Out of Season in China’s Bamboo Sea

Written by: Esme Wren

Discover a Forest Without Trees

We follow a smooth path that winds around an emerald green forest. The wind murmurs and pulls through shimmering leaves, travelling up the side of the mountain like a wave. It’s a typical forest in all but one crucial detail: the absence of any trees.

An aberration, the forest of Shunan Zhuhai National Park in South Sichuan, China is almost exclusively comprised of a primeval carpet of bamboo that covers 120 square kilometres of mountains and hills. It’s appropriately named the ‘Bamboo Sea.’

We were drawn here by the tantalisingly sparse write up in the guide book, and without any form of preplanning boarded a marginally functioning bus in the city of Chengdu. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

China's bamboo sea

A journey into the night

Lulled to sleep by the motion of the bus, we missed the towns and villages turn into a remote expanse of green, failed to notice the last passenger disappear and snoozed on as the reassuring sunlight gave way to a velvet black sky glittering with stars.

This was a decision we regretted when suddenly at 01:15 in the morning we were shaken awake and turfed out onto the side of the road, our luggage unceremoniously dumped alongside.

Frantically we wave a homemade flash card, a shakily drawn symbol that we think means Bamboo Sea. This hackneyed attempt at communicating mandarin had seen us around the main sites in China with varying degrees of success during the past month. The bus driver takes no notice and bundles us into the back of a waiting car which speeds off into the night.

‘You have booking?’ he inquires ‘Because now out of season, but no worry, hopefully we find you somewhere!’

It sounds dubious, and as the car arrives at where we expected to find the Bamboo Sea it looks even more so. The road is lined with the ubiquitous new build hotels that pepper China’s tourist sights, but here they seem suspiciously void of life, and not for the first time we bitterly regret our foolhardy approach to this trip.

Fortunately a security guard at a large characterless hotel takes pity and shows us to a room. Perhaps he is too tired to care. We certainly don’t complain, nor do we mention the faint traces of mould that have blossomed on the wall alongside our bed. Finally we sleep, resolving to find a way out of our bamboo nightmare the next morning.

Waking in the forest

Engravings on bamboo

Waking early with the birds and still not entirely sure where we are, we make our way out of the hotel with nervous trepidation. The vast corridors are still and downstairs the dining room remains empty.

But the new day reveals what had been hidden by the night; we are alone on a desolate street lined with vacant hotels.A luminous green fringe hangs down over the road and throws a movement of flickering shadows. It feels like we have landed on the set of a dystopic film, which, after the frenetic pace of Beijing and Xian, feels distinctly utopic.

There is something unique about a forest comprised exclusively of bamboo. We had not been prepared for the intensity of colour, nor the ephemeral mass movement of singular plants. Everything is green: the light falling in a collage, the path dappled with it, the air as fresh as the leaves.

Cable car at the Bamboo Sea

We lazily discover that bamboo is equally as pleasing seen from above as it is below by riding a gargantuan cable car that straddles the mountain side and remains open, despite the absence of customers. We ride it alone, leaning precariously out of the window watching the bamboo as it catches the direction of wind, flickers slowly then swells up and down the mountain, growing like a rumour. Birds slice the currents and fall.

The cable car deposits us at the top of the mountain, where a walkway has been hewn out of the cool red earth, curving with the will of the mountain. Unmanned food vendors are the only sign that at certain times this is a busy tourist destination.

Buddha at the Bamboo Sea

Now however our only company are the monks that live in caves deep in the belly of the mountain, and a cat perilously languid on a jut of stone. Further along the walk we come across more temples, and vast Ming dynasty sculptures carved into the rock. We walk, dwarfed by a sleeping Buddha, stand by warriors on horseback and look up at a great face glazed in algae, its lips smiling down in an ostentatious curve.

Back down the mountain and we come across ‘Fairy Lake’, a jade green stretch of water surrounded by a tangle of leaf and a group of men with bamboo boats. We hire one, and spend a few hours exploring the forest from a new angle, the sun streaming down.

Days blend into nights and nights fold again into days. We forget time in this place, the itinerary abandoned. For the first time in China, we relax.

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