Tower Karst Landscapes

Tower Karsts near Quảng Uyên in Cao Băng Province, north-eastern Vietnam.
Karsts near Quang Uyen
These extraordinary towers of limestone are (like the limestone pavements we are familiar with in Yorkshire) weathered remnants of old sea beds, technically known as karst topography.

The karst landscapes of Vietnam are haunting. The hills form towers, like cones, like teeth, rising to a 1,000 feet or more, but all made of soft limestone. The word karst refers generally to any landscape of easily soluble rock which becomes moulded by the effects of wind and rain; an effect accentuated if the vapour carries slight acidity. They are found in many parts of the world and take many forms from simple decorated rock formations, through larger basins, shafts, the disappearance of a stream, or, more familiar to us, the North Yorkshire limestone pavements, from which, in their Slovenian form, the word karst was originally derived. While our pavements are fascinating, particularly to botanists, it is the eastern version that fires my imagination, for here the bedrock has been eroded down by hundreds of feet, leaving towers and pyramids below which underground caverns may stretch for many miles - still, even today, awaiting exploration.

These magnificent landscapes present us with hills festooned in rich cloaks of vegetation rooted in material formed from the remnants of corals and other sea deposits thrown up in one prehistoric era, and weathered in a later one. Their slopes can average 90 degrees, and the surfaces which face different directions have different degrees of exposure, and provides a range of habitats suiting many species. This is true to such an extent that there is greater diversity of species, for a given area on these precipitous surfaces, than is found in the nitrogen rich, hot, fertile, wet soils of the surrounding countryside.

Topographically this is a common aspect of the lands of southern China and northern Vietnam, but although these landscapes are quite unlike anything we have in Europe, they are familiar to us. This familiarity comes through classic Chinese landscape paintings. And in these painting there is a strong message. A good example is Wang Meng's 'The Simple Retreat' which can be seen on-line in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hearn, in his commentary on the image, notes that high up the karst is "a tiny dwelling in the midst of writhing mountain the eye of a storm, a promise of calm in a tempest-wracked world." In the these exotic karst landscapes the storm of urban life is shown transposed to the peace of the countryside. But beyond that metaphor, of being offered shelter, there is another message, for the scene is not just a refuge, the mountains give us a sense of what is beyond the scenery, beyond our normal worlds and conceptions. Nature in these classical karst landscapes is revealing to us her wild lands, a hint at what is 'other'.

These paintings with their precipitous hills, mists, and pines - under which meditators sit, or artists and poets drink and relax - abound in classical Chinese art, and bring together the notion of the tranquillity that nature may offer, with the human search for peace. This search was sometimes driven by forced exile, sometimes by the wish to escape, sometimes by the desire of poets, artists and musicians to find a favourable environment for their creative work, and sometimes by followers of Ch'an and Daoist beliefs seeking a place to be part of the natural world.

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  • Hearn, Maxwell K. 'How to read Chinese Paintings' (2008), Yale University Press, New Haven.

18th October 2014 ~ 28th July 2015