This is a 3-day tour. Yeah, right!
At 4:50 I start wandering around, wondering if my guide will be early, wondering if there's anybody else going on this tour, since the only other people around are arriving for events at the convention center. Ah, here's my guide, a tiny Chinese girl of 20 or so who speaks passable english. I can understand what she says, but her vocabulary is so limited she can't say much. At any rate, I won't be touring anything with her but the route to the airport. We're waiting on a second traveler, a colleague from the breast cancer meeting. Waiting. Waiting. Aha, he's waiting for us over at the hotel lobby!
We are met by Sam, a skinny 30-something guy in jeans and a tattered jacket. His english is excellent even though he's never been to an anglophone country. His image isn't quite up to that of our shiny new minivan and suited driver, but he's a great guide.
Three memorable things about the 40 minute drive though the dark countryside (isn't there a city of a million people just around here?): The driver drives the Chinese way: in the middle of the road until something makes you get over. There's a China Giant Salamander Museum lit up in neon (but it's not on our itinerary). We overtook an emergency vehicle with its lights & sirens on. Normally, you see such a vehicle and you let it go on its way. But this one, which was going our direction, was travelling more slowly than our driver was happy with, so we just passed it.
The new hotel is even more luxurious than the convention center one. Which is probably just a very nice hotel, but my standards aren't very high. This one is newer, the carpets thicker, the sitting area more comfortable. The breakfast buffet is even larger.
It's just me and Louis for the tour, and Louis has to go back a day early. He got caught in a trap: a flight back to Paris on the 22nd at 0:20. A few minutes after midnight. This does not count as the 22nd! We get back to Guangzhou the 21st at 11:50 pm. Half an hour to catch his flight. Can't be done. So I'll be on my own for the "third" day of the tour.
Sam's not meeting us until 10, so after breakfast I go out for a stroll around the town. I'm confused as to whether this small town of 50,000 or so is Zhangjiajie of if that's the city nearby or the name of the whole region. It looks a lot like a ski-resort town, with a dozen huge modern hotels charging western prices surrounded by small buildings and shops comprising the rest of the town. The locals and the visitors definitely do not mix. In my walk around, I see nothing of interest to an outsider. There's not even a souvenir shop. Tourists must stay sealed in their hotel, going out only to board their buses and be whisked to the sights.
This is the largest cave known in China, and one of the largest in the world. Discovered less than 20 years ago, the Chinese quickly developed a roaring tourist trade here, with miles of concrete walks and iron handrails and thousands of lights inside. Louis and I thank goodness for Chinese discipline, because such a fragile site as a cave, with all it's wonderful limestone formations, would quickly be trampled but for their willingness to stay on the path.
A different kind of degradation is well on its way in the cave, however. With thousands of visitors a day and lights on, everywhere & all the time, it's becoming quite green inside. Not just algae in the ponds and on the damp stalactite and stalagmite surfaces, but leafy plants around the light fixtures.
Cave pictures never really come out without a tripod, but here are some anyway.
|A boat ride from one cave part to another is part of the fun. That's my companion Louis in the front row.|
After the cave it's time for lunch. Sam takes us to a local restaurant, not to one of the hotels thank goodness, and we have some very spicy food. Delicious! Hot peppers seem to be just another vegetable here, there are so many in there. Yes, we are in Hunan province! It's a welcome change from the mild Cantonese fare in Guangzhou.
|From the restaurant balcony.|