Mianshan Mountain in Shanxi province might just be the strangest place in the world. Forbidden Corner in the Yorkshire Dales likes to claim that title for itself, but Mianshan definitely pulls ahead of them in the strangeness stakes.
Forbidden Corner is a quirky little visitor attraction full of follies and oddness around every corner. Mianshan Mountain is similar: it's a quirky visitor attraction with follies and oddness around every corner. Mianshan Mountain however is just that: it's spread over a rather large portion of mountain range, taking an entire gorge from top to bottom. Just to get from the visitor centre to the first part of the park was a winding ten minute bus drive up the mountainside. Even without detouring or stopping, it would take hours to walk the park from top of the gorge back to the visitor centre.
Much of the site is associated with a Chinese figure called Jie Zitui. The site is presented as being thousands of years old. Reading the Wikipedia page for the site seems to suggest that most of Shanxi's history all happened in this one out of the way gorge. But the thing is, it's all a lie.
Unlike Forbidden Corner, Mianshan Mountain pretends that it's all real. It isn't. It isn't old, and the mythical Jie Zitui was just that: a myth. He was analogous to England's Robin Hood: some ancient basis in reality but most likely a composite character, and heavily changed down the ages. At Mianshan Mountain however, you can see Jie Zitui's "tomb".
I may be mistaken, but I don't think China (or anywhere else) had poured concrete or steel rebar 2,500 years ago. None of it is old. As far as I can tell (and true information about the place is really hard to come by) it was built around 1995 by a coal industry billionaire. It wouldn't surprise me at all if it was a giant money laundering scheme.
It's a very strange place. Probably the strangest place I've ever been. Nowhere else have I seen facsimile temples emerging from cliffsides alongside the most hideous hotel in history, with a hefty looking sewage pipe leading out of it into the gorge below. And the most bizarre thing of all, that most visitors won't see because they take the bus between sections rather than walk: underneath the road that the bus drives along are dormitories for the park workers. It's as if Mickey and Minnie at Disneyland lived in squalid little damp rooms in the basement under the fairytale castle (maybe Banksy had been to Mianshan for inspiration before he made Dismaland?). And that beautiful gorge: look down closely and you'll see all the rubbish chucked down into the gorge by the people living under the roadway.
It's a truly weird place. And despite being so new, it seemed a little run down and beginning to crumble. Some parts didn't even feel safe, and I have to say, it won't surprise me in the slightest if one day I read a news headline about some terrible disaster at the park with dozens killed after a cliffside path pulled out of its rusting moorings.
Is it worth seeing though? Yes. It may all be fake, but it's certainly a very interesting and well done fake. Going into the main cave temple actually took my breath away with its painted carvings reaching high up and around. Though being forced to give an offering and light incense became even more questionable when later, close to closing time, we saw park staff emptying the collection barrels, and I very much doubt they're going to religious good causes... But, where else in the world can you step into a beautiful mountaintop pagoda and find out that it's a grubby looking elevator shaft to take you down through the mountain to the road below..? Priceless.
So, Colin Armstrong of Forbidden Corner: this is what you could have done if you had been a coal industry billionaire in China with absolutely every planning official in your pocket and an entire valley to play with. It's utterly absurd and quite bemusing to visit, but at the same time, quite unmissable.