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Exploring eastern Yunnan's Shizong County on foot

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"What's the foreigner doing in Shizong?" It was the police calling my Chinese friend, Sandi. The day before, she had helped me register at a local hotel. She explained I was a guest of her family during Spring Festival, the most important Chinese holiday. "Well," said the officer, "take care of the waiguoren. Make sure no trouble befalls him."

Surprised by the call, I took it as evidence few foreigners visit Shizong County (师宗县), located 180 kilometers east of Kunming with a population of 350,000. Indeed, during my time there I saw no others. As for "take care of the waiguoren", there were no worries. Sandi's relatives welcomed me into the family home, preparing many a tasty meal during which they bantered and joked. No matter my opaque comprehension of their dialect, they treated me most graciously.

Shizong is the county seat, and I accompanied the family on drives through the countryside. In one small village, Sandi's father pointed out several women. He said their feet had been bound as infants. By appearance, these ladies might have been septuagenarians, perhaps older. I looked more closely and their shoes indeed looked tiny. I was astounded to learn that as late as the 1950s, the tradition of foot binding was still practiced on baby girls here. A half century earlier this crippling custom had been outlawed in China.

Grateful for the ability to walk, I was eager to explore out-of-the-way places to hike and climb. With local knowledge provided by Sandi and her family, I would not be disappointed. They took good care of the waiguoren, and showed me five great hikes near their home.

Little Rock Hill Reservoir

On the outskirts of Shizong City, a pleasant excursion follows the west shore of Little Rock Hill Reservoir (小石山水库). A walking path was recently paved, passing through pine forests and then out into the open for a couple of kilometers. Fishermen waited patiently for a bite, but we saw few other walkers. The path ended abruptly at the base of a prominent hill, perhaps the one for which the reservoir is named. I noted a near total absence of trash but surmised this would not last. We bushwhacked up Little Rock Hill and soon reached the untrammeled summit, enjoying a fine panorama of the reservoir and surrounding valley.

Returning to Shizong a few months later, we found the path had been extended another kilometer, allowing one to walk the entire western shore of the reservoir. At the base of the hill, a vendor sold food to throngs of walkers, and from there a beeline of stone steps went straight up. We mounted the stairs to the summit. Now instead of pristine terrain, we found the ground littered with empty water bottles and assorted trash.

Then as now, I sorrow at how casually some Chinese people litter their streets and natural spaces. In this regard one city park in Shizong presents the most extreme example I have seen in Yunnan province. Sandi explained it is due to a simple lack of environmental consciousness. Please may it not always be so. I remain grateful residents of the city have a place to exercise and enjoy the open air.

Wenbi Pagoda

"What's that white tower? Can you climb it?" To my delight, the answer was yes. Set atop a hill, Wenbi Pagoda (文笔塔) is visible from many points in Shizong. Lit up after sunset, it offers a friendly landmark in the night. Reflecting its shapely form, the name 'wenbi' derives from the traditional brush pen used in Chinese calligraphy. High school students make a pilgrimage here for good luck before taking the gaokao, the nation-wide college entrance exam.

Sandi's son, Haofeng, would accompany me. We started from the family home as our destination lay close by. Walking local roads for thirty minutes, we reached the gate to the pagoda compound. The tower was locked but we located an attendant to let us in. Inside she asked for a donation. Haofeng forked over a few kuai, took hold of incense sticks and bowed in the Buddhist tradition. I wanted to say, "I'm not a Buddhist, I'm a Christian," but couldn't remember how to say it in Chinese. So I demurred and mumbled something about being a waiguoren instead.

As we climbed the stairs, each of nine floors harbored a recess with a Buddha or other deity figure hidden inside. At the top, a large bell greeted us. Using a suspended horizontal pole as a mallet, Haofeng struck it and from it issued a bass gong vibration. Impressed by the expansive view of city and environs, we looked out from each point of the compass. Beyond the city the skyline attracted attention. To the north lay a long undulating mountain, Lüyintang Ridge. To the southeast lay a jumble of hills, the highest of which was Mushroom Mountain. On the northeastern horizon sat an isolated peak, Baila Mountain.

Other visitors arrived at the pagoda. Soon I was engaged in a popular pastime: take-a-photo-with-the-foreigner. The attention was a bit tiresome, but who can refuse when everyone is so pleased? On the way back home we almost overlooked a small Buddhist temple. Colorful artwork, paintings and sculptures adorned the walls. An unexpected discovery, Haofeng marveled he hadn't seen it before.

Lüyintang Ridge

One day Haofeng went off to visit the family graves. Intrigued, I asked if he would be willing to return and guide me there. I wanted to see the area as well as explore the ridge above. Perhaps we could climb the highest summit. As there was no parking at the trailhead, Sandi dropped us off. The path ascended steeply and we reached the grave area after half an hour.

