Written September 4, 2011
The top three sights in and around Jian Shui are the Zhu Family Garden (where I was staying), the Confucian Temple and the Swallow Cave, about 22 kilometers outside of town. A combination ticket (133 yuan) will get you into all three places and does not have to be used in one day. Unsure of exactly how I was going to get there or how long it would take, I started with the cave. The hotel desk clerk confirmed (in Chinese, yay!) which bus I needed to take and wrote down the names for me in Chinese characters. From the main bus station take the Méngzì (蒙自) or Gèjiù (个旧) bus to the Swallow Cave (Yànzĭ dòng, 燕子洞). Just keep repeating “Yànzĭ dòng, Yànzĭ dòng” at the bus station and they will get you on the right bus (10 yuan). Make sure the bus driver also knows where you are going and he will drop you off at the right spot along the expressway and point you in the right direction. Carefully cross the expressway and there is a short path through the vegetation to a dead end road where vehicles wait to take tourists to the caves. The guy charged me 10 yuan, but with a little negotiation you can probably get a ride for less. Or it’s a 15-20 minute walk. Stay to the right as you make your way through a small town and uphill a little ways. You can’t miss the cave’s big sign on the left side of the road.
On a Saturday morning in early September the place was dead quiet. I walked into the ticket/tour office and about 15 bored tour guides stood up. I bought my ticket (80 yuan for just the cave) and was told, in English, to wait until they had a group. I sat down at a table on the terrace and opened up the pomegranate given to me by a female high school student wanting to practice her English with me on the bus. Although her English was impressive, she was nervous and told me that I was the first foreigner she had ever talked to.
After about ten minutes they took me into a large empty hall filled with desks and I was told to sit and watch a video of some woman speaking about the park in Chinese. Thankfully that didn’t last long and they took me to join a small group of well-dressed Chinese tourists. The tour was in Chinese with the odd word spoken to me in English. We walked along a manicured path to the first cave, or dry cave, a large cavern with several Buddhist altars.
Here you wait for the bird nest rock climbing demonstration. A young guy in a bright yellow-orange costume climbs bare footed up the cave wall a couple of hundred feet, posing several times for the photo-snapping tourists. These caves are one of the nest-collection locations for China’s famous bird nest soup. An ingredient that is supposed to help maintain youthful looking skin.
The tour through the cave was much like other cave tours. Yes it’s big and impressive but to the untrained eye, mine, all caves look alike. The various named formations light up on cue while the guide explains which part is the trunk of the elephant and which part is the ears. Near the end is a big open-cavern food court where you can purchase a bird nest snack tray. The guide talked me into the tray with bird nest soup and a bowl of zhou, a rice porridge, fruity and way too sweet. The soup, however, was only mildly sweet with strands of tasteless bird nest, the texture somewhere between seaweed and cooked cabbage.
Past the food court is one last section of the cave with more formations and pools of water. An old man pointed out the fish, yú, to me. The way back to the entrance is along the water via Dragon boat. Waiting for the boat I exchanged photos with a friendly family. The older woman kept squeezing my arm as if she couldn’t believe I was really made of flesh.
Walking back to the park entrance another young woman, a sophomore in college, engaged me in conversation. Her English was even better than the young highschooler’s. She said she started learning in kindergarten.
I walked back down the road to the expressway and waited for a bus. Not really sure which one I waved at any bus that looked like it might be a possibility. After about 15 minutes a bus stopped. I confirmed that he was going to Jian Shui and we headed back to the bus station.
In the afternoon, before going to the third largest Confucian temple in China, I walked around town and photographed some of the local architecture and street scenes. Entering the temple from Linan road you first pass a large lake with walkways on either side. Groups of Chinese, mostly older, hang out under the trees protected from the afternoon sun. One of the hottest days I’ve had this trip.
The gate beyond the lake and the entrance to the inner temple, multi-tiered with intricate stone carvings, is one the most remarkable I’ve seen. Past this gate are more pavilions and garden spaces. Near the back, in front of the main altar, was a group of older men in traditional costume playing antique instruments. I sat with a few of the other Chinese tourists in plastic chairs under the trees. One man wanted to see my telephoto lens and we swapped cameras for a moment. He had the bigger Canon base also with a telephoto lens. Man that thing was heavy. No words were spoken, but I don’t think he was impressed. He seemed happy that his lens had the same zoom range as mine.
Wandering back through the pavilions and gardens I could hear the thunder of an approaching storm. It didn’t rain much, but thankfully cooled the air.
For dinner I went back to the same restaurant. Such a pleasant place to hang out and sample traditional Jian Shui dishes. I ordered a lotus root dish that turned out to be pickled with green pepper corns. Great if you’re careful not to bite into one of pepper corn. Next was grass shoots with pork. The shoots were about as big around as my thumb, mild flavored and very tender. After eating mostly vegetables I treated myself to sweet potato ice cream. Purple colored and not to sweet, it had an unusual flavor that I fail to put into words.