A Day in Shilin
They say the best road is the road less traveled. Now I cannot say this is always the case but when traveling in China, there is no better guide. It was my first excursion outside of Kunming, into the vast expanse of China Proper. Perhaps, this is an exaggeration considering Shilin is only two hours away from the populated Kunming.
Often translated as “The Stone Forest”, Shilin is one of Yunnan’s most famous natural wonders. Other than being a geologists dream Shilin has a lot to offer those seeking a glimpse of China’s real face. Behind the overwhelming population of Han Chinese, China is also home to 26 ethnic minorities. Yunnan boasts one of China’s largest concentrations of these 小数民族（xiao shu ming zhu) populations. Around the Stone Forest the Yi zu minority are the most prevalent. Their colorful attire stands out against the gray and green of Shilin. For a small fee tourists can adorn their unique outfits and commemorate the moment with a photo capturing Shilin in the backdrop. The main roads of Shilin are packed with such activities; tourists gather together in front of Shilin’s most famous sights fashioning the rainbow like headdress and stripped costumes.
Some of the world’s largest dragonflies fly overhead as the front gate’s lake glistens under a cloudless sky, and for a moment I forget about the crowded city. But China does not allow for such moments to last very long. Soon I am thrown into the massive crowd of people rushing to see “The Lady Awaiting Her Husbands Return.”
My roommate and a few others from the program quickly explore the famous sights, but views were a little tricky as we tried to look over the heads of other tourists. I couldn’t help but envy the height of one of my American friends. Too bad I was born short. After several pictures we made our way back through the crowd to the main road.
As we continued down the path we stopped to look at the Shilin map. The roommates analyzed. Being tired from our studies my friends and I had an unspoken agreement to let the Chinese roommates guide us through. XiaoYa scrutinized the map for a few moments and pointed at a stone staircase right next to the map. In America we could assume such a small staircase was designated only for maintenance and park workers, but in China if no one else is running towards it we assume it is a break from the crowd. We jumped at the opportunity to explore this 秘密的地方 （mi mi de difang). Climbing the stairs into the brush, we were soon caught in a surrounding of tall trees and rocks.
Never have I seen so much green in China, and not the dull green of city trees- this green is as vibrant as the Yi minority’s costumes. As we ascended, hiking the steep inclines, the trees began to lessen. We came to realize we were hiking one of the Stone forest’s stones.
Suddenly the over-hanging trees gave way to clear blue skies. The sun reddened our cheeks and atop that stone we could see Shilin in its entirety. Walking along the main road makes Shilin seem condensed- even tiny- but atop this 石头Shilin was endless. The sea of green and gray seemed to be all that was left of china. Colorful headdresses moved below. The view and height made my knees weak as I witnessed an aspect of China I never expected to find. We laughed and admired the view taking numerous photos of the overwhelming vastness of Shilin.
To this day I am unsure my roommate and her friends knew what lay beyond those seemingly abandoned stairs, but from that vantage point we got to see the face of China. The colorful and vibrant personality of China’s Yi zu population, breathe in the fresh warm air of the Chinese countryside and feel the smooth eroded stones of China’s history. And for a moment China smiled at us.