The October 2010 Natural Arch and Bridge Society Expedition
in Search of the World's Largest Natural Bridges and Arches
By Stephen C. Jett
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The following is a lightly edited transcript of my October 2010 diary recording the seven-person NABS international expedition to China in search of the world’s largest natural bridges and arches [see Brandt-Erichsen 2009]. Trip-organizer Ray Millar added a few sentences about matters I had not mentioned, and David Brandt-Erichsen did the typing and copy-editing, and added photos for the web version; hearty thanks are owed to both of these NABS stalwarts. The joint journey began and ended in Hong Kong and involved southern China’s Hunan and Guizhou provinces and its Guangxi Autonomous Region. Although the expedition’s primary purpose was to visit rock openings, I also took notes on other aspects of the landscape as well as on ethnography and other topics. Since most non-bridge-and-arch physical observations were made through the windows of moving busses, these notes are less ample than they would have been had we been able to stop and observe in a leisurely fashion. Our two principal China Odyssey Tours guides were my major sources of information about what I could not observe directly. In China, by the way, the term xian, “county,” encountered multiple times below, refers to an urban settlement within a certain size range. [25-minute slide show of this trip]
Thursday, October 7: Departing Home
My wife Lisa drove me to Tri Cities Regional Airport [Tennessee] where I caught the 10:04 flight to Atlanta. From Atlanta, I flew to Detroit, and from Detroit to Hong Kong.
Friday, October 8: Arrival in Hong Kong
At the 12-year-old Hong Kong airport, I was met (somewhat tardily) by a China Odyssey Tours courier (“Allen”), who conducted me on a small bus on a half-hour ride into Kowloon and to the Regal Kowloon Hotel, a modern, four-star generic international facility featuring polished stone slabs and brass – the latter, Art Deco at the desk and Chinese lozenges in the elevators. Ray Millar was in the lobby to meet me. I got to bed by ten and had a decent night’s sleep, owing, no doubt, to the virtual absence of sleep on the circa-15-hour overnight flight from Detroit.
My 6:15 wake-up call awoke me from serene slumber. I showered, dressed, and went down to breakfast, meeting with the rest of the group in the lower-level cafeteria. Gunter Welz and Verena Jung from Stuttgart were at a small table. At a larger one were trip leader Ray Millar, with Pamela Nicholls — both, English — and Americans Alex Ranney and Steve Negler. All of us but Pamela had been on the 2006 NABS Algeria expedition.
After breakfast, a bus took us to the airport, where we boarded a plane and flew to Changsha. Since we had a six-hour layover there, Steve and I decided to go into town in order to see the Hunan Provincial Museum (Hunan Sheng Bowuguan). It was Saturday, and one could not exchange money at the bank branch. However, Steve had some yuan, and we took a bus into the bus terminal near the train station. Getting out there, I looked at my map conspicuously, hoping someone would offer assistance. And indeed, a young man volunteered, in hard-to-understand English. With taxi men there, we spent about 15 minutes discussing options – a series of public bus rides or a taxi, and types of tickets at the museum. In the end, with limited time, we opted for the taxi and the preferred museum entry ticket, with the taxi man waiting while we viewed the exhibits, then returning us to the airport.
The taxi took us through the busy streets, lined with relatively grim-looking low-end high-rise apartment buildings and office towers. The only more-or-less traditional-style building we saw on the whole excursion was a toll-road toll booth. The era of the bicycle is over, as well. Ground floors of many buildings held typical Third-World-type shops: small, airless oblongs with open fronts (protected at night with roll-down steel doors) and no windows. The great majority of signs were in Chinese characters only. With gray skies, the scene was relatively dismal but nevertheless did reflect a certain much-more-than-Third-World prosperity.
The taxi went through a long tunnel and finally got us to the museum, a more esthetically pleasing building than the other edifices we’d seen. Inside, the exhibits are dominated by material from the second century BC, Western Han tombs of the Marquis of Dai and his family: very well-preserved lacquerware, musical instruments, weapons, wooden funerary figurines, and so forth. Quite amazing. Lots of brocaded and embroidered silks, as well.
The museum also has a collection of Archaic Chinese bronzes – some very large and spectacular. There is a gallery of local ceramics as well, with specimens from Neolithic times on up through the dynasties. I didn’t have enough time to browse the gallery of traditional paintings, and I missed the mummy of the Marquise of Dai. Steve, moving through the museum faster than I, took photos of the mummy.
Mummy of the Marquise of Dai, Hunan Provincial Museum, Changsha. Photo by Steve Negler.
It was of interest to see that on display were amaranth (“Chinese spinach”) seeds from Dai tomb number 1 (“Lady Dai’s”) at Mawangdui (late second century BC). The building was crawling with guided high-school students. Steve and I were the only Westerners in the museum (or in the airport, except for NABS people).
Steve and I rendezvoused at the taxi, and the driver took us back to the airport, where we rejoined the others. Ultimately, after checking in at around 5:00 pm for our 6:30 departure, we were informed that our flight had been delayed for two hours. We were issued take-out boxes with spicy Hunan green beans, meat balls, rice, and cabbage. We were later given fortune cookies.
What little English people at information booths, etc., knew was generally very rudimentary. Most official airport signs were in both Chinese and English, but we did see a few that hadn’t gotten it quite right: e.g. “Man,” “Drink water.” There were no books in the bookstands in any language other than Chinese – although there was one whose cover depicted a painting of a red-rock natural arch (Ray recognized it as Ajo Arch, in Arizona, depicted as red rock when in actuality it isn’t red).
While waiting at the airport, I chatted with a Chinese-American retired professor of toxicology and pharmacology from Stanford. He was born and raised in Malaysia and is a Mandarin speaker. He understands little of Hunan dialect (which sounds quite different). He was with a small group of Chinese Americans going to Zhangjiajie, as was our seven-person group of Natural Arch and Bridge Society members. There were three other Westerners on the plane.
After landing in Zhangjiajie we were met by a more-or-less English-speaking guide, pleasant and dedicated 24-year-old Jame, a skinny young woman. A van took us to the modern Vide Hotel – amusing name, since vide means “empty” in French. I had some difficulty going to sleep, because there was loud talk and considerable horn-honking in the street six stories below, plus a loud television in the room behind me.
The hotel failed to give me my wakeup call, and I slept until almost eight. Dressing, I went down to the ground floor and joined the others at a big round table in the dining room. There was a breakfast buffet, with local-style foods only: soups, salads of unknown greens, steamed rolls, noodles, green beans cooked with chili peppers, rice, steamed cabbage, and some glutinous stuff wrapped in a large leaf (probably, taro). A chopped, oil-cooked zucchini dish was tasty. To drink were coffee, a sort of orange juice, and warm water.
After we packed, we took the van to the local branch of the Bank of China to go through the bureaucratic routine of changing our currency into yuan. Then, back to the cable-car station, across from our hotel.
Tianmen Mountain Cablecar station, Zhangjiajie. Photo by Steve Negler.
It was raining lightly but steadily, so the views from the cable car – the world’s longest line – were limited. We could see earth-terraced fields, a few with some sort of fruit trees, in a valley bottom. Certain steeper slopes also supported fruit trees, including orange. The wild vegetation was scrubby. We also spotted two water buffalos below the car.
As we ascended Tianmenshan, we became completely enveloped in fog and unfortunately could not see the scenery for which we had come to this place.
- Click here for a beautiful set of photos showing what we were supposed to have seen.
- Click here for a beautiful PowerPoint presentation showing what we were supposed to have seen.
- Tourist Map of the National Forest Park of Tianmen Mountain.
Arriving at the cable-car’s Upper Station on the edge of the mountaintop plateau, we walked along a pathway featuring massive cut-stone steps. Coming to the entry of the so-called Plank Road, we descended some more steps to an amazing walkway cantilevered out from the vertical limestone cliff that bounds the mountain and is hundreds of feet high. The concrete-floored walkway was provided on its outer side with a cast-concrete railing made to look like tree branches.
The “Plank Road” walkway winds for a half mile along a huge cliff near the top of Tianmen Mountain. Photo by Steve Negler.
This mountain is the centerpiece of a National Forest Park, and there are scattered medium-sized trees amidst the scrubbier vegetation. I recognized (or read labels on) scrub oak, dogwood, rhododendron, and Toxicodendron (poison sumac). A conifer with quite coarse needles is China-fir (a cypress), according to Jame.
Rainwater runoff made small rills and cascades, and the cumulative sound down-cliff below us sounded like a waterfall or a rapids-filled river. Here and there, tied onto tree limbs, were myriad red-cloth strips with Chinese writing on them. They are petitions for good fortune.
We continued on the cliffside trail, passing a short, presumably fault-controlled slot canyon. We reached a point at which a perhaps-fifteen-foot-long glass-floored walkway projected out into nothingness.
This glass-floored walkway would have provided a spectacular view in clearer weather. Photo by Steve Negler.
There is an extensive Buddhist temple atop the mountain, but we did not visit it. Returning along the trail to where one could access the plateau surface, we hiked up steepish stairs, crossed the hump, and descended back to the cable-car’s Upper Station, whence we dangled in the cable cars back down to the Central Station.
From this middle cable-car station, a bus took us on the Road of 99 Curves up the mountain to the base of the giant (“999-step”—actually, only 800-something-step) stairway to Heaven’s Gate (Tianmen) – which was invisible in the mist.
There was a sort of lunchroom, where we took our midday meal. The floor and parts of the walls were of pine, and the rustic eating tables were of pine as well. The chairs, however, were mostly of bent-steel and vinyl (although there were a handful of pine-wood individual benches). The luncheon offering consisted of rice, a pork-onion-green-pepper stew (which I skipped), a tasty tofu concoction (out of which I picked the bits of red pepper), and egg-drop soup. No drink was available.
The next challenge was ascending the broad stairway to the giant arch. Alex and Pamela opted to remain in comfortable chairs in the dining-room while the rest of us climbed the stairway to “Heaven.” The steps were of hardcut limestone, some fossiliferous with long, narrow, pointed shells. Others had black squiggles all over the stone, reminding me of the pottery decorations of South America’s Shipibo Indians. It was all steep, but some sections were particularly so, with shallow treads. The flanking balustrades were of sculpted limestone.
The ascent was slow and very tiring to the legs. At last we reached the top, beneath the giant span, its opening stated to be 131.5 meters [431 feet] high. In the thick mist one could just make out the darker vagueness of the span above.
Looking straight up from inside the opening, the span of Heaven’s Gate was all but totally obscured by fog. Photo by Steve Negler.
The opening is much taller than wide, but its width is impressive enough. As photos and videos attest, formations of jet fighter planes can fly through it. The weather conditions precluded making a laser measurement. Too, the floor of the arch has been much modified by the construction of the viewing terrace, so that what dimensions the natural opening originally had are a bit problematic.
The only non-East-Asian I saw other than our group members was one Iraqi, who had been on our cable car and whom we ran into again on the great staircase.
By the time I had descended the stairway, my legs had about had it. Back in the dining room, several of us signed up to take advantage of mechanically massaging chairs (12 yuan). The pummeling was pretty severe, but it seemed to do good.
Down the Heavenly Stairs. Photo by Steve Negler.
A bus took us back down the “99-curve” highway, which – like everything else – would have been spectacular except for the fog, which obliterated virtually everything. We then returned by cable car to Zhangjiajie, getting off at the Lower Station that is located across from the Vide Hotel. At the station gift shop I bought a sheet of postage stamps that depicted the arch.
At the hotel we transferred to the van, which took us through the rather unattractive city. We stopped at a small supermarket, above whose door was written “WELCOME TO MANY” – not to “all,” mind you, just to “many.” But actually, Many is the name of the chain.
A tourist brochure for Tianmen Mountain has some quaint Chinglish. “Experience the lofty aspiration of overlordship high up in the air…. Experience the great momentum of landscape paintings.” We saw a sign “Careful landslip!” and the taxing Tianmenshan stairway was labeled “elevator.” Along the Plank Road was a sign “Please take good care of your children.”
Photo by Steve Negler.
Photo by Steve Negler.
Everyone we have seen in China wears Western-style clothing. No traditional uniform-like garb or Maoist outfits were in evidence.
The van headed into the countryside toward Wulingyuan. We reached the settlement after about three-quarters of an hour, via a mountain river gorge from whose slopes rose several pinnacles. On the road from Zhangjiajie to Wulingyuan we saw the only road accident we witnessed during the whole trip, which seems remarkable given some of the highway conditions. Fortunately the wreck was in the opposite lane, but it still delayed us for 15 to 20 minutes. However, the backup of oncoming traffic was enormous and we were grateful that we weren't caught up in it.
Our hotel, another modern one in the center of this important tourist town, was the Yu Bi Feng International.
Jame persuaded us to go out to a restaurant she knew and liked. It had a large, rather antiseptic dining room that contained three big tanks, in which wild, recently caught river fishes swam about. Jame selected a small species restricted to this region, and the staff netted the fishes and then served them up in a soup that was kept aboiling in a gas-heated wok in the center of our round wooden table. We were also served fried bits of chicken – mostly bone – cooked tomatoes, spinach-like greens, and slivers of potato cooked in oil but for short enough a time as to retain a hint of crunchiness. Some of us bought beers to accompany our meals. Others had tea. In Chinese restaurants, the food dishes are set on a lazy Susan, and everyone serves himself with his own chopsticks – not maximally sanitary. Only bowls and very tiny plates are provided. They come packaged together in shrink wrap.
We returned to the hotel a bit after eight and retired to our rooms.
We had another Chinese breakfast in the hotel dining room: rice, steamed and deep-fried rolls, noodles, turnips, soup, maize, and sweet potato – the last two surprising, since these are considered (or were considered) undesirable foods of the poor; perhaps it represents ethnic food here, since the region has a significant population of Miaos. After breakfast, we walked a few blocks to a tall, modern pagoda, where we boarded a bus.
Zhangjiajie Pagoda. Photo by Ray Millar.
The bus took us up the valley of a small river, past a dam and reservoir. An anticline of the tan local quartz sandstone could be seen on the left. We were let out at a parking area from which rose a structure consisting of a covered gallery of wooden steps ascending a fair distance. There was a long line of people climbing the steps, and at one level a very good young-woman singer crooned hybrid Western/Chinese-style pop songs to the accompaniment of canned instrumental music. On the bus we had seen the three English-speakers from the plane, and on the stairs I spotted a very tall Western man – whom we later met and who had what sounded like a slight Dutch accent. Otherwise, everyone was East Asian – many, it turned out, South Korean.
At the top of the stairs, we entered cable cars, which rose toward Zhangjiajie Mountain. It was misty, but we got views of several pinnacles of platy sandstone to our left.
Wulingyuan cable car. Photo by Ray Millar.
At the top was a row of Miao women vendors, in somewhat distinctive dress, selling roasted chestnuts and other foods, embroideries, carved stone turtles, and so forth. It started to rain, and some of us bought cheap yellow raincoats to supplement what we had on; the yellow color came off on our clothes. We walked to a nearby viewpoint over a basin, but the fog was too thick for us to be able to see anything.
Therefore, we switched to plan B. A bus drove us some distance to an intersection. We descended from the vehicle and then walked down the side road for half a mile or so, to a sort of shack with an adjacent shelter that housed several Buddhist statues. Some of our group elected to remain there, while others of us descended a long series of stone stairs, followed by a stone-paved pathway, which, after 20 minutes, led to Celestial Bridge. This is a cave-collapse feature reminiscent of many of the arches at Big South Fork, Tennessee/Kentucky (see SPAN 18, 2006). The top is square and flat, with a modest span that is somewhat arched underneath. A small, probably ephemeral drainage drops down into the alcove and runs beneath the span way, way down below. The span is thicker than it is wide. Formerly, walking across the top of the bridge was permitted, but that has been curtailed since the span has developed a crack.
