Bouldering Miao's Razor at Bianse Lake
After Peace Corps China's annual two week In-Service Training, Carl, Libby, and myself set out for a 23 day climbing trip in Getu, Guizhou Province (Feb 1st-23rd, 2015). Last year during this time Libby and I came to Getu to climb, but for a mere five days. This year we added caving, hiking, and camping to our itinerary, but most importantly we intended to explore the Getu Valley. I had never been on a trip this length, and upon reflection have taken it as a great learning experience.
Getu Valley from a Summit
Being our second time at Getu, Libby and I were 1) prepared for travel and 2) super excited to see the friends we had made during last year's trip. Getu is composed of a few small settlements along a road that leads into Getu National Park. Most, if not all of the people living in the region are Miao ethnic minority. The Miao are spread all over SW China, but only compose less than one percent of China's total population. What makes them distinct from other minority groups are their traditions. Although the Miao have done comparatively well at conserving tradition, they still face the challenges that come with materialism and modernization, especially the younger, just as the Tibetan minority faces.
Libby Crushing a Boulder
Qingzai Village and Rapeseed Fields
Carl and his Stash at Pussa Yan Crag
23 days is a long time and difficult to conceptualize, let alone sew together in a nice bundle, but I will stick to my normal chronological blogging format. I have divided our trip into events marking significant changes. I will try to stay light on the words and remain picture intensive. I hope you enjoy this post and visit Getu!
CDMI Wall Shrouded in Clouds
When we arrived in Getu our worst fears had materialized. The weather was super cold and everything was damp. The sky was as overcast as apathy. Dark patches and wet underbrush showed all the signs of recent and frequent light rains. As one will conclude, these terrible portents cast poor climbing conditions. We checked into the Petzel Hotel, or 'Grape Hotel' in Chinese, and we could see our breath at every exhalation. For the first week and a half went wore all of our clothes, in our sleeping bags and out.
Briefly, these hot chips were brought from Anshun and finished soon after our arrival. They are my favorite food in Guizhou and I envy all of the volunteers who have access to them.
Lazy Dragon's Cave
Despite the gloom we managed to haul out from our hotel into the cold every day around 11am. A thick stratus blanketed every inch of the sky, often pelting us with dots of rain. On day one climbing was out of the question. Hands blanched and numb after seconds on rock. So, we hiked and looked for boulders.
I do not know from where the Getu River comes nor do I know how long it runs, but I know that it drains into Lazy Dragon's Cave. They say a dragon lies sleeping in the interior caverns. Beware: if you get caught, splashing in the mouth of the cave, it will be the last light you ever see.
Gods of the Cave
But seriously, the current of the river is too strong to swim against at the mouth. Getu River drains into a vast complex of underground rivers converging below Getu Valley. There is a small map on a wall in town. It is hand drawn. With a railroad fashioned line and ticks that show many of the underground rivers and where they flow. This map also shows the location of various caves, roads, and trails.
Scar on the Face of Getu
Libby on Boulder
Jack on Boulder
Fire at White Crag
A few days into our trip it got so cold I decided to build a fire below White Crag. The way the rock wall is angled much of the landing zone stays protected from the rain. There are tons of twigs and dry debris laying around ready to burn. To the safety and ethicality of building a fire at a crag in Getu, the peasants build fires below all of the crags running parallel to roads of paths.
Pussa Yan Crag at Dawn
Carl anchoring into Oliver's Crag
Road to Deep Country
Last year a local boy spoke with us for three dinners. He shared his stories, his life, and eventually befreinded us. On the third night he asked us if we would follow him to a village near a cave the following day. In a serpentine pitch, it would only cost us 100 kuai. Feeling that our golden bonds of trust had been violated, we refused his offer with repulsion. Soon after we returned from Getu an article about a village in a cave in the Getu countryside went viral on the Chinese internet. Realizing the opportunity our friend had offered, and we so arrogantly rejected, I beat myself up on the inside. If I had known what he was offering to show us I would have gladly paid four times that amount.
