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With an area comprising only 93 square kilometers, Tianzi ("Son of Heaven") Mountain Nature Reserve is the smallest of the three subsections of Wulingyuan Scenic Area. On the eastward-pointing, horizontally-oriented triangle that describes the three subsections* of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve represents the upper left (NW) point of the horizontal triangle in question, with Zhangjiajie National Forest Park representing the lower left (SW) point of that horizontal triangle and Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve representing its eastern point. Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is characterized by four over-arching features: "forests" of stone towers (eroded mountain peaks), "seas" of clouds (thick mists), spectacular sunrises and breathtakingly beautiful winter snowscapes.
The nature reserve gets its name from a certain Xiang Dakun, an ethnic Tujia who led a peasant rebellion during the latter half of the 19th century, when rebellions against Manchu-led Qing rule – especially on the part of the disgruntled, Han Chinese majority (viz. the Taipeng Rebellion (1850-64)) – were increasingly common. Just as the leader of the Taipeng Rebellion had given his movement a "divine" name that challenged the exclusive, divine authority of the emperor, Xiang Dakun styled himself Tianzi, or "Son of Heaven", as indicated, which was a title otherwise reserved for the emperor, which also explains why Tianzi Mountain is sometimes referred to as "Emperor Mountain".
Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, like Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, is characterized by old, weathered sandstone mountain-peak remnants (and a few newer and taller, snow-clad ones that still have sharp peaks), some in the form of massive blocks and some in the form of freestanding sandstone obelisks, or towers, but there is also a certain amount of limestone bedrock present in the nature reserve, which, as a result of aeons of water erosion – usually in the form of underground streams – has produced karst caves, since limestone is softer than, and more easily dissolved in the carbonic-acid-rich water that is common to such areas.
Because the sandstone bedrock that makes up most of the nature reserve was created by a long process of stratification, it appears in distinct layers, each layer slightly different in coloration than the contiguous layers, and because of this layering, the bedrock is subject to erosion that constantly whittles away at the outer edges of exposed rock, leaving an uneven vertical surface that is generally marked by small ledges that alternately jut out/ are recessed. The ledges provide ideal conditions for the accumulation of soil, which in turn can nurture flowers, grasses, shrubs and even trees. Thus the second distinguishing feature of all of the sandstone mountain-peak remnants of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, including those of Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, is that these old geomorphological rocks are home to many shrubs and trees which in turn attract birds. Indeed, Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is also home to very dense forests with a plethora of wildlife.
The nature reserve is also home to the largest assemblage of freestanding sandstone towers in Wulingyuan Scenic Area, namely, the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve site called Yubi Feng ("Imperial Writing (i.e., calligraphic "writing") Brush Peaks"), which is partially walled by more massive – but still very old and time-worn – tree-clad mountain peaks, some of whose uppermost sections are splintered into freestanding mini-towers. These time-and-weather-worn mountains of semi-porous, stratified sandstone bedrock have been subjected not only to lengthy erosion, but perhaps also to massive erosion as well, most likely, if relevant, in the form of extensive and extended flooding of the kind that produced the Grand Canyon in the southwestern part of the U.S.
It is conceivable, however, that the whittling away of the stratified sandstone mountain peaks of Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve (and of Wulingyuan in general), once fissures had appeared – and the latter did not necessarily occur as a result of violent flooding, it should be noted – was greatly hastened by the effect of annual frost on the sandstone layers, causing them to expand and crack at their exposed edges, thus allowing rain and mist to do their work for the remainder of the season, until new frost produced more expansion and cracking, leading to yet more erosion, and so on and so forth. The fact that the areas of Wulingyuan Scenic Area where these weather-worn mountain-peak remnants abound is not in the form of a canyon with a river-bed at its base, even if dried up (the Bay of Myths site (see below) may be something of an exception), argues against the notion of massive and extended flooding of the Grand Canyon variety, arguing instead in favor of the alternative theory of a gradual, erosional breakdown of the exposed edges of the layered sandstone, as outlined above.
Most certainly, the erosion process required an inordinate amount of time to produce the sublimely beautiful landscapes that the enthralled visitor beholds in Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve. It is hardly surprising that Emperor Mountain enjoys the reputation of being "more beautiful even than Yellow Mountain", the latter, also strangely eroded scenic mountain, being located in Anhui Province.
Besides its many picture-postcard-pretty, weathered, tree-clad sandstone mountain-peak remnants – which mountain-peak remnants, it deserves to be noted, inspired the computer-generated, floating Halleujah Mountains seen in the Hollywood film, Avatar – Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is characterized by snow-capped peaks as well as by forested valleys filled with lakes, rivers, waterfalls, limestone caves, bridges and thick mists that often bathe the mountain-peak remnants in ever-changing patterns, thus creating an enchanting if somewhat eerie effect.
The mountain-peak remnants provide over 80 natural viewing platforms at differing heights (there are over 2000 peaks at Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, counting the many freestanding towers), making it possible to get an inspiring view of the surrounding – albeit, oftentimes mist-enshrouded – terrain, regardless of where one is located in the nature reserve. The nature reserve's highest peak, Kunlun Peak, sits at 1262 meters above sea level, and provides the most spectacular, panoramic views of the nature reserve.
