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Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park

Tianmen ("Heavenly Gate") Mountain National Forest Park lies only 8 km south of the downtown Zhangjiajie. Although the topography of Tianmen Mountain is distinctly different from that of Wulingyuan, it nevertheless belongs, like the entire eroded-mountain landscape of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, to the Wuling Mountain Range – indeed, Tianmen Mountain enjoys the distinction of being Wuling Mountain Range's highest peak.

Tianmen Mountain Cliffside Glass-Bottomed Pathway Tianmen Mountain Cliffside Glass-Bottomed Pathway

Quick Facts About Tianmen Mountain

  • Name in Chinese: 天门山
  • Location: 8 km south of the downtown Zhangjiajie
  • Opening Hours: 8:00-18:00 from March to November, 8:30-18:00 from December to February
  • Ticket Price: RMB 258 P/P (including entrance fee and sightseeing shuttle bus within the park); free for children under 1.2 meters.
  • Recommended Visiting Time: 4-5 hours (excluding transportation time)
  • How to Get to Tianmen Mountain:

1) take a cable car from Tianmenshan Cableway Station in downtown Zhangjaijie (11 Dayong Rd, Yongding District, Zhangjiajie) to the mountaintop. The cable car costs RMB 25 for one-way trip.
2) Take Bus No. 5 and get off at the foot of Tianmen Mountain.

Tianmen Mountain Map

Tianmen Mountain Map

Tianmen Mountain is different from Wulingyuan

Wulingyuan owns eroded block-and-obelisk landscapes.

Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park is characterized by large, limestone mountain tablelands with sheer cliffs and with a fair share of jagged peaks – albeit, clothed in verdure – though Tianmen Mountain lacks the freestanding obelisks of Wulingyuan.

This is of course no coincidence, since the building blocks, as it were, of Tianmen Mountain are of limestone, so even at its most advanced stage of erosion, Tianmen Mountain will never produce a landscape that is similar to the eroded-mountain landscapes of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, whose building block material is sandstone, which exhibits an entirely different erosion pattern than that of limestone.

Avatar Hallelujah Mountains Wulingyuan Scenic Area - Avatar Hallelujah Mountains

That said, certain parts of Wulingyuan – such as the Suoxi Valley area – consist partly of limestone bedrock that is marked by karst caves. Another point of distinction between the two mountainous areas (besides the matter of the obelisks) is that Tianmen Mountain is covered in denser, lusher vegetation than is Wulingyuan.

Even though, in certain places, Wulingyuan is almost totally covered in vegetation (the difference being that many of the shrubs and bonsai-like trees growing in the Wulingyuan area – especially those that grow on the scanty ledges of obelisks – are simply "scruffier", i.e., they possess a considerably less dense foliage than the lush, deep-green foliage on Tianmen Mountain). Both mountainous areas are, however, characterized by thick, lingering mists, which nurture plant growth.

Tianmen Mountain is imbued with culture.

The other significant distinction between the two mountainous areas is that Tianmen Mountain, which has enjoyed a close relationship to the present-day city of Zhangjiajie that stretches back to ancient times, is imbued with culture, whereas the Wulingyuan area, even if it does have a solid link with the past, has only recently been developed, meaning that the cultural link with the past is tenuous (it is no coincidence that UNESCO recognized Wulingyuan as a natural heritage site, not as a cultural heritage site).

Put slightly differently, whereas Wulingyuan's cultural link with the past rests mainly on the area's association with a few prominent local families – namely, the Zhang Family and the Yang Family – Tianmen Mountain has always been viewed as a regional if not a national symbol, both in a religious as well as in a secular, or national pride, sense; Tianmen Mountain is a venue which, since ancient times, was frequented by writers, poets, artists and even emperors, as well as by monks of all ranks, from neophytes to sages.