This year I came to Getu determined to find the village. After a week of gathering information from various places, we believed we could find the mythical Cave Village. As far as I could tell none of the locals had been there before, but had heard of it. One lady said it was only 15 minutes away. Our only resource was the map, which narrowed our direction.
We set out just after noon. We crossed the river by boat, hiked uphill for an hour until we reached a village. The village was tucked away into a small rocky and terraced valley dotted with clusters traditional Miao houses made of wood (a scarce building material in China) with laid white stone foundations. A group of workmen were hewing logs with some clunky machine you might find in a rustic Soviet era setting. There were two boys passing on a motorcycle through the village. I pulled them over to ask where we were and if they had heard of the cave. One boy did all the talking. Instantly I recognized him. By all the colors of the cosmos, he was the boy, looking much less callow and darker skinned, who had tried to guide us to the cave last year for a price. Clearly our recognition was mutual, but neither of us mentioned anything.
For every three Chinese words he inserted an English word that threw the logic of the sentence and its meaning. With his dialect, I would say generally sounding much smoother than Chongqing dialect made it impossible to pull any sizable information from his words. I listened carefully and could only understand, 'keep following this road and turn at the big path.' He got back in the passanger's position of his friend's motorcycle and they sped off.
In a note, I teach a lesson called, 'Teach Me Something About China.' The purpose is in intuitive: my students teach me something very specific about China, using English in a presentation format. If I already know roughly a tenth of the information presented they must start over. One group of students did a powerpoint presentation on the differences between Miao and Tujia (another ethic minority) traditional home architecture. They said that many Miao homes are built lower and only one floor, while Tujia houses are traditionally built on the banks of flooding rivers, demanding that the houses are built higher or even on stilts, also some homes have a second floor.
I Hate Goats
This year some genius business man decided to stock the Ziyun region with airsoft rifles. Only these are not American standard airsoft rifles, they are perfect replicas of advanced American military grade sniper rifles. They are full size, or near it, so the rifles are twice the length of the children weilding them. As we passed through the village we were sighted by three children weilding these massive rifles. Their vantage point was from an elevated courtyard. Clearly they were giggling and eyeing us down. I gave them the death stare and they turned away.
We walked down the road searching for the 'big path.' At a bend in the road we saw some people walking a path through the trees a few hundred yards away leading into a valley. We followed the path with our eyes and realized we had had just passed the exit to the road. We decided that we would take this path and if it led to nothing then we would resume course. Halfway into the valley we looked up and there was an stone arch at the top of a mountain in the distance.
Summit Arch (the tiny yellow dot at the bottom is a person)
Cave Village Portal
After passing through Summit Arch we only walked a little ways and to our surprise found the opening to Cave Village. The trees at the entrance surreptitiously block your view of the development inside, ominously, but after hiking 2.5 hours you can't retreat.
View from entrance to interior
When we entered the cave it was clear that we were outsiders. Not one person welcomed us, which is rare for small establishments in China. The only person that spoke to us was an old lady who invited us in for lunch (rice porridge), but how can one take a gift from someone with so little. We strolled though the cave. There was a hostel built inside the cave with English signs hanging off the sides but there was no evidence that foreigners had ever come to this village. Most, if not all visitors are Chinese. I will not claim that we are the first foreigners to visit this village, but we are certainly in an early batch of foreign visitors. Honestly, if your Chinese is not mediocre enough to ask for directions or someone physically brings you to the village, you will not find it. We, somehow, by the grace of the heavens, were extremely lucky and did not take one wrong turn, of which their are a myriad, on our hike to the village.
Left side opening
From center to front
Cave Village has been around for a long time. I can't remember the exact number, but at least one century. It is one of the last two villages in caves in China. The other is somewhere in Yunnan Province. Not more than twenty years ago there were roughly 400 inhabitants living in the cave, but since China's economic rise, villagers have been slowly leaving for work. Right now the cave still houses about 100 inhabitants, but as we observed most of that number is comprised of small children.
