Tianmen ("Heavenly Gate") Mountain National Forest Park lies only 8 kilometers south of the city of Zhangjiajie, but does not belong to the unique, UNESCO-recognized block-and-obelisk, eroded-mountain landscape of the area north of the city of Zhangjiajie known as Wulingyuan Scenic Area.
Although the topography of Tianmen Mountain is distinctly different from that of Wulingyuan, it nevertheless belongs, like the entire eroded-mountain landscape of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, to the Wuling Mountain Range – indeed, Tianmen Mountain enjoys the distinction of being Wuling Mountain Range's highest peak.
Being situated immediately next door to the city of Zhangjiajie, Tianmen Mountain has traditionally been perceived by the residents of Zhangjiajie as the very soul of the city, even if the Zhangjiajie area in general has in more recent years become much more strongly identified, at least by outsiders, with the strangely eroded block-and-obelisk landscapes of Wulingyuan Scenic Area.
Tianmen Mountain National Forest Park is characterized by large, limestone mountain tablelands with sheer cliffs and with a fair share of jagged peaks – albeit, clothed in verdure – though Tianmen Mountain lacks the freestanding obelisks of Wulingyuan.
This is of course no coincidence, since the building blocks, as it were, of Tianmen Mountain are of limestone, so even at its most advanced stage of erosion, Tianmen Mountain will never produce a landscape that is similar to the eroded-mountain landscapes of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, whose building block material is sandstone, which exhibits an entirely different erosion pattern than that of limestone.
That said, certain parts of Wulingyuan – such as the Suoxi Valley area – consist partly of limestone bedrock that is marked by karst caves. Another point of distinction between the two mountainous areas (besides the matter of the obelisks) is that Tianmen Mountain is covered in denser, lusher vegetation than is Wulingyuan.
Even though, in certain places, Wulingyuan is almost totally covered in vegetation (the difference being that many of the shrubs and bonsai-like trees growing in the Wulingyuan area – especially those that grow on the scanty ledges of obelisks – are simply "scruffier", i.e., they possess a considerably less dense foliage than the lush, deep-green foliage on Tianmen Mountain). Both mountainous areas are, however, characterized by thick, lingering mists, which nurture plant growth.
The other significant distinction between the two mountainous areas is that Tianmen Mountain, which has enjoyed a close relationship to the present-day city of Zhangjiajie that stretches back to ancient times, is imbued with culture, whereas the Wulingyuan area, even if it does have a solid link with the past, has only recently been developed, meaning that the cultural link with the past is tenuous (it is no coincidence that UNESCO recognized Wulingyuan as a natural heritage site, not as a cultural heritage site).
Different to Wulingyuan
Put slightly differently, whereas Wulingyuan's cultural link with the past rests mainly on the area's association with a few prominent local families – namely, the Zhang Family and the Yang Family – Tianmen Mountain has always been viewed as a regional if not a national symbol, both in a religious as well as in a secular, or national pride, sense; Tianmen Mountain is a venue which, since ancient times, was frequented by writers, poets, artists and even emperors, as well as by monks of all ranks, from neophytes to sages.
The first emperors to visit Tianmen Mountain came here during the Northern Zhou (CE 557-588) Dynasty of the Northern (CE 386-588) Dynasties period (of the Northern and Southern (CE 420-588) Dynasties period). They were Taoists (alternatively, Daoists), though the only temples that grace present-day Tianmen Mountain are in fact Buddhist temples (the Taoist trace on Tianmen Mountain – whose older name was Songliang Mountain (more on the name change below) – can be divined through the name given to the "celestial ladder" (stone staircase) that leads up from the base of Tianmen Mountain to Tianmen Mountain Cave: Tianti – the Taoist word for the Christian concept "Heaven" – and in certain other namesakes as well as in the 999 steps of this staircase, not to mention the 99 swings, or curves, of the new roadway (see below) that winds up the mountain, ending at the foot of the Tianti note that the number 9 (or 99 or 999, etc.), being especially auspicious in Taoist cosmology, has therefore always been reserved for the emperor, who, since the earliest (Taoist) times, was recognized as the manifestation of God on earth).