Celestial Bridge Sign. Photo by Steve Negler.
Celestial Bridge. Photo by Steve Negler.
My left leg, which had become painful during the descent from the Gate of Heaven yesterday, was bothering me quite a bit, and my return up the stairs was slow.
There were a lot of maple trees in this area, whose leaves resembled those of the tuliptree.
This national forest reserve was created when leaders from Beijing came here and recognized how outstanding the area was and made it China’s first national park in 1982. It has since been designated a World Heritage Site and a World Geopark [on the area, see Sun 2005].
Returning to the intersection, we caught another bus and proceeded to the neighboring plateau. Being at a somewhat lower elevation, it appears, it was not completely obscured by cloud, and we were able to hike a circuit that led along a canyon rim that afforded absolutely stunning, if somewhat misty, views of the lightly wooded gorge and of crags and towers across the chasm, as well as towers – one of which was stupendous – rising up from the lower parts of the abyss. This area is called the Sandstone Peak Forest, that is, the Sandstone-Pinnacle Forest. Many of the pinnacles carried tufts of trees on their summits. It was repeatedly pointed out that parts of the 2009 fantasy film Avatar were shot here.
Wulingyuan viewpoint. Photo by Ray Millar.
Wulingyuan pinnacle. Photo by Ray Millar.
At one point along the trail was a small enclosed pool with five large turtle sculptures in it, plus a floating bamboo platform in the middle on which sat a number of living turtles of various sizes. The place is dubbed Magical Turtle Pool. (The turtle symbolizes longevity.)
Magical Turtle Pool. Photo by Steve Jett.
A highlight of this walking path is a high, high natural arch between the main plateau surface and a point of land. It is called First Bridge under the Sun. Three different signs specified its opening’s height to be 300, 350, or 400 meters [984, 1148, or 1312 feet]. Other dimensions given were: width, 2m [6.6 ft]; thickness, 5m [16 ft]; and span, 50m [164 ft]. There is a pathway across the top of the bridge, from which one can look straight down.
First Bridge under the Sun sign. Photo by Ray Millar.
First Bridge under the Sun. Photo by Ray Millar.
In this vicinity, there were hundreds of padlocks locked onto the overlook railings. A person making a petition places a lock as a permanent request for good luck and then throws the key into the abyss. At one point on the trail, we were passed by two puffing young men carrying a flabby older man in a sedan chair.
[A modest-sized arch that we did not visit is pictured in Sun 2005:22. The book states: “This beautiful natural stone arch is known as 'A Historical Step over 380 Million Years'.” However, the Tourist Map of Zhangjiajie Scenic Zone labels it “Southern Heavenly Gate” (NABSQNO 49R 450750 3249490).]
Following our completion of the rim walk, we proceeded onward to the entrance of a glass elevator. The upper 40% or so of the shaft is on the exterior of the cliff bounding the plateau, and the car descends rapidly and spectacularly, then dropping into the lower 60% of the shaft, which is inside the rock and therefore is blind. One exits into a small, pinnacle-bounded valley. From there, our van took us the relatively short distance back into Wulingyuan.
Wulingyuan elevator view. Photo by Steve Negler.
Wulingyuan elevator. Photo by Ray Millar.
After we had had a rest, we ate our dinner in the hotel restaurant. Steve Negler opted to attend a local theatrical spectacle inspired by local minority cultures (I was too tired to go). He reported that it was fabulous, with many fast-moving acts – singing, dancing, sonorous drumming, etc. At one point, he was singled out from the middle of the audience, called up on stage, and made to dance in an ethnic woman’s outfit. During his dancing, his indigenous pants fell down, greatly amusing the audience.
I learned today that Alex Ranney grew up in Lakewood, Ohio, and was a student four years ahead of me at The University School in Shaker Heights.
People gave me birthday greetings in the morning. Today was scheduled to be a “free” day. If the weather had improved we could have returned to Tianmanshen for better views, but this was not the case as the weather was no better.
For his participation in last evening’s show Steve had received a complimentary ticket for an excursion on a local reservoir, Baofeng Lake. I decided to buy a ticket and join him.
A taxi took Jame and the two of us to the ticket booth not too far away, leaving us there. There is a big fake waterfall and a performance stage at the entrance. The place was jammed with South Korean tour groups.
A long stone pathway led up a small valley and then rose, via stairs, to a little pass into the next valley. There, we came to a dock, to and from which glided what might be termed “pavilion boats.” Each had a seating capacity of perhaps fifty and, although open at the sides, they were covered with light-blue pseudo-tile roofs.
Boarding one, we cruised down the lake, silently except for the chatter and singing of the Koreans. There were beautiful, misty vistas of peaks and crags and wooded slopes. The reservoir was at full pool, so the vegetation came right down to the waterline. It was all very serene, beautiful, and at an intimate scale.
Baofeng Lake. Photo by Steve Jett.
Going down lake, we passed a little pavilion projecting from the shore, on which stood a young woman in ethnic costume who rendered a plaintive song. Female voices around here are fairly high-pitched. Similarly, returning up the other side of the lake we passed a young ethnic man, who also offered a few bars of song.
The return from the dock was via a long series of stairs that descended a narrow little gorge and took us back to the entrance via shops. Thence, we took a taxi to the hotel, packed, and proceeded by van to the Vide Hotel in Zhangjiajie City. We lunched in a private room at a “chop house,” whose specialty was slow-simmered pork chops – quite good, as was a green-bean/eggplant dish. Most things are cooked with oil (peanut, soy), and most dishes are spicy with chili pepper and/or garlic; we asked for moderation on the spices.
At my request, we stopped at an ethnic textiles shop. Although most of the woven and embroidered cloth was machine made, and although the batiks were modern in design and not very attractive, I did manage to acquire a square of handsomely and skillfully done indigo “tie-dye” – actually tritik (sewn-resist).
We also visited the good-looking, multi-floor gallery of a renowned local artist, whose specialty is making sandpaintings of local landscapes. Many of his works were, to my eye, banal, but a few were very impressive and achieve some remarkable effects of atmosphere and depth. Tiny bits of wood were used for roof tiles/shingles in the pictures.
While sitting in the lobby waiting for the others, I overheard two male senior citizens of East Asian appearance talking in a mixture of Korean and English, about Medicare and Medigap. After a while, I asked, “Are you guys from Los Angeles?” They appeared startled that I had divined that, and one tested my conclusion by pretending that he was from here and just knew a lot about the U.S. “You know so much that you live there,” I countered. He didn’t deny it but asked how I had come to my conclusion. I said, “Well, you’re speaking in a mixture of Korean and English, and there are lots of Koreans in Los Angeles, and you were talking about Social Security and so forth.” One of the women in their group asked me where I was from, and I said I lived in Virginia but that I’d once lived in California. She asked where, and I said Davis. The man wondered if I had been associated with UC Davis. When I answered in the affirmative, he said he guessed that that accounted for my deduction.
We went on in the van to the Tujiazu, the Tujia-minority-people folk village (they call themselves Bizika and theirs is a Tibeto-Burman language). This is the surviving Ming-period royal compound of the independent local Tujia king. As our group entered, two men in native costume, on platforms at either side of the gateway, stood up and, with native trumpets, gave us an extremely loud fanfare.
The compound includes the world’s largest wooden “suspended” building. The latter, the palace, is built up a steep, stony slope and held up in the front and on the sides by piles. Its nine levels are provided with multiple roofs, whose corners curve upward. The roofs (as is the case with other older buildings in the region) are covered with circa-six-inch-(15-cm) square, dark-slate-colored ceramic roof tiles, whose arc of curvature is fairly low. They are laid with a lot of overlap, in alternating rows of convex and concave exposure. The roofs drain into a large, wavy pipe sculpted to look like a giant dragon (the current one made of concrete), out of whose mouth the drainwater spills into the mouths of large sculpted frogs below.
Tujiazu “dragon” drainpipe. Photo by Steve Negler.
The internal houseposts are adorned with fierce or ugly wooden masks to protect from evil. Bovine bull skulls are also hung here and there, for protection as well (traditionally, too, people would wear a silver bull-head pendant around the neck for protection). The interior included displays of clothing, jewelry, tools and weapons, elevated horizontal looms, etc. We ascended from the front base and exited onto the hillside at the top, whence we descended steps down to the other buildings in the complex, ranged around a substantial green pool.
Tujiazu compound, Zhangjiajie. Photo by Steve Negler.
In the tower and in some of the other buildings were live “demonstrations.” One was of a wedding, in which three costumed Tujia women – representing mother, bride, and sister—ritually wept and sang to reflect the emotion of the forthcoming union. They held up to their faces the kinds of tritik tie-dyed cloths I had earlier purchased a specimen of, to wipe away their tears. In a room in another building, two old men played stringed instruments as well as a drum and gongs, while a young man skillfully juggled knives and cleavers. Outside, another older man demonstrated a bovine-driven grist mill. The animal drew a long, pivoted pole around and around; from the outer end of the pole, a narrow suspended steel wheel ran in a V-shape-cross-sectioned stone or concrete trough to pulverize the grain. He had me ride around one turn on the beam; Pamela did a round, too. The man also demonstrated an oil “press.” He drove a thick suspended pole like a battering ram against a stubby corresponding pole in a large supported hollowed-out log at right angles. Just how this ended up producing oil was unclear.
There were containers marked “Reclaim” (Recycle) and “Unredeemable” (Trash).
In the cities, one sees many large, red, inflated plastic arches with yellow writing on them. These are erected for a week in celebration of birthdays, weddings, and the like.
We returned to the Vide Hotel, and then at 6:30 went out to dinner at a restaurant some blocks away. Afterward, Steve, Verena, Gunter, and I went with Jame in the van to a Chinese opera performed in an outdoor theater in a mountain-girt valley head outside of town. Because it was raining, we got seats under cover; most of the seating was exposed.
The “stage” was huge, and made to look like rock platforms, ledges, and slopes. A whole little “village” ran up the slope to the left; this represented humanity. The right-hand side was all bare rock, and represented the wild, non-human realm. The opera’s story – a traditional one of the region – involves a fairy vixen, whom the Fox King intends to marry, falling mutually in love with a human woodsman. Their respective communities make every effort to keep the “wrongly-paired” lovers apart, but in the end they individually escape their bonds and go into the mountains. They see each other on opposite sides of a chasm and seem to be irrevocably separated. But then, the strength of their love causes the sides of the chasm to sprout projections, which slowly bring the young man and the young woman closer and closer, until the projections merge, forming a natural bridge, allowing the amorous couple to meet in an embrace. The End – except for a final scene in which they are living in a house together with children.
The dancing, and some of the music, were very modern and weird, with many actors prancing around in fox costumes. Lights flashed, including ones of different colors emerging through the “rocks” from the underside. There was convincing snow in one scene. Some of the music, far from being weird, was quite beautiful, and reminded me of the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber. None of the music appears to have been live; both the voices and the orchestra were from recordings, and the players merely made out to be singing. Applause at the end was desultory, but I don’t know what applause habits are in Asia.
The rain had ceased early in the performance and our short stroll back to the van was dry. We returned to the hotel.
The hotels so far have been very well appointed, but they endeavor to save electricity. Most of the lights are out in the lobbies during the day, and the florescent light bulbs in the rooms seemed to be 40-watters. It is hard to read and impossible to see well while shaving. You must place your room key card in a slot inside the room in order for the electricity to come on, so that you can’t leave the lights on when you go out. Beds are good but very firm.
We had breakfast and then rendezvoused in the lobby at 9:00. The van took us to the bank to change money, and to the grocery store. Then, we headed down the turnpike toward Changsha.
The weather was dismally misty, but we could see rural dwellings along either side of the highway. There was little or nothing in the way of older buildings. Almost everything looks to be government-built housing, mostly, it would appear, duplexes or fourplexes, made of stuccoed cinder block or brick (some with white-tile facades) and topped by two- or four-pitched roofs covered with flat orange or black tiles. There were mostly-low earth-terraced fields, including a few currently flooded rice fields, mostly limited in size. One could see some smallish, subconical, top-tufted rice shocks. All construction scaffolding I’ve seen on this trip is steel-pipe, not bamboo (with one exception in Hong Kong). The density of apartment buildings is claustrophobic.
Jame said that from 2000 to 2008, South Korean tourists came to Zhangjiajie in such numbers that visitors from elsewhere in China would say that visiting there was like being in Korea. But since South Korea is a small country, a good percentage of its travelers have already been here, so visitation is down. (There are still hoards, it seemed to me.) Most tourists here, if not Korean, are overseas Chinese, especially from Southeast Asia.
In Changsha, we stopped at a McDonald’s to have a late lunch (we found McDonald’s and KFC in a number of the communities we visited). We then were driven to the South Bus Station and boarded the bus for Guilin. The bus was a modern, smooth-riding, air-conditioned German-made vehicle, but the seats weren’t overly comfortable and the reading lights failed to illuminate (I later learned that daytime illumination is prohibited, for safety – a puzzling concept).
Some of the fields visible out the windows carried what was presumably a second rice crop, just beginning to turn tan. To the southwest of Changsha, we entered an area of low hills between which ran ample rivers of rice fields. The broader valleys sported low terraces.
As dark came on, lights didn’t – mostly. One could see the occasional single florescent bulb shining through the window of a single room in a dwelling.
At dinner time, we stopped at a “road-house,” a spacious facility offering a supper buffet and a small grocery shop. In a window at the front was a woman selling corn on the cob and hard-boiled eggs. There were multi-place restrooms and a long row of washbasins in the breezeway. Later in the six-and-a-half-hour bus trip, we stopped for a second bathroom break. In between, we were regaled with extra-violent action movies shown on two ceiling screens. We were the only Westerners.
A courier met us at the bus station, and a van conveyed us to the luxurious Guilin Bravo Hotel. This was clearly a more sophisticated venue than the Hunan ones, and more of the staff knew more English. They have clearly received smile-and-greeting training.
Guilin Bravo Hotel. Photo by Ray Millar.
Guilin Bravo Hotel lobby. Photo by Ray Millar.
Up at 6:30, a Western breakfast at 7:00, and off in our 20-passenger minibus to the bus station, through the undistinguished urban landscape. We saw a mosque but were told that there are few practitioners anymore.
The public bus emerged into the gray day around 9:00 AM, passed through several miles of city dominated by high-rise apartment buildings, closely spaced and with little style. Tower-karst hills began to appear on either side. Then out onto a broad flat via a new highway with nice landscaping in the center strip and on the sides, plus a separate non-automotive lane. Agricultural fields, mostly fairly small, spread out to either side. Rice predominates, but there also appear to be cucurbits, some beans, and much sugar cane. I saw one water buffalo and also spotted a few banana “trees.”
We began passing by low hills covered with plantations of young eucalyptus in neat rows, raised for paper-making, giving the hills a furry look.
“Tony” (in reality, Lin Guigang), our China Odyssey Tours courier, confirmed that farmers harvest two rice crops a year. Machinery is not used, because the fields are too small and scattered. He says communes are a thing of the past. The state still owns all land, but individual families have use rights they can pass on. However, every 30 years, land-use rights are redistributed according to family-size changes. The government has recently rescinded taxes for farmers, since the income gap between them and city-dweller has been widening, drawing people off the land and into already overcrowded cities where the young often cannot find work and turn to crime. But 80% of Chinese remain rural.
