Tianzi Mountain: Rock and Lore in Zhangjiajie, China

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.

Shen Bing Ju Hui. The pillars stand proud like a troop of soldiers who all turned to stone at once.
Shen Bing Ju Hui. The pillars stand proud like a troop of soldiers who all turned to stone at once.
Tianzi Mountain in mid-autumn
Tianzi Mountain in mid-autumn

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.

Cableway to Tianzi Peak
Cableway to Tianzi Peak

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.

Tian Zi Ge (Tianzi Pavilion). Perched on a cliff, the six-story pagoda allows breathtaking view of the famous peaks.
Tian Zi Ge (Tianzi Pavilion). Perched on a cliff, the six-story pagoda allows breathtaking view of the famous peaks.
Yu Bi Peaks (Imperial Brush Peaks). The pine trees that crown this cluster of columns make it look like an enormous paint set.
Yu Bi Peaks (Imperial Brush Peaks). The pine trees that crown this cluster of columns make it look like an enormous set of traditional Chinese painting brushes. Local lore has it that the gods painted Zhangjiajie, which tries to explain the incredible beauty of the region.
Xian Nü San Hua. A rock formation that looks like a fairy dispersing flowers by the cliff.
Xian Nü San Hua. A rock formation that looks like a fairy dispersing flowers by the cliff.
Food stalls as viewed from the balcony of the Tianzi Pavilion.
Food stalls as viewed from the balcony of the Tianzi Pavilion.
Tianzi Viewing Platform. "You'll regret it if you don't go this way," says the sign just before this gazebo. This marks the Tianzi Viewing Platform, which presents what many consider the best view in the area.
Tianzi Viewing Platform. “You’ll regret it if you don’t go this way,” says the sign just before this gazebo. This marks the Tianzi Viewing Platform, which presents what many consider the best view in the area.
West Sea. On misty springs and rainy autumns, clouds roll in between these cliffs like slow waves of the sea and the peaks appear as floating islands.
West Sea. On misty springs and rainy autumns, clouds roll in between these cliffs like slow waves of the sea and the peaks appear as floating islands.
Stone Ship Setting Out to Sea. This cliff resembles a hull of a ship, which earns it its nickname.
Stone Ship Setting Out to Sea. This cliff resembles a hull of a ship, which earns it its nickname.
Souvenirs and mementos. Stores line up before the Tianzi Pavilion for tourists who wish to take home more than memories.
Souvenirs and mementos. Stores line up before the Tianzi Pavilion for tourists who wish to take home more than memories.

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.

Marshal He Long Park. Named after the legendary military leader, the park has a massive statue of him as its centerpiece. "The statue looks like the peculiar peaks in Wulingyuan," reads the marker. By his side is his horse, symbolizing the glory of his military life.
Marshal He Long Park. Named after the legendary military leader, the park has a massive statue of him as its centerpiece. “The statue looks like the peculiar peaks in Wulingyuan,” reads the marker. By his side is his horse, symbolizing the glory of his military life.
Yunqing Tableland. Marshal He Long is also popularly called "Yunqing," after which this geological formation was named. The table rises in the West Sea, just next to the Ship Hull.
Yunqing Tableland. Marshal He Long is also popularly called “Yunqing,” after which this geological formation was named. The table rises in the West Sea, just next to the Ship Hull.

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


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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).

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Yoshke Dimen

Yoshke Dimen

Storyteller at Yoshke.com
Yoshke is a part-time digital marketing consultant, part-time travel blogger, and full-time dreamer. He has three passions in life: social media, travel, and --- wait for it --- world peace. Yoshke has won 3 PHILIPPINE BLOG AWARDS and received 9 nominations. Learn more about his personal journeys at Yoshke.com.
Yoshke Dimen

Comments

    • yoshke says:

      Hindi pa. Still writing about the Avatar place. Pero mas gusto ko ‘tong Tianzi kesa dun. 😛

  1. The Chronicles of Mariane says:

    This is so cool, so there are two interesting places in Zhangjiajie, Tianzi and Avatar Mountain. Another must visit sa China during autumn!

  2. Rajasthan tour says:

    Beautiful place ……nice detailing about the place…..

  3. Luke Mitchell says:

    WOW. These photos are stunning! Few places on earth are so incredible, few look like nowhere else you can go, and this is one of them. It’s refreshing to see a blog covering a place like this. I recall someone from my high school days having visited there, and he raved about everything he saw, and more… about all the things he didn’t have time to see. So much to explore and it looks untouched.

  4. KyleOlsen14 says:

    Can’t get enough of the blogs written about China. This is perhaps the most comprehensive blog post I’ve seen written, detailed, mapped and photographed that represents such a big part of the place. If I didn’t have reasons to go before, I certainly do now.

  5. Jho VD [mountains&beyond] says:

    all i can say is WOW….
    as in…
    hope to have a personal glimpse as well 🙂
    great pics up there… postcards indeed 🙂

  6. Olivia says:

    Hi,
    Which month did you visit zhangjiajie? I am interested to go during peak Autumn. However, confusing, some said its October and some said is November instead.

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