Having made an early start and after two public buses, a sweet omelette bread and a longish coach journey, we arrived at the Stone Forest region around 10am. We had encountered two young Hungarian chaps on the coach who were based in the huge city of Tianjin (near to Beijing) where they were on a scholarship programme learning Mandarin. Like many young westerners living in China, they were also teaching English in their spare time. They spoke excellent English, as so many Europeans do, albeit with a noticeable Hungarian accent! They told us that schools prefer native English speakers, but if you have white skin and can speak English well, then you look convincing enough to the parents. One explained that in his kindergarten class, he didn’t really have to do much – he would mainly assist the Chinese teacher who took the lessons, although photos were taken to show the parents that they had a white person there. For this reason, black or Asian native English speakers may find it harder to secure work and may even get paid less, even though their English is better! Crazy!
It was a beautiful day and so we opted to walk the short distance to the park entrance rather than pay for the shuttlebus. Once we had purchased our tickets, we hopped onto one of the free electric buses that took us on the first loop. We were dropped off by a lake, and then entered the Stone Forest itself. The first section was very touristy, but even drifting a short way up the paths you could escape the crowds. The scenery was extraordinary; I felt like I had entered Jurassic Park, and half-expected a velociraptor to peer around the karst slabs. All about us, huge shards of limestone soared skywards, amidst an emerald carpet of grass and the lush green tangle of the trees. It was so refreshing after weeks of desert landscapes.
There are two main theories as to how the landscape was formed. The first explanation comes from the local Sani people of the Yi minority. They tell of how the gods smashed a mountain into hundreds of pieces to create a hiding place for two young lovers. The second theory is less poetic and a little harder to visualise! I will do my best to explain.
First of all, imagine a vast ancient sea, teeming with life. As the little sea creatures die, they settle on the sea bed and become compacted, layer upon layer. Fast forward several millennia, and the sea has receded. What you now see is a huge rocky landscape, where the skeletal fragments of sea creatures have turned into limestone sedimentary rock, which is composed of calcium carbonate. Limestone, given enough time and the right conditions, is water-soluble. Rain that has reacted with carbon dioxide in the air and in the soil enters cracks in the rock. The weak carbonic acid that is formed dissolves the limestone and the cracks become fissures. Over millions of years, the progressive erosion causes the fissures to widen and deepen until we are left with the karst landscape we see today. At Shilin, it resembles a forest of stone. Karst landscapes can be found all over the world and can vary widely in appearance – the limestone pavement at Malham Cove in England is another example. They can also be formed from other water-soluble rocks, such as gypsum and dolomite.
The limestone at Shilin is around 270 million years old and the region covers an area of 400 square kilometres. The tallest of the rocks is around 30m in height. The karsts vary in topography and the outcrops are given fanciful names that reflect their appearance. ‘A mountain of knives and a sea of fire’ is a Chinese proverb that suggests a dangerous and difficult situation, and in this region the stones were closely packed, jostling together and stabbing their sharp blades towards the heavens, whilst slightly softer forms licked around them like flames. The paths wound around the base of the rocks and sometimes you had to squeeze or duck through the gaps, climb down into a deep gorge or cross a small stream. Every so often there would be a pagoda from which you could look out over the landscape and marvel at the view. It was easy to lose your way in spite of the signs and we encountered one Chinese man again and again. He was on his phone and seemed quite agitated. After seeing him for the third or fourth time, we turned a corner and saw a family also on their phone – we triumphantly waved them together and gave a little cheer!
Some of the tallest rocks were named after characters or scenes from Sani folklore: ‘The Shepherd Wu’, ‘Woman and child’, ‘Woman expecting her husband’. The most famous of these was ‘Ashima’, a beautiful Sani girl who was deeply in love with a young man called Ahei. The head of the village wanted Ashima for his son, and she was kidnapped. Ahei came to her rescue and after a three day long singing match, he was declared the winner and the couple were reunited. However, in a fit of jealousy, the evil son called up a flood, which drowned Ashima and she was subsequently turned into a rock (and grew in height by several metres!). Her namesake stone is supposed to bear a striking resemblance to a Sani girl with a head dress and knapsack on her back. We could just about visualise this one, but some of the so-called likenesses were rather more tenuous! We amused ourselves by spotting our own animals and people and making up stories for them.
As the day wore on, we meandered into less frequented sections and had a picnic lunch at a secluded viewpoint. The karsts were more spread out now and we passed a small lake and some farmland before entering into the Eternal Mushroom zone. This sounds a little like a drug addled episode of the Magic Roundabout, but Dylan the Rabbit was nowhere to be seen. Here, the rocks really did resemble giant mushrooms, with fat stems and bulbous tops. In the distance we could see skyscrapers of a cityscape ranged like the display on an equaliser, and the contrast between the cluster of stone mushrooms and the urban forest on the horizon made me feel like we were at the junction of two separate worlds.
We finished by taking a quiet route back towards the exit and paused a while at the Lion Pavilion, which afforded superb vistas across the park. It was a peaceful end to a wonderful day. We could easily have spent a couple more days there, as we had only visited a tiny snippet, but our time was running short and we had to head back to Kunming.
As the park was only just closing, we assumed we would be in time for the last bus. Unfortunately, we were wrong! An enterprising individual with a minivan was hanging around for stragglers and called out to us that the last bus had just left. Feeling sceptical and like seasoned travellers wary of a scam, we traipsed into the silent station to see whether he was telling the truth. He followed us at a distance and after we had ascertained that he was indeed the only form of transport available, we sheepishly asked for his services. He charged us an appropriate amount for a pair of idiots and took us to a local town from where we could catch a bus to Kunming. As the Chinese say, ‘dripping water can eat through a stone’ – perseverance will lead to success. We feasted on tasty street food whilst we waited, feeling like everything had turned out for the best in the end anyway.