Those 'Avatar' mountains are real, and they're in China

Those 'Avatar' mountains are real, and they're in China
The southern Sky Column, now officially renamed the Avatar HallelujahMountain, found in Zhangjiajie National Park, Hunan province, China.

They're not the floating, suspended-in-midair computer-generated imagery creations, of course, that director James Cameron eventually passed off in his blockbuster movie as the planet Pandora's Hallelujah Mountains.

But they're the original inspiration-an immense, scenic spread of mountain pillars in Zhangjiajie City in the south-central Chinese province of Hunan that served as the prototype for "Avatar's" fictive diorama of hanging, mist-shrouded peaks where Pandora's fearsome "ikran" dragon birds had their nesting grounds.

The 2010 Hollywood movie opted to make the mountains even more otherworldly-looking, but the real ones can very well stand on their own in terms of jaw-dropping impact.

Tianzi Mountain, from where the best vistas of the giant rock columns can be had, is merely part of the larger Zhangjiajie National Park, which in turn is within Hunan's sprawling Wulingyuan Scenic Zone, declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1992 for its topography, found nowhere else in the world, of some 3,000 freestanding sandstone pillars that soar into the sky, their peaks capped with green foliage defiantly clinging to the sheer cliff walls.

The natural scenery, wild and rugged and pretty much untouched, is as far as possible from the sights travelers now normally associate with modern China-the headlong bustle of Beijing or the glitter of Shanghai and Macau, for instance. Once visitors to Tianzi have gone up to the view decks via the Bailong Lift, a glass elevator that park officials claim is the tallest and fastest of its kind in the world (a plausible claim-the ride shoots to the top of the mountain range within a couple of minutes), they can be forgiven for thinking they've stepped indeed into another planet. The view is absolutely heart-stopping.

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