Kunming’s main attraction is perhaps not the city itself (charming though it is) but its proximity to amazing sights across Yunnan province. One such wonder is the Shilin Stone Forest located about 2 hours outside of the city. Formed over millions of years through tectonic activity and now a UNESCO heritage site, the Stone Forest looks otherworldly in the pictures. In reality, it’s even more stunning.
Getting there from Kunming is relatively easy but quite long so I’d recommend starting early if you don’t want to be pushed for time at the forest. Buses go directly to the park from Kunming East Bus Station (which is on Lines 3 and 6 of the subway). The bus station is relatively easy to navigate with some signs in English. When you walk in, head to the left for the ticket booths and ask for Shilin Stone Forest. I had to present my passport which I luckily had with me. The fare was ¥34. From there, you pass through security and another passport check (I’ve had less checks for international flights…), go down the escalator and turn to the right for the buses.
The reason the journey took so long was not because of the bus ride itself but rather the waiting at the bus station. I think I’d just missed a bus as I was the only passenger and, in a frustrating homage to my time in Kyrgyzstan, the bus didn’t have a schedule, instead it would just depart when it filled up. This took a good hour – I guess it’s the luck of the draw but maybe bring a book or something.
The journey itself took about 1 hour 45 mins and the bus soon pulled up at the parking lot. For some bizarre reason, the parking lot is a trek away from the park itself so you can either pay ¥25 for the green shuttle bus to ferry you to the entrance or be a cheapskate like me and walk it. It’s well signposted and takes about 20-25 minutes. You get the added pleasure of all the Chinese tourists going past you on the bus looking flabbergasted that you’ve opted to walk.
At the entrance you can buy your ticket. It’s a pretty hefty entrance fee considering how cheap most things in China are – ¥175 (about £20) for a full price ticket (half price for students but I’m not sure if it’s only Chinese students who can benefit from that). It is a lot of money for one attraction and when I first entered, I was in two minds as to whether it was worth it. However, you can see where the money has gone. It’s an incredibly well maintained park. It’s clean, well-signposted and just downright awesome. I regretted nothing.
Well, OK, at first I did. The first 10 minutes inside the park aren’t going to be much fun for anyone, unless of course you’re a Chinese tourist in a tour group. It was flooded with them and this was on a chilly winter weekday. Much has been written on the frustration of dealing with Chinese tourists but one thing they’re exceptionally good at is staying on the beaten path. Within 10 or so minutes, I had moved away from the park’s ring road and literally couldn’t hear a thing. The park is huge so finding tranquillity is very easy.
The stones themselves look like they’re out of this world. The landscape is like a cross between Star Wars and Lord of the Rings (and who wouldn’t love to see that?!) and just when you think the park can’t impress you any more, it pulls out another showstopper of a view. The sheer size and the fact that this isn’t a film set – these structures were all formed naturally – was difficult for me to get my head round.
The park is split into various sections, all of which are worth exploring. My favourite was definitely the Liziyuanqing Scenic Area though. From a distance, the stones are amazing but this section properly lets you weave your way deep into the stone structures themselves and it’s so much fun. There are endless paths to choose from, some eye-wateringly narrow crevices to shimmy through and literally not a single other person in sight. I didn’t see anyone at all. It honestly could have been lifted straight from Middle Earth… or the best game of Hide and Seek ever.
Frustratingly, the last bus back to Kunming is as early as 6pm. I was in the park for about 3 hours and got round most of it but could have easily continued getting lost for a lot longer. Late afternoon/early evening is definitely worth hanging round for as the sun starts to set. I walked back to the parking lot, bought my ticket and hopped on the last bus back to the bus station.
Overall, it’s one of those attractions where you can definitely see what all the fuss is about. And like so many of China’s best sights, it’s once you escape from the crowds and other tourists that you appreciate what a gem of a place it is.