Not surprisingly, then, Tianmen Mountain also boasts scenic sites with cultural roots as well as scenic sites that can perhaps best be described as "unique natural wonders", though some are recently constructed manmade wonders of which the Chinese people are justly proud, such as the new roadway that snakes up the mountain in a manner that brings to mind certain picturesque sections of the Great Wall.
Scenic highlights of Tianmen Mountain
There are four main, 'unique wonder' scenic highlights on Tianmen Mountain (and not forgetting that the summit of Tianmen Mountain is an attraction in and of itself, if for no other reason than that it offers some incomparable views of the surrounding terrain), only one of which is entirely natural: Tongtian Dadao ("Avenue Leading to the Sky" – sardonically dubbed "Avenue Leading to Revenue" by some : ) ); Tianmenshan Dong ("Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave"); Tianmenshan Suodao ("Heavenly Gate Mountain Cable Car"... an enclosed, or gondola, cable car system); and Gaoshan Huayuan ("Mountain Plateau Virgin Forest"), the latter of which is a dense, pristine, 100% natural forest that inspired Tianmen Mountain's designation as a national forest park.
The only site of cultural interest on Tianmen Mountain is Tianmenshan Si ("Heavenly Gate Mountain Temple"), though down in the valley you will find Tianmen Academy, originally an institution of higher learning that was built in the 9th year of the Dade (CE 1297-1307) Period of the reign (CE 1294–1307) of Borjigin Temur (CE 1379-1412) of the Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty, or in CE 1303.
The academy was destroyed in 1352 due to war, but was rebuilt in recent years as a high school. There is a copy of an inscription on a stele at the academy, the original of which is reputed to have been penned by Emperor Borjigin Temur himself, who succeeded Emperor Borjigin Kublai (CE 1215-1294), aka Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan.
Some lesser highlights on Tianmen Mountain are Yunmeng Fairy Summit – the highest point on Tianmen Mountain (though not profiled separately below) – Yu Hu ("Jade Massif") Peak, Guigu Cliff Cave, and of course the hair-raising trail that leads to it, Guigi Cliff-Side Pathway (decribed, but not profiled separately, below).
Avenue Leading to the Sky
This is the winding road, reminiscent of the Great Wall, which winds its way up the mountain. It is about 11 kilometers in length, and originates in the city of Zhangjiajie, though public access is limited to the first leg of the road, or the leg that extends from the city of Zhangjiajie up to the middle bus stop / the middle gondola stop. Beyond this, or for the second leg of Avenue Leading to the Sky (i.e., the leg that deposits passengers at the base of the staircase leading up to the cave), only the shuttle bus has access. Avenue Leading to the Sky rises a whopping 1100 meters (that is 1.1 kilometers!) over the course of 99 swings, turns and spirals.
Just as the Chinese people are fond of likening the Great Wall to a dragon that snakes up and down mountains, Avenue Leading to the Sky is likened to a dragon that snakes up (or down) Tianmen Mountain. They also liken it to a golden, studded belt that cinches a jade robe, the latter a reference to jade-green Tianmen Mountain itself. Avenue Leading to the Sky, aka Heaven-Reaching Avenue, ends at Tianti, or Heaven-Reaching Ladder (aka Celestial Ladder), the staircase consisting of 999 steps that ascends from the terminus of Avenue Leading to the Sky/ Heaven-Reaching Avenue to Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave.
The fare for the round trip via the shuttle bus from the middle bus stop to the upper bus stop and back is included in the price for a parking slot at the middle bus stop, whereas the fare for other shuttle bus passengers – those who board the shuttle bus in Zhangjiajie or those who board the shuttle bus first at the middle bus stop after having arrived there via the cable car – is paid separately.
Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave
In the 5th year of the rule– the only period of rule, the Yongan period (CE 258–264) of rule – of the reign (CE 258–264) of Emperor Jing of the Kingdom of Wu (CE 222–280) of the Three Kingdoms (CE 220-280) Period, or in CE 263, the mountain – whose name at the time was Songliang (meaning "Lofty and Sharply-Delineated") and which, as indicated, is composed of limestone bedrock – experienced an apparently unprovoked natural disaster, or rock slide (perhaps there had been an extended period of rain, followed by low-level seismic activity), where a large section of the narrow (only 60 meters deep, seen in cross-section at this point) column that "connects" what is essentially two separate mountain peaks (think of two large, massive blocks that lie roughly at right angles to each other, each meeting the other at a corner that seems to be "welded" tenuously with some kind of even less permanent material – remember, this is limestone) suddenly gave way and came crashing down the mountain, leaving a gaping "donut hole" (albeit, a rather irregular one) in the mountain.
Since the towering, massive, slighly tilted, rectangular double-block in question – especially given its close proximity to the city of Zhangjiajie – presents a very prominent, looming silhouette on the horizon (one is a bit tempted, in this connection, to compare it to Australia's Ayers Rock, simply for its looming massiveness, even though the comparison ends there, while the Chinese people themselves, not surprisingly, liken the mountain to a giant sleeping Buddha, considered by adherents as one of the most sublime of the Buddha's postures), the "donut hole" (to return abruptly to the realm of the mundane) left by the partial collapse of the mountain ridge suggests a doorway, or gate, to heaven.
Therefore the mountain was renamed Tianmen Shan ("Heavenly Gate Mountain"), while the "donut hole"/ cave was dubbed Tianmenshan Dong ("Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave"), though in fact, it is simply a hole measuring some 130 meters in height, some 55 meters in width, and, as indicated, some 60 meters in depth, that pierces the mountain through.
There is only one motorized way to get to the cave (but you can also walk there): via the shuttle bus that uses the special, Great-Wall-like access road, Avenue Leading to the Sky. However, you do not need to take the shuttle bus from its point of origin (call this the lower bus stop) in the city of Zhangjiajie, you may catch the shuttle bus at its middle bus stop, which also corresponds to the middle gondola stop of the cable car, Heavenly Gate Mountain Cable Car. You are also free to transport yourself to the middle bus stop in a vehicle that you own or rent, the important point to bear in mind being that for the second leg of the journey up Avenue Leading to the Sky, the shuttle bus is mandatory.
This means that there are essentially three motorized ways (besides the walking option) to reach the crucial bus stop, the middle bus stop, where the continued trip up to Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave, by motorized means, is a mandatory shuttle bus trip: catch the shuttle bus at its point of origin in the heart of Zhangjiajie; rent a Porsche (or Trabant, or whatever takes your fancy – a limousine?) and drive there yourself (or perhaps be driven by a chauffeur if your choice was a limousine).
Lastly, take the cable car, which you will also find in the heart of Zhangjiajie. Note that if you take the first leg of Avenue Leading to the Sky in a vehicle under your personal command, you will have to pay a parking fee at the middle bus stop parking lot, which fee, happily, includes the roundtrip fare for the mandatory shuttle bus trip that will deposit you at the upper bus stop/ the base of Tianti, or the 999-step staircase (alas, there is only one way to ascend this staircase: on foot).
In spite of being called a cave, Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave in fact looks like an oversized, keyhole-like slot in the mountain. Airplanes have flown through this "keyhole" on more than one occasion: in 1999, when a team of 15 stunt pilots from around the world, in old-fashioned monoplanes (looking roughly like the Spitfire as opposed to the biplane, such as the Sopwith Camel), flew repeatedly through it (for the most part in single file, but while performing all manner of rolling, twisting and upside-down aerobatics, though at one point 4 of the planes came through the cave "stacked up", albeit, in a slightly staggered pattern) as part of a special fund-raising event; and again in 2006, when members of the Russian Air Force's Aerobatic Flight Team repeatedly flew a string of modern fighter jets (albeit, smaller fighter jets) through it, including Sukhoi Su-27s and Su-30s, also as part of a special televised, fund-raising show (and this will surely not mark the last such event).
