Hiking Tianmen Mountain: A Gateway to Heaven
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A 1500 meter tall mountain overlooking Zhangjiajie City, Tianmen Mountain is best known for its 3 famous landmarks: Tianmen Cave, an oblong shaped hole creating a natural bridge that connects two different mountain peaks, 99 Bends Road that winds up the mountain to Tianmen Cave, and its cableway, which holds the record for the longest cableway in the world at 7km.
Tianmen Cave carves a 130 meter tall, 60-meter wide window through the mountain and is often referred to as Heaven’s Gate (the translation of tianmen in Chinese), or the window to the sky.
Along with the 99 bends in the road, the number 9 is also repeated in the 999 steps leading up to Tianmen Cave, a significance which traces back to Taoist times where 9 is a lucky number symbolic of heaven on earth. The first Chinese emperors to visit Tianmen Mountain were Taoist leaders, and thus their symbology and culture have been engrained in the history of the area.
Unlike the Avatar Mountains of Wulingyuan, Tianmen Mountain and its surrounding peaks are composed of limestone, which is subjected to less erosion over time. As a result, the rock formations around Tianmen Mountain are less dramatic than those seen in Wulingyuan Scenic Area, making it a nice warm up, both hiking and view wise for the coming days.
Although the best time of year to visit Zhangjiajie is either in early summer or fall when the weather is pleasant and crowds are low, we ended up there in December for Christmas vacation. Why? Because Justin had a couple vacation days left for the year and we knew there would be no crowds as Christmas is not a holiday in China.
One of the downsides of working as an expat is that unfortunately, we can’t just travel whenever we want to. Just like back home, we still have to abide by the constraints of work and a set number of vacation days.
Living in the most populous country in the world it is super important to avoid traveling to major tourist destinations during peak season as well as any of the Chinese holidays, and Zhangjiajie is absolutely a major tourist destination. The Chinese LOVE to go there, and for good reason, as it’s home to the most unique and awe-inspiring landscape I have ever seen.
Arriving in December we were a little apprehensive about the weather. Zhangjiajie is known for being cold, wet and dreary for about the first 6 months of the year, from late fall to late spring, so leading up to the trip the weather forecast was at the forefront of our radars.
It appeared we were going to luck out with the weather. The day we left the forecast called for sunshine for the entirety of our trip. Sighs of relief were had all around.
We arrived at night (as we’ve gotten into the habit of doing to make the most of Justin’s vacation time) and woke up the next morning to dreary grayness. Little did we know but this would turn out to be the best weather of our trip.
With mild temperatures and clouds high in the sky, we set off through town on our 5km walk to the Tianmen Mountain entrance gate. Spotting the entrance to the cable cars in the middle of the city, we followed the cableway through town, meandering through back alleys, and getting turned around by many a dead end before turning to our GPS for help.
Once pointed to the right road, we walked uphill, the city slowly fading away behind us, on an empty back road leading to the entrance gate. As the gate came into view in front of us we were enveloped in an eerie silence. The parking lot, deserted, with queues set up and not a soul in sight. The emptiness was seriously creepy, as even in the off-est of offseasons tourist attractions in China are always filled with people.
We poked around a bit, but everything was locked and boarded up, even the bathrooms. At the gate closing off the 99 Bends Road sat a guard, whom I assumed was probably bored out of his mind and would love to give us an explanation as to why everything was closed.
In all seriousness if you ever need some help, directions, or explanation of what in the world is happening in China, ask a security guard.
The poor men are paid to stand or sit in one spot all day long with no real human interaction. They are thankful for the company and conversation, however brief it is. Plus they will get to brag to their friends about how they talked to a foreigner, everybody wins.
Apparently, the buses and escalators taking visitors up to Tianmen Cave are closed from December 1 to March 1. The guard confirmed that the only way to the mountaintop was via cable car, at the same station we passed in the city an hour ago. Oops. Stupid foreigners party of 2.
Back down the road, we went to the cable car station where we gave the nice lady at the ticket window our passports (why they need them to buy a ticket I have absolutely no clue) and paid the 209rmb/person entrance and cable car fee to see Tianmen Mountain.
Talk about lunch with a view, as we had gotten a dabao (doggy bag/packed lunch) to eat on the 30 minute 7km ride up the mountain. Little did we know at the time, but we had just taken a ride on the world’s longest cableway. Pretty darn cool, with some pretty darn awesome views.
The cable car took us up into the clouds at the peak of the mountain. As we exited and walked out onto the stone pathway our line of sight formed no more than a 3-meter radius. We walked the entire 7km long trail imagining how extraordinary the views would be from the many cliffside paths on a clear day.
Where there should be rows of mountains for miles, we saw only white. Needless to say, it was not a very photogenic walk. On the plus side the clouds severely limited the number of people on the mountain, so while we didn’t have any views to soak in, it was perhaps the most peaceful of all our walks.
We stepped off the cable car at the city station and walked into our hostel to pick up our bags just in time to miss the buses running to Wulingyuan, where we had already booked a hostel for the night. Our watches read 6:00 pm, the exact time the buses stop running to Wulingyuan, leaving us to negotiate a taxi for the somewhat reasonable price of 100rmb.
Plan Your Trip
At over 1500m of elevation Tianmen Mountain is the tallest mountain in the range affording you spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and city on a clear day. Beware though that clouds love to hang out on the mountaintop so it’s a bit of a toss-up as to whether or not there’ll be a view. If you can see the top of the mountain from the city though, you’ll be good as gold for a day of exploring.
Tianmen Mountain also boasts the longest cable car ride in the world, offering spectacular aerial views of the surrounding mountains.
How to Get There?
Fly into Zhangjiajie City. Tianmen Mountain is 5km outside of the city.
Check the latest prices and flight times here.
Once in Zhangjiajie there are two methods of reaching the mountaintop. You will need your passport to purchase tickets to the park. Tickets are purchased either at the entrance to the 99 Bends Road or the Cable Car Station.
1) 99 Bends Road + Escalators
Take a taxi, bus, or walk the 5km from town up the road to the entrance to Tianmen Mountain Park. Purchase your tickets at the entrance before taking a bus along the famous 99 bends road (word of warning for those who get easily car sick, be prepared for lots of twisting and turning). The road literally has 99 bends in it, so hold on.
The bus will drop you off at the escalators, which you can either hop on, or opt out in favor of the 999 steps instead. These will take you to “Heaven’s Gate” a natural bridge formed by water erosion in the mountain. Heaven’s Gate is also referred to as Tianmen Cave, although it’s really just a hole in the mountain.
From there you will take another set of escalators to the top of the mountain.
2) Cable Car
Walk around 2km to the cable car station in the city. Purchase your entrance tickets to the park at the cable car station before taking the cable car up the mountain. The Tianmen Mountain cable car is the longest cable car in the world stretching for over 7km and taking around 30 minutes to complete. The views are spectacular as you slice through the clouds and take in the 360-degree panorama of mountains.
During peak season (March 1 – November 30) you can only take the cable cars one way. They operate longer than the escalators so if you’re heading up the mountain later in the day you’ll be better off taking the escalators up and the cable car down.
In the off season (December 1 – February 29) the buses and escalators are closed so you must take the cable car up and down the mountain. This means you will not get to see Tianmen Cave (Heaven’s Gate).
Peak Season: 258rmb/person (includes cable car 1 way)
Off Season: 209rmb/person (includes cable car both ways)
Hours of Operation
Enter: 8:00am – 4:00pm
Exit: 8:00am – 6:00pm
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