Central Southern China is often cruelly overlooked in the rush the Hong Kong, check out this natural wonder for something a bit easier to reach than Guilin.
Seven Star Crags national park lies just north of the city of Zhaoqing, where it is wedged between the railway line and the city centre. We reached Zhaoqing by train from Xiamen but the nearest hub is Guangzhou, only a couple of hours east of here. You can also reach Zhaoqing by boat from Hong Kong though the times seem to be erratic and it’s never entirely clear where you are supposed to board/disembark – we traveled from Zhaoqing to Hong Kong and were transfered by minibus to the river transport, and onward to Hong Kong. I have absolutely no idea where that boarding point was though!
From Zhaoqing train station you are only a couple of kilometres from the northern entrances to the national park so they are easily reached by one of the quintillion eager taxi drivers who all stand up and greet you wildly as you leave the train station. Otherwise, if you are staying in town these same guys will take you there. From the town centre you can catch a reasonably priced water transfer from anywhere along the promenade up to the crags. This is the way I’d choose to do it.
We were supplied with buoyancy aids (a rare precaution for China!) and driven at some speed across the lower lake and into the national park. The tall karst crags are reminiscent of the scenery around Guilin or Halong Bay but obviously the scale is rather smaller. Even so they are spread out over the lake fairly widely and are linked together by small and attractive bridges.
The name of the park is derived from the positioning of the crags themselves as it was believed that these rocks fell from the constellation of the Big Dipper and landed in the same formation.
We explored the peaks for a few hours. The way to the top is an endless series of curving stepped paths with the odd tunnel of rocks to crouch through so this climb will be impossible for anyone with even slight mobility issues. If you can make it then you are rewarded with excellent views. We took in the hazy city from a scuzzy gazebo at the summit of the tallest crag, each with a warm can of beer to celebrate.
There are many small shrines around the base and we found out later that there are underground rivers navigable by boat, but we never saw any sign of this going on when we visited. The whole area was filled with a great calmness that extended to the hawkers and guides, who basically ignored us. Perhaps the languid atmosphere wouldn’t lend itself to safe underground river navigation after all…
A fisherman sat alone in his boat and waited patiently for a catch. Often the only noise was that of cicadas and their frantic rhythmic chirping from the undergrowth. I grew to love that sound and it’s something that pulls me back to this part of China whenever I hear it on telly.
The trees lining the lakes sat in water that took the place of the normal level of soil, but these were no mangroves, more like pines instead. The breeze coming off the lakes meant that there weren’t many airborne nasties to trouble us and the overcast weather kept the temperature just about bearable even if it threatened rain. We wandered through the humidity wishing we’d brought or could find some lovely cold Tsingtao beer, and admired huge dragon topiaries flanking one of the lakelets.
As the day crawled towards dusk we rounded the park one last time and caught one of the last water taxis back to the city.
The time of year (late May) meant that the weather in Zhaoqing wasn’t completely conducive to enjoying the crags in their full splendour. It was sticky and the sky glared at us, threatening storms. But the upside is that there were almost no tourists there at all, and the hawkers were hibernating.
Seven Star Crags is easier to reach than Guilin and provides a good taste of a similar terrain, but with all the imprints of mankind like the beautiful Chinese bridges and gardening. With the calmness of the park providing a perfect counterweight to the frenetic Chinese city centre you should consider Zhaoqing as a place to escape and recharge in the middle of a great natural beauty.