Friday, April 25, 2008

Spring Outside Chongqing: Part 1

When I describe where I live, within the vastness of Chinese territory, I describe a sprawling metropolis of mist and man-made spires. I describe a city of bang-bang men and tongue-numbing hotpot. But this city only comprises about 8 of the 33 million people who live within the larger city-state of Chongqing, a mini-province approximately the size of Scotland.

I recently realized that I hadn't seen very much of that diverse and largely green territory which surrounds the Changjiang (Yangtze River). Even though the tour books--I'm thinking of the Lonely Planet China, or 'Blue Bible'--don't have much to say beyond a short mention of the Dazu Buddhist Grottoes, I would imagine that there must be more to find and see in this still-living heart of China.

Cherry and I cleared two days from our schedules and planned an excursion. We would take train first east to Fulin (of 'Rivertown' fame) and then south into the karst escarpments of Wolong town. I believe I will encapsulate the journey by saying just that the traveler may see far more interesting vistas from the window of the train than he or she will see in half the temples and other tourist traps marked for development and consumption. It is precisely because the majority of this landscape cannot be developed that it is so fascinating. Among the bamboo curtains of the river's edge, the old architecture and culture of China still clings... if barely. There too, you will see the behemoth, derelict remains of weapons factories Mao hoped to hide from foreign aggressors in the depths of the Chinese countryside. Newer, even uglier factories (even brick has its charm when compared to a sloppy application of concrete) are joining the older ones, I noticed. I suddenly recalled that my Chinese friends often blamed pollution on factories in the surrounding countryside, more than ones within the urban jungle.

Wolong is perhaps a garbling of wu long, the name of the river that runs through its middle. Ancient legend says that five dragons (hence the name) occupied that river, but I imagine the saurians have long since buried themselves in the silt to await less muddied waters. For a rural hamlet of 300,000 or so, Wolong seems to have great ambitions for itself. Not to be left behind by the distant city, many high-rise apartments are going up in town, and quite a few high-end resort communities were being hacked out of the karstic landscape outside town.

For those not already familiar with it, I should explain 'karst'. I'll be using the term a lot. Karst refers to a type of limestone geology that is easily eroded over the centuries to form weirdly-shaped pillars, peaks, canyons, and caves. If you have in your head an idea of what mountains in China should look like, you are thinking of the Karst formations of the Southern Chinese provinces.
After a quick bite to eat, Cherry and I headed to our first destination: Furong Dong (dong = cave). The mini-bus wended its way into the mountains above a blue-green tributary of the muddy Wulong river. The clouds which had rained on our train were lifting to reveal forested peaks. Outside the caves themselves, the bored national park staff had arranged an impromptu feeding time for ravenous forest monkeys, dumping leftovers over the side of the lookout. Fights ensued, and snarls could be heard from peak to peak.
I'm an avid caver of the touristic rather than spelunking sort--but not for lack of dreaming--and have visited many caverns in my short life. Carlsbad and Mammoth (the biggest and longest in the US) as well as Zhijin Dong (the biggest in China) I have visited. Surfing online before our departure from the city revealed that the deepest, and some of the longest, caves in China were located around Wolong. For that matter, the biggest wasn't very far away from here as the crow flies.

I'll skip the standard lecture on the rude and obnoxious lack of cave etiquette among the Chinese tourists whom we shared our tour with. Let's just say that even the tour guide grew exasperated with their lack of manners or consideration for a Chinese national treasure. Luckily, Cherry and I could hang back from the tour and enjoy the cave more-or-less on our own. You can ignore my fanciful descriptions if you are reading this post on the original blogsite, and skip to the pictures if you life: Gypsum sprang like silent explosions from the walls, stalagmites and stalactites (can you remember the difference?) drew blood from the bowels of the earth, a blood that spilled and flowed over precipices, congealing into gelid icicles and fanged orifices. Mineral-saturated water became encrusted with a floating carpet of calcite pearls and blanched nails sprouted from one gallery of stalactites like sharpened thorns from a stake. Echoes and other overweight tourists were consumed by the darkness, and the cavern was sated.

Down the windy mountain, and up the rushy glen we hurried once more. Now onwards to the Fairy Maiden Peak, a dread wilderness known for its empty, mouldering tourist traps and the fey petrified statue hewed by wind and rain from the mountainside to give it its name.

Up and up, is the main idea I'd like to convey for this mini-journey. Jagged bits of karstic stone peeped up from farmers fields like the rotten toes of buried giants. The main attraction at Fairy Maiden Peak is a large prairie, and you may have to be high to get any novelty from it. In the winter, tour groups like to ski down the shallow slopes of the prairie, apparently, but those ingenious Chinese have decided to try and popularize skiing on grass in order to bring in tourist dollars during the other nine months of the year--I'm not joking. Grass skiing aside, there were literally no other people up on top of the mountain: besides us, farmers, and a few bored resort workers. After avoiding an unpleasant ghost town of hotels, Cherry and I made our way to a pleasant 'farmer's cottage' kitted out for tourists to stay at. Keeping ourselves occupied til sunset, we chased the wild horses, I found a cave where fresh spring water spilled from the mountainside, and explored the untamed hills.
When darkness descended, a meal of cured pork with garlic shoots, smoked bamboo shoots, a dish of unidentifiable roots, and soup of tofu and local greenery was waiting for us at the farmer's lodge. Just the right way to end a long and tiring day.

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