Wulong Karst National Geology Park

Time has taught us that, in spite of man’s best efforts, nature will always be the greater architect, and never has this been truer than at the Wulong Karst National Geology Park. With its echoing caves, plunging sinkholes, stony ravines, and breath-taking natural bridges, it represents an integral part of the karst landscape in southern China and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2007. Located in Wulong County of Chongqing Municipality, the park is divided into three major areas, which each encompass a notable attraction. The first section is home to the Three Natural Bridges; the second contains Qingkou Tiankeng; and the third boasts the magnificent Furong Cave. These spectacular works of nature are proof that three truly is the magic number!

Not far from the delightfully named town of Xiannushan or “Fairy Mountain”, the Three Natural Bridges are a series of three limestone bridges that were formed naturally over time. They are known as Tianlong or “Sky Dragon”, Qinglong or “Azure Dragon”, and Heilong or “Black Dragon” respectively. As the largest natural bridge cluster in Asia, they certainly live up to their grand names! Each bridge rises at an average height of around 200 metres (656 ft.) and spans approximately 400 metres (1,312 ft.) in length. Tianlong Bridge, which features an ancient military outpost directly within its vast arch, is arguably most well-known as the set of Zhang Yimou’s epic Curse of the Golden Flower. The caves nestled within its expanse are maze-like, with the largest stretching to over 400 metres (1,312 ft.) in length. 

Qinglong Bridge is considered to be at its most impressive after rainfall, when a waterfall pours over the arch and forms a light mist. As the sunlight reflects on the mist, it creates a miniature rainbow within the bridge’s arch that is said to appear like a dragon ascending to the heavens. Similarly, Heilong Bridge is so-named for the long, dark ravine running under its arch, which resembles a black dragon winding its way out from under the mountains. On top of the bridge, wide tracts of farmland and four delicate springs support an abundance of lush greenery. These bridges are matched in beauty only by the nearby Xiannu or “Fairy” Mountain, a national forest park made up of snow-capped peaks, verdant forests, and alpine meadows. From the fresh greens of spring to the burnished hues of autumn, Fairy Mountain is a popular resort throughout the year for those Chongqing city-dwellers yearning for a taste of nature. 

By comparison to the lofty heights of the Three Natural Bridges and Fairy Mountain, the Qingkou Tiankeng Scenic Area may seem like a bit of a downer! It is centred on unique karst landforms known as “tiankeng”, which roughly translates to “sinkhole” or “doline”. These are large depressions or chasms in the earth that have been caused by the surface layer either collapsing or being eroded away. The scenic area is unsurprisingly named after its most esteemed resident: the Qingkou Tiankeng. The tiankeng cluster found in this area is thought to be the only one in the world that was formed by surface water erosion. Each of the five sinkholes in this area has an average diameter and depth of around 300 metres (984 ft.), so watch your step and be careful not to fall in! 

Located on the bank of the Furong River, the final scenic area revolves around Furong or “Lotus” Cave. The cave itself is a whopping 2,846 metres (9,337 ft.) in length, with numerous vertical shafts, stalactites, and stalagmites dotted throughout its hollow expanse. These strange rock formations are said to look like frozen waterfalls and petrified palm trees, creating a labyrinthine fairy-tale world populated by grotesque and alien figures. Alongside limestone, the cave also boasts numerous red coral and calcite crystal deposits, which sparkle like precious jewels in the darkness.  

Fengdu Ghost City

While different cultures have multifarious beliefs regarding the nature of the afterlife, one basic truth resonates through them all: good is rewarded with good; and evil punished with evil. Hidden deep within the verdant forests of Mount Ming, about 170 kilometres (110 mi) downstream from Chongqing, rests a temple complex entirely dedicated to this principle. Much like the River Styx, Fengdu Ghost City’s riverside location means it can be reached by cruise ship along the Yangtze River, although there is the option to take a slightly less magical ride into the city by bus or by car. Abandon all hope ye who decide to take a tour here, for this is the home of Yinwang, the King of Hell. 

According to local legend, two imperial officials named Yin Changsheng and Wang Fangping came to Mount Ming during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) in order to practice Taoism. After a lifetime of solitude, they achieved immortality. Over time, their association with the place and the combination of their surnames, which form the word “Yinwang” or “King of Hell”, led to the site’s focus on the underworld and the attainment of the name “Ghost City”. However, it wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that the vast temple complex began to be constructed. Combining features of Taoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, this complex is made up of temples, shrines, and monasteries all dedicated to depicting the gruesome and demonic images of those who will be tortured in hell.

The site’s mystique and macabre nature meant it swiftly gained notoriety throughout the country and it has been mentioned in a number of Chinese literary classics, including Journey to the West, Investiture of the Gods, and Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Nowadays it remains a popular attraction, with visitors testing their morality against the notorious three trials of the afterlife. Be forewarned: the city is not for the faint of heart, as it contains vivid dioramas, statues, and murals of people being viciously tortured by demons. Whether it’s a man moaning in agony as he is sawn in half or a woman gaping in horror as her teeth are plucked out, these grotesque images are sure to inspire anyone to choose the righteous path!

Traditional Chinese belief states that, in order to successfully pass over into the afterlife, the dead must take part in three trials. The first involves crossing over the Nothing-To-Be-Done Bridge, a stone bridge that was constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). It is made up of three arches, although only the middle one is used to test people. The other two, known as the golden and silver bridge respectively, should be crossed over on your way out of the city, as this is rumoured to bring good fortune. Different procedures are adhered to depending on gender, age, and marital status, but the main objective is to make it across the bridge.

