Monday, December 5, 2016

The Beauty of Erosion

                                               by Jim Goodman

garden and pillars near the hotel in the Little Stone Forest
       Known for its ethnic diversity, with 24 minority nationalities spread across its territories, many of them with numerous distinct sub-groups, Yunnan also has the greatest geographical variety of any province in China.  It doesn’t have a seacoast, though a beach at the northern end of Fuxian Lake can provide a similar summer experience.  Nor does it have a proper desert, just extremely dry areas here and there where scarcely any vegetation grows.  But it has everything else, from low-lying tropical plains in the south to snow mountains in the northwest cresting over 6000 meters and every possible rugged landscape in between.
       Much of the present topography of Yunnan is due to its geological history, especially the disruptions of the Permian Age, some 270 million years ago.  Violent activity beneath the earth’s crust thrust mountains up to spear the skies, raised lake beds above their water level and drained the inland seas.  Eons later, the seismic activity has still not stopped.  Almost annually, major earthquakes wreck havoc in various parts of Yunnan, rearranging the landscape just like civilized man and his development projects.
limestone projections in the Stone FOrest
       Some of the Permian permutations occurred in places where the original inland seabed was limestone.  This is a sedimentary rock composed of marine elements like mollusk, coral and other creatures.  When exposed to rain, the water slowly but surely dissolves parts of the surface, creates fissures to seep through, sometimes all the way through the rock.  The process carves the rocks into new, irregular and unique shapes of hills, boulders, caves and pillars, creating a phenomenon known as karst landscape.
pillars in the Stone Forest
       The word comes from the Karst Plateau on the Istrian Peninsula, mostly in Slovenia, where the first scientific studies were carried out.  It means “place where rocks are exposed to the air.”  Karst landscapes, including subterranean examples, exist in many places throughout the world.  In this region the best known are in Guangxi Province, along the Li River from Guilin to Yangshuo, and H Long Bay in Vietnam, where the hills appear as islands speckling the sea.
       Yunnan’s karst rival to these sites is the Stone Forest, just two hours east of the capital Kunming.  It is not Yunnan’s only karst landscape, for others exist at Puzhehei, Babao and Duoyihe.  But in those locations the hills may have a bald cliff on one side, but are generally green with some kind of shrubs or plants at the least.  The formations in the Stone Forest are mostly pure, barren rock, usually silver gray.
       When I first visited Yunnan in the early 90s, the Stone Forest was the most heavily advertised tourist attraction.  Every hotel pushed tours there.  As it was also the homeland of the Sani people, a branch of the Yi nationality, I considered it an appropriate introduction to Yunnan’s two prime attractions—ethnic and natural.  But in those days tourists did it in a day-trip, arriving about 10 to 11 in the morning and leaving by 2:30 so they could have an early dinner back in Kunming. 
Dashilin--the Big Stone Forest
       This left the park virtually empty of visitors early morning and late afternoon, the best times for photography anyway.  So I opted to stay overnight inside the park, get out early and explore before the first tour buses arrived.  Just for the adventure, I took the train to Yiliang, which sometimes rose high above the highway for better countryside views.  But buses from Yiliang were not frequent then and, after a lunch in a restaurant, my traveling companions, a European teacher couple on holiday from Beijing, decided to hire a cab to take us there.
       We arrived just before dark, sped through the entrance gate where the ticket booth was already closed and managed to have our dinner just as the Sani dance show was about to begin.  People tend to disparage minority dance shows in Yunnan as exploitation for the tourist business.  I was seated from where I could see the performers off-stage, awaiting their turn and practicing their steps one last time before they went on.  They obviously took it seriously themselves.  In fact, ethnic minority dances have been part of Yunnan’s tradition of welcoming guests since the Nanzhao Dynasty over a thousand years ago.  A Yunnan minority troupe even resided in the Tang Dynasty capital of Chengdu at that time.
dog-like stone in Shilin
       We set out early, though the skies were nearly covered with clouds the whole morning.  Xiaoshilin, the Little Stone Forest, lay near the hotel and features a small lake and some of the tallest, most evocative pillars, including the one named after the Sani heroine Ashima.  Dashilin, the Big Stone Forest, a little further on, sprawls over a much larger area, with pathways that wind through, around and sometimes under the boulders. 
       Time and erosion have sculpted some of these stones into arresting and suggestive shapes, like a dog howling at the moon, or the one called Camel Riding an Elephant.  The path sometimes veers out of one conglomeration of boulders to a field flanked by yet another ‘grove’ of bare rocks jutting out three to six meters above the ground.  The sides of many have parallel vertical ridges like the exterior of a loofah gourd, the surface smooth in between the ridges.  Groups of boulders or pillars may also have horizontal crack lines across their sides, as if they came from a celestial giant’s building block set, or were being prepared as water channels for the invisible demons that prowl the ‘forest’ at night.
flat-topped pillars in the Sand Forest
       It was still overcast when we departed, Just as the park was fast filling with tourists.  I returned the following year in good weather to photograph everything again, this time staying in a lodge just outside the entrance, this time paying the 20 yuan entry fee, and again starting my exploration just as the crowds were leaving.  Since the mid-90s the ticket price has jumped nearly ten times that and so has the number of visitors.  It must be the most financially lucrative tourist spot in Yunnan.
