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Feng Mu 馮牧 on the Zhijindong 織金洞 (Weaving-Gold Cave)

黃山歸來不看嶽,

織金洞外無洞

瑯嬛勝地瑤池境,

始信天宮在人[1]

Returning from the Yellow Mountains,[2] [one] sees no more mountains;

Beyond the Weaving-Gold Cave, there is no grotto-heaven.

Sublime lands of Jasper-Grace, the realm of Turquoise Pond [3] -

[I] begin to believe that the Celestial Palace indeed exists in the human world.


[1] Red characters rhyme. [2] Huangshan 黃山 is a mountain range in southern Anhui and remains one of the most popular tourist destinations today. [3] Langhuan 瑯嬛 (Jasper-Grace) and Yaochi 瑤池 (Turquoise Pond) are both legendary places associated with Daoism and immortality. The latter is believed to be where the Queen Mother of the West resides.

 

My first visit to Guizhou started with the Zhijindong 織金洞, or Weaving-Gold Cave. The quatrain by Feng Mu 馮牧 (1919-1995) translated above is quoted many times in tourism pamphlets and travelogues concerning Guizhou, especially the first two lines. I wondered whether the cave could also amaze a southerner who is quite accustomed to solutional caves. And it did.


As I wrote not too long ago, the Nine-Dragon Cave near Liuzhou gives the impression of an immortal’s residence. The Weaving-Gold Cave, however, consists of cathedrals and grand palaces of a host of immortals! My mother had never heard about this cave before I suggested we visit it, nor had she paid attention to Feng Mu’s lines, but she arrived at the same conclusion halfway through our visit: we can forget about other caves after we’re done with this.


Interestingly, it’s another of nature’s wonders that refuses to be captured by photography. My mother and I both sent some pictures and videos to our friends, but none of them were impressed. “Don’t we also have such stuff in Guangxi/Guangdong? What’s so special about it?” they said.


I can’t blame them. Before my journey, when I checked out images and films on the internet, produced by much more professional hands than mine, I wasn’t that impressed either. I also thought it was familiar scenery: eroded limestone and mineral formations of various shapes and sizes.


I’m glad that I didn’t drop this site from my itinerary because of that first impression. In the end, my experience of the Weaving-Gold Cave has totally renewed my understanding of a solutional cave and karst landscapes.


As in many other solutional caves, the most popular activity among visