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Fairy tale for the ages in the Stone Forest of Kunming

Erik Nilsson
Updated: May 4,2015 9:27 AM     China Daily

A view of Kunming’s Stone Forest in Yunnan province.[Photo provided to China Daily]

It’s a legendary love story of rocky romance literally set in stone.

The ethnic Yi fable of Kunming’s Stone Forest tells of the gorgeous and glib Ashima, and the poor but kindhearted herder Ahei, who fall in love. But a landlord’s covetous son abducts Ashima and hides her in the limestone labyrinth.

Ahei challenges him to singing and wrestling competitions, and triumphs after three days.

But the villain floods the Stone Forest, drowning and fossilizing the lovers.

The tale is Noah meets Lot, Romeo and Juliet meets Legend of Zelda-with Yi characteristics.

Geologists agree the area was once underwater-albeit 200 million years ago. Undercurrents dissolved the seabed to forge the otherworldly dreamscape of thousands of stone spikes that jut skyward. It remains a modern marvel and UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was these real forces, rather than magic, that conjured the two karsts said to be Ashima and Ahei.

Ethnic Yi people perform at the Stone Forest park.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Yet that doesn’t make the story or its setting any less enchanting. (The epic has been made into a national dance drama, novels in several languages and a 1960s film.) The parable continues to shape the way explorers experience the vast area.

The Stone Forest is divided into two routes-”Ahei”, or the Major Stone Forest subdivision, and “Ashima”, whose “Minor” trek is much easier.

These routes live up to their namesakes. Ahei translates as “ambitious” in the local Yi’s Sani branch dialect. The hero had to undertake the trickiest trek to save his lover. Ashima means “elegant”.

The two formations believed to be the petrified protagonists are the most famous-Ashima’s stone is an icon representing the Sanyi, like a local Statue of Liberty.

But many of the 12-square-kilometer park’s peaks have been ascribed anthropomorphic identities and associated with various sagas.

The stone spires bear such names as-and ostensibly the shapes of-Drunkard with a Drum, Phoenix Pruning Its Wings and Rhinoceros Admiring the Moon. One shard is supposed to be a shattered sword. Another is a cobra’s head. Yet another is the head of the horse that carried Ashima.

Yet another is a crocodile’s head with grass blades for teeth. Local people pluck the grass and put it to their lips to call birds.

The birds reply.

Then, there are whole ranges with names like Knife Mountains and Fire Sea, with points that evoke blades and flames.

The Lotus Pond is so named not because it nurtures water plants but because the stones poking out of its surface resemble their blooms.

One of the mountains is a pile under which the Monkey King-a mythical protagonist of one of China’s four major classic novels-was wedged for centuries after aggravating the Jade Emperor.

A cavity in the summit is said to be the opening out of which he stuck his head to plead for his monk master to save him.

Other lore says the cave is where Taoists became immortals.

The same grotto was purportedly used as a prison for insurgents during a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) uprising, when rebels made the Stone Forest their base.

Few were caught, although imperial soldiers scaled the peaks-the highest is 1,769 meters high-to get panoramic views.

People still get lost every day. A major part of guides’ job, like the Qing soldiers’, is hunting for them.

Cracks between the stone spires are fleeced with lichen and moss.

Many are clasped by “10,000-year vines”. Locals slice them and use the “bloodlike” sap as a cure-all. (It’s said Ashima and Ahei swung on these vines when dating.)

Traditional medicinal herbs poke from the soil, and wild grapes used to make wine dangle like gemstones.

The floral treasure trove is fully displayed during China’s National Day Golden Week, when constellations of cosmos flowers bloom throughout the universe of rock formations.

Also everywhere: fist-sized spiders that scuttle over their webs, and the flittering butterflies they gobble.

Also fluttering through the stone spires are gray herons, Eurasian eagle-owls, common hoopoes and crested finch-bills.

It really is the perfect place to set a fairy tale.

The site has become the showpiece of Silk Road tours through Yunnan, since Kunming was the principal passageway for goods to and from today’s Sichuan province, the Tibet autonomous region, India and Myanmar.

An ancient saying from that era goes: “You’re wasting your time if you visit Kunming without seeing the Stone Forest.”

It’s still true.