The Hallelujah Mountains of Hunan

ZhangJiaJie - Tianzi Mountain 天子山-3

Sitting in my comfortable chair with a nice cup of coffee in my hand, I can’t help but wonder “what lies around the corner?”

Curiosity cannot help but push us towards this unknown.  It may be a quick look or it may be the beginning of a long, new adventure…  The one thing I am sure of, we cannot help but take a look.  Humans by nature are curious creatures and the desire to learn and obtain wisdom in life lies deep within everyone’s heart.

天子山 ~ 武陵源-1

This desire to learn is a gift children have in abundance.  Differences (be it culture, language, food, religion, etc…) can be eerie for the young; frightening if not so compelling.  There are times when children cannot help but to stare at someone, often with mouth agape, as they try to register what it is they are now experiencing.

Often a turn towards their parents to understand how they should proceed follows.

Zhangjiajie - 乌龙寨-91

In my experiences, parents let children explore differences with “the mind of a child”, open and questioning.  When that something strange is someone, all it takes is a glint in the eye, break of a smile, warm laughter or something similarly simple to cross all boundaries and all cultures.  We are one.

The ability of children to focus on the newness that triggers questions is what fascinates.  A child’s mind pursues answers to understand how “differences” fits into their world, and they grow.

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Not a bad lesson to learn from little ones: never cease expanding the mind for if we do not grow with all the changes the world brings every day, we’ll be lost.

It is crazy to think of all the opportunities that lie around in today’s world.  Places to explore right around the corner: a neighbor, friends or a new restaurant with an exotic menu that opens an opportunity to jump into a new world.

What is most beautiful to see are parents who push their children forward with curiosity instead of pulling them back with fear.

Zhangjiajie - 点将台-80HDR

“Pushing forward with curiosity instead of pulling back with fear” 

It was this last sentence that caught my attention while staying in a small home on top of the Hallelujah Mountains in Hunan province, China.  Huddled around a small stove with a couple in their mid-30s from Beijing, they told me they grew up restricted by fear, in part due to the chaos of China in the 60s and 70s that lingered in the minds of the people through the 80s.

The couple contrasted those fears of the past with what has replaced it in today’s society: healthy curiosity.  Civilizations thrive when the people are pushing forward with confidence instead of pulling back in fear.  Chasing after the answer, pursuing curiosity, can lead to places that never before have been envisioned.      

Zhangjiajie - 黄石寨 袁家界-629

How we found ourselves together in this small cabin was a result of curiosity.  As the family whose house we were staying were members of the Tu-Jia minority (土家族), the couple from Beijing enjoyed Tujia food very much, and wanted to experience it on the mountain, while I came for the photography…a perfect match.

As our conversation ended, the lady from Beijing asked me to join her along with the old couple, to go out back to their smokehouse.  There I witnessed a 30-minute discussion over what piece of smoked meat would be used for our meal.

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It was amid questions, stories, more questions interspersed with laughter that “the best piece of meat” was found and preparation of a traditional Tu-Jia meal was confirmed.  We would have 土家腊肉 (Tujia Bacon with Wild Vegetables).

Wild vegetables, tofu, rice and A LOT of Hunan spices made for a great meal.  Standard for all such meals is a glass of their homemade ‘moonshine’ which after a long day of hiking went down smoothly.

Zhangjiajie -天子山-1

The experience of Hunan and Hallelujah Mountain was unforgettable.  The photography ended up being a bit of a disappointment, as the weather did not cooperate on top of the mountain… after one clear night, the cold rolled in along with a light rain, which meant a bland, grey fog blanketing the area.

I had hoped for heavy rain, followed by small weather breaks, which would have given perfect conditions to record the rare “peaks above a sea of clouds” scene, but instead Lady Fate gave me a another great reason to return here again and search for that elusive shot.

ZhangJiaJie - Tianzi Mountain 天子山-23

Getting the urge to explore, to let the curiosity get the best of us is a good thing.  Whether it is taking a small trip, or listening to a story from someone next door that contains wisdom that people would normally have to travel around the globe to collect.

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Some of the best memories I have, are of growing up and learning about things: wheat, cattle, sports and nature from people around my home town.  Yet, I also learned about China, the Middle East and the world from those very same people…as I was curious and they were eager to tell me a story and share with me the mystery.

As an American, it excites me to see such diversity around the world and in our communities.  Opportunities right next door just waiting to be tapped for the wealth of experience and wisdom to be shared.

