We were able to sleep late this morning, "late" being a relative term -- we were still up & having breakfast at an hour I'm normally still fast asleep! For our last full day in-province, we were scheduled to visit one of the most famous caves in the area and pay a visit to a pearl factory. (Not a "factory" per se; these were real pearls, not manmade, but the business specializes in turning loose pearls into all kinds of jewelry.)
The Pipsqueak amused herself with one of the toys AJ had brought from home while we got ready, and then it was back on the bus and over the river once more. After rolling through Guilin and out into its suburbs, we began traveling on progressively smaller, less well-paved roads through the karst hills, paralleling the Pearl River first on one side, then the other. Unlike the stretch of river near our hotel, there weren't any tour boats (or construction cranes) in sight; this was a truly rural, tourist-free landscape, with small farms & rice paddies nestled up against the base of the hills.
At one point we were on a dusty gravel road with trees blocking our view of the hills -- and I found myself unexpectedly flashing back to the late 1960s when we often drove the family station wagon down similar roads in Chile. As I chuckled to myself at how far I was from that part of my life both in years and miles, I was jolted by the realization that the toddler who usually sat next to me in a car seat during those family trips was now sitting next to me as an adult, her own little girl in her lap. It's difficult to explain what I felt at that moment, but watching my niece exchanging goofy faces with my "little" sister suddenly felt... well, comfortable, like things had always been that way. I had been looking forward to this little one joining the family for roughly half a decade, and had been thrilled to finally meet her, but somehow I think this was the point when, waaay down deep in my mind, Miri switched from being The New Adopted Baby and became just plain ol' Family.
We finally reached an unassuming, dusty parking lot next to a small paved road, and walked past a few vendors' stands through a fancy gate in a fancy stone wall. Effie & Lisa told us the area was known for small flutes made from the reeds that grew along the river, and the cave we were going to visit had been named for those instruments. (They also told us to not bargain with the vendors for any of the flutes; they would handle the transactions because there had been cases of some vendors passing counterfeit Yuan and we could get in trouble if we inadvertently tried using any of the bills.) As we walked up the steps, and up the steps, and up the steps, Effie added that there were hundreds of caves in the area, with most experts saying there were probably many undiscovered caverns for each one that was known. The Reed Flute Cave itself had been a local secret for generations; during the Japanese occupation, the entire town had successfully hidden inside. It was only in the late 1950s when the locals told the government that a large, dry cave was hidden under this hill. (Word has it that they waited until they were sure the government was strong enough to guarantee they wouldn't have to hide from Japanese troops again.)
We spent a little time in the gift shop, where we again had a demonstration that "personal space" in China is very different from back home. As usual, Miri had her thumb stuck solidly in her mouth, and after cooing over her for a few moments one of the saleswomen pointed to it, said "No, bad for baby, bad!" -- and reached right over, grabbed the Pipsqueak's hand, and pulled her thumb out of her mouth. (Dude, did that woman just grab your niece...?!? Stay cool, don't create an international incident...) Miri gave her a dirty look and jammed her thumb back into her mouth, whereupon the whole sequence repeated itself. AJ decided that discretion was the better part of valor and quickly found an excuse to move away, the Pipsqueak defiantly slurping on her thumb while her uncle quietly laughed at the expression on her face. (You tell 'em, kid!)
A few minutes later, we walked through the rusty iron gate that marked the cave entrance, and I immediately became concerned when I realized the "rock passage" through which we were walking consisted entirely of badly-sculpted cement & plaster. If this was the famous cave that Pat Nixon had said was "magnificent like a palace" (I knew she said that because it was engraved on a plaque outside the entrance!) then it was going to be a bit of a dud. (Well, at least it's nice & cool down here...) It got darker, and a bit damper, and I realized that the steps were concrete but now the walls were actual stone... and then we turned a corner and I realized I was definitely not going to be disappointed.
My only real frame of reference is Luray Caverns in Virginia, so I don't know if I was overawed or being too much of a tourist... but I liked the Reed Flute Cave. It's very different from Luray, where most of what you see is lit in a way to show you its natural state; the presentation here was markedly artificial, with colored lights being used to accentuate & highlight specific features throughout. All I know is that the effect was usually eye-catching and sometimes downright spectacular; I'm just going to post some of the photos and let you decide for yourselves...
|This column ends about 3 feet from the chamber ceiling; we agreed to return with Effie in about 1,500 years to see it once it reaches the top!|
After passing through several chambers of varying sizes (and some incredible shapes that were lit to show visitors dragons, snowmen, and even vegetables!) we came into the main chamber. This "room" is by far the largest open area inside the cave; it is kept fairly dark, with recessed lights in the floor giving the sense of it receding into an infinite distance. There was a sound & light show that sadly (for us) was only presented in Chinese -- but the effects were pretty cool (although the bubbles near the end seemed kind of corny). The back of the chamber has a small, shallow pond that acts as a mirror, with a series of stalagmites & domes nicknamed "Guilin City Skyline" that have been carefully backlit to enhance the "city" effect.