Although theoretically still communist, China is now a country of entrepreneurs. Often, individuals with their own businesses will pay to affiliate themselves with a sizable company for official status and insurance benefits, but are essentially independent business owners.
Tony tells me that in rural hill country, rice-growing potential is limited, and corn and sweet potato are consumed in quantity and little meat is eaten. These people enjoy good health and longevity, so many hopeful lowland Chinese are now eating corn and sweet potato in lieu of meat.
The movie on today’s bus ride was in great contrast with last evening’s; it was a story about two young students of music.
At 11:00 we paused at a service plaza. The country traversed afterward was largely in sugar cane plantings, plus some unidentified fruit trees. There were also certain fields in which harvested sesame plants had been collected in brown pyramidal shocks, seeds upward. After the seeds are removed, the stems are used as fuel.
As we proceeded, karst towers began to become visible on the horizon. We passed one of the very few farmers we had seen, wearing a conical hat. There were a couple of plow buffalos.
The tower karst on the left became increasingly spectacular as we proceeded; it was in the Guilin mode. Skies remained gray.
The new bus movie was another shoot-’em-up, starring Sylvester Stallone.
There are little rice fields in the small drainages between the extensive sugar cane fields. We saw some farmers, with buffalos, engaged in carrying bundles of harvested rice stalks. These are put together in mound-shaped shocks topped with a tufted cone of additional bundles. The whole horizon surrounding this wide, very gently rolling valley is bounded by a palisade of pointed karst towers.
There is some low earthen terracing among the rice fields, plus patches of corn. The older farm buildings appear to be built of red brick and to have gabled roofs covered with rounded red tiles that darken with age. Some structures are partly or entirely painted white. Younger structures carry flat roofs. There is an even earlier tradition, with few surviving examples, of rammed-earth construction.
Just past Yizhou, I noticed a sizable arch penetrating the ridgeline to the left. It was more or less a narrow oval shape, vertically oriented.
The highway passed through some tower-karst country. One crop common along here was a free-standing bean plant. Wild vegetation on the slopes was scrubby.
We arrived at the substantial town of Hechi, which boasts some nice landscaping here and there. In Hechi, I saw the second older woman I’d noticed using a carrying pole angled over her left shoulder to transport a pair of buckets. Hechi is on a significant green river and in the shadow of karst towers. At the rather run-down bus station, we changed to a private minibus that was to take us to Fengshan and headed in the direction of the mountains. We passed a long, open-sided roadside market and several individual stands selling nothing but pomelos.
The road ran along the side of a mountain, providing a view down into a valley with a river and intricate valley-floor rice terraces. At one point, the curvy road corkscrewed underneath itself. All the roads we’ve traveled on so far have been toll roads, even the rough one in the mountains.
I saw more rammed-earth buildings in the karst mountains; they tended to be painted over in white. The mountain-slope vegetation was scrubby, but there were patches of smallish pines.
Up on a mountainside terrace of a gorge was a substantial farmstead of rammed earth with black-tile-covered gabled roofs.
The van’s gearshift began acting up, and we stopped for a bit while the driver fiddled with the thing. Then, we were able to take off again, more speedily than before, being almost flung out of our seats on the curves.
Small-scale timbering seems to be practiced in the area; there are various little workshops featuring poles and light lumber.
We crossed an arched bridge over a reservoir; there was a small fishing raft plying its surface. Ultimately, we came to Donglan, a 50,000-person community. Here, as in other cities, a certain number of buildings have a pair of stone or concrete guardian lions out front. One, the male, has his right paw on a ball, representing power (one ball we saw was carved with seams like a soccer ball); the other, the female, has her left paw protectively atop a baby lion. In Donglan, they still did use bamboo scaffolding.
The highway beyond Donglan became narrower and steeper. Some lower mountain slopes were terraced and carried maize and other non-rice crops. There was more timber on these mountains than lower down. There were also some eucalyptus plantations.
The driver had to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a small herd of water buffalo being driven along the road. He then wove his way rapidly among a gaggle of school children.
We passed into another valley, a narrower one, walled with karst towers and floored with rice terraces, many harvested and dotted with rice-straw sheaves. There were also rusty-red common cattle here, and a few horses. Very few dogs are in evidence in China. Chickens are of jungle-fowl type.
From another mountainside shelf, we looked down into another valley amidst the karst, with intricate terracing and a rammed-earth farmstead (however, the building material used around here nowadays is cinderblock).
We went up and up and through a tunnel to a view down into a pocket valley with no outlet, its floor a green patchwork of terraced fields.
By the nature of the tiny settlements we have passed through, it is apparent that we had entered a more Third-World part of the country. We went past the first clearly stone-faced terracing we’d seen.
Tony said that this is not at all a tourist area and that its inhabitants had likely never before seen white people.
We passed more farms down in the bottoms of uvalas. Coming out on the side of another staggering gorge, we suddenly saw through the gap of its mouth a densely built-up, light-gray city. A long series of switchbacks led us down and down into the valley and on into Fengshan Xian (Peak Mountain County). There were many motorbikes there. There are traditional-style pavilions atop two of the peaks overlooking town.
Approaching Fengshan. Photo by Steve Jett.
We checked into the Fangxun Hotel, rated two-star. The room was fine – spacious and attractive – but the mattress was board-hard and the WC a “bomb-sight” squat toilet. There was no electrical outlet in the bathroom for shavers.
We supped in a private dining room in the hotel and then walked to a grocery store to buy a few snacks for the next day’s lunch.
Across the main street from the hotel was a large plaza, where dancing was going on. The music was audible in the room for hours, but I was so tired I fell asleep at 9:45 and didn’t arise until 7:45 in the morning.
Tony said that the hotel clientele is probably mainly truckers and other drivers and visiting friends and relations – and not tourists. Since there is no external tourism here, our local guide had to come in from another tourist center, Bana, and did not speak English. However, she hailed from Fengshan Xian. She, like other ethnic minority people, is very short. Tony is half Han, half Zhuang, the latter being the most important of the minority peoples of this region.
Tony had never heard of the arches of this area, even though the Fengshan Karst area is a National Geopark.
Friday, October 15: Leye-Fengshan National Geopark
We breakfasted at eight. Across the street, dance practice had already begun in the plaza.
At nine, we left town in our minibus, passing a cliff where a rockslide had obliterated part of a row of houses. Tony said that although earthquakes are very rare, landslides are fairly common here during the rainy season.
We crossed a mountain pass into another valley, down which ran a greenish river, the Poxin. At the community of Sanmenhai there was a new tourism center, and we saw a handful of probably regional Chinese tourists in a tour boat on the river.
At the tourist center was a sign saying “Individually Ticket” and another signaling the “Tourism Toilet.” At the dockside was a sign, “World of Karst, Source of Longevity,” referring to the fact that people in villages of this district tend to live to very advanced ages. Here, too, a kind-looking woman in late middle age approached us and identified herself as an English teacher named An Shu Hua or An Ping, and lined us up to take our picture, which attracted several local young women (some of her students?) to come and have their pictures taken with exotic us.
We boarded our plate-steel craft and were poled up river a short distance, past a couple of 5-bamboo fishing rafts and a pair of young ducks. These half-wild, half-domestic river ducks, along with carp and other fish, are the culinary specialties here.
There is a low dam below, which backs water upstream into a series of three natural tunnels separated by ceiling-collapse skylights or karst windows called First, Second, and Third windows. The boat was poled by a man at the front end and steered and propelled at the back end by a man with a sweep. A young woman stood in front as guide. The place is called Sanmenhai, “Three Sea Gates,” the “gates” being the three tunnels, the “sea” being the sea-green river.
First Window, Sanmenhai. Photo by Steve Negler.
Second Window, Sanmenhai. Photo by Ray Millar.
Third Window, Sanmenhai. Photo by Ray Millar.
The first tunnel penetrates into the hillside and is dark; the guide used a flashlight to illuminate ahead. The tunnel then turns 90 degrees to the right, coming out into Karst Window I, of significant size and surrounded by steep rocky slopes. The second tunnel is longer but much straighter, so that the far end can be seen from the near end. Grotesque flowstone stalactites hang down from the ceiling, many of whose tips display curvature, presumably as a consequence of a consistent direction of air flow.
Karst Window II is smaller than Karst Window I. Proceeding upstream, one passes through the third tunnel, which is curved and dark, and parts are not much wider than the boat. Karst Window III is the smallest, and is funnel-shaped. Beyond here upstream, the tunnels are water-filled and traversable only by diving. There are wires running along the caverns’ sides, from which fishermen hang lines.
We returned back down to Karst Window I, where we landed on the left side and walked up steps to a short cave tunnel that led us back to the village. There was a large stalagmite in this cave.
Thence, we headed more up-country. The narrow road, which snaked up and down and along mountainsides, was paved but in poor repair and, for the most part, quite bumpy. We passed spectacular karst peaks and deep doline valleys. Roads have been, and are being, constructed, as are two- and three-story, flat-roofed cinderblock village houses. Electricity has been brought in. This may all be part of the policy of providing incentives for people to stay on the land. (Tony later said the activity represented government stimulus spending beginning in 2008.)
We came to a mature doline, across which was a large, arched cave in the far cliff. As we were approaching this viewpoint, I noticed indications that on our side of the sinkhole a continuation of the cave passed under the road to a small doline on the left. The van stopped to allow us to photograph the Maguai Cave to the right. I noticed a bilingual inscription on a rock to the left. It read:
Immortal Bridge of Maguai Cave
Immortal Bridge is 62.8m [206 ft] in height, 11.1m [36.4 ft] in thickness, 10m [33 ft] in width. The hole of the arch karst bridge is 57.1m [187 ft] in height, 36m [118 ft] in span. There are collapsed grooves in the eastern and western direction which cut into the surface of the earth. The western deep groove is accessing to the Magui Tiankeng. The highroad is passing over the bridge. It’s a real natural karst bridge.
Note that Magui means “frog” in the local language, Zhuang; tiankeng refers to a sinkhole or uvala.
Tony said there wasn’t an arch here, but I walked around to the far side of the doline and verified that indeed there was an arch, and the others followed.
Immortal Bridge of Maguai Cave. Note person on top of the span (where the road passes over the span). Photo by Ray Millar.
We passed several tiankeng whose bottoms held rice fields. In one sheer-sided one, a small brown stream curved around the valley floor and then disappeared into a cliff-base cave. The rice harvest was over, and here and there the straw was being burned, sending up curtains of heavy, whitish smoke. Now, people were harvesting the soybean vines, carrying them home atop good-looking bamboo-splint burden baskets. These are constructed with a combination of wickerwork and horizontal splints held in place by vertical inner and outer splints. The shoulder straps are of plaited thin bamboo splints.
In this higher country all but the low terraces are dry-stone-faced. Where there are fences, they consist of thin posts with horizontal bamboos or bamboo splints lashed on; sometimes, widely-spaced verticals are added.
We arrived at one of our major destinations, Jiangzhou Natural Bridge, an enormous natural bridge whose low-curvature span leaped across the little river valley along which we were driving. Stalactites hung from its ceiling. There were three bilingual signs telling about it. The oldest, cut into a rock slab, read:
Jiangzhou Immortal Bridge
Jiangzhou Immortal Bridge also named “Lagong”, that is a normal karst bridge with extraordinary beauty and spectacularity. It is a natural bridge connecting two peaks with Jiangzhou River and highroad passing through. The bridge is about 144m [472 ft] in span, 64.5m [212 ft] in height and 20m [66 ft] in thickness. It’s the second longest span in China. Hanging stalagmites [sic] and climbing vines and the stream make the bridge more charming.
A separate sign had a diagram indicating the same span measurement but somewhat different measurements for height and thickness. A photo is below (click on image for larger version).
Interpretive sign at Jiangzhou Natural Bridge. Photo by Ray Millar.
Gunter and Ray worked on documenting the span. See the following links for more information.
- NABS Big 14 page on Jiangzhou Immortal Bridge (more photos).
- Measurement of Jiangzhou Immortal Bridge.
- NABS GIS page on Jianzhou Immortal Bridge.
I walked under the lower (southern-bank) abutment of the bridge, where there was a stone-walled enclosure, perhaps for livestock. Then I went back around over the river road bridge and climbed into the area by the upper (northern-bank) abutment. There, there was a small coursed-adobe temple. Spent joss sticks bristled up at an exterior wall base, and there was a nether grindstone out front. A suited man was there and invited me inside. In the plain room, along the back wall, was a row of four Buddhist (or Taoist) figures, larger than life-size and rather crudely executed. I inclined myself toward them, made a namaste sign to them, had the presumed caretaker light and place three joss sticks (three being a favored number), and left a five-yuan note on the altar. The man smiled and, I think, believed that I was making a cash offering to multiply my money.
The small temple under the north abutment of Jiangzhou Natural Bridge. Photo by Gunter Welz.
Interior of the temple. Photo by Steve Negler.
Leaving Jiangzhou, we backtracked and drove to another village some miles away, Poxin. As in all the towns and villages in the region that we have seen, cinderblock houses were going up. This village lies at one side of the bottom of the Shegeng Tiankeng. This is a so-called degraded tiankeng, in other words a late-stage collapse doline that has, through continued erosion, expanded laterally and whose walls have broken down until they have attained an outward slope. The floor was carpeted with stubble-covered rice fields.
Above the village, in a ridge topped by four pointed karst towers, is Shegeng Through Cave. A through cave is a subterranean passage with two or more openings to the surface. The travel agent in Fengjianshan city regarded us as the first outside tourist party to come to the area, and had given each of us, gratis, an undated booklet entitled Lexe-Fengshan Geopark Sanmenhai: The Karst Tour Guide [7MB PDF file].
The group’s van stops in the village of Poxin, below the Shegeng Through Cave. Photo by Ray Millar.
Shegeng Through Cave. Photo by Steve Jett.
Interpretive sign at Shegeng Through Cave. Photo by Steve Negler.
The group’s van picks them up near the “back” end of Shegeng Through Cave. Photo by Ray Millar.
View toward the village of Shegeng from Shegeng Through Cave. Photo by Steve Jett.
We walked from the village on the flat up the small paved road that mounts to and passes through the arch, which had stalactites hanging from its ceiling. Gunter and Ray struggled with measuring the opening. At the arch we encountered a young natural-history teacher from the coast with several young students. He spoke some English and expressed how impressed he was with the local scenery.
While the others were waiting for the van to pick them up, I walked back down the road to photograph the broad Shegeng Tiankeng. Goats munched in the vegetation on the slopes. Passing schoolboys would look at exotic me and after I had gone by would giggle. Although there are some signs of curiosity among Chinese adults, people are polite and do not stare. Some favor us with pleasant smiles.
On the drive back to town we stopped to buy bottled water at a little hole-in-the-wall general store. I spotted a substantial, more-or-less triangular natural arch penetrating a ridge some distance to the right of the highway. This was but a few miles outside Fengshan Xian. One large bridge in the Sanmenhai district that we did not visit was Feilongdong Through Cave (“Flying-Dragon Through Cave”); apparently, it is accessible only by trail. According to the booklet on the Geopark mentioned above, it is 60m [197 ft] wide and 150m [492 ft] high in its opening and is 192m [630 ft] long.
Arriving back at the hotel, we rested for two hours. Too, from a bridge I photographed the town river, the Qiaoyin – here arrow-straight and confined between stone-masonry banks, its length backed by dramatic karst towers. (On the hotel desk were two brass signs saying “flood control hotel;” in case of flooding of the adjacent river, this hotel is an aid headquarters.)
