It’s that time of the year again – you know, when the whole of China seems to go crazy over the appearance of a few red leaves, and there is a mass exodus from the city centres to go and view nature at its very best.
Here in Beijing, it’s no exception; and hoards of people head for the likes of Fragrant Hills (Xiangshan), where there are more maple trees turning bright scarlet than you’ve had hot dinners. But this year, it is not to be for your favourite blogger. This year our department at work has decided that it would be a great weekend to spend time together en-masse … underground!
We gather outside the west entrance of UIBE – the University of International Business and Economics – just opposite the main entrance of the office, only then to be asked to cross back to the other side of the road again where the coach is facing southbound. All aboard and the coach driver does a U-turn and we’re off, facing northbound again.
Not for long. Picking up a few extras on the 4th Ring Road, we’re soon curving round in a south westerly direction and heading off towards Hebei, or at least as far as the 6th Ring Road.
This is persimmon country, where every second field is crammed full of shizi (柿子), otherwise known as Diospyros kaki – from the ancient Greek "dios" (διός) and "pyros" (πυρος) meaning "divine fruit".
But we’re not here to appreciate shizi; instead we check in at the Chengtong Yinian Villa hotel, which for some unfathomable reason Trip Advisor ranks as #995 out of the 5,418 hotels in Beijing…
The car park is filled with red and yellow leaves and we see blue sky, instead of the grey pea-soup that is what normally passes for fresh air in BJ.
But once inside, it’s a different story. What was obviously once a grand hotel complex has fallen into what some might call “faded glory”. The entire place is crying out for someone with a mop and duster; not one of the three electric sockets in my room actually works (which means that the TV and air conditioning similarly don’t work); there are exposed electric sockets lying about aimlessly in the reception area; and as for the “lunch”… well, perhaps it is best to gloss over that tepid collection of sorry dishes as fast as possible.
It’s amazing how a little “faded glory” can act as a tonic to give everyone a boost to get on out of here and head for our next destination; though, this being China, we are all given time for an afternoon siesta – as if the exertion of sitting in a coach for an hour and half and having to face a few tepid dishes on a dining room table is enough to wear everyone out!
But finally we are off once again, heading for the 'Underground Pearl of Beijing'.
The Shihuadong (Stone Flower Cave) is located in Nancheying Village in Fangshan District, about 50 kilometres from downtown Beijing. The cave was actually discovered in 1446 and is a seven-storey (or eight-storey, depending on which web site you read – but let’s go with the official version for now!) water-eroded cave, with a drop of 130 metres.
It was originally called Qianzhen or Shifo during the Ming Dynasty and it covers an area of about 1.8 hectares, which is about 4½ acres or 18,000 square metres to us lesser mortals who can still never think in hectares. There are twelve huge "halls" which are interconnected with countless narrow passages, sixteen "chambers" and 71 "branch caves" in many sizes and shapes. The official blurb will tell you that there are “up to 18 scenic areas and more than 120 different landscapes to enjoy, all divided into 16 halls and ten wonders along a 2,500 meters long route”, whatever that means.
The natural landscape inside the Stone Flower Cave is actually pretty amazing. You lose track of how many stalactites and stalagmites there are that have been formed by mineral deposits (primarily calcium carbonate) in dripping water over the eons. (In case you get confused, the stalactites are the ones that hang from the ceiling and the stalagmites are the ones that grow up from the floor.) Added to that there are stone curtains, stone waterfalls, stone troughs, masonry dams, stone terraces, numerous stone flowers, curling stones (helictites), crystal flowers, fur stones, stone chrysanthemums, stone pearls, stone grapes and goodness knows what else deposited by the at-times “dripping, flowing, percolating, stagnating, splashing, capillary water”, and so on.