Before the exodus the village was prosperous and had many facilities in full order. There was a school house and basketball court. Now much of the place is dilapidated. One interesting feature of the village is that many of its structures do not have roofs, or recently installed them. One thing that they will never be able to hide from visitors is the difficultly of living 1) in a village and 2) in a cave.
After our many discussions on economics, policy, society, morality, government, science, and humanity during our trip one thing really stuck out, and that is that people simply don't want to live in caves (there is a Plato knock in there). To think about their situation as having benefits, perhaps romanticize it, would we a terrible crime. Life for these people is extremely hard, and I am guessing that none of them really want to be there. People don't want to live in caves, so we work to stay out of them. I learned a lot from this experience. The next time I catch myself complaining about something trivial I will think of the people who are still living there, in perpetual smokey, dank, soggy, coldness.
Massive Heap of Stalagmite
Below Cave Village there are structures so big that I couldn't photograph them. The Stalagmite above is one of them. Only a quarter of it is pictured. There is also another giant arch that leads to a gorgeous emerald river way at the bottom of a valley. There are also tons of boulders in the area, did not see to the quality of their holds, but if you make it out to this area bring your rock shoes.
Climbing in the Great Arch:
The Great Arch
Seeing the Great Arch is worth a trip to Getu by itself. At dusk, when the sun is setting over the mountains the arch ignites, emitting yellows, golds, and rusty reds off of the crags. Last year, we were stopped halfway up the stairs to the arch buy a local guard. The park workers, which we later learned are sourced from the surrounding area, were building something inside the arch. This year we hiked right on up, step after repetitive step with our climbing gear.
In order to get to the arch from the town you must cross this gorgeous river on river boat. There are no bridges on this river, so the boat is the only way. Most of the crossers are commuting by motorcycle. There is a system: the motorcyclists wait in a line along the dirt banks, they drive down into the boat, after crossing people help them haul up the opposite bank if their engine can't power up the incline. After you cross from the town side of the river to the side of the arch there are no more paved roads, and you immediately plunge deep into the countryside.
After a long discussion, we are still unsure how the Great Arch was hollowed. Perhaps, I could look it up, or do some research if necessary, but I am fine with our conjecture: like most places in SW China, all of this limestone was once underwater, saltwater, and slowly, as the water receded a river bore this whole, with the rock on the inside of the arch once being weaker than the rock on the outside.
Carl on Lead
The park people are still doing construction on the inside of the arch and in different locations within the park. We met a few contractors and developers from various provinces throughout our stay. I can't tell how much work there is left to be done, but to those posting opprobriums on Western internet, haranguing the park leaders for building eyesores, shattering the integrity of nature, I say most of the locals are in favor of the economy generated. Eat more or eat less. Guizhou is the poorest province in China, and holds twice as much provincial debt as runner-up. You can't lame them for trying.
On another note, on the backside of the arch it looks like Jurrasic Park. There are walkways leading you through dense jungle with a wide array of biodiversity. There are species of bamboo back there that does not really look like bamboo, but likely a spiky monster.
Not to think of this guy as food, but there is an interesting gastronomic concept of tu (土), or earthy, in China that I would like to expound. The most common instance of this concept that I have encountered is with chicken, so tuji (土鸡), earth chicken. You can translate tu to free-range, but there are hippie-dippie liberal connotations packed into free-range that compromise it as an accurate translation. Essentially, tu, in the livestock context, means an animal that was raised on worms, bugs, and plants all grown naturally in nature, the animal hunted at will, without a goad. What is the antipode? Chickens that feed on garbage in the street, which are equivalent to farm raised chickens. In Chongqing a normal chicken costs around 24 kuai, and a tuji roughly 100 kuai. Can you tell the difference in taste? Yes. There is no comparison.
