Thursday, May 23, 2013

a forest of stone

a forest of stone

Our second day in Kunming began with a breakfast comprised of the various pre-packaged baked goods my father and I had gathered during our travels. Breakfast eaten, we packed up and checked out of our room. Today we were heading for YuNan's famous Stone Forest. A major tourist destination, the stone forest is yet another wonderful natural consequence of exposed limestone and rainwater. However, unlike the sloping hills along the Li River, the Stone Forest offers visitors a maze of limestone columns, interspersed with tiny caves and vernal pools. 

Getting there would take some doing. After making contact with the Western World, we secured our baggage at our hotel and set about hailing a taxi to the train station. This took some doing. After a few minutes of unsuccessfully attempting to hail taxis using crude drawings of a train station, our "English-speaking" concierge attempted to help. Flagging down a cab, he chatted with the driver for a whole, then bid us to get in. The train station was on the same road as out hotel, so I was somewhat alarmed when our cab driver took a right, and began speeding down a side road. 

Breaking out our sketch pad once again, we began an elaborate game of pictionary, which eventually communicated our message. Happily, the cab driver pulled a u-turn, and was soon speeding toward the train station. When he let us off, I immediately took a photograph of the train station, in the hopes that showing the picture to a future driver might ease our transit. We then set about looking for a bus. 

the little drawing that could

My guidebook suggested that a bus to the stone forest departed from the train station, but there was no clear indication where this bus was. Finding a poster depicting the stone forest, I took a picture with my camera, and began showing the picture to official-looking types. This netted us some instructions, written in Chinese, which we were able to show to other official-looking types until we found ourselves waiting for bus 706. When the bus arrived, we were alarmed to see that it was a city-style bus. The stone forest was 70 km. out of town, and the prospect of riding on hard seats with a standing crowd packed around us was less than appealing. Nevertheless, we were soon speeding along a highway, toward God-knows where.

God, it turned out, knew that our destination was the Kunming Bus Station, and when the bus mercifully stopped, we took our cue from the crowd and piled out. A little wandering, and we were soon buying tickets to the stone forest on a proper long-haul bus. A short wait, a two-hour bus ride, and we were standing on the grounds of Stone Forest National Park. Discretely following a Chinese-speaking Westerner (who I presumed knew what he was doing) we soon plunked down ¥150 each for tickets to the stone forest. Without the benefit of a map, we asked directions to the entrance. A man, who I would later curse under my breath, directed us down a road, and blissfully ignorant, we began our merry jaunt. 

Coming to a fork in the road, we turned left, and decided that the road led out of the park. Staring down the right-fork, we watched as electric trolleys ferried tourist-looking types down a long road that disappeared into the distance. We would soon learn that we were 3 km. from the entrance, 3 km. that - in the heat of the day - would probably have killed us. So we hiked back to where the trolleys were departing, only to find that we needed to buy a separate trolley ticket. Exasperated, we returned to the ticket office, bought the appropriate tickets, and at last found ourselves speeding toward the park.

One misguided cab ride, a packed bus to an unknown destination, a long-haul bus through the countryside, and an almost-unexploited electric trolley later, we were stepping into the stone forest. It was worth it.

At first, the area was crowed with tour groups, their coordinated hats and flag-waiving guides loudly moving through the park. But soon, we had put some distance between ourselves and our noisy fellow park users. We explored deeper and deeper into the maze of twisting limestone. Then we climbed high up to the stone-tree line, and gazed over the extraordinary expanse of rain-carved rock.

my father, down in the valley

following a cement bridge across the water

an elephant!

looking down on a forest of stone

After three or four hours, still very foot-sore from yesterday's walking spree, we emerged in the hopes of finding a reviving pub or restaurant. While the guidebook and other travel sites I read suggested that such amenities, I can only imagine that they once existed in the now closed-down buildings near the entrance. Surrounded by untended gardens, and somewhat overgrown with vines, the complex of buildings reminded me of what Jurassic Park would look like a year after the dinosaurs got loose. 

Not spotting any triceratops, we decided to board an electric trolley that was heading to some other part of the park. Hoping onto the back, we cruised past well-manicured grounds at the periphery of the park. The close-cut grass and attractive flower arrangements brought out a very pleasant perspective on the limestone formations. When the trolley finally stopped, we hopped off, and headed toward a complex of buildings that we hoped might include a restaurant. Turning a corner, we were shocked to discover that we were back where we had come from. Walking by the same Jurassic Park-esque edifices, we decided to call it a day. Finding the exit, we made it back to the hotel where the Kunming-bound bus would pick us up.

the well-kept grounds of the "mushroom forest"

I had strategically positioned myself to be the first person to spot the bus. I didn't think that it was terribly important, but this minimal fore-knowledge gave me some sense of satisfaction. I had no idea how practical it would become. When I did spot the bus, I alerted my father, and we began walking out to the boarding area. Our movement attracted the attention of other passengers, and they soon began rushing toward me. Unmoved by my naive assumptions of entitlement at being the first to see the bus, I was elbowed and prodded away from the entrance. These people really wanted to get on the bus. 

Retaining some sense of propriety, I used my commanding wingspan to allow some women and children onto the bus, then blocked others to let my father sneak on with me behind him. It turned out that the mania may have been due to the shortage of available seats. Despite tickets sold on a hourly basis, not everyone made it onto the bus. I was therefore pleased that I had been vigilant, and we were soon motoring back to Kunming Bus Station. Catching a cab from the bus station in an attempt to cut one form of transportation out of the equation, we were soon outside our hotel. By now it was 6:00 in the evening, and having not eaten anything since breakfast, we looked around the area for food. We found a series of colorful markets, and a large indoor farmers market, featuring an array of food items (living and otherwise). Fresh vegetables spilled over counters, stacks of eggs balanced precariously atop tables, butchers chopped away at cuts of meat, and merchants offered various cuts of cheese. Fish, frogs, and eels swam, sat, and slithered in buckets, awaiting the tastes of connoisseurs who insist on freshness.

a colorful array of lentils 

While many things looked delicious (less so the frogs) our wimpy Western stomaches directed us elsewhere. Eventually we found a sit-down restaurant, where I enjoyed a dinner of eel and rice. Our hunger thus staved, we collected our luggage and hailed a cab to the train station. Availing myself of my prepared photograph, I was able to accomplish in ten minutes what had earlier taken over a half hour. 

With plenty of time before our train boarded, I caught up on some homework that had not been transmitted before I left, and played backgammon with my father. When our train did arrive, it was flashy and new-looking. My initial impressions were good: the washroom was clean and had only the faintest hint of the lavatory smell so pervasive on Chinese trains. These trains had two stories, a further sign of modern luxury and connivence. Unfortunately, our compartment soured my impressions. The double-decker train layout meant that the cabin was ludicrously compressed. Even "normal" sided people sitting on the bottom bunk would  have to crouch to avoid hitting their heads on the upper bunk. The space was further constricted due to the lack of available space for luggage. Exploiting ever nook and cranny we could find, the remaining space was so claustrophobically constrictive, that I immediately jumped into my bunk to sleep. Contorting myself around some of my luggage, I caught what sleep I could. 

It's now morning, and I'm anxious to get off this train and and explore Lijiang. We've left the cities behind us, and the next few days promise fresh air and open country. After this train ride, I can't wait.

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