The Qiaoyin River flows through Fengshan. Photo by Steve Jett.
Along the Qiaoyin River at night in Fengshan. An ornate structure is illuminated on the hillside. Photo by Ray Millar.
We had a good dinner (including lotus root) in the hotel’s private dining room and then went out to buy some baked goods for tomorrow’s on-the-fly lunch.
Tonight, there was not only dancing and music from the plaza across the road and river, but also an unbelievably raucous dinner party in the hotel.
Here are some miscellaneous observations about the country we went through today. Although we saw very few birds (including a pair of smallish falcons), there were butterflies of several species, some striking in color or pattern. There were a few more dogs up here, and I saw one gray tabby cat. There were both the rusty cattle and gray water buffalos, as well as more dark horses. We saw two horses carrying a load of cinderblocks up a slope. There are what appear to be some small flax fields (although at a distance local blue-flowering weeds could be mistaken for flax plants) and a few large-leaved taro plants here and there, not in flooded fields. Banana plants are not uncommon. Some hillside shrubs had yellow-centered white flowers. Reforestation of slope fields is going on. Numbers of houses had drying sesame and soybean plants hanging over rooftop balustrades or on horizontal poles suspended from beneath balconies. These last plants don’t need to be taken in at night as do those exposed on the flat roofs. Rice shocks here are more like American corn shocks of yore than like those of the low country.
There are a few surviving adobe-brick buildings here and there. Some stone-masonry houses still exist, as well. They have a recessed central part with a balcony; one half of the building may serve as a barn. The roofs are gabled and tiled. Older women wear headcloths. I spotted a few round grindstones; the upper stone is much smaller than the nether stone, which has a slight open spout at one point on its perimeter.
Many houses sport colorful, usually red paper banners pasted to either side of and over the front door, with gold-colored writing on them. Lower windows of new houses are provided with bars. Circular concrete water tanks are built above villages. Here and there, one sees small tombs, with carvings topping their facades. I couldn’t determine whether they were of stone or of concrete. We noticed a few small billiard tables in villages.
A tiankeng is a sizable collapse doline, and when young may be jar-shaped, when mature will have vertical sides, and when degraded will have outward-sloping sides. A fencong is a “peak cluster,” and a fenglin a “peak forest.” Slope soil is lateritic-red or reddish-brown or brown; valley soil is brown.
Minimum winter temperature here is 6 to 7 degrees Celsius. Tony has never seen snow. He is 30 and self-confident.
Saturday, October 16: Fairy Bridge
By 6:45 A.M. there was dance practice with music across on the big plaza. The sky was gray again, which Tony told us was standard in this country except in summer, during which it is very hot when the sun shines between the cumulus clouds. He said it rains lightly in winter, and that October provides the most pleasant days – when it isn’t raining. He also said that October was the rainiest month, but this is in stark contrast to rain data for Guilin found online which indicate that October is a dry month there (which is why we had scheduled for October).
The gray soon burned off, revealing our first real blue sky of the trip. We assembled for breakfast at 7:30. One tasty item was “green-tea pie” (patty). There was also a big bowl full of boiled rice noodles in broth, with vegetables, mushrooms, and bits of pork mixed in. Two bowls of noodles are said to be the standard breakfast in this region.
The two doors of the hotel entrance were, respectively, marked “push” and “drag.”
Fengshan hotel entrance. Photo by Steve Negler.
Having stowed the luggage in the van, we lined up outside an adjacent office about the size of a large walk-in closet for a photograph with a very young-looking couple who had just graduated from university and had opened the first and only travel/tour agency in the region, the Guanxi Fengshan FZL Travel Agency Co. Ltd. They wanted a historic photograph of their very first group, us. Our local guide, Miss Liu, works for them.
On a walk last evening, Steve Negler came upon an enormous natural bridge at the edge of downtown, not previously on our radar screen. Accordingly, after leaving the sweet agency couple, we drove up along the river to where the stream emerges from Chuanlongyan Through Cave (“Chuanlongyan” translates to “Through Dragon Tunnel,” so “Chuanlongyan Through Cave” is is actually redundant).
We parked the van and then walked along the road that passes through this stupendous 1,000-foot-long arena-like archway, with the river to the right and contorted stalagmites descending from the ceiling. Under this natural bridge there is a sizable parking lot, a museum, and a performance area with seating. The river is the lowest level, and there is a terrace above the latter. The road, etc., are on a somewhat higher level. There is also a modest-sized additional aperture toward the town, under the right-bank end of the span. A sign at the far end of the bridge provided stated dimensions.
Chuanlongyan Through Cave interpretive sign. Photo by Ray Millar.
Chuanlongyan Through Cave entrance. Photo by Steve Negler.
Inside the entrance of Chuanlongyan Through Cave. Photo by Steve Negler.
The interior of Chuanlongyan Through Cave. Photo by Steve Negler.
Just beyond the bridge was a small stone-crushing operation. Beyond that, across valley-floor rice terraces, tumbling down the lower wooded cliffs could be seen a handsome waterfall. In the middle cliffs was a cave that appeared to be a continuation of the one from which the natural bridge had formed.
We left town and drove up into a different part of this amazingly rough country. Although karstic, the landscapes were less obviously so. But there were the same great ups and downs and arounds on narrow, sinuous, paved but rough roads. There were the usual harvested rice fields on valley floors and stone-faced terraces for maize – long since harvested, leaving standing brown stalks – and soybeans. An addition today was amaranth, with its bright-dark-red, tall, spiky plumes. It did not appear as a monocrop but as scattered plants in corn fields, soy-bean fields, or in fields with both the beans and the corn. There was also one field carrying pepper plants, the globular Chinese-red fruits looking like large, bright cherry tomatoes. One sees the occasional stone enclosure wall.
Outside Fengshan Xian were small lumber yards displaying triangular stacks of interfingered light boards, and there was other evidence of the harvesting of small timber in the mountains; one can see where patch-cutting has occurred on the high, steep slopes. How the harvesters gain access is unclear.
Along the outer sides of the mountain roads, one sees single or double rows of slender eucalyptus trees, the lower meter of their trunks painted white against insects. Some slopes sported the shrubs that have yellow-centered white flowers; Tony said that each fruit of this shrub yields a seed that produces oil.
Houses made of yellow mud brick often have ventilation openings where four bricks have been omitted in a sort of cross-shaped pattern. One tile roof had an ornamental open-work embellishment of roof tiles in the middle of the roof ridge (something we later found to be common). The newer flat-roofed houses are handy for drying maize and rice grains on top. A few modern dwellings boasted “penthouses” with flooded roofs; these help keep the penthouse cool in summer.
In the towns, some people pay us no mind, but others, especially young ones, call out “Hello,” or “How do you do?” or “Hi.” Tony says that the three basic school subjects are Mandarin, English, and math.
Whereas many older women wear headcloths, younger ones tend to have either pony-tails or buns at the backs of their heads. In the fields, people wear brimmed rice-straw hats; only a few wear conical coolie hats.
We passed through Jinya Town, Jinya meaning “Golden Teeth.”
The highway passed along the rim of Neili Tiankeng, the longest tiankeng in the geopark and the second-ranking one in volume, according to a sign. It is classed as degraded. It’s very handsome, with sheer gray-limestone and green-wooded walls, and a bottom with many, seemingly abandoned, agricultural terraces.
Beyond this, as we continued along a high road, I suddenly noticed a huge arch on the far side of a large tiankeng. We stopped for photos and then again farther on, where there was an overlook. According to a sign, this is Mengli Natural Bridge (an arch, really). The interpretive sign stated that the span was 60m [197 ft] but, as is often the case, this was for the wider alcove and not of just the opening itself. The left-hand side of the opening was a sheer white cliff. The tiankeng between the arch and us was handsome and of impressive volume; some large towers rose from its floor.
Mengli Natural Bridge interpretive sign. Photo by Ray Millar.
Mengli Natural Bridge. Photo by Steve Negler.
Mengli Natural Bridge. Photo by Steve Negler.
We had begun seeing a few surviving traditional farmsteads. They were of stone masonry and might be gabled at one end and have a gablet and a sloping roof at the other end; or, both ends might have a gablet/sloping-roof configuration. Gable ends were sometimes open, revealing the post-and-beam construction that supports the heavy, dull-reddish roof tiles.
Some miles past the Mengli arch, we came to a large and wonderful old farmstead complex across a small valley, with only a few newer modifications.
Villages, however, have been very largely modernized, virtually all older structures seemingly having been demolished and replaced with brick or cinderblock buildings. The brick ones are older, and the bricks tend to be laid with two tiers with horizontal orientation alternating with one tier with on-edge vertical orientation (backed with two horizontal bricks). The facades of village houses typically have their second stories cantilevered a few feet out over ground-floor shops. Some buildings are painted white, others faced with glazed ceramic tiles in white or pastels. Some have amber-colored ceramic symbols of longevity and good fortune over doorways, such as dragons and fishes, and may have ceramic guardian lions on the corners of upper-floor balustrades.
From occasional surface manifestations and from some roadcuts, one can see that the underlying limestone beneath certain slopes has been subjected to dissolution to the extent that the stone is smoothed, fluted, and pointy.
We were driving along beneath a high ridgetop when a tremendous view unexpectedly opened out to our right. This was the Buliu River Gorge, a 15-km (9.3-mi.) karst gorge through the mountains of this part of the Guanxi Autonomous Region. Below tremendous black-splashed, light gray cliffs and steep, wooded slopes with scattered red slump scars, was a flat-bottomed valley floor along which wandered the Buliu River, now yellow rather than its usual blue as a consequence of recent rains. There were stone weirs across it here and there. On the far side of the river, beneath the natural ramparts, lay the village of Buliu, rice drying on nearly every one of the flat roofs of the modern houses.
Buliu River Gorge and the village of Buliu. Photo by Steve Negler.
Village of Buliu. Photo by Steve Negler.
We snaked down to the bottom of the canyon, crossed the bridge into the village, and then drove downstream some distance, past stream-bank clumps of bamboo that looked like green organ pipes, and past yet-to-be-harvested corn. We came to a parking lot and an alleged tourism center where locals were lounging around in the Chinese-style main building. Others were loafing over by the river. A good part of the otherwise nearly empty parking lot was occupied by many circa-4-m [13-ft] squares of drying rice. A young woman was stirring up the grains with a peg rake. A middle-aged man went by, carrying a heavy load of poles for firewood laid across his burden basket.
Drying rice in the parking lot outside Buliu. Photo by Steve Jett.
Ray had been unable to arrange a trip to the bridge last year despite considerable effort. He knew that the natural bridge was accessible only by river but was surprised to find that we would have to make the trip that day instead of the following day as originally planned. He arranged with some local float-trip boatmen to conduct us the 18 km [11 mi.] down river to the bridge. As it turned out this was for the best as the long drive to our overnight hotel in Tiane would have made it impossible to do it the next day.
While the inflatable rafts were being readied, a fisherman on the opposite bank boarded his slim five-bamboo raft and, standing a bit aft of center, flashed his two-ended propulsion pole and zipped away up river.
We boarded a pair of brightly-colored rafts and began the descent. The boatmen used their long poles both for bottom propulsion and as double paddles. Most of the wooded-banked river was smooth and slow, but every so often we encountered a riffle, and there were a couple of bigger drops that involved shooting flumes and getting soaked in the tailraces.
In addition to trees and shrubs, there were huge-leaved wild Colocasias in the understory. The guides said that there are monkeys in the woods away from the river. The local people do not hunt.
At one place, we passed a spot on the right bank to which fisherman come, then fish out from, spend a night, and return to the village. Only net fishing is done. At another place, a sizable banyan tree had a high horizontal branch that stretched out over the water and from which long, foliated runners hung down like a beaded curtain.
Banyan tree along the Buliu River. Photo by Steve Jett.
We saw many butterflies of various kinds, some big and black, and a few birds, including wagtails and a medium-sized gray-blue heron that kept ahead of us as we moved down river, flying to one bank and alighting, only to rise and fly ahead to one bank or the other and land again. Here and there, strange insect noise emanated from the trees, reminding one of the sounds of flying saucers landing as portrayed in the cinema. In some places, tremendous cliffs and high mounds rose above the green lower slopes.
Ultimately, the river bent to the left, and, on the right, Fairy Bridge came into view, about 3:45 P.M. It was tremendous, a river-meander bridge whose span, once established, continued to be lengthened by the river’s undermining the limestone on the outside of its bend, creating a huge, curved overhang. From there, one could look up at the great arch of the cave, above which, at right angles, soars the proportionately narrow flying buttress of the bridge. Here, we encountered two or three wooden-chair-equipped bamboo rafts carrying Chinese tourists on the river. They had come a short distance up river from the river-runners’ take-out point.
Most visitors reach the Bridge in these bamboo rafts, which are poled a short distance upstream. Photo by Ray Millar.
In Chinese, Fairy Bridge is known as Xian Ren Qiao, “Immortal-People Bridge,” and connects Earth with Heaven.
The view from downstream was very impressive, especially on this beautiful sunny day, with the massive span backed by even-more-massive cliffs. Gunter took measurements that established the span of the opening at 400 ± 15 feet, confirming that the arch has the greatest known span in the world by a wide margin [for details see Measurement of Fairy Bridge].
The author just downstream from Fairy Bridge. Photo by Ray Millar.
We landed and changed to dry clothing. Outside were some live chickens in an openwork basket plus two confined in plastic bags.
Our takeout point on the Buliu River, just downstream from Fairy Bridge. Also, the starting point for the bamboo raft excursions to the Bridge. Photo by Ray Millar.
We took off in the van, which our driver, Mr. Liu, had brought around from Buliu Village. We found ourselves on a wet, rutted, red-dirt road, along which we swayed and bounced for miles and miles as we paralleled the river in the downstream direction. We passed a black zebu (Brahma) bull at one point and a rust-colored one at another place. After crossing the river at an arched bridge at a village, we continued down river on the right bank. We soon came to something more formidable than the Brahmas, a large, green lorry coming toward us, completely filling the narrow lane. It was only by its driver’s pulling a few feet off into the undergrowth that enough space was created for our vehicle to get around the truck by putting our right-hand wheels nearly in the ditch. A similar scenario was enacted some time later on, in which we had to back up quite a way. At one point, too, we were slowed behind a log-transport truck ahead of us.
Ultimately, the road went on to higher ground and offered wrenching curves as well as frequent potholes. It went on and on and on in the dark. Being tossed around hour after hour was, frankly, something of an ordeal. There were numerous small rockfalls and earth slumps along the route. When, at last, we reached a narrow hard-surfaced road, it turned out that miles of it were under construction and were worse than the ordinary unpaved routes.
There were no private cars but quite a few motorbikes, as well as mostly-small trucks. We crossed two concrete viaducts and could see a large reservoir at several points. There were more lights in village houses and shops than we’d seen elsewhere; perhaps this has to do with the nearby reservoir’s hydroelectric facility. In this region, shop doors are fold-back steel panels that open accordion-like.
At last, around nine o’clock, we reached Tiane County and the Fangxun Hotel. The staff, attired in black trousers, white shirts, and black neckties, was waiting for us. They were excited because we were the first party of Westerners ever to stay at this quite elegant, seven-year-old, three-star hotel with gold-silk-covered columns out front. Because of this, they lined us up on the handsome lobby staircase, the male manager and his female assistant posing with us, for a historic photograph.
After we checked in, the managers escorted us on foot a number of blocks down to the riverfront street and to a restaurant there. Inside were the usual round tables, in this case so low that we couldn’t get our knees under them. The wooden chairs were baby-sized, not adequate for Western fannies.
