The Karst Kingdom

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In the first part of this entry, I mostly complain the about environmental degradation, the Chinese government’s interpretation of national park and tourist hordes. If you don’t like snarky whining, just skip it and go to the second half. The Stone Forest is worth it; it is a famous Chinese national park, a Kingdom of Karst.

Yvonne, Embryona and I get on a two hour bus ride from Kunming to Shilin, or Stone Forest. We just spent a couple of days in Kunming, a capital of Yunnan. We liked the city, its two European bakeries being the high point of our stay. Still, we are very happy to get out of pollution riddled city towards the pristine Chinese countryside and the Stone Forest’s mysterious cliffs. A day ago, I spent an hour drooling over the internet photos of impossible karst formations, magical lakes draped by fog, gnarly pine trees growing right out of white stone and other sights to behold.

We pass by hilly countryside generously sprinkled by scrawny pine trees and dull brown grass valiantly fighting erosion. Occasional patches of cultivated land stand out as impossibly bright green geometrical shapes. They are randomly spread out among the slopes steep enough to be designated as be black diamond ski trails in a Vermont ski resort.

As we get further from the city, the visibility is getting worse. Thin darkish fog coats the expanse of the open space around us. The hills next to the road are still sharp and clear but the buildings and land half a mile away from the road are blurred. A brown haze covers the horizon. For an hour, Yvonne and I entertain each other by discussing the nature of the air phenomenon. The smog is so disgusting! Yvonne, it can’t be smog, we are in the countryside; the air in Kunming was actually cleaner; nothing here could produce such dense smog. It must be fog, you moron, what else can it be? Moron yourself; what kind of fog is it, sticking to the ground at 11am, on a sunny crisp day… And so it goes, two lovebirds chattering tenderly.

Two hours later, as we still are still undecided on the nature of the air phenomenon, the bus arrives to our destination. A few dusty restaurants and low-end hotels together with a local market shyly hover at the edge of, probably, the single most famous outdoor attraction of the People’s Republic of China, the Stone Forest National Park.

We walk into a cluster of parking lots and buildings that could put an entrance to any Disneyland to shame. It’s a winter weekday, a dead season, so we walk past a few hundred meters of gray concrete desert peppered by the occasional specks of tourist buses. A gray concrete building towers ahead of us; it’s guarding an entrance to the Nature. A Time Square size LED screen is hanging in the front, and a sequence of Stone Forest images march across like a Star Wars opening sequence under the corresponding music.

It costs quite a bit to get into the Stone Forest, 175 yuan or $30; it is four times higher than any entrance fee we’ve ever seen in China. Since we want to spend a couple days here, getting acquainted with the park at a slow pace, we ask for a yearly pass – it costs only $4 more. Maybe I’ll be lucky, I think, and sell it to somebody afterwards. With a commendable entrepreneurship spirit, the entrance to the park was constructed three kilometers away. So, we have to pay another four dollars to ride an electric card to the park. A few minutes and a daily salary for a qualified Chinese laborer later, we get in.

We are confused. The national park starts with a classically landscaped Chinese garden. A four foot wide paved trail passes artfully arranged streams, rock beds, flowers and trees. The garden would make Beijing proud, but what has it to do with a national park? We walk further, towards the sounds of music. A fake stone bridge crosses over a fake lake leading to a flower pyramid. It grows mysteriously in the middle of a tiled square.

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A few remaining karst towers grow out of the lake; the others were probably quarried to pave the lake perimeter with concrete. The lake is only a quarter of a mile wide and a few dull featureless buildings grace the other shore. With a jolt I realize that the fairy tale photographs of a vast water space with dozens of graceful karst towers quietly fading into the fog were actually taken here. My compliments to Chinese nature photographers!

At least, we are getting closer to the actual park; we can see occasional white karst formations shining in the sun. We cross another concrete square and pass a dozen Chinese tourist groups and their megaphone-armed guides wearing drab down jackets over colorful national costumes.  We walk by an impossibly perfect green meadow that can put Oxford gardeners to shame. The meadow is encircled by ten meter high karst towers; it looks like a six star exclusive golf course.

