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Karst formations are formed when rock, typically limestone, is dissolved away by water, creating distinct shapes out of the stone. About 80 miles southeast of Kunming, the capital city of Yunan, an abundance of these formations can be found. The limestone cliffs are collectively known as the Stone Forest, or Shilin. Almost three hundred million years ago, the Stone Forest lay under water. The region rose, due to geological forces, and through various processes, jagged and uniquely shaped cliffs and stone pillars were formed. With an area of more than 130 square miles, the Stone Forest is the largest site of karst formations in the world. The limestone rocks lock together to form towers, columns, passageways, caverns and corridors, creating an amazing labyrinth of stone. Initially, the cracked limestone was dissolved away by rainwater, and then covered over by other sediments. Over time the forest evolved into the forest of today. These limestone formations are one of the biggest tourist attractions in Yunan province. Different shapes have been given different names, reflecting the objects they resemble. You can find elephants, pagodas, swords and bridges made of stone. The forest is divided into many parts, including the Large and Small Stone Forests, the Large and Small Zhiyun Caves, the Naigu Stone Forest, Qingfeng Cave as well as numerous lakes dotted about. A tourist path through the park serves as a guide, but it's easy to leave the path and the bustle of the crowds behind.
Traveling with two English friends, I wanted to explore the Stone Forest without the hassle of tourists asking me to snap a picture of them every five minutes. It's a vast park, and I didn't think it would be a hard to lose the crowds. At first, I was a little worried about leaving the main path. I didn't want to get in trouble with the authorities. We met a young Chinese couple from Singapore inside the maze. I'd taken their photo at least twice, in different spots, having passed them several times. The husband wanted to get away from the tourists as well. Since he was Chinese (having immigrated to Singapore some years before, he explained), I thought it would be a good idea to follow him. After convincing my friends this guy knew what he was doing, we set off.
As it turns out, he'd been to the Stone Forest before, and he served as an excellent guide. He told us about the geography and history of the karst formations and the history of the park. We followed him blindly, down a narrow rock corridor, ducking under stones, passing through smallish caves and climbing over other stones. After an hour of walking and talking, we were completely alone, away from the other tourists. I knew we weren't the first to travel this hidden path, evidenced by the empty soda bottles and food wrappings littering the way. The man's wife became more nervous with every step we took. She was wearing high heel shoes, but made remarkable progress, considering the terrain. She wanted to go back, afraid they would miss the bus they'd arrived by. He assured her that they wouldn't miss it. Everyone from their group was probably eating duck by now, and even if they did miss it, they could find some other form of transport back to Kunming. He laughed and she seemed annoyed by this. After some more nagging on her part, he eventually gave up, telling us that they had to go back. We decided to stay and enjoy the forest a bit longer. I thanked him for acting as our unofficial guide. He told us that he had enjoyed our company. Then he left with his wife.
We found a large and smooth rock, pulled out a bottle of Bai Jiu (a sorghum based alcohol) and some dried fish from our packs and had an afternoon meal. I drank some of the liquor and then sprawled out on top of the rock for a small nap. It was late February, but being in southern China, close to the borders of Vietnam and Laos, the sun was quite strong. Enjoying the heat, I quickly fell asleep. Some time later, one of my English friends woke me up. She looked worried, knitting her eyebrows into a deep slant. She'd been sleeping as well, but had opened her eyes before mine. Our other friend was gone. He must have wandered off. She couldn't find him, and now he was lost.
I sat up and wiped my drowsy eyes with my hand. After packing the liquor and dried fish into our bags, we set off, trying to find our friend. We called out his name for twenty minutes or so, backtracking the trail and the doubling back again. I didn't think he'd abandoned us, and I doubted he would have returned to the park entrance on his own. I circled the area where we'd been sleeping, all the while calling out his name. Where had he gone Unable to find him, I suggested we leave. Maybe he had left us after all. My friend thought that leaving was a bad idea. It would turn dark in a few hours and our friend wasn't very good with directions. She wanted to wait for him as long as possible. I suggested we wait another hour, but if he didn't turn up, we had to leave. She agreed. I sat down on the smooth rock, opened my sack, took out the bottle and had a few more swigs of the Bai Jiu. My friend didn't think drinking was a good idea either, in case I need my senses to deal with any problems that might arise. I took two last swigs and stuffed the bottle back into my bag. We talked for a bit, but she was too nervous to hold a real conversation. After a while, we just sat in silence. Then I heard it, a slight breathing sound, bordering on a snore. I got up from my rock and traced the sounds to its source, a boulder about 15 feet away. The bolder wasn't snoring, but the Englishman behind it was. Apparently he'd taken his own bottle of Bai Jiu and found a nesting place for a nap. I woke him up. He was completely drunk. Not sure if I should yell or laugh, I patted him on the back and told him that it was time to go. With slurred words, he asked me if he could sleep awhile longer. Unfortunately, I had to be the bad guy. I told him no.