After a less-than-outstanding meal, we strolled back to the hotel and got to bed about eleven. Owing to the hardness of the bed and wrestling with the too-hot, too-cold, on-and-off-again duvet, my sleeping was less then perfect. Too, roosters cried out all night, not a hazard in most American hotels.
We bid our hotel and its staff goodbye following breakfast and packing, leaving at about 10:15. In town, I had seen a young woman embroidering shoe soles, apparently a common female activity. Leaving the urban area, Tony pointed out a pair of Yao girls walking along the highway. He said that various Yao groups were known by their appearance: White Yao wore white trousers, Red Yao red clothing. Long-Hair Yao women have their hair cut only three times: at birth, at marriage, and at death. Although they wear it coiled atop the head, it reaches the ground when undone. Married women supplement their living head hair with the swatch of their marriage hair and also collect the hairs that come out with their daily combings.
The sky was bright gray, and smoke-like haze hung in the air. The road followed the very broad, flat, and deep Hong Shui He or “Red-Water River,” whose color was actually reminiscent of that of spinach jade. The stream gave the impression of calm might. I saw a pair of Chinese-style wooden boats pulled up on the shore.
The highway left the river and ran up a narrow tributary gorge with a tumbling mountain stream. The first of several tunnels the road passed through was in this valley. Then we entered more cone-karst country, “cone-karst” apparently being the proper term for landscapes characterized by pointed limestone towers.
At one point along the route, we heard yipping dogs and then passed an open truck stacked with small cages, each holding a rusty-haired canine. They were off to some food market, Tony verified.
Tony says he knows eight languages/dialects: Zhuang and two related minority tongues, Mandarin, Cantonese, Guilin, Japanese, and English.
Tony explained that in China, getting married is officially accomplished in a government registry office. However, to demonstrate that a marriage is socially real, the family rents a restaurant, a hotel banquet hall, or the like. The bride, in white, and the groom, in a suit, stand before a male elder, who takes them through the wedding vows. Afterward, the groom is, for humor’s sake, made to eat and drink strange concoctions. People get up and make toasts, to which the groom must respond. If he doesn’t want to drink too much, he can hire a professional designated drinker with a high capacity for alcohol, who will be his surrogate. After the festivities, including guests making gifts of cash, the bride changes into a red dress (previously-married brides are in red the whole time). The couple then goes off in a stretch limousine.
We passed through Nandan County and eventually arrived at the commercial two-star Road Guesthouse in the busy town of Hechi. After a very late lunch, I crashed for a nap and then worked on this journal. Subsequently, I went across the road to photograph a pedestrian shopping street.
Pedestrian shopping street, Hechi. Photo by Ray Millar.
There is a restaurant in Hechi called Joycaller Steak. We saw a woman with a shoulder carrying pole with two baskets of fruit suspended, as well as a woman with a purse in a Union Jack design.
At 7:00, we walked a few blocks to the same restaurant at which we’d had lunch. Upon our return, I was in bed before 9:00.
Despite horrendous street noise – especially horn-honking – I slept until 6:30 A.M.
I noticed a handful of people in the street who displayed hints of Caucasoid admixture. One wonders how this came about. Altogether, the Chinese are very variable in face and physique. Chinese here sometimes say “Bye-bye” and “Okay” amongst themselves.
There was no breakfast served at the hotel, so we went to the bus station, boarded a comfortable bus at 9:00, and en route ate snacks Tony had provided. It was another gray day outside, with both thin cloud cover and smudgy haze.
Public busses between cities are provided with a stewardess. We left the karst-tower-surrounded city and headed toward Guilin, passing between the palisades of cone karst on either side of the valley.
The TV entertainment on the bus today started with pop-song videos and then a sci-fi flick with martial arts. We overtook a truck full of rust-colored Brahma calves. About two hours out, we passed a large industrial complex on the right.
Well before we reached Guilin, the sun was shining brightly, but there was still a lot of haze. Guilin is another big, modern city, the chief burg of Guanxi Autonomous Region.
We arrived at the Guilin Bravo Hotel and checked in. Tony took the rest of the day off. Ray led a walk across town to the Li River in order to view Elephant Trunk Hill (Xianbi Shan; NABSQNO 49R 428710 2795060). This feature, which is in riverside Elephant Hill Park, is a rock promontory with what is, no doubt, a collapsed-cavern natural arch. This arch is depicted in Anonymous 1987:24. Also depicted is the arch of Moon Hill (p. 48), not visited on this trip.
There were many people in the park. One could take raft rides across the cove to the arch. There was a pair of fishing cormorants on one raft, and tourist women could have their photos taken in colorful local dresses.
Elephant Trunk Hill, Guilin. Two fishing cormorant birds are perched on the raft in the foreground. Photo by Steve Negler.
Steve and I decided to make a long excursion on foot. We walked northward parallel to the river, as far as Wave-Subduing Hill (Fubo Shan), a minor natural limestone tower in a park, which we decided to pass up. Then on to a similar park but with a higher tower, Folded Brocade Hill (Diecai Shan). It was too hot and humid to contemplate ascending the stairway to the summit, so we opted to back-track and to go a few blocks westward to a walled park. It is the old Ming governor’s compound from the fourteenth century and now the arts campus of Guan Xi Normal University. The former prince’s mansion, Wan Cheng, contains historical exhibits. Apparently, the buildings in this complex were destroyed by revolutionaries and by Japanese and were rebuilt after the war.
At the far end of the park is Solitary Beauty Peak (Duxiu Feng). This is a modest-sized karst tower with a cave in its base that is replete with myriad Ming incised carvings on the walls, of different figures of Buddhist tradition. Each one is assigned to a different pair of birth years, and Steve and I sought out our respective years, 1938 and 1940. There was a slotted wooden box beneath each carving into which one could slip a cash offering – which each of us did. There was also a larger Buddhist altar, at which some of the Chinese visitors kneeled, bowed, and made the prayer sign with their hands. They received what seemed to be some joshing from certain other members of their group.
An obelisk in front of Solitary Beauty Peak, Guilin. Photo by Steve Negler.
Outside, we encountered a pleasant professor of traditional Chinese music, Wen Z. Ming, who spoke rather good English. We chatted, and he took us into a building that was the Art Department’s sales gallery, featuring, mainly, “traditional” paintings by faculty and students. There were some quite nice watercolors, but a good deal of the art was rather cliché views of Guilin landscapes. The gallery was also selling elaborately-carved antique inkstones. The professor plays an instrument in a local production featuring traditional music, dance, and acrobatics. He said he could get us tickets at 40% off. We decided that we might take him up on the offer when we returned to Guilin.
Steve and I walked down Zengyang Lu, a long pedestrian street with myriad booths vending a great variety of goods. Some old jades caught my eye, and we stopped to look. The proprietor was a nice young man with prominent cheekbones who spoke English pretty well, and we had a pleasant conversation. He volunteered that the years of the Cultural Revolution had been so terrible that he was unable to describe them to us. He said he had cheered when Mao died. He affirmed that Deng Xiaoping had been a big improvement. I ended up buying a small Archaic jade dragon, and Steve purchased a small, stained-bone laughing “Buddha.”
We walked by a building designated Double Walls of Meditated Life, whatever that may signify. At another place was a sign, “complaint acceptation”; in addition, at certain spots one is directed, “Keeping silence.” At the hotel buffet, slices of “Italy Pisa” were available.
People in Guilin are generally lighter in complexion than those in other areas we have visited. We passed several groups of ladies of a certain age playing Guilin mahjong in little cubicle shops – the game involves not tiles but white playing cards, oval in shape, on which are black Chinese logographs.
As twilight fell, we made our way to Shan Lake and walked along its shore to cross the bridge that separates it from Rong Lake. Out across Shan, reflected in the water, were the large Sun Pagoda and Moon Pagoda, the one illuminated with golden light, the other with silver. Rong Lake boasts a suspension bridge painted the color of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Sun (gold) and Moon (silver) Pagodas, Guilin. Photo by Ray Millar.
Back at the hotel, I went to bed about 10:45. It was blissfully quiet all night.
A minibus, driven by Mr. Liu, picked us up after breakfast, at 8:00. Our destination was Liping, in Guizhou Province. On the way out of town, we passed a flooded lotus field. Later on, we saw wooden-box beehives, in two places. Then, there was a white-goose farm and a tea plantation, the plants in the form of small trees rather than in the form of hedges, as I’d seen in Japan. Along one stretch of highway were stand after stand selling smooth green melons. Although we saw the odd scarecrow in China, much more common were bits of cloth and the like tied up and meant to flutter.
We drove up a fairly broad valley bounded by non-karstic mountains, on which were many tree plantations, some in eucalyptus but most in China-fir. Too, there were increasing signs of a timber industry, including small milling operations. We passed a talc mill, as well.
As the mountains closed in, it became clear that we were entering a more culturally traditional territory. The part of Guizhou province that we were penetrating was minority-group country, dominated by the Dong people. The Dongzu — or Kam, as they call themselves — are speakers of Kam-Sui (Dong-Shui), a Tai-Kadai language (as is Zhuang). Traditional dwellings and out-buildings began to appear, and one saw more handcarts and carrying poles with suspended baskets, including shovel-shaped ones for transporting earth or vegetables. The wooden poles had, in some cases, a nearly circular groove for the cord around each end, and in other cases three or four notches on top back from a slightly flared end. In one instance, a woman was using a quarter of a length of bamboo, a plant common along here. Later, I saw quarter-bamboo burden poles that were cut to taper inward toward their ends and then to flare out again into a terminus shaped like a playing-card spade.
We passed the occasional small cotton field, and in one hamlet saw bolls drying on the ground. The rice was all harvested, and sheaves and conical-topped cylindrical ricks of rice straw, each large one built around a pole, dotted the paddies. Freshly cut bundles of rice were bound, carried home with shoulder poles, and then laid on flat surfaces like roofs, the seed heads down and the stalk ends bristling upward like inverted cones of jackstraws. Tony said that threshing is done either with flails or using a machine with rollers. Rice grains farther along in the drying process were spread out on large plaited-bamboo-splint mats and laid in front of houses, on roofs, and even, in one case, entirely across one lane of the main road through the village. When the rice is dry, it is swept into piles with a short, SoutheastAsian-type of broom and loaded into plastic sacks.
One crop seen on lower slopes was beans held five or six feet above the ground on wires running between vertical poles, resulting in green, leafy roofs. In one instance, I saw new bean plants coming up in a harvested rice field, suggesting crop rotation. Fairly sparse green rice plants were growing in some fields, perhaps volunteers from dropped grains; it is cooler in these mountains, and I doubt that there is a winter rice crop. Chickens glean grains in the harvested fields. We also saw some cornfields.
Here and there in villages, I saw what appeared to be cooked rice in bowl baskets set out on roofs or walls – offerings, perhaps. Drying bundles of rice were suspended from horizontal poles or bamboos under eaves and also hung over balcony balustrades. Some also depended from horizontal poles under the open-gable-end roofs of traditional houses. I saw one rototiller in use, in a harvested rice field being recultivated.
Tony says that some rice straw is burned, to provide fertilizer for the field, and indeed, we saw small stacks and stubble here and there, sending up white smoke. The straw can also be used as mulch, after the next planting. Much of the straw provides winter fodder for water buffalos, cattle, and horses. I also saw one or two sheds thatched with straw. The straw hats we see widely worn and in small shops are woven with rice straw. Rice straw is also laid down in homes as bedding.
Parts of the lower slopes carry tea shrubs, here arranged in clipped green hedges. I saw a few zebu cattle again.
Up to three persons ride on motorbikes, a seemingly dangerous practice.
We passed up a valley through the Longsheng community, which is known for its agricultural terraces on the lower slopes of the valley sides. We passed a reservoir and followed its river down stream. There were a few traditional wooden boats and lots of rusty dredgers doing something with the cobbles in this broad, shallow stream. There were also large, grotesque boulders for sale in one village.
Small brickyards and piles of bricks at construction sites showed that brick was still being made and used; cinderblock was less prominent than we had notice heretofore. Brickyards had piles of low-grade coal, and I had seen pockets of what looked like poor coal in the sedimentary rocks of the region.
We passed through Sanjiang Xian (Three Rivers County), stopping at a service station with revolting “sanitary” facilities. A small open truck was taking on fuel; it was jammed full of grunting porkers. In villages, we saw lots of cylindrical bamboo-splint openwork piglet baskets, as well as openwork chicken baskets. We also saw one red-draped coffin in front of a village house.
A major new, highly-engineered road was under construction to replace the one we were using. As a consequence, ours, paved but full of bone-jarring potholes, was in bad shape or reduced to undulating dirt or was routed over portions of the new highway right-of-way where only the basal broken rocks had been laid down.
We headed up another, rockier-river valley, with its own dredging and own reservoir, through Yangshi Xian, and on the most spine-pounding ride I have ever experienced, for hours. My head even hit the ceiling a couple of times. Clearly, the vehicle’s shock-absorbers were long gone. It felt like being on the rodeo circuit. We pitied the poor driver.
At a spot where we passed by a viaduct under construction, we saw a blackened dead dog suspended by a wire. A construction worker was roasting it with a blow torch.
On a mountainside, we saw a sort of dirt chute, holding myriad peeled logs, running down the steep slope. It appears that the firs are cut, left to lie for a period, trimmed of branches and debarked, and then slid down the slope. Some very steep logged patches look worrisomely susceptible to erosion.
In one village, two bowl baskets containing fishes were immersed in water held in a small, square, concrete basin. We saw a number of women in ethnic costume, wearing light-colored headcloths or caps and carrying colorful patchwork “fanny packs.”
There were a few simple tombs on slopes, with crude stone-masonry facades and earth-covered roofs. One sees privies near dwellings.
We reached Liping about 6:00. It is a mostly modern city of 70,000, very busy and the site of much construction. Our commercial hotel was the Gang Sai, rated three-star.
Gang Sai Hotel, Liping. Photo by Ray Millar.
After settling in, we went across the main street to a three-story shopping mall, whose facade had been built to resemble traditional Dong drum towers and bridges. There were many shops, including Love Esteem, featuring women’s undies, and two Playboy shops, carrying tuxes, etc. (we’d also seen such a shop in Guilin).
Shopping mall in Liping. Photo by Ray Millar.
We had dinner at a restaurant in the complex and then ambled up the mall to its far end, beyond which was a large plaza. Hundreds of women were lined up there, doing graceful synchronized dances to recorded music, an activity that we were told occurs every night. Audible fireworks exploded loudly nearby.
Synchronized dancing, Liping. The lighted drum tower in the background goes through a cycle of color changes. Photo by Ray Millar.
Back in the hotel room, the night did not begin well. I went to bed at 9:45. At 10:15 I was awakened by an unexplained phone call on the part of a Chinese-speaking woman. There was continuous shouting from the parking courtyard seven stories down, plus incessant vehicle honking and music from shops. About 11:00, a gaggle of young men went shouting down the hallway.
Wednesday, October 20: Gaotun Natural Bridge
There was a lull in the noise during the wee small hours, but it picked up again pretty early. The construction workers were back on the job by 7:00 AM.
I went to breakfast at 7:30. There were noodles, cold gingered green beans, spicy fried rice, little sweet dumplings with a peanut flavor, pickled cucumber, a thin rice gruel, and other, unidentified dishes.
At 9:30 we boarded our little bus and drove out of town. The weather was sunny. Some paddies had beans growing in them. Tony said that rice prices are low, so some people raise rice for home consumption as their first crop and something else as a second crop, to sell. There was a chestnut orchard on one slope we passed. We saw a buffalo ox plowing a paddy.