You will probably want to make the cable car journey (see the next section for the details) under all circumstances, since it offers a trip all the way up to the summit of the mountain, which you don't get if you take any other motorized means (to my knowledge, there are no trails for ordinary tourists that lead to the summit, and access may even be denied to mountain climbers). That is, the farthest (highest) point you can access on the mountain by bus or by car (and probably on foot) is the cave; only the cable car provides certain access to the summit. Note that you can of course take the shuttle bus from Zhangjiajie to the cave and back (or do a similar combination for the rented-car option to the cave), then separately take the cable car from Zhangjiajie to the summit and back, without having to get off at the middle gondola stop (in either direction).
Heavenly Gate Mountain Cable Car
Heavenly Gate Mountain Cable Car is the world's longest passenger cable car system, with a total length of 7455 meters. Consisting of 98 cable cars (gondolas, as indicated, or fully enclosed cable cars) and 57 suspension towers, the cable car system, at its apex, reaches a height of 1279 meters. The cable car originates in the heart of the city of Zhangjiajie, just east of where Xianren Brook (Xianrenxi) empties into the Li River (Lishui), stretches southward across the valley and then rises gradually as it follows the contour of the mountain, much like any ski lift – i.e., some 8-10 meters over the surface below – until it reaches the middle gondola stop, corresponding to the departure point of the mandatory leg of the shuttle bus route that takes the visitor up to Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave via the Avenue Leading to the Sky road (and emphasizing that it is not mandatory to take the shuttle bus to get to the cave, since one may take the hiking trail as an alternative).
This first leg of the gondola trip (up to the middle gondola stop), beyond the valley in which the city of Zhangjiajie is located, proceeds over the gently sloped foot of Heavenly Gate Mountain, where the incline is very gradual. Each cable car can carry 8 adult passengers, and the trip from the heart of Zhangjiajie to the summit – or vice-versa – takes between 15-20 minutes, expending on the traffic that gets off/on at the middle gondola stop.
Beginning with the second leg of the gondola trip (I will assume that you plan to see the summit first, then return to the middle gondola stop and take the shuttle bus up to see Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave), i.e., for the ascent up to the summit beyond the middle gondola stop, the cable car traces a trajectory that rises, rises and continues to rise up and over a deep chasm, providing a scene that is breath-taking in more than one sense: the views are fantastic (eg., the unfolding views of the Avenue Leading to the Sky road as it majestically winds its way up the mountainside can only fully be appreciated from the bird's eye (at this height, one should maybe say "eagle's eye") perspective offered by the cable car), but also a little terrifying, since the very thought of being suspended at this height in a tiny, glass-and-metal box that is dependent on the proper functioning of manmade cables can be something of a white-knuckle experience.
You may eventually be temporarily – or intermittently – enveloped in a cloud of thick mists that make it impossible to see anything around you, but for the most part, you should have a clear view of the terrain below; if ever the adage, "getting there is half the journey", rang true, this is just such an occasion! Also, this highly reliable cable car/ gondola system is built and maintained by the French company, POMA (Pomagalski S.A.), which has many years of experience in building and maintaining gondola systems, such as those that are used in Alpine skiing, so there is really no safety concerns to worry about regarding Tianmen Mountain's cable car system.
