Suoxi Yu (Suoxi Valley) Nature Reserve, located in Cili County, Hunan Province – and whose name in the Tujia dialect means "Fog-laden" – is the largest of Wulingyuan Scenic Area's three subsections, spanning more than 180 square kilometers. The three original subsections of Wulingyuan Scenic Area form a horizontally-oriented triangle whose southern point is Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, whose northern point is Tianzi Mountain Nature Reserve and whose eastern point is Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve (a fourth subsection, Yangjiajie Scenic Area, was later added).
Roughly speaking, Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve is divided into a large, western part that is characterized by sandstone bedrock and a somewhat smaller, eastern part that is characterized by limestone bedrock, the latter of which – given that limestone, at least the softer, more porous parts of it, is relatively easily dissolved (eroded away) by water – is further characterized by karst caves, underwater streams, deep crevices in the surface (some of which reach a depth of 600 meters), and grotesquely shaped surface rocks. The topography of the sandstone section of Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve is characterized by mountain peaks and sheer cliff faces, by rivers – and waterfalls – and by brooks. There are dense forests in the eastern part of the valley and thick copses and scattered individual trees growing everywhere in the western part of the valley, also on the craggy surfaces of the mountain peaks.
With respect to fauna, there are some 20 species of rare animals living and thriving in Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve – albeit, in some cases, rare only in a local sense – including the common leopard (Panthera pardus), the Chinese pangolin (Manis pentadactyla, aka scaly anteater, looking like a 'cross between a sloth and an armadillo', according to US pilots (The Raven Forward Air Controllers, aka "The Ravens") flying in support of the Hmong ethnic minority of Laos during the Vietnam War (think of the 1990 film, Air America, with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr.)) and the giant salamander (Andrias davidianus). Within Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve, there are over 20 groups of rhesus macaques (Macaca mulatta), numbering over 1000 individuals.
Not surprisingly, Suoxi Valley also boasts a rich flora, with about 700 species of trees alone as well as thousands of lesser plants, whereof about 500 species are classified as medicinal herbs, some 20 of which are so rare that they enjoy special state protection. One of the most striking features of Suoxi Valley, apart from the strangely eroded mountain peaks, the karst caves, the many rivers, waterfalls and brooks, is that lush vegetation abounds everywhere, in the form of trees, shrubs, grasses and flowers, and it is perhaps this pervasive carpet of vegetation that dampens sounds, adding to the mysteriousness – and charm – of Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve.
The highlights of Suoxi Valley are many, and include three of Wulingyuan Scenic Area's most renowned attractions: Baofeng Lake, Yellow Dragon Cavern and Goddess Cavern, the latter both karst caves belonging to the eastern, or limestone bedrock, part of Suoxi Valley.
The Highlights of Suoxi Valley Proper
Ten Li Corridor
Ten Li Corridor, aka Ganxi Channel, about 20-30 meters wide and about 10 li long (a li is roughly equal to ½ kilometer, or 500 meters) which leads past an assemblage of strangely sculpted rocks called Spirit Palace Bay consisting of rows of gigantic, pillar-like "rock skyscrapers" that reach up into the sky like teeth on a gigantic comb. These vertical "rock skyscrapers" are old mountain peaks that have been whittled away over the aeons by the forces of nature, some of them into narrow shafts that reach up in the sky, like – well, skyscrapers!
If ever there was a part of China that resembled a Chinese variant of Middle Earth (think: The Hobbit, and note that China, since ancient times, has called itself the Middle Kingdom, a reference to the fact that the ancient Chinese considered their empire as the center of mankind's universe, as it were) then it would have to be this section of Suoxi Valley. The corridor also leads past Oldman Cliff, which is a similar but irregularly shaped vertical "skyscraper" in the shape of an old man carrying a basket of herbs (at least in the rich imagination of the Chinese people!).
Baibao Brook offers some of the most impressive views to be had in all of Suoxi Valley, with guhing, splashing waterfalls everywhere.
Mandarin Duck Waterfall
Mandarin Duck Waterfall is a 50-meters-high waterfall in two stages, or steps, where the water spills brokenly over over the upper ledge, producing mists so thick that they resemble fog, and where the sheer drop from the lower ledge is so forceful that it produces a thundering sound characteristic of the grandest of waterfalls anywhere.
Shuiraosimen, aka Four Gates Surrounded by Water and comprising some 20 hektares, is located at the exit where Jinbian ("Golden Whip") Brook emerges from a forest. Shuiraosimen marks the confluence of four streams.
Baofeng Lake, or Treasure Peak Lake, is an artificial lake, or reservoir, that was created strictly for irrigation purposes, i.e., it is not part of a power generation scheme. Despite being manmade, Baofeng Lake has a Garden of Eden quality about it that is partly due to the lushness of the vegetation that surrounds it, and partly due to the purity of the mountain-peak runoff water that feeds it, as well as the freshness of the pristine mountain air that prevails here. The clearness of the water and its often placid surface act as a mirror that reflects the surrounding verdure and the towering mountain peaks. If one could only visit one site in all of Suoxi Valley, Baofeng Lake would likely be the best candidate, though who would want to miss the next-in-line scenic site?!
