Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Stone Forest of Yunnan

Before leaving Kunming, there was one more place I had to visit: the Stone Forest. From the pictures I saw on numerous advertisements, it's an area where stones rise vertically from the ground. I'd seen images of monoliths in Ireland and assumed this was something similar. I was quite mistaken.

Other travelers had informed me that the official site was heavily developed with paved walkways leading between the various sites. My guidebook explained that there were numerous karst stone forests in the region and it was easy enough to find a “wild” area to explore. I also learned that the tourists generally arrived midmorning and departed in the afternoon. I decided to spend the night in the area so I could experience the evening light and dawn.

I spent about half an hour dashing between the various bus stations in Kunming to find the next available ride to the Stone Forest area, about 120km East of Kunming. The trip cost about seven dollars and took close to three hours.

I got off the main road into the park and walked into the first guest house I saw. I was in a bit of a hurry to get to the forest while there was good light so I wasn't fussy about the hotel. The room was adequate and less expensive than any of the other places I'd stayed in China, so I was satisfied. I grabbed my camera gear and headed down the hill to the shilin (Chinese for “stone forest”).

Just past the entrance, I saw tall, sharp edged rocks, each more than three meters high, in every direction – including several in the large pond leading into the area.

Wanting to see something different, and generally being contrary, I dashed off the paved trails, over the lawns, and into the surrounding countryside. Here, I watched an old woman preparing for planting by hacking away the turf between the rocks. Outside the park proper, life goes on.

Back on the paved paths, I made my way around the forest. The park was more or less designed around a central grouping of rock a few hundred meters across. In the center, a pagoda-shaped tower blends in remarkably well.

There were quite a few groupings of stones with paths leading between and through them. There were also numerous signs providing information about the formations and, um, rather poetic requests to keep off the grass.

By the time I had circumnavigated the place, the sun was setting and it was time to go back to my hotel. I was eager to wake early and watch the sunrise over the stones.

I found a quiet restaurant near my hotel. Actually, they were all quiet as there were no tourists anywhere to be seen. When I left the park there were only a few scatterings of locals and a few bus tourists. I had the little town to myself. That is, until two Dutch girls showed up in a panic. “Do you know where we can stay that won't need our passports?” They left their passports in Kunming to get a visa or something. Hotels always insist you show your passport to get a room. I took them to my hotel and explained to the proprietor, in pantomime of course, that they were my friends and needed a room. Five minutes later they had their room and were greatly relieved.

Rising at the crack of dawn, I was greeted by an overcast sky. My wonderful sunrise was not to be. In fact, I was frustrated that I could take none of the photos I'd mentally composed the afternoon before. Without the sun falling on the rocks, they took on a uniform drabness in two dimensions.

Having visited the outskirts of the park, it was time to explore the interior. The Dutch girls knew their way around and led me to some of the more interesting places.

For all the complaints my fellow travelers had with regard to the pavement within the park, I was quite pleased and impressed with the way the place had been laid out. This was not a simple matter of laying sidewalks between clumps of rocks. The geological structures I explored included rock faces that towered a good fifty meters high. Standing at the edge of the forest, there was no way to appreciate just how staggeringly deep were the chasms between the rocks.

The place was remarkably clean and quite peaceful … until encountering a bus tour group. We would be wandering through the narrow passageways thinking we were the only people in the world when we'd run into a guided tour with fifty Chinese tourists on a mission to see the whole place. There were numerous places where you could sit down and just enjoy the landscape. They even included several spots to accommodate picnickers.

I wandered out to visit the village to the northeast of the park. My presence in the town was quite unusual. I understood that few tourists ever bother to take the time to look beyond the stones.

Every open door seemed to have someone working on a craft of some sort. Undoubtedly, the townspeople make a good portion of their income from the tourists. There are numerous kiosks throughout the park. Most sell some trinket or other, but one area provides Yi costumes for visitors to have their photo taken.

I spotted two women carrying great loads of something balanced on a bamboo yoke.

When they stopped for a brief rest, I learned that they were weighed down with dry pine needles. What these were intended for, I have no idea, but I convinced one of them to let me try carrying it. I could barely lift the thing! There was no way I was going to attempt walking lest I upset the well balanced load. The two woman, surely in their late fifties and standing no taller than five feet, proceeded to pick up their burdens and dash down the road at a pace that would humble a trail hiker.

See more images here.

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