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Zhangjiajie: the real-life world of Avatar

By Zhou Jingxuan | Updated : Apr 21, 2021
Released in 2009, James Cameron’s Avatar was a box office blockbuster upon its arrival in cinemas and soon soared to the coveted title of “highest-grossing movie ever made”. The basic premise of the movie centers around Pandora, a mysterious alien moon planet rich in natural resources. On Pandora, billions of tons of rock are floating in the air like icebergs at sea, scraping against each other.

The floating Hallelujah Mountains are inspired by the Qiankun Column in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. The 1,080-meter (3,540 ft) gigantic column towers above a tapestry of greens and cuts through a thin sheet of mist.

Qiankun Column is one of the more than 3,000 quartzite sandstone pillars and peaks across the breathtaking national park. Rising from a bed of lush forest, these rocky pillars and peaks seem to float in the air when shrouded by clouds and mist, soaring bluntly to the heavens. The pillar-like formations, dominating the scenery, are the result of millions of years of erosion. 

 01  A 300-million-year geological evolution

In the Devonian period, some 380 million years ago, Zhangjiajie was a coastal area joined by the vast sea. As time went by, the sea slowly receded and debris brought by rivers was gradually deposited. After millions of years, it finally became 500-meter-thick quartz sandstone, which is purple-red and hard.

For over three million years, the crust of the Zhangjiajie area had been rising slowly and intermittently. Thus, running water, known as the “carving knife of nature”, began to create its masterpieces on these quartz sandstones.

The flowing water on the surface kept eroding the bottom and sides of the riverbed, resulting in deepening and widening rivers. As the crust slowly uplifted over a long period of time, the flowing water continued to erode the surface, eventually cutting it into the flat-topped, steep-edged mesa-like mountains in Wulingyuan Scenic Area, such as Tianzi Mountain and Huangshi Village.

As water erosion intensified, the fissures in the rocks widened, thus some mesas were cut into sheer peak walls, such as Yangjia Village and Tianzi Mountain.

When the fissure further extended, the peak walls were sliced into rocky pillars and peaks. The lateral erosion of the flowing water often created caves at the bottom of these pillars and peaks. Due to their self-gravity, some collapsed, leaving only those with extremely strong impact resistance, forming the quartzite-sandstone peak forest towering over the landscape.

02  Irregular-shapedpillars and peaks

Quartz sandstone is not rare in China, but the one in Zhangjiajie is exceptional. As it is quite hard, it is highly resistant to weathering. Moreover, the minor inclination of the rock (generally less than 8°) is conducive to the stability of the pillars and peaks, thus forming the craggy peak forest. Otherwise, if the rock tilts too much, the sliding force of the rock will be greater than the friction force, and then the rock will collapse under the slight external force, making it difficult to form lofty pillars and peaks, but only short mounds.

Meanwhile, Zhangjiajie is located in the mountainous region of northwest Hunan, with a subtropical monsoon climate featuring a mild climate and abundant rainfall. Therefore, It boasts abundant forest resources, with a 98% forest coverage in the core scenic area, including evergreen broad-leaved forests, evergreen-deciduous broad-leaved mixed forest, and coniferous and broad-leaved mixed forest. The plants on the pillars and peaks are deeply rooted into the crevices while secreting organic acids, creating the crumbling rocks with rugged beauty.

 03  Unique pine trees on the cliff

About 2.6 million years ago, glacial-interglacial cycles have waxed and waned throughout the Quaternary Period. Many plants and animals went extinct during the ice age, such as mammoths. Thankfully, Zhangjiajie features a great vertical distance, with varying temperatures and humidity at different altitudes, which makes it an ideal refuge for many plants and animals. In addition, it is in a mid-latitude region with a relatively mild climate, allowing for the rich cultivation of flora and fauna.

When the water eroded the surface, the plants growing on it did not wither away, but instead stubbornly rooted in the soil. Over time, as the crust rose and the pillars and peaks emerged, the Wuling pines either stood alone at the top of the peaks or rooted in the steep cliffs, becoming a unique view in the quartzite-sandstone peak forest.

Discovered in 1988, the Wuling pine is an endemic species of Zhangjiajie. Unlike the commonly seen horsetail pine, it is shorter to prevent it from falling due to the unsecured roots or rocks. Standing on the cliffs, its main water source is the erratic rainfall, therefore, in order to reduce evaporation, the pine needles of Wuling pine are short, thick, and hard, and the pine cones are small. For thousands of years, these tenacious pine trees have stood firm in the rock cracks despite the lashing wind and rain, embellishing this quartzite-sandstone peak forest.

Born 300 million years ago, the wondrous peaks of Zhangjiajie have been erecting for millions of years. To preserve this world wonder and its precious flora and fauna, Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the first-ever in China, was established in 1982. In 2004, Zhangjiajie became one of the first World Geoparks for the protection of its rare geological heritage, and more stringent and effective protection measures are underway. In the near future, Zhangjiajie will become an even better tourist destination, welcoming visitors from all over the world to appreciate its miraculous charm.

Edited by Li Ling

2019 Zhangjiajie Bureau of Culture, Tourism, Broadcasting and Sports