Tony explained that in China, minority couples are permitted to have two children, not just one as Han Chinese are. Dong couples only marry after they have had a child. Local toddlers tend to have proportionately large, bulbous foreheads.
After a 16-km [10-mi.] ride, we arrived at the Bazhou River National Scenic Spot near Gaotun (Gao Tun = “High Village”) to see Gaotun Natural Bridge. From the parking area, we took a trail through woods for perhaps three-quarters of a mile and down into the limestone-walled canyon of the deep-green Bazhou (“Eight-Boat”) River, where the stream flows through a very substantial arched cavern-collapse opening, Tiansheng Qiao, “Heaven-Born (i.e., Natural) Bridge.” Signs called it “Great Natural Rocky Bridge” and “Great Natural Stone Arch Bridge.”
“Great Natural Rocky Bridge” interpretive sign. Photo by Ray Millar.
“Great Natural Stone Arch Bridge” interpretive sign. Photo by Ray Millar.
The tourist booklet Tour Guide of Liping, the Dong Ethnic Cultural Center and the National Scenic Spot (ca. 2009, p12) says the span is 138.4m [454 ft], the opening height 36.64m [120 ft], and the breadth 118m [387 ft]. Gunter’s measurements were: span, 73m [240 ft] and height 26m [85 ft]. Clearly, though very large, this span is not the world’s largest as locals claim, despite the fact that it is said to have made Guinness World Records on January 15, 2001 (I did not find it in recent editions). In any case, it is a very pretty and impressive spot.
Ray and Pam, Alex, and I started to stroll back to the bus, while, unbeknownst to us, the others followed a little trail beyond the bridge that took them to its top. There was nothing to see except mosquitoes on the summit, they reported, but en route they spotted two more arches, with heights of about 12 and 24 meters, respectively.
The trail to the top of Gaotun Natural Bridge goes through this arch (span, 3 meters; height, 12 meters). There is another, similar arch nearby. Photo by Steve Negler.
On the trail back, I followed a side set of steps down to the river, hoping to obtain a view of the bridge from downstream. No such view was forthcoming, but across the river were two delicate waterwheels, perhaps for lifting river water into rice paddies. We saw large millipedes in these woods, encircled by narrow rings of orange and black.
Waterwheels. Photo by Steve Jett.
Millipede. Photo by Steve Negler.
Stone facing of rice terraces was common, although often largely obscured by accumulated earth and weeds. I saw one large non-rice field partially enclosed by an old stone fence, breeched here and there by breakdown or stone-borrowing. There were a few banana plants among the fields. Some run-down-looking, one-story, multi-celled dwellings were said to house temporary workers who have migrated in from poor rural areas to find work to supplement their incomes.
We returned to town, purchased some baked goods that served as lunch, and left our things in the room. As I was eating there, I hung out the “Do not disturb” sign. Very soon the maid came, ringing and knocking at the door. I indicated that I did not want the room made up, and she went away, taking the “Do not disturb” sign with her. Later in the day, I found that in my absence she had entered, emptied wastebaskets and taken used towels but had not made the bed – which had some of my things on it.
In the room was a bilingual tourist brochure. Some samples of its Chinglish: “remain” for “retain”; the festival of “Jisa (sacrificing foremother)”; “a county with beautiful sight and the smile climate”; “Zhaoxing Dong village is the ideal place for all tourists experiencing the Dong Ethnic amorous feelings. It has been called the No. 1 Dong Village because of its large population, fully amorous feelings and large scale.” Plus: “it situates on the halfway up the mountain”; Dong “main food includes common rice and sticky rice, and non-stable food includes meat, fish, vegetable, mushroom, fat, pet, frogs, wine and tea etc.”
Some additional Chinglishisms: the package of some Glee Foods raisins says, “Delicious food nonce can not refuse.” Cashews in a packet I purchased are characterized as “Loving.” In a washroom was a sign saying “Please cherish the public toilet health.”
Photo by Steve Negler.
The Dong are particularly associated with three things: village drum towers, which are pagoda-like public assembly places; roofed bridges, called wind-and-rain bridges, each with three short pagoda-like towers, one toward each end and a taller one in the middle; and singing, sometimes in imitation of sounds of nature. They play a kind of panpipes that has a lateral pipe at the proximal end through which the air is blown.
After our midday snack, the local guide and Tony led us a few blocks on foot to a street on the opposite side and at right angles to the main street. This pedestrian thoroughfare is Defeng Historical Town, the surviving heart of the Ming/Ching Liping.
Defeng Historical Town, Liping. Photo by Steve Jett.
The Historical Town has been preserved more or less intact for posterity. This is not only for its historic picturesqueness but also because in a shop and house in this street, Mao Tsedong and the Red Army held the first meeting of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee following the beginning of the Long March. It has been made into a small museum, featuring a large table, a bedroom, some artifacts of the period, and lots of faded photos.
Today, the street itself has, mainly, small shops and dwellings, some in gray brick, others in wood; between the latter are brick firewalls with decorative up-curving “roof” terminations. At a little silver-jewelry shop I purchased a Dong double-spiral decorative object, which a woman would wear at the small of her back, held in place by a narrow, decorative cloth belt; I bought the contemporary machine-woven version of a belt at a fabric shop across the street. Next to the latter, a long electrically-powered machine was embroidering an equally long swatch of cloth, which would end up being cut into multiple squares for making cushion tops.
We saw only one other White person in Liping, an old man with a day pack trudging along, and our group inspired much more overt curiosity among the local inhabitants than it had elsewhere. One Dong woman approached blonde, light-complected Pam in Defeng street, touched Pam’s bare lower arm, and then touched her own sleeve-covered arm, obviously making a comparison of their contrasting skin colors. Another woman did the same thing to Verena. We also received plenty of amused or bemused glances from many others, especially in this street, which seemed to be distinctly more Dong and less Han than the main drag.
There were numbers of small women wearing dark-blue jackets over black trousers, headcloths, blue-cloth caps like very low chef’s hats, or cylindrical knitted caps of light colors (some young women sitting in doorways were knitting caps). Women are sometimes seen arm-in-arm, as are men walking with arms around each other’s shoulders. In China, one sees the occasional “cool” teenaged boy with a slightly exaggerated hairdo and a bit of an in-your-face look. But people generally seem natural and friendly.
There is a school in Defeng street, and there were lots of elementary pupils on their way back to the school. There was a bunch of boys saying “Hello” and “How are you” to me, so I replied in kind and shook their hands (one was too shy). As we wandered along, it seemed as though a third of the kids said similar things to us, giggling after they had gone by, especially if we had replied. (Outside the gates were a number of vendors, who packed up their stalls after the kids had all gone.)
On the main street, a pair of late-teenage girls paused to take in us exotics, and one urged the other to have their picture taken with us. We let it be known that we would be happy to oblige, but the girl had neglected to bring her camera and Tony thought it too complicated to take photos with our cameras and to mail the girls prints.
On the broad steps of a spectacles shop at the corner of Defeng and the main thoroughfare, thousands of long, pointed red chili peppers had been laid out to dry.
We rested back in the room, and I worked on the diary. At about 5:30, I went out for a stroll. Across the main street was a store, City Beauty Wind, selling women’s clothing. On my side were sidewalk produce sellers (sweet-potatoes, purple eggplants, mandarin oranges, greens, etc.) and food stands featuring various aromatic but mostly unidentifiable dishes; one stand specialized in pork skins. One produce vendor offered not only fruits and vegetables but also cooked grasshoppers in a bushel-sized basket. She and I looked at each another over the basket and exchanged grins.
I saw a small stepped alley coming into the main street and decided to see where it led. It ascended to another alley at right angles, parallel to the main street. This was definitely more “old-China,” with tiny cook stands and minute, sparsely-supplied shops, as well as older dwellings. Through the latter’s open front doors, what appeared to be shrines were just opposite, barely visible in the unlighted interiors. There were some cute tots that expressed curiosity, and I offered to photograph them. One little girl seemed interested, although her brother remained turned away. The mother called out from down the street, apparently telling them not to be photographed. Tony once said that minority persons believe that if they are photographed, their souls can be captured; children are told that their souls can then be put into perpetual service supporting bridges (man-made ones, presumably).
At 7:00, we went across the street to dine in the same restaurant in which we had eaten the evening before. The food was good.
I went to bed about 9:30 but was restless; it was noisy outside, and there was dog-barking. Then, at 10:30 a mysterious phone call like the previous nights’ (in the morning, Tony said these calls are to ask if you want a massage, apparently of a specialized kind). Then, at 12:00, shouting men in the hallway.
We breakfasted in the hotel. The sky outside was gray, and there was substantial haze. We left in the bus at 8:30, heading back toward Guilin on the hellish road via which we had arrived in Liping two days previous.
I noticed some additional phenomena en route. We passed several long, gable-roofed structures whose sides and roofs were thatched with rice straw. Tony reckoned that these were for raising mushrooms. Today and previously I have seen on field edges the occasional plant that I believe is ginger. There are impoundments that I take to be irrigation water sources, as well as for fish production and for ducks and geese. For water distribution, there are some concrete “acequia madres,” and between some fields are earth or earth-and-stone double berms with a water channel between. Little ditches often run alongside the berms and sometimes extend to divide the field into oblongs. Straw stacks reached heights of some 5m [16 ft] and, where they were numerous, produced interesting landscapes.
We saw horse-drawn plowing in progress in a couple of places. In villages, one sees baby-crib-like chicken cages as well as delicate open-work, capsule-shaped chicken baskets. There are also free-ranging chickens and handsome geese. Rice-harvesting was still going on, as attested by women carrying tied-up bundles of cut plants, seed heads down, on each end of their shoulder poles. I saw one pole that had five notches atop each end and two two-handled baskets suspended with both handles over the pole but inward of the notches.
We didn’t get as shaken on the return journey as we had been coming, but there was heavier traffic. On one stretch of “road” there were several massive steel gravel trucks, between two of which a little wooden horse cart moved briskly along. Like hand carts, horse carts employ small bicycle wheels.
By 11:30, the cloud was gone and the sun shining, but there was still heavy haze.
Some older women wore black pajama-like outfits, as did a few men. Women wore their hair coiled atop the head and covered with a headcloth, perhaps a hand-towel, or, among younger women, held in place with a standard plastic comb. Other women wore a bun back from the crown, or a pony-tail.
Despite the prominence of chilies in the region’s cuisine, I saw only one, modest field of peppers today; perhaps most had been harvested.
At my request, we stopped at a traditional village to photograph the buildings. In this settlement, like one other we saw, the roof-ridge tiles were painted white. Much small-diameter firewood was stacked beneath buildings. [A detailed description of traditional houses appears in Appendix 2 at the end of this diary.]
Dong village houses. Photo by Steve Jett.
We finally reached the pot-holed pavement and the valley of the rocky river. In two villages, one whole lane of the narrow two-lane highway was occupied by somebody’s drying rice, laid out on a plastic tarpaulin.
On the river banks were smallish plank boats in low-slung streamlined Chinese style, plus a smattering of larger sampans with mat-covered arched “cabins” and with bulkheads. In one village, on the river side of the road, was a market housed by a series of little open-fronted, wooden-walled, corrugated-roofed structures supported on the down-slope side by piles. At one place, too, I saw a flimsy-looking two-pole-wide, vertical-pole-supported foot bridge spanning a small ravine.
At lower elevations in these mountains, much rice remained unharvested. We passed a brick kiln in operation. It was a slightly-tapered circular structure of bricks whose shape recalled Sardinian nuraghi and from whose open top poured smoke.
Near a village called Yong Wei Tun, I think, trucks had brought logs down to the river, and rafts of logs were being put together for transport down stream. On the river, too, a woman was standing in a wooden boat and propelling it by rowing with oars in raised oarlocks. Some other boats had sweeps.
Settlements often possessed substantial schools. School children seemed healthy and happy and full of high spirits. Women carried babies on their backs.
We passed hill-slope tombs with what appeared to be white concrete facades. From these facades, walls of river cobbles curved out and back to the slopes.
We passed a small truck whose load of logs was of double height, vertical poles more than doubling the height of the truck’s sides. We also saw a log truck transporting long, large-diameter bamboos. At one place, a woman swept off the highway verges with a broom. Where there is a hazard on the road, one or two black-and-orange plastic cones may be set up, but marking is done mostly with stones and branches.
We came to the second river, which also had sampans. We passed through Sanjiang City and the zone of villages vending strange boulders. Longsa County followed. Along the road, I spied a fence constructed of vertical wattling, and this technique was also used with some outbuildings. Most fences, however, are crude things of periodic vertical posts and lashed-on horizontal “rails” of bamboo, whole or split, perhaps with a few vertical splints bound on. Ramps for loading trucks or for use at construction sites are made with several long poles laid side-to-side, connected by spaced pole-segment tread cross-pieces.
As we descended the mountains about 4:00 P.M., the sun had dropped low enough in the west that, with the haze, the far ridges formed a series of overlapping silhouettes of varying degrees of brightness.
As we approached greater Guilin, we came back into tower karst country, now hazy.
We checked into the Bravo and dined there. In cities, there are white-striped pedestrian-priority crosswalks, but drivers pay them absolutely no attention. Crossing a busy street requires dodging like a bullfighter.
Friday, October 22: Nanxu Arch
After breakfast and e-mail checking in the hotel business center, we assembled and boarded our little bus. On the way through central Guilin, crossing the Lijiang, we obtained a view of a hill in the mid-distance called Chuanshan (“Through Hill”) – in English, Tunnel Hill – where there is a substantial (span, 13.7m [45 ft]), more-or-less circular opening through a spur of a hill overlooking the river. A pagoda stands atop the hill.
There were people carrying flaring burden cradles from their shoulder poles, made of stiff splints of bamboo. Some people instead carried lidded, squarish, plaited-bamboo baskets. On sidewalks sat oblong, handle-less, peck-sized baskets.
We passed by some strawberry fields and through a market town. It was market day – an every-third-day occurrence – when rural people bring produce to sell and then buy things they want. There were many three-wheeled bicycle carts as well as motorized minivehicles and motorbikes. There is usually a lot of trash strewn around in villages.
China seems to be one big construction site, and today’s highway was no exception. We were held up for quite a while in one village where the road was being worked on.
The name of Guilin comes from two words. Gui is a kind of tree with ornamental and fragrant blossoms, and lin is “forest.” These trees are now being grown commercially – we passed a plantation – for export to other areas of China. The gui is Sweet Osmanthus. There were also various kinds of vegetables, as well as grapevines.
Some fencing we went by was of a type that we had not seen before. Bamboo splints were set 8 to 10 inches apart at a circa-20-degree angle off vertical, in two sets leaning in opposite directions; the whole was made rigid by a couple of horizontal splints crossing the uprights at the junctions and being bound to them. Later in the day we saw a similar system used for supporting snow peas.
We entered hazy cone-karst country, passing a few pisé-de-terre buildings. Then, we drove off to the left on rough dirt roads and through occasional farming villages. Most of the buildings in the latter were constructed of yellow mud brick and had modest-angle tiled gabled roofs. Windows had vertical dowels as bars, and doors were wooden-paneled, accordion-style ones or, sometimes, double ones. Some villages had mortared stone-masonry houses. Modern-Chinese-style dwellings were also being erected. A new high-speed train to Guangzhou is under construction – we saw tunnels – and some families have received money for rice fields condemned for the project. Tony says that all these new houses we’ve seen have been put up by their occupants, not by the government.
