China: Guangdong’s national parks


Yangyuan Shi (Male Stone) The pride of Mount Danxia Geopark

There’s more to Guangdong than its cities, argues Gabrielle Jaffe as she treks through the stunning landscapes of two of the province’s national parks

You’re going hiking… in Guangdong?” That’s the reaction I receive from my friend when I share my plans to trek out into the South China wilderness. Indeed, when most people think of the province, their minds leap to the smog-shrouded skyscrapers of Guangzhou and Shenzhen or the industrial nightmarescape-cum-mass brothel that is Dongguan. But I’d heard that the less populated northern part of the province held the promise of scenery which could rival the famously picturesque karst peaks in neighbouring Guangxi province. 

As we pull into Mount Danxia Geopark with the late afternoon sun stroking the park’s strange landforms, it looks as though we’re was not going to be disappointed. We tell the area here has a lot in common with Yangshuo and Guilin. In the middle of the scene, running through the landscape is a gentle, teal-coloured river that was once a mighty watercourse that helped carve the surrounding valleys into the green bursts of hills that they are today, standing tall, surrounded by the soft, moist air.

But the rock formations – made of red sandstone instead of the weathered limestone that forms much of Guangxi – actually have more in common with America’s Grand Canyon. Here, imposing rufous cliffs and pinnacles rise out of the ground, challenging mankind to conquer them.  

Perhaps the most impressive pinnacle in the area is the one known as Yangyuan Shi (male stone), a 28m-high formation that is not just slightly phallic, but exactly (pictured above). It is a near perfect imitation of a circumcised penis, standing tall and erect for the world to see. In fact, it is hard to believe it’s not man-made. As we stand surveying the impressive feat of nature, grown men giggle as they hold out their hands in loose semi-open fists, urging their strategically positioned friends to take photos to create the ultimate, suggestive optical illusion. 

In addition to offering comical photographic opportunities, the male stone and its counterpart female stone on the other side of
the park are, unsurprisingly, seen as symbols of fertility and are objects worthy of worship to many visitors, particularly those of the Taoist faith. 

On top of the rock Views from Mount Danxia monastery

It’s not just Taoists who revere these lands. Near the beginning of the hiking trail on the way up to the male rock there is a Buddhist nunnery carved into the canyon face. To get there, we ascend stone steps lined with bamboo so tall they have begun to collapse under their own weight, caving towards the centre to form a dramatic canopy over the path. And then, as I get closer, faint chants of prayers murmur out over loudspeakers – a sign that I’m almost there. The nuns’ sombre grey costumes are made all the more striking by the riotous contrast of colour that the natural environment surrounds them with: the bright fuchsia of bougainvillea tumbling down the cliff face, the rust-red of the cliffs themselves, the kaleidoscope of green plant-life and the golden statues. 

A monastic life A mountain monk  

At least the monks living in the monastery on the other side of the mountain are slightly more fashion savvy, clad in bright orange apparel. The yang to the nunnery’s yin, this wooden monastery is built on top of, instead of into, Mount Danxia, giving the monks perfect views of the river winding its way through the valley deep below.  


Winding waterways Around Mount Danxia

This inspiring vista is not lost on Zi Ran, a young monk I meet by one of the Buddha shrines. “I’ll be transferred to the monastery on the famous Emei Shan mountain [in Sichuan] next year but I think it can’t be more beautiful than this,” he says. 

Indeed, it’s a wonder to me that this park is not as well-known as the likes Emei Shan and Guilin – squeamishness, perhaps, on the part of the tourist agencies, to advertise a destination whose main attraction is an enormous phallus? Whatever the reason, there’s far more to Mount Danxia than a standing stone penile. We’re treated to so many snatches of breath-taking scenery over the three days we spend hiking here. I see a deep canyon, 30m-high, yet only wide as a person. There are spectacular hawks flying over 

a crumbling fort. All around the area are vertiginous steps carved into the rock faces. One evening, on a walk by the river, we notice ripples in the water which, with silhouetted bamboo reflections, create a constantly changing flip book of traditional Chinese ink paintings.

Given these serene spectacles of nature it is quite a jolt to arrive in Shaoguan, the third-tier city one has to transfer through to get to the next national park. But after a half-day interlude among the exhaust fumes and honking horns, our lungs rejoice again as we arrive in Nanling Forest Park, a national park comprising several thousand hectares of pine woods, rivers and peaks.

On top of the rock Views from Mount Danxia monastery

One trail – our favourite – follows a river as it plummets over several phases, forming waterfalls and aquamarine pools at each step. As the sunlight filters down the narrow valley it refracts in places into rainbows; elsewhere, it bounces off the moist rocks making them shine like they are silver or bronze. For much of the trail it is just us, this magical light, the rhythm of the waterfalls and birdsong.

Five days in Danxia and Nanling fly by and, with all the hiking taking its toll, we submerge ourselves for hours in our hotel’s hot springs. Our legs tell us we’ve earned it, and after all it is their turn to be pampered, as our eyes have been spoiled and treated to some of the most memorable sights this side of the planet has to offer. 

How to get there

Trains go from Shenzhen to Shaoguan East station regularly, taking around four hours and costing 50-90RMB ($60-$110). Shaoguan is a good base from which to reach both parks. A tourist bus from Shaoguan East station leaves regularly for Mount Danxia Geopark (20RMB ($25)) and takes between 30 minutes to an hour to reach the park. Nanling National Forest Park is a little trickier to get to by public transport, with three public buses a day leaving from the old Shaoguan South station. They take around two to three hours, so if you want to save some journey time, consider hiring a private car for about 300RMB ($375).   

Where to stay  

If you’d like to lodge inside the parks, there are a few options. Situated inside Mount Danxia Geopark, try the Xia Feng Hotel (from 140RMB ($175)). In Nanling, the only accommodation open to foreigners is Nanling Forest Resort & Thermal Hotel (from 570RMB ($850); book through, a pleasing resort with koi carp ponds, in-room Jacuzzis and a collection of hot spring baths. If you prefer to stay overnight in Shaoguan, try the Ramada (from 500RMB ($625) a night; 


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