Tianzi Mountain changes aspect depending on the season and the time of day, offering breathtaking sunset and moonlight views, as well as invigoratingly grand sunrise vistas for those who are willing to get up early enough to witness them.
Most of the plant and animal species present in the other subsections of Wulingyuan Scenic Area are also present in Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, though the flora and fauna living on the higher, snow-clad mountain peaks naturally differ from those found at lower elevations.
The highlights of Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve number fewer than in the other two subsections of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, partly because the nature reserve is the smallest of the three, but also partly because the nature reserve contains some high mountains that are snow-capped in winter and thus the area is in general less accessible than lower terrain areas elsewhere in Wulingyuan. However, a snow-clad peak is a beautiful backdrop, even if one may not be inclined to literally set foot on it.
The main highlights of Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, despite their fanciful (non literally descriptive) names, are almost all different variations on the same theme: time-and-weather-worn mountain-peak remnants. If you are attracted to this rather curious but quaintly beautiful geomorphological phenomenon – which, for some reason resonates as being quintessentially Chinese to my mind (but if you have seen Avatar you may view them as being quintessentially extraterrestrial!), then Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is a must-see venue, or, to put it in the context of an old Chinese saying regarding certain other sites within Wulingyuan Scenic Area (in fact, the underlying concept was a very general saying in China in ancient times), 'a visit to Wulingyuan Scenic Area without a visit to Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is like not having visited Wulingyuan Scenic Area at all!'
The time-and-weather-worn mountain-peak scenic sites of Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve are: Xi Hai ("West Sea"); Shentang Wan ("Bay of Myths"); Tianzi Ge ("Son of Heaven Pavilion"); and Yubi Feng ("Imperial Writing Brush Peaks"). Only West Sea, Shentang Wan and Yubi Feng will be profiled below (and note that Tianzi Ge – in a complete break with the usual pattern here, where a name is generally fanciful rather than descriptive – is in fact a real physical pavilion, or temple). Note also that the Yubi Feng site is claimed to be the most impressive assemblage of free-standing sandstone towers/ obelisks in all of Wulingyuan, though each of the aforementioned sites are a wonder to behold, since each of them is unique, and the experience of them is heightened by the presence of thick, ever-shifting mists.
The effect of the partial concealment by the "sea of clouds" of these craggy, tree-clad old mountain-peak remnants is that the visitor can never quite take in their true expanse in a single view (or snapshot), and because of this, they are never tiring to behold, but quite the opposite: fascinating (the same principle of partial concealment as a medium of enticement is mimicked by ancient Chinese garden architects in the famous scholar gardens of Suzhou, where, due to the deliberate construction of winding paths with partially blocked views that make it impossible to take in the garden in its entirety from any given vantage point, even a small garden will appear much larger that it really is, and therefore the joy of wandering about in such a garden is deeper and more long-lasting).
Xi Hai ("West Sea"), which is also alternately known as "Gazing Upon West Sea From Heavenly Terrace" and "West Sea of Stone Forests", is also sometimes referred to as 'a sea of clouds, a sea of peaks' and as 'a sea of peaks, a sea of trees', which, together with the 'sea of stone forests' metaphor, brings us closer to the figurative nature of the "sea" in quesion. Like much of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, West Sea consists of strangely eroded mountain-peak remnants, some in the form of stratified sandstone towers, or obelisks, and others in the form of more massive stratified sandstone blocks. In fact, this division pretty accurately describes the two individual scenic-site features of West Sea: a large, flattened block whose top is terraced and which is alternately known as "Heavenly (Tianzi) Terrace", "Sky Terrace" and "Terraced Fields in the Sky" (Kongzhong Tianyuan); and a collection of freestanding towers/ obelisks alternately called "Stone Forests" and "Gate to Heaven", the latter presumably because the towers/ obelisks are arranged in a staggered (height-wise) fashion, with the nearest (to the viewing platform, i.e., Heavenly Terrace) being shorter and the farthest being taller, as if they were arranged on an incline, in amphitheatre style. Add to this an intermittent "sea of clouds" wafting through the "sea of stone forests" and you have a pretty good picture of what West Sea looks like.
Since Tianzi Mountain itself stands at high altitude, these eroded mountain ridges – which essentially describes all of these block-and-obelisk formations at Wulingyuan Scenic Area – the view from Heavenly Terrace is spectacular, and the "waves" or "rows" of obelisks, each row reaching higher than the preceeding one, really do look like a "Gate to Heaven". Moreover, at this height, banks of real clouds can settle here, and with only the terrace and the tips of the ascending rows of obelisks piercing through them, the view is indeed one of a "staircase to heaven", to borrow a phrase from a famous Led Zeppelin song.**
Bay of Myths
Shentang Wan, alternately – and perhaps more descriptively – known as Shentang Valley and Shentang Fort, is a deep, gorge-like basin surrounded by craggy, tree-clad old mountain-peak remnants and a few freestanding towers, the whole, except for the tops of the peaks and towers, often bathed in thick but ever-shifting mists. In the center of the basin lies a deep, greenish pond. The sight itself is a bit eerie, but is made more eerie by certain strange sounds that echo up from the valley (the valley is best viewed from one of the surrounding peaks), strange sounds which the Chinese people – who, as we know, have a rich imagination! – liken to the beating of gongs and drums, the neighing of steeds, and the accompanying piercing shouts of warriors, as if an ancient, medieval battle were still in progress in the valley below!