Chinese graveyards in the countryside were a new experience for me. Frequently they are situated on hillsides instead of flat ground. The plots, rather than closely bunched, are spaced meters apart. The earth-covered crypt lies above ground, a stone façade facing outward. Chinese characters are inscribed on the stone, and a list of the departed's male and female descendants may be included.

Haofeng led me to the grave of his great-grandfather. He pointed out his own name chiseled into the stone. When he has children their names will be added. Nearby lay grave sites prepared for Haofeng's grandfather and grandmother, open and not yet occupied.

The name of the area was Lüyintang (绿荫塘) meaning 'Green Shade Pond'. For the description here I have applied the name to the entire ridge above. We continued upward, passing a herd of goats tended by a shepherd. Haofeng was eager to see what lay ahead, as he had never climbed higher than the graves. Emerging from the forest we arrived on the open ridge. Our clothes snagged on thorn bushes, but awesome views made us forget the inconvenience. Local inhabitants had established trails here and there, and we passed some people digging for medicinal roots.

In winter and spring, fields of yellow rapeseed bloom in the valleys and canola oil is extracted from the flowers. On one side of the ridge we looked down upon a lovely patchwork of villages and yellow fields — views like this make climbing worth the toil. On the other side we gazed upon Shizong City. There was Little Rock Hill Reservoir, and there too, a tiny white sliver, Wenbi Pagoda. Another hour and we would reach the summit, but it was getting late. Turning round, we headed home.

Mushroom Mountain

For long walks at moderate elevation, Mushroom Mountain offers ample opportunities and rewards. This park of forests, meadows and hilly terrain covers 50 square kilometers. Flowers such as rhododendron and azalea bloom in winter, while herds of horses, sheep and goats graze the land. The Chinese name for the park, Junzi Shan (菌子山), comes from the Yunnan dialect and means 'mushroom mountain'. In fact, curious buildings shaped liked mushrooms populate the highest summit. Prominently displayed on a sign, the peak sits at an elevation of exactly 2,409.7 meters.

A loop road traverses the park, and with its network of paved stone paths, many different walks are possible. Some people stroll while others choose to ride shuttle buses. In this respect, Mushroom Mountain resembles Kunming's own Western Hills.

We began at the visitor center. Hiking on footpaths and roads we reached the summit after an enjoyable two hours. Within the tallest mushroom tower, stairs led to a viewing platform where a gale blew constantly. We enjoyed magnificent views of rolling terrain showing few signs of human habitation. A prominent, double-peaked mountain on the northeastern horizon looked especially alluring. Later I learned its name, Baila Shan (白蜡山).

The walk back to the visitor center took an hour. We followed a path into the woods until it ended abruptly. Rather than turn back and regain altitude, we bushwhacked down through the woods. Soon we stumbled upon another path that led again to the visitor center. Nearby food vendors provided a welcome supper.

That glimpse of Baila Shan beckoned. I traveled to Luoping (罗平) for a closer look, transfixed by vast carpets of yellow rapeseed flowers and mountains popping up in endless succession. No wonder photographers come from around the world. But there wasn't time. Exploring Luoping on foot would have to wait. When I returned to Kunming I got a surprise one day. There on the wall of the subway was an advertisement for Mushroom Mountain, and next to it an ad for its neighbor, Phoenix Valley.

Phoenix Valley

Conventional wisdom holds the Chinese are prudish about sex. Visit Phoenix Valley (凤凰谷) and you may think twice. The theme of the park? Why, it's geological wonders resembling human genitalia. I can scarcely imagine a public park like it in the USA, where I'm from. Step out of the parking lot and massive sculptures arise — a pair of buttocks representing male and female. Between them an ellipsoid stone hangs suspended, 'the early shape of life', a nearby sign explains.

Further on, walk to the edge of a precipice. The drop goes straight down, absolutely vertical. Far below a river runs into the bowels of the mountain. Here's what you don't know, what you cannot yet grasp. You are perched atop an overhang, a ginormous v-shaped opening in the mountainside. Soon you will descend into that great gulf, trace the river into a cave, disappear into the depths of the earth. You will never return the way you came.

How about that sign at the edge of the precipice? 'Only five people allowed'. Yes, there's an overhang. Now that you know you may sense an urge to tip-toe away from the edge.

Celestial Phoenix Valley Sex Culture Theme Park (天体凤凰谷性文化主题公园), announced the sign at the trailhead. We started a wee late, mid-afternoon, but it would be enough time to reach trail's end before nightfall. The stone path stayed level for a while, then it went down, Down, DOWN. A slide was built for people to slip down on their butts 200-plus vertical meters. Many sliders ratcheted their way down slowly, too scared to let fly. We opted for the steps. On the opposite side of the valley, a wispy waterfall dropped a hundred meters into a calm pool.

Signs popped up here and there along the trail under the heading, 'Famous People Talking About Sex'. My first thought was of Jesus. Would they quote him? "Have you not read that, He who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female', and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?' So then, they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let not man separate."