Huanglong Cavern, or Yellow Dragon Cavern, is Asia's lagest and perhaps most colorful cave. Yellow Dragon Cavern is a karst cave in the limestone-covered, eastern part of Suoxi Valley and is in fact a network of interconnected caves, some with underground lakes and streams that continue to erode away the soft, porous limestone. The most outstanding, most fantastic feature of Yellow Dragon Cavern – which, incidentally, is huge, measuring some 15 kilometers in length and roughly 140 meters in height in its highest spot, and covering over 50 hectares in area – are the many screamingly bright colors that meet the eye (Yellow Dragon Cavern can put the most brightly colored parrot to shame!).
The other salient feature of Yellow Dragon Cavern is the bizarrely, softly sculpted surface of the cave's stalactites in most places; whereas many stalactites in caves elsewhere in the world are sharp, needle-like, hanging projections, the stalactites of Yellow Dragon Cavern resemble thick paint that has been applied to the cave's roof in thick, oozy, barely semi-liquid swirls – in fact, combined with the almost grotesque colors, the ceiling of Yellow Dragon Cavern resembles thick, swirly icing on what might be a Halloween (All Saints' Day) birthday cake for ghouls! Remember to wear a pair of good, water-repellent shoes that provide adequate ankle support and to bring along a good standard flashlight – and some company, for Yellow Dragon Cavern can be a bit eerie!
Like Yellow Dragon Cavern, Goddess Cavern is a colorful complex of interconneted caves etched out of limestone and with features similar to Yellow Dragon Cavern, just on a lesser scale. Since most visitors spend quite a lot of time in Yellow Dragon Cavern, they tend to spend less time in Goddess Cavern – if they visit it at all – so the tourist pressure on Goddess Cavern is much less pronounced.
Must-See Nearby Highlights
On the fringes of Suoxi Valley are other local attractions such as Fenghuang Cheng, or Phoenix Town, and Furong Zhen (Furong Town, formerly known as Wang Cun ("Hibiscus Town") until the highly praised 1986 Chinese film, Furong Zhen, by director Jin Xie concerning China's difficult struggle with the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) was filmed in the town, whereafter Hibiscus Town was renamed Furong Town, in recognition of the movie).
Phoenix Town is an old, cultural-historical town with a history that stretches back over 1300 years. The very verdant town, thanks to its impressive foliage and green fields that are amply reflected in the Tuo River on whose resplendent banks the town is situated, is located just south of Suoxi Valley's Tujia and Miao prefectures.
Life appears to have stood still in ancient Phoenix Town, where the inhabitants are hard-working, straightforward folk who seem to be guided by a remarkable inner strength that is resilient yet never over-confident, or overly self-sufficient, which imparts a philosophical, Zen-like quality to the town and its inhabitants that is worthy of the metaphor of the phoenix, the mythical bird of good omen and longevity that was consumed by fire, yet rose reborn from the ashes; were disaster ever to strike Phoenix Town, the town, thanks to the resilience of its inhabitants, would surely rise from the ashes with renewed vigor.
Fenghuang Cheng/ Phoenix Town got its present name during the Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty; prior to that – all the way back to the town's origin during the Qin (BCE 221-207) Dynasty, in fact – the city was known as Wu Gan.
Phoenix Town is best known in contemporary times for it native son, the writer and poet Shen Congwen (1902-88) who was a major contributor to the development of modern Chinese literature. Shen was a much loved local resident of Phoenix Town, and his tomb is to this day a frequently visited Phoenix Town attraction.
A currently living and no less famous native son of Phoenix Town is the internationally acclaimed master of older art media such as woodblock printing (the artist in question naturally carves the woodblocks himself) and calligraphy, Huang Yongyu, who is also a distinguished author in his own right, having written several essays, novels, screenplays and poems, as well as having annotated photo albums. Huang's works have been exhibited in Europe as well as in neighboring Australia, and of course inside China. In addition, Huang is an excellent, albeit not extremely prolific, fresco painter whose frescoes in Zhunti Nunnery in the city of Suzhou are famous for their depiction of simple but compelling Buddhist stories.
Another famous native son of Phoenix Town from an earlier era is Xiong Xiling (1870-1937), a famous philanthropist from the late Qing (CE 1644-1911) Dynasty – early Republic of China period who, for a brief period (July 1913 to February 1914), became the first Premier of the Republic of China (1912-49) before Xiong resigned over diverging views on how the country should be run (there were many different anti-Imperial political factions near the turn of the 20th century espousing a myriad of political views but who all came together under the common banner of toppling China's last emperor, but once the common enemy had been swept away, the deep divisions within the various factions resurfaced, as was the case here, with Xiong Xiling).