At the summit of Heavenly Gate Mountain, i.e., at the upper gondola stop, your gondola deposits you – unbeknownst most likely to yourself – on the western face of Heavenly Gate Mountain, atop Yunmeng Xian Ding ("Yunmeng Fairy Summit"), whose highest point – about another 200 meters farther up the summit – represents the highest point on Heavenly Gate Mountain and offers some amazing views of the valley below from whence you departed 15 minutes earlier. As the gondola approaches its upper stop, Yunmeng Fairy Summit looms in front of you somewhat like a weather-beaten, highly eroded version of Mount Rushmore in the U.S., less the faces of the presidents, though of course the two rock types are as different as night and day. Still, the peak here is a curved mountain wall that looks ribbed, vertically (think of giant silos glued together).
Below the peak, the forestation has run amok, climbing up the rock face in places, and atop the flat, curved wall of Tianmen Mountain's "Mount Rushmore" are trees everywhere. "Lush" is the only word that comes to mind – it is as if the plantlife here has figured out a way to suck nutrients out of the limestone bedrock!
From Yunmeng Fairy Summit you can explore the rest of the mountaintop, which offers two main scenic attractions, the Mountain Plateau Virgin Forest and Heavenly Gate Mountain Temple, as well as two lesser scenic sites, Yu Hu ("Jade Massif") Peak, and Guigu Cliff Cave, the latter named after Master Guigu, a famous Taoist master from the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period who was also adept at military and political strategy, the latter strategy being a precursor to what one today would call "international relations" (there were a lot of warring states during the period, as the name suggests, and for a Taoist master, resorting to the military option was decidedly inferior to diplomacy, or, where war was unavoidable, its outcome was more likely to be favorable if a state could gain allies).
Since the word "gui" also means "ghost" in Chinese, and since "gu" also means "valley", the cave and the cliff-side pathway that leads to it are sometimes called "Ghost Valley Cliff Cave" and "Ghost Valley Cliff Plankway", respectively).
But first, to find the summit's attractions, you need to be able to find your way around...
To visit the various scenic sites on the summit, you have two choices of sightseeing trails: the terra firma trail and free-hanging cliff-side pathways (note that there is more than one section of cliff-side pathways, and note that the pathways/ trails each describe their separate routes, each with their distinct scenic sites, though there are some interconnecting paths besides the main "Y" described below).
The signage here is not the best, so if you can't see any obvious direction to take once you leave the cable car, meander across Yunmeng Fairy Summit as you make your way toward the tourist kiosk/ souvenir shop, behind which you will find a trail. Follow the trail beyond the wooden bridge called Rainbow Relaying Pass where you will come to a "Y" with a sign offering the aforementioned choice between the solid-ground trail and one of the cliff-side pathways. The view from Rainbow Relaying Pass is stupendous (and if you are clever, you have already secured your camera to your clothing – though probably not attached to your hat, as you risk losing both – via a cord).
Of course you will want to take the cliff-side pathway (it is often referred to as a plank road but it is neither a road nor is it made of planks; it is roughly a 2-person-wide, specially-surfaced concrete pathway (where the timid are known to hug the inner side of the pathway, clutching the railing at all times, just in case) that is attached to the sheer cliff faces with the aid of steel-and-concrete girders, offering a heart-seizing 1500 meter drop below should the cliff-side pathway somehow come loose (perish the thought! – and if you suffer from a weak heart, you are probably best served following the solid-ground trail... moreover, if you need to answer your mobile phone in a hurry while strolling jauntily along the cliff-side pathway, make sure that it too is attached to your clothing via a cord, otherwise it could give an animal below a nasty bump on the noggin).
Mountain Plateau Virgin Forest
The Mountain Plateau Virgin Forest on the summit of Tianmen Mountain has been called the second national forest park of Zhangjiajie (the first of which is Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, a subsection of Wulingyuan Scenic Area). It is a primitive forest located on a plateau and comprises many rare plant species, including numerous medicinal herbs. With its over 1000 different herb species, the virgin forest serves as a science-and-education base for the entire region, and is touted as a good, local example of ecotourism, albeit, not of the officially sponsored international ecotourism (The International Ecotourism Society, or TIES) variety.