The government does provide subsidies for households to build biogas generators. Rice straw can be used to generate gas that can be utilized for cooking and heating, thus reducing the pressure on forests from fuelwood cutting.
We were now in a district called Nanxu (“Southern Market”) – although our itinerary spoke of “Anshun Arch” (the arch near Anshun is actually in Guizhou Province, whereas the arch near Nanxu is in Guangxi Province). We kept asking directions to the arch, finally coming to the village nearest it. In this one-street hamlet (Pingshan) people were bringing in, on hand carts and motor scooters, plastic bags stuffed with snow peas, peppers, and so forth, and were negotiating with a buyer who had arrived in a van.
We walked down the dirt lane to the fields, which lay in the bottom of a beautiful cone-karst-bounded valley. The different colors of the different crops produced an attractive patchwork, and there were a few rows of poplar-looking trees to enhance the scene. Crops included the inevitable rice, plus maize, soybeans, taro, citrus, and conical red peppers. Whereas the soybeans grow on the ground, delicate snow pea vines climbed a light latticework fence like the kind described above. Green beans made use of sets of three or four slim poles set up as tripods or tetrapods, often connected at their tops by thin poles, wires, or plastic ribbon. Eggplants were also held up by small poles.
It was a pleasure walking through the fields on the berms. We made our way to a broad, dry river, whose bed consisted of cobbles of various kinds, including some bright-brick-red volcanic rock. Some of the stones produced strikingly-colored streaks when scraped against another rock: brick, terracotta, and ochre. There were heaps of cobbles, indicating quarrying, and a young man had dug a pit down to fine material and was hand-screening it.
A short distance more brought us to the arch. A hugely high, sheer, and smooth white-and-ochre cliff reminiscent of Zion’s Great White Throne rose above a small stream, and at its right-hand end was a great, vertically-oval hole fairly high above a greenery-covered talus slope from which birdsong emanated and into which a local couple plunged in search of firewood. (There was already a heap of long, slim firewood lengths on our side of the stream.)
Nanxu Arch. Photo by Steve Jett.
Gunter and Steve decided to attempt to climb the treacherous slope to the opening. Meantime, I was intrigued by the fact that the stream flowed directly toward the great cliff. I crossed to its other side and followed the flow down to some large boulders and clambered over those until I could see that, as I had suspected, this was a sinking river. There was a largish vertical aperture, and the water moved into it and under the cliff base to its left. Upstream just a bit, a small waterfall plunged between a pair of chunky, water-sculpted boulders.
Gunter and Steve descended after a successful ascent. Gunter measured the height of Nanxu Arch at 75m [246 ft] and from that we calculate the span at 50m [164 ft].
Standing inside of Nanxu Arch looking overhead at the span of the arch. Photo by Steve Negler.
Steve then went over to take a look at the disappearing brook and actually entered the aperture.
We wandered back up the gravel river to the dirt track, past cultivated fields and little adobe-brick field shelters, which seemed to serve primarily as privies. A group of farmers lead some rust-colored cattle down into the fields. One or two cows wore interlaced-bamboo-splint muzzles. Some local cattle appear to be crosses between zebus and common cattle. There are also some goats.
We saw both light-tan rice and yellow-orange corn drying in the village. Rice was still being harvested; it is cut with a hand-wielded billhook-shaped instrument and bound into bunches with a twisted bundle of straw. Other crops in the general vicinity included persimmon, chestnut, and gingko (used in products such as shampoo, according to Tony). At one place, we saw rows of pepper plants growing between rows of fruit trees. I also noticed a few cucurbits climbing poles. The corn was tall-growing, but I saw small numbers of a different, shorter maize-like plant with drooping tassels or seedheads. I couldn’t decide, as we whipped by it, whether it might be popcorn, sorghum, job’s tears, or something else.
The common country dog is small, tan, and short-haired, with a tail that curves into a near curl.
We saw different-style tombs in different places. One was circular, with a white, probably concrete front and the rest of river rock. There were earth-mounded tombs on the flat, and some above-ground sarcophaguses.
There were a few field-boundary walls (perhaps functioning largely as a destination for stones taken off the fields). On the road home, I noticed an open-work plaited basket similar in shape to American bushel baskets.
En route back to Guilin, we stopped to refuel at a uSmile service station. Up until this occasion, we had done so at Sinopec stations.
Upon arriving at the hotel, I took a rest. About 5:30 I went on a walk around Rong Lake, with its handsome shoreline landscaping and carved-stone benches and its variety of interesting bridges and pavilions. It was quite beautiful in the waning light.
I dined (duck) at 6:15, and at 7:30 Tony took Alex, Steve, and me in a taxi to a theater show. I had thought that it was the performance of traditional music, dance, and acrobatics of which Professor Ming had spoken, but it turned out to be anything but.
The theater, which was large, was located some distance from the Bravo. The show, “Dream Like Lijiang,” proved to be a quite modern one, featuring ballet and acrobatics plus some laser effects. To me, the dancing was of indifferent quality, and it was all to overly-loud recorded music (both Alex and I put wads of Kleenex in our ears). Some of the contortions, acrobatics, and juggling were astounding, especially when it involved young children, but I couldn’t help but think that the practice and training that all this required was a rather useless way to devote one’s time, especially for kids.
Back to the hotel by 9:30. There was a full moon.
The morning was free, and after breakfast I arranged at the last minute for the so-called Two Rivers and Four Lakes tour. I walked along the shores of Rong and Shang lakes. Individuals were doing their morning exercises in the park. In the city square, dozens of women were dancing to a boom box, waving fuchsia fans in time to the music. At one point on the lakeshore that had a good view of the Sun and Moon Pagodas, there was a booth where you could have your picture taken with that background and have it printed instantaneously on a calendar. As the latter came out of the machine, the proprietor dried the ink with a hair dryer.
The tour boat left the dock at 10:45. It did a tour of the lakes (but no rivers), which was pleasant enough and which afforded views of various interesting bridges, buildings, and monuments. The most curious was a row of several stone “totem poles,” two in Northwest Coast Native American style, the others in Asian styles.
I stopped by the jade-seller’s booth and bought a couple more items. In China, one encounters outdoor public exercise equipment. I stopped to try out some in the park on the way back to the hotel. While pausing on a bridge, I caught the eye of an infant in the arms of her mother and got the child to smile tentatively. The mother explained to the youngster who or what I was, touching her nose. Knowing that the Chinese refer to Westerners as “big noses,” I touched my nose and smiled.
I had an American lunch at the hotel, napped, packed, did e-mail, and then joined the others for a bus ride to the airport. We said our goodbyes to Tony and boarded the China Southern Airlines flight to Hong Kong.
As we flew to Hong Kong I was in an aisle seat, with a couple in early old age to my left. When the plane reached the gate at Hong Kong, many passengers leaped to their feet and into the aisle, lifting down their big carry-on bags and further clogging the aisle with them. It would have been physically impossible to enter the aisle under these conditions, so I remained seated. But the woman in the seat to my left was apparently obsessive-compulsive and asked me pointedly whether I weren’t going to get up and let her out. I said that I would have to wait until the aisle had cleared from the front back to where we were sitting before I could leave my seat. She then said, accusingly, “So you just intend to do what you want to do?” I replied, “Oh, you’d like me to do what you want me to do, instead?” She huffily said, “There’s some definite rudeness going on here!” I calmly replied, “Well, I can’t disagree with that.” When the aisle had cleared sufficiently, I arose and left the plane. Of course, since we all had to wait for our luggage prior to going through customs, there was no advantage to getting off the plane with alacrity, anyway.
We were met at the airport by the young courier “Allen,” and bussed to our hotel, the Regal Kowloon again. Steve and I had a late dinner in the café (a salmon Caesar salad for me).
After breakfast, I bought a ticket at the tour desk and then got on a bus, which took several people to the catamaran pier, which afforded a good view of Hong Kong. We boarded the New World First Ferry and took a one-and-a-quarter-hour trip to Macau. Hong Kong-Macau travel requires a passport. I sat next to a pleasant and intelligent circa-40-year-old man from New York who had spent his first 13 years in Cali, Columbia. He is an international banker and formerly worked for the Securities and Exchange Commission. He had been working on the fifth floor of the World Trade Center on 9-11 when the planes hit the towers, but he managed to get out. Still, he said, it was a life-changing experience.
We were met at the Macau end by a talkative courier and then loaded onto a bus. As we exited the building, I noticed a clearly gay cab driver using his rear-view mirror to pluck his eyebrows. Two of our group were young women from Kazakhstan. We were driven along the shore to a giant statue of Kun Lum (Guanyin), goddess of mercy, who here is identified with the Virgin Mary. Inside the sculpture’s base is an ecumenical chapel.
Then, past the Macau Tower to the shore of the Lago San Van for views across to the dark-pink house that used to be the Portuguese governor’s mansion, the old Ermid da Penha Church atop a hill, and the former barracks then hotel that is the present Portuguese embassy and which is light yellow in color.
Having driven up a hill and past the residential compound of Stanley Ho, the casino king, we arrived at a small, tree-shaded square in front of the Ming/Ching-period A-Ma Buddhist Temple. Although a popular tourist stop, the temple is also an active religious site. People bowed and made the prayer sign in front of the altars of the three small Chinese-style temples and their appurtenant joss-stick burning jars and ovens. Hung from the ceiling, too, were beehive-shaped spirals of incense, slowly burning from the bottom. The whole place sent up redolent smoke. It was very interesting altogether. I left a one-yuan note at a small frog shrine.
There was a painted bas-relief on a large rock outcropping in the temple precinct, of a Portuguese caravel. Chinese people were rubbing money over the outline, so I did the same with a $100 bill. I will not count on instant riches, however.
In the little plaça in front of the temple, a troop of Macau dancers of mixed ancestry, wearing traditional Portuguese garb, performed Iberian folk dances.
The tour returned to the Macau Tower, which is a sphere atop a shaft that flares slightly at the base. A spire rises from the sphere, and the total height is 338m [1,109 ft].
The top of 1100-foot high Macau Tower. Photo by Steve Jett.
Visitors may take the elevator up and get out at the 58th and 61st floors. At the former, there are not only 360 degrees of windows but also glass sections of flooring that afford vertiginous views of the streets below. On the 61st are more plate-glass windows providing a birds-eye view of sea, water, islands, highways, and the dense thicket of modern high-rises that is contemporary Macau. The oddest building is the Grand Lisboa, which has a bulbous base and a greenish upper part that fans out like a giant plant.
View from Macau Tower toward the Grand Lisboa. Photo by Steve Jett.
We went to lunch at a Holiday Inn buffet and then drove to “the Historic Centre of Macau,” a World Heritage Site. We began at the Ruinas de São Paulo, the surviving baroque granite face of the old Mater Dei Jesuit church of 1602-1640, the rest of which had been destroyed in an 1835 fire. It is a handsome and rather massive façade, embellished with bas-reliefs (including of a caravel) and bronze statues. A bit of the old city wall stands nearby.
Facade of the Mater Dei Jesuit, Macau. Photo by Steve Jett.
This historic district was very crowded. We went down the steps below the ruin and into a narrow street. I ducked into an antiques shop for a few minutes. We came to the Igregia de Santos Domingos, a delicate, yellow-painted Dominican Church dating to 1587. We took a look at the attractive interior, as well.
We entered the Largo do Senado, the old Portuguese city square, lined with pastel and white neo-Classical buildings. On the left was the Santa Casa da Misericordia, the old hospital and social-welfare facility. The current pavement of the square is a mosaic of alternating wave-like designs.
At the bottom end of the plaça is the Edificio do Leal Senado (1784), seat of Macau’s legislature. We mounted steps from its entry hall into its interior courtyard, blue-and-white tile lining the lower walls.
Out last tourist activity was visiting the casino district. We looked into the oldest extant, the 1960s Lisboa. Our guide, on the bus, had informed us that Macau, with its dozens of casinos, generates far more gambling revenue than does Las Vegas.
Across the street is the Grand Lisboa, whose lobby I took a look at. The owner, Stanley Ho, has assembled there some remarkable items of art: very elaborate ivory carvings, an intricate, gilded dragon-boat model, huge cloisonné jars, and an enormous square-cut emerald and a comparable diamond. The lobby area as a whole is enormous and glitzy.
The Grand Lisboa, Macau. Photo by Steve Jett.
Gilded dragon-boat model inside the glitzy Grand Lisboa, Macau. Photo by Steve Jett.
We returned to the ferry building and boarded. During the voyage back to Kowloon, I bought a bottle of water and some SiSiSic Biscuits (crackers). Also available were Calbee Ethnican Potato Chips.
My left eye had been bothering me for several days, and I had been treating it with Cipro antibiotic. The woman at the hotel tour desk, Iris, noticed. She led me around the corner to a pharmacy, where I purchased eyedrops, and then showed me where I could get a good duck-and-barbecued-pork dinner. On the way, she said “Jesus loves you.”
I went to bed early.
The following morning I got on a tour to Lantau Island, the one where the present airport is located. Lantau is connected to Kowloon by the Tsing Ma Bridge, which crosses Tsing Yi Island in mid-strait. We stopped on this island to observe the main bridge – the world’s longest road/rail suspension bridge – from a developed viewpoint. From there, as well, one can see most of the span of the visually more striking Ting Kau Bridge, a large-but-delicate, silvery-cable-stayed bridge connecting Tsing Yi to the New Territories. On the balustrade of the stairway to the viewpoint was an enormous spider, its body about the size of half a cigarette and its lacquer-black legs spanning an area about the size of my palm.
Ting Kau Bridge. Photo by Steve Jett.
Tsing Ma Bridge. Photo by Steve Negler.
Near the airport on Lantau Island, we took a road up into attractive green mountains, over a pass, and down to sandy Chelun Sha Beach and sat there awhile in the pleasant sun.
The road leads past a beautifully-situated maximum-security prison and across the dam of a sizable reservoir and then back up into mountains and down again to Tai O, a coastal fishing village that has maintained much traditional atmosphere.
A tidal stream bisects Tai O, and along it are simple houses on thin piles, some a century old. There are boats of various modern kinds. We crossed on a steel pedestrian bridge and then walked up a series of narrow alleys lined with small shops, mostly selling seafood. There were water-filled plastic tubs with bubbling aeration tubes, containing live fishes, crabs, and shellfish, and a variety of dried fishes, including sharks, hung in the stalls. Other fishes, hanging from a rod or lying in baskets, dried outside. There were heaps of desiccated fish bladders, used in soups, etc. A bakery offered us delicious little almond cookies, still oven-warm, to sample. One lady sold herbal remedies, and several sold conical coolie hats and rattan-laced, bell-shaped fisherman’s hats. Kim, our guide, said that this was a dying culture, because no young people of Lantau cared to go into the fishing trade.
There was also an incense-redolent, 400-year-old Daoist temple that we were permitted to enter; I left a small donation.
We reboarded the bus and rode back up into the mountains to the wealthy Po Lin (“Precious Lotus”) Monastery, a Buddhist institution founded in 1904 in this then-remote locale. Now, it serves not only monastic purposes but is a significant visitor attractant, for both religious and ordinary tourists.
We parked below the complex’s primary draw, a giant statue of the Buddha on a lotus base, atop a hill. The awe-inspiring bronze sculpture was erected in 1993, of over two hundred components, averaging about a ton each. Inside the lotus base is a museum featuring modern Buddhist paintings, by a Sri Lankan artist but in old Chinese style. Around the base are two balustraded stone platforms that permit circumambulation. On the lower one of these stand excellent large bronze statues of goddesses carrying offerings.
One of the goddesses below the large Buddha, Lantau Island. Photo by Steve Negler.
