Zhangjiajie is a fairyland of caves and karst formations that is full of history and even nods to the future with the Avatar Hallelujah Mountains, Erik Nilsson finds
One reason why Zhangjiajie is often called a "fairyland" could be that most stories about the place begin with "once upon a time", It seems a fitting start to any narrative about the phantasmal formations that shape this swath of Hunan province. Zhangjiajie is a place where surreal geology shapes real mythology, rendering landscapes as dreamscapes.
So, it was once upon a time that a wizard is said to have visited the cave in which the Dragon King dwelled. He had entered the firedrake's lair to request the creature conjure rain to end the drought baking the land.
But when the warlock saw only a light drizzle drip from the cavern's ceiling, he became enraged with the Dragon King's apparent lack of gumption. He drew his sword and hacked the dragon apart.
Upon exiting Yellow Dragon Cave, the sorcerer realized it was pelting rain outside and remorse overtook him.
Modern visitors to the site of this tragic tale pass through Happiness Gate, said to protect the lives of those who enter the place, where the dragon was murdered.
The cavern's mouth yawns into more than 7 km of expansive chambers that drip with stalactites, columns and stalagmites - the Dragon King's abandoned "weapons".
The dripstone spires inside the cave, like the 50 others bored into Zhangjiajie, appear as if subterranean reflections of the thousands of towering karst peaks aboveground.
The Yellow Dragon Cave's biggest column is the 9-meter-high Dragon Mouth Pillar. This crown jewel in the Aladdin's cave of geological treasures is insured for 2 million yuan ($300,000), and visitors should bear in mind: You break it, you buy it.
The largest stalagmite is the King's Throne, a 12-meter-high glob of limestone with a toothy mouth yawning from its side, a cavity said to form the seat upon which the Dragon King perched.
Near the "throne", the Celestial Waterfall tumbles for more than 27 meters from the cavern's ceiling. The cascade is said to take its name from the fact that the source can't be easily seen, and some believe it to be divine.
Water is both the mythological domain of the Dragon King, a ruler of seas and precipitation, and the geological cause of limestone cavity decay. So water continues to shape the physiognomy of Yellow Dragon Cave's rock and lore.
Two waterways, reminiscent of the River Styx, drag through ruptures in the cave floor. And, like the watercourse leading to Hades, they glide with watercraft paddled by ferrymen, who indeed appear ghostly in the subterranean illumination.
The longer of the underground canals, the Sounding River, is so named for the reverberations of its trickling.
But there's another noise that comes from these waters that creates a more chilling eeriness - the "banshee" squeal of Chinese giant salamanders.
The world's largest amphibians, which can grow up to nearly two meters long, are called wawayu (baby fish) because their cries sound like a human infant's.
They are perhaps the real dragons of Yellow Dragon Cave.
It also was, once upon a time, in a land not too far away from Yellow Dragon Cave, that Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) founder Qinshihuang procured a magical golden whip that could cut down mountains.
So, the ruler started felling alps as if they were trees to expand his kingdom to the Eastern Sea.
This drew the ire of the Dragon King, who arranged for his daughter to marry the emperor. But rather than truly giving the girl's hand in marriage, he used sleight of hand to swap his enchanted switch for a fake.
When Qinshihuang realized he'd been duped, he hurled the phony whip with such fury that it landed in Zhangjiajie and turned to stone.
Visitors today can see the 378-meter-high rock that legend claims is the Golden Whip, alongside its 7.3-km namesake stream.
The peak can be reached by navigating an obstacle course traditionally designed to assist the development of kungfu skills. Traversing this requires hopping among pegs, ancient coins and Buddhist hats made of stone. The less spry can take the sidewalk.
Most mountains along the stream have been anthropomorphized, with names such as Fairy Presenting Flowers, Royal Writing Brush and Old Man Collecting Herbs.
There are even stone caricatures of the principal characters from the classic novel Journey to the West - General Pig, the river ogre Sandy and, of course, the Monkey King.
This area is home not only to the enormous rock renderings of this monkey, but also to the smaller flesh-and-blood varieties.
Occasionally, visitors' presence will detonate an explosion of simian fur bombs in the treetops. The purpose of this primate pinball game, in which boughs become slingshots, is to create a display to coax the human spectators watching below to toss tasty morsels as prizes. It works well.
While the tales of Yellow Dragon Cave and Golden Whip Stream are of times long past, the title of Yuanjiajie Scenic Area's recently renamed mountain range comes from the future.
The Avatar Hallelujah Mountains take their appellation from the gravity-defiant topography of the fictional planet Pandora in James Cameron's futuristic film. As the local government puts it on its website: "Pandora is far, but Zhangjiajie is near."
While Zhangjiajie is neither an extraterrestrial terrain inhabited by humanoids, nor the heavenly dwelling place of immortals, it's pretty darn close to both.
So visitors can easily understand why its natural splendor gives rise to so many supernatural stories. But rather than start with, "once upon a time", they would perhaps better begin with, "once upon a place".