Looking up, looking down at an ethereal world of wonder

Of all the memorable sights in China, Zhangjiajie ranks among the unforgettable. From glass bridge to a "forest" of karst pinnacles, this is a journey into an astounding world.
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A visit to Zhangjiajie in central China’s Hunan Province starts dramatically. After hours of driving on hairpin roads through mountains, visitors enter a very long tunnel. When they emerge on the other side, a whole different world opens up.

A forest of sandstone pillars, like giant bamboo shoots, juts toward a sky shrouded in clouds and mist. The environment is surreal, like some fantastic world conjured up by science fiction.

In fact, it is believed that the landform design of the planet Pandora in James Cameron’s hit movie “Avatar” was partly inspired by this unique setting.

In 2010, one of the peaks, the Southern Sky Mountain, was renamed Avatar-Hallelujah Mountain in a nod to the movie and a bid to attract more overseas tourists.

In 1992, Zhangjiajie was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It is now one of the most-visited tourist attractions in China. And no wonder!

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The cable car running from downtown Zhangjiajie to the top of the mountain is one of the longest in the world.

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Tianmen Mountain has a colossal natural hole in its center. Viewed from below, it looks like a passageway to the sky.

Tianmen Mountain

The unique landscape of quartz sandstone landforms in Zhangjiajie is found nowhere else in the world. About 3,000 karst pinnacles add grandeur to a stone peak forest of steep cliffs, gorges and natural bridges. Awesome may be an overused term, but here it almost seems inadequate.

Tianmen Mountain, or the Mountain of the Gate to Heaven, has a colossal natural hole in its middle. Viewed from below, it looks like a passageway to the sky, which is how the mountain got its name.

It is, however, not so easy to reach on foot. You first need to conquer the very long, uphill “stairway to heaven.” On the other side of the “gate” sits the Tianmen Temple, a Buddhist temple with a history of more than 1,000 years.

The mountain is shrouded in mysteries as well as mist.

One myth has it that the orientation of the hole changes with time. It is believed that about 100 years ago, the hole could be seen from the southern port of the Zhangjiajie River, but that is no longer the case. Local people believe the hole always faces “the land of treasure.”

Li Na, singer of the hit folk song “Tibet Plateau,” contributed to the mysteriousness of the mountain when she said she felt a “power” whispering to her in the temple after she walked through the “gate.” Suddenly “enlightened,” she converted to Buddhism.

For the less adventurous, a cable car runs from downtown Zhangjiajie City to the top of the mountain. At 8 kilometers, it is one of the longest cableways in the world. The half-hour trip to the top affords breathtaking sights.

Cost: 258 yuan

How to get there: Public buses No. 4, 5, 6 and 10 go to the cable car station in downtown Zhangjiajie. The buses are available at the airport, railway station and long-distance bus station.

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The 375-meter-long glass bridge where only the intrepid dare look down

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The 60-meter-long glass skywalk in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area hugs a vertical cliff 1,420 meters above a valley.

Glass bridge and skywalk

Zhangjiajie received worldwide attention in 2016 with the opening of a 375-meter-long glass bridge called Yuntiandu (“Cross the Sky”), which is suspended 300 meters above a canyon. It’s the longest and highest glass-bottomed bridge in the world.

Like the Glass Skywalk of the Grand Canyon in the United States, the structure tests the limits of height tolerance. It’s not for the faint-hearted. Visitors with heart problems, high blood pressure, acrophobia or vertigo are cautioned about using the bridge.

Those who do walk across the bridge enjoy an impression of walking on air, with spectacular mountain scenery and stone pinnacles flanking the experience.

The bridge was closed temporarily just two weeks after opening in 2016 due to “possible safety hazards.” All that resolved, it has become so popular that visitors may have to wait up to three hours to gain access.

As a fallback position that’s no less thrilling, visitors may choose the glass skywalk in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area of Tianmen Mountain. The 60-meter-long skywalk hugs a vertical cliff 1,420 meters above a valley. Look down and you may find your stomach in your throat.

For both the glass bridge and skywalk, visitors need to wear protective shoe covers in order to keep the glass clean. The covers are available at the entrances of the bridge and skywalk.

Cost: 133 yuan for the glass bridge; 235 yuan for the canyon and glass bridge; 10 yuan for the glass skywalk

How to get there: The skywalk is within walking distance once you arrive in Wulingyuan on the west side of Tianmen Mountain. Shuttle buses are available from there to the glass bridge.

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The Huanglong Cave features stalagmites in hundreds of different shapes.

Huanglong Karst Cave

Magnificent stone scenery is viewable inside as well as outside of the mountains.

The enormous Huanglong Karst Cave in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area is unique among the numerous karst caves in China.

The 140-meter-high cave features stalagmites in hundreds of different shapes. Visitors with imaginations see limestone flowers, waterfalls and animals. With colorful, artificial illumination, the whole cave takes on the sense of being in a kaleidoscope.

The most notable stalagmite is called the “needle that stills the waters.” The 19.2-meter-high calcium carbonate rock structure, tallest in the cave, is so thin that its average diameter is less than 20 centimeters. Experts estimate it has been forming for 200,000 years and might reach the top of the cave in another 60,000 years.

The “needle” is considered such a rare attraction that the management company of the cave insured it for 100 million yuan (US$15.5 million) in 1998.

How to get there: Take a bus from the city of Zhangjiajie to Wuilingyuan, and from there take bus No. 1 to the Huanglong Cave Station.

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A walk along Jianbian Brook provides tranquility that cannot be achieved elsewhere.

Jinbian Brook

The 7.5-kilometer-long Jinbian Brook that runs through a stone forest park in Zhangjiajie might be the most sedate but relaxing attraction of the area.

No need to labor up a mountain or test personal bravery on a glass walkway. A stroll along the brook through a deep valley is filled with peace and solitude. The pathway is lined with wooden planks, making the walk easier for visitors of all ages.

This is heaven on Earth. The water is clear and sparkling, the trees rich green and the stone pillars ethereal. It’s the kind of spot one doesn’t want to leave, for fear of breaking the magic.

Jinbian literally means “golden whip.” The name originated from Jinbian Rock, a whip sword-shaped rock on one end of the brook. The 380-meter-high rock is often dyed golden by the sunshine. Beside it looms another giant rock in the shape of an eagle spreading its wings. The two rocks form the most iconic scenery of the brook area.

This area is home to macaques that have been inhabiting the forest for hundreds of years. They don’t fear humans. Indeed, they are brazen in seeking food handouts from visitors. But be careful with the little rascals if you decide to play with them for a little bit.

How to get there: Take a bus from downtown Zhangjiajie to the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park ticket office station. After entering the park, it is about a 500-meter walk to the entrance of the valley.

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The area around Jianbian Brook is home to macaques.

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