It is believed that a good person will cross the bridge without effort, while an evil person will fall into the square-shaped pools below. In some instances, demons would block the path, allowing the good spirits to pass and pushing the evil spirits into the water. If you thought this first trial was a bridge too far, it will seem harmless compared to those ahead! During the second trial, the dead must navigate the Ghost-Torturing Pass, where they present themselves for judgement before Yama, the King of Hell according to Buddhist tradition. Along this eerie path, eighteen life-sized sculptures of demons loom at passers-by, their faces gnarled into frowns and scowls. At the end of the path, you’ll arrive at the entrance to Tianzi Palace, where the final trial awaits you. 

Acting as the centre of the complex, Tianzi Palace is the oldest and largest temple on the mountain. The third trial involves balancing on one foot atop a certain stone at its entrance for three minutes. A virtuous person should be able to accomplish this task with ease, while a nefarious person will inevitably fail and be condemned to hell. Once a spirit has completed their journey, they will ascend the Last Glance to Home Tower. At the top, they are permitted to take one last look at their homes and families before passing over to the other side. That being said, this tower was only built in 1985, so anyone who died before then probably didn’t have such a good view!

As you travel through the city, you’re sure to catch a glimpse of a colossal stony face peering out of the forest on Mount Ming. This is known as the “Ghost King” and, at a height of 138 metres (453 ft.) and a width of 217 metres (712 ft.), it has unsurprisingly earned the Guinness World Record for the largest sculpture carved into a rock. Just remember, you might not be able to see him, but he’s always watching you, so behave yourself!   



Crisscrossed by shimmering rivers and blanketed by verdant mountains, the municipality of Chongqing is endowed with an ethereal beauty. Even its name, which literally translates to mean “Double-Blessed”, is a testament to its superlative qualities. Like the municipalities of Beijing, Tianjin, and Shanghai, the region is centred on the city of Chongqing, a bustling metropolis and the largest inland port in western China. During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), it served as China’s provisional capital and has been rapidly expanding ever since. Its many nicknames, from the “Fog Capital” to the “Hilly City”, demonstrate how, in spite of constant modernization, the city’s character is very much rooted in its natural surroundings.

Originally the city of Chongqing was under the administration of Sichuan province, but it was separated and designated a municipality in 1997. Although it continues to border Sichuan to the west, the municipality is so large that it also borders the provinces of Shaanxi to the north, Hubei to the east, Hunan to the southeast, and Guizhou to the south. The city can be found in the southwestern part of the municipality, while the northeast is dominated by the Yangtze River Valley and the southeast is a wonderland of rolling hills. Karst Mountains, stone forests, limestone caves, and the magnificent Three Gorges add a touch of magic to the region’s topography.

Chongqing is served by an intensely humid subtropical climate, with notoriously long summers that are among the hottest in China. This humidity is so legendary that, alongside Wuhan and Nanjing, it is affectionately known as one of China’s “Three Furnaces”! During the brief, two-month-long winter, temperatures average at a mild 8 °C (47 °F), but from May through to September summer lays siege to the region and temperatures can regularly exceed 38 °C (100 °F). From October to April, the city is perpetually shrouded in fog, which has earned it the nickname the “Fog Capital”.

Joseph Stilwell MuseumAlthough the city itself is now highly modernised, it still features a handful of relics from its historic past. Among these, the most fascinating are arguably the Great Hall of the People and the Joseph Stilwell Museum. With its stately dome and stark resemblance to Beijing’s Temple of Heaven, the Great Hall of the People is an architectural wonder not to be missed. The hall is predominantly used to host political meetings and cultural events, while the outdoor People’s Square is a paved area where open-air performances are regularly staged.

Contrary to this traditional Chinese establishment, the Joseph Stilwell Museum is a colonial building that once served as the residence of General Joseph W. Stilwell, who headed American operations in China during the Second World War. It was eventually converted into a museum, with the first floor decked out in period furniture and the ground floor featuring exhibits about the war itself.

However, if you want to experience all that this municipality has to offer, you’ll have to venture outside the confines of the city. To begin with, it boasts two magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites: the Dazu Rock Carvings and the Wulong Karst National Geology Park. The Dazu Rock Carvings are located in Dazu County, approximately 60 kilometres (37 mi) west of Chongqing City, and comprise a treasure trove of Chinese religious sculptures dating as far back as the 7th century. The attraction is formally made up of 75 protected sites containing some 50,000 statues, along with over 100,000 Chinese inscriptions. Having been influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, it represents a hectic mixture of spiritual iconography.

wulong-karst-geology-parkWhile the Dazu Rock Carvings are a masterpiece of human creation, the Wulong Karst Geology Park proves that Mother Nature will always be the greater artist. It can be roughly separated into three major areas: the Three Natural Bridges, the Qingkou Tiankeng Scenic Area, and Furong Cave. The enchanting karst landscape, dense forests, and unusual rock formations make this colossal park a haven for nature lovers.

Yet it seems the mountains of Chongqing are hiding a sinister secret! Located on Mount Ming, about 160 kilometres (100 mi) from the city centre, you’ll find the spectacularly spooky Fengdu Ghost City. Designed after the Gate of Hell in traditional Chinese folklore, this huge temple complex is dedicated entirely to the afterlife. From grotesque statues to gruesome dioramas, this fascinating site shows any unfortunate visitor just what punishments await them should they find themselves in hell.

fengdu-ghost-cityAfter such a traumatic experience, you’ll be craving a little relaxation! Fortunately Chongqing’s suburban districts are famed for their luxurious resorts and spas, where visitors can bathe in hot springs, swim in Olympic-sized pools, or wander through charming flower gardens. Nanwenquan Park and Beiwenquan Park are two of the most popular, although Beiwenquan reigns supreme since its bathing areas are reputedly warm in winter but cool in summer. So, no matter what time of year you visit Chongqing, you know you’ll be guaranteed a good soak!