It impresses me to no end how easy it can be to invite yourself into a new culture, a new life just by following your curiosity and allowing yourself to be swept away into mystery.

Zhangjiajie - 点将台-66HDR

Zhangjiajie -天子山-6

119 Comments on “The Hallelujah Mountains of Hunan

  1. Hallelujah Mountains, The very name evokes curiosity Danny.

    Speak for yourself though, on these photo’s and your disappointment,lol. I can honestly tell you I see nothing but perfect shoots, Remember I’m learning through your lenses.

    Yes, you are probably right about clarity and weather, but to my curious eyes and eager mind, I’m in awe of these foggy images. My imagination has reversed instantly to a child’s, and you will not believe the pictures in my head.

    I truly envy you and your chosen calling. To be in the midst of complete strangers,and yet feel completely at home, must be a different kind of filling. Seeing and learning of places and people, often through not just from your vision and perception, but what your hosts have willingly shared is another honor which this curiosity you write of brings about in the first place.

    I love your appreciation of your home country, for indeed, these United States are truly a melting pot. The diversity of cultures and deep history rooted right here, histories and traditions those who came years ago preserved; so a curious young Danny and many like you could immerse in and flourish.

    Okay, I’m going on again, but this is what your words and pictures do to me…you put me at ease and I let go,lol

    About the photo’s, yes, fog shrouds the beauty Of these heavenly visions: but seeing mist- like swirls everywhere,gives the feeling of
    great mystery.
    As a result, the head then runs with it and like the main topic of your writing here, we all become children again, curious and eager.

    I just adore the 6th photo with the sun at the back, it’s like two great sages holding hands to the right. Then the 5th is like a giant hand reaching out from the fog.

    Is that you sitting there in the 3rd photo? Another beautiful piece here Danny, you’ve been away for a bit 🙂 great to be back here.

    • Beautiful comment Dotta, thank you! It is meeting great people when I travel that makes it worthwhile…makes it easier to take a quick jaunt somewhere. Just being in Hunan and on top of the mountain was cool, and the scenery simply icing on the cake. That is me in the 3rd photo, a Tujia lady was making cigarettes (the machine I am working) and did not want her photo taken because it is actually illegal, but she permitted me to sit and roll. She had a 5 yr. old who was just stunned seeing this 6’2″ white guy taking her mom’s seat and it was just too funny. Great to be back, but off again to China for work next week. Take care!

  2. I’ve quickly become a fan of your stories, photos and blog. I travel with you and see some of what you see, experience some of what you experience. Thank you, it’s a great journey.

    • Thanks Trapper, it is great to have you along… On top of this mountain, I think you would have been able to paint the scenery with expressions & emotions much better that any photograph could capture…you would have loved it.

  3. OMG, what amazing images! So fantasmic! Kind of ‘Avatar’ meets ‘Up’. I didn’t know a place like this actually exists.

    Agreed. We are the ones who either propel ourselves forward in life, or hold ourselves back. So much is available to each one of us. Whether we avail ourselves or not, that is the question.

    Thank you for sharing these. And love the Davy Crockett/Little House on the Prairie food locker. Awesome! And delish! : ~ ))

    • Ha, ha… I loved Davy Crockett growing up (and my twin sis Little House on the Prairie), and it was a great little smoke house. Thanks for the comment, it was fun just going there…seeing the scenery was the icing on the cake.

      • Coincidentally, my Dad was Bandleader at Disneyland*, hired by Walt soon after the Park opened. His Bandstand was at the end of main street, the Carnation Plaza Gardens.

        Next to that, Frontierland — my favorite! There, we’d walk along the wooden boardwalk into rickety-floored shops selling rabbit pelts, leather belts, coon skin caps . . . keep walking, you’d come to the River Boat and Tom Sawyer Island — with the old fort, the barrel bridge, the rope bridge, the CAVE and all the cool stuff us kids would explore.

        Turns out Disneyland was great for furthering curiosity, creativity, self-expression.

        It seems that all of life fits somewhere into my early Disneyland childhood. It was a magical place and time — of wonder, dreams, discovery. It was safe. It was QUICK! And it was physical, a place you could run (maybe you weren’t supposed to, but my brother and I did!) and expend energy, ending up completely exhausted by closing time.

        To top it off, my Dad owned his own airplane — in which we would fly after a full day at the Park — and then drive from the airport to our home, on the sand, on the beach, in Malibu!!! To the sound of surf, wind and waves.

