The Himalayan mountain range was created during the Cenozoic era, between 55 and 38 million years ago, when plates comprising today's Indian subcontinent collided with the ones to the east; before this, Yunnan was underwater. The area of today's stone forest was composed of limestone, which was gradually eroded by the elements into the landscape of karst structures that now cover an area of over 350 square kilometers. A small fraction of that area is set aside for tourism, which leaves a lot of room for independent exploring. In addition to the karst formations, the region is riddled with caves and geographical oddities.
The stones in the tourist area bear names like the Stone Mushroom, the Orangutan, and Two Birds Feeding Each Other, and with a little bit of imagination, some of them bear striking resemblance to their namesakes. The area is populated by the Sani branch of the Yi minority, and the most famous stone formations in the forest are named Ashima and A'hei. According to the Sani legend, Ashima was a beautiful girl in love with A'hei. The two passed their days happily, meeting in the stone forest for some heavy courting, until one day Ashima's beauty caught the attention of a powerful landlord's son. The landlord arranged it with Ashima's parents that she would become his son's wife. Ashima and A'hei were heartbroken, and made a plan to run away together. One night, Ashima stole away from the landlord's grounds and ran to meet A'hei in the stone forest. Their plan failed, though, and the landlord's son killed Ashima. The gods were so moved by the tragedy that they made by a pond two stone columns in the lovers' likeness, so that Ashima and A'hei could be together in the stone forest for all time.
The tourist section of the forest is often crowded and loud, with guides yelling though bullhorns and tourists crowding for photo opps. The best way to enjoy the area is to get away from the tourists into some more secluded parts of the forest. With so much space, it's not hard to do. There are some beautiful potential campsites in those hills.
Address: 120 km southeast of Kunming
Ticket price: 80 yuan (US$9.6)
Open Time: 8:00 – 17:00
Transportation: A 30 yuan (round-trip ticket) train leaves from Kunming at 8:32, and returns at 15:44 for a whirlwind day trip. It's a 90-minute train ride, and is probably the most direct way to get to the Stone Forest. If you choose to go by bus, be careful that you don't get on a tour bus stopping at various caves in the area - unless you're into that sort of thing.
(china.org.cn April 8, 2003)