China Expat & Travel Blogger. ATTRACTIONS & THINGS TO DO IN CHINA. See My Fun TRAVEL Adventures in China!
You’ve seen James Cameron's Avatar, right? Remember those cool, floating mountains of Pandora? Well, did you know that they were actually inspired by the mountainous landscape of China’s own Zhangjiajie National Forest? Or how about China's Heaven's Gate? Ever heard of it? It's also in Zhangjiajie, and it's this giant hole in Tianmen Mountain that's big enough for an adrenaline junkie to jump in a wingsuit, drop out of a plane, and fly right through it. Trust me, that's actually happened!
And yep, you better believe that I've visited both, and in the same day. How awesome is that!?
First of all, when it comes to tourist hotspots in China, don't let anyone ever tell you to 'get there early to be first', because 99.9% of the time there'll already be hundreds of people ahead of you, and that's if you're lucky.
It's exactly how my trip to Tianmen would start. 'Word on the street' was that it was best to arrive at the ticket office around 4am to beat the 'traffic'. Nah-uh. My friend and I got there at 4:15am on the dot and it was as if half the city had already shown up--taxis and shuttle buses in tow by the dozens.
And well, after standing in the longest line I had ever faced (about 2 hours), we'd finally hop aboard a shuttle bus to hitch us up the mountain, and then we'd take Tianmen's infamous cableway--the reported longest and one of highest in the world--on the way back. Let's go!
Scratch that. Let's wait, again! That bus just took us to the base of Tianmen Mountain where we needed to queue up for another long hour. But hey, at least the scenery was much better, right? Heaven-Linking Avenue here we come!
Ah, Heaven-Linking Avenue--it's probably China's scariest road. But forget all the sweet views, lush green forestry, and jaw-dropping glimpses of Tianmen's cableway stretching some 1000+ meters above ground level. What'll really boggle your mind--and possibly get you car sick--are the 90+ winding turns, sheer cliff drops, and absolutely terrifying driving by the local shuttle operators that'll literally have you at the edge of your seat for the 10-kilometer long ride.
Was it worth it though? Yep! And besides, if you're tough enough to have survived arguably the most gut-wrenching car ride of your life then you'll have officially made it to 'Heaven'. Wait, is that how it works?
'Stairway to Heaven'
And so we had finally made it--there we were, standing just below 'Heaven's Gate', China's infamous, awe-inspiring giant hole. And by 'below' I mean 999 steps below to be exact. And even worse? It was 999 of the steepest steps I'd ever climb in my life, no kidding. But who ever said getting to 'Heaven' came easy?
But I must admit though, the view of Tianmen Cave got better and better the closer we arrived to it. It's as if with each grueling, near-death-experience step came more of an appreciation of nature, life and ... Wait, that is how it works! No wonder it's called 'Heaven's Gate!'
It's 131-meters tall, 31-meters wide, and it's even more awesome once you're directly standing under it. It's literally a gigantic natural archway--rocky, thousands of years old, and the highest in the world of its kind.
Was it scenic? Sure. But the best part? Looking up and seeing these strong gusts of fog passing in and out of its walls high above everyone's heads. And even better? Listening to the wind make loud howls as it pushed its way through. Now that was memorable.
And the party didn't stop there. At the backend of the cave? A bunch of walkways that hung off the sides of the cliffs, and about 8 of the longest escalators you'd probably ever take in your life--aptly called "Escalators Through the Mountain"--leading tourists to the top of the mountain.
What an incredible adventure!
So was my trip to Tianmen Mountain fun? Yep. Was it worth it? Of course! But perhaps my biggest travel regret? My friend and I never got the chance to take the cableway. Truth be told, we just had no idea where to catch it, and it was the single-most exciting thing I wanted to do. But hey, there's always next time, right? On to 'Avatar' Mountain!
And finally, Zhangjiajie's 'Avatar' Mountains--scratch that, thee 'Avatar' Mountains, unquestionably China's top 5 best mountains to see, hike, and flood pictures of your Instagram account with.
So, hop on an hour long mini-bus from Tianmen to Zhangjiajie Mountain? Check. Pass the myriad of serious-but-funny pictures depicting what's prohibited at the mountain? Double check. Hit a shuttle bus and land at a 326-meter (1070 ft.) tall glass elevator hanging off the side of a mountain? Man, where do they come up with this stuff!?
"Hey, we could put an elevator there!" Well, it ain't exactly something normal everyday people think of, but I'll give credit where credit is due; after all, Bailong Elevator undoubtedly turned out to be one of the coolest elevators in the world.
As soon as we laid eyes on it--'Yes, please'. No hesitation there. The elevator shot up at 3-meters per second, and we had these crazy, unobstructed views of the Zhangjiajie Mountain's natural pillars for a little less than 2-minutes. What a great introduction to the area!
View, after view, after view. Pillars ... everywhere, as far as our eyes could see. Large, small, tall, short, and almost always flooded with with lush green trees. Throw in some mist, add a little traditional Chinese music pumping out from someone's phone, and you've got one hell of a display of mystical China. Welcome to 'Avatar' Mountains!
No wonder they used these mountains for inspiration in the James Cameron blockbuster. And by the way, China's just seriously got some of the most unique natural landscapes I've ever seen. From Zhangjiajie to the colorful hills of Zhangye's Rainbow Mountains. From the sprawling karst ranges of Guilin to the deep gorges of Yunnan. It's got some of the most interesting terrain in the world!
The hike down Zhangjiajie was pretty zen-like. In fact, we'd go from viewing platforms to walking along trails enclosed in greenery.
The hike down Zhangjiajie was pretty zen-like. In fact, we'd go from viewing platforms to walking along trails enclosed in greenery. We'd pass locals painting the scenery and suddenly find ourselves crossing over creeks and looking up--way up--at the rocky exteriors of the pillars.
And just like that--well, thousands of steps and a few dozen pictures later--we'd hit the exit and were off to the airport to visit the Giant Head Statue of Mao Zedong in Changsha.
Hitting Zhangjiajie's Tianmen Mountain and 'Avatar' Mountain in the same day was a crazy adventure. We waited in the longest lines ever, rode one of China's scariest roads, saw a giant natural hole, took an elevator up the side of a cliff, and peered out over China's top 5 mountains.
Would I do it again? Yep, in a heartbeat. On the next round, though, I'd just hope we had more time! Safe and happy travels!