Touching the Bottom of the Ocean

THE ROAD WAS WIDE and empty. Out the window, I watched the edges of Kunming give way to factories, then villages and country. Farmers walked along the highway as though strolling down a city block. Everything seemed dusty.

It hadn’t been easy determining the best way to get out of Kunming to see the Stone Forest (石林). The Frommer’s guidebook had firmly encouraged us to take a train. When we went to the station, a middle-aged attendant had looked at me with what could only be described as disappointment as I tested and broke the narrow limits of my Chinese. She sighed a few times. Then she made a driving motion with her hands.

“Bus,” she said.

“Bus?”

She nodded. “Bus.” Sigh. And that was all.

The folks at our hostel had also encouraged us to take a bus, but from a station they described as being a 50-minute taxi ride out of town. After scouring the Internet in vain for other options, we finally took their advice. With no traffic the ride to the East Bus Station (there are two in Kunming) was less than half an hour. We paid 25 yuan.

The entrance to the forest — a fantastic geological formation created by the receding ocean millenia ago — was not what one might expect from a Unesco-designated heritage site. Squat toilets; a bus station with broken chairs and a moldy wall. At the information desk, I asked a man dressed in traditional costume whether he had a map of the park. “Meiyou.” He shook his head and then looked away.

The forest was like a maze. After wandering around the quiet outer ring for a while, J and I followed the crowd into the Major Stone Forest. Because some of the paths between the rock are narrow enough to make you walk sideways, visitors are asked to only go in one direction. But there are many branches off of this arrow-marked path. These are good places to find solitude, and to get a little lost.

We stopped at a passage that was cool and dark. The stone towered above us, changing color near the sharp, curling peaks. This, we read, was where water had pushed through a layer of shale and then slowly carved out the limestone beneath to create the chamber in which we now stood.

Over the course of our hike, seeing coral fossils or where the water had left rocks in the shape of animals, I envisioned how dark this place must have been once, when it was still the bottom of the sea. I wondered what kind of huge and terrible creatures had swam by the very places I now walked. I sensed the patient force of time.

Along the path, parts of stone that people gripped to steady themselves had become smooth; the steps were slick and shined like marble. Human hands and feet resuming the work left by the ocean, slowly wearing jagged rock into formlessness.

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