Experience the mountains that inspired ‘Avatar’

Located in the northwest corner of China’s Hunan province lies the sandstone marvel of Zhangjiajie, part of the greater Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Area where peculiar rock spears rise high above the bottom of the forest ground.

Zhangjiajie National Park is touted as the Grand Canyon of China, but it is perhaps better known as the “‘Avatar’ Mountains.’ The sandstone spires are featured in one of the world’s most epic movies, “Avatar,” flaunting more than 3,000 karst bamboo shoot pinnacles that create a fairytale landscape that mesmerizes visitors. (The first of two sequels to James Cameron’s 2009 hit fantasy film is due a year from Tuesday.)

The Bailong Glass Elevator translates to ‘Hundreds Dragons Elevator.” Built on the side of a rock face, it transports visitors to the top of the Wulingyuan area of Zhangjiajie Park.

An exhilarating stairway to heaven. The Bailong Elevator took three years to build at the cost of almost 20 million dollars. The sky-scraping glass elevator rises 1,070 feet on the side of a steep rock face mountain. Among the many accolades, it is the world's fastest and tallest outside passenger elevator. It can transport visitors to the top in less than two minutes.

The first natural Chinese site to be inscribed as a UNESCO Heritage List site, the Wulingyuan Scenic and Historic Area and Zhangjiajie charm millions of visitors per year; however, the majority of tourists are Chinese nationals. The Hunan Province’s centerpiece forest remains largely unexplored by the many western travelers who visit China. Those who primarily flock to its larger cities are missing out on the chance to experience this treasured preserve.

Now considered one of China's main attractions, in the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon, is the world's highest and longest glass bridge and stretches between two cliffs. The monumental walkway is near 1000 tall and over 1400 feet long.

Getting to the top Tianmen Mountain usually involves the world’s longest cab car ride,  which spans more than four miles and takes about 30 minutes. Along the way, spectators get a glimpse of the “‘Heaven’s Gate Hole” and a visually-striking cliff-hanging glass walkway.

Tianmen Mountain is the highest peak in Zhangjiajie. Its pièce de résistance is a 100 feet tall and almost 200 feet wide hole formed by heavy rains, wind, and erosion. As the number 9 in Chinese is a symbol of heaven on earth, along with the 99 Bends Road below, there are 999 steps leading up to the Tianmen Cave.

The best months to visit Zhangjiajie are May and June. Going in late spring and early summer or the fall season lets you avoid Chinese holidays and popular vacation times and hence, the crowds.

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