If you’ve ever seen the movie Avatar, you’d probably remember it by its blue humanoid characters and lush planet, Pandora, where humans wanted to harvest unobtanium as an energy source. Pandora was a moon, characterised by its vibrant flora and floating mountain stacks. The science fiction world of Pandora may look like something entirely otherworldly, but we can find places that look like they might be inhabited by the Na’vi on our own planet.
It’s well known among fans of Avatar that director James Cameron was inspired by the ethereal Tianzi Mountain in south-central China for his fictional moon. Tianzi Mountain is located in Zhangjiajie, within the Wulingyuan Scenic Area reserves. Together with Zhangjiajie Forest Park and the Suoxi Valley, Tianzi Mountain is part of a massive area of fantastical landscape, with mountains, precariously stacked pillars, caves, and subterranean rivers and lakes.
At Wulingyuan, it’s easy to see why you would feel like you’re on another planet, because some of its geological features don’t exist anywhere else on Earth, and it’s not a widely known place for tourism outside China. Next time you’re planning a trip to China, skip Beijing and head south for some of the country’s most exotic and dramatic landscape.
Legends surrounding Tianzi Mountain are almost as extreme as its pillars. The area gets its name from an old folk story from the Tujia, the native tribe in the region. The story tells of Xiang Dakun, leader of the Tujia in the 14th century, who led a farmers’ revolt against Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang.
Xiang was nicknamed Tianzi, meaning “Son of Heaven,” a title usually reserved for the Emperor of China. Though he was defeated in battle and fell into the Shentang Gulf, the revolt was successful, and the mountains were called Tianzi after him.
The legend of Tianzi Mountain's formation also follows the story of XiangDakun. Before his martyrdom, the mountain was called Qing Yan Mountain, but when Xiang fell into the Gulf, it’s said that his treasured writing brushes turned to stone and rose up where he fell, creating Imperial Brush Peak.
The stone formation within Tianzi resembles brushes, with the pine trees on top providing the perfect natural bristles for a giant of Chinese folklore. Looked upon from the northeast, Imperial Brush Peak looks like ten enormous brushes standing on end, with a finished picture in the distance.
Not unlike the fictional Pandora, Tianzi Mountain is home to a diverse array of flora and fauna, from the pine trees at the top of the peaks to the endless species of birds that nest in them. But the floor of the reserve, though fairly inaccessible to most visitors, is blanketed in flowers during most of the year.
The story claims that after Xiang was forced to leap into the Shentang Gulf, his lover was so grief-stricken that she covered the area with flowers in his memory, and their lasting is proof of the lovers’ devotion.
Despite its name, Tianzi Mountain isn’t actually a mountain. Mountains are generally described as peaked formations, usually conical, that are steeper and taller than hills, which the unique rock structures at Tianzi are anything but.
The formations at Tianzi are best described as gigantic stone pillars, built by erosion over millions of years. The towering stacks are about 1,212 metres tall at their highest point and at a slope of about 90 degrees, are certainly tall and steep enough to be termed a mountain by most standards, but due to their bizarre shape and scale, they’re most often referred to as pillars or columns.
Tianzi Mountain’s pillars are made up of an ancient composition of quartz sandstone, which formed over millennia with the compression and weathering of sedimentary rock. The rising of the Earth’s crust combined with erosion from water hundreds of millions of years ago cut away at the rock, exposing the deep valleys and sharp peaks we see today.
Quartz is one component that can make up sandstone, a porous rock that’s very recognisable in famous rock formations, especially tall cliffs like those in Tianzi Mountain. While the peaks of the pillars are almost solid quartz sandstone, their bases are heavy in limestone, a much softer material.
One of Tianzi Mountain’s unique visual features are the pine trees that cover the peaks of the pillars. At first glance from afar, the Wulingyuan area’s vegetation looks vaguely tropical, but the climate is much cooler than it appears.
In fact, the area is the perfect breeding ground for coniferous pine trees. The sturdy tree has no difficulty in growing on the rough, craggy cliffs of Tianzi, where their roots can take hold in even the smallest crevices. Over time, the cracks have filled with sediment and dirt particles, and the trees have taken well to the mountaintops.
Because the columns in Tianzi were formed mostly by water erosion, it’s likely that the area was part of a huge ocean some 300 million years ago. Unlike traditional mountains, the Tianzi weren’t created from volcanic activity or tectonic pressure, but an ancient sea that weathered away the rock, exposing the pillars.