While the trees here may not attain the full size and height of trees growing in more fertile locations, they are not bonsai-sized, though many, if not most, of the trees growing on the western side of the mountain are indeed in a dwarf, or bonsai, version, due probably to the shallowness of the soil layer and the resulting paucity of nutrients there, and maybe the peculiar combination of sunlight plus precipitation – and possibly even the wind pattern – plays a role (life is pervasive, even tenacious, but it most certainly adapts, one might say). Two of the state-protected trees here are the Dove Tree (Davidia involucrata) and the Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides), one of only three redwood types found on the planet, and belonging to the same subfamily (Sequoioideae) as the Giant California Redwood tree.
Trees provide home to birds aplenty, and there are plenty of them in Mountain Plateau Virgin Forest, plus there are many other small animals that thrive here, though birds tend to dominate. The excesses of commercial logging will probably never pose a problem anywhere on Tianmen Mountain since the economic conditions necessary for the exploitation of commercial logging will surely never be met here, thankfully.
Heavenly Gate Mountain Temple
Heavenly Gate Mountain Temple is situated on the western side of the summit. It is a large, 10,000 square meter temple complex that was built on the site of an older, considerably smaller temple that was erected during the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasty. The replacement temple was erected about 500 years ago, during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty, though it has been completely rebuilt in more recent years while maintaining the temple building style of the Qing Dynasty period. The Tang Dynasty period temple on Tianmen Mountain was the then center of Buddhism for all of western Hunan Province.
Heavenly Gate Mountain Temple is nestled in a natural hollow in the mountain ridge, providing a modicum of lee from the seasonally raw winds. Since the temple structure is large while all of the surrounding trees are dwarfs (bonsai-sized, though not the potted plant size that fits on your window ledge), it is as if the temple, by its very size relative to its surroundings, achieves its fitting position of symbolic dominance in the mountaintop's larger metaphysical scheme of things.
Standing well apart from the temple is a pagoda that you should definitely visit, but which can only be accessed from Heavenly Gate Mountain Temple, either on foot (an arduous climb of 45 minutes!) or via a (ski) chair lift, which will set you back about 25 Yuan.
To those who may be on the lookout for a completely different kind of culture here at the temple (think: yoghurt, i.e., food), the temple operates a vegetarian restaurant that lets you fill your plate for a mere 35 Yuan, and the fare is said to be so tasty that you'll hardly notice that it lacks amino acid, i.e., the building block of red meat.
Back on the road after a filling meal, take care not to take the wrong turn, else you will soon be back at the upper gondola stop near Yunmeng Fairy Summit. Instead, look around for the trail that leads over to the southeastern face of the mountain (you might want to consult your compass), to Yu Hu Peak.
Yu Hu Peak
Yu Hu Peak is situated on the southeastern face of Tianmen Mountain, not far from the upper gondola stop. It is huge and monolithic, slighly cocked backward, and juts up as if to announce its presence. It deserves to be on a postage stamp for Hunan Province, so iconic is its distinctive shape, its massiveness, its prominence. Continue on the trail and you will come to another section of a cliffside plankway leading you to Guigu Cliff Cave...
Guigu Cliff Cave
Guigu Cliff Cave isn't really a cave in the traditional sense, no more than Tianmen Cave is a cave in the traditional sense (Tianmen Cave is a large hole in the corner of a double mountain peak, or rather, a hole in the column of rock material that "connects" two large stone blocks that make up the mountain peak and which stand at almost right angles to each other, "touching" only at the corner in question... the relative narrowness (cross-sectionally) of this section of the mountain explains why the hole that eventually appeared in the mountain penetrated all the way through it).
Guigu Cliff Cave is an elongated, vertical-elliptical opening (I suppose you know what that suggests one-half of an apple with the core hollowed out, right?!) between two silo-shaped parts of a peak (many of the massive mountain blocks here seem to be ribbed, as if they consisted of several superhuge silos glued together, which must say something about how the limestone rock was formed before it was pushed up via tectonic action).
