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Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve

With an area comprising only 93 square kilometres, Tianzi ("Son of Heaven") Mountain Nature Reserve is the smallest of the three subsections of Wulingyuan Scenic Area. The eastward-pointing, horizontally-oriented triangle describes the three subsections of Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve represents the upper left (NW) point of the horizontal triangle in question.

Zhangjiajie photo by Zhou Mingfa
Zhangjiajie National Forest Park represents the lower left (SW) point of that horizontal triangle. Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve represents 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.

There is now a fourth subsection to Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Yangjiajie Scenic that has recently been opened. Yangjiajie Scenic Area will be added to the list of Scenic Area attractions in the very near future.

The nature reserve gets its name from Xiang Dakun, an ethnic Tujia who led a peasant rebellion during the latter half of the 19th century.This was a period 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. 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", a title 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 are in the form of massive blocks and some in the form of freestanding sandstone obelisks or towers. There is also a certain amount of limestone bedrock present in the nature reserve. As a result of aeons of water erosion, usually in the form of underground streams, this has produced karst caves. Limestone is soft 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. Due to this layering, the bedrock is subject to erosion that constantly whittles away at the outer edges of exposed rock, leaving an uneven vertical surface.

It is generally marked by small ledges that alternately jut out. 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.

Tianzi Mountain

The nature reserve is also home to the largest assemblage of freestanding sandstone towers in the  Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Namely, the Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve site called Yubi Feng ("Imperial Writing [i.e., calligraphic "writing"] Brush Peaks"). It is partially walled by more massive   –   but still very old and time-worn –   tree-clad mountain peaks. Some of the 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 extensive and prolonged flooding and frost damage.  

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. The Emperor Mountain enjoys the reputation of being "more beautiful even than Yellow Mountain", the latter also a strangely eroded scenic mountain located in Anhui Province.

Its many picture-postcard weathered, tree-clad sandstone mountain-peak remnants, 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 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 making it possible to get an inspiring view of the surrounding mist-enshrouded highest peak in the reserve, Kunlun Peak, sits at 1262 metres above sea level, and provides the most spectacular, panoramic views of the entire reserve.

Tianzi Mountain changes aspects 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 Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve contains some high mountains that are snow-capped in winter and thus the area is generally less accessible than the 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.

An old Chinese saying captures the mood and beauty of this must see venue “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"). West Sea, Shentang Wan and Yubi Feng are profiled below. 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 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 appreciate their true expanse in a single view, and because of this, they are never tiring to behold     but quite the opposite. 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 the deliberate construction of winding paths with partially blocked views make it impossible to take it in its entirety from any given vantage point. Thus even a small garden will appear much larger that it really is, and the joy of wandering about in such a garden is deeper and more long-lasting.

West Sea

Xi Hai ("West Sea"), 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 a sea of trees. 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.

This division accurately describes the two individual scenic-site features of West Sea: One, 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). Two, a collection of freestanding towers obelisks alternately called "Stone Forests" and "Gate to Heaven.” The latter 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 good picture of what West Sea looks like.

Since Tianzi Mountain itself stands at high altitude, these eroded mountain ridges 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, the view is indeed one of a "staircase to heaven."

Why "West Sea" and not, for example, "East Sea"? 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 the mountain peaks that ring the Yellow Sea on three sides).


Bay of Myths

Shentang Wan, alternately 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, is 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 so by certain strange sounds that echo up from the valley. Like the strange sounds 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 is that the spot, a bend in the "wall", or ridge, of old mountain peaks is the place where a Tujia king fleeing from a Song Dynasty army and only minutes from being captured, jumped from a cliff face at the spot in question 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 "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. Thus 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 cannot be verified, they belong to the realm of myth. The gorge is also almost constantly bathed in thick mists, resembling a bay of clouds 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 surrounded in places by massive, tree-clad mountain peaks. 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 brush.

The uniqueness of these strangely eroded rocks, coupled with their beauty, is a most impressive showing and is liken to nature's own terra cotta army. This was part of the UNESCO World Heritage Commission's decision to recognize Wulingyuan Scenic Area as a world natural heritage site. Wulingyuan Scenic Area may well not have made that distinguished list had it not been for the area's strangely eroded mountain peaks. “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!'

Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve is also carpeted here and there with thick forests and with the wildlife that characterizes Wulingyuan Scenic Area. The Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve in particular, is said to combine the beauty of Guilin, the strangeness if not grotesqueness of Huangshan ("Yellow Mountain"), the awesomeness of Mount Hua and the magnificence of Mount Tai.


How to Get There?

To get to Tianzi Mountian Nature Reserve itself, one must take a special shuttle bus from the entrance to Wulingyuan Scenic Area. Once at the nature reserve, one can take the cable car up the mountain from the cable car's lower station, Zhaigongwan. Alas, there are no Direhorse or Mountain Banshee options on Tianzi Mountain!

More Tips:

Why you should visit Tianzi Ge (Son of Heaven Pavilion, or Temple): firstly, like many Buddhist temples, Tianzi Ge is situated on the highest point of the local terrain, meaning that it offers some of the best views of the surrounding area. And secondly, since man's footprint on Tianzi Mountain is deliberately kept to a minimum, manmade structures on the mountain tend to be concentrated, so as not to spoil the handiwork of mother nature, except insofar as man is called upon to assist mother nature here and there; mother nature does not generally provide walkways, bridges, staircases, lifts, safety rails, etc. :). Not surprisingly then, there is a string of tourist facilities clustered at Tianzi Ge, including Hei Zhu Gou ("Black Bamboo Ravine") Restaurant, which serves native Tujia dishes as well as a smattering of traditional Han Chinese dishes. Of course, you might want to visit the temple to light a candle or a joss stick (incense), even if you aren't a Buddhist.

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