Story and photos by Lee Daley
On a recent trip to China, I visited Black Mountain Valley, a place of untamed raw beauty, full of mystery, lush vegetation and silver-hued waterfalls. The two-hour drive from Chongqing on a narrow two-lane road through greenery-covered mountains delivered me from one world—of airports, highways and cruise ships—to another in the midst of nature’s unplanned majesty. It felt like an act of purification.
Arriving in the valley, we saw that mid-October had blessed our little group with blazing orange and red maples hovering over a cascading stream. Like others, I stretched out my arms for balance as I navigated the narrow rock path across the stream. Chasing moments and selfies, our group of eight soon diverged into twosomes and solos to explore the valley’s vistas of deep canyons, majestic karsts and magnificent waterfalls.
Black Mountain Valley contains more than 1,800 kinds of plants and is covered by 97% virgin forest with densely wooded slopes and sun-dappled valleys. The hike (about 8 miles) passes through two narrow valleys with easily navigable planked walkways built above the streams. Stupendous views of towering karsts excite the eye as fog formations circle the peaks while playfully merging with a myriad of waterfalls descending to the valley floor. At the beginning of the hike, the stream cascades downhill until the valley levels; then one can view the falls on the distant horizon as they rush toward the valley’s low spot. Wide panoramas narrow to arm’s width at one juncture where it becomes possible to reach out and almost touch both of the canyon walls. The widest passageway can be up to 90 feet while the narrowest is less than six feet.
If you’ve ever seen an Asian brush painting depicting fog-enshrouded karsts crowning the horizon, there’s a good chance it was inspired by Black Mountain Valley. At one spot, I lingered near a fast-flowing stream, taking in its tumultuous energy; wanting to memorize the moment. Red ribbons– draped on an overhanging branch–floated on a breeze. The rush of water, a bird’s call, my calm breath as I planted my feet at the water’s edge were the only audible sounds. Through the trees, I could make out karsts, each hundreds of feet tall; fog billowing and circling the peaks in a celestial caress. As if on cue, a cinematic sunbeam spotlighted the scene. For a brief moment, I was one small entity in an infinite world of harmony. Feeling a serenity I could inhabit forever, I reached for my camera hoping to capture the magic.
We often spied red ribbons festooned from trees and arbors along the path. In Chinese culture, the color red symbolizes good luck and joy. Buddhists believe that tying a red ribbon to a “wishing tree” will make your wish come true; that forces from the heavens will hear the wish. The higher the ribbon, the more likely the wish will be heard. So, if you ever visit China, remember to make a wish and tie a red ribbon on a “wishing tree.” Fact, fiction or fantasy, I love the concept.
Waterfalls became more abundant as we made our way through the valley. Where the path narrowed, the stream became a river that we carefully traversed on a shaking rope bridge and then followed a cliffside trail to rejoin the original walkway. I had to remind myself to watch where I stepped. I was so mesmerized by the terrain, the towering cliffs streaked with white limestone deposits, the trickling springs, natural fountains and lush green forest. It was a primitive, pristine scene. Such beauty is rarely encountered this close to a city, especially one the size of Chongqing with its nine million inhabitants. As one of the country’s best preserved natural scenic areas, native naturalists refer to Black Mountain Valley as the nation’s wildlife genome bank. China rates the preserve as a 5A tourist site, the same status as The Great Wall.
Friendly forest signage: Along the route, signs contained reference points and advice written in Mandarin and English. One of my favorites reads: “Nothing left except your footprint and smile.”
“A river runs through it.”
The last leg of our hike was the most challenging but ultimately, it became the most rewarding. Here, we encountered a steep uphill climb with more than a mile of steps built into the terrain. As dusk fell, only a handful of walkers remained. Many had chosen to ride the cable car offered before the stairway trek. But beauty seduced us. Up and up we trudged. It was now so humid that, as we climbed, the air seemed to part around us.
Our original group of eight had now dwindled to three. With my husband, John, and one other hiker, we would most likely be the last to make it to the parking area outside of the forest. We were not alone, however. I noticed a park ranger holding up the rear and felt relieved to see that the forest service was protecting us. Our other companion on the hike was a slow walker due to an old knee injury. I didn’t know Susan well but I was amazed at her pluck. We had both passed and trailed her many times during the day. While John and I lingered, savoring the sights, capturing photos, Susan kept to the planked walkway–slow but steady–taking her measure of the magic in her own way. Still, we were all–at this point—stair weary. And we knew Susan must have been extremely challenged. We noticed her pace had slowed even more. This was not the time for decorum. John and I decided it would be best to wait for Susan and make our way out together with her even if it meant slowing down.
Just as we were sure we couldn’t face another steep stairway, we came upon a wide landing where a massive cliff loomed. Peering over the rail, we saw a pristine crystal lagoon spread before us, swarming with brightly colored orange carp. From the cliff’s peak, a veil-like silvery waterfall flowed gently down into the lagoon as dozens of fish swirled and dove beneath the currents. Falling from hundreds of feet, the water sprays resembled pearl strings. Clouds of water vapor rose from the rocks. It was an ethereal scene straight out of Shangri-La. Black Mountain seemed to know we had earned this reward.
Soon we reached the end of the trail; time to say goodbye to Black Mountain Valley, a bittersweet moment. Being there, the valley had become part of and we were now part of it. Looking back at the stone cathedrals, I felt imbued with a sense of awe and gratitude. After spending so much time admiring them, the waterfalls had become my neighbors, almost my friends. Breathing a sigh, I whispered goodbye.
One last challenge: As we stood at the brink of a steep stairway overlooking the parking pad, we saw the stairway’s narrow steps were built without a handrail. Nestling Susan between us, we linked arms and slowly proceeded down. It was then I realized when you spend a day in the mountains together, you become more than neighbors and fellow hikers. You become friends.
Note: This article was also published in the New York Times International supplement on May 17, 2019.
If You Go: Consider spending a day either before or after your hike at Tong Jing Hot Springs Resort for a rejuvenating soak in some of China’s finest mineral pools. https://epicureandestinations.com/gateway-to-chinas-three-gorges-tong-jing-hot-springs-resort-restores/ For convenience and accuracy, we booked all arrangements through Jimmy Deng at Spring Tour in Los Angeles- (http:spring-tour.com)- who was recommended by a friend. Jimmy was most helpful with arrangements and also with Visa forms. Spring Tour also conducts English-speaking group trips to the region so this would be another way to enjoy this extraordinary part of China. (China@spring-tour.com).