Resupply Trips to Ziyun:
Pig Head in Plastic Bag on Main Street
There are only a few convenient stores in all of Getu, all the food available is either cooked in homes or in restaurants, so if you are planning on having lunch at the crags or on a hike you will need to stock provisions. Ziyun has everything you need. Most of our money was spent on fruit, since surprisingly, there is no fruit available in Getu during the winter. Ziyun offers oranges, apples, bananas, and pears, all of which come out of boxes, signifying that the region doesn't produce fruit in this season, unlike Chongqing :)
Cave of Ziyun
We caught a glimpse of a local soccer game. The field is made of compacted dirt. Above the field, you can see the Cave of Ziyun. Carl and I went inside during our first trip. Although, as we learned, it is a bit of a hideout for local teens to drink and frolic, there are deep multi-level caverns that are filled with heat vents which produce steam in the winter. We did not explore all of them for they are seemingly endless. What makes this cave different than others I have been to in China is that there are no lights. You need a flashlight. You can rent a dinky head lamp that barely emits a spark for 5 kuai (ours was free), but I recommend using something more powerful, since the caverns are wet and the walls and floor totally saturated. The entrance fee is 1 kuai, if you can believe it.
This Hot Pocket-esque wrap of all things heavenly and beautiful, as I discovered, has many names, two of which are Zongza and Baba. It is glutenous rice wrapped around either a salty refried bean like filling or filled with a sweet black sesame seed concoction, then toasted on coals (pictued in backgroud). Last year we bought them from a resturant and they were super spicy, like habanero spicy, but none this year. Each Baba is 2 kuai, or around 0.40 USD. I could eat these everyday. They make it into my top 5 favorite foods in China.
Development on the Outskirts
Temple in a Cave
On one resupply trip we when to visit the Ziyun Cave Temple, the actual name, which eludes me, is unattractive and does not let you know there is a temple in a cave. Right now the workers, which consist of elderly women are developing infrastructure for tourist traffic at the base. The new Ziyun Long Distance Bus Station is visible and within walking distance. Admission is 5 kuai per head
When we entered the temple we were alone, as were we when we left. The only soul was a the Lady Warden. She is in her 60s and had been working and living in the temple for two months. She is a Ziyun native. She invited us into her room and offered us heat from a coal fire and fruit, we could not refuse these gestures. She said that that temple is between 600 and 800 years old. When I was at Everest I went into an underground temple dating prior to 1000AD, which shows its age through its carbon burns, this temple showed less but all the same signs. Before we left we asked her to teach us how to make the ritualized tribute, the prostrations, to Buddha, and then left.
We ate dinner at the same restaurant everyday. Usually we had four dishes: seasonal greens, Tomato-Egg, Spicy Dried Tofu, and a rando. After one of our trips we were surprised to find that it was the birthday of the bosses daughter who was home from school for the holiday. We had cake.
Lady Miao on River
Halfway through our trip the weather instantly instantly improved. One day it was cold and overcast and the next the sun was radiant, blue sky forever, and clouds drifting with a light breeze. There is a little preserved Miao Village a 30 minute walk away from the Great Arch. Casting its phallic shadow over the village is the bolted, Sword of Miao. It is a hollowed feature of the village enveloped in myth.
Sword of Miao (this is the bolted face)
Bianse Hu (Color Changing Lake)
Libby being a scientist once again
When the weather turned up so did our spirits. We were instantly climbing more routes daily and upping the difficulty, challenging ourselves. I am proud to say that I have never climbed on a rope in a gym before, and after a year of climbing I still haven't. But the downside is that it is hard to train outside, so perhaps my strength and technique have been limited to my time climbing outside. Although I have gotten much better at climbing since last year I still have a couple years of climbing to get to where I want to be. It was great to have Libby and Carl with me on this trip, not only because they are outstanding and exemplary people but because they are so knowledgeable of gear, safety precautions and measures, and different climbing operations. I learned a few new things on this trip, but namely self-belaying. Now I can photograph people climbing from a perched position.