       Smaller concentrations of karst topography lie all over Shilin County’s rolling hills.  The most notable are on the outskirts of Suogeyi village and in Naigu Shilin, the Black Stone Forest, where the rocks are mostly charcoal black instead of steel-gray.  For a very different kind of eroded attraction one goes to Luliang County, east of Shilin, and the Colored Sand Forest (Caise Shalin), 18 km south of Luliang city, at the foot of Wufeng Mountain.. 
wall sculpture in a Shalin cave
the 'scholar' rock
       Here it’s not limestone, but sand mixed with stone, with a high quartz content.  Rather than a near-uniform gray, rock formations come in a variety of colors: rust-red, light orange, white, yellow, light gray and pink, sometimes several in one group, which is why it got its name.  Tall, thin pillars like those in Shilin stand here, too, but most of the formations are thicker pillars with very even flat tops that almost look like they were sawed off.  They may stand in groups among the trees at the lower end of a steep cliff.  Or they could be lined up in descending heights.  Occasionally they can be egg-shaped or triangular, with an anthropomorphic cliff face, like the one resembling a scholar with a pointed cap.  Or they might have accessible caves, where ancient monks lived in retreat and in one case carved a deity’s face on the wall.
cliffs in the Colored Sand Forest
When I visited Shalin two decades ago it was a pleasant contrast to the commercial hubbub around the Stone Forest.  Though it was a nice day I was practically alone in the park, often wondering why it wasn’t crowded.  From March 2001 that changed dramatically with the inauguration of the annual International Sand Sculpture Festival, in which artists from across the globe come to create sculptures out of the grounds of the park.
       That gave the Colored Sand Forest nationwide publicity and the 21st century wave of domestic tourists began including Shalin on their Yunnan itineraries.  Conscious of its reputation for uniquely colored sands, local vendors began bottling them to sell to tourists.  Then tourists started bringing their own bottles and went out on the trails to chip away at boulders and cliff sides to collect free souvenirs. 
like a row of buildings in the Earth Forest
       A number of violent storms and a more acidic precipitation in recent years have also contributed to the accelerated rate of erosion.  The formations in the Sand Forest are intrinsically not as strong as limestone.  Combined with the tourist poaching, half of the park’s formations have disappeared or severely deteriorated.  In some cases souvenir excavations along the base of a cliff have helped make it slide onto the ground.
       Some of the intact scenic areas have been declared off limits as a result, while workers have installed black retaining walls in the park’s main 6km2 walking area to bolster the weakened cliffs.  Park workers also make daily tours looking for fresh holes to plug.  While the area still has its breathtaking attractions, the Colored Sand Forest is becoming a sad example of how tourism can instigate erosion far faster than natural forces like wind and rain.
the Earth Forest in Yuanmou County
       A third phenomenon of natural erosion in Yunnan suffers neither from pilfering nor vast crowds.  Called Tulin, the Earth Forest, it covers 50 km2 of an area 36 km northwest of Yuanmou, which is itself 200 km west of Kunming.  Thus it is too far for a day-trip and only likely to be part of a schedule for Yunnan visitors in the province who are here for an extended time.  I myself wound up seeing it in the mid-90s as an excursion out of Yongren, prior to an all-night bus ride back to Kunming. 
       After turning off the main road north of Yuanmou, we passed through a rural area full of trees and streams before reaching Banguo, the village beside the park.  Entering the area just beyond the village the landscape suddenly changed.  The groves were gone.  The stream beds were dry and the view in front of me more approximated that of a desert.   High, dry, vertical cliffs lined the stream bed in subdued colors of pale yellow to light red-brown.  Some vegetation sprouted on small ledges along the cliff faces, but scarcely any trees were visible except on the hills in the distance, glimpsed in between sections of the cliffs.
cliffs and pillars in the Earth Forest
       There was no ticket booth back then and the only manmade addition to the park, besides a smattering of signposts along the bridle trail, was a flower tree garden just inside the entrance.  Villagers offered me a pony ride, which would have been a good idea to reach the furthest parts of the park, but I really only had time for the nearest section and, felling fairly vigorous after the ride from Yongren, decided to walk.  As the afternoon wore on and the light was less intense, the colors on the cliffs and pillars became ever richer and more enchanting.  
chedi-like spires in the Earth Forest
                Compared to the Stone Forest and Colored Sand Forest, the Earth Forest is relatively young.   Geologists reckon its age as 1.5 to 2 million years.  The soil here is sand rock mixed with clay.  Movements of the earth’s crust caused crannies in the soil that deepened and widened over the eons.   Besides the cliffs that rise so sharply from the plain, the Earth Forest features pillars that rise like columns up to forty meters high. 
       A walk through the Earth Forest easily stimulates one’s imagination.  Protrusions on the sides of the cliffs can resemble high-relief carvings of animals like rabbits, gophers and crouching lions.  Some of the pillars are topped with narrowing spires that look like Southeast Asian Buddhist temple chedis.  Other pillars have lateral extensions at the top like horse heads on their upturned necks.
       Other cliffs suggest urban architecture.  Cliffs in a row, a little apart from each other, stand like high-rise city buildings.  Some spots on the high cliff walls, sculpted by time and weather, appear to be rocked-carved cathedrals, with doors, windows and triangular roofs.  Others are like palaces with columned front facades.
       The Earth Forest does not have an annual sculpture festival.  There’s a ticket booth now, 100 yuan admission, and tours are a bit more organized, with vehicles instead of ponies.  But it draws nowhere near the crowds of the Stone Forest and encompasses a larger area.  There are still plenty of places in the Earth Forest where one can be alone in contemplation of an inspiring landscape, and define its details in similes and metaphors, just like the classic Chinese poets.

'buildings' carved by time in the Earth Forest
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