The stone staircase leading up to the base of Tianmen Cave, near the city of Zhangjiajie in the central Hunan province of China, contains precisely 999 steps, and after tackling about 700 of them, my calf muscles were screaming.
Perhaps best described as an archway, the cave's relatively narrow opening, pierced through rugged limestone and more than 430 feet tall, was backlit by the sun and veiled in a flimsy gauze of silver fog that spilled down over the slow-moving hikers and hundreds more stairs rising sharply above me. (View more photos in our slideshow from Zhangjiajie here or by clicking on any of the images.)
Nine has long been a lucky number for the Chinese, and 999 is even better, a sum associated with eternal life, and apparently just the right amount of stairs for a climb to Tianmen, a word that translates roughly as heaven's gate.
Pausing for a moment's rest, I looked out over the green valley below me, largely obscured now by heavy clouds. A faint trail of twisting white shone through thin patches in the fleecy gray but grew more distinct as the clouds abruptly parted, revealing a segment of the zigzagging gravel road I'd traveled by bus to arrive at the staircase's first step.
Ascending more than 3,600 feet in just under seven miles, that winding road skirted a host of sheer cliff faces, revealing one jaw-dropping vista after another while negotiating — you guessed it — exactly 99 turns.
I traveled here with a small group of journalists and industry professionals, most visiting Zhangjiajie for the first time. Our journey to Tianmen Mountain and its celebrated cave, which also required a stunning ride on the world's longest mountain cable car, was a highlight for many.
"The way the clouds were moving over the mountains and all of the tremendous views, it was just awe-inspiring," said Eric Kocaja, general manager for Seattle-based luxury tour operator EverGreen Escapes. "Being whisked away from the city in the cable cars to this otherworldly location was an awesome experience."
Home to more than 1.4 million people, Zhangjiajie is a gateway to the region's Wulingyuan Scenic Area, a Unesco Natural World Heritage Site since 1992 that covers 135 square miles and contains the 4,980-foot Tianmen Mountain along with a collection of majestic quartz sandstone formations that inspired the floating islands of Pandora in the film "Avatar." The name Zhangjiajie also applies to the city's immediate area, including the Unesco site.
"I thought the place was fabulous," said Janet Lown, a business development manager for Travel Impressions, who's been in the industry more than 20 years. "Zhangjiajie showed some surprising beauty and had a lot more to offer than I would have imagined, especially for some place I'd never heard of."
Aside from the difficulty Westerners have pronouncing Zhangjiajie — phonetically jang jee-aa JEE is pretty close — the destination's biggest challenge is that even industry veterans like Lown aren't familiar with the city or the region.
That lack of notoriety certainly isn't due to a shortage of sensational natural attractions.
Loaded with rare geologic beauty, all within a 45-minute drive from the city's center, Zhangjiajie offers travelers everything from saw-toothed mountains to plunging canyons and caves and more than 3,100 of those wonderfully unique quartz sandstone pillars.
Often adorned with evergreen trees and waist deep in low-lying clouds, some of the region's most photogenic stone columns, many standing more than 650 feet tall, occupy reserves at Tianzi Mountain and the Yuanjiajie Scenic Area. The latter is home to Qiankun Zhu or its more recent English stage name: Avatar Mountain.
The area is already a popular destination for Asian travelers, especially Koreans. Zhangjiajie's tourism bureau is now pursuing American visitors, hiring a U.S. marketing firm in 2011 and later launching a U.S. website.
A little more than 9,300 Americans traveled to the Zhangjiajie in 2012; that figure represented an increase of more than 200% from 2011, according to tourism officials.
"Of course, we would like more and more Americans to come," He Jie, the Zhangjiajie Tourism Bureau's marketing manager, told me during my visit, adding that she expects U.S. visitor totals to increase further in 2013. "The most important [challenge we face] is the flights."
There is a daily nonstop from Shanghai to Zhangjiajie's Hehua Airport, and China Southern operates daily nonstop service from Guangzhou and three-times-weekly nonstop flights from Beijing, but arrival times are often very late at night or early in the morning.
Despite those connectivity issues, Lown said Travel Impressions now offers agents fully commissionable tour packages to Zhangjiajie through its partnership with Wendy Wu Tours.
"I really think Zhangjiajie deserves to be on the short list of Chinese destinations," Lown said, acknowledging the destination faces stiff competition from better-known parts of the country.
"I think people you're sending to Zhangjiajie are going to be more-traveled clients," she continued. "It may not be a good fit for those visiting China for the first time or spending less than 16 days, [but] I personally loved it."