Like a dramatic set to an extravaganza, the urban peaks of Chongqing bestow a scenic backdrop for all to admire on a daily basis, yet the rigours of life demand that few have the chance to regularly explore them up close.
Cue this early December, and the local climes have broken the norm by gifting consecutives days of balmy clear skies.
A free schedule, plus the impetus of a recent spike in website traffic, combined to inspire a three hour walk through Zhaomu Mountain Forest Park, starting from my home to Lanxing Pagoda, then down past the lake towards Happiness Square.
Zhaomushan sits imposingly across nearly three miles of Yubei district, and once stubbornly denied rite of passage beyond the north face, at least until a network of tunnels eventually transformed geographic isolation into a land of highly coveted real estate.
Miles of pathways and cycle lanes meander gracefully through over 700 acres of mostly unspoilt forest, amongst which traditional architecture adorns the upper landscape, while the lakes and grassland below entice those seeking to enjoy the surroundings, just without the exertion of ascending hundreds of steps.
Residential developments around Zhaomushan take advantage of this unique selling point by huddling tightly up against the slopes, where they can offer a more attractive living environment, and footpaths with direct access into the park.
The most recognisable landmark is undountedly Lanxing Pagoda览星塔 which stands tall upon the central crest of Zhaomushan, visible for miles in every direction, and splendidly lit until late evening.
Whenever you visit, it’s important to keep ambition in check, because all the routes will total in the tens of miles, and across quite steep terrain at times.
These narrow roads and pathways wind extensively across the mountain, along with flights of steep perpendicular steps that interlink the otherwise highly circuitous routes, whilst offering highly convenient shortcuts straight up or down the mountainsides.
Navigating all the paths and attractions can be a challenge, not only because of their maze like orientation, but the fact a dense canopy of trees usually obscures potential viewpoints and landmarks that would help the visitor gain their bearings.
The best advice when exploring the crests on foot is to use Baidu Maps with GPS, as even the smallest of pathways feature, and signal coverage is surprisingly good for a remote inner city location.
Also, the Baidu Map includes an automatic tourist voice guide you can select as you approach points of interest in real time.
On good weather days outside winter, locals pack the grasslands that surround the lake at the foot of the southern face, armed with tents, kites, and barbecues. On these days, cars pack solidly by the roadside, often two abreast for kilometres along the main road.
When the climes permit, Zhaomushan is still great to visit, even in the winter. As there are no gates, barriers or ticket offices, you are technically free to come and go as you please.
After dark, the pathways lights switch on, giving the park a whole new aura, as does the city skyline once the sun has set. While the darkness beyond the trodden path may sound quite eerie, I am yet to here a single case that suggests there is anything to fear from a nocturnal visit.
During my visit, I finally learnt the Chinese geographical term ‘Ya-kou垭口’ from a tourist sign, which describes a saddle shaped trough between two crests of a mountain ridge, exemplified by the He Family Pass upon Zhaomushan. The character Ya垭 featured in our recent post on Huangjueya黄桷垭 Old Street atop Nanshan Mountain.
A little extra background.
In the course of developing Zhaomushan into a popular inner city forest park , planners strived to attain a great variety of architectural features, enhancing its appeal through folk designs and locally sourced building materials.
Given ample time to cover the main tracks, you will encounter traditional style courtyards, halls, pavillions, coridoors, towers and arches, built using logs, stone, green tiles, white marble, cobbles, earthen bricks.
Eaves protrude stylishly from the rooftops, with elegant upward turns in each corner. Window are adorned with flowered line patterns. Horizontal inscriptions sit majestically above the door frames, announcing their title for passers-by alike. Either side, you can attempt reading the ‘antithetical couplets’, which are auspicious sayings carved and painted onto the vertical pillars as calligraphy.
The continuity in theme means all the structures mutually compliment each other whilst still retaining their individuality, offset against stone carvings, rockeries, ponds, mazes, and gardens amongst the pristine forrest backdrop.
In spring, as the trees and grasslands flower in a blaze of colour, the open fields play host to lively fetes where local, young entrepreneurs come to set up stall, and offer locals a chance to savour handmade delicacies, brewed coffee, teas and beers, as well as artefacts, painting, and musical performances.
Coming full circle, urban Chongqing encompasses many of these stunning natural enclaves, a gift that residents alike should allow themselves restbite to truly appreciate.