Kunming, China: The song of the stones

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Kunming, China: The song of the stones

At one point Lily, our guide from the Yi people -- a prominent ethnic group in this area of southwest China – stops as we visitors negotiate our way through the surreal formations of the famous Stone Forest near the city of Kunming.

As the four of us stand beneath sky-pointing fingers of blue-grey rock, Lily says this area is the traditional home of her Yi people (pronounced “ee”). Out of respect we politely pause and then something remarkable happens, quietly – so quietly I don't hear it at first – she starts to sing.

Later we three Kiwis who have been with Lily – her real name was far too difficult she said, and after she tells me I agree – all recall the same thing of our time in the weird and memorable Stone Forest: “Remember when she sang . . .”
The fact it was a song wishing us good fortune and happiness was special in itself, but frankly all I heard was something which sounded like “happy'n'get mooooney . . .”

Maybe money is happiness? I doubt it, but as Paul Simon once said, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest”.

But “the rest” at the Stone Forest has been very hard to disregard.

An hour outside Kunming this 400 sq km reserve offers a dense “forest” of karst where rock formations soar like swords or mad pagodas, and where you pass beneath stone bridges, venture into cool caves and step back to see a grassy plain punctuated by stone towers, some with vaguely human or animal shapes.

Over there is “the elephant”, and here the stones resemble a legendary and beautiful Sami girl A-Shi-Ma dressed in traditional Yi costume and carrying a basket.

These unique and bizarre rock formations have been designated a World Geo-park, a World National Heritage site and, in China, a National Scenic Spot. They could also be a location for a very peculiar sci-fi movie.

Sculpted by rain and wind, the rocks are around 250 million years old and within some you may see fossils of coral. People lived here as early as the Paleolithic period (perhaps around 7000 years ago). For the Yi people, says Lily, this area is part of their folklore, dance and poetry, and it influences their colourful clothing and style of their traditional homes.

The Yi epic of the beautiful A-Shi-Ma, whose name means “more precious than gold”, is a tale of fraught love and obsession, her kidnap by the son of village leader, her eventual drowning and then of her turning into river stones. It is a popular drama throughout China and many come to the Stone Forest to see the odd formation which bears her name.

In fact, the Stone Forest is an increasingly popular destination for domestic tourists – the nearby town has a number of hotels and an industrious building programme in evidence – but is rarely visited by foreign tourists. The day we were there, a warm autumn weekday morning, the place was very quiet. It allowed us to immerse ourselves in the strangeness of the landscape.

And to hear Lily sing.

If you go and don't get Lily, or someone from her ethnic group, don't worry.

The stones themselves sing their own unusual song which will echo long after you leave.

For more on this region of China go here

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