Zhangjiajie. Heard of it? Neither had I. I never would have imagined finding myself in remote back blocks of China with my bike. It is kind of a scary thought to be honest, but here I am, in search of the world’s greatest mountain road.
I stumbled across an amazing image a couple of months ago which set the fire burning. But to paint a broader picture, my search began several years ago. Each July I head to the Tour in pursuit of gainful employment and have taken to completing the pilgrimage with a small side-trip to the best mountain roads I can find.
In previous years I have travelled to Morocco, Nepal, Corsica as well as the more mainstream European climbs like Alpe D’Huez and the Stelvio. This year I journeyed to the orient to find Tianmen Mountain’s 11 kilometres of twisting and twirling spaghetti-like tarmac named Heaven Linking Avenue. Ninety-nine bends and 900 metres of elevation, followed by a flight of 999 steps which lead to the ‘Gate to Heaven’ or Tianmen Cave. Nine is a sacred number in China so needless to say Tianmen Mountain is highly revered.
A two-hour flight from Shanghai will land you at Dayong airport. Dayong is the old name for the city now known as Zhangjiajie. With a population of about 750,000, Zhangjiajie is small by Chinese standards. Record keeping in the region began in 221BC and though proof of human settlement dates back 100,000 years, it’s still quite a primitive place.
Despite having the most advanced pottery-firing techniques in China 10,000 years ago, other regions became and remained hubs for manufacturing ever since. It’s no surprise really, considering Zhangjiajie’s remote location and the mountainous terrain which would make transportation difficult, slow and comparatively expensive.
The main attraction for us was situated 10km south of the city. The serpentine road up Tianmen Mountain was built for 100,000,000 Chinese yuan in the eight years to 2006. It snakes its way from 200m above sea level to 1,300m over its 11km course; an average grade of 10 per cent!
Dubbed the Big Gate Road, it rises from the valley floor impossibly hugging the side of the mountain. It’s as if they began building the road from the town not realising that there was a sheer cliff face directly ahead, yet when they got there they just carried on up the slopes of this giant that lay in their way.
Towering over the road and the town far below is the Gate to Heaven, or Tianmen Cave, a naturally formed hole in the mountaintop measuring 131.5m high and 30m across. The sun’s rays shine through the hole like a beacon; beams of celestial light from heaven no less.
When I saw this image, I could barely contain my excitement for I had finally stumbled across the Holy Grail of cycling and there was no question, I just had to see it firsthand.
Touchdown in Zhangjiajie and you better have honed your bargaining skills. The cabbie took us for a ride (pardon the pun) just to get from one side of town to the other, but to be honest I didn’t care.
Due to the exchange rate my wallet was as full as a fat lady’s boot and was actually preventing me from sitting upright so I was happy to part with some hard earned. Finally we arrived at the hotel so we could rest up before what we hoped would be the most amazing ride of our lives the next morning.
Welcome to the wet season in Asia! Not even the torrential rain could dampen our spirits, so with a positive attitude, we willed the rain on its way and by early afternoon we set sail for the hills. Full of enthusiasm, we took the leap of faith out the front door. The leap of faith is something I learned many years ago in Shenzhen. It refers to taking that first step when crossing pretty much any road in Asia. It is possible that without the leap of faith you could remain standing roadside all day long. The funny thing about Asian countries is that despite the chaos on the roads, you see very few accidents.
It is often an experience in itself riding in remote cities but surprisingly the roads in Zhangjiajie were beautifully put together; as wide as the Champs Elysees and a hell of a lot smoother. We headed south.
Although we were in a major city, our location was so remote that we were treated like rock stars.
People wanted to shake hands, take photos (and photo-bomb our photos) or just stare in amusement at the lanky white guy in lycra!
Cycling through the city proved relatively straightforward and before we knew it we were in the back blocks. You often hear rumours about how beautiful the Chinese countryside is and I’m here to tell you that all of them are true. The jutted landscape is staggering, the vegetation lush and the air is so fresh. This was shaping to be the ride of all rides as the road began to rise.
Through the mist of the rice paddies we caught our first glimpse of the enormous task ahead. The mountain looms out of the horizon, casting a huge shadow making us feel extremely small.
As we cycled on through the small villages, local farmers would yell out and wave from hilltops where they tended their crops.
Up and over a small incline, a military style building surrounded by backhoes and bulldozers came into view. As we approached the dilapidated building we realised that it was no longer in operation and the colossal gates to the mountain road were shut and locked… Permanently! In disbelief we looked left and right for someone to consult, only to be greeted with the lonely sound of wind blowing through the valley and a stray dog rummaging through the pile of debris. This couldn’t be true.
Notorious for unreliable information, especially in the remote parts of China, the internet had boasted about the great riding to be found at Tianmen. We were devastated as we rode back into town with our tails between our legs. How are we going to get to the top was the question. Should we just jump the gates in a cyclocross-type exercise? Should we take our bikes up in the cable car? Is there a ‘back way’? With very little English spoken in this part of the world, who could we ask?
Back at the drawing board we came to the conclusion that, considering their strict rules and rather nasty punishments in that part of the world, there was no safe way to take the bikes. The cable car was for passengers only, the locked gates were far too high plus trespassing was probably not a wise decision, and there is only one Heaven Linking Road.
Disappointed but still eager to get a closer look at the world’s most amazing road, we planned to catch the world’s longest cable car (a staggering 7,455 metres long) the next day. The cable runs continuously from the centre of town directly to the top. An easy trip to heaven I say!
Scraping the treetops (literally) we make our way from the bustling city centre to the outskirts where many of the locals live in medium density housing and further on into the forest where you’ll find extremely remote and isolated farmer’s huts. As we gain altitude at a rapid rate, the mist and low cloud threatens to ruin any views of the road below. But as if someone had just flicked a switch, the clouds vanished and there it was in all its glory. A cyclist’s dream road. Whether your thing is climbing or descending, this road is as good as it gets!
It is truly amazing and an engineering feat that needs to be seen to be fully comprehended. With its ninety-nine bends, including one section which swirls around on itself several times creating a pyramid, I don’t know whether they built this road as an attraction or just as a way to the top, but I’m sure glad they did it the way they did.
There is plenty to do when you get to the summit too. There is kilometre after kilometre of walking track, including some of the scariest walkways I’ve ever seen. The glass-bottom walkway which left only millimetres between me and the endless drop into the mist below had me a bit anxious. I was far more at ease visiting the temples and local music and dance shows scattered throughout the forest. There is always the 999-step climb for those who are feeling energetic and to be honest, you don’t feel like you have conquered the mountain until you walk those steps to Heaven’s Gate. Once at the summit you are rewarded with the magical view down the mountain slopes overlooking the ninety-nine bends and the Zhangjiajie township on the horizon.
There have been some lucky cyclists who’ve had the chance to ride the Heaven Linking road. A cycle challenge was held on the 22nd of September 2012 as a part of the inaugural Chinese International Old-Age Culture and Tourism Festival held in Zhangjiajie. The challenge was held on a no-vehicle day in China in an attempt to encourage people to go out in vehicles, thereby creating less pollution and emissions. The event was won by a very lucky 45-year-old Chinese university teacher living the dream of every cyclist.
Races have been held intermittently since the road opened in 2006 though it appears difficult to get accurate information on when or if there will be another race on the Holy Road. For now, it is a cruel irony that the greatest mountain road remains the forbidden road.