Tianti - the 999 Steps Tianti - the 999 Steps to the Taoist "Heaven"

The first emperors to visit Tianmen Mountain came here during the Northern Zhou (CE 557-588) Dynasty of the Northern (CE 386-588) Dynasties period. They were Taoists, though the only temples that grace present-day Tianmen Mountain are in fact Buddhist temples (the Taoist trace on Tianmen Mountain – whose older name was Songliang Mountain (more on the name change below) – can be divined through the name given to the "celestial ladder" (stone staircase) that leads up from the base of Tianmen Mountain to Tianmen Mountain Cave:

  • Tianti (天梯) – the Taoist word for the Christian concept "Heaven" – and in certain other namesakes as well as in the 999 steps of this staircase, not to mention the 99 swings, or curves, of the new roadway (see below) that winds up the mountain, ending at the foot of the Tianti note that the number 9 (or 99 or 999, etc.), being especially auspicious in Taoist cosmology, has therefore always been reserved for the emperor, who, since the earliest (Taoist) times, was recognized as the manifestation of God on earth.

Not surprisingly, then, Tianmen Mountain also boasts scenic sites with cultural roots as well as scenic sites that can perhaps best be described as "unique natural wonders", though some are recently constructed manmade wonders of which the Chinese people are justly proud, such as the new roadway that snakes up the mountain in a manner that brings to mind certain picturesque sections of the Great Wall.

Below are the 7 highlights of Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park:

1. 99 Bends – the Avenue Leading to the Sky

This is the winding road, reminiscent of the Great Wall, which winds its way up the mountain. It is about 11 kilometers in length and rises a whopping 1100 meters with 99 bends, turns and spirals, hence the name Tongtian Avenue (通天大道, Avenue Leading to the Sky). Only the sightseeing shuttle bus can access this breathtaking mountain road.

Just as the Chinese people are fond of likening the Great Wall to a dragon that snakes up and down mountains, the road is likened to a dragon that snakes up (or down) Tianmen Mountain. They also liken it to a golden, studded belt that cinches a jade robe, the latter a reference to jade-green Tianmen Mountain itself. This avenue ends at Tianti (天梯), or Heaven-Reaching Ladder (aka Celestial Ladder), the staircase consisting of 999 steps that ascends from the terminus of Tongtian Avenue to Tianmen Mountain Cave.

The 99 Bending Road - Tongtian Avenue The 99 Bending Road - Tongtian Avenue

2. Tianmen Mountain Cave

How was Tianmen Mountain Cave formed?

In CE 263, the mountain, whose name at the time was Songliang and which is composed of limestone bedrock, experienced a natural disaster, or rock slide (perhaps there had been an extended period of rain, followed by low-level seismic activity). Two separate limestones suddenly gave way and came crashing down the mountain, leaving a gaping "donut hole" (albeit, a rather irregular one) in the mountain.

Since the towering, massive, slightly tilted, rectangular double-block in question – especially given its close proximity to the city of Zhangjiajie – presents a very prominent, looming silhouette on the horizon. The Chinese people themselves, not surprisingly, liken the mountain to a giant sleeping Buddha, considered by adherents as one of the most sublime of the Buddha's postures. The "donut hole" left by the partial collapse of the mountain ridge suggests a doorway, or gate, to heaven.

Therefore, the mountain was renamed Tianmen ("Heaven’s Gate") Mountain, while the "donut hole" was dubbed Tianmen Mountain Cave. Though in fact, it is simply a hole measuring 131.5 meters in height, 57 meters in width, and 60 meters in depth, that pierces the mountain through.

How to get to the Cave?

Tianmen Mountain Cave

Tianmen Mountain Cave

By sightseeing shuttle bus: Catch the shuttle bus at its middle bus stop, which also corresponds to the middle gondola stop of Tianmen Mountain Cableway. You are also free to transport yourself to the middle bus stop in a vehicle that you own or rent. An important point to bear in mind is that for the second leg of the journey up to the 99 Bending Avenue, the shuttle bus is mandatory.

By cableway: Find Tianmenshan Cableway Station in Downtown Zhangjaijie. Note that if you take the first leg of Tongtian Avenue in a vehicle under your personal command, you will have to pay a parking fee at the middle bus stop parking lot, which fee, happily, includes the roundtrip fare for the mandatory shuttle bus trip that will deposit you at the upper bus stop/ the base of Tianti, or the 999-step staircase (alas, there is only one way to ascend this staircase: on foot).

