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Geoparks Showcase Natural Wonders

Following the boom of tourism in China in the 1990s, ordinary citizens have become more and more familiar with different terms relating to our rich natural, cultural and historical heritage attractions.


As eight Chinese parks were put on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)'s first list of "geoparks" in early February in Paris, many have begun to learn about geoparks, a new term in the tourism glossary. And some of these parks are likely to become fresh new destinations for travelers.


Short for geological park, it originates from an international programme initiated by UNESCO, referring to areas that have unique geological landforms and represent a particular geological era in the history of earth's evolution.


UNESCO's definition, a geopark must be a "geological site of special scientific significance, rarity or beauty; cannot be solely of geological significance, but must also have archaeological, ecological, historical or cultural value."


The eight Chinese geoparks selected certainly conform to those definitions and criteria.


Before the recent listing, however, most of the parks had actually been known for their beautiful landscapes or rare natural vistas, although their geological significance remained obscure.


On the list are: Lushan Geopark, Jiangxi Province; Shilin Geopark, Yunnan; Danxiashan Geopark, Guangdong; Yuntaishan Geopark, Henan; Songshan Geopark, Henan; Huangshan Geopark, Anhui; Wudalianchi Geopark, Heilongjiang; and Zhangjiajie Geopark, Hunan.


Among them, Lushan is known as a mountain resort with a fascinating hodgepodge of colonial buildings, while Songshan is the place where the Shaolin Monastery, the birthplace of China's most famous martial arts tradition, is located. Huangshan and Zhangjiajie have attracted hordes of tourists for their spectacular natural sceneries, while people visit Wudalianchi for the legendary medicinal effects of its malodorous mineral springs.


Shilin (the Stone Forest) is probably the only site that has long been known as a geological wonder. As for Yuntaishan and Danxiashan, they had been unknown to the public until very recently.


The geopark designations have not only brought or added fame to these gifts from nature, but more importantly, they are showing us a new geological angle with which to appreciate them.


Lushan Geopark


Located in the south of the city of Jiujiang in East China's Jiangxi Province and bordering Lake Boyang, Lushan was established as a mountain resort town by European and US travellers late in the 19th century. Its mountain vistas have long been the subject of poems and paintings.


But few people know that it is a spectacular glacial geological heritage site, boasting the world's richest and best-preserved glacial remnants from the Quaternary Period, which covers the last 2 million years of the earth's geological history. It is also the birthplace of Quaternary glaciological research in China.


The mountain has the mixed features from glaciers and ice erosion, along with rivers, lakes, slopes and rock formations created by elevation and subsidence in the strenuous fault-block movement.


Shilin Geopark


The "Stone Forest," around 120 kilometres southeast of Kunming, the capital of Southwest China's Yunnan Province, is a massive collection of grey limestone pillars, eroded into their present fanciful forms by wind and rain.


Marine fossils found in the area suggest that it was once under water.


Covering an area of 400 square kilometres, the maze of grey pinnacles and peaks features various karst forms, such as eroded gullies, eroded funnels, peak forests, karst caves and dissolved basins.


Ranging from 20 metres to 50 metres in height, they look like a forest from a distance, which brought them the name "Stone Forest."


Danxiashan Geopark


People who have traveled around the country might have heard of or seen the "Danxia Landscape."


In geology, it is a special name for a landform that is composed of rock walls and cliffs of red terrestrial sandstone and conglomerates, which are small groups of stones bunched together.


These kinds of landscapes are widely scattered around the country. Among China's 29 world natural and cultural heritage sites, six sites feature this type of special landscape. Among the country's 151 national scenic areas, 26 have "Danxia Landscapes."


But few people know that they are named after the Danxiashan Mountains in Renhua and Qujiang counties of Shaoguan in South China's Guangdong Province. In the 1930s, a Chinese geologist named it after researching the kinds of landscapes scattered in South China.


At present, 650 "Danxia Landscape" sites have been found in China. The Danxiashan Geopark is considered to have the most typical version of the landform.