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We walk another kilometer on a five meter wide paved road with green electric cars packed with people whizzing by us every three minutes. Finally, we see a trail sign and we rush towards it with a sigh of relief.

It is like magic; all the people are gone. Over the next three hours on the trail, we haven’t met a single tourist. Gone are fake lakes, artistic gardens, paved road, packed cars and megaphones. We finally step into the Karst Kingdom’s fairy land. The trail winds its way up a gentle hill, and stone towers over us surrounded by a coterie of squat green pine trees and subtropical underbrush. It took water millions of years to patiently wash the ground away, baring what used to be the ocean bottom cliffs. They are not very imposing; they rarely taller than a five story New York City building. But there is such a variety of shapes and formations. All around us are single towers, couples, groups, rows, circles of them. There are columns, mushrooms, waves. Some resemble people; a couple resembles a mother and a child embracing. Of course, there is a concrete plaque next to it explaining in five paragraphs of Mandarin and flowery awkward English that these rocks are called “Mother and Child Embracing” because they look like mother and child embracing.

The white little cliffs look so sexy to me; they sing to me in a litany of lovely voices, “Touch us; feel how lovely we are, hold us, climb to the top.” Impatiently, I grab a handhold. I hiss and jerk my hand away; the damn thing is so sharp. I gingerly caress the rock with my hands – it feels like something in between a ceramic knife and a petrified cactus. “Ok,” I think, “I shouldn’t rush it like an impatient teenager. This rock wants me to be gentle and slow like eh… experienced middle age man I am.

I start moving slowly and deliberately. The razor thin and razor sharp edges look painful and fragile. I carefully plant my feet and hold on to the rock, prepared that it can break off at any moment. In a few minutes I learn better. The rock is sharper than Steven Colbert, but it is also hard like an old cynical whore. The ridges look like glass – they all end with a monomolecular thin edge. But they hold my weight without any crumbling at all. Instead, they try to cut through my shoes. I can’t grab a handhold; I can’t even put my hand on a rock. Instead, I have to carefully squeeze handholds between my thumbs and opposing fingers. Fortunately, the rock is not only sharp, but it’s also very rough. The friction is excellent and the climbing feels very secure, albeit painful. So, I carefully climb up a series of holds to the top. The tower lets me have some liberties with it, but it doesn’t yield completely. I can’t stand on top of it; the damn thing is a razor sharp ridge covered in one inch deep, you guessed it right, razor sharp ridges.

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I come down with blood dropping off my left hand, between my fingers; Yvonne rolls her eyes. I pat her round belly, “Too bad you can’t climb right now, you would’ve liked it.” Yvonne rolls her eyes again; I keep rubbing Embryona.

It warmed up and we can finally take our down jackets off. It feels like a Northerner’s paradise. The temperature hovers just below sixty, afraid to cross the line into the summer; a light breeze occasionally passes by and the subtropical winter sun warms the air. For the last two weeks we’ve been traveling at an altitude of just about a mile above the sea level, blessed with days like today, sunny, crisp and dry.

The trail takes us from one clump of towers to another. A dog has to pee at every post; I have to climb every tower with a relatively safe ascent route. Since the rock is so mercilessly sharp, I am not taking any chances and I am not climbing anything harder than grade four, easy five at most. Still, it feels good to scramble, chimney, stem and traverse along the wavy ridges. In spite of being incredibly careful and slow, I keep getting more and more cuts, scrapes and abrasions on my skin and clothing. As I hear yet another ripping sound, “Skin will heal”, I gruesomely think, “but my clothing won’t.”

Yvonne and Embryona stately roll ahead of me, stopping occasionally to let me catch up. It’s hard to imagine that only a mile away, dozens of tour groups are riding dozens of electric cards listening to dozens of guides’ megaphones. It’s so quiet her; neither people, nor insects buzz around. A few birds chirp somewhere in the trees and an occasional squirrel is making its way.

