Even today, near, far, wherever you are in the mainland, spend a couple of hours in a restaurant or karaoke club and at some point the playlist will have shuffled to an all too familiar song. You might pretend to ignore it, but you know you know the words and you find yourself mentally joining in ... China still loves My Heart Will Go On and on and on, a decade and a half after Titanic smashed all kinds of box-office records and ushered in a new era for mainland cinema-goers.
So it was really not surprising when, early last year, after Avatar had resmashed those records and taken US$204 million at Chinese box offices - nearly four times the amount Titanic took - the nation once again found a way to immortalise a figment of James Cameron's lucrative imagination. This time, though, it was not through song, television commercials or cheesy marketing campaigns. No, why not something bigger? Why not something enduring, something set in stone? Why not rename a prehistoric Unesco World Natural Heritage site after a fantasy world where huge blue people fly about on mutant pterodactyls? Well, why not?
It was in the spirit of the Na'vi that four human friends and I braved the winds of tackiness and ventured into Wulingyuan National Park, in Zhangjiajie, Hunan province, a five-hour drive northwest from Changsha. The star attraction is a spindly, soaring, kilometre-high tower of karst limestone, once called the Southern Pillar of Heaven, now named Hallelujah Mountain (or, in Na'vi, Ayram Alusing) after the sacred, floating mountain range on Pandora where young Na'vi partake in an ancient and perilous rite of passage (the iknimaya). To be fair, Cameron has been quoted as saying Wulingyuan was an inspiration for the Na'vi's world.
There is, of course, a pre-Avatar history to this place: the geological formations themselves are perhaps millions of years old and the Tujia people who live in the area have been around for two millennia. Han dynasty lord Zhang Liang lived here and legend suggests his grave is in one of the mountains. A local Tujia man, He Long, was a pipe-smoking People's Liberation Army war hero who went on the Long March and eventually became vice-premier before being purged in 1966.
In more recent pre-Avatar times, the area was designated as the mainland's first national forest, in 1982, and as a Unesco World Heritage site in 1992 (the designation came under threat in the late 1990s over excessive development). Several years ago an airport was built in nearby Zhangjiajie City, where there is now a four-star hotel, the Pullman.
Needless to say, there are a lot of tourists in the area. There are, of course, domestic tourists, but there are also (especially over the long Easter weekend) Hong Kong visitors, and those from Taiwan, Korea and even the West. In fact, there are so many Korean tourists here that there is, on the edge of one of the many cliffs overlooking the mountain range, a gaggle of gazebos dedicated to Chinese-Korean friendship, each of which is wallpapered with business cards in Korean script and sells overpriced Korean snacks and beverages.
Entering one is among the many Alice-in-Wonderland experiences to be had in Wulingyuan. There is a huge, heart-shaped golden padlock, three or four storeys high, that sits on manicured grass surrounded by rock spires reaching hundreds of metres into the sky. There is a glass elevator, said to be the world's tallest outdoor lift, that climbs all the way up the 326-metre-high side of one of these spires, but to get on it you have to wait shoulder-to-shoulder for an hour inside a tunnel: an accident waiting to happen. Inside the tunnel, TV screens show just how much these rocks resemble the ones in Avatar.
On the walkways, teams of sweaty men barrel by, carrying sedan chairs occupied by the less fit up and down the trails.
There are the peculiar names given to certain rocks, strange even in Chinese, such as 'Love between Father and Son', 'Lovely Daughter and Angry Mother' and 'Supernatural Needle Used for Fixing Sea'.
And then there are the buses.
Wulingyuan is a vast park; there are parts you can walk or hike through but many of the main attractions are tens of kilometres apart and, because private cars are not let in, there is no way to get from one to another except by making use of a fleet of brilliantly purple, supposedly environmentally friendly buses. But as far as we, five intermediate Chinese speakers, can tell, there is no schedule or even route for these buses. Dozens of them are parked at each of the entrances, but no one can tell you which bus will go where, and the only way to get anywhere is to simply get on one that looks like it's about to leave. That's the easy part. Once a bus has taken you inside the park, there is no way to get out except by catching another bus, but, at each of the sights, buses come at random intervals. The result is predictable: even though there's the occasional park employee trying to herd people into some sort of queue, and even though no one really knows where the bus is going, once one arrives, there is an all-out scramble to get on board: if you don't, how will you ever get out?
This feeling of being trapped is never more palpable than while waiting in line for a cable car, which, depending on what bus took you where, may be the only way out of Wulingyuan once the sun has begun to set. The line is about 10 people wide and hundreds long, and each time staff at the top let another batch of people through, everyone from behind charges forward like an attacking army, albeit one dressed in alternating baby blue and bright red tour group hats. It is like a minor riot every 15 minutes; people cheekily cut in line; others push the meek aside or even to the ground.
Having survived the hour or more it took to get aboard, sitting inside the cable car feels like floating, as we drift over trees, weave between rock towers and dodge stray tree branches. Occasionally, it goes almost completely dark, but our pupils adjust and we can make out the shadows of the cliffs. The ride is quiet and smooth and you can't help but think, 'This must be what it feels like to fly'.
There is a reason Cameron came to Wulingyuan for inspiration. Everywhere you go, every clearing in the trees and every pass over a ridge, the rock formations on show are stunning; awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping, gravity-defying feats of tectonic artistry. The top-heavy, pencil-like peaks look like they were dreamed up; the stubble of trees that sprouts from the tops of them seems so precariously balanced, the merest gust of wind might shake it loose.
There is a miraculous natural bridge that reaches over from one floating mountain to another. There are even quiet trails, moderate hikes too steep for the masses that take you deep within these vertical forests, past strange features such as a randomly scattered set of stone tablet playing cards, an oversized Chinese chess set, or large protruding concrete footprints and mushrooms that you can skip alongside or bounce on top of all the way down the mountain. These oddities might sound tacky but in the bosom of a mountain, in the company of friends, they provide moments of magic, wonderful surprises that make you feel like you're in another world, a fantasy world, a movie world.
You cannot avoid the crowds in the mainland. You cannot avoid the blatant commercialisation. If you can accept them, however, you'll get to enjoy places like Wulingyuan, and the views that so inspired Cameron. And since he has made US$2.8 billion by creating a world he ripped off from China, I don't see why the nation can't make a little back by ripping him off in return.