        Dad would often tell me, “That a girl, you can do ANYTHING!” He lived his dream and believed that everyone else could live their dreams, too.

        Sounds like you’ve found your dreams through your travel, your lens, and your lust for learning. Thanks for including us in your journey. The Disneyland Kid in me appreciates that!!!


      • Disneyland is absolutely as you describe, and I just got that feeling from every Sunday night watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” ~ just magic. Your father sounds incredible, showing the world is yours yet letting you chose your path. Not a day goes by when I’m not thankful for the opportunities given/taken…and it is great to see it in so many others. It is a pretty Wonderful World.

      • Indeed! And that’s what’s so cool about your pics and your travels — now YOU are bringing us the Wonderful World of Color!!! Walt (and Dad) would be proud : ~ ))

  4. Your posts are always so positive, Randall. And the photos, mesmerizing!
    These shots look like paintings – beautiful, beautiful paintings.
    I envy you, Randy, for being able to go to places I dream of. What you write is so true and so well observed!
    When people welcome you with open arms; are ready to satiate your curiosity about them and their world, the magic created is indescribable… but you manage to do it so well and so effortlessly!
    Congratulations on another GREAT POST! 😉

    • Thanks Meghna for the nice words. The people in this area were so great, in a way the Tujia are similar to the Welsh, enjoy music, dancing and a good wine…and they love treating guests.

  5. I wanna go…

    Children. They are so… I love the way you described them — I can see those mouths agape — and your thoughts about wishing people would push their children forward instead of holding them back, in fear. Can you imagine how great an impact that would have on our world, if we did that? If we encouraged openness instead of… anything but?

    And the mystery of a foreign culture, so close and yet so far, shrouded in mist, inviting us and yet, intimidating us… I would LOVE to visit those mountains. LOVE it. The images inside the houses remind me of my short visit to Sapa, Vietnam, just below the Chinese border. It was amazing to me that the natives there would choose to live in squat huts when, just a mile down the street, I was staying in a hotel with heating and air-conditioning (though without hot water, lol).

    Anyway, I’m getting off track. I am so glad for you for this opportunity, Randy. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Certainly those of us who have had the exposure of being abroad are incredibly blessed. I am still trying to explain this to people here at “home.” But some things really are beyond words.

    • Thanks Jess, it is something else to be in an environment that is foreign, but around those to whom it is home. It helps simplify happiness.

      With your travels, you’ve felt it before, the honesty of a new experience. It is powerful.

  6. What a post full of adventure, & stunning, stunning photos. Oh my GOD there’s a whole world out there!!! You’re so right though, the opportunities to discover – a friend’s, a restaurant with new menu etc. Really wonderful post.

    • Thanks Noeleen, very happy you enjoyed the photos and post. It seems like the world opens up as we get older…and as long as we are curious, it is a good thing. Cheers!

  7. Terrific story, we should all be more child-like in our vision for adventure. The smokehouse looked delicious and i totally disagree with you on the photography conditions. I think the fog lent a bit of dreamyness to your images that matched your storytelling.
    Glad I found your blog today!

    • Thanks Greg, enjoyed making this trip ~ fog and all. As with you, with a camera in hand, just about anything can be an adventure. Cheers!

  8. The fog is awesome ! Great pictures ! 🙂

  9. I have no idea why you write that it was a disappointment for photography as each and every photo here are beautiful! As are your words on curiosity.
    Today we decided to go for a jog. Ok,… the jog turned out to be a brisk walk because I had some flu this week and was feeling very weak. We went up a hill behind Barcelona (nowhere near as splendorous as your mountains of course). I did see the most amazing view, and (curiously! 😉 ) what I learnt up there was that there was a lot of wind! My goodness, I think through the different hills there was some type of funnel effect and I swear I thought it would blow me away. There was none of that later back down in the ground.
    Anyway, I wish I could have seen the beauty of your mountain and shared that amazing food with everyone there.

    • PS I would have loved to live through a 30 minute discussion (I guess it was in a language I don’t understand, but that you feel intuitive about whats going on) about which meat to use 🙂

    • Thank you Sofia, you would have been in heaven up there in the mountains (it looks a little bit like it at times with all the fog)…they do enjoy their different types of meat (a real culture to it). For me, I just wanted it in my belly. I hope you’re feeling better… 🙂

  10. I am loving seeing China through your lens. Fantastic images with wonderful stories to go with them. What a gift to spend time in places like these and see how culture changes through out the world.I spent a year in Japan and would love to go back some day to shoot.