By escalator: There is a set of escalators running from mountaintop – Tianmen Mountain Cave – foothill, which takes RMB 32 for a one-way trip.

Airplanes flew through the cave.

In spite of being called a cave, Tianmen Mountain Cave in fact looks like an oversized, keyhole-like slot in the mountain. Airplanes have flown through this "keyhole" on more than one occasion:

  • In 1999, when a team of 15 stunt pilots from around the world, in old-fashioned monoplanes, flew repeatedly through the cave as part of a special fund-raising event. For the most part they were in single file, but while performing all manner of rolling, twisting and upside-down aerobatics, though at one point 4 of the planes came through the cave "stacked up", albeit, in a slightly staggered pattern;
  • In 2006, when members of the Russian Air Force's Aerobatic Flight Team repeatedly flew a string of modern small fighter jets through the cave, including Sukhoi Su-27s and Su-30s, also as part of a special televised, fund-raising show (and this will surely not mark the last such event).

3. Tianmen Mountain Cable Car

Tianmen Mountain Cableway is the world's longest passenger cable car system, with a total length of 7,455 meters. Consisting of 98 cable cars (gondolas or fully enclosed cable cars) and 57 suspension towers, the cable car system, at its apex, reaches a height of 1,279 meters.

NOTE: Tianmen Mountain cable car will be under construction from November 1st to 30th. Shuttle buses will be used instead during this period.

The cable car originates in the heart of the city of Zhangjiajie and stretches southward across the valley and then rises gradually as it follows the contour of the mountain, much like any ski lift – i.e., some 8-10 meters over the surface below – until it reaches the middle gondola stop, corresponding to the departure point of the mandatory leg of the shuttle bus route that takes the visitor up to Tianmen Mountain Cave via Tongtian Avenue.

The first leg of the gondola trip (up to the middle gondola stop), beyond the valley in which the city of Zhangjiajie is located, proceeds over the gently sloped foot of Tianmen Mountain, where the incline is very gradual. Each cable car can carry 8 adult passengers, and the trip from the heart of Zhangjiajie to the summit – or vice-versa – takes between 15-20 minutes, expending on the traffic that gets off/on at the middle gondola stop.

What can be seen from the cableway?

Beginning with the second leg of the gondola trip (assuming that you plan to see the summit first, then return to the middle gondola stop and take the shuttle bus up to see Tianmen Mountain Cave), i.e., for the ascent up to the summit beyond the middle gondola stop, the cable car traces a trajectory that rises, rises and continues to rise up and over a deep chasm, providing a scene that is breath-taking in more than one sense: the views are fantastic.

Views seen from Tianmen Mountain Cableway Views seen from Tianmen Mountain Cableway

For example, the unfolding views of Tongtian Avenue majestically winding its way up the mountainside can only fully be appreciated from the bird's eye- at this height, one should maybe say "eagle's eye". But it can also be a little terrifying, since the very thought of being suspended at this height in a tiny, glass-and-metal box that is dependent on the proper functioning of manmade cables can be something of a white-knuckle experience.

You may eventually be temporarily – or intermittently – enveloped in a cloud of thick mists that make it impossible to see anything around you, but for the most part, you should have a clear view of the terrain below.

At the summit of Tianmen Mountain, your gondola deposits you on the western face of Tianmen Mountain. Yunmeng Fairy Summit represents the highest point on Tianmen Mountain and offers some amazing views of the valley below from whence you departed 15 minutes earlier.

As the gondola approaches its upper stop, Yunmeng Fairy Summit looms in front of you somewhat like a weather-beaten, highly eroded version of Mount Rushmore in the U.S., less the faces of the presidents, though of course the two rock types are as different as night and day. Still, the peak here is a curved mountain wall that looks ribbed, vertically.

Below the peak, the forestation has run amok, climbing up the rock face in places, and atop the flat, curved wall of Tianmen Mountain's "Mount Rushmore" are trees everywhere. "Lush" is the only word that comes to mind – it is as if the plentiful here has figured out a way to suck nutrients out of the limestone bedrock!

