The Stone Forest – Shilin


The phenomenon stone forest landscape has attracted our human’s attention since ancient times.  The term stone forest was first conceptualized in the poem “Asking Heaven” composed by the great ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan (340-278BC).  He raised over 170 questions on astronomy, geography, history, and philosophy in his classic poem Asking Heaven, and one of the question is “Is there a stone forest on earth?”  While it would be difficult to track the whereabouts of the stone forest Qu Yuan ever questioned about, the expressive geomorphological term stone forest has become the earliest karst term.  It is now widely used in China and the world.

Interestingly enough North America does not have the spectacular karst features found on other continents.  (Karst formations in various continents [click here]).  Unsurprisingly, this amazing place was an UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Sharleen and I were up until almost midnight trying to figure out how to get there using public transportation.  We did not want to spend 600 yuan for a taxi or a tour.

The Major Stone Forest

After almost 3 hours of travelling, we finally walked through the bridge over the lake. Being close to ten, there were already bunches of tourist groups complete with umbrellas and guides with their loudspeakers blaring.

We descended into the major Stone Forest area where a soupy mix of tourist, hawkers, guides, and people dressing up as a cultural minority for a picture (I guess cultural appropriation is not an important issue in China).  Crowded and chaotic, I was nervous and started to regret going there.

The teeming masses descend into a pool of vendors selling trinkets and experiences

We started to meander through the winding pathways through the formations.  Dazzling and wondrous, every turn, nook, cranny, and crevice revealed something new.  “Hey dad come over here, I found something — no people!”  We followed Kylie away from the people through a small hole and BANG all the crowds disappeared.  A small winding stairwell led upwards to a stone table with stone seats.

Sharleen marvels at the formations

We paused here and had a snack.  We continued trough the winding and meandering paths up and down.  We saw people occasionally, but nothing like we saw the Major Stone mountain formation.  We had to squeeze, duck, and maneuver ourselves through the narrow passageways.  At times I had to take the backpack off, suck in my stomach, and contort by body to squeeze through.

If Kylie could barely squeeze through there how could I?
A scenic look from a vista within the major stone forest.
There were so many of these walkways that I had to squeeze through

We came down a path back to a central area where some traditional Yi ethnic minorities were performing a dance.  It was festive.  Kylie, Alyssa, and Katie joined in to dance. (I promised Alyssa I wouldn’t post the video).

The Sani People of Yi Nationality:
Humans have inhabited the Stone Forest area since the Paleolithic period. Thousands of years ago many tribes and clans lived in scattered communities in the region.  The people from these communities are the ancestors of the present Yi ethnic minority.  Over a long history, the local Yi people have nurtured inseparable affinity with the stone forest landscape and the carbonate rocks.  They have not only developed their ways of living adapted to the limestone environment but also created its ethnic cultures that are intimately associated with the stone forest landscape.  On the rock pillars in the Stone Forest, rock engravings and cliff-side carvings created by early Yi people are preserved.  The Stone Forest has also immersed in every aspects of the local Sani People’s life., religion, folktales, poetry, dances, embroidery, costumes, architecture, and festival celebration have all incarnated the longstanding historical associate with the Stone Forest.  The immensely popular epic “Legend of Ashima”, the lively and bustling Torch Festival and the affection song Guests from Afar Please Stay On have long be renowned far and wide.

We headed over to the minor stone forest area.  By now it was 1PM and the crowds were gone.  Everything became more tranquil, serene, and marvelous.  The manicured grass mixing with the stone formations made for some magnificent vistas.

Ashima formation.  Ashima is one of the Yi people’s legends about the area.  However an information placard said this:  A legend of “Herding rocks to make the forest” was passed down among the ethnic Sani Yi people: A long time ago, Jinfen Ruoga, a Sani hero wanted to block a river to build a dam for his people.  He managed to steal the magic order for shepherding mountains and the mountain driving whip.  At night he started to shepherd the rocks like sheep in Luliang in the south to the Nanpan river in the northern Yilang.  On his way going through what is now the Stone Forest area, it was nearly day break.  Unfortunately, his heroic undertaking was suddenly terminated by the morning crows of a  magic rooster — the rocks stopped moving, stayed in the Stone Forest area and became the dense stone forest.