Spring Festival and Final Week:
In a Field with Friends
Last year Libby and I were in Getu for Spring Festival. We had an amazing time. Part of the reason we stayed so long this time around was so we could hang out with the locals during their holiday. Spring Festival is the Chinese New Year. To Americans it is essentially Christmas (or your variety) and New Year combined. But for many Chinese it is often the only time they see their family that year because of migratory work. So, as you can expect it is a super happy time, with strong spirits shifting everywhere. There are constant fireworks displays, special foods, and drink.
Steaming Rice for Baba (people use rice cookers now)
Above, is, as was explained to me, an older method of steaming rice that is not really done anymore. Maybe phased out in the past 20 years. The advantage to this method of steaming is only that you can steam tons of rice at one time. This rice was used to make glutenous rice for the rice cakes. These cakes are special for Spring Festival.
Smoked Tofu and Meat
I must say something about the smoked tofu and meat above. You can get it in Getu year round, but they break out the best of the batch during the holiday. You can eat all of it with out cooking, but to be safe everything is thrown into a boiling pot of water placed in front of you with spicy peppers, tomatoes, and vegetables. Some of the smoked tofu balls have cured pork packed into them. All of the food in Getu is so good you'll never want to stop eating it.
Ladies flattening glutenous rice cake wrap
Miao lady in garb buying flat rice noodles for the day
Rice Noodle Lunch
In the bowl above is what we ate every time we had lunch. The rice noodles are cooked in boiling water and then strained out. If you have tried to cook rice noodles you will know that they take twice as long to cook as normal wheat based noodles, especially when dehydrated. Added ingredients are chopped green onions, ground pork, spicy red peppers, cilantro, pickled tomatoes, pickled greens, dehydrated wandou beans, soy sauce, and vinegar. So many flavors, if you can imagine.
Spring Festival Dinner with Hotel Family
Like Christmas Eve dinner, there is a Spring Festival dinner. Usually families have a huge dinner, some then light fireworks, drink lots of booze, play boardgames, smoke cigarettes, gossip, and then watch the annual Spring Festival programming. This year 700 million people tuned in. That's almost twice the population of the US.
During the day we went on a hike into the countryside after a bit of climbing. During our hike we were invited in to join the family of just about every house we passed. There were many houses. We had already committed to two dinner and did not want to forsake our friends. The first dinner was with the family of our hotel. They had amazing cured pork, possibly the best I will ever eat. The old man with the clay jug in his hand (see above) poured Carl and I large bowls of the urine looking liquid. It is called mijiu, white rice wine, when translated directly, but inaccurate, more like Countryside Moonshine. Carl and I were prepared for the amount of booze we were going to have to drink, so as you can see, I have my power pink thermos filled with coffee on the table.
SF Dinner with our Restaurant Family
Eating with our restaurant family was something I was looking forward to since day one. After 21 days of eating at their establishment and talking with them, we knew each other fairly well. Again, the dinner was amazing. I don't know what it is called, nor can I really describe the dish, but it is a variation of sweet cured pork. It is in the top five best dishes I have ever had. I am so grateful to have gotten to know this family.
Their restaurant is open year round but they did not have an English menu. Libby took it upon herself to translate a menu for them. It contains dishes that are regularly available. We put more effort than expected into making the dishes sound appetizing. For instance, when you translate the dish baicai, it means 'white cabbage,' but this is not accurate, so we translated it to 'Seasonal Greens.'
Restaurant Family's Restaurant, 'Spider Man Restaurant'
Heading deep into the countryside
I will leave this post here. I could attach a story to each image but they might be better as is. Although we did not end up going camping due to fatigue or caving, we still explored, talked to locals, found new things, learned new things, and climbed. It was an amazing trip and I hope I can continue to have such deep, yet privileged experiences in the future. Always great company. Love Peace Corps.
Crossroads and Mountain Pass