The Tianzishan scenic area is seen in Zhangjiajie, central China's Hunan Province, April 18, 2017. Zhangjiajie is a famous tourist destination in Hunan Province. (Xinhua/Chen Yehua)
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!
The unique landscape of quartz sandstone landforms in Zhangjiajie is found nowhere else in the world. About 3,000 karst pinnacles 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 longer 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." Suddenly "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 breathtaking sights.
Cost: 258 yuan
How to get there: Public buses No. 4, 5, 6 and 10 go to the cable car station in downtown Zhangjiajie. The buses are available at the airport, railway station and long-distance bus station.
Glass bridge and skywalk
Zhangjiajie received worldwide attention in 2016 with the opening of a 375-meter-long glass bridge called Yuntiandu ("Cross the Sky"), which is suspended 300 meters above a canyon. It's the longest and highest glass-bottomed bridge in the world.
Like the Glass Skywalk of the Grand Canyon in the United States, the structure tests the limits of height tolerance. It's not for the faint-hearted. Visitors with heart problems, high blood pressure, acrophobia or vertigo are cautioned about using the bridge.
Those who do walk across the bridge enjoy an impression of walking on air, with spectacular mountain scenery and stone pinnacles flanking the experience.