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.
In 1385, Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang (also known as the Hongwu Emperor) of the Ming Dynasty commanded Zhuzhen, the Prince of Chu, to lead 10,000 soldiers to attack the ancient tribe. The combat went on for 40 days, which ended with the defeat of Xiang Dakun. He was killed in battle in Shentang Bay at the base of the mountain, which would later be named after him — Tianzi, the Son of Heaven.
Legend has it that after the fall of Xiang Dakun and his army, a woman in love with him searched through the mountains for him. After strewing flowers from a cliff, she turned into stone. Shen Bing Ju Hui, one of the more photographed sights in the area, appears as a platoon of soldiers standing in formation. Here at the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, every curious sight has a story to tell to an equally curious beholder.
Crafted by the Gods
Every photo of the Tianzi Mountain fools the viewer. This just can’t be real. Two thousand peaks rise around the site like colossal statues of giants guarding the heavens, forming a landscape that looks like an artistic illustration of a fantasy novel setting. Its every nook is scenic, every cranny imaginative. It is as if carved beautifully by the gods themselves.
This very trip was inspired by a single photograph of the place. After a flight to Guilin and two long train rides to Zhangjiajie, I found myself in the company of these soldiers. Six months after I first laid eyes on it, I was ready to be acquainted, to be intimate with the Son of Heaven.
Rising north of the city center of Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province, the Tianzi Mountain spans 93 square kilometers of heavily contoured terrain. It is one of the four zones of the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Area, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 and recognized as World Geological Park by the United Nations in 2004. (The other three are the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the Suoxiyu Natural Resource Reserve, and the Yangjiajie Scenic Area.) Of the four, Tianzi stands tallest with its highest peak at 1,250 meters (4,140 feet) above sea level.
In the morning and after the rain during spring and summer, the clouds that flood the gaps between the rocky columns create a sea of white wonder. The peaks, as if floating gracefully, transform into giant stepping stones. The skies have never been this close.
All that Heaven Allows
The cable car transfer alone was beyond satisfying. I pressed my nose on the glass walls, thinking that I could turn around as soon as I reached the top and still feel rewarded. The view was a splendid treat as the coach straddled 2,084 meters in the shadows of sandstone cliffs above a lush forest clad in the fiery colors of autumn. But the real journey had not even started yet.
I zipped my jacket up to the collar and braced myself for the cold wind. Surprisingly, the scent of burgers was the first to greet me. Ronald McDonald stood happily at the start of a complex labyrinth of boardwalks that meandered on the mountaintop, ushering me to several sightseeing decks. On one platform, the Tian Zi Ge (Tianzi Pavilion) is perched. This six-story pagoda in deep red stands out amidst the pale verdant scenery. From here I had my first unobstructed bombardment of postcard worthy sights, one after another. I played charades with the rock formations; the info markers were my cheat sheet.
A Robin Hood Tale
Designed by Pan He, one of the most renowned Chinese sculptors, the bronze statue of Marshal He Long is one of the few man-made structures in the park that command attention. He Long was an outlaw but was most admired by the poor for his Robin Hood reputation.
“He Long was born in the bandit territory of the West Hunan Province, and was impressed at an early age with the outlaw code,” Graham Seal’s Outlaw Heroes in Myth and History describes the juvenile years of the marshal. “In March 1916, He Long and a band of twenty-or-so young men armed with an ancient firearm, sabers, and three kitchen knives stormed a government taxation office. They killed the main administrator, stole rifles, and distributed the money to the people, an initiatory act that gave his legend a firm foundation.”
By the mid-1920s, he was already a powerful military figure and eventually joined the Chinese Communist Party. He fought in the Civil War and the Sino-Japanese War. In honor of his contributions, a monument was erected in one of China’s most picturesque destinations. Standing 6.5 meters and weighing almost 9 tons, it is the largest statue that China built in 100 years. A couple of other spots were also named in his memory.
Both Marshal He Long and Xiang Dakun are immortalized in the Tianzi Peaks. Their legends are forever etched on its cliffsides and mountaintops. The latter, the Son of Heaven, met his demise in this ethereal site, but for such a beautiful — almost transcendental — place to be named after him is well beyond a great honor, it is in many ways heavenly.
Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve,
Wulingyuan Scenic Area,
Zhangjiajie, Hunan Province, China
Admission Fee: CNY 245 (inclusive of cable car rides) and valid for 3 days
Opening Hours: 7am-6pm
How to get to Tianzi Mountain: The nearest aerial gateway is Zhangjiajie Airport, but visitors from the Philippines may fly via Kuala Lumpur (AirAsia) to Wuhan or Guilin. From Wuhan, take a 9-hour train ride to Zhangjiajie City. From Guilin, board an overnight train to Liuzhou or Changsha then another to Zhangjiajie (total travel time is around 18 hours excluding layovers). From the city center, take the bus to Wulingyuan (CNY 10).