Sunday, October 09, 2005

Chapter the First: In Which Our Hero's Elbows are Assaulted and He Sees Many Interesting Rock Formations

Gorging in JiuXiang
Originally uploaded by billmcgonigle.
The flight from Harbin to KunMing (capital of YunNan) left at 6 PM, but I had to show to meet a tour guide at the airport at 430. This was easy enough, and I met my first two companions as I got my ticket. The frustrating bit, and one that would persist throughout this entire adventure, was that no one knew when the return flight would be. Apparently flight schedules are unknown until the day of the flight. As such, I couldn't tell my driver (another of those police escorts I am so luckily privy to) when I'd need to be picked up 9 days hence.

Getting on the plane, which would arrive in KunMind around midnight, I was disappointed to find myself seated in an aisle seat. Now, I've been losing weight (I've been forced to buy new pants lately) but I'm still a wide guy. Certainly, at the least, we can say I've got some broad shoulders, especially for China. This meant that no matter how I positioned myself during the flight, my right arm would either find itself snuggling up with my neighbor or my left arm would be dangling about the aisle getting smacked by drink carts, little kids, or lord knows what.

We did have a layover of about 20 minutes in Chongqing, which was enough for me as immediately after disembarking the plane the humidity in Chingqing forced a mighty sweat to break out. I don't like to sweat.

Finally we arrived in KunMing, where our KunMing tour guide met the three of us and we sped off to a nearby hotel. Being late, being tired, and being that tomorrow we had to hit the road at an early hour, I simply crashed after watching some English-speaking Chinese TV. We don't get English-speaking Chinese TV in Harbin, so this is a treat for yours truly.

The first full day began with the traditional Chinese breakfast (noodles, rice porridge, steamed buns, hard boiled eggs, etc) which keeps your hunger away but leaves your taste buds wanting. After that, we jumped in our minibus and headed south.

The YunNan countryside is about as violent and unpredictable as any I've ever seen. The mountains erupt out of no where, leaving the locals with very little arable land with which to tend their crops. But they make use of every square inch, as you can see corn or rice or whathaveyou sprouting from every square inch possible.

Aside from the agriculture, I also spotted some of these Mao-era factories that I've read (and written) so much about. Two hour south of KunMing, on a barely functional dirt road, with little access to/from anywhere, we just kinda stumbled upon a huge factory churning out some sort of product, but certainly a lot of smoke. There was no reason for this monument to manufacturing to be here of all places, except maybe that the land was cheap, but it stood in direct repose to the "Location, location, location" mantra so often muttered by sensible businessmen. Oh well. China.

Our destination that morning was JiuXiang, a spot towards which I knew absolutely nothing. It wasnt even in my Lonely Planet, so I was skeptical. After getting our ticket, and still trying to understand where I was (I was really really really confused at this point) we took an elevator down into the rock face. When the doors reopened, we were by a river at the bottom of a narrow gorge and being led towards low slung rowboats. My sense of adventure peaked.

The boats took us along the river through the Gorge which was awesome in the true sense of the word. I love boats, I love mountains, I love exploring, this morning all three collided with a big grin on my stupid face. Check the pics for some interesting views.

When the river got too rough for row boats, we disembarked and made our way down a railed-in path on the side of the gorge. This eventually led into a gaping maw of a cave entrance. The inside, though very interesting and quite cool, was a bit overlit with silly colored lights that gave our hero the impression of a very special episode of "Punky Brewster" more than anything else.

But the cave was huge, in that in itself gave it creedance. After exiting, we circled around inside a second cavern that contained an abundance of stalagtites and stalagmites (which I learned how to say in Chinese), many of which looked like "An Immortal Resting After Too Much Liquor" or "Three Silkworks Reaching For Heaven" or "A Fish Hanging From the Ceiling."

After leaving the Fairy Cave of Natural Rock Art we needed to descend even lower before entering our final cavern Here the river was at its wildest, and understandable so, as immediately after entering this last cave the river turned into two 90 ft waterfalls named, so cutley, "The Male and Female Waterfalls." Tough to get a picture, as the spray in the air distorted any attempt, but wonderous regardless. From there we made out way down some limestone step-pools to the bottom of this massive cave where... I found...

"The Bat Cave." See the pictures, you'll understand. Mr. Wayne, however, might not.

Anyways, we eventually got back to daylight and back to the bus, grabbed lunch, and then made our way to ShiLin, or "Stone Forest."

My understanding of ShiLin before leaving Harbin was that of a petrified forest. Wrong. Apparently, thousands of years ago, a sea stood where ShiLin now stands, and upon the disappearance of all that water we were left with a small valley of crazy limestone monoliths. One looked like a girl of the regional minority wearing her traditional head dress. Another looked like an elephant. Once cluster like swords rising up out of a shallow pool. Interesting enough, but after the JiuXiang experience not the highlight of the day.

One group, however, was layered in such a way that, in addition with the dark rain cloads rolling in behind it, looked like a the dark fortress of some evil fantasy baddie. That was cool.

But the best was some rock where you're supposed to test your neck (I dont know, I asked, I read, but I still don't understand the attraction to "testing your neck") by slipping through a small crevice. Most every Chinese tried, many failed, and I simply sat and laughed at one pathetic attempt after another. I did not try myself, as I knew my wrestler's neck wouldn't make the cut.

We got back to our hotel (we stayed out in the country by ShiLin that night) around 7 and I got back to my room a little after 8. The town we were in qualified as a one-horse stand, so I just did some reading until I fell asleep. Not quite as easy as I'd hope, as my window overlooked a karaoke parlor, but Conrad's "Nostromo" is quite the political fable, so harm, no foul.


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