Above ground, the notices warn ominously that “In the hole the moist road slides”. We are also told that there are no toilets in the cave. “Please be prepared”, it says, though whether one is meant to take in a personal commode, we are never told. Yet another sign imperiously says “No photography”. But, of course, in China everyone knows that prohibitions are only meant for other people, so we happily snap away in front of the official guide, who even points out some of the best spots from which to take the best pictures.
Some of the engineering is pretty impressive in this place. Where nature has not seen fit to provide a gentle slope to walk down, some gallant souls have installed walkways and staircases over the years. Only four of the seven storeys are open to the public as of now, but no doubt someone, somewhere is planning the next staircase to even lower levels in the cavern.
You have to hand it to the management of this place. They have done their utmost to instil a sense of wonder in the visitors with their use of hyperbole and the descriptive names they have given virtually every ‘landscape’ we pass. “The inside is a fairyland on earth. You will be amazed at nature's creativity,” the official blurb gushes, as we pass by “Frolicking carps; Mirage Fairy Island; Chess ground; Crowing rooster; Heavenly Abode; Dragon coiling jade column; Bamboo fenced thatched house; Willow Shadow; Spring bamboo shoots; Blooming stalagmites; Greeting turtle;” and so on.
One particularly impressive stalactite is a “thin and transparent stone flag” at the top of one of the chambers, which is also unique to the Shihua Cave in China. OK, it doesn’t look much like a flag from this angle, but once we get to the bottom of this particular chamber you can stretch your imagination a little and reckon that if the wind is gusting with just the right force, a flag could curl itself into this kind of shape. As the guide patiently explains, a little imagination can go a long way!
The Immortal Appreciating Cascades are some of the most impressive formations. These are apparently the biggest stalactites in China and to do them justice, the management have different coloured lights fading in and out over them as we descend yet further into the bowels of the earth.
“Everywhere is full of the sound of water dripping ‘Di Di Da’, which is composed into delightful music” the blurb continues; and some of the formations are indeed reminiscent of organ pipes one sees in various gothic horror movies of the 50s and 60s.
Another must-see formation is what they call the Immortal's Mirror – a disc-shaped stalagmite which has been lit to great effect.
The entire cave network has a constant temperature of 13 degrees, the entire year round. And we all know how caves are the ideal storage place for maturing wine. This has not gone unnoticed by the clever marketing people at Moutai who use the Shihuadong to mature a special edition of their baiju, which is only sold here in the cave to gullible tourists who want to take back a souvenir of their time under ground.
I mentioned earlier that the cave had been discovered in the 15th century; but it wasn’t until the early 1970s that it started to get mapped, and first thoughts were given over to making it into a visitors’ attraction.
As they passed various formations, the 20th century explorers would mark some of the stalagmites so that they would know if they were simply going around in circles. Here they have (patriotically?) thought fit to scrawl Long Live Chairman Mao. How sweet of them!
Lest we are left in any doubt which way to go when descending one particular staircase, there is a sign which one can only assume was originally put up for some errant pit ponies...
One fascination of the fourth layer is the preponderance of “milk stones” – or “Yue Nai Shi". Our guide shines her torch through the translucent rock, which is regarded as a national treasure.
And then, as we wend our way along yet another walkway, we come across some particularly fine examples of what this cave was named after – stone flowers…
Our tour is almost over. But lest anyone is worried that what goes down must come up, someone has seen fit to route us through an exit lower down the hillside, thus saving our legs, which have probably had quite enough exercise for one day.
And joy of joys, instead of returning straight to the hotel we are driven a few hundred metres to a local restaurant which does us proud with an impromptu meal made up of countless courses.
But the night is young, and instead of returning to our power-free rooms, some of us braver souls go in search of the sports centre where there is basketball (I fail totally to get the ball into the basket), ping pong (in which I make slightly less of an idiot of myself), and badminton.
But what’s this? Can it really be? Yes. Gracing the touchline of the right hand court is a dead cat. One’s first thoughts are that the poor moggy simply gave up the will to live in this god-forsaken place and just expired on the spot. But closer examination reveals that it came to a somewhat gruesome end, which begs the question of how it got here in the first place.
