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Getting Away: Yunnan's eerie Wumao Earth Forest

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Yunnan's Tulin (土林) — or 'Earth Forest' — is so named because of its dense and strangely protuberant natural clay formations. The area includes several agglomerations, the most famous of which are visible at Banguo (班果), Langbapu (浪巴铺) and Wumao (物茂) sightseeing areas. I recently paid a visit to Wumao, which is the most accessible of the three and about 45 minutes from the city of Yuanmou via public bus. You can think of Tulin's oddly shaped, sun-scorched spires as southwest China's tiny version of Bryce Canyon National Park or Turkey's Cappadocia.

Based on a Google Images search before my visit, I sensed a certain eeriness about the formations, and this feeling became more conspicuous shortly after I arrived at the gate to Wumao. I began to suspect that the area's location off the beaten track might not be the only reason why the Earth Forest is not more frequented by Western tourists.

A map to the right of the main entrance featured bizarre English names for the various metaphors attached to Tulin's collections of baked clay pillars. Some were more than foreboding, including the unsettlingly translated 'City of Satan' (魔鬼城), which should most likely been translated to 'City of the Damned' due to its allusion to a Buddhist hell. Other titles carried more pleasant or whimsical connotations. For example, 'Toad Singing Forecasting Rain', or 'Cave Embedded with Monkey King's Wishing Staff', which is a nod to the main character in Journey to the West.

The extensively weathered structures are around one or two million years old, and are mainly composed of a mixture of clay, red soil and yellow silt. This makes them more vulnerable to erosion compared with the more formidable Karst columns of the Stone Forest south of Kunming.

What keeps most of Tulin's geological 'trees' intact, however, are umbrella-shaped caps made up of calcium deposits and other more weather-resistant elements. These prevent the earthen trunks from eroding rapidly. The protective covers often appear blackish in color and produce a distinct contrast with the area's predominantly tan, beige and rusty tones. Smaller amounts of sparkling trace minerals add purplish notes, which vary in prominence throughout the day as the sun travels across the baked landscape.

Parts of the Earth Forest today might not look much different from when the famed and daring Ming dynasty explorer Xu Xiake (徐霞客) documented them nearly 400 years ago. He likened the more fair-colored arrangements to the appearance of "a ghost on a moonlit night".

A quality I found particularly striking about Wumao Tulin was the almost deafening silence that permeated the prehistoric labyrinth. After living for so long in the urban clamor of Guangdong's Peal River Delta, such stillness was completely unusual to me. Without the occasional bird chirp or encounter with random Korean tourists, I might as well have been on the verge of oblivion, wandering through a vision straight out of the Jurassic Age, or Dante.

One Beijing-based tourist I met on the bus ride back to Yuanmou said that the grander Langbapu viewing area was like a "strong man" compared to the "little girl" forest at Wumao. This sentiment was echoed by a Sichuanese traveler I met later that afternoon at the Yuanmou Train Station. He expressed surprise that I didn't visit the more renowned site, which includes markedly taller and more imposing gothic edifices reminiscent of something in Mordor.

I had opted instead – perhaps mistakenly so – to see the Yuanmou Man Museum (元谋人博物馆), dedicated to the eponymous landmark archaeological discovery made near Yuanmou in 1965 of two hominid incisors. The find, which also recovered other ancient mammalian fossils and signs of early stone tool use, is some of the earliest evidence of the Homo genus' existence in Asia.

Although the museum staff were plenty friendly and the museum provided respite from the beating midday sun, I thought the collection was generally unimpressive. This could have been the result of my limited Chinese reading proficiency, especially when it comes to scientific vocabulary. Very few of the captions contained informative English content, and I could not be sure which fossils among the sparse collection were genuine. If you are truly interested in the Asian theater of humankind's prehistory, the actual Yuanmou Man artifacts are on display at the National Museum of China in Beijing. Nonetheless, for a day-trip, the total experience was well worth the time.

Getting there

Arriving in Yuanmou County (元谋县) in Chuxiong Yi Autonomous Prefecture from the Spring City presented no serious difficulty. I took the 7:32pm K166 train from Kunming Station (昆明火车站). The ride takes just over three hours, covers 109 kilometers, and costs 40.5 yuan. The train is about an hour faster than the bus, due to numerous tunnels that ease its journey through the mountains. There are also two earlier evening trains and two morning departures from Kunming, both with roughly similar prices.

Note that Yuanmou Train Station is quite a distance from the town center where most accommodations can be found. After disembarking the train, the most efficient option is to take a taxi directly to one of the hotels located within the Earth Forest scenic zones. The price range of these lodging choices suits a variety of budgets.

If you prefer to stay in Yuanmou, a cab to the central bus terminal (元谋中心客运站) is about ten yuan. There are several budget hotels near the bus station. I do not recommend utilizing guesthouse car services to get to the scenic areas. For this, I was quoted a seemingly astronomical 400 yuan.

I decided instead to go with the drastically more affordable ten yuan, 9:20am bus Tulin, as did a group of Korean schoolteachers who also declined the chauffeur recommended by the guesthouses. However, be aware that this route only provides service to the Wumao Earth Forest, with return buses at 12:30 and 1pm only. Though two-and-a-half hours may seem too brief for a comprehensive visit, the Wumao area is compact enough to allow a thorough look at its grotesque formations within that timeframe. This early bus will not actually get you to the Tulin in time for the sunrise, which would have revealed a broader spectrum of colors.

If you want to see both Wumao and Langbapu areas in one day, it might be best to hire a car. A combined entry ticket costs 100 yuan and students with a valid university identification card get a 50 percent discount. Note that the Earth Forest is the closest thing Yunnan has to a desert, so be sure to bring adequate amounts of water and sunscreen. Some sunglasses certainly won't hurt either.

If you are interested in visiting Yuanmou and its Earth Forest, or anywhere in Yunnan, Kunming-based tour operator Wonders Of Yunnan Travel provides rental cars with drivers, hotel bookings, all sorts of travel-related services and other valuable tourism information. Please get in touch directly for further details.

Images: Jonas Kelsch

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Hey, great photos. I've long heard of the 'earth forest' but somehow the thing never sounded that interesting to me, but thanks to your photos I now have a different point of view.

Thanks Jonas... great article. Like Alien, I'd never realised that it was this interesting. I'll be making my way there soon!

Does anyone have any advice on the best time of year to visit?

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