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Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve

With an area comprising only 93 square kilometers, Tianzi ("Son of Heaven") Mountain Nature Reserve is one of the four subsections of Wulingyuan Scenic Area. But it is carpeted here and there with thick forests and with the wildlife that characterizes Wulingyuan Scenic Area. It is said to combine the beauty of Guilin, the strangeness if not grotesqueness of Huangshan ("Yellow Mountain"), the awesomeness of Mount Hua and the magnificence of Mount Tai.

Tianzi Mountain Tianzi Mountain

The nature reserve gets its name from Xiang Dakun, an ethnic Tujia who led a peasant rebellion during the latter half of the 19th century. The leader of the Taipeng Rebellion had given his movement a "divine" name that challenged the exclusive, divine authority of the emperor. Xiang Dakun styled himself Tianzi, or "Son of Heaven", a title reserved for the emperor, which also explains why Tianzi Mountain is sometimes referred to as "Emperor Mountain".

Tianzi Mountains Quick Facts

  • Name in Chinese: Tiānzǐ Shān 天子山
  • Location: Northwest of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Zhangjaijie
  • Opening Hours: 7:00-18:00
  • Ticket Price: free (the entrance cost is included in the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park.)
  • Best Time to Visit: March-May, September-November
  • Highlights: sunset and moonlight views, the Avatar Hallelujah Mountains

How to get to the Tianzi Mountains?

1. From Zhangjaijie Central Bus Station (only 5 minutes’ walking from northwest of Zhangjiajie Railway Station), take tourist bus to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park (张家界森林公园). The bus departs every 10 minutes and the journey takes about 12 RMB and 40 minutes.
2. Arrive at the forest park and take the free sightseeing bus to Tianzi Mountain Scenic Area with your entrance ticket.

Zhangjiajie and Tianzi Mountains Map

Zhangjaijie Attractions Map

How were the Tianzi Mountains formed?

Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, like Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, is characterized by old, weathered sandstone mountain-peak remnants (and a few newer and taller, snow-clad ones that still have sharp peaks). Some are in the form of massive blocks and some in the form of freestanding sandstone obelisks or towers.

There is also a certain amount of limestone bedrock present in the nature reserve. As a result of aeons of water erosion, usually in the form of underground streams, this has produced karst caves. Limestone is soft and more easily dissolved in the carbonic-acid-rich water that is common to such areas.

Because the sandstone bedrock that makes up most of the nature reserve was created by a long process of stratification, it appears in distinct layers, each layer slightly different in coloration than the contiguous layers. Due to this layering, the bedrock is subject to erosion that constantly whittles away at the outer edges of exposed rock, leaving an uneven vertical surface.

It is generally marked by small ledges that alternately jut out. The ledges provide ideal conditions for the accumulation of soil, which in turn can nurture flowers, grasses, shrubs and even trees.

Farming fields on the hilltop of the Tianzi Mountains Farming fields on the hilltop of the Tianzi Mountains

Thus the second distinguishing feature of all of the sandstone mountain - peak remnants of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, including those of Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, is that these old geomorphological rocks are home to many shrubs and trees which in turn attract birds. Indeed, Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is also home to very dense forests with a plethora of wildlife.

Tianzi Mountains and Avatar

The nature reserve is also home to the largest assemblage of freestanding sandstone towers in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, namely, the famous Yubi Feng ("Imperial Writing Brush Peaks"). It is partially walled by more massive – but still very old and time-worn–tree-clad mountain peaks. Some of the uppermost sections are splintered into freestanding mini-towers. These time-and-weather-worn mountains of semi-porous, stratified sandstone bedrock have been subjected not only to lengthy erosion, but perhaps also to extensive and prolonged flooding and frost damage.  

Most certainly, the erosion process required an inordinate amount of time to produce the sublimely beautiful landscapes that the enthralled visitor beholds in the Tianzi Mountains. The Emperor Mountain enjoys the reputation of being “more beautiful even than Yellow Mountain”, the latter also a strangely eroded scenic mountain located in Anhui Province.

Avatar Hallelujah Mountains Avatar Hallelujah Mountains

Its many picture-postcard weathered, tree-clad sandstone mountain-peak remnants, inspired the computer-generated, floating Halleujah Mountains seen in the Hollywood film, Avatar. Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is characterized by snow-capped peaks as well as by forested valleys filled with lakes, rivers, waterfalls, limestone caves, bridges and thick mists that bathe the mountain-peak remnants in ever-changing patterns, thus creating an enchanting if somewhat eerie effect.


