Signs for Life in a Chinese Canyon

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Three of 12 waterfalls. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Three of 12 waterfalls on a hike in China’s Tongling Mountain National Forest Park. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

WENCHENG COUNTY, China – The forest resembled Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and the waterfalls could have been in Yosemite, but the signs along the trail were pure China.

They told us a bit about where we were, and despite mangled syntax and odd spellings, they made it perfectly clear that if we fell off a cliff, it was our own fault. We’d been warned.

We were about three hours’ drive inland from the coastal metropolis of Wenzhou and in a range of rugged mountains blanketed with deciduous trees and accented by a crashing river we heard long before we could see it.

We were eager to explore Tongling Mountain National Forest Park and begin a promised hike. We had a hint of what lay ahead because of the winding and steep ascent to the trailhead in a tour bus, but that didn’t quite prepare us for our walk down a canyon wall, rock-hopping river crossings and a protracted hike back up a gorge.

Stone staircase to start the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Stone staircase to start the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Timbers underfoot for a portion of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Timbers underfoot for a portion of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

The hike began inauspiciously on a solid stone staircase that would have made the Civilian Conservation Corps proud. A sign portended a change. It read:

“It is not my fault to reflect magic

and dangerous with steep and narrow,

it is your fault that forget your safety

while enjoy the sight.”

The translation was clear:

“If you’re so absentminded

 that you fall off the edge,

you’ve only yourself to blame.”

The trail actually wasn’t bad at all, and it was a marvel of backcountry construction. In places, it was a catwalk suspended over open space.

The wide stone steps morphed into circular timbers, then planks of wood and then into steel mesh resting on steel rods driven into the rock walls of the gorge. Handrails were common – and welcomed. The amount of human labor (almost none of this could have been done with machinery) was impressive.

Why did the Chinese go to such lengths? The answer was in the signs – the trail builders appreciated nature’s glory. One sign with three messages offered these thoughts:

“Here, the nature’s uncanny workmanship has created the mountains, rivers, forest and valley.”

“Here, let us make appoint far away with the mortal life!”

“Here, people will be intoxicated by the harmony of the voice of wind, water and birds.”

Again, the translation was clear:

“Drink in the beauty of these mountains. Enjoy a respite from your daily life.”

7-three-part-signWhat surrounded us soon shifted from merely impressive to outright spectacular. The cascading river far across the canyon had blasted out one beautiful plunge pool after another.

It was a thing of pure beauty – a narrow white waterfall crashed into a blue-green pool, which led to another waterfall and another pool, over and over again – 12 times in all.

Waterfall after waterfall. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Waterfall after waterfall. (Photo by Tom Adkinson)

Views at every turn of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Views at every turn of the trail. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

We finally reached the bottom of the canyon, took the obligatory group photo (our Chinese hosts insisted on group photos absolutely everywhere we went), crossed the river on a bridge made of circular stone steps resembling pier pilings and began the climb back up.

Step by circular step across the river. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Step by circular step across the river. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

This time, however, the trail was immediately beside the waterfalls and plunge pools. Signs provided the names of each pool, which the Chinese called ponds. We climbed along Gourd Pond, Belle Pond and Dragon Princess Pond. A favorite was Connect Heart Pond, so named because its outline resembles a heart.

At the top of the climb – after walking across a small dam and admiring a reservoir where golden koi flashed in the still water – was a manmade surprise, a teahouse in the middle of nowhere.

A teahouse in the middle of nowhere. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

A teahouse in the middle of nowhere. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Green tea, peanuts and tofu snacks. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Green tea, peanuts and peculiar tofu snacks. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Green tea, peanuts and peculiar tofu snacks were our reward – along with time to contemplate two signs we had passed:

“Civilization lives with mountains and waters, and harmony coexists with landscapes.”

“Protrcting the environmenr is a responsibility.

“Caring for the environment is a virtue.”

Spelling be damned, the day’s message was clear.

"Civilization lives with mountains and waters."

“Civilization lives with mountains and waters.”

Responsibility and virtue. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

Responsibility and virtue. (Photo: Tom Adkinson)

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