|I've cropped this image of the "Guilin City Skyline" formation to 1440x900 pixels for use as computer "wallpaper" Feel free to use it on your own computer (but do NOT modify it in any way, sell it, or claim it as your own work).|
Sprinkled liberally throughout the cave were small glass signs, either with pictographs or English & Chinese text, naming various formations & reminding visitors to be careful navigating the sometimes-damp floors and sometimes-narrow corridors. There were only a couple of times when the ceiling seemed to be a little low; even these spots were thoughtfully marked for visitors' safety (assuming you could pick out the small rectangle of colored light from the background of multicolored shapes). We also had a moment where the fragility & spectacular nature of the stone formations was brought home to us. Off to one side, a member of the staff was standing on a carefully-placed ladder and checking one of the "curtain" formations for cracks. You can just see his feet in the photo to the right; the light-colored smudge you see near the middle of the photo is the light from his hand-held flashlight actually shining through the stone -- the formation is only a couple of millimeters thick!
As we neared the exit, I snapped a couple of photos (above) of one formation with my camera's flash turned on, then off; I had no idea what the results looked like until I uploaded the images to my laptop that evening, but the comparison gives you some idea of of how the lights in the cave are used to accentuate the shape & depth of the formations. While taking these photos, I learned that the cave is kept dark most of the time to prevent any degradation of the minerals from plants that might take root where there was sufficient light -- a timer clicked off somewhere and I suddenly had to navigate up the steps in almost total darkness. (Dude, you are so lucky the person ahead of you is wearing white...!) I'm not sure the idea is actually working; there were several places near the exit where we saw small ferns & other plants sprouting near light fixtures; I hope they're able to prevent the plants from doing any damage.
There was one last large formation before the exit: a lion crouching over the walkway, bidding visitors goodbye. I tried the same "flash on, flash off" trick and discovered that if the entire formation was lit evenly, it was unique but not terribly lion-ish; but with just the colored spots & floods focused on it, if you squint just a little bit... Yeah, there he is, I hope he's not hungry!
AJ was checking out (from a safe distance) the artwork hanging for sale and I was looking at the people milling around, trying to decide if I wanted to buy anything, when I heard Papa B laughing, "Hey, lady, your baby's leaking!" I turned around, and there was my sister trying to hold the Pipsqueak away from herself without taking her out of the sling, while Miri nonchalantly let loose a nice, steady stream of pee... sideways, out the leg opening of her too-large diaper. First lesson: When estimating diaper size for the first time, too big is actually worse than too small. Second lesson: Don't buy a 50-pack of diapers until you're sure you've bought the right size! Third lesson: Regardless of what size diapers you bought, Never Ever Never leave the diaper bag on the bus when the baby's with you! (This was the only time we made that particular mistake, right up to the day I'm typing this...!)
We were lucky; the folks we were traveling with had become good friends, and had enough experience with their own little ones to be carrying extra supplies with them. Right there on the outdoor patio, with dozens of Chinese schoolkids & tourists watching, AJ performed the first Emergency Diaper Change of her motherhood using a diaper & pad borrowed from our traveling companions. Throughout it all, Miri seemed bewildered by all the fuss, and was none the worse for the wear when the dust settled. (Gosh, Mom, I was just doing what babies are supposed to do!)
EDC #1 complete, we took some photos near the reproduction of an old-fashioned "travel chair" (the kind a rich person would sit in while a bunch of poor people carried it around), and as we got to the bottom of the hill Effie & Lisa made good on their promise & bought us all little reed flutes. They're actually more like slide whistles than flutes, and they pointed out that we should not put them in our mouths until we'd cleaned them thoroughly with alcohol -- even the locals wouldn't drink the water the reeds had grown & been washed in! (Hint for anyone who's bought one of these: it will work & sound much better if you dip it in water for a moment to dampen the wood.)
We then headed back to the bus, dodging the cars that seemed to come out of nowhere & squeeeeeze past on the narrow road -- and got a bit of a surprise when we reached it. A local farmer was moving some of his cattle along the road, and the animals insisted on just. plodding. along. in a straight line... between most of us and the bus, then proceeding directly down the middle of the road through the traffic. We stood and waited, sharing a good laugh with the young driver of a delivery truck who found the whole situation hilarious, until the bull at the end of the line sloooowly cleared the doorway so we could climb aboard. Finally, everyone was seated and the air conditioning was set on "HI" and we headed back toward town.