travel thoughts and experiences
Stone forest of Shilin – a 400 square kilometers of limestone formations resembling great stalagmites cutting through the earth’s crust like some ancient, or even extra terrestrial, buildings, the purpose of which we could only imagine. Even though the reality is a bit less mysterious, a one day trip from the capital of Yunnan province of China is too promising to omit. Thus, early morning with expectations of later evening return, we packed our gear light and hopped on a train to the village of Shilin.
Just after two hours of sleep we got off only to find nothing, save the few “petrified trees” scattered around the non welcoming surroundings. No despair, the wise book advises to continue four kilometers further into the city where the entrance to the mystical forest lies. There is no other option but to prevail with belief.
“Hello” echoed from behind after just a few meters of walk. Leaving it unnoticed we continued our journey with thoughts of easy tourist money collectors. The guy was persistent, though, enough to lure us in and right away he begins talking in fluent Chinese. Do we really look like we understand and even speak the language, I always find myself wondering upon people approaching us, confidently talking native. Once again we settled for good old gesture speech only to realize the teamster was an underground guide in disguise.
Pointing at the ticket price, towering high above our 50 RMB budget, he offered us an alternative. We did not understand much, however his intent was obvious — he wanted to sell us tickets for less, so we begun bargain for an offer we both could not refuse. Seeing a fellow Chinese traveler also signing up for the deal made us a bit less worried.
We did not get any tickets, though. After a short bumpy ride through the city we ended up on a muddy road and followed the instructions to get off and wait. In a few minutes a man suddenly emerged from the nearby bushes and waved for us to walk behind him. So we did, gone through rice fields, crawled under fences, hid out off the sight of security cameras dispersed all around the vast area, camouflaged enough to fool a naked eye of a wandering tourist, yet not enough to deceive the local guide.
After about an hour of creeping, at about the time we begun to question the decision, we finally got there … the forest of petrified stalagmites in size of mid-sized buildings emerged from nowhere with a mind-blowing display. In that instant we forgot about the guide and the fellow Chinaman and begun shooting pictures.
“No leave before 7pm!” in basic English the guide shouted before he disappeared. Where, we could not tell and little we worried back then. Amazing! That was the first thought and it prevailed throughout all the long hours spent amongst the stone formations and, at times, the throngs of Chinese tourists. Seven, six, whatever the difference, lets enjoy the place and walk around, we thought.
Shilin is emblazoned with legends explaining the forest’s creation. One of them narrates a story about the Immortals crushing open a mountain of stone to create a labyrinth for young lovers to hide within. Another unfolds a tale of Ashima, a beautiful girl of Yi people, refusing to marry a village-leader’s son for loving another, petrifying into a soulless memory of broken heart after being drowned by the refused man.
Personally I am inclined more towards believing the labyrinth one, as it was quite a challenge to find the way out the tangle of trails. It certainly took long enough to miss the last bus, train, and whatever other means of transport back to Kunming. Do not forget! The last leaves before 7pm! Or was it 6pm?
Anyway, navigating out of the maze proved to be a piece of cake compared to getting the correct directions to the train station. Again the language barrier made its presence and sent us opposite way, thrice at least. When we finally got there it must had been past 8pm, tired and cold we bought tickets for the first train possible, arriving after 3am as far as memory serves me. With a relief we settled down inside the waiting room, away from the late night chill.
Not for long, though. Waiting room closed at 10pm and we had no choice but walk through the night to keep us warm. It was rather long and restless night; we tried to sleep utilizing the survival knowledge of Bear Grills and stuffing up the clothes with dried blades of grass. It works, I can tell by now – how does it look on the scanner machine we had to pass before getting back to the station at about 2am, one can only guess.
The headmaster, waking us up 20 minutes before the train’s arrival, having us stand outside right on the dedicated marks at attention, was just a cherry on top of the cake to sweeten up the experience. Finally, the trip was over and I found myself falling asleep on the train while dreaming about the teamster and his magic ticket.
random photography by Pete Rosos
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