The sky was dark, the streets were flooded and you could hear thunder in the sky. What to do with that kind of day? Well, walk around outside with hundreds of chinese people of course!
Thats right, me and 4 of my classmates from my Kunming Chinese school decided to brave the elements and go to the Stone Forest. Located 75 miles from Kunming, the Stone Forest is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as I have a secret goal of visiting all of China’s UNESCO sites, I wasn’t going to pussy out because of a few rain clouds.
The Stone Forest is a misnomer. It’s not actually made of stones, but rather the ‘stones’ are a style of Karst peaks, tall, steep rocks that just seem to burst out of the ground. In many places, the land around the karsts are totally flat, surrounded by grass, and the stones just kind of rise from the ground, like stalagmite (or stalactite, whichever one rises.)
In some parts, the entire landscape is rock and the path twists and turns. Despite the rain it was impossible to use my umbrella in many parts because the narrow path, the rocky overhangs, or the caves we walked through. I stopped myself from making about a million Mordor jokes, but seriously, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Frodo and Sam trundling up the stairs at any point.
It’s summertime, and therefore high travel season, and while the crowds were not so fun, there were some benefits to seeing it during high season. The Stone Forest is in Yunnan Province, the southwest corner of China, which is home to China’s largest amount of ethnic minorities. So throughout the day, we saw a lot of ethnic minority groups singing, dancing and showing off their unique culture. Sure, it was a little “showy” but c’mon, it was still cool.
At one point we took a break underneath a stone overhang to avoid the rain. One of my classmates, an American, was wearing a cowboy hat. We all just bought ears of boiled corn we were eating, and next to us sat an old chinese man, dressed in traditional clothes, holding a traditional instrument that looked something like a guitar. The whole thing felt country western in a weird different dimension kind of way.
The Stone Forests covers and area of 140 square miles, so obviously we only saw a small portion. We didn’t pay for a guide and therefore missed out on some of the local lore, but I was able to eavesdrop on the chinese tour groups as we were walking around and managed to pick up a few things.
Like clouds in the sky, the shapes of rocks often become personified and as I was navigating down a flight of stairs I heard one guide pointing out the shapes of a cat chasing a mouse. The most famous stone is one that bears the shape of a young girl named Ashima. Legend has it that she wasn’t able to marry her true love so she turned into stone instead of marrying another. Every year the local people celebrate her in a holiday known as ‘Torch Festival.’
The Stone Forest is billed as one of the “Seven Wonders” of China, and there is a saying that “If you are in Yunnan and don’t go to the Stone Forest you haven’t really been to Yunnan.” That might be overstating things a bit, but it is definitely worth the drive if you are in this part of the world.