The steppingstones of China's stairway to heaven

Updated: 2011-11-03 07:59

By Raymond Zhou and Sun Ruisheng (China Daily)

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A mountain is usually known for its peak or height.

Not Mount Taihang, or the Taihang Mountains.

The range's most breathtaking sites are the precipices that run hundreds of meters, as if nature had cut it like a chef slashing a piece of tofu.

Nowhere is this topography more evident as in Wangmangling, which is 1,700 meters at its highest, but drops off to 300 meters.

It is not only the demarcation between Shanxi and Henan provinces but also a giant step in the staircase that forms the Chinese terrain.

China is flat along the east and increasingly mountainous on the west. Some experts compare the gradual elevation to a flight of stairs.

The southern part of Mount Taihang is where the western plateau falls almost perpendicularly to the North China plains.

In other places, the fall is eased into more gradual steps.

The mountain is made up of three principle layers, with the bottom 3 billion to 1.8 billion years old, and the top 600 million to 400 million years old.

However, the bottom layer, which consists of sandy gravel and shale, are not as resistant to the elements as the quartz sandstone on the top. Over millennia, the bottom was hollowed out and the top toppled down, forming these faulting wall-like surfaces.

Taihang is a 400-km range that traverses three provinces in northern China.

It is the mountain that gives names to Shanxi (literally west of the mountain) and Shandong (east of the mountain).

According to some theories, its northern tail includes the hilly western suburb of Beijing.

If you fly out of the capital city to Central or South China on a clear day, you can almost see some of the steep cliffs from the right wing of your plane during the first hour.

Taihang is encircled by the mighty Yellow River to the south. The sharp drop in height has created many spectacular sceneries - and folk tales.

One of them is about Wang Mang (45 BC-AD 23), a rebel general who attempted to snatch the crown from the Liu family.

He chased Liu Xiu (6 BC-AD 57) all the way to the ravine-filled southern Taihang.

At one point, he cornered Liu on a cliff.

The desperate Liu jumped and made it across the gorge, which looks like a couple of meters, but a world away from Wang's clutches. The rest, as they say, is history: Liu Xiu became the founder of the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), ending two decades of violence and atrocities and beginning a period of peace and prosperity.

Wangmangling (literally "Wang Mang Ridge"), is - strangely - named after the pursuer who was eventually defeated - not the escapee and ultimate victor.

However, you should not take these legends too seriously, as they are not corroborated by historical research but, rather, just add color to nature's offerings.

Many of the 56 peaks in the Wangmangling scenic area, which covers 40 sq km, come with legends, some based on resemblances to fairy goddesses or animals, others constantly shaped by floating clouds and changing weather.

The best stories may be the ones you create with your own imagination.

Cloud mirages and escarpments are nature's gifts for a dramatic setup.

The plot is for you to carve out.