Eventually, the rising of the Earth’s crust pushed away at the ocean, allowing the rocks to emerge and become what we see today. Tourism website, Visit Our China, claims the quartz caps on the rocks are as old as 380 million years.
This one needs little explaining—the solid quartz that tops the pillars can be almost 2,000 feet thick. At exactly 1,970 feet at its thickest according to World Atlas, the quartz on top takes up almost the entire length of most of the pillars.
Since the tallest peak at Tianzi is an imposing 4,140 feet high, the quartz could take up almost half of the stack. The rest of the bottom of the gulf is mostly limestone, thankfully leaving the stronger material to stand erect and form the incredible columnated landscape.
The original rock that formed the landscape around Wulingyuan was a sedimentary rock (like it still is), but the years of wearing down was what finally exposed the quartz.
Quartz is one of the most common minerals found on Earth, and it’s extremely hard and resistant to erosion, so when other rock is breaking down, quartz remains. Quartz sandstone is heavy in quartz, making it almost as durable as pure quartz and is what made the pillars in Tianzi Mountain able to withstand years of erosion. While other layers of sedimentary rock were washed away, quartz is the mineral that remains.
Very few people make it to the base of the pillars, mostly because the best and most accessible view is from the top, but it’s also somewhat dangerous. The floor of the mountain is made almost entirely of limestone, a soft mineral that you can scrape away with a fingernail.
Limestone makes the bottoms of the pillars quite unstable and prone to collapse, and though there is an extensive system of caves and underground water features, tourists and even well-trained explorers should keep a distance as the caves are subject to sinkholes.
All of Tianzi Mountain’s peaks are massive monoliths, but you’ll easily tell the highest peak from the rest. Kunlun Peak is the area’s tallest pillar, and stands at 4,142 feet above sea level. To put into perspective, Italy’s Mount Vesuvius is about 4,200 feet and isn’t jutting straight up out of the Earth.
While it is the size of a small mountain, Kunlun Peak dwarfs the rest of the columns. The second highest peak is 1,817 feet—less than half the height of Kunlun, so keep an eye out for nature’s skyscraper while at Tianzi Mountain.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tianzi Mountain served as the inspiration for Avatar’s Pandora. With its oblong mountains and floating islands, it’s not hard to see why Cameron saw a science fiction paradise in the reserve.
Whether you’re drifting above the mountains in the cable car or exploring the forest below, the pillars seem like something out of an exotic fairyland, far removed from our earthly landscape. If you travel beyond Tianzi into the other Wulingyuan parks, you’ll find that those panoramas are equally as spectacular, and you might recognise those, too, from the movie.
Of all the pillars at Tianzi, one, in particular, was the single most studied for the movie. Previously called the Southern Sky Column, the pillar was photographed for use to build the fictional floating mountain range, the Hallelujah Mountains.
In 2010, the pillar’s name was changed to Avatar Hallelujah Mountain in an effort to attract tourism. It worked, and fans from around the world flocked to see the pillar.
Despite efforts to censor the film by the Chinese government and being banned in cinemas, Avatar was China’s highest grossing film of all time, spiking tourism to Zhangjiajie.
China didn’t start establishing national forest parks until 1982, when it made the Zhangjiajie reverses the first. Zhangjiajie marked the start of official preservation of natural wonders in China. A national treasure, it was the perfect choice for the first national forest park due to its uniqueness.
Tianzi Mountain is now technically a separate park of Zhangjiajie Forest Park, but it does fall under the category of the Zhangjiajie reserves. You can see other pillar-like formations throughout the rest of the park, but those at Tianzi are the most numerous.
Tianzi Mountain is just a small piece of a much more expansive nature reserve at Wulingyuan. There are three parks within Wulingyuan Scenic Area—Tianzi Mountain, Zhangjiajie Forest Park, and the Suoxi Valley. Together, they’re known as the Golden Triangle and make up 102 square miles of land.
Along with the 3,000 pillars scattered about the park, there are waterfalls, pools, caves (not made of limestone that you can explore), ravines, and gorges. In honour of its natural significance, it was recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992.
Tianzi's peaks are spectacular all year round, from the snowy caps in winter to the bright green colours of summer, but Visit Our China, along with other Chinese tourism boards, recommends visiting in spring and autumn to take advantage of pleasant weather and the best viewing experience.
April and October are said to be prime months to see the peaks, but May and September also provide stunning views. It’s harder to access the rough landscape when the temperature drops, but many don’t see the breathtaking frost-covered peaks that occur in the dead of winter.
