Friday, February 13: We check out of our hotel early to head to Kunming’s East Bus Station. I’ve seen big bus stations before, notably in Istanbul, but this is by far the most sprawling and chaotic bus station I’ve encountered in China. The lines are 20-30 people deep at about 15 ticket counters, and they’re moving slowly. We never imagined we’d have so much trouble getting a bus ticket to Shilin, home of the Stone Forest.
The bathrooms in this bus station are of the horrible trough variety, and even Alex, who hardly gets phased by bathroom things, says, crinkiing up his nose, that the men’s room is the most disgusting place he has ever seen.
We’re the first ones on the bus at 10:00 a.m. As this is the kind of bus that doesn’t leave until it’s full, we sit and wait for an hour, until 11:00, before we finally take off. As we’re on the east side of Kunming, we’re in countryside almost immediately, and we enjoy the green hills and blue skies, dotted with some nice suburban apartments, on the 1 1/2 hour bus ride to Shilin.
We’re dumped at some kind of depot in Shilin, near the entrance to the park, but we need to find our hotel and check in. We’d also like to get some lunch. We find a taxi after much hassle, as no one at this depot speaks English; we’re then taken to the Stone Forest Holiday Inn, where we find that no one at the hotel speaks English. The hotel seems far removed from anywhere else, and though we try to find out about a restaurant, we cannot get any information from the staff, who all just look at us as if we’re creatures from Mars. We finally give up and ask about the entrance to the park. We’re waved to the right direction outside the hotel. We start walking, not having any clue how far we have to walk to the entrance. Finally, after about 500 meters, we come upon the entrance to the Stone Forest.
Just inside the entrance, after paying our combined entrance fee of 360 yuan (~$58), we see the usual hordes of Chinese tourists along with this pretty little pond.
Our first priority is to find a restaurant. Usually Chinese parks have all kinds of places to eat, but we can’t find anything here. We follow the crowds along a road lined with buildings that seem to have no purpose. We come to a spot where people are queuing up to get on small open-air minibuses, and we hop on one of them. We take a ride counterclockwise around the perimeter of the park, enjoying the scenery along the way. We’re determined to get off if we see any kind of food kiosk.
We find a food stand along the road in front of the Minor Stone Forest Scenic Area. We find some bread snacks and sit on a beautiful green lawn among the karst formations to enjoy our small and insufficient picnic.
A placard in the park tells the origins of the word karst: Karst was initially a transliteration of the German term karst. Originally, karst was the name of a limestone area in the Istria Peninsula of Slovenia in Europe where limestone is widespread. At the end of the 19th century, Czechoslovakian scholar J. Cvijic researched the grotesque limestone landform and termed it karst. Since then, karst has become international geological jargon referring to the dissolution process and morphological features occurring in carbonate rock. In China, karst is also called Yangong.
After our picnic, we head into a dense karst area where we can climb to a viewing pavilion.
Back to our picnic area, we find a sign introducing The Minor Stone Forest Scenic Area: It is well known for its elegance. The rich peaks and pillars are distributed in delicate spatial configurations amidst trees and meadows.
We head across a small pool into the Major Stone Forest area, which is a dense forest of karst pinnacles with stone walkways and steps built through it.
I love how Chinese signs at tourist attractions are so romanticized. A sign here says: This tiny water pool is called Lotus Flower Pool with majestic Major Stone Forest to its south and beautiful Minor Stone Forest to the north. This water pool is encompassed by fragrant magnolia, carpet-like lawn, and evergreen ivy. Thousands of red carps are swimming in the clean water.
Another sign we find in a green valley informs us: On the left side of the gorges, green vines have fully covered the rock, whereas not a single vine has grown on the right side. As the legend goes, this is where Ashima and her lover Ahei chanted their songs of love accompanied by wooden and leaf musical instruments, hence the name “The Lovers Valley.” It was once the shooting set for The Monkey King Subdues Thrice the White-bone Demon in the TV series Journey to the West.
As we wander further into the depths of the pinnacles, the crowds thin out considerably and we have the Stone Forest almost to ourselves.
A Thread of the Sky refers to those deep and narrow rock cracks and channels. They developed along the vertical cracks (joints) due to water erosion. When you walk into these locations, only a thread of the sky can be seen from below as the surrounding precipitous rocks block almost all the incoming daylight.
At the bottom of the rock wall, there’s a cavity whose dimension allows a person to crawl in and out. It’s called Rock Prison. Says the sign: Inside is a steep and narrow valley surrounded by high-rising peaks that may even block flappy birds. According to legend, during Yianfeng Emperor’s reign in Qing Dynasty, it was the location for Zhao Fa, leader of the ethnic Yi people’s insurgent forces, to imprison his prisoners of war. It was once the shooting set for The Monkey King’s Imprisonment under the Five-Finger Mountains by Gautana Buddha.
We emerge from the depths of the Major Stone Forest and begin to walk back along the perimeter road in a clockwise direction, returning over the same territory where we rode the minibus earlier in a counterclockwise direction. Now we can enjoy some closer views of the areas we zipped past.