    • Thanks, it is an amazing thing to see changes in culture around the world…all with the foundation of great people. Much to see, much to shoot.

  11. Somehow, I missed this post when you published it. I’m so glad I discovered it today. Beautiful images and words, as usual. Thank you!

  12. The pictures are awesome. I really like the dream-like effect of the ones with fog.

  13. Even though we touched the sky
    Still we have to grow ………………….
    Beautiful photography – beautiful locality where the clouds crowned the heads of peaks
    with regards

    • Thanks Rabirius, it was a pretty cool environment to shoot…at times fog rolled so think could hardly see a meter out front.

  14. Wonderful images. I like both the documentary style photos and the landscapes. The landscapes, though, feels like traditional Chinese rise paper paintings, so three dimensional and intense.

    • Thanks Otto. Yes, the scenery was quite surreal ~ as if back in time in China amid one of those old Chinese watercolor paintings… Made it very easy to just sit back and enjoy everything around me.

  15. Another beautiful post. I just wanted to pick up on your point about children’s openness to all things new. My 14 year old daughter wanted to learn how to scuba dive but I had my reservations because she is not a strong swimmer and we live in a cold water state where underwater visibility is frequently not too great. How wrong could I be? We completed our open water certification this weekend and she outshone her dad hands down simply because she had no bad habits to break and listened attentively to the instructor while her long-in-the-tooth father had plenty of bad habits and was letting his attention wander while thinking of the coming week’s events. While I could be wrong I sense that her experience of the undersea world has lit her imagination so brightly that it could take her anywhere. The ‘wonder’ of children is such a great gift that we have to encourage it wherever we can.

    • Great comment Malcolm, it is something to see kids pick something up and move forward with it without thought…and excel. The imagination and courage of youth is incredible to behold and something we need to foster and learn from as we get stuck in our ole ways. Cheers.

  16. Glad I circled back to find I’d missed one of your posts. I’ve previously shared how the combination of your photographs and words impact me (and I know, others). For your time and effort in ‘packaging’ both, I thank you. There are few blogs I follow that convey more peace, simplicity and appreciative inquiry – as yours. In a play on words, I often use an “Eyes” model when working with clients. Your posts so easily and effectively reflect many of the “eyes:” Imagination, Inspiration, Inquisitive, Illumination, Introspection and even some Intention. “Please, sir, I want some more.”

    • Thanks Eric for the very nice words. I like the idea of your ‘eyes’ model…a great way to view and pursue life.

    • Hi Rakhi, what a great surprise to find in my in-box on my return to HK…. 🙂 Thank you very much ~ my first. It is nice to know you enjoy the photos and words. Wish you the best week.

  17. wow, actually it’s a shame that i found your blog just by now…
    i love their humble way of life….
    i just think about one song called how great is our God, no more questioning about His existence right after seeing this post….

  18. Wonderful post Randall. The photography is beautiful and blends perfectly with your comments. I envy your ability to communicate with the Chinese in their own language. We were totally enthralled with china during our month there and felt we barely touched the surface. My favorite spot was Longsheng, outside of Guilin. Have you been there? I posted about it here: . Looking forward to more of your work.

    • Thank you Tina. I too thought Longsheng was the best spot, the people were incredible…very open and inviting. Great photos & post. The Chinese language is as interesting as the culture, and I’ve been lucky enough to have had the chance to speak it.

    • Thank you Karen, I did enjoy the shoot…great scenery and people on the mountain, and while I did not get the magical shot I was after, it is hard not to walk away with something beautiful. Great place.

  19. Thank you… @ ^_^
    kindness blossoms in your heart

  20. Very cool Randy, I will be keeping tabs on your adventures!

    • Hey Ryan, great to hear from you. Hope to have a few more adventures, at least at the Round-Up if not elsewhere. Cheers!

  21. Fantastic post 🙂 If only more people were willing to embrace travel the way you do. My family has always travelled with the eye of a child. The moment a person looses that sense of child like wonder, is the moment that person stops growing. Your pics are gorgeous – a photo can never truly capture the emotional power of “being there” – that feeling is yours alone; one to keep next to your heart and smile every time you think of it. 🙂

    • Thank you an agree, that is the best way to travel (eye of a child is a great way to put it).

