August 01, 2016

Rain, Fog, and Mountains: Exploring Zhangjiajie National Forest Park

Words + Photos : Varun Thota

Instagram is a remarkable community. Having joined 6 years ago I never imagined it would take me around the world, making new friends I would have never otherwise met. Beyond a love for photography the community has a shared purpose to create, explore, and connect. Aspects I was missing in my photography before joining Instagram.

Fast forward to today and a small group of us got together to visit a place we had never been….Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in China. The backdrop to the movie Avatar, its jagged mountains, dense forests, and winding roads are a photographer’s dream. And even though we did plenty of planning we didn’t expect the series of misadventures that unfolded.

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I flew from Hong Kong with a few others on Friday morning, and our whole group met up in the city of Zhangiajie. Compared to other cities in China, Zhangjiajie is still very local and underdeveloped, so we really stood out as foreigners. We knew we’d need a guide, so my friends found a local man named Tian who offered to show us around. We were apprehensive being in a new city and weren’t completely sure if we should trust a stranger, but decided to give it a shot.

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He took us to the park early in the morning, after spending the night in the city. The hostel we were staying at was on the top of a mountain, so we had to take a bus part way and hike the rest. Meanwhile, we were in a complete deluge. At points we had to wade through water that was at least ankle deep. We layered on two raincoats and wrapped our shoes in plastic bags, but still ended up soaked. The worst part was, we couldn’t take our cameras out to get any photos, but we knew we had to press on.

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Around 5 hours later hours later we were soaked, wet, and a bit disheartened. It had rained so hard that all we had to show for our effort were a few shots on our phones. We didn’t yet realize we were about to capture some of the most stunning photos of our lives.

Our guide let us in on a little secret. After downpours, the valleys below will become filled with dramatic clouds that roll through the jagged mountains. Sure enough a few minutes later we just stood there, in the middle of the road, mesmerized as white pillows began moving across the landscape. Without saying a word we each just started shooting. Not caring if we grabbed the same shot, the scene was too dramatic to stop.

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After spending the night in The next day we ventured to Tianmen Mountain. Arriving by cable car, we saw the famous 99 Bends road. The winds were howling that day, and the cable car was swinging back and forth like a pendulum. I was suddenly way too aware of how far off the ground we were. We were in up above the clouds though, and the views were stunning.

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On the way down we all piled into a bus, and drove down the mountain as the sun was setting. The light was beautiful and we were all in high spirits. There can definitely be a competitive element when you get a big group of photographers together, but we all know each other so well that we just had fun.

We also became really close with our guide. In a few short days he went from a complete stranger, to a fellow photographer and friend. It was difficult all around to say goodbye when we went our separate ways on Monday.

In the end, we were just a bunch of friends sharing a weekend together shooting, exploring, and connecting. The trip was surprising and challenging, but it’s those elements that made it all worth it.

#makeyourworldbigger

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