A trail takes us up, past several cultivated fields, to a plateau, above the karst ocean. A traditional Chinese gazebo made out of traditional steel re-enforced concrete signifies a designated lookout.

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A farm somehow stayed in the middle of the National Park, on the edge of karst forest. A dozen or two of level fields of various shapes are skillfully carved out of tilted slopes. Like a thousand years ago, a skinny dark peasant is swinging his hoe at the hard ground, patiently making yet another field. Even from a distance, it looks painful. Screw bucolic farming.

The trail turns around, crosses the electric car road and dives into the densest part of the Stone Forest, going towards the Sword Lake. This is the most picturesque part of the park, and we start seeing an occasional tourist or a small guided group. Yvonne mimics a guide, “Here you see a rock. See, it’s just like a turtle. You can touch it.” Everybody obediently touches a rock shaped like a turtle. Yvonne shudders.

The trail of thousand staircases weaves its way artfully around the towers, sometimes squeezing through a passage that a Walmart customer would get stuck in. Once or twice, I have to take my daypack off to fit through.

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Naturally, I can’t resist making comments about Yvonne’s belly. “Fuck you,” Yvonne pleasantly replies and we kiss. We are descending deeper and deeper into the heart of karst labyrinth. After a dozen staircases, we finally arrive at Sword Lake. It’s almost dark here; it feels like being on a bottom of a cavern. The bright blue sky is so far away. Karst towers grow tall and numerous around the lake. They look more forbidding than before, their slick vertical walls rising like ten story houses into the air.

Naturally, I still find an easier way up a shorter tower and climb to a ridge, than up the ridge towards the highest tower. The ridge feels like a serrated knife. I gingerly squeeze little stone razors with my fingertips as I smear my feet on a near vertical wall. The ridge leads me to a tower with a one meter high stone block somehow stuck on top. I am finally standing on a flat surface, albeit still ridiculously sharp. The stone block is the size of coffee table and I feel like I am standing in the air, floating twenty meters above the ground. The towers, connected by crests and ridges surround me on all sides. I can’t see much past the blindingly white waves of karst, reflecting the sunlight; I feel like drowning in a stone whirlpool.

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I look down, at the lake. The water looks calm and dark, always shaded from the sun by the cliffs. Yvonne is sitting on the stairs next to the lake, looking bored. An old Chinese guy in a conical straw hat is fishing with a bamboo pole.

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I downclimb, scraping myself a few more times. We wonder around getting bored of concrete trails and staircases.

Then, we get lucky. Like a dog, I have to sniff at every suspicious looking narrow passage. Most of them are dead ends, but one suddenly leads us towards an old abandoned staircase, the original one built by normal people, before the age of UNESCO and Chinese bureaucrats. Worn out one foot wide stairs, barely discernable in the stone, lead steeply uphill. We have to do a few easy rock climbing moves when getting up and I spot Yvonne. That’s definitely what I would call a technical staircase. In more difficult places, there are holes drilled through the rock to be used as handles. Six inch wide stone blocks bridge five foot gaps with substantial exposure; Yvonne occasionally freaks out.

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Could it be that Embryona is screwing up with Yvonne’s head for heights? The so-called staircase brings us to the top of the peak and around and down into a pitch dark passage where we have to grope blindly and slowly towards the light and back out to the wide and boring concrete staircase. A twenty five year old Chinese guy accosts us excitedly,

“How did you get up there? Where is the passage? I want to do it!”

Yvonne shows him the passage and a few minutes later, we hear the guy screaming to his friends,

“I am here! See me? You should get here.”

We get out of the stone labyrinth back into the forest and find an open meadow with soft grass and bigger pine trees next to the electric car road. Yvonne sits down to make a sketch; I set up a slack line. For the next hour, Yvonne entertains herself making a sketch of a generalized electric carload of Chinese tourists; I entertain myself by walking the slack line, and the carloads of Chinese tourists entertain themselves by watching me walking the slack line. The sun generously warms us first, then it slowly rolls behind the hill and it immediately gets cold. It’s time to go back.

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