Walking the Plank: Tianmen Shan, Zhangjiajie, Hunan
by Dave Lambert
- Apr 14, 2015
I visited Zhangjiajie (张家界) in Hunan Province
during a winter holiday in 2012 but fog & low visibility gave only tantalising glimpses of the Wulingyuan (武陵源) national park & Tianmen Shan (天门山). Magical with the ice covered branches & snow underfoot but giving no indication at all that we were walking around with a drop of hundreds of metres beneath our feet!
Tianmen Shan in winter
In China it's a small town, only around 1.5 million in the whole prefecture's area, with nothing much to attract thousands of visitors annually other than its proximity to some of the most outstanding natural scenery you will ever see. I only appreciate this when I return in the summer with 2 Australian friends to take a second look after reading more following my rather myopic first visit.
Zhangjiajie is in the northwest corner of Hunan, accessible by air from most major cities in China but only by slow train from the provincial capital, Changsha, (长沙)
, a trip of 5 to 6 hours. It's quite well known in China but not too widely known overseas except perhaps by afficionados of the movie Avatar. The karst peaks of Wulingyuan were used as a basis for the CGI to create the floating islands in the movie.
Tianmen Shan from the hotel room
The view from my room at the Home Inn is the best I've ever had in China. Tianmen Shan, the great, sheer mountain about 8km (5 miles) from the town & it's a clear, sunny day. (Shan, by the way, means “mountain”, you'lll see a lot of Chinese place names with this character; 山). To get to Tianmen Shan you need to take the cable car from the terminus near the railway station. Claimed to be the world's longest cable car route, it runs for over 7.5km (4.6 miles), runs from a station, (yes, in the scale of infrastructure projects in China, like a large city bus station). You can buy a ticket when you get there. It's ¥258 including entry to the Tianmen Shan national park & the return trip by cable car.
Cable Car Station, Zhangjiajie
The view from the cable car
Prepare for the ascent
It floats in a disarmingly serene way over gently undulating countryside toward the mountain. Over a small ridge the cable car suddenly takes a downward plunge, the mountain looming ahead, then out of the valley it takes a breathtaking turn at an alarming angle skyward to the top of the mountain.
It's a long way to the top
The maximum elevation of this collection of peaks is 1,518m (4,980 ft), the top of one section is a slightly inclined plateau which is home to a Buddhist temple. Tianmen means gate, or door, of Heaven. Tianmen Dong, (cave) is not really a cave but a colossal opening in the side of the mountain.
First sight of the glass plank walk
The cablecar rises over 1,200m, most of it in the last section.The final ascent is a test to see if you're made of the right stuff for the Glass Plank Walk.
The first tentative steps
A few years ago a concrete path was attached, near the top of both sheer sides of Tianmen Shan. The path goes for kilometres around the mountain. It's a beautiful, clear day, a little cloudy but it's the nearest you'll get to walking on air. The glass section is only, (only!), 60m (197 ft) long. Still the whole thing is an amazing piece of work & you can only imagine how it was built.
Overshoes and the view looking down
How to walk at over 1,200m
A ¥10 charge for soft overshoes when you enter the glass section is refunded at the other end. This keeps it clean for a clear view of what's over a 1 km (0.62 mile) drop beneath your feet. Reassuring to know the glass is about 6.5cm (2.5in) thick but when you're standing on it, it never seems quite sufficient. The two Australian friends travelling with me are suitably impressed, or to use the vernacular, gobsmacked.
A technical discussion on photography at a high level
The Glass Plank Walk at Tianmenshan
Wishes and prayers written on red ribbons
There seems to be a penchant in Buddhism to build in what must have previously been almost inaccessible locations, so naturally there's a Buddhist temple. Not a little shrine or small shelter built from a few locally available materials but an elaborate stone & tile temple complex housing sacred relics in a bank safe that's opened for viewing during opening times. There's also a chair lift to the highest point, which now sports an impressive, spacious new viewing point with unfortunately malodorous toilets. The view, & the smell, are better outside. The scenery, whether distant on nearby, is quite stunning.
Guzhen player on Tianmen Shan
The highest point
Admiring the view
For those for whom the plank walk in not enough
There's another plank walk on the other side, a little more sedate, why, there's even a slope on the mountain beneath your feet, albeit a very steep one. The views are still stunning & it's much quieter round here. I also spot a lot of interesting insects landing on the handrails. No tour groups. No megaphones. Truly we have arrived at the Gate of Heaven.
On the quieter side of the mountain
An interesting selection of fauna
But wait, there's more. Get out of the cable car at the halfway station down the mountain, then take a shuttle bus up several kilometres of specially built hairpin roads to Tianmen Dong, the “cave”, the huge hole I mentioned, over 130m (425 feet) high. It has been the scene of various stunts. An American stunt man, Jeb Corliss, has flown through it in a specially made gliding suit. A group of 3 fighter planes has also flown through it. We arrive at the bus terminus but this is China & the expectation that we are almost there is dashed by the sight of a single flight of 999 steps to the& humid to climb that far. We all go up anyway...
Tianmen Dong and a publicity photo of Jeb Corliss
When you see the photos it appears in some to be flat or gently rising sections followed by steps. In fact the “gently rising” sections are steps at a normal incline, the other flights, including a long section right at the top, are stairs at an angle which mean, for anyone who might lose their footing, almost certain death. I'm not exaggerating. There are some newly installed handrails, some roped off as the paint dries, & a lot of people walking, occasionally running, up the middle, out of reach of the rails...
Insane Steps to Tianmen Dong
Looking down from the Gate of Heaven
A busy day on Tianmen Shan
Later, as my Australian friends go over the day's activities we all concur over dinner that, for sheer, breathtaking impact & the audacity of the plank walk, Tianmen Shan has been the highlight of their trip.
Dave Lambert is currently teaching English while living in the ancient and venerable city of Yangzhou, Jiangsu, where the Grand Canal meets the Yangtze River and where Marco Polo once reputedly held a government post. He is also a musician, writer, photographer and traveler. Born and raised in England's East Anglia, he has lived in Botswana, Australia and now China. In the last 5 years he has visited numerous places in this enormous and varied country, but still feels he has just scratched the surface. He now divides his time between the activities mentioned and studying for a languages degree, with a major in Chinese.