A quick getaway to China’s Danxia Shan geopark offers great views, good walking – and a few giggles
A high-speed train from Shenzhen takes just 90 minutes to whisk you to a mountain range famous for its phallic photo opportunities and breathtaking hikes
Though China’s high-speed train network has yet to reach Hong Kong, lines start just across the border, in Shenzhen, and cut travel times to places that would otherwise be just too far for a weekend trip. These include parts of the Nanling mountain range, such as Danxia Shan – a national geopark where red sandstone forms outlandish peaks and rock structures.
Danxia Shan has far more to attract visitors than its renowned phallic column, including hiking trails, wonderful views, lush forest and an array of temples and hilltop pavilions.
With a trip like this, taking a high-speed train is part of the experience. China has transformed its rail network with high-speed lines, and even major stations like Shenzhen North are so grand and futuristic they wouldn’t look out of place in a Star Wars movie.
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As the train eases out of the station, a readout in the compartment shows the speed – 10, 20km/h, then 100, 200 and eventually a steady figure around 308km/h. Out the window, there’s a plain with villages, small fields, fish ponds. Then the buildings of Guangzhou, a slowdown, and the train stops. Onwards again, and the plain gives way to hills.
Danxia Shan is around 45km northeast of Shaoguan. There’s an entrance to the main park, beyond which lie clusters of small restaurants, and rows of newly built hotels set in an open area surrounded by hills.
Though the hills are not especially high (the tallest peak is just 619m) they make for remarkable scenery. Instead of sloping flanks like regular hills, their sides are steep or even sheer cliff faces, their tops often appearing almost flat. Some are massive, squat hills, others just columns rising above forested lowlands.
An artificial lake winds through the park, and offers boat rides. But it’s more rewarding to hike the trails.
For most people who come, there is one “must visit” attraction: the huge rock “penis”. It’s up past a gate to the park interior. A sign calls the 28m high rock Yangyuanshi, referring to it as the “Marvellous rock in the world”.
Visitors arrive and take photos, some giggling and posing. A man is carefully positioned by a tour guide so she can portray him complete with enhanced manhood. Walk upstairs past the best viewing platform, and you can even pay old ladies for incense sticks to light at an altar to Yangyuanshi the Marvellous.
And if that’s not enough silly selfie opps, there’s a trail from here to Breast Rock and elsewhere there’s a narrow cleft some imagine as a vagina.
But on to another trail, beyond the viewing area. A sign indicates this is to a pavilion 800 metres away, as if it could make for a pleasant walk. But it turns out this is the pavilion just visible way above Yangyuanshi – perched atop a hill that’s like an immense rock anvil with the pointed end thrust skywards.
There are steps up the hill, mostly carved into the rock. Though there’s a handrail, the steps are challenging, almost vertical in places and narrow. Even from part way up, the view is impressive; it should be stunning from the top.
The easiest way to a Danxia hilltop is via a cable car, up Elder Peak (or Old Person Mountain). From the upper station, there’s a trail to a platform above a cliff, affording views across a landscape recalling scenes in the movie Avatar, or the Venezuelan region that inspired The Lost World and Up.
There are also trails through hilltop forest, where you can find remnants of a time when Danxia Shan was a thriving centre of Buddhism and Taoism. These include an abbot’s tomb, and the Snow Grotto Temple, which was carved into a small cliff. Other temples can be glimpsed nearby or are pictured on information boards. Some are in precarious positions on cliffs or beneath overhangs.
Boards note that temples were abandoned at the end of the Republic of China; this coyly omits mention of the Cultural Revolution, when fanatical Red Guards would have arrived to wreak havoc in destroying the “Four Olds”. Nowadays, a few are operating again.
At the northern tip of Elder Peak is a pavilion that’s another popular vantage point. From here, two trails lead steeply down the precipitous sides. While it might be great to explore further, getting this far just might be enough for a weekend break – so it’s time to head back to Shaoguan, Shenzhen and Hong Kong.
HIgh-speed trains can be booked online through Ctrip, and tickets collected at stations in Shaoguan. Trains run from Shenzhen North and from Futian station, which is closer to Hong Kong, just across the border from Lok Ma Chau; journey time around 90 minutes, compared to more than four hours with a regular train.
There are buses to Danxia Shan from beside Shaoguan bullet train station, taking around 90 minutes but a faster option is to hire a car with driver from there (drivers are usually hovering as the train arrives).
While there is accommodation in Ruyuan just outside the geopark, it’s easier to stay at one of the hotels inside the main gate.
Two-day tickets for entry to the inner park cost 150 yuan (HK$172) for adults, half price for children; this price includes rides on a park bus.