The bus then took us down to the monastery proper, where we had a good vegetarian lunch in a dining hall. Next to it was the very elaborate and finely-done main monastery hall, built in 1960. In its large upper chamber, two or three monks led a crowd of seated worshipers in chanting. The lower chamber had finely-carved stone columns on the exterior and a complex gilded alter on the inside. I put my few remaining yuan into a donation box.
After lunch, we were free to walk around. I wandered down a wide walkway punctuated by striking stone statues of famous ancient generals. Then, owing to a miscommunication, I walked up the 200+ steps to the Buddha to return to the bus, but it wasn’t there. So, I came back down and cast about until I found the group in a nearby shopping “village.” We proceeded to a station adjacent and boarded the amazing Ngong Ping Cable Car, which swooped us over wooded mountains and a little gorge with small waterfalls 5.7 kilometers back down to sea level and to our bus back to Kowloon.
Part of the Lantau cable car ride. Photo by Verena Jung.
I left the bus at the Peninsula Hotel, the old and elaborate British-colonial dowager, and walked around the lobby and shops.
The venerable Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Photo by Ray Millar.
Then, I crossed Salisbury Road to the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which is modern and spacious. On the lobby floor was an exhibit on Chinese gold through the ages – more common than I had realized – and another on adornment in dynastic China: jewelry, hats, purses, and the like. There was a serene larger-than-life-sized polychrome wooden statue of Gwanyin on the second floor. On the third floor were a number of bronzes and abundant ceramics of all periods, but no jades. The second floor’s temporary exhibition gallery was showing artifacts of all kinds and periods from private collections. There was a small display of jades – those most like mine were of the Warring States period. There were also some Archaic bronzes, including a large, well-preserved Spring and Autumn-period vase.
At 5:30, I headed back to the Regal on foot, and when I arrived I had a dinner of Chinese-style goose – quite good. At the tour desk, Iris revealed that she is a Christian, warned me against the ladies of the night, and urged me to visit a Dutchman-financed Noah’s Ark theme park on my next Hong Kong trip.
I bathed, wrote, packed, and went to bed early.
Tuesday, October 26: Depart Hong Kong.
I arose around 4:15, finished packing, and got down to the empty lobby about 5:00. About 5:30, Ray and Pam appeared, as did our courier, and we were driven to the airport. My Delta flight left the gate a bit after 8:00 AM. The route took us over Taipei and Iwo Jima to Tokyo’s Narita Airport. There, I bought a Big Mac and an OJ before boarding the plane for Detroit, which left at 3:00 PM Japan time (an hour later than China time). The planned route was over southern Kamchatka, Bering Strait, and the Dakotas.
From Detroit, another flight took me to Atlanta, where I changed planes for Tri Cities, at which Lisa met me, then driving me home.
The trip itinerary called for a couple of days in Hong Kong where each participant was free to roam on their own. Having been to Hong Kong before, Stephen Jett visited Macau and Lantau Island (described above) and Steve Negler visited Lantau Island and took a harbor cruise. Ray Millar last visited Hong Kong in 1987 and appreciated the many changes in the previous 23 years — the new Chek Lap Kok airport on Lantau Island and the drive over the bridges into Kowloon were spectacular, as were the Avenue of Stars alongside the Kowloon waterfront and a somewhat changed view from The Peak (the skyline had changed and the vantage point was higher with the opening of the Peak Tower Sky Terrace). Ray and Pam, being her first visit to Hong Kong, spent most of their time at The Peak and along the waterfront.
Part of the view from Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. Photo by Ray Millar.
Hong Kong Peak Tower Sky Terrace. Photo by Ray Millar.
Part of the Hong Kong waterfront. Photo by Ray Millar.
Hong Kong skyline. Photo by Ray Millar.
It was Gunter and Verena’s first visit to Hong Kong and Verena provided the following account:
We arrived at Hong Kong Airport at around 5 pm. A guide from China Odyssey Tours picked us up and he and the private driver brought us to Regal Kowloon Hotel, our Hong Kong address for the next 3 days. After check in we decided to look around the area close to the hotel and then have an early dinner in one of the hotel restaurants. The small fashion stores in the Kowloon area were about the hippest I have ever seen during the last two decades. If I were 20 years younger, nobody could have dragged me back to the hotel before the last store would have closed — not to mention the money I would have spent there. The young Hong Kong women are the most in-vogue girls I have ever seen. The dinner turned out to be by far the most expansive and tasty of the whole trip. We went to bed very early and did not wake up before 10am the next morning.
As we came down to the ground floor to have breakfast, it was close to 11am and they had already switched the breakfast buffet to a lunch buffet. After some discussions with the restaurant manager, we were able to change our breakfast coupons (10 Euro each) into dinner coupons for the same night. Searching for a place to have a late breakfast, we found a small café just around the corner from the Regal Kowloon Hotel. It turned out that they roasted their own coffee, and after a big mug of it our jet lag was gone and we were ready for the big adventure that is Hong Kong.
Back in the hotel we found a small travel agency on the ground level, which was less expensive than the one in the lobby. There we signed up for the Peak Tour in the early afternoon and they picked us up at 1 pm at the hotel. We had a small sight seeing tour through the Kowloon area because we had to pick up other tour attendees from different hotels. Besides Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak, the tour included Stanley Market, the boat people harbor, and a jewelry factory.
Hong Kong boat people harbor. Photo by Verena Jung.
The tour was well organized and we had a very nice guide. Unfortunately the view from The Peak was blocked by fog (so we went back to The Peak again at the end of the trip). Back in the hotel, we booked a full-day Lantau Island tour for the next day. Later in the evening, we had a great dinner buffet at the ground floor restaurant of the Regal Kowloon Hotel (partly paid with our breakfast coupons), followed by a glass of red wine in the hotel bar. Afterward we walked the Avenue of the Stars, a walkway along Victoria Harbour which includes hand prints of Hong Kong movie stars, similar to its Hollywood counterpart but with much more spectacular views.
View across Victoria Harbour at night. Photo by Ray Millar.
Upon returning to Hong Kong at the end of the trip, we decided to spend a day at Hong Kong Disneyland. Although we where expecting that Disneyland would be overcrowded on a Sunday, we booked the tour anyway. At 10 am they picked us up at the hotel. The return trip was at 10 pm, after the Halloween fireworks. My only concern was how to spend all these hours at Disneyland, but it turned out that all the hours were just running away. We had a great time, a great parade at Disneyland, great Chinese food, and a great Halloween Spectacle at the end. What more could we expect?
The Hong Kong version of Disneyland. Photo by Verena Jung.
On our last day in Hong Kong we arranged a late check out with the hotel, which cost us half the price of a full night. After breakfast, we met Pam and Ray in the lobby and we decided to walk again the Avenue of the Stars. We took the ferry from Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and then a taxi to bring us up to The Peak. The weather was much better than on our first day and we got great views. We took the Peak Tram and then a double decker sightseeing bus to get back to the harbor.
Part of the view from Victoria Peak. Photo by Verena Jung.
Hong Kong Peak Tram. Photo by Verena Jung.
Hong Kong double deck tour bus. Photo by Verena Jung.
We had enough time to take a shower and get something to eat before getting ready for the transfer to the airport. There we checked in for our flight to Zurich and our connecting flight home to Germany. Thirteen long hours of flight were in front of us. When we left Hong Kong it was 29° Celcius (84°F) and when we landed in Zurich it was 0° Celcius (32°F).
All in all a wonderful trip. We plan to return to Zhangjiajie to see the sights that were denied us by the cloudy and rainy weather on that part of this trip.
The traditional house of the Dong minority people of Guizhou Province in the Liping region appears to be basically of Southeast Asian type but with Han Chinese influences. It is based on a mortice-and-tenon framework of debarked and smoothed logs (probably, China-fir). The horizontal members are tenoned into the vertical members.
Dong house, Liping. Photo by Steve Jett.
Upper stories of Dong village houses, with fir-bark shingles in foreground. Photo by Steve Jett.
Observation of many such houses suggests that the basic dwelling has three levels (although four-level ones exist). The lowest level is the ground beneath the second level, which is supported on piles. This lowest level was (and still is, in many cases) open-sided, and the space served for storage of firewood, probably farming equipment, and so forth.
The second level, though framed on the upper parts of the main vertical posts, is cantilevered out over the first level on at least one of the long sides of the oblong structure, forming a balcony, along either the entire length of the building or only the central part. The balcony is backed by a series of wood-framed window openings. There are sometimes windows in the openings, commonly pairs of three-pane casements situated in groups of three, with fixed transom panes above the casements. These sets of three windows vary from closely to fairly widely spaced. There are also window openings in the non-balcony long side of the house. Some more recent buildings display geometric wooden grillwork window coverings, presumably – like windows themselves – a Han influence. The reduced ends of the horizontal second-level floor joists pass through mortices in the usually five vertical posts that are evenly spaced at intervals from corner to corner, and then again through the pendant, often decoratively-carved ends of the verticals that frame the balcony at the same intervals. A tabular peg passes through the horizontal member outside of the vertical member, to prevent the former from slipping. The second-level floor (nature unascertained) is supported by spaced horizontal-log beams. Where there are no windows, the second level is walled with vertical boards, the thinned ends of which are inserted into grooves cut into a lintel board and a sill board that are, in turn, tenoned into verticals. The balcony is fronted with half-height panels of vertical boards or of closely-spaced dowels. The gable ends of the houses typically have four panels of boards between the corner, central, and two intermediate vertical supporting members.
The third level is that under the two-pitched roof, which has a circa-30°-35° slope; it seems to have a floor that is supported by multiple parallel poles that lie adjacent to one another to form a ceiling over level two. These poles lie atop a limited number of log joists that run parallel to the roof’s ridge. The gables are usually open, revealing the distinctive mortice-and-tenoned post-and-lintel roof-supporting framework. This consists, normally, of three basic vertical posts in addition to the house’s corner posts, which support the outer parts of the roof. There is a central vertical post, which rises from a ground all the way to the roof ridge, plus two that rise about halfway between the central vertical and the building’s corner posts. The tops of these three verticals support three of the horizontal-pole purlins that hold up the rafters and that run parallel to the roof ridge. Since more than three purlins are required, one or more horizontals are inserted into mortices in the verticals and in turn support additional, shorter, mortice-and-tenoned verticals (queen posts), which support additional roof purlins, toward (but not at) the latters’ ends. Supplemental horizontals may be tenoned between queen posts to provide additional stability. This system and its variants produce interesting patterns in the houses’ gables. If it is desired to partially or wholly close off these open gables, woven matting, flattened vertical lengths of fir bark, poles, or vertical or horiontal boards are affixed, using horizontal poles to keep them in place.
Many houses have added shed roofs on one or both of the gable ends, leaving large gablets. These roofs serve to extend the living space of level two or to cover gable-end balconies. These gable-end roofs may or may not be integrated with the main roof. Roof ridges typically have extra tiles piled up at their ends, to give the ridge a slight upkick there. Some main roof ridges have a tile-made decorative star-like or other device at their centers. In a couple of hamlets, we saw white-painted roof ridges and scalloped verge boards. Rows of roof tiles are supported on single or double pole rafters that run, at intervals, from ridge to verge; concavely oriented tiles lie between the poles, while convexly exposed tiles span the edges of two adjacent rows of concave tiles. Under the roof, horizontal poles are laid between the end-framework horizontals and are used to hang drying crop plants.
Although tile dominates today, it is presumably a reflection of Han influence. A few structures, especially outbuildings, display roofs covered with presumably more ancient materials. A few smaller structures are roofed with rice straw, and thatch seems likely to represent the oldest Dong roof-covering. A greater number are covered with shingles of flattened oblongs of China-fir bark, held in place by horizontal poles, perhaps reinforced with another pole at right angles, lying along the roof slope. Chunks of rock and of concrete are also used. There are no chimneys.
Although these are basically dwellings on piles, there is an observable trend toward enclosure of level one, to create a more usable space. The simplest effort in this direction is simply to lean or affix a line of adjacent upright poles along the perimeter. In other cases, rough stone has been stacked up, and more substantial infilling with stone masonry between, in front of, or behind the vertical posts is seen. Adobe brick is used in other instances, as is fired brick, sometimes with stones at the corners. Occasionally, cinderblocks are used.
After writing the above, which is based on field observations and study of my photographs, I consulted other written materials on the topic, which although not very detailed do offer additional information. These kinds of stilt or pile dwellings are known in Chinese as ganlan. Joinery of the type exhibited in Dong dwellings goes back to Neolithic times. The piles are not set into the ground but rest on stone bases. The original roofing material was thatch [Knapp 2000:88-90]. The carpentry framework is made up of pillars and transverse tie-beams. Houses are flexible in plan but typically are three-bay (reflecting the four principal verticals of each of the gable ends) and five-post (the number of main posts on each of the long sides). Barns, commonly one-bay and three-post, may reflect the prototype Dong dwelling. An interior stairway leads from the house’s first level up to level two [Ruan 2003:358-59]. China-fir is the raw material. Level one is used to house poultry and other domestic animals. Level two is the living area [China Guilin Tour 2006]. Level three is for grain [China Tour Guide 2001].
- Anonymous. 1987. Guilin Tourist Album. Hong Kong: Tai Dao Publishing.
- Brandt-Erichsen, David. 2009. Is Fairy Bridge the Longest Span on Earth? Span: Newsletter of the Natural Arch and Bridge Society 21(3):1-3.
- China Guilin Tour. 2006. Exotic Dong Dwellings. http://chinaguilintour.com/ShowNews.aspx?NewsID=363.
- China Tour Guide. 2001. The Housing Environment of the Dong People. http://www.chinatourguide.com/guizhou/Housing_Environment_of_the_Dong_People.html.
- Knapp, Ronald G. 2000. China’s Old Dwellings. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
- Sun Jianhua. 2005. Zhangjiajie: Majestic Mountains of Hunan, China. Singapore: Times Editions – Marshall Cavendish [Amazon link].
- Xing Ruan. 2003. Pile-Built Dwellings in Ethnic Southern China. In Asia’s Old Dwellings, ed. Gregory G. Knapp, pp. 347-71. New York: Oxford University Press.
Here are some Mandarin Chinese words commonly encountered in connection with karst and other landscapes and found in many placenames. Note that each syllable in Chinese is a separate lexeme and may be written separately in placenames but also may, instead, be combined into a single word: e.g., San Men Hai or Sanmenhai (“Three Sea Gates”). Pinyin Romanization of Mandarin has some spelling conventions that differ from English ones. Some sound equivalents: -ian/ = -yen, e= ö (pronounced like the -er in British-pronounced “her”), i = ee, yu = ü (as in German), -ui = wey, c = ts, q = ~ch, r = zh, x = ~ sh, zh = j (as in “jam”). No tones are indicated here (changes in tone result in changes in meaning).
dong, (through-) cave
feng, peak, pinnacle
fengcong, peak cluster
fenglin, peak forest
gui, a tree species, whose blossoms are fragrant
hai, sea, ocean
shan, range, mountain, hill, pinnacle
tiansheng, heaven-born (i.e., natural)
tianking, a large collapse doline (sinkhole or uvala)
xian, county (an urban area of a certain population), immortal
Stephen C. Jett, a charter member of NABS, is professor emeritus of Geography and of Textiles and Clothing, University of California, Davis, and now resides in Abingdon, Virginia. He edits a scholarly journal and has published extensively on the American Southwest, especially on the Navajo. Jett is an authority on Rainbow Natural Bridge. He was the first to record a number of natural openings, including Jett Arch, off Lake Powell, which he named for his father.