No visit to Phoenix Town is complete without a visit to the nearby Miao village, where one can view firsthand the unique way of life of this interesting ethnic minority group. It is said that Miao women are some of the prettiest and most graceful in China, and that even without benefit of makeup, the Miao female's natural beauty distinguishes her.
Wang Cun cum Furong Town
Wang Cun cum Furong Town is an old town built in the architectural style of the Tujia ethnic minority and whose ancient buildings, most of them made of wood except for their tile roofs, still stand, which is what attracted the director of the film, Furong Zhen, to the ancient town in the first place. Furong Town is older even than Wu Gan cum Phoenix Town, since it can trace its history over 2000 years back to the Warring States (BCE 475-221) Period of the Eastern Zhou (BCE 770-221) Dynasty.
There is an ornamental column made of copper – the Copper Column of Xizhou (Xi Prefecture) – originally located in Yejituo Village, Yongshun County, about 10 kilometers north of Furong Town but which was permanently relocated to Furong Town in 1971 due to the construction of the Fengtan Dam (and reservoir) on the Youshui River. The copper column commemorates a peace covenant between the local Tujia tribal headman (hereditary chieftain), Peng Shichou, and Ma Xifan (CE 899-947), a generallisimo under the rule (CE 907-930) of Ma Yin of the Chu Kingdom (CE 907-951) and himself eventually the ruler (CE 932-947) of the Chu Kingdom after the rule (CE 930-932) of Ma Sheng who succeeded Ma Yin (the Chu Kingdom in question being one of the ten kingdoms of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979) Period).
The Copper Column of Xizhou, inscribed by the academician, Li Gao, immortalizes the submission of the entire region – ranging as far south as Guilin in present-day Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region and as far west as Kunming, Yunnan Province – to Chu Kingdom (to learn more about the Copper Column of Xizhou, see the footnote at the end of this article).
The covenant brought all of these indigenous tribal peoples under the rule of the Han Chinese sovereigns of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period, a turbulent period in China's history when the divisions between the northern, nomadic Turkic tribes that were encroaching deeper and deeper into China from the north, pushing the Han Chinese further south, were erupting more and more frequently.*
A more recent commemorative addition to Furong Town is a memorial stone archway – in the quintessential style of Chinese stone archways – that commemorates the virtues of a young village woman of Wang Cun cum Furong Town. The building style of Furong Town is "airy", i.e., the buildings stand relatively far apart from each other, which is atypical for Chinese architecture, while the streets are paved with flagstones, both of which features add to the quaintness of Furong Town.
Despite its Tujia name, Suoxi Valley is only fog-laden under certain, intermittent conditions and in certain places – most especially in the Ten Li Corridor area. But generally speaking, fog gathers in low-lying areas such as Suoxi Valley, being only burnt off slowly as the morning sun ascends the sky, with the hazy, smoke-like remnants of the fog often lingering among forest-clad mountain peaks even until midday, and this is certainly true to some extent of Suoxi Valley. But the intermittent fog, sometimes lingering at higher elevations, is also part of the charm of Suoxi Valley.
There are so many fascinating, pristinely beautiful landscapes to take in at Suoxi Valley that one could spend a week here and never tire of the refreshing views. Together with the other subsections of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve remains a hitherto barely discovered pearl among tourists, and given the expanse of Wulingyuan Scenic Area, it will be quite some time indeed before the scenic site will approach conditions of congestion, even were tourists in the thousands to begin to flock here tomorrow – but don't use that as an excuse to put off a visit to Suoxi Valley Nature Reserve during your next holiday period!
* Note that these north-south conflicts began in earnest during the Northern and Southern Dynasties (CE 386-588) Period, quieted down during the Sui (CE 581-617) and the Tang (CE 618-907) Dynasties, then erupted again during the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (CE 907-979) Period, only to toggle between war and peace again and again until the northern tribes were sufficiently Sinicized to rule all of China, beginning with the Mongol Yuan (CE 1279-1368) Dynasty of Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, who (Kublai Khan) ruled Imperial China as Emperor Shizu from CE 1260-1294. A similar push into the coastal regions of southern China by Han Chinese people fleeing the encroachment in the north of the country was taking place simultaneously, which explains the myriad of overlapping Chinese dynasties and kingdoms, with northern dynasties and kingdoms in one area existing parallel with other northern dynasties and kingdoms elsewhere, and ditto for the southern kingdoms of the period.
To read more about the Copper Column of Xizhou, click the link below, but note that there are certainly some discrepancies in the article in question concerning the dates describing the column, and even the metal from which the column is made is sometimes called copper and at other times called steel (which simply didn't exist at the time!). In other (book) sources, the column in question is referred to as a bronze column. It is quite possible that a simple copper column with the inscription in question was made on the spot at the end of the conflict (on the occasion of Ma Xifan's victory), but that a later, more refined column made of bronze was made during the Northern Song (CE 960-1127) Dynasty, in accordance with the date given in the article referred to here (note that the Copper Column of Xizhou, in this linked source, is dated to the Northern Song Dynasty).