November 10, 2007

China's stone forest | The Brunei Times
Shilin Stone Forest, near Kunming, is in China's Yunnan province

China's towering wonder

Saturday, March 31, 2007
IMAGINE being in a maze of stones towering 30 metres above you. You are following a narrow trail which twists and turns around the giant stone megaliths, and when you come to a junction, you have no idea whether to go left or right.

You feel like a midget in a landscape of giant tower blocks. Your tour guide has told you that you have to be back in the car park at a certain time, and that time is rapidly arrproaching, yet you don't know the way out of this maze.

I was in the Shilin Stone Forest in China's Yunnan province, 126km southeast of Kunming. A typical karst formation, the Stone Forest covers an area of more than 300sq km.

It has been known since the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) as the "First Wonder of the World". I first visited the Stone Forest 19 years ago, and although I could remember being impressed by the huge grey limestone towers, I had forgotten how huge the complex is.

There are large and small forests called Major Stone Forest, Minor Stone Forest and Naigu Stone Forest, all of which feature stones in various formations. With some imagination you can see animals, plants and even human figures. Some are elegant, some are rugged, and each is lifelike with its own distinguishing characteristics. The Major and Minor Stone Forests are considered to be outstanding examples of karst topography in the world.

The surrounding terrain has eroded over the millennia, leaving these rock towers rising up from the surrounding area. In true Chinese form, the weird shaped rocks are given interesting names such as "birds feeding their young" and "phoenix preening itself".

The Naigu Stone Forest, so named because of its weathered black surface (Naigu means "black" in the local ethnic language, Sani), feature rocks shaped like mushrooms.

It has a karst lake, with limestone rocks sticking out like strange islands. The area has been nicely landscaped with shrubs and plants, and open grassy areas in front of the main rocks. There were a few information boards displaying the origins of karst and limestone, which said that 270 million years ago, the area which is now the Stone Forest was an immense expanse of water with limestone sediments forming the seabed. When the earth underwent a period of uplifting, the sediments were raised to form limestone hills.

Then over the millions of years, rainwater gradually disolved the rock, eating away the softer rocks and leaving the harder towers exposed. These towers were further eroded into the strange shapes that we see today.

As we entered the narrow paths to explore the rocks, we soon lost our guide, so I made sure I kept in sight of people from my group. The place was so crowded that we had to be rude and push past visitors in our haste to get round.

We climbed some steps up to a pagoda perched on the top of a rcok, and then had to wait to take pictures as there were lots of people aleady there.

At least we had a stunning view over the rocks, they are quite amazing when seen from above. It is certainly a place where Mother Nature's imagination ran wild.

The local villages are inhabited by the Sani tribespeople, who are part of the Yi ehtnic group. They sell handicraft and act as tour guides and for a fee, you can dress up in their local costumes and have photos taken.

Browsing through the market stalls in the car park, we found various fruits we had never seen before. Ever curious to try new things, I bought a small quantity of different ones.

I found a type of melon called "people's life fruit", which looks like a beige ping-pong ball. I also bought some tiny oranges which were surprisingly juicy and rather messy to eat.

Persimmons were also in season, so I bought those. Normally in Kuala Lumpur they are quite expensive, but as they are native to China, they were almost at giveaway prices in Yunnan.

Other features around the Stone Forest are various caves, a lake and a 90m high waterfall, which we didn't have time to visit. Maybe next time.

The Brunei Times

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