China Expat & Travel Blogger. ATTRACTIONS & THINGS TO DO IN CHINA. See My Fun TRAVEL Adventures in China!
Long queues, terrifying roads, lush green mountains, breathtaking scenery, and a giant hole. Know what these things all have in common? One absolutely fantastic trip to Tianmen Mountain in Zhangjiajie, China!
My girlfriend and I had the chance to visit Tianmen Mountain back in August of 2015. In search of our next travel destination, I remembered catching a quick snippet of a massive hole carved into a mountain during a CCTV segment some months back and thought that it’d be a cool place to explore. After searching “giant hole mountain China” it didn’t take long to discover Tianmen Mountain, which was located in Zhangjiajie, the popular tourist city and mountainous landscape that gave inspiration to the floating mountains of Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar.
Before long we booked our flights, reserved our hotels, and packed our bags for a busy 4-day adventure that would include a trip to Tianmen Mountain, Zhangjiajie National Forest, and a visit to the giant statue of Chairman Mao’s head in Changsha, which was only a hour away by plane.
QUEUING UP FOR TIANMEN MOUNTAIN
Now I’ve had my fair share of waiting in long lines throughout my life. I can recall standing in line for over an hour to enter a nightclub that my friends and I were never even able to get into back in my college days. There have been long waits for amusement park rides, entrances to festivals, and even to use the sit-down toilet in the men’s restroom!
Yet, none of those experiences can even remotely compare to the 4-hour session of queues that we encountered at the City Garden Cableway terminal at the foot of Tianmen Mountain.
After landing in Zhangjiajie we found out there were two options to get to the top of Tianmen Mountain: cable car and shuttle bus. We also learned that the line for the ticket office, which housed both the shuttle buses and cableway, typically started around 4am.
Less than 12 hours later we ended up at the terminal station around 5am and were met by hundreds of people—95% locals—that arrived in droves on large tour buses.
There were 2 parts of the ticket process. First, we needed wait in line to buy tickets that could be used for both the cable car and shuttle bus to Tianmen Mountain.
Next, we needed to queue up in the actual line for the shuttle bus or cable car.
After waiting more than an hour or so we finally managed to reach the inside of the building to purchase our tickets. We had decided to take a shuttle bus to the top of the mountain and a cable car back down.
Within that hour of time the lines for the shuttle bus and cable car had both grown agonizingly long and extended far beyond the confines of their respective queuing areas. And so it painstakingly began.
We’d spend the next 2hrs making small gains towards the front with our only sources of entertainment stemming from a large TV screen displaying video clips of Redbull sponsored adventurers skydiving and motor biking through the hole on Tianmen Mountain.
There was also a small group of policeman shouting at elderly vendors that were illegally selling plastic raincoats to tourists waiting in line.
The sky had grown brighter with each passing minute and by the time we’d reach the front of the line we had to bum-rush the shuttle bus doors.
We were elated to have a seat on the shuttle bus and began our track up the mountain on Heaven-Linking Avenue.
And then it happened: we arrived at the foot of the mountain where we’d need to wait in line to access another shuttle bus. F@#!
The scenery at the base of the mountain was absolutely awe-inspiring, though, and it surely helped to brighten our mood for the upcoming queue, which was nearly as long as the first.
After another hour of waiting, dealing with others cutting the line, and quarreling with an elderly group of locals that thought we had jumped the line, we finally reached the shuttle bus and started our trip up Heaven-Linking Avenue, one of China’s most dangerous roads.
THE RIDE UP HEAVEN-LINKING AVENUE
The ride up Heaven-Linking Avenue was the scariest I’d ever been on. The start of the journey provided some remarkable views of the lush green natural scenery and mountainous landscape spread out in every direction, but shortly into the blissful trip we feared for our lives as we began twisting around sharp and mind-bogglingly steep bends for what seemed like an eternity.
On the way up we also spotted numerous cable cars making their terrifying passage up the world’s longest cableway. I had never seen cable cars that far elevated above the ground and undergoing such steep climbs. It truly was a marvelous sight!
TIANMEN MOUNTAIN – “STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN”
After about 45min. we finally reached the base of Tianmen Cave, which was located some 1,500 meters above the ground. The area was jam-packed with tourists and unfortunately it was very cloudy so we had a bleak and obstructed view of the grand scenery below.
We were both hungry so we grabbed a quick bite to eat from a Korean restaurant in a waiting area. I don’t know if was the heat or the fact that my adrenaline had shot up 1000% after the scary ride up the mountain, but it was definitely one of the most delicious rice bowls I had ever eaten!
Before long we found ourselves snapping a few photos in front of Tianmen Cave to mark the occasion.
Next up was conquering the “Stairway to Heaven”, which was a collection of 999 steps leading to the ‘Heaven’s Door”, or Tianmen Cave.
In case you’re making your own trip to the mountain, be prepared to hike up some of the steepest stairs you’ll ever have faced in your lifetime. SERIOUSLY!
In fact, there was NO ONE that completely walked the stairs without taking a break. NO ONE.
Nevertheless, on the near vertical climb up you will catch some fantastic views.
TIANMEN CAVE – “HEAVEN’S GATE”
Yes! We had finally planted our feet under Tianman Cave, which is also known as “Heaven’s Door”.
At 30-meters wide with a height of 131.5-meters, Tianman Cave was a breathtaking natural wonder. Not only was looking up at the gust of fog and winds passing through the cave’s rocky interior a spectacular experience, but listening to the loud howls eroding from the steady stream of air traveling in and out was just as memorable.
Additionally, most of the space underneath the cave was cleared for sightseeing, and there was a small station for couples and families to make love-lockets.
After a long while of hanging out beneath the cave we decided to explore its backend.
There was a walkway that continued around the mountain and offered some fantastic panoramic views of the landscape down below; that is, when the sunlight managed to squeeze through the haze just enough. And tucked away in a small opening was, of all the things one could imagine being on a mountain in China, an escalator.
And not just one escalator, but a long series of escalators—about 8—leading up to a higher point above Tianmen Cave that were rightfully dubbed “Escalators Through The Mountain”.
Once at the top we ran into dozens of tourists, far more gloomy weather, and a few maps detailing hiking paths that extended across the mountain.
In the end we decided to take a rain check on venturing any further as we had still planned to explore Zhangjiajie National Forest later in the afternoon.
With that we proceeded back down the string of escalators, descended down the 999 steps, and found ourselves back on the base of Tianmen Cave. We were itching to finally take the cable car down to the terminal when we stumbled upon some utterly disappointing news: the cable car station was located back on the top of the mountain near the exit for the escalators! Aargh!
Again, we were strapped for time; thus, instead of taking the strenuous hike back up the stairs and hopping on the long string of escalators to arrive at the cable car station, we decided to skip the cableway experience and revisit Heaven-Linking Avenue by shuttle bus. Maybe one day I’ll have the chance to do it again!
After another adrenaline pumping trip down Heaven-Linking Avenue we finally arrived back at the terminal around 1pm. To our surprise the lines had substantially dwindled in size, which goes to show that if you’re visiting Tianmen Mountain and have plenty of time to spare, you might want to head there around noon.
My adventure at Tianmen Mountain was nothing short of an amazing experience. I highly recommend a trip there if you’re in China and looking to explore its top natural attractions. Safe & happy travels!
*Note:* Missing out on Tianmen Mountain’s cableway is one of my biggest regrets in my travels across China. If you’re planning on visiting Tianmen Cave in the future, make sure to arrange your itinerary well and leave enough time to partake in both the cable car and Heaven-Linking Avenue experience.