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October 17, 2018

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Stone Forest amazes visitors, inspires old legends

I was barely 10 when I first visited the Stone Forest, also known as Shilin, in the southwestern province of Yunnan. The grotesque formations there have always fascinated me, which prompted a return visit as an adult.

Seeing it all again, I realized the power of nature revealed in just 400 square kilometers.

Shilin is a typical karst landscape, a landform underlaid by eroded limestone that produces characteristic ridges, towers, fissures and other features.

Along with other karst formations in southern China, Shilin was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2007.

The scenic area is divided into two parts, the Major Stone Forest, or Dashilin, and the Minor Stone Forest, or Xiaoshilin. Science tells us that the evolution of Shilin took more than 300 million years. Limestone in the area now takes the shapes of towers, swords or mushrooms, all of which have fired up the imagination of local people. The names given to the stone formation reflect both awe and sometimes humor.

For example, a triangle-shaped stone on the top of a stone hill is called the “Napoleon Hat,” which, to be fair, makes sense. A slim, tall piece of stone is called “Edge of a Sword.”

Meanwhile, a stone loosely held by two close peaks is simply named “Close Call.” Local people believe the stone will fall on the head of any evil person walking there. A bit far-fetched given that the stone has barely moved in the last 3 million years.

One of the highlights is “Ashima,” a limestone formation that looks like a girl with a bamboo basket on her back. The 10-year-old me looked at the formation from the other side and thought it was a cloaked wizard with beard. Local Sani people, a branch of the Yi ethnic group, believe that the stone is the incarnation of Ashima, their legendary Echo Goddess.

It makes sense that the stone is interpreted as the figure of a young girl. You can see that she holds her head high, looking to the sky, and her hair is neatly worn in a bun.

The story of Ashima is based on Sani narrative poetry passed down for more than 2,800 years.

Ashima is a young girl from a poor family. She falls in love with Ahei, the adopted son of the family, and the two become engaged. Meanwhile, Azhi, son of a local tribal chief, captures Ashima and forces her to marry him. Ahei comes to her rescue and the couple escape. As the fleeing couple pass by a narrow creek, the tribal chief implored the cliff god to turn the waterway into a wide river. Ashima drowns and becomes a piece of stone, which people believe is the one in Shilin.

The UNESCO World Heritage list also includes an area called Liziyuanqing, another karst landscape south of the Stone Forest.

In the middle of the area, a vast landscape of smaller, sharp limestone resembles stone daggers protruding from the ground. On a nearby huge stone, ancient frescoes show patterns of humans, animals, the moon and the stars. The dating of the frescoes remains a mystery but they are believed to be related to some ancient Yi religion.

Walking past Liziyuanqing and going further south would reach a lake in the middle of a forest, the Long Lake. As it is not easy for outsiders to find the location of the lake, it is also named “the Lake of the Hidden.” The water of the lava lake is provided by unpolluted subsurface streams. Local Sani people love to have barbecue and campfire parties on the bank of the lake, and sometimes drifting on the lake with bamboo rafts.

Living in a place of such splendid wonders must have been an inspiration to the Sani people. They created writing texts even earlier than the Han people, and their culture was rich in literature, clothing, food, music and dancing.

If you go

There are direct fights from Shanghai to Kunming, capital of Yunnan Province, or you could choose high-speed trains if you have more time. The 12-hour train journey is said to be one of the most scenic in China.

Buses to the Stone Forest are available at Kunming Eastern Bus Station. The 1.5-hour ride plies a long, winding mountain road that might be difficult for people with carsickness.

There are buses going between the Stone Forest scenic area, Liziyuanqing and the Long Lake.

Admission: 175 yuan (US$25), free for seniors over 70


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