There is no access to the cave, other than the fact that the Guigi Cliff-Side Pathway follows the contours of the "silos" near their top, meaning that the pathway snakes in and out of (makes a "U" turn inside) the "cored, half apple". This might be the spookiest walk of your life (excluding perhaps the "U" turn inside the enticingly mysterious, "cored, half apple"!).
Your walk around (and in and out of) Guigu Cliff Cave marks the end of your sightseeing trip on the summit. Thereafter you can follow your instincts, read the relative position of the stars, or whip out your compass and find the nearest trail that leads back to the western face of Tianmen Mountain and the upper gondola stop, which will be synonymous with Yunmeng Fairy Summit. If you didn't do the Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave tour earlier, or on the way up to the summit, then you will definitely want to catch it on the return trip down the mountain.
Spiderman – In 2007, the famous French skyscraper climber and all-around wall scaler, Alain Robert, better known as the French Spiderman, scaled Tianmen Mountain at the site of the Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave, climbing from the bottom of the cave entrance (i.e., from the top of the 999-step, "Celestial Ladder" staircase) to the summit directly above the cave, or about 200 meters, bare-handed naturally, as is his trademark. This time, the French Spiderman was not arrested.
In fact, he had deliberately been invited back by Chinese government authorities only two months after the first such incident, where the indomitable climber had been briefly arrested and was banned from re-entry to the country for a period of 5 years for having scaled Shanghai's Jin Mao Tower (Beijing obviously had a change of heart, to everyone's delight).
The story doesn't recount how the intrepid climber got back down, but there is no cable car service directly above Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave – and I rather doubt that the climber clawed his way in reverse – but perhaps a helicopter picked him up, or maybe a crew was waiting for Monsieur Robert at the summit with a system of ropes and pulleys so that he could be eased back down to the Celestial Ladder in a manner somewhat less unsafe than his climb up.
Yes you can! – People of all ages are welcome to ascend the Celestial Ladder. Many young foreigners who otherwise consider themselves rather healthy, even if slightly overweight, are a bit embarrassed to see older Chinese people ascend the 999-step staircase of the Celestial Ladder with less apparent fatigue than they themselves experience. The record is perhaps held by an 86-year-old Taiwanese man who climbed the 999 steps without pause, albeit, not at a pace that would exactly earn him an Olympic medal – but to heck with speed, just being able to do it was enough, eh?
Note that literal translations – as with some of the names listed here – are often not possible or even desirable, since Chinese concepts (as with almost any other language, one might add!) involve image shorthand (metaphors) that would be utterly lost in a literal translation.
Note that present-day, Hunan Province belonged to the then Kingdom of Wu, which corresponds to most of present-day southeastern China south of the Yangtze River. The other two kingdoms of the Three Kingdoms period being the Kingdom of Shu (or Shu Han (CE 221–263)) lying west of Wu and the Kingdom of Wei (aka Cao Wei (CE 220–265)) lying north of Wu).
Each of the initial rulers of the three kingdoms in question were rogue-like warlords who carved up the declining Han (BCE 206 – CE 220) Dynasty, into thirds, roughly, then set about trying to take the whole pot, though the initial ruler of the Kingdom of Wu, Sun Quan, was less rogue and less hegemonistic than his rivals, Liu Bei of Shu Han and Cao Cao of Cao Wei. They were all very intelligent, educated, cultivated and more or less ruthless. You probably know of them through their fictional variants as depicted in the Three Kingdoms videogames.
What you are about to read now may disturb you gravely... Heavenly Gate Mountain Cave is shifting position – it is rotating on its axis! That's right, the "donut hole" that was formerly visible from a certain spot in the city of Zhangjiajie is no longer visible from that spot, i.e., one can no longer see daylight through the "donut hole" even if one can make it out. The good news – the really, really good news! – is that both blocks of the double-block mountain seem to be moving together, suggesting that they are joined at the hip, as it were, which is a pretty darn good thing, don't you think?!