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  • Tale of Two Cities - 1 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Often missed by visitors, China's booming southern metropolis of Guangzhou and the more remote Zhangjiajie, in Hunan province, offer travelers a vivid combination of modern cityscapes, rich culture, and dramatic natural beauty. Pictured here, masks from a traditional lion dance celebration in the streets of Guangzhou. Unless noted, photos by Shane Nelson.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 2 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    China's third largest city, trailing only Beijing and Shanghai, Guangzhou is home to more than 14 million people. Designed by Iraq-born Zaha Hadid, the angular Guangzhou Opera House (left foreground) opened in the city's modern Tianhe district in 2010.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 3 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Capitalism seems to be thriving along the Beijing Road pedestrian mall, one of Guangzhou's most popular shopping districts.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 4 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    A young girl poses with cotton candy in front of a rusting Coca Cola machine on Beijing Road.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 5 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Although Guangzhou is hurrying toward a more modern future, glimpses into the city's not too distant past are common.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 6 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Located 630 miles north of Guangzhou, and less than two hours onboard regularly scheduled flights, the city of Zhangjiajie is a gateway to the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, a UNESCO natural World Heritage Site since 1992 that's spread across 135 square miles. Some of the preserve's Yuanjiajie quartz sandstone formations, seen here, stand more than 650 feet tall.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 7 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Visitors begin their trip up to the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area's viewing locations, connected by a series of paved hiking pathways and brief bus rides, onboard a relatively short but photogenic cable car ride up to Tianzi Mountain.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 8 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Regularly wreathed in low lying clouds, Yuanjiajie's quartz sandstone pillars inspired the floating islands of Pandora in the James Cameron film Avatar. Long known as Qiankun Zhu, the pictured formation has earned the more recent stage name of Avatar Mountain. Photo courtesy Zhangjiajie Tourism Bureau.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 9 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Visitors can purchase a marinated, fried swallow on a stick, a popular Zhangjiajie delicacy, at this vendor's location in the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 10 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    The boiling soup at this Zhangjiajie regional restaurant contained an unexpected ingredient.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 11 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    A 15-minute drive from Zhangjiajie's city center, Baofeng Lake offers travelers a chance to explore some of the region's geologic wonders by boat.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 12 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    A monk burns incense at a temple in the mountains near Baofeng Lake.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 13 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Macaque monkeys, hoping for a handout, pose for photos in the mountains near Baofeng Lake.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 14 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Travelers can enjoy a leisurely, stream-side stroll through Zhangjiajie Da Xia Gu, an ancient canyon that plunges nearly 1,000 feet in depth, located around 45 minutes outside of Zhangjiajie.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 15 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    The world heritage listed Wulingyuan Scenic Area is also home to 4,980-foot Tianmen Mountain and its 430-foot Tianmen Cave, the narrow archway near the center of this image. Photo courtesy Zhangjiajie Tourism Bureau.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 16 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Visitors can journey up to Tianmen Mountain on board the longest mountain cableway in the world, traveling 4.5 miles from Zhangjiajie's city center to the limestone formation's peak.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 17 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    To reach Tianmen Cave, visitors must first travel by bus up a gravel road, climbing more than 3,600 feet in just under 7 miles while negotiating 99 turns. The number 9 has long been linked with good fortune in Chinese culture.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 18 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    Meaning heaven's gate in Chinese, Tianmen Cave can only be reached by hiking up a steep staircase containing precisely 999 stone steps.

  • Tale of Two Cities - 19 of 19

    Tale of Two Cities

    This World Wingsuit League championship competitor chose a quicker way down, foregoing the winding gravel drive beneath him to plunge head first off a 900-foot cliff below Tianmen Cave. Competitors in the race flew under the cableway, hurtling down the course’s 2,600-foot vertical drop before deploying parachutes and landing safely in the valley. Photo courtesy Zhangjiajie Tourism Bureau.

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