Most tourists want to see the vibrant green foliage in summer, the real place where their favourite photos were taken, and they don’t always consider the changing scene that seasons bring.
In fact, Tianzi Mountain is snow or frost-covered for a good portion of the year. The average temperature in the spring is about 12 degrees Celsius or about 54 degrees Fahrenheit, heating up considerably from the coldness of winter. Although you’ll be engaging in a more strenuous trek to the mountain, winter at Wulingyuan can prove for some stunning postcard-perfect photos.
The best way to see all of the Tianzi Mountain landscape is from the sky, and thankfully, the park has a jaw-dropping cable car installed. The car takes visitors soaring over the dramatic peaks, almost grazing the tops of the trees between pillars.
The cable is 2,084 metres (or 6,837 feet) long, which, when compared to the length of the pillars, is more than double the height of most of them. Riding the cable car costs 72 yuan, or roughly $10 USD one way, or 144 round trip ($20 USD).
Rides on the cable car take precisely six minutes and 44 seconds. Given that the cable car is about 6,800 feet long, it takes about a minute to travel 1,000 feet. It’s a quick trip one way for covering much of the mountain and taking in the scenery, but you won’t see everything from the cable car.
Check out the viewing platforms in the area to take in the full expanse of the canyon. If you’re a hiker, better yet, because you’ll find hidden lookouts that remain well hidden from most tourists.
Tianzi Mountain spans an area of 16,550 acres, according to Travel China Guide, or 67 square kilometres. It’s a huge nature reserve, but others, by comparison, dwarf Tianzi. It’s a relatively small nature reserve, but that doesn’t mean there’s less to explore.
You can’t actually climb the peaks themselves, but you can scale the area around them. Even without taking the cable car, there are some 100 viewing platforms throughout the reserve. With a little bit of creativity and some help from park staff, you’ll find endless new places to check out.
Of the parks in Wulingyuan, Tianzi Mountain is the smallest. It spans the valley-like pit where the pillars rise up from, but there isn’t much outside the walls of the canyon.
Of the three original parks in Wulingyuan, Zhangjiajie is the largest, followed by the Suoxi Valley, and finally Tianzi Mountain, but with the recent addition of Yangjiajie Scenic Area, the order could soon be different.
The Tianzi and Suoxi reserves are small enough that they generally attract visitors who come for the viewing areas and move on, but Zhangjiajie has more land area for adventurers and hikers.
Due to the extreme landscape at Tianzi, accessibility is much more difficult than at its sister parks. The dramatic drops and steep cliffs make getting anywhere within the canyon incredibly strenuous, and most tend to avoid venturing off the beaten path.
It’s also important to take the quality of the rock down low into consideration—with little more than soft stone, it’s quite unstable and unsuitable for excessive tourism. In most cases, unless you’re a professional adventurer, it’s best to stick to the cable car and short paths to viewing platforms.
You'll notice that on Tianzi Mountain, there are very few buildings. The occasional manmade structure for viewing or tourism purposes would be speckled about, but the first building outside the reserve isn’t seen for miles.
There is one important building within Tianzi, and you can find it perched precariously on a cliff ledge overlooking the pillars. Tianzi Ge, or Son of Heaven Pavilion, is an old Buddhist temple that watches over Tianzi basin. Seated on the highest point, it offers amazing views over the pillars, and is near tourist information and a café that serves native Tujia cuisine.
Chinese philosophy is some of the world’s most ancient and well-developed. For hundreds of years, philosophers pondered the land to fuel their speculations, and with China’s picturesque landscape, it’s easy to see why the deepest thinkers pondered here.
One ancient Chinese philosophy on art draws specifically from Tianzi’s distinctive pattern. It’s said that the partial concealment of the landscape as a whole from any point of view at Tianzi is a feature of enticement and intrigue for visitors. This concept has been translated to Chinese Buddhist gardens in order to entice visitors.
As such a massive land mass, China has some of the most amazing natural features. China’s sacred mountains and forests have inspired thousands of years of folklore, philosophy, and art.
There are many unique landforms all across China, but Tianzi Mountain is special for a few reasons. For one, it’s wonderfully bizarre, with no place on earth quite like it. China Travel sums up the mystique of the mountains by highlighting the four traits occurring in Chinese land that Tianzi embodies: The beauty of Guilin, strangeness of Huangshan, awe of Mount Hua, and the magnificence of Mount Tai.
References: mcity.ca, worldatlas.com, travelchinaguide.com, chinatravel.com