Bīngláng Valley

Top choice area in Zhangjiajie

Image by Damian Harper Lonely Planet

A free alternative to Zhāngjiājiè national park, this staggeringly beautiful mountain valley and its caves, natural arches and vertiginous cliffs, 90 minutes by bus from town, makes for a sublime day trip or overnight expedition. And it's free to enter. You begin by descending through a beautiful flat valley called Moon Valley (月之谷; Yuè Zhi Gǔ) surrounded by limestone cliffs before climbing to a vast cave called Cathedral Gate (教堂们; Jiàotáng Mén), after which you thread through a bamboo forest to make your way towards a 1km-long subterranean cave.

On the way you will pass the Two Layer Cave (双层洞; Shuāngcéng Dòng) before reaching the astonishing Angel Castle (天使城; Tiānshǐ Chéng) – a formation of vast limestone cliffs that encircles you – with the Angel Gate (天使门; Tiānshǐ Mén) at the far end, a further cave that drills through the entire cliff to the far side.

A low-hanging cave entrance on the far side of the valley leads to the Mí Cave (迷洞; Mí Dòng), but whatever you do, don't enter without a guide and a head lamp. It's 1km long, pitch black, devoid of mobile signals and if you take a wrong turn, you could easily get lost. But it's an astonishing experience. One section is full of litter, not dropped by visitors, but swept in by river waters that flow in here during the rainy season (though usually only to a shallow depth). Eventually – after about half an hour of walking in the dark – you will see the faint glow of the exit, a cavernous opening leading to a breathtaking valley called Star Valley (星之谷; Xīng Zhī Gǔ) surrounded by colossal limestone cliffs. Give a good shout: the echo acoustics are phenomenal.

Not far away is Bīngláng Hole (槟榔孔; Bīnláng Kǒng), another natural cave leading through to the other side, from where you can make your way back to the bus drop-off point. Locals still use the naturally formed cave to reach villages on the far side, thus avoiding a circuitous detour.

To reach Bīngláng Valley, take a bus (¥17, 90 minutes) towards Qīng'ān Píng (青安坪) from the west bus station (汽车西站; qìchē xīzhàn) on Ziwu Lu (子午路) in Zhàngjiājiè City and disembark at Bīnglángǔ Nóngjiā Lè (槟榔谷农家乐), simply the name of a family homestead by the valley access point. Buses leave at 8.20am and 1.30pm; the last bus back is at 3.30pm. It is, however, best to take a guide; arrange one through the Bājiè Youth Hostel. Cheng Lifeng is an expert guide who takes visitors for around ¥100 per person; he does not speak much English, however, but should be able to arrange an English-speaking guide for you.

If you want to spend the night here, Bīnglángǔ Nóngjiā Lè at the drop-off point has simple and cheap rooms for around ¥40 and can cook meals, but the hosts don't speak any English.