We took a break with Katie.  The girls really took to her.  Katie has been teaching English outside of Beijing for the last five years.  She had only been back to New Zealand a few times and spoke Mandarin like a pro.

Posing with Katie at the Elephant formation

She was funny, witty, and had lots of charisma.  She shared some videos of her class dancing.  I’m sure she’s an awesome teacher.  Kylie and Alyssa sang songs with her and danced until it was time for Katie to go.

Taking a break on some stone benches table.

The girls were still a little tired so they rested while I hiked through the Bushaoshan Scenic Area.  I got there going through the deep gorge which was a 50-75 meter dip into a hole and then back up the other side.  The stairs were so narrow, my feet didn’t fit so I had to walk sideways.  In the Bushaoshan area, the forest was more spacious and mixed with pine forests.  I only saw two other people while hiking through here.  The top of the Busaho mountain was closed so I couldn’t make it up, but I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Bushaoshan area
The Deep Gorge

We still had some time when I got back so we headed back into the Stone Forest intent on finding the ancient rock drawings.  The Jaifeng pool area was amazing.

Alyssa reflects at the Jaifeng pool

We found a steep narrow path out to the scenic area to a ring road above the forest.  We were on a loop road that workers were preparing for shuttle drop offs for tourists, but clearly was not in use yet.  The vista here was incredible and we were the only ones around.

Scenic view outside the Major Stone Forest area from the loop road.

As far as the eye could see stone forests.  “The view is better up the road,”  a worker told us.  We walked more, and found her words to be true.  There were vast sections of the Stone Forest unexplored by the teeming masses.  Occasionally a trail would veer off into the distance.  Walking around the loop we entered the Lizi Yuanqing Scenic Area.

Lizi Yuanqing scenic ara

The view was amazing.  But the area was more than just a scenic wonder.  Here we happened upon the trail to the ancient cliff paintings.  I ran the 130 meters down the trail to see them.  I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, but this wasn’t it.  There were several sets.  The oldest set character goes back to ~25AD-220AD (Han Dynasty) with a newer characters set going back the the Qing Dynasty 1785).  The informational placard implied that the older drawings were not dated.  Regardless of the actual dates, it was clear that people had been using this area for thousands of years.  That was pretty neat.

Cliff Paintings in the Lizi Yuanqing Scenic Area

Numerous placards and sites pointed to the geologic history of this area.  The fossils visible in some of the rock date back to the Precambrian period 600 million years ago.

In all, the forest had something for everyone.  Some fantastic scenery, connections with a new awesome person (Katie), history, geology, and culture.

While waiting at the train station for our 7:30PM train, Sharleen mused: “Wow, we really packed it in today, we left at 6 this morning.”  We sure did.  I was really happy that we gave ourselves extra time in the forest to explore, rest, and rediscover.

How we got there

We caught the first morning metro to Kunming South Railway Station (45 minutes).  Then we took the 8:11 bullet train to Shilin West Station (20 minutes).  Bus 99 took us 50 minutes from Shilin West Railway station through Shilin to the Stone Forest Ticket Office.  From the ticket office, we took the people mover car for the three kilometers to the park entrance.  Cost = 470 Yuan for our group of 4.


There are lots of construction happening in the park.  They are building battery powered car people-mover stations around the park to save people the time from walking to destination to destination.  This is a similar model to the Zhangye National Scenic Area.

Kunming city is the provincial seat.  Shilin is the city closest to the stone forest.  There are also several stone forests, which I found confusing.  Most stone forests are centered around the Major Stone forest scenic area; however there are a few that are to the North. This is the best map of the area .  Something similar appeared on our tickets.  There were regular maps within the forest as well as call boxes for people who get lost.  Getting lost here is real.  It feels like a three dimensional labyrinth with no ability to get your bearings.  It was easy to burn 2-3 hours in the Major Stone forest area (the center of the map).  We spent another two hours exploring the minor stone forest and walking around the loop road.  We didn’t venture very far into the  Lizi Yuanqing Scenic Area and didn’t go into the Mushroom Forest Scenic Area.


    • Thank you for your generous comments! Give our love to the dojo. It’s hard to believe we are less than 1/3 into the trip. It’s almost like like being 10 minutes into Zazen….when the legs start to burn and knees start to hurt, but there is still 20 more minutes to go. We are certainly feeling the burn of sustained travel (well just a little). Cheers – Dan


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