National Week, Part Four: The Caves
It was with stout hearts, sore behinds, and severe sleep deprivation that five brave souls embarked on one last, ridiculous group adventure in the wilds of Yangshuo.
Some of their number had spotted the pamphlet on the Water Caves days earlier, and had been leafing longingly through it ever since. The pamphlet boasted photographs of gleeful sojourners splashing about in a cavern filled with a clay mud pool, and blissful vacationers soaking in natural hot springs. After the previous day’s epic journey mud pools and hot springs seemed just the ticket for relaxation.
So our intrepid adventurers, after a hearty breakfast of eggs benedict, arranged tickets for the day’s activities and thereby left the comfort and safety of the Yangshuo hostels.
We piled into a rather decrepit-looking van, which no-one was convinced should actually make it all the way down the highway to the Moon Water Cave entrance. As it turned out, it didn’t need to. The ticket office for the Moon Water Cave is actually still 5 or 6 km down the road from the actual cave, so the van pitched us out at the ticket office and then tore back down the highway back to pick up more unsuspecting tourists.
We explorers exchanged the receipt we had purchased at the hostel for sets of actual tickets, and were directed to another van that was, if possible, even more dysfunctional-looking than the first. The van bumped and groaned and rattled down the highway, finally grinding to a stop in what looked like dirt patch in the middle of field. The passengers all extricated themselves, only to find we were, in fact standing in a dirt patch in the middle of the field. Luckily, our laconic driver did at least point us in the direction of a path that disappeared into some long grasses, so we set forth in that direction, wending our way toward the rocky cliff face some short distance away.
As we arrived, we realized the cliff face had in front of it a concrete pool with small wooden boat and two wooden shacks. Ah, this must indeed be the place. A woman wearing traditional blue work clothes waved them over, checked their tickets, waved us in the direction of an absolute fleet of plastic shower shoes and then pointed at one of the wooden shacks.
A European tourist (German or possibly Austrian by the accent) sat upon the ledge along the pool and helpfully told us, “You’ll want to leave everything behind that you don’t want to lose.”
So our intrepid group went into the shacks, which turned out to be changing rooms, and stripped down to our bathing suits, put on the shower shoes, and bundled our belongings into some wooden lockers housed the other wooden shack, ready to take on the mud and hot springs.
Then we were handed hard hats.
And we stood at the edge of the concrete pool, looking into the dark mouth of the cave, wearing bikinis, shower shoes, and hard hats.
Something did not seem quite right. But we were directed into the wooden boat, and off we went across the pool and toward the mouth of the cave. The boat ride was actually a surprisingly long distance, especially since it was accomplished by a guy pulling on a rope hung over our heads, and as we wended their way into the tunnel some of us had to duck several times to avoid collision with the tunnel ceiling or outcroppings from the walls. At some point, which looked just like all the other points on the boat ride, the guy pulling the boat instructed us to get out onto (not very dry) land and we were greeted by the short, energetic woman who would apparently be our tour guide.
And we began to hike.
The cave was full of stunning limestone formations– stalactites, stalagmites, columns, protrusions, strange shapes that looked like King Kong, Buddha, and the scariest Santa Claus ever seen– helpfully pointed out by the diminutive woman at the head of the party. We hiked, through all of these formations, wondering where the mud cave was. Our guide pointed out The Moon Temple, for which the Moon Water Cave was named– it was an area where the roof had a skylight and the trail climbed a steep, steep hill. With no handrails. Or safety features of any kind. Again, typical of China. We hiked up and around the Moon Temple, came back down, and kept hiking, and hiking, and hiking… and hiking… and hiking…
Let me remind you, we were still wearing bikinis. And shower slippers.
Finally, after about what felt like five miles, but was probably closer to one, we spotted the hot springs. “No go yet!” our trusty tour guide called, because apparently it would be bad form to do the hot springs before the mud caves. For reasons which would become apparent soon thereafter.
We hiked a little while longer, finally coming out into a cavern in which the light was suddenly much more orange than in the rest of the caves. This was mostly due to the pond of clay mud which dominated the cavern, and which boasted a set of stairs on one side and a slide on the other.
We couldn’t resist.
