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Poetry in stone shaped millions of years ago
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08:16, June 12, 2009

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If you can visit only one place in Kunming, let it be Shilin, or Stone Forest. It's actually located in a neighboring county, but just an hour's drive on the highway.

The whole province of Yunnan is perfect for people of benevolence. (Remember the Chinese saying the benevolent love the mountains?) And the Stone Forest is for the extremely big-hearted. As the name implies, it is a forest made up of stone. Not just regular stones, but stones shaped like trees, bamboo shoots, glaciers and knives, the kind of rockery usually seen in a bonsai garden, but enlarged. So, I call it "God's bonsai".

Administratively, Shilin covers an area of 2,670 sq km, but fortunately the scenic area is more concentrated and easily accessible by foot. In an area called "Small Stone Forest" with sprawling meadows, across from a pond, stands one peak with a shorter one right next to it. This is the famous Ashima Rock. Ashima (no relation of the Hebrew deity of the same name) is a girl in a local Sani legend. She falls in love with a handsome boy, but their romance is wrecked by a local despot.

I remember the story clearly because I saw the movie version in the late 1970s. The movie was made in 1964, but due to political reasons was not premiered until after the "cultural revolution" (1966-76). By that time, the female star who played Ashima had lost her sanity to persecution, but her stunning beauty had left an indelible mark on a whole generation. The movie ends with Ashima washed away by a man-made flood and turned into the stone peak.

Many more myths and legends can be created if you venture deep into the "forest". There are paths and trails that lead you to the top, where you can have a panoramic view of a canyon of sharp-edged blades. I had the illusion that it's an army of gods and monsters in shining armor, dueling it out. You can also come up with a more peaceful interpretation because many of the tips look like lotuses, a symbol of Buddhist meditation.

Fantasy aside, this place was submerged by seawater 270 million years ago, according to geologists. Then, between 230 and 2 million years ago, the ocean subsided and the rocks surfaced, leaving clear horizontal marks across all peaks as if someone had attempted to tighten the waist and neck of a battalion of stone giants. Water also carved erstwhile shapeless stones into phantasmagorical formations.

Nowadays, Stone Forest is part of South China Karst, a UNESCO-sanctified heritage site. I overheard a tour guide say "All this could be turned into building materials and used up in a single year. But who would want to do that? It's so much more valuable to us as it is."

Source: China Daily



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