4. Mountain Plateau Virgin Forest

The Mountain Plateau Virgin Forest on the top of Tianmen Mountain comprises many rare plant species. With its over 1,000 different herb species, the virgin forest is touted as a good, local example of ecotourism, albeit, not of the officially sponsored international ecotourism (The International Ecotourism Society, or TIES) variety.

Tianmen Mountain Virgin Forest Tianmen Mountain Virgin Forest

While the trees here may not attain the full size and height of trees growing in more fertile locations, they are not bonsai-sized. Though many of the trees growing on the western side of the mountain are indeed in a dwarf or bonsai version, probably due to the shallowness of the soil layer and the resulting paucity of nutrients there, and maybe the peculiar combination of sunlight plus precipitation – and possibly even the wind pattern – plays a role.

Two of the state-protected trees here are the Dove Tree and the Dawn Redwood, one of only three redwood types found on the planet, belonging to the same subfamily as the Giant California Redwood tree.

Trees provide home to birds aplenty, and there are plenty of them in the forest, plus there are many other small animals that thrive here, though birds tend to dominate.

5. Tianmen Mountain Temple

Located on the western side of the mountaintop, Tianmen Mountain Temple is a large, 10,000 square meter temple complex that was built on the site of an older, considerably smaller temple dating back to the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty, which was the then center of Buddhism for all of western Hunan Province. The replacement temple was erected about 500 years ago, though it has been completely rebuilt in more recent years while maintaining its ancient building style.

Tianmen Mountain Temple is nestled in a natural hollow in the mountain ridge, providing a modicum of lee from the seasonally raw winds. Since the temple structure is large while all of the surrounding trees are dwarfs (bonsai-sized, though not the potted plant size that fits on your window ledge), it is as if the temple achieves its fitting position of symbolic dominance in the mountaintop's larger metaphysical scheme of things.

To those who may be on the lookout for a completely different kind of culture here at the temple, the temple operates a vegetarian restaurant that lets you fill your plate for a reasonable price, and the food is said to be so tasty that you'll hardly notice that it lacks amino acid, i.e., the building block of red meat.

6. Yu Hu Peak

Yu Hu Peak (玉壶峰) is situated on the southeastern face of Tianmen Mountain, not far from the upper gondola stop. It is huge and monolithic, slightly cocked backward, and juts up as if to announce its presence. It deserves to be on a postage stamp for Hunan Province, so iconic is its distinctive shape, its massiveness, its prominence.

7. Guigu Cliff Cave and Its Pathway

Guigu (鬼谷) Cliff Cave isn't really a cave in the traditional sense. It is an elongated, vertical-elliptical opening between two silo-shaped parts of a peak. Many of the massive mountain blocks here seem to be ribbed, as if they consisted of several super huge silos glued together, which must say something about how the limestone rock was formed before it was pushed up via tectonic action.

There is no access to the cave, other than the fact that the Guigu Cliff-Side Pathway follows the contours of the "silos" near their top, meaning that the pathway snakes in and out of (makes a "U" turn inside) the "cored, half apple". This might be the spookiest walk of your life.

Guigu Cliff-Side Pathway Guigu Cliff-Side Pathway

Bonus Facts

1. “Spiderman” – In 2007, the famous French skyscraper climber and all-around wall scaler, Alain Robert, better known as the French Spiderman, scaled Tianmen Mountain at the site of the Tianmen Mountain Cave, climbing from the bottom of the cave entrance (i.e., from the top of the 999 steps) to the summit directly above the cave, or about 200 meters, bare-handed naturally, as is his trademark.

2. Note that literal translations – as with some of the names listed here – are often not possible or even desirable, since Chinese concepts (as with almost any other language, one might add!) involve image shorthand (metaphors) that would be utterly lost in a literal translation.

3. Tianmen Mountain Cave is shifting position – it is rotating on its axis! That's right, the "donut hole" that was formerly visible from a certain spot in the city of Zhangjiajie is no longer visible from that spot, i.e., one can no longer see daylight through the "donut hole" even if one can make it out. The good news is that both blocks of the double-block mountain seem to be moving together, suggesting that they are joined at the hip, as it were.

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