It is said that this valley was a forbidden place in ancient times because the authorities, suspecting that it might somehow be under a spell, feared that it might pose a mortal threat to anyone who entered its bounds. An alternative explanation, and one connected with a completely different interpretation of the name, Shentang Wan, is that the spot, a bend in the "wall", or ridge, of old mountain peaks that gives name to the site, is the place where a Tujia king who was fleeing from a Song (CE 960-1279) Dynasty army but who was only minutes from being captured, jumped from a cliff face at the spot in question – as indicated, a bend in the ridge of mountain peaks that surround the valley below (note that Shentang Wan is a gorge of sorts) – in a desperate act of suicide.
Since the Tujia king was to his people what the Chinese emperor titularly was to the Chinese people, i.e., God's representative on earth, he was considered divine by his people, therefore the place was given the name – albeit, in Mandarin Chinese – "Divine Altar Bend" (Shen Tang Wan) by the local Tujia tribes, for it marked the spot where their divine leader had sacrificed his life for his people.
However, in the years, decades and centuries that followed, many other ghoulish things are said to have occurred at Shentang Wan, according to local accounts, so the explanation for the eerie sounds that continued to emanate from the gorge below, the locals insisted, were but the plaintive voices of the victims who unwillingly joined the Tujia king in the afterlife. Since these accounts naturally cannot be verified, they belong to the realm of myth (think of the Sherlock Holmes classic, The Hound of the Baskervilles), and since the gorge in question is almost constantly bathed in thick mists, resembling a bay of clouds (the dense mists in parts of Wulingyuan Scenic Area are sometimes likened to a "sea of clouds"), the alternative translation of Shen Tang Wan as Bay of Myths is not entirely unjustified.
Imperial Writing Brush Peaks
Yubi Feng is an assemblage of freestanding sandstone "pillars" (since pillars/ columns are generally designed to hold something up, "obelisk" or "towers", as I have suggested above, might be more appropriate terms to describe these often slender, freestanding "shafts") surrounded in places by massive, tree-clad mountain peaks, though the tops of some of these more massive peaks often end in a "quill" of shorter, more slender, free-standing shafts if not mini-towers. The name yubi feng derives from the brush used by the Imperial calligrapher that had a slender, carrot-shaped handle from whose thickest end protruded the "business end" (the hairs) of the brush... which says a thing or two about the density of the freestanding sandstone towers of Yubi Feng!
In fact, it is surely the unusualness of these strangely eroded rocks, coupled with their beauty (their obvious age and the presence of shrubs and trees sprouting from their ledges) and their sheer size and numbers (there are 243 of these "rock skyscrapers", or freestanding sandstone towers, at Yubi Feng) throughout Wulingyuan Scenic Area – though the concentration of them at Imperial Writing Brush Peaks, Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve, is their most impressive showing, inspiring some to liken them to nature's own "terracotta army" of sandstone towers) – that was part of the the UNESCO World Heritage Commission's decision to recognize Wulingyuan Scenic Area as a world natural heritage site. Put slightly differently, Wulingyuan Scenic Area may well not have made that distinguished list had it not been for the area's strangely eroded mountain peaks (put in terms you will recognize by now: 'a visit to Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve without a visit to Imperial Writing Brush Peaks is like not having visited Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve at all!').
Though not particularly emphasized in the above, Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is also carpeted here and there with thick forests and with the wildlife that characterizes Wulingyuan Scenic Area in general (see the Wulingyuan Scenic Area article for a list – albeit, non-exhaustive – of the main flora and fauna types that thrive within the scenic area). Wulingyuan Scenic Area in general, and perhaps Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve in particular, is sometimes said to combine the beauty of Guilin (also an area renowned for its lakes, rivers, waterfalls, karst caves and resplendent verdure), the strangeness if not grotesqueness of Huangshan ("Yellow Mountain"), the awesomeness of Mount Hua and the magnificence of Mount Tai. To this list one might also reasonably add: the "other-worldliness" of Pandora.
* Note that there is now a fourth subsection to Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Yangjiajie Scenic Area, that has recently been opened. Yangjiajie Scenic Area will be added to the list of Wulingyuan Scenic Area attractions in the very near future.
** Why "West Sea" and not, for example, "East Sea"? Well, it is said that the combination of the three "seas" – a sea of clouds, a sea of peaks and a sea of trees – aptly characterizes the real West Sea, aka the Yellow Sea, or the body of water that separates China from the Korean peninsula (the "sea of peaks" of the Yellow Sea is of course the mountain peaks that ring the Yellow Sea on three sides).