After an amazing three weeks of Imprint China tour, I set out on my own again, exploring parts of China we missed on the tour. My first stop was Yunnan Province, in the far south, bordering Myanmar.
An early flight whisked me from Hong Kong to Kunming, another of China’s mega-cities we’ve never heard of. Hosting the countries 4th largest airport (no idea what the criteria is), I was, as always in China, impressed by the scale and architectural panache of the new airport. Logistics were easy (except the language barrier) as I got money, had a snack, and boarded a bus going directly to my destination: Shilin.
There is a small town of Shilin, but the name is more synonymous with the nearby Stone Forest. The SF is a geologically tiny collection of karsts. Karst are limestone, cracked and fissured by tectonic activity, then weathered and eroded by wind and water over millions of years. The results are the dramatic stacks and peaks of Guilin here in China, Khao Sok and Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, and Halong Bay in Vietnam.
However, here at Shilin, nature produced something different. Here in the SF, the peaks are smaller, more splintered, more tightly bunched, and on a smaller but more dramatic scale. Stone Forest indeed – the name if perfect.
That is precisely how it feels when one walks among these twisted and gnarled shards of rock, like walking through a forest of petrified trees. And unlike the other famous karst regions, the tightly packed nature of these pinnacles, spires, and stone shards makes them much dramatic in an apples versus oranges way. Halong, Guilin, and Khao Sok are dramatic landscapes viewed from afar. The SF is dramatic in its intimacy as you walk, duck, squeeze, and almost crawl amongst, through, and within the twisted masses of stone. This is another one of those places that quickly exhausts superlatives. It is breathtaking, awe inspiring, fascinating, jaw-dropping, amazing, and sublime.
The experience is significantly tempered by the hordes of Chinese tourists which inundate the resource daily. Each with its guide, obnoxiously blaring their commentary over a mini loudspeaker and wielding their selfie sticks like weapons. In fact, for that very reason the guidebooks are a bit on the cool side when describing whether Shilin is worth visiting.
But I find, as a travel philosophy, if one knows what to expect, and can compartmentalize the negative and focus on the positive, one can enjoy most worthwhile sights. And so it is here. I commenced my visit in mid-afternoon. The site was still crowed with tour groups, but starting to thin. By 4PM it was starting to empty out and the light we better for photographs as well. Moreover, even at its most crowded, I could avoid the throngs by hiking away from the most popular areas. I often found myself completely alone. It was an amazing afternoon.
The Stone Forest was the reason I had some to Yunnan, but I got a morning bonus. I started my day with a visit to Jinxiang Cave. I have been in a lot of caves in a number of countries, but this was the most impressive yet. The visit begins with usual gauntlet of food and souvenir stalls before the ticket windows and entrance.
Then a long climb down many many steps into a plunging gorge (or take the spiffy new elevator down – love that Chinese infrastructure!). At the bottom you’re ushered into waiting skiffs to be motored up and back through the water-filled defile. A pretty unique experience. Then its on to the main attraction, the cave itself. You make your way along a suspended walkway to the end of the gorge where the water runs over several cataracts and then rapidly descends underground.
You follow the water – into a wonderland of polychromically lit caverns, pools, terraces, stalagmites and -tites, underground waterfalls, and one gigantic grotto. Very impressive, though I could do without the colored light kaleidoscope – a bit too Disney for me (even a bit too Disney for Disney). The passage narrows and gets low in places, giving one the feeling you are really exploring and on an adventure. Of course, you must dodge selfie sticks and shut out the cacophonous reverberations of countless Chinese tour groups all along the way.
You emerge into sunlight for a while, then plunge back to the netherworlds to photograph twin waterfalls spilling down into a second cavern system. And before re-emerging into the land of light you pass by the most impressive feature of all – a series of terraced pools, ala Yellowstone’s [terraced Hot Springs] or Turkey’s Pamukale. Only in this case, it’s all underground. The visit concludes with another long walk back to the entrance area. Or . . . ride back on a ski-lift style chairlift. Gotta love those Chinese engineers.