Zhaoqing / Guangdong Province
Dinghushan 鼎湖山, just an hour away from the centre of Zhaoqing, was China’s first National Park, established in 1956. Nowadays it’s also a UNESCO “Man and Natural Biosphere Reserve” for the research of ecosystems in tropical and subtropical forests.
It’s a beautiful place of towering green hills, gushing waterfalls and clear streams, laced with a sprinkling of peaceful Buddhist temples and home to numerous plant and animal species. However, apart from the awe-inspiring, lush, tropical scenery, one memory will always stick in our minds: that of pigging out on tasty, deep- purple potatoes…
We got to the park by local bus, leaving from downtown Zhaoqing. Though the park’s only 18 km away, the ride took quite a while, as the bus meandered from one densely populated suburb to the next. Even when it finally dropped us off in a quiet, dead-end street, lined with hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops, we still found it hard to believe there could be an important natural reserve near here.
Our first impressions of China’s “green gem on the Tropic of Cancer” weren’t great: it seemed not so much a tropical biosphere as a tame, suburban tourist trap! Before crossing the turn-style, we had to fork out a hefty 60 Yuan for the entrance tickets. After acquiring an additional 20 Yuan ticket, we hopped on one of the electric carts headed for the Tianhu area. To our dismay, we were charged another 30 Yuan for a very short boat trip across the lake, and access to the main park area.
As our small wooden boat was rowed across, we admired the deep-green waters that reflected the overhanging vegetation. A young guide chattered away to the group of middle-aged women who had got on with us, presumably telling them about some of the park’s 2,000 species of plants, or other attractions.
We disembarked on a tiny island and took a stroll through a netted butterfly preserve, surrounded by the delicate, fluttering wings of hundreds of huge, black and white, or orange, black and white butterflies. There, we left the group and set off on a well-marked trail into the reserve proper.
Things began to look up. What had started as an orderly boardwalk, skirting the lake, soon turned into a real trail as it headed up the valley through thick foliage, past bubbling streams and splashing waterfalls. Soon, we found ourselves scrambling over rocks and boulders, jumping little brooks and dodging heavy branches.
Eventually, the trail climbed out of the gorge and hugged the high rim of the valley, providing us with spectacular views of the thickly wooded hillsides, the misty mountains above and the verdant lake below! There was so much vegetation that we could easily imagine the presence of rare, endangered species, hiding under its cover.
This was definitely worth the effort, and every kwai of the entrance fee!
After descending from the mountain and passing through a rather sedate temple-cum park-cum picnic area, we continued, by buggy and on foot, towards the massive Qingyun temple complex.
It was at a small food stall near the temple that we came across the astonishing purple potato. We’ve tried food of various colours during our travels, from lurid jellies to flaming fruits, but I must admit that the purple potato was one of the most intriguing. And the taste? Pretty good actually, and apparently very healthy, full of anti-oxidants.
Even though its origins are Ming Dynasty, the Qingyun temple today is mainly a modern, rambling complex that cascades down the mountain in a series of levels rather like a waterfall. Highlights include the impressive hall with 500 hundred gilded arhats (Buddhist saints), each one with a different face and posture, the rice pot that feeds 1000 people and the camellia tree that was planted in 1685. The veggie restaurant looked promising too, but we were already stuffed, too full of purple potatoes to try it.
From the temple, a choice of paths lead back towards the entrance. The one we chose took us to clear and inviting pools, fed by thundering waterfalls. There were signs saying swimming was forbidden, but at least we were able to dangle our weary legs in the cool and revitalizing water. It would have been quite easy to go in all the way, as there was no one around to stop us.
Eventually, the path comes out on one of the main roads running through the Park, from where you can pick up a buggy back to the exit, or walk down. If you choose to walk, try walking on the foot massage stones. For the unaccustomed, it’s more like a slow Chinese form of torture than the soothing experience for tired legs and feet it’s made out to be. I barely lasted 10 seconds.
Even if you can’t stand the stones, you can still breathe in the healthy air; according to the signs, Dinghushan is rich in ‘air anion’, said to be beneficial for anything from asthma, bronchitis to malignant tumors (Click on Photo to enlarge).
We visited Dinghushan as a day trip from the city of Zhaoqing. We took a local bus from a bus stop on the town’s main drag, very close to our Hubin hotel. We had been told bus number 21 would take us to the park, but it never materialized. Instead, helped by a friendly young lady who worked in the park as a shop-assistant, we got on another one, possibly a number 5. The ride took around an hour. The buses back, which seemed to go until at least 6 or 7 o’clock can get very crowded, so it’s worth turning up a little early.
A visit to Dinghushan Park is not cheap. Apart from the obligatory entrance ticket (menpiao) there are several extra charges. The two most important ones are for the electric carts and the boat across the lake, which takes you to the more interesting nature trails. If you aren’t staying overnight, then time is of the essence, and it’s well worth using the carts to take you from one scenic spot to another. On the positive side, once you get to the heart of the park, it’s truly stunning and relatively unspoilt, considering it’s one of China’s major nature reserves. We visited on a weekday in early September and Chinese tourists were few and far between. There don’t seem to be any Western tourists in this region of China.
There are many food stalls in the Park, serving the famous purple potatoes, as well as the usual staples of boiled eggs, boiled peanuts and pot noodles. Bear in mind they’re not that cheap, so you might be better off bringing your own supplies. Zhaoqing’s specialty, stuffed, glutinous rice dumplings, wrapped in bamboo leaves (guozhengzong) are sold in all the stalls leading to the entrance. There is also a vegetarian restaurant in the Qingyun temple.
You can spend the night in one of the many simple hotels near the Park entrance, but Dinghu Shan is easily visited as a day trip from the lively and attractive city of Zhaoqing (see our next entry).
We stayed at the Hubin Hotel in Zhaoqinq, where a simple, but excellent-value double with a terrace and lake view cost 200 yuan.
Zhaoqing has some fantastic places to eat, especially in and around the night market by the bus station.
Getting there and away:
Buses between Guangzhou and Zhaoqing run almost every 30 minutes and take about an hour and a half.