n top of the Tianmen Mountain in China — a 24,500 feet climb from the center of Zhangjiajie — is the actual stairway to heaven. The Tianmen Cave holds the moniker “The Gateway to Heaven” because it is the highest naturally occurring arch in the world.
Tianmen Cave stands at about 5,000 feet above sea level, while the landmark itself is 430 feet tall and 190 feet wide. But that and its incredible views are not the only reasons it’s so impressive. To reach the gateway to heaven, tourists should have first climbed the stairways to heaven. This refers to the 999 staircase that leads to the arch of the Tianmen Cave.
The peculiar stair count is deliberate — nine is a symbolic figure in Chinese numerology, representing good fortune and eternity. Furthermore, there’s a mystical belief in the Taoist tradition that the 999 steps are the supreme number and symbol of the emperor.
The cave itself is supposed to be supernatural, with some believing it houses a mystical force. While the origin of the cave has been traced back to 263 AD — when a side of the mountain cliff collapsed and formed the arch — most fans would instead hold on to a more mystical origin story. Therefore, the mountain’s Tianmen reputation as a holy mountain is protected by the notion that the portal to heaven formed mysteriously. The mystical force that supposedly dwells in this mountain is probably credited with the creation of the gateway to heaven.
Reaching Heaven’s Gate
To reach the Tianmen mountain itself, you must come from Zhangjiajie through either one of these ways. First is the cable car, the longest aerial tramway ride in the world. The journey will take you about 30 minutes as you travel over 7 kilometers. As you might expect, the cable car ride is a tourist attraction all by itself. Plus, the final portion of the rise is so steep — you climb at 37 degrees over steep cliffs to reach one of the mountain crests. Thus, this allows you the view of a lifetime. You can watch the lush mountain peaks, deep valleys, and the 99 bends as you swoosh by.
The 99 bends (another nine-centered landmark) are 99 sharp curves that lead to the Tianmen cave. The road takes tourists from the foot of the mountain to the top, where the Tianmen Cave is. You can get on a bus to the 99 bends from the midway cable car station. The ride itself is very exhilarating with loads of sharp turns along vertical cliffs and bends. It’s a blood-pumping 20-minute ride to the cave.
There’s also the cliff-hanging walkway that sits along the edges of the mountain’s summits. The trek is about 1.6 kilometers long and climbs to a height of 1400 meters high, which will probably take you an hour and a half to complete. At the end of the hanging bridge is the open chairlift that goes up the mountain’s summit to a tower.
Additionally, you’d encounter three glass skywalks that allow you stunning, breathtaking views of the mountainsides. If you’re brave enough to try it out, you will get the feeling of walking in the sky. After all, you are literally walking on glass with nothing beneath it at a surreally high altitude.
Climb Your Way to Heaven
While there are various ways to get to the gateway to heaven, the 999 stairs are still special. This is probably because of its symbolic name. Even so, climbing the stairs isn’t for the faint-hearted, and some tourists find creative ways to make it an easier climb. In February 2018, Ho-Pin Tung climbed the 45-degree staircase in a hybrid Range Rover SUV, using a combination of electric battery power and gasoline.
Typically, the stairway to heaven will take about 30 minutes of hearty exercise to get up the mountains to the Tianmen Cave. Still, the scenery is simply stunning and worth the work. You can pause to take amazing pictures to add to your travel photography catalog. And you will be able to say that you’ve climbed all the way to heaven!