Covering an area of 290 square kilometers, Danxiashan Mountain looks like a red sandstone peak forest. There are more than 380 peaks of various forms, with the tallest standing 409 metres high.


About 65 million years ago, this area suffered tectonic movement and many faults and joints were formed. The whole area was turned into an erosion region. About 23 million years ago, rapid elevation took place in this area, which finally shaped its unique geomorphology.


Covered by a subtropical evergreen forest with the Jinjiang River meandering through it, the geopark has great potential to become a major tourist attraction.


Yuntaishan Geopark


Situated in the north of Xiuwu County, in the city of Jiaozuo in Central China's Henan Province, Yuntaishan Mountain is the least-known site among the eight geoparks.


Differential elevation and subsidence of the Piedmont fault of the Taihang Mountain Range, which is to the north of Yuntaishan Mountain, has created long walls, red cliffs, narrow gorges, different types of valleys and many waterfalls in the geopark. Tanpo Waterfall, the tallest in the park, is 304 metres high.


The core area of the park, covering about 80 square kilometers, looks like a picture scroll, with steep peaks towering into the sky, waterfalls hanging down in faulted cliffs, and clear streams winding through tranquil valleys. It is a wonder of nature still waiting to be explored by visitors.


Songshan Geopark


Located in northern Henan Province and covering an area of 450 square kilometers, the Songshan Mountains are famous for having a complete collection of outcrops of stratigraphic section and the boundaries of angular unconformities formed by three Precambrian (the geological time between 4.5 billion years ago and 543 million years ago) tectonic movements.


Outcrops of the Archean Era (3.8 to 2.5 billion years ago), Proterozoic Era (2.5 billion to 543 million years ago), Paleozoic Era (543 to 248 million years ago), Mesozoic Era (248 to 65 million years ago) and Cenozoic Era (65 million years ago to the present) have been found there.


Three major tectonic movements, the Songyang Movement of 2.5 billion years ago, the Zhongyue Movement of 1.85 billion years ago and the Shaolin Movement of 570 million years ago were named after local attractions in the area.


The boundaries of angular non-conformities and basal conglomerates there are very prominent. The area is also known as the "textbook of geological history".


Huangshan Geopark


Huangshan Mountain, also known as the Yellow Mountain, lies in the south of Anhui Province. For Chinese people, Huangshan is probably the most famous landscape attraction in the country and has attracted countless painters and poets coming to seek inspiration.


A major part of its charm comes from its unique landscape, which is known as a granite peak forest in geology. There are 72 granite peaks over 1,000 metres high and numerous unusual granite rock formations in the mountain area. Many of them are famous scenic spots scattered throughout the park.


Wudalianchi Geopark


Located in Wudalianchi, in Northeast China's Helongjiang Province, the Wudalianchi (Five Large Connected Lakes) Volcanic National Geopark is a "volcano museum" and has long been a place of special attention for geologists and volcanologists.


Covering an area of 720 square kilometers, it is composed of 14 inactive volcanoes, which erupted from Tertiary (65 million to 2 million years ago) to the Quaternary period, with the latest eruption in 1712.


The volcanic cones are complete, and the lava flows stretch for over 10 kilometers, thus blocking the rivers in the area to create the five lakes spread in the form of a string of beads.


There are also plentiful mineral springs of medicinal value in the area, which have turned the park into a hot spot for health enthusiasts.


Zhangjiajie Geopark


Parts of the Wuling Mountain Range in northwestern Hunan Province which make up Zhangjiajie, were set aside in 1982 as a nature reserve.


The mountains have gradually eroded to form a peculiarly spectacular landscape, known as a quartzose sandstone peak forest landscape, in geological terms.


It features craggy peaks and huge rock columns rising out of the luxuriant subtropical forest, scattered over an area of 3,600 square kilometers and featuring a variety of landforms such as walls, arches and bridges.


(China Daily March 4, 2004)


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