On my way to dinner last night, I passed by the square and found it in full swing. As a rule, in the evening it is animated by aerobics classes, martial arts shows, or other activities that take place to the rhythm of music. Children were playing, loosely supervised by parents who chattered away their time. It seemed that the night coolness made everyone pour out into the street and enjoy a communal moment. I couldn’t help but stop and admire how this lively place had brought so many people together.
Everything made me feel at ease in Chishui. I’d already prolonged my stay by another day, but now, like it or not, I had to make a move forward. This would mean putting an end to the exploration of the captivating Chishui countryside, but also saying goodbye to my new-found friends. But if time had come to leave Chishui town, I wouldn’t leave its region yet as there were still two more places of interest, which, lying on the road to my next destination Zunyi, made it convenient to be based at a village rather than the town.
The Five Colums Peak turned out to be the most impressive of all the parks I visited and the most challenging in terms of physical effort, but the long hike and the marvellous nature were truly rewarding. The circuit comprises two valleys forking out from a given point on the approach path. At the end of the first there was a waterfall dropping from a red cliff that made a spectacular setting in itself. In fact, the waterfall was reduced to a meagre trickle, but the grand sandstone amphitheatre was a sight in its own right. More surprising still were the trails that climbed all the way up the sheer cliff on two alternative routes. I took the steps carved into the rock, but the hanging stairs and gangways that stuck out of the rock face also looked very interesting, and when I reached the top I wished I could have gone both ways. I was only too tired to inflict myself such hard work.
The trail then crossed a marvellous bamboo forest where I felt dwarfed by the towering reeds. Their segmented trunks looked as if painted various shades of green, from deep to whitish, due to a thinner or thicker layer of wax. As practically all visitors hike to the two spots from the bottom of the valley, I didn’t meet anyone along the loop. Finally I reached the head of the other valley, where the Five Columns Peak itself could be viewed from up close. Five giant pillars of reddish rock, all fissured and crevassed, rose parallel to each other. Sections of the causeway had been smashed through by falling stones, and I feared I might be the next one to be hit.
Their bareness loomed large over a wooded landscape as far as the eye could see. Down in the valley the protagonist was the Alsophila Spinulosa, an elsewhere rare tree fern that has found here its habitat. Its fronds uncurl from the centre and grow into a glorious crown topping a slender woody trunk. When they are hit by sunlight they seem to glow against a backdrop of dark undergrowth. As the altitude increases, the vegetation varies accordingly. The pillars were sparsely colonised by contorted conifers perched on the rocky ledges.
I stayed in Yuanhou, beleaguered by heavy traffic that had already wrecked the carriageway. My balcony gave over the other bank of the river, where the motorway is being built. At the other end of the bridge I sat down at a restaurant where a thickset woman pulled together a mid-afternoon fried rice with egg, probably the poorest meal I’ve had not only in China, but anywhere. At least I was able to find another restaurant for dinner where I had grilled tofu and the best noodle soup for breakfast. Foreigners here are a rarity, to the point that the owner absolutely wanted to take a photo with me. The village is interesting for the presence of old houses and impressive huge slabs of stone that pave the central street and the staircases that lead up to the road.