Tianmen: the stairway to heaven
A steep ropeway rising above the clouds moving slowly atop a rocky mountain. As many as 99 adventurous hairpin curves zigzagging along a-kilometre-high colossal structure. A glass-bottom walkway that lets you walk as if in mid-air. The gigantic natural cave that is called the stairway to heaven. A flight of 999 steps along a gushing waterfall to climb up to the cave mouth. The Tianmen mountain and its colossal attractions await the traveler just kilometres away from the Zhangjiajie city in China.
Located at a distance of 1500 kilometres from the capital city, Beijing, Zhangjiajie is easily accessible by air and train routes. The Tianmen Mountain is located at a mere 8-kilometre distance from the Zhangjiajie railway station. The ropeway that leads to the mountain starts from the station. Make sure you come early or else you may just stay in the queue for too long or may miss the chance altogether. Ninety eight eight-seater cable cars are constantly on the move along the seven-kilometre-long ropeway.
The cable car station on the hilltop is at an elevation of 1200 metres. The ropeway that runs parallel to the ground for some distance suddenly starts an uphill climb. The view from the car whether you look upwards or downwards can be slightly unnerving for the faint hearted. But the view of the tiny little glass boxes with curious travellers inching up the steep slope is a sight to behold so is the sight of the 99 hairpin curves that run along an 11 kilometre distance along the mountain.
The road runs underneath the cable car route that crosses even the clouds around the 1.5-kilometre-high mountain. I and Tara will be returning in the mini-buses like the one we could spot sitting inside the car. The mini-bus drivers of China are famous for speeding and with what I saw underneath us, I was sure the return journey would be as adventurous. The cable cars stop after a 30-minute journey uphill at the extremely elevated cable car station. From here one can walk to the Yunmeng viewpoint, which offers view of the Zhangjiajie city and of the several cable cars that pierce through the clouds to reach the mountain tops.
The mountain which is also a biological hotspot is located in the Hunan province of China. It is from a spot very near to the cable car station that the skywalk begins. The sheer skywalk drilled onto the cliff side is a true adventure with the faint hearts giving up halfway through. This place is also a photographer's delight.
The paths are having a width of one metre and thickness of five centimetres. To keep the skywalk clean and scratch-free, every traveller's feet is covered in a pretty maroon shoe cover. Set atop a 1.5-kilometre-high cliff, a look under your own feet may give jitters even to the adventurous. High winds may make some of the walkers sick and many return due to this. A clear fog-less day is certainly the best bet for a walk on the skywalk for an entire world runs beneath your feet while you would be still in 'air’.
On the other side of the mountain from where we alighted is the cave mouth, our next destination. Very soon, we were on an escalator, drilled through a mountain and set in four levels landing us near what is called the 'stairway to heaven'. The ride took us 10 minutes. We landed at the mouth of the next leg of our adventure-- a stairway of 999 steps which takes 30 minutes and passes along a beautiful large waterfall leading up to the natural cave cutting across the mountain.
This 57-metre-wide cave is what gave the name to the mountain literally meaning the doorway to heaven. The mountain that was initially called the Zong Liang mountain was rechristened Tianmen after this cave was noticed. The natural cave which is supposed to have been formed after strong water currents that passed through it for several years has been the venue for World Wingsuit Competitions more than once. The participants had flown from the sky through this cave mouth for the competition.
Inside the cave there is an area where there are several locks hanging. The Chinese believe that climbing these 999 steps and putting a lock on this board will take them to heaven after death. If climbing up was hard, climbing down is no easier either. The steep steps do require the travellers to be careful with their step or else one may just roll down the 999 steps on the mountain side.
Now, it is the journey downhill. It was harder to find a place in the mini-bus than in the cable car. Finally, inside one, the mythical overspeeders incarnated right in front of our eyes. At times the drivers just braked unable to steer clear of the buses coming from the opposite side. Terrifying as it was, with deep gorges on one side, I and Tara watched outside the window unperturbed of the speeding. When the bus took the turn on some roads, we could see the road till the beginning of the valley. The cable cars ran like little flakes of dream popping in and out of the clouds that freely floated around the gigantic mountain. The speeding driver refused me an opportunity to focus my camera and thus it went happily into the case. Now there I was, soaking in the last green sights of an unforgettable journey uphill in China.
(Translated by Jyothisha V J)
(The original story appeared in the July edition of Mathrubhumi Yathra magazine)