Every now and then, you find yourself in a place that even after many years later, you would look back and still couldn’t believe yourself when you say, “Damn, I was there?”
To me, other than the screening of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening — I can’t still believe I paid for that — that place is the city of Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province, China. But for Zhangjiajie, I mean that in the best possible way.
Zhangjiajie was not part of our plan.
I was supposed to exhaust all 14 days that my visa allowed me entirely in Guilin and Yangshuo. But when I stumbled upon a photo of the Tianzi Mountains while planning for this trip, I knew that I had to squeeze it into my already solid itinerary.
Try as I could, I was not able to stop gaping as the scene unfolded before me. My eyes seemed to be playing a trick, revealing the floating Hallelujah Mountains of Pandora. Except, this was not a movie scene. And none of this was fictional. Granted, the peaks were not really floating, but it took very little imagination to see how these cinematic pillars inspired the creators of Avatar, the highest-grossing film of all time.
Just a month before we arrived, a Hungarian wingsuit flier crashed to his death when he hit a cliffside here at Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park. But that did not stop us from paying a visit to this scenic area in Zhangjiajie, China. And it shouldn’t. After all, we won’t be jumping from the sky.
We were not alone. With us were many other tourists, mostly domestic. The queues were long and everyone was excited to enjoy both the natural wonders and the man-made structures built at the site. Tianmen Mountain is incredible, to say the least. The scenery alone would make me not forgive myself if I left Zhangjiajie without spending a few hours in the company of these famous peaks. Daredevils, I imagine, are easily drawn, too. Aside from the usual relaxing spots, the site boasts a number of thrilling attractions that not only offer breathtaking views but also gives your adrenal glands a little squeeze. Here are six of them.
When I hopped into the gondola to go down to the city center of Zhangjiajie, I was thinking of only one thing — the train to Liuzhou.
I stayed way too long at Tianmen Mountain National Park. I did not notice the time pass. Blame the countless incredible sights at Tianmen. I probably spent much of the time picking my lower jaw up off the floor. Earlier that morning, I was thrilled with the idea of a 28-minute cable car ride. But pressed for time going back down, I just wanted it to be over quick. Twenty eight minutes is too long for a guy who is paranoid that he would miss the last train of the day.
All that changed with one westward head turn. The sunset had begun.
By the time I reached the site, I had no more energy.
All that was left of me was a powerful urge to eat anything that crosses my path. The giant rocky cave towering above me, the very reason I was in Tianmen Mountain in the first place, appeared to me as a gargantuan donut. Thankfully, there were food stalls lining one edge of the tourist area. Otherwise, I would have eaten the cave too. I followed the scent of what smelled like fried eggs and longganisa (native Filipino sausages). Of course, there was no longganisa. But the Chinese version tasted very much like it. With six pieces of buns (siopao), they made up my first meal of the day. It was already past three in the afternoon.
I was expecting to be sick to the stomach at some point during the ride, but the stellar view of Tianmen Mountain’s jagged landscape was too much of a beautiful distraction. I barely felt the sharp turns.
Tongtian Avenue earns its fancy nicknames — Big Gate Road, Avenue Toward Heaven, Heaven-Linking Avenue — for it takes visitors to the “Gateway to Heaven”, a natural cave crowning one side of the Tianmen Mountain. Meandering along dangerous cliffsides, the 11-kilometer serpentine road makes 99 sharp turns! Yes, 99 freaking curves!
I have taken cable car rides only six times in my life (including the Jewel Box in Singapore and Panorama Langkawi in Malaysia), but the Tianmen Shan Cable Car is by far the most scenic and the most unforgettable.
Tianmen Shan Cable Car ferries visitors from the city center of Zhangjiajie (Hunan Province) to the Air Garden, perched on the summit of Tianmen Mountain. Straddling a distance of 7,455 meters (7.45km), it is often touted by tourism publications in China as the “longest cable car ride in the world,” but in reality, it needs to be qualified as the “longest passenger cableway of high mountains.” It takes a total of 28 minutes to cover the entire distance.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared. It was the most terrified I had been in my life. Ever.
It was as though hell lived inside my stomach! Something about this walkway frightened me so much that I couldn’t push myself to make that first step. It wasn’t the dizzying heights per se. It wasn’t the idea that the floor was made of glass, either. I was just caught off-guard. I was not prepared for this.
He called himself the Son of Heaven. The man was Xiang Dakun, chieftain of the Tujia ethnic group who, in 1353, launched an uprising against the ruling dynasty. At the base of the Green Rock Mountain, he established a state and proclaimed himself Tianzi, meaning Son of Heaven. To his followers, he was Emperor Xiang.
But in the vastness of China, there was room for only one Emperor.