A visit to Zhangjiajie in central China's Hunan Province starts dramatically. After hours of driving on hairpin roads through mountains, visitors enter a very long tunnel. When they emerge on the other side, a whole different world opens up.
A forest of sandstone pillars, like giant bamboo shoots, juts toward a sky shrouded in clouds and mist. The environment is surreal, like some fantastic world conjured up by science fiction.
In fact, it is believed that the landform design of the planet Pandora in James Cameron's hit movie "Avatar" was partly inspired by this unique setting.
In 2010, one of the peaks, the Southern Sky Mountain, was renamed Avatar-Hallelujah Mountain in a nod to the movie and a bid to attract more overseas tourists.
In 1992, Zhangjiajie was listed as a World Heritage site by UNESCO. It is now one of the most-visited tourist attractions in China. And no wonder!
Tianmen Mountain: the stairway to heaven
The unique landscape of quartz sandstone landforms in Zhangjiajie is found nowhere else in the world. About 3,000 karst pin-nacles add grandeur to a stone peak forest of steep cliffs, gorges and natural bridges. Awesome may be an overused term, but here it almost seems inadequate.
Tianmen Mountain, or the Mountain of the Gate to Heaven, has a colossal natural hole in its middle. Viewed from below, it looks like a passageway to the sky, which is how the mountain got its name.
It is, however, not so easy to reach on foot. You first need to conquer the very long, uphill "stairway to heaven." On the other side of the "gate" sits the Tianmen Temple, a Buddhist temple with a history of more than 1,000 years.
The mountain is shrouded in mysteries as well as mist. One myth has it that the orientation of the hole changes with time. It is believed that about 100 years ago, the hole could be seen from the southern port of the Zhangjiajie River, but that is no lon-ger the case. Local people believe the hole always faces "the land of treasure."
Li Na, singer of the hit folk song "Tibet Plateau," contributed to the mysteriousness of the mountain when she said she felt a "power" whispering to her in the temple after she walked through the "gate." Sud-denly "enlightened," she converted to Buddhism.
For the less adventurous, a cable car runs from downtown Zhangjiajie City to the top of the mountain. At 8 kilometers, it is one of the longest cableways in the world. The half-hour trip to the top affords breathtak-ing sights.
Cost: 258 yuan
How to get there: Buses No. 4, 5, 6 and 10 go to the cable car station in downtown Zhangjia-jie. The buses are available at the airport, rail-way station and long-distance bus station.
Huanglong Karst Cave
Magnificent stone scenery is view-able inside as well as outside of the mountains.
The enormous Huanglong Karst Cave in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area is unique among the numerous karst caves in China.
The 140-meter-high cave features stalagmites in hundreds of shapes. Vis-itors with imaginations see limestone flowers, waterfalls and animals. With colorful, artificial illumination, the whole cave takes on the sense of being in a kaleidoscope.
The most notable stalagmite is called the "needle that stills the waters." The 19.2-meter-high calcium carbonate rock structure, tallest in the cave, is so thin that its average diameter is less than 20 centimeters. Experts estimate it has been forming for 200,000 years and might reach the top of the cave in an-other 60,000 years.