    • Thanks Rachael, and you are correct…the producers of Avatar were inspired by this landscape and there they were on the big screen (although I have to admit, I have not seen Avatar yet…I need to).

  22. “Pushing forward with curiosity instead of pulling back with fear”. You’re absolutely right, for in every adult dwells the child that was, and in every child lies the adult that will be. All of us obsolete children are products of our childhood.
    Incredible pictures in combination with profound writing. Excellent work!

    • Very well said: “in every adult dwells the child that was, and in every child lies the adult that will be.” That is a perfect philosophy with which to parent. Thank you Dugutigui.

    • Thanks Sreejith, the experience with the locals on the mountains really add to the experience up above the clouds.

    • This is a place I hope to return to again soon…and great note about the watercolor painting, one of my favorite type of paintings. Cheers!

  23. amazing photography… I’m equally impressed by the misty mountains and the food pictures… both an excellent way to capture the spirit of the place 🙂

    • Thanks Alexandra, I agree there is not a better way to understand a culture & spirit of a place than to eat the local food & take in the local spirits. Cheers.

  24. Reblogged this on closetoeighty and commented:
    I found “China Sojourns Photography” not long ago but I already reblogged several posts of Randall Collis. In my mind the blog is a wise poetic photography. I like to look at each photo for some time and to read slowly each sentence (in an ordinary life I am a speed reader for 72 years). In this post I like very the following: “It impresses me to no end how easy it can be to invite yourself into a new culture, a new life just by following your curiosity and allowing yourself to be swept away into mystery.” Thank you, my friend!

    • Thanks, it really was an incredible surprise & uplifting to see the sights and also to experience the local Tujia people…go in with the spirit of adventure and it’ll be a memory forever 🙂

  25. Curiosity is the mastermind of our thought-exploration. You dared to explore which landed you on heights so high with much more to offer. It is to your – our – credit that we find peace in the things you have shared and the words you have offered. keep exploring!

    Even with the weather not being favourable, I must commend the stunning pictures. Good job!

    • Thank you, these mountains are one of those places that has so much natural beauty it is surprising… A lot to explore (need to go back there again some day).

    • Thanks, which was your favorite shot? I grew up in Eastern Oregon (Pendleton, OR), wheat and cattle country. Also home to the World Famous Pendleton Round-Up 🙂 Love it, great place. Similar to Nebraska in terms of learning about nature/outdoors and life of the land. We’re lucky to have such places to call home!

      • 3rd one down was fun…the local (from the Tujia minority) was selling homemade cigarettes, which is an illegal activity so did not want to be photographed…so I rolled a few 🙂 Really enjoyed the beauty of the area and locals. Oregon is amazing…the coast, Willamette valley and then the drier Eastern Oregon of ranching, wheat and life 🙂

  26. I don’t know how you found me, maybe the Dr Seuss quote 🙂 but good heavens I am thrilled that you did! This is the definition of bringing the world into our homes, your blog and photography is phenomenal! You are truly living in the experience. Living in a foreign country is not always as easy as is powerful, so I am happy you have found wonderful, kind people who simplify it. Only the best to you xxx

    • Dr. Suess is magical! I think if you have the right attitude, the difficulties of living in a foreign country becomes a fun challenge, and once happiness kicks in you’ve pretty much got one up on life 🙂 Cheers!

    • Thanks, I started out in Xi’an and then ended here in Hong Kong… I always say, the longer I stay in China the less I understand (and that is a good thing). Cheers.

  27. I’m always awed by your photography, and the amazing experiences you’re sharing to us. All thumbs up for this amazing post, kudos!

  28. The 2nd picture, you really capture the depth and awe of these mountains in what must have been terrible gray light.
    – I have tried to take pictures myself like that when in mountains, but never even come close. Have always had to throw them out.

    But I really liked the two ‘kitchen’ pictures, which capture the real people and place.

    • Kept waiting on the lighting & weather but never quite happened…but as you noticed, the people and place made for a great trip. The second shot was taken right when I was heading back down. Thanks!

  29. Fantastic photos; the cloudy ones are probably the best I’ve even seen of this place -Zhangjiajie right? I really hope to visit it sometime.

    • Yes, Zhangjiajie…it is an amazing place. The clouds & mountain tops was such a great scene to enjoy, and the food of the local Tujia minority topped off the experience. If you ever do get the chance to visit, grab it 🙂

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