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China’s Ancient Skyline By SIMON WINCHESTER fantastic zhangjiajie wulingyuan|
I AM in a deep, deep tunnel, die-straight and dark and two miles long, a fingernail of faraway brilliance at its mouth brightening every second until, with startling suddenness, it is daylight. Ahead of the car are scores upon scores upon scores of mighty towers, climbing endlessly into the foggy sky, like some surreal and unexpected ruined city. It is a sight utterly to astonish the unprepared, akin only perhaps to the moment when a Midwestern soybean farmer is flushed out of the Lincoln Tunnel into the canyons of Midtown Manhattan.
But this is not New York. This is central China, and a remote part of the mountains of northwestern Hunan province, until lately seldom visited and indeed until 50 years ago barely even settled. The tunnel is brand new, built last year for the equivalent of $200 million, and the towers to which it leads are not skyscrapers — well, they are, though not made of steel and glass, but natural, of a buff Cretaceous sandstone, and topped with clinging pine trees. There are well over 3,000 spires, and they make up what the United Nations 15 years ago declared to be one of the most remarkable geomorphological spectacles existing on our planet.
The manner in which that discovery is manifesting itself speaks volumes about the way the world can and should be dealing with its most precious places.
The deliciously intricate geology of China — basically an immense tectonic plate endlessly tormented by titanic collisions with the neighboring plates that bear India and Australia — is of course responsible for both the fabulous complexities and the extreme isolation of Wulingyuan. Sixty million years ago there were tropical seas there; sometimes they were deep, leaving soft and fossil-rich limestones, sometimes shallow, leaving hard beach-sandstone. Then the land rose under tectonic pressure, and the As I drove there from the immense and grubby city of Chongqing, a hard day’s journey, I confess to having fairly low expectations. The weather was unpropitious, to say the least: it was raining hard, and a stiff westerly gale was blowing the stain of city pollution almost to the fringes of the park. I had been to countless other Chinese tourist sites before and had winced at how often the authorities seemed to render their charges into Asian versions of Gatlinburg or Blackpool or, at best, Disneyland.
But at that first sight of those soaring towers at the tunnel mouth, everything changed. (As did the weather: as if by an edict of the gods the wind eased, the rain softened until it had become no more than mist, and the summits of the pillars became wrapped in fronds of cloud as delicate as skeins of silk.)
The scenery in Wulingyuan turns out to be so immense and impressive, and yet so geologically frangible, that it seems positively to demand to be cared for. Like the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley, the huge forests of pillars stand foursquare against the distant blue hills, announcing themselves to be the very treasures that Unesco declares them to be. At every twist and turn of the road there is a view to make one gasp.
In terms of astonishment I found myself saying time and again, as I gaped from cliff-edge and bridge and viewing tower: This is as great as the Great Wall. And all the while I had to remind myself that Wulingyuan had been made by nature for China, and though it looks in places almost too perfect and carefully hewn to be true, not made, like the wall, by politically motivated man.
Yet politics has contributed significantly to turning Wulingyuan into an important way-station for the modern Chinese visitor. A senior Communist soldier named He Long — who was from the minority Tujia ethnic group and so was particularly venerated for his loyalty to the Maoist cause — happened to come from this region of Hunan. During the Civil War of the 1930s he took refuge in the canyons and remote river valleys, venturing out from time to time to wreak havoc on any nearby Republican forces.
In Zhingjianjie, try Xiang Li Ren Jia (Second Floor, Tianmen Clothing Mall, Huilong Road, Zhangjiajie City, 86-744-8297977), featuring local sour and spicy Hunan-style dishes. By LIN YANG
SIMON WINCHESTER, the author most recently of “A Crack in the Edge of the World,” is writing a book about the China scholar Joseph Needham. wulingyuang travel zhangjiajie travel