Although the Tianzi Mountains were the main reason for our visit to Zhangjiajie, this ‘small’ Chinese city also had a lot more to offer us in Mount Tianmen. The stunning Mount Tianmen, which towers over Zhangjiajie, provides the beautiful backdrop to the city… well, at least it does when you can see it through the smog.
Getting up the mountain
There are two ways to get to the top of Mount Tianmen, both of which are included in the 261 yuan ticket price: up the 7km(!!) cable car; or on the bus. We decided to take the cable car up and then get the bus down. We purchased our tickets and at the time there was no queue. For this we felt quite pleased with ourselves because we had heard the lines could get quite bad so we had made an extra special effort to get there at 8am to beat the crowds. It wasn’t until we turned the corner that we discovered the moderately-sized but growing queue to actually get on the cable car. We joined the queue and after about 30 minutes we were let inside the lower station of the cable car, where we discovered a much bigger queue!! In short, after about 1.5 hours of waiting we eventually made it onto a cable car.
The cable car shot off quickly for momentum and gradually gathered height. We travelled over the rooftops of Zhangjiajie, often without much wiggle room and even passed right by a hotel room window. The cable car ride was fun, if not a little nerve-wracking as we could see the distance between us and the ground getting wider and wider.
Eventually we passed a hill and on the otherside we could see the epic mountains in all their glory. We also caught a glimpse of the famous ‘Road of 99 Bends’, which we planned to bus down at the end of the day.
Westside is the Best Side
When we got to the top the view from down below was stunning. Moreover, unlike our experience at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, everything was quite well signposted. There were two routes we could follow: the East Route, or the West Route. We decided to go West because this way appeared to have more interesting stuff, such as the glass walkway, which (out of nerves) we preferred to see before the crowds really started to pick up.
We followed the western path along the cliff face and I was surprised that the heights didn’t really bother me. It was at this point, however, that Tom unfortunately discovered his fear of heights…
Eventually, we got to the glass walkway. We paid the 5 yuan to walk it and put on the special booties to cover our shoes and then scuttled on through. The first step was especially nerve-wracking, we were so freaking high! But we persevered and, step by step, it got a little easier. We also weren’t the nervous only ones, passing numerous people hugging the cliff face.
Before we knew it the glass walkway was over and we felt silently quite chuffed with ourselves for walking it, even though we knew that is was pretty safe to do anyway. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that we read this story about a different, nearby Glass Bridge in China cracking under the feet of some tourists as they walked across it. Eek!
After the glass walkway, we continued along the narrow cliffside pathway. Other notable features and sights along the way included the Plank Road alongside the Guigu Cliffs and a giant swing bridge. Various other attractions were also marked on our map, but many of these appeared to be just map ‘fillers’ that we didn’t even notice we had passed, like ‘Love between Trees and Rocks’.
After completing the Western loop, we ended up at a small tourist village on top of the mountain. Here they had some souvenirs, snack food, and a restaurant but, having correctly anticipated the tourist prices, we already had with us a street food packed lunch of fried dough and pork buns (yum!) that we had picked up that morning for a total price of AUD$1 each. Bargain!
From here we continued on the eastern pathway, which was lovely, but not quite as picturesque as the western route and predictably had become busier as more tourists arrived on the mountain. Yuss! Decision success!
There was another glass walkway, but it was crowded and much shorter than the one we had already done so we saved our 5 yuan and walked around it. We also came to a pathway that had been closed off and would have taken us to Yu Hu Peak, the highest point on the mountain. This would have been nice to visit, but instead we settled for taking photos of the peak from the distance.
We kept walking and then we saw the back of the mountain’s most famous feature – the ‘Gateway to Heaven’. This could not be accessed from above, so we walked back to the upper cable car station in the hopes we could take a cable car halfway down the mountain, and then walk up the famous 999 steps to get to the gateway. Alas, when we got to the station a sign informed us this was not possible, so instead we took the escalator (yes, the escalator!) down.
Located inside the mountain, the escalator was a strange experience. The Chinese love to make their mountain attractions accessible to non-hikers, so this certainly wasn’t the first time we had come across a random escalator or elevator up a mountain. This escalator was actually more like 8 really long escalators connected together. Cumulatively they probably took us about 20 minutes to travel down.
The Gateway to Heaven
At the bottom of the escalator we walked a few metres and found ourselves directly in the mouth of the Gateway to Heaven. Ideally we wanted to walk up the 999 steps to get to the top, but since we were already at the top there was no point in us walking to the bottom of the steps only to walk back up them and then down them once again to get off the mountain. So we walked down the very steep steps, which some people going in the opposite direction were literally crawling up.
We were also stopped numerous times on the way down by people wanting to get a photo with us, which of course our egos obliged.
See also this YouTube video of a guy flying through the Gateway in a winged suit.
The Road of 99 Bends
Our day at Mount Tianmen had been amazing but, in our opinion, we had saved the best for last. Now that we had seen all there was to see, it was time to catch the bus back down to Zhangjiajie… on the Road of 99 freaking Bends! Remember this photo (below) taken from the cable car earlier? Yup, that’s the one. We rode down this in typical Chinese fashion… a speeding bus with no seatbelts that is!… And it was glorious! Absolutely one of the most fun things I have every done in my whole life.
Over the course of about 20-30 minutes the driver zoomed around every corner like a pro. Like a dog, I stuck my head out the window, with my hair blowing in the wind, feeling completely free. I tried to take photos along the way, but owing to the speed we were going these all turned out terribly.
When we got to the bottom of the mountain it was only about 4.00pm. At this point Tom and I both looked at each other with the same thought. “Shall we go again?” “Hells yeah we should!”… So back to the ticket gate we went.