There’s more to Guangdong than smoggy cities. The Chinese province’s parks simply wow.
Our friends all have the same reaction when we share our plans with them: ‘You’re going hiking... in Guangdong?’ When most people think of the Guangdong province of China, their minds leap to the smog-shrouded skyscrapers of Guangzhou and Shenzhen or the industrial nightmare that is Dongguan. But we’d heard that the lesser populated north of the province boasts scenery to rival the famous karst peaks in neighbouring Guangxi province. We set off to prove our detractors wrong.
Arriving in Mount Danxia Geopark as the late afternoon sun strokes the park’s strange landforms, we are not disappointed. The landscape here does indeed have much in common with Guangxi’s Guilin. Running through it is a gentle, teal-coloured river that was once a mighty torrent that carved the surrounding hills into what they are today. Greenery, supported by the moist air, bursts out all around. The rock formations – made of red sandstone instead of the weathered limestone that forms much of Guangxi – have more in common with America’s Grand Canyon. Here, imposing cliffs and pinnacles rise out of the ground, challenging mankind to conqueror them.
Near the beginning of the hiking trail, a Buddhist nunnery is carved into the canyon face. To get there, we ascend stone steps lined with bamboo so tall that they have begun to collapse under their own weight, caving into the centre to form a canopy over the path. We know we are almost there when we begin to hear the low chant of prayers over a loudspeaker. The nuns’ grey costumes are striking for their abstinence of colour in the riot that surrounds them. Bright fuchsia flowers tumbling down the cliff face; the rust-red cliffs themselves; the kaleidoscope of green plant-life and the golden statues. At least the monks living in the monastery on the other side of the mountain can clad themselves 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.
This inspiring vista is not lost on Zi Ran, a young monk we 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, in heavily Hunan-accented Mandarin. It’s a wonder to us that this park is not as well known as the likes of Emei Shan and Guilin.
Over the three days we spend hiking here, we are treated to so many snapshots of breathtaking scenery: a narrow canyon, wide as one person and 30 metres deep; hawks flying over a crumbling fort; vertiginous steps carved into the rock face. An evening walk by the river feels like a constantly changing flick book of traditional Chinese ink paintings: nothing but silhouetted bamboo and ripples in the water.
Leaving these serene spectacles of nature behind, it’s a jolt to arrive in Shaoguan, the third-tier city we must 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 of several thousand hectares of pine woods, rivers and peaks.
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 to form 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, although all that hiking does take its toll, so on our final day we submerge ourselves for hours in our hotel’s hot springs. Our legs tell us we’ve earned it.
Need to know
Getting there Cathay Pacific flies to Guangzhou, China (via Hong Kong) from Dhs2,165 return. www.cathaypacific.com.