So we took turns sliding into the mud pool, getting completely and utterly covered in the stuff. It’s pretty watery, so unless you are paying really close attention you don’t notice that it’s quite a bit thicker than water. If you lie on your back and float, about half of your body is out of the water; as opposed to a pool, where it takes a bit of energy to keep legs and shoulders and so forth up. This takes absolutely no energy whatsoever, you just float. We of course had to take a few more turns on the slide, did some foolish and fun things like attempting to blend in with the walls and spraying mud from flinging hair, and all the sorts of things that tourists do when they visit the mud caves. Clay mud, by the way, clings to skin like polish to a shoe, so by the time we had splashed around a bit, we could have been the Swamp Thing’s family reunion.
When we were finished mucking about, our guide took us down a series of limestone stairs (now wearing shower shoes, bikinis, and a layer of surprisingly slick mud) to an underground river, where we proceeded to try to wash as much of the stuff off as we could. Which was not much. My hair was absolutely full of the stuff, and all of our bathing suits had taken on a sort of reddish-brown dinginess that didn’t seem like it would ever come out. The river was pretty cold, too, so we splashed in and splashed out probably quicker than was really productive, and shivered a bit as we climbed back up through the mud cavern, picked up our hard hats, and hiked back toward the hot springs, to which we were now really looking forward.
The hot springs were, as advertised, comfortably warm, but the bottom was rocky and a bit jagged weird places so it took a little while to get situated. Once we were, though, it was pleasantly relaxing. We spent quite a bit of time just letting the water soak more of the mud away– this, incidentally, is why the hot springs comes second. It’s bathtime. We came out with still-muddy hair and bathing-suits though—soaking apparently doesn’t do the trick. My bikini required rinsing with the highest spray on my shower head in order to look presentable again.
Post hot-springs, we hiked back through the limestone caverns (this time, we didn’t detour around the Moon Temple), got back in the boat, and pulled back out into sunshine. The temperature in the caverns had been fairly cool, so it was nice to be back out in the sunlight—even though sunlight revealed what true messes we still were. Mud had seeped out of our bathing suits after the hot springs and was running down our arms, legs, stomachs, etc. Nevertheless, we changed back into our clothes in the little wooden shack changing room, headed back to the field where the van dropped us, and climbed into another van to take us back to town. This van, incidentally, was running with the needle pointing completely to Hot on the engine gauge, and we were all convinced it was going to break down on the way. Especially since it gave us a little concert of bumping, groaning, squeaking, creaking, and squealing all the way back to the ticket office.
Thankful to be out of the infernal contraption, and less than enthusiastic about taking another one, we decided to brave a tuk-tuk instead. For those of you unfamiliar with tuk-tuks, they are motorized rickshaws which are widely used as transport-for-hire all over SE Asia (as well as some other parts of the world, I’m sure, but I don’t think they’re called tuk-tuks anywhere else). They are generally kind of rickety, usually pretty loud, and (of course) feature absolutely no safety options. Including walls. Though there are bars to hold on to.
In fact, because there is pretty much no containment at all, at one particularly jarring bump we watched one person’s wallet go sailing out what would have been a window if we’d had them, and thump ungainly onto the shoulder of the highway. We all screeched at the driver “Ting yi xia!! Stop a minute!” and as she hopped out of the tuk-tuk fetched her wallet, I tried to explain to our driver in between peals of laughter what had happened, and why one of his fares was running down the highway away from us. Luckily, it was unscathed and so was she, and we finally made it back to West Street in time for an early dinner before I had to take off to the bus stop to get back to Shenzhen.
Having four full days of relaxing and outdoor activities in the the sunshine and the clean mountain air was probably the most rejuvenating way I could have spent Golden Week. It was hard to come back, especially since I knew there was some serious travelling ahead of me; but the bus ride back was fairly pleasant– I made friends with the only other foreigner in the Guilin bus depot, an Indian guy who was from Austria and had come to China by way of Canada; got into a conversation with the woman who takes tickets for the buses while I was waiting for mine, which was fortuitous because our bus arrived approximately five minutes before the scheduled departure time and since I was pretty easy to spot amidst a crowd of Chinese people, she came rushing over to tell me as soon as it had pulled in and got me all situated, quickly and efficiently.
All in all, a very successful vacation.
Again, apologies to the photographers for shameless, shameless thievery.