Totally unfazed, the duty manager in charge of the sports hall simply picks up her dustpan and brush and sweeps the corpse away as if it is something that she does on a regular basis. But for some reason not one of us now really feels up to hitting a shuttlecock at this point.
It reminds me of the British best-seller “101 Uses for a Dead Cat” by Simon Bond, which was a collection of macabre cartoons some 20 years back. The book was promoted with the tag line, "Since time immemorial, mankind has been plagued by the question, 'What do you do with a dead cat?'" before coming up with a whole load of suggestions. There was even a follow up book that came out a year or two later; but from memory there is not a single one of those 202 suggestions that seems appropriate for this late pussy.
The following morning we struggle out of bed and make our way to the 900-seater dining room where the breakfast consists of warmed up left overs from a few days back. It has to be one of the worst breakfasts I have ever had to face and I am left wondering if last night’s expired pussy was simply 'road kill' which was delivered to the wrong part of the hotel!
We hand in our keys and head on outside to the waiting coach once again. A quick vote is taken on board the bus, and by a large margin it is decided that we head home by way of Beigong Forest Park, which due to the fact that it is a long hike from the nearest subway station, is a well kept secret sanctuary for middle class Beijingers with cars.
And boy, are there cars a-plenty here today! Our bus queues up patiently to be allowed in to the coach park from where we hop onto a shuttle which delivers us to the east gate. I am probably the only laowai in the entire 1800 hectares that make up Beigong which, unlike Xiangshan has no chairlift for those whose legs are somewhat on the rusty side of fit. The peak is some 550 meters above sea level, which soon sorts out the men from the boys as we pass a number of wheezing and puffing characters on the path and stairs heading ever upward.
But before the puffing and wheezing start, we are met with beautiful vistas of multi-coloured trees which range from bright yellow to red to green, all set off once again with a blue-ish sky. Ahhh it makes you glad to be alive…
And as we head on up the first of the 30 degree slopes, the planners have seen fit to set up a mini zoo containing a row of cages where you can see black bears, monkeys, lamas, a pony and some parakeets, to name but a few. Apart from a baby monkey which expertly demonstrates how to peel a banana or three with one hand, and the two black bears who walk round and round in ever repeating circles, most of the other caged inhabitants prefer to siesta as the crowds ooh and ahh through the bars and chain link fences.
We continue our climb towards the main peak, which is called Langpo (Wolf Slope), stopping every so often to admire a mountain side scarred by mining.
Below us is the mini-zoo from whence we came; but we are only half way to the top so far and soon the going gets steeper…
Signs point haphazardly to exciting must-see features which seem mysteriously to change their location as we approach, with the signs then pointing back the way we have come. We never do get to see the Garden in the Air, (well, not that we know of anyway), or the Pavilion for viewing the Capital, nor even the Hualin Garden, or the Water Gurgling from Rocky Cliff, though we do finally locate the Seismic Fault, which turns out to be a piece of rock with a few wavy lines embedded in it.
But there are great views of Beijing from the south west, even if the old CCTV tower and the China World Trade Centre are barely discernable, set off by the red leaves through which we can look down on the vista ahead of us.
As we have to be back at the entrance by 1230, we give ourselves enough time to get down to the base of the hillside, arriving too early as it turns out, giving us enough time to start enjoying just a few of the other must-see areas that will now have to keep for another time.
The lower park looks gorgeous at this time of year, filled, as it is, with bridges, courtyards and cloisters. Two lakes and waterways set off areas with various architectural styles, with the landscapes contrasting nicely with the wilder areas of the mountainside.
Ahead of us is one particular tree that has managed to capture green, yellow and red leaves together at the same time. Set off by a clear blue sky it makes you realise that nature still has a few cards left up its sleeve that it can play to great effect!