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The Unreal Rock Formations of China

If we look at China’s great paintings from Huang Gongwang’s Dwelling in Fuchen Mountain to Wang Ximen’sA Thousand Li of Rivers and Mountains to GuKaizhi’s Nymph of the Luo River, we see a common thread; namely a fascination with strange rock formations. Southern China, in particular, is a place of extraordinarily diverse topography. And as the Middle Kingdom’s political center moved south during the Song Dynasty, artistic attention was increasingly drawn towards the marvels of the natural world.

The city most associated with otherworldly scenery is Guilin in Guangxi, a city in the Li River Valley that is peppered with camel hub hills. The Guilin Art Museum sandwiched between verdant hump-like hills and the river, exhibits block prints, oil paintings and of course ink and brush paintings like Ye Lumei’s Clear Evening of the Li River, which explicates just how enamored the ancient Chinese were with the wonders of their landscape.

These marvelous mountains may have inspired painters and poets, but they were carved out by nature many millions of years before civilization flooded the region. Much of China’s cherished scenery is karst, a geological phenomenon whereby soluble rocks like limestone are gradually dissolved by rainwater creating caves and sinkholes beneath leering crags.

Nowadays many of China’s weird and wonderful geological sites are emerging as tourist areas offering hearty travelers hikes through landscapes rarely seen elsewhere. The only question remaining should be, where to set your sights?

What follows is a selection of the prominent peaks and wacky rocks worth seeking out.


Situated on the northwestern tip of Zunyi County in Guizhou, Chishui is a river town bordering Sichuan Province. Once a node for the imperial salt trade the town is today a neon-lit tourist hub possessed of limited interests. What lures tourists this far from the fray is the surrounding countryside defined by forest ravines flanked by towering cliffs of sandstone that have tainted the river systems red. There is said to be more than 4,000 waterfalls crashing through forests of bamboo and ferns that date back 200 million years, having once been the food of the dinosaurs. The largest is Shizhangdong Waterfall; Chishui’s must see fall. Other scenic areas include Sidonggu, Jinshagou Nature Reserve, and Red Rock Gorge, all of which offer fantastic forest hike past waterfalls, over river bridges, through caves, and along precipices with soaring views of the ancient, verdant scenery.

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Not far north of Jishou in Hunan Province, this is a convenient locale to experience the majestic karst peaks of Zhangjiajie without the crowds. The Miao hamlet at the mouth of the park, has alas, been commercialized for tourism. But avoiding the tat stalls and minority exoticism shows is easy and once you get into the valley, set between massive columns of jagged rock peaks, the spectacle of nature might as well be the only show in town. The principle scenic areas are the Nine Dragon Scenic Area, which delivers hikers to the spectacle of a Nine Dragon Waterfall and the Liusha Waterfall while the Yuquanxi Scenic Area is a three-kilometre walk through stunning terraced fields to the Jade Fountain Gate and Tianwan Platform.


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North of Guilin is Ziyuan County. The town of Ziyuan is a pretty and welcoming place with the area around the Zi River lined by some historical sites including a gorgeous wooden wind and rain bridge. But most use the town as a jumping-off spot from where to explore Bajiao Gorge three kilometers north Meixi Town, near the Hunan border. The geopark has some extraordinary danxia rock formations, a type of petrographic geomorphology unique to South China. There are some steep and precarious hikes through the red rock formations, occasionally via hanging bridges and three Buddhist temples are scattered through the park, two on the Guangxi side and one on the Hunan side (you can even leave the province through the park). 


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Another red sandstone danxi park can be found to the east in Guangdong Province. Near the city of Shaoguan, DanxiashanGeopark is home to some extraordinary formations, which won it UNESCO world heritage status in 2010. While the craggy face cliffs and shaoshi rock summits are showstoppers in their own right it is the phallic Yang Yaun Stone that draws the sniggering crowds each year.


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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.


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