Sunday, April 27, 2008

Spring Outside Chongqing: Part 2

Dawning of the second day, we were awakened by blue skies and sunshine--two materials in very short supply in the smoggy-foggy city. After a quick breakfast of leftovers, we headed down the mountainside to find this mysterious 'fairy maiden' that the locals had spoken of.

Once again, down the windy mountain we went, past shaggy ponies and unkempt fields. The shape of the mountain itself was strange: large, flat, and hilly, its edge suddenly fell away onto precipitous cliffs. Farms could be seen, hundreds of feet below.

It was at this edge that we found the fairy maiden, forlorn and petrified. We should have known her regal presence long before we reached her: the trees upslope bowed to her, a bent given to them by winds some years past--so I imagined--when they had refused to bend their proud heads and give the petrified lass her due.
Inching out onto the precipice that formed her throne, Cherry and I gave the otherworldly woman our obeisance and abject trembling. Well, perhaps it was the fear of heights that caused trembling, not fear of a rain-worn karstic statue. However, the view her royal fairyness commanded was indeed magnificent and well worth the trembling. The trail itself ventured tremulously upon limestone cracked and worn like ancient fangs. A slab of concrete had been placed helpfully across a final chasm for those wanderers--such as us--too frightened of the bone-crunching drop to leap across.

The rest of Fairy Maiden mountain, unfortunately, is not so exciting. I think that the main product on offer there was peace, and plenty of it as long as one avoids the desperate staff of the ghost town of crumbling tourist traps, over-built resort hotels, and closed-up shops. There are prairies aplenty as well as dark forests of hemlock to wander in for hours... and not much else.

I did however discover a natural limestone cave, having followed a goat path down into an old sinkhole. Here is a view of the interior which I'm happy to bring you, having cut my bare feet on the floor of my newly-discovered cave (a creek flows out the entrance, making soaked shoes a likelihood, thus the bare feet).
The last stop on our itinerary was the famed tian keng san qiao, or 'Three Natural Bridges' National Geopark, also a UNESCO World Heritage Preserve. Can words describe the freaky wonder of that place?

We rode to the natural bridges on the back of a motorcycle taxi, sweeping down hills and around bends through a hilly, pastoral scene. Tickets were grabbed at the clean, modern visitor's center and then we scrambled downhill to come upon an unexpected vista. A vast gorge tore away from sight through the forested hills, caves etched into its flanks. A glass elevator took us down to the floor of the gorge, and then we realized: the road into the park, the parkinglot, the visitor's center were all built upon the back of the first natural bridge, a limestone slab with an entire forest growing from its back. (For size comparison, in second picture look for the small building at the lower right hand side.)
In the previous installment we mentioned karst (a type of limestone formation). Now I should explain what a tian keng is. The tian keng literally translates as a "heavenly pit", but figuratively might mean "a hole as great as the sky". Essentially, it is a sinkhole. In karst areas, sometimes great caverns crawl beneath the land, many kilometers in length and often several hundred feet in height and width. In some places the cavern collapses, leaving deep canyons gouged from the earth. This was one such place, but in three places along the tian keng, the ceiling had remained. Thus natural bridges were created across new chasms.
(Note Cherry washing her feet in the creek, as well as the traditional house, for size comparison of the Tian Keng.)

In the previous two pictures, a traditional-style Chinese courtyard comes into view. This is not, unfortunately, an ancient monastery of the days of yore. Rather, it is a movie prop built for the Jiang Yimou movie: "Curse of the Golden Flower". While I don't quite understand the idea of letting movie studios built permanent sets inside of national parks, I do have to admit that the structure is more tasteful (if badly maintained, as you can see by the grass growing on the roof and cracks in the cement) than most modern structures to be found in this country.

This first (of three) bridges is named Tian Long, or Sky Dragon. The original cavern had three outlets, so it is a double bridge.

Further along the tian keng canyon, through the bamboo thickets surrounding the pathway and past waterfalls that jet from small cave fissures in the cliffside, we came to the second bridge which is several hundred meters high (and supposedly the highest natural bridge in the world, but not only can I not find confirmation of this claim elsewhere, but multiple other natural bridges and arches in China and around the world seem to make the same claim). This second bridge is named Qing Long or "Green Dragon".
Finally we came to Hei Long, or "Black Dragon" bridge, a long, dark passage that cries tears... that is, several waterfalls spray down from orifices high on the chasm wall.

Although we had greatly enjoyed the phenomenal natural beauty of the national park, there was a train to catch... back to the smog and fog of Chongqing. I could have spent an entire day hiking up the cliffs and through canyons, as well as through the traditional farms and woodlands up above. Most fascinating of all, as we began our ascent from the canyon floor, we followed a stream, its rapids and waterfalls, up through a maze of rocks. Just at the beginning of a long flight of stairs carved into the wall of the canyon, there seemed to be another bridge. But this was no bridge, but the entrance of an uncollapsed, intact cavern system. Probably eighty feet across, the ceiling was at least two hundred feet above. Just at the point where the trail ended in darkness, an information plaque informed us that this cavern system continued for a further 7 kilometers and hundreds of meters deeper under the earth. A British caving team known as 'Hong Meigui' or Red Rose, had explored it. Promises of subterranean lakes, steep drops, and unexplored passages below the water table beckoned. This park holds further adventures within its bowels for the intrepid explorer, this is certain.
Are you that person?


Geogoddess said...

Is this the Heavenly Pit featured in the film, "Journey to the Center" and recently on tour with the Banff Mountain Film Festival? I have never understood what is going on in the minds of BASE jumpers, until I saw this movie and appreciated their fear. I hope you can see it.

I am a geologist and this is an amazingly huge karst feature! I spent 4 months travelling thru China many years ago, and loved being there, espcially Chengdu and our travels in Tibet.

"Journey to the Center' is directed by Jens Hoffman
Produced by Iiro Seppanen and Jeb Corliss

-darlene ( said...

Beautiful! May we have permission to use some of your photos (with proper credit and link) on the website of the Natural Arch and Bridge Society ( Thank you for a wonderful blog.

ulrichstill said...

Karst is a worldwide phenomen - in the (sub-)tropics the most impressive geology. But all of wikipedia/wikimedia has no quality photos of a river cave or a tiankeng.
Your blog has no photo-copyright restrictions... Yet, to be fair, would you give an explicite permission/donation for one photo (with wikipedia's typical licensings)? Photo 11 with a geological description would fit well.
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