For those of you who have read my post on Zhangjiajie National Forest Park you are aware I was exploring Hunan Province in central China (October 2016). Following the magnificent adventure of Avatar mountain I, along with my work colleagues, took our trip onward to Tianmen mountain. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest mountains to visit in China. You are challenged to climb the stairway to Heaven’s door following the initial ascent on the world’s longest cable car ride. This journey, although questionable in it’s stability at first, offers stunning views of the mountains and its 99 bends.
The mist is still laying heaving on the mountains. For some this has dwindled their enthusiasm, but I embrace the eerie allure of the mountain peaks. If I was alone with a guide I would love to hike these mountains, alas I’m with a large tour group being guided by metal railings to queue for the cable cars. One car holds eight people. My car holds four terrified people, three calm individuals giving promises of safety and comfort, and then me. I’m in awe of the fantastic scenery opening up all around us and am unable to stop myself from standing and taking pictures from every angle, much to the dismay of the unfortunate group around me. I quickly recover from any disappointment to being unable to hike. There is a charm to the 30 minute cable car ride. The views are spectacular and give promise to another marvelous journey ahead. The final ascent is very steep going up at 37 degrees over sheer cliffs to one of the mountain peaks.
Stepping out of the cable car the wind becomes like ice in your lungs. This is the first time I’ve been truly cold in China. The bustling crowds share their body heat at times when it seems impossible to move independently. It is not surprising that this area is a huge tourist attraction so I quickly decide to embrace the noise and shuffling. I notice no signs have English translation and the mountain is vast. I recommend anyone coming to book a tour so not to miss out on any of the splendid scenic spots that cover Tianmen mountain. There is plenty to see in the comfort of the inner grounds, Tianmen temple is a particularly beautiful spot to take in the peace and tranquility (ignoring the echos of the crowds) that the mountain offers. But, being me I always long to dance on the cliffs edge.
Clinging to the vertical cliffs, I am met with the walkway that sits around 1,400 meters high. Clinging to the cliff face offering a breathtaking view and a vertical drop that you are so keenly aware of when being pushed into the decorative wooden barrier that separates the distinction between life and death by the many tourists competing for the perfect photograph. For the next hour and a half I have the privilege to gaze across the mountains that stretch for miles, disappearing in the cloudy haze that gives an otherworldly aura to Tianmen mountain.
If the thrilling sensation of wandering around the cliff face wasn’t exciting enough, I am presented with a new challenge that would not be suitable for the faint hearted! Initially slightly confused by the earlier requirement to purchase pink fabric shoe covers, the entire situation has come to light. I am at the glass skywalk named Coiled Dragon Cliff. Despite the mist the mountains below are crystal clear. The drop is immense. The length of this somewhat terrifying walkway is 100 meters. The bustling crowd is taking full advantage of the walkways 1.6 meters in width and I’m pushed closer to the edge of the barrier rather than the cliff face. True to the tourist nature it is all about the photographs. I take in the stunning mountainous landscape while people fight to sit on the walkway and somehow create the space they demand for the perfect selfie!
The view of 99 bends is continuously opening up as we move around Tianmen mountain. The road is given its name due to the 99 sharp curves that lead tourists all the way to Tianmen cave. Looking at these bends and knowing bus drivers in China, I’m more apprehensive about the journey to the bottom than anything else. Tianmen cave is the doorway to Heaven, a water-eroded opening that stands proudly between two mountain peaks. The stairway leading to ‘Heaven’s door’ is an arduous climb of 999 steep and narrow steps. Coming down these steps I lose the view, my eyes fixed on the next step ahead that barely accommodates my size 6 shoe! The awkwardness of this descent is in everyone around me so there is nothing for us to do but continue working our way to the bottom. I arrive on the last step nearly 20 minutes later.
This level has a collection of souvenir shops and a developing queue for the bus journey back down Tianmen mountain. The day of adventure is almost over. The most dangerous part of the journey is the bus ride. With the mass queue of people I become separated from all but one of my group and we join a bus of Chinese tourists. Immediately I hope no one suffers from motion sickness. The bends are sharp and our speed seems excessive as I slide in my seat to cross the boundary of personal space to the fellow tourist either side of me. When the rumblings of the passengers convinces the driver to slow down I begin to take in the view of this mysterious place for the last time as night falls. Like Zhangjiajie apart of me feels like we don’t belong here. Although it is a magnificent place to see, there is a question I can’t help but ask…should we have such natural beauty made so accessible to us?
There is so much more of China’s mountainous landscape I wish to explore, giving life to the worlds written about in Chinese literature. This country offers such beauty. I only hope that it is not at the cost of tourism. We are all responsible for being ethical travelers. The more I travel and discover other cultures the more I become aware of how tourism can become a tool for development to benefit both the traveler and the destination. Treading lightly on people’s homes and cultures and making a conscious decision to embrace the hospitality around me is all part of a spiritual growth that travel has afforded me, to that I am forever grateful.