But no, the signs instead quoted Chinese sages and other patron saints of the Middle Kingdom. Confucius: "Eating, drinking and sex are people's basic instincts." Friedrich Engels: "The decisive factors for the social and historical development of mankind are reproduction of materials and people."

Reaching the valley bottom, we crossed the river on a small suspension bridge. As we approached the cave entrance, I looked straight up — a dizzying sight — at the overhang where we perched earlier. Inside the cave, lights were installed so a flashlight was not necessary. The trail followed a river past stalagmites and stalactites illuminated by colored bulbs. Stopping by a fissure that led into deep darkness, I wondered how far spelunkers had explored.

We entered a constricted passageway carved out of the earth's innards. On the wall hung a bizarre series of photographs portraying geological formations from China and the world. Focusing on the parks' sexual theme, p-shaped rocks and v-like crevices drifted by on parade.

After walking for more than a kilometer, we emerged from the cave on the far side of the mountain. A narrow lake appeared where visitors queued up for a boat ride. Continuing along the shore, we passed the waterfall at the end of the lake and not long after reached the end of the trail. Here buses waited to take us back to the trailhead. We soon arrived at our car, savoring the memory of another fantastic ambling adventure.

Getting there

Little Rock Hill Reservoir is located on the southwestern side of Shizong City. Inquire locally for directions. The western shore trail is about three kilometers long.

Wenbi Pagoda is situated on a hilltop at the southeastern edge of Shizong. From a traffic circle at the intersection of Danfeng Road (丹凤路) and Xingshi Road (兴师路), walk a few meters east on Danfeng Road. An alley on the left leads uphill. Follow the road a couple of kilometers to the pagoda. The Buddhist temple mentioned above may be found a short distance below the wall surrounding the pagoda compound.

Lüyintang Ridge forms a long undulating mountain north of Shizong. The highest summit sprouts an antenna tower. The trail to the ridge begins on route G-324 west of the city, just before the road enters Fengcheng Tunnel (凤城隧道). A sign at the base of the trail announces 'Fengshan Forest Area' (封山育林区). You will need help with a lift as no parking is available here. The hike to the highest summit and return is around ten kilometers.

Mushroom Mountain lies southeast of and about an hour's drive from Shizong. Take route G-324 out of the city heading east. After twenty kilometers, between the distance makers 66 and 65, look for signs announcing the turnoff to the 'Junzishan Scenic Area' (菌子山景区). Turn right off the main road and drive eight kilometers to a fork where you will bear left. Continue nine kilometers further to the park entrance. The entrance fee is 40 yuan, 60 if you ride the bus. Map boards within the park portray the layout of loop road and footpaths.

Phoenix Valley is located southeast of Shizong and is an hour's drive away. Take route G-324 east. Some 25 kilometers from the city, shortly after distance marker 59, turn right onto the road to Wulong (五龙). Be prepared for a winding road that first ascends and then drops significantly in elevation. Twenty kilometers from the main road turn right, where a sign says it is 15 kilometers to Junzi Shan. After one more kilometer, take the left fork and continue shortly to the park entrance. The entrance fee is 70 yuan, but reduced to 50 yuan for students. The slide costs 30. There is a charge for the boat or you can walk along the lake for free. Signs along the way provide a map of the trail. The cave is 1.3 kilometers long. The entire trail takes about three hours to walk, followed by a half-hour free shuttle back to the trailhead.

If you are interested in visiting Shizong County, or traveling into or out of anywhere in Yunnan, we strongly recommend contacting the good people at Wonders of Yunnan Travel. They customize individual and group adventures to all points on the map, and specialize in making your trip South of the Clouds extraordinary.

Images: Pieter Crow

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Comments

Finally another westerner has been to Shizong! My wife is from there, been to all these places (except the ridge!), not highly exciting, but interesting enough :-)

Good work!

We went through there yesterday and was thoroughly ununthused at the lack of hotels without KTVs inside (as far as I can tell, at the non-crappy end, there are none). We came up the road from Qiubei, which is extremely bad but beautiful. Saw the Wenbi Ta but had done two recently so skipped it... the best we saw was the one southeast of Guangnan, Wenshan prefecture, which is a mid 19th century tower still in a natural setting with a largely intact vista. The weather was bad so we couldn't hike, and also skipped the caves as we'd been to some proper neolithic cave sites in Wenshan.

The town is apparently mostly known for its tobacco, which in season bring buyers from afar.

One thing I noticed, if you have a look on Google Earth, is the interesting geological position of Shizong relative to the plains to the west and east, and the karst outcrops to the southeast. It's quite a special spot topographically.

There's a lot of very dirty chemical smog industry on the east of town. Seriously bad.

I wonder if Shizong's current importance as a transit point will decrease once the high speed train is finished? That line runs south to Guangxi through Guangnan in Wenshan, apparently.

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