Monday, January 14, 2008


I write you from Guilin (Gwee-leen), a small town of about 70000 in the central/south part of China. I'm guessing you've never heard of it: I hadn't either, and there's really no reason we should have. It's not a place of any historical significance, as far as I can tell, and it's not big enough to be a major Chinese city.

No, what it is is a Chinese vacation town. Guilin lies on the Li River, which is actually not that big a stream, either deep or across. But if you float down river a bit, you find yourself surrounded by these sudden peaks. I guess they're hills, really, too small to be mountains, but they jut up so dramatically that they feel quite massive. As I look out my hotel room window you can see them all around, popping up in and out of the city. But on the Li River, it's much more atmospheric and dramatic. (I'm going to attach some photographs tomorrow.)

Anyway, back to the vacation town thing. Guilin is clearly in the off season at this point -- it was something like 35 degrees today. (I am definitely ready for the Sydney summer. As it is I've got a tan, but it's really just permanent windburn.) But even now, the town exudes ease and relaxation from its pores. You cannot resist its power; come to Guilin, and you will relax. It has all the little fun things of a vacation town, parks and hiking places and tacky cheap stores and some really beautiful river walks.

And, to top it all off, Guilin has the classic element of a Midwestern vacation town: caves. Yes, that's right, caverns that you can visit. (In the Midwest, it's a law: if you're going to host people for vacation, you gotta have caves. And a water park. And a place where you can buy homemade fudge.)

So yesterday I went to one of Guilin's caves, the Seven Star Cave in Seven Star Park (Qixing Gong Yuen -- chee shee gong ywen). It was sort of the cosmic bowling of caves -- instead of walking around in the dark, everything is lit in many different colors. There's no rock music playing (which is the other main element in a good cosmic bowling session) but that's just a matter of time.

So I'm wandering through this cave, and suddenly I realize that what I am now doing is reliving my childhood. Every vacation we took involved caves. Wisconsin Dells: Caves and water park. Orlando: Disney, water parks, and I'm pretty sure caves. South Dakota: Mt. Rushmore, caves ... and a Mystery Spot. ( I always loved the Mystery Spot -- you know, where you walk in and suddenly you're walking on the ceiling and they say "gravity is strange here". I just thought it was the coolest thing ever. Why was gravity different? Could the effect be reproduced?)

And what causes me to realize I am repeating events from my youth is that about five minutes into the tour, I am bored silly. I always wanted to go on the cave tours growing up until we were actually in them. Then it was like, Batman's cave is so much better. You hear about the difference between stalagmites and stalactites, learn the little trick (stalaGmites come up from the Ground; stalaCtites emerge from the Ceiling) and after that it's all about how this formation looks like a lion; this formation looks like the Great Wall of China.

Now I admit, occasionally, there are some wild coincidences -- like this scene of stalagmites which looks exactly like a bunch of people standing around -- maybe a Nativity scene?

But most of the time these look alikes are really pushing it. This was supposed to be a lion. (To me it looks like a guy with a big chin.)

I have no idea what this was:

Red Kryptonite?

I took 15 of this.

Ambigious, but colorful!

The what are we doing here/are we there yet/I'm hungry and she took my toy/I just need to get this photograph sorts of moments -- it's all part of a trip, isn't it? We hate them when they're going on and yet make the best stories. Like the RV my parents rented for our family trip to South Dakota -- otherwise known as Voyage of the McDamned. Every time it took a turn, the refrigerator and all the drawers of the RV flew open -- I mean FLEW open -- and everything within flew out. (And let me tell you, if you haven't been there, there are a lot of turns, close, even hairpin turns on the curvy hills of South Dakota.)

Tomorrow: the amazing hills and peaks of the Li River.

P.S. Yesterday after my cave experience I spent more time than is healthy thinking about how I might do a story about mystery spots, and mostly so that I would have an excuse to visit some again. Apparently, my passion for them abides.