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Peak attractions

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily | Updated: 2007-10-17 07:19

The tectonic and erosive forces that lifted and pared the earth's crust to sculpt Zhangjiajie's sandstone hoodoo created landscapes that eerily resemble traditional Chinese paintings.

At the same time, the 3,013 karst monoliths that crowd its skyline render a geological parody of one of the country's modern cityscapes, congested with rocky caricatures of towering skyscrapers.

When it comes to karst formations, Guilin's got nothing on Zhangjiajie.


 Peak attractions

Zhangjiajie is best known for its unique geological formations, which feature karst monoliths.Zhu Ling

Zhangjiajie covers an area of 9,563 square kilometers, 97.7 percent of which are forested. Ethnic minorities - primarily Tujia, Miao and Bai - make up 72 percent of 1.57 million people who live there. Last year, 1.68 million tourists visited the area, 1.29 million of whom were foreign.

In 1982, Zhangjiajie became the first forest park recognized by the central government, and in 1992, UNESCO put the park on its World Heritage List.

The geological legacy of the area began 60 million years ago, when the area was submerged beneath tropical seas. During this time, the seabeds of deeper bodies of water were transformed into limestone, while those of shallower bodies became sandstone.

This was of little consequence in terms of geological fantasticality until tectonic forces lifted the crust and erosive forces whittled away the limestone. As the limestone dissolved, it pocked the terrain with caves, sinks and clefts. Having lost its limestone buttressing, the sandstone then splintered into thousands of minarets as tectonic pressure continued to push everything upwards.

Yuanjiajie, a platform mountain in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area, is one of the best vantage points for seeing the latest results of these geological forces' handiwork in Zhangjiajie.

Today, the area is accessed via the Bailong (Hundred Dragon) Elevator. Completed in 2003, the elevator runs 326 meters along a mountainside, reducing the travel time to the summit from several hours' hike to a one minute and 58 second ride. The walls of the elevator are made of acrylic glass, so visitors can watch the summits of the nearby Soldiers Gathering Together Formation - a cluster of peaks that takes their appellation from their resemblance to a regiment of warriors - seem to rise to eye level.

Upon disembarking from the elevator, visitors find themselves in Wulingyuan's primitive forests - and, oddly enough, among flocks of peacocks, apparently put there for the amusement of tourists.

Peafowl aside, the primeval forests of Zhangjiajie are known for their biodiversity.

They are home to 37 rare plant varieties, including giant mountain lotuses, orchids, iron plumbs and lobster flowers. And seven species of rare animals roam the wilderness here, including rhesus monkeys, civets and giant salamanders. These salamanders, which are known for emitting a shriek that resembles the cries of a human baby, were considered a local delicacy until the government took them off menus by putting them on the protected species list.

The first scenic spot along this route is the Mihun (Spirit-Losing) Terrace. This area features an incredible stand of quartz monoliths that are more spire-like than in most other sections of the park.

A short walk from the terrace, visitors will encounter the Smaller Heaven Cave, which is believed to be the lair of the fairies once believed to inhabit the area.


 Peak attractions

Zhang Xuxin, an artist of the Tujia ethnic group, gives a performance at the Tujia Folk Custom Park.Xu Jingxing

More incredible peaks can be viewed from the Ladder to Heaven. Leaving the ladder requires passing beneath the Bowing Stone - so named because it protrudes over the path at chest-height and travelers must duck beneath it to continue along the trail.

From there, the pathway winds towards The No 1 Bridge On Earth. This stone archway connecting two magnificent mountaintops 350 meters above the ground spans 50 meters. The "bridge" is 4 meters wide and 5 meters thick, and is adorned with thousands of padlocks engraved with prayers for happiness.

From there, the route leads back to the parking lot, where visitors can hop a bus to the nearby Tianzi Mountain Reserve, which is also accessible by cable car. This reserve covers 67 square meters, and from the 1,262-meter-tall peak of Tianzi Mountain, you can see nearly half of the peaks in Zhangjiajie.

But getting to other parts of Wuylingyuan might require returning to the park's main gate, where visitors can catch a shuttle bus. These buses go to and from Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, through which flows the Golden Whip Stream; Souxi Gully Nature Reserve, which contains Zhangjiajie's largest body of water, Baofeng Lake; and the mist enshrouded peaks of Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve.

Visitors to Tianmen Mountain, which has become an icon of Zhangjiajie, would take the world's longest one-way recycling passenger cableway for a distance of 7,455 meters to Tianmen Mountain. The 20-minute cable car ride transports passengers from a station in the city to a drop-off point 1,300 meters above sea level. However, it's often difficult to see much from Tianmen's peak, which is cloudy 263 days of the year, according to tour guides.

Walking along the path here first leads hikers to Guigu Moat. According to legend, this fissure was formed when the immortal Chen Xiang was testing the axe he would use to save his mother, a fairy imprisoned for loving a human.

Nearby is Guigu Bingpan, which is a labyrinth naturally formed by cleaved sandstone crags. Superstition holds that those who find their way out will go on to lead a long and happy life. The road ahead takes hikers along a concrete pathway buttressed to the mountainside. Some of the most incredible views in Zhangjiajie can be seen here - cloud cover permitting.

To visit Tianmen Cave, visitors take the cableway to the halfway point to catch busses that travel up Heaven-Linking Avenue - an 11-kilometer highway featuring 99 bends that violently meander up the mountainside.

Upon disembarking, it takes 999 steps to reach the yawning expanse. On its own, the cave stands 131.5 meters tall and is 60 meters thick. Its widest point is the rock arch at 57 meters, and the narrowest is 28.

Often, water mysteriously falls from the top of the archway when there is no apparent water source - a phenomenon park management claims has yet to be explained by science. It's considered auspicious to catch a drop in your mouth, so during occasions when the mysterious precipitation begins to fall, it's not uncommon to see crowds of people standing with their open maws pointed towards the ceiling.

While Zhangjiajie is best known for its geological formations, the area also features several worthwhile cultural sites.

The Tujia Folk Custom Park showcases the traditions of the ethnic group, which is indigenous to the area.

At 10 am and 4 pm, the Tujia stage performances of the Maogusu Dance, which was once part of a sacrificial ceremony. The park made the Guinness Book of World Records for the second time in 2002, when 1,000 people performed the dance.

Its first listing came when the park renovated the nine-storey, 48-meter-tall Jiu Dong Tian Shi Xi Tang building - the tallest building constructed without the use of nails. The structure now serves as a museum of Tujia culture.

While the Folk Custom Park showcases old Tujia culture, the Junsheng Painting Institute showcases its newest artistic traditions.

As a location featuring new institutions, old traditions and ancient topography, visitors to the mountainous Zhangjiajie area would find it's a great place for high adventure.

(China Daily 10/17/2007 page22)

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