An old Chinese saying captures the mood and beauty of this must-see venue “a visit to Wulingyuan Scenic Area without a visit to Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is like not having visited Wulingyuan Scenic Area at all!”

1. West Sea

Xi Hai ("West Sea"), alternately known as "Gazing Upon West Sea from Heavenly Terrace" and "West Sea of Stone Forests", is also sometimes referred to as a sea of clouds, a sea of peaks and a sea of trees. Like much of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, West Sea consists of strangely eroded mountain-peak remnants, some in the form of stratified sandstone towers, or obelisks, and others in the form of more massive stratified sandstone blocks.

West Sea of Stone Forests West Sea of Stone Forests

This division accurately describes the two individual scenic-site features of West Sea: a large flattened block whose top is terraced and which is known as "Heavenly (Tianzi) Terrace", and a collection of freestanding towers obelisks alternatively called "Stone Forests" and "Gate to Heaven.”

The latter because the towers obelisks are arranged in a staggered height-wise fashion, with the nearest to the viewing platform, i.e., Heavenly Terrace being shorter and the farthest being taller, as if they were arranged on an incline, in amphitheater style. Add to this an intermittent "sea of clouds" wafting through the "sea of stone forests" and you have a good picture of what West Sea looks like.

Since Tianzi Mountain itself stands at high altitude, these eroded mountain ridges essentially describe all of these block-and-obelisk formations at Wulingyuan Scenic Area. – The view from Heavenly Terrace is spectacular, and the "waves" or "rows" of obelisks, each row reaching higher than the proceeding one, really do look like a "Gate to Heaven.” Moreover, at this height, banks of real clouds can settle here, and with only the terrace and the tips of the ascending rows of obelisks piercing through, the view is indeed one of a "staircase to heaven." 

2. Bay of Myths - Shentang Wan

Shentang Wan, alternately known as Shentang Valley and Shentang Fort, is a deep, gorge-like basin surrounded by craggy, tree-clad old mountain-peak remnants and a few freestanding towers. The whole, except for the tops of the peaks and towers, is often bathed in thick but ever-shifting mists. In the center of the basin lies a deep, greenish pond.

The sight itself is a bit eerie, but is made more so by certain strange sounds that echo up from the valley. Like the strange sounds to the beating of gongs and drums, the neighing of steeds, and the accompanying piercing shouts of warriors, as if an ancient, medieval battle were still in progress in the valley below!

Shentang Wan Shentang Wan

It is said that this valley was a forbidden place in ancient times because the authorities, suspecting that it might somehow be under a spell, feared that it might pose a mortal threat to anyone who entered its bounds. 

An alternative explanation is that the spot, a bend in the "wall", or ridge, of old mountain peaks is the place where a Tujia king fleeing from a Song Dynasty army and only minutes from being captured, jumped from a cliff face at the spot in question in a desperate act of suicide.

Since the Tujia king was to his people what the Chinese emperor titularly was to the Chinese people, i.e., God's representative on earth, he was considered divine by his people. Therefore the place was given the name "Divine Altar Bend" (Shen Tang Wan) by the local Tujia tribes, for it marked the spot where their divine leader had sacrificed his life for his people.

However, in the years, decades and centuries that followed many other ghoulish things are said to have occurred at Shentang Wan, according to local accounts. Thus the explanation for the eerie sounds that continued to emanate from the gorge below, the locals insisted, were but the plaintive voices of the victims who unwillingly joined the Tujia king in the afterlife. 

Since these accounts cannot be verified, they belong to the realm of myth. The gorge is also almost constantly bathed in thick mists, resembling a bay of clouds likened to a "sea of clouds." The alternative translation of Shen Tang Wan as Bay of Myths is not entirely unjustified.

3. Imperial Writing Brush Peaks

Imperial Writing Brush Peaks Imperial Writing Brush Peaks

Yubi Feng is an assemblage of freestanding sandstone pillars surrounded in places by massive, tree-clad mountain peaks. The tops of some of these more massive peaks often end in a "quill" of shorter, more slender, free-standing shafts if not mini-towers. The name yubi feng derives from the brush used by the Imperial calligrapher that had a slender, carrot-shaped handle from whose thickest end protruded the brush.

The uniqueness of these strangely eroded rocks, coupled with their beauty, is a most impressive showing and is liken to nature's own Terracotta Army. This was part of the UNESCO World Heritage Commission's decision to recognize Wulingyuan Scenic Area as a world natural heritage site. Wulingyuan Scenic Area may well not have made that distinguished list had it not been for the area's strangely eroded mountain peaks.

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