s real-life inspiration found in Zhangjiajie in Hunan province in China.

The STAR recently joined the #BiyaheAvatar tour led by Bridges Travel and Tours, whose industry experience also included drawing up itineraries for those wanting to visit movie and TV locations or inspirations. Their tour partner was the outdoor footwear brand Merrell because getaway-to-adventure essentials are proper (James Reid-endorsed) shoes to match your willing legs.

The local tourism campaign #BiyaheAvatar is designed to attract the Filipino traveler to experience what Zhangjiajie has to offer. Hands-down, its star attraction is the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, which forms part of the greater Wulingyuan Scenic Area, also known as China’s first-ever UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Two days were hardly enough to explore the area. However, the bubbly tour guide Fangbeibei, who proudly shared she belongs to the Tujia minority group of Hunan, made sure her Filipino visitors wouldn’t miss the “highlights”.

First on the list was the Avatar Hallelujah Mountain, a 3,000-plus feet quartz-sandstone pillar, which is just one of the thousands of vertical columns jutting from the ground and up to the sky, which locals have described as “troops from heaven”.

Travel reviews could not have prepared you for the view. Minus perhaps the floating mountains and alien wildlife, it’s not hard to imagine it as Avatar’s fictional “Pandora” here on earth. The story goes that Hollywood director James Cameron sent a team to take photos of these surreal stone columns at the Zhangjiajie Forest Park, which would then become the basis of the film’s setting. In 2010, the mountain was officially renamed after Avatar, said to be the first-ever Hollywood film to earn half-a-billion dollars in China.

According to Fangbeibei, “Many foreigners come to Zhangjiajie because of the movie Avatar. I’ve seen the movie, I love it, and it’s very popular among the young people. But we don’t call it Avatar Mountain but Zhangjiajie National Park. As a local, I’m very proud of the mountain because it’s so unique and special.”

True enough, there was more to this national park that made it truly unique. For one, you could reach Avatar Hallelujah Mountain by getting on the Bailong Elevator. It has merited superlatives ­— “the highest, fastest, largest-loaded” outdoor elevator in the world set against the Tianzi Mountain.

Bridges Travel and Tours manager Sabina Pe recalled that during her first visit here several years back, the elevator was nonexistent so people would walk up and down the mountains, or be transported on “chairs” carried by locals (a still available option, by the way). 

Meanwhile, on the second day, the group returned to the forest park to visit the No. 1 Bridge Ten Mile Gallery, a five-kilometer-long valley that could be explored with a mini-train ride and is surrounded by peaks and stone features that strangely resemble people and animals.

“Just use your imagination,” the tour guide encouraged.

Next stop was the Golden Whip Stream, also known as the Jinbian Stream, which provided the golden opportunity to meet more wildlife like monkeys. After a nice walk, the group took a lot of photos around the small river.

Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon, on the other hand, is a certified crowd-drawer for its skywalk. It has gone viral online for being the longest and highest glass bridge in the world at 430 meters long, six meters wide and 300 meters high. The group arrived to a jampacked skywalk but creative folks would always find their space for that Instagram-worthy photo above the grand canyon.

The third day had the group visiting the Junsheng Painting Gallery in Wulingyan. It’s the place to go if you’re a tourist looking for souvenirs that can be conversation pieces. Created by the famous Chinese artist Junsheng Li, the 3D paintings are made from crushed stones.

Last but not the least was the relaxing cruise along Baofeng Lake. The boat ride would pass by stationary, raft-like structures, where a man or woman would come out singing. Not to be outdone, the singers from this “Philippine team” also had the chance to sing OPM hits from the boat.

The water in this man-made, fresh-water lake flows from rainfall, mountain springs and underground streams, and assumes the emerald color all-year-round, the group was told. “Baofeng Lake is very popular among Filipino-Chinese because this is where the original version of the famous Chinese TV series Journey to the West (from the ’80s) was filmed,” said Fangbeibei.

One of the best parts about the #BiyaheAvatar is the accessibility of this destination. Pe said that to reach Zhangjiajie several years ago was a logistical nightmare.

“There was no direct flight. You would have to stay overnight, for example, in Guangzhou, and then take another flight to Hunan airport,” she said.

“It’s no longer complicated nowadays. There are direct chartered flights (from the Philippines) to Hunan Airport via Royal Air (Philippines), which has also chartered travelers from China to Boracay, Palawan, Clark, etc. Plus, there are now international hotel brands in Zhangjiajie like Best Western Plus, kasi before wala,” she added.  

Right now, they also have a special arrangement — Chinese visa upon arrival — for tourists going on a #BiyaheAvatar.

Heading to Zhangjiajie at this time is also affordable, with tour packages priced as low as US $219 or around P11,000. (You can ask Bridges for more details at tryus@bridgestravel.com or visit http://www.bridgestravel.com.)

Highly recommended are the cultural shows on this trip such as the Tianmen Fox Fairy Show, touted as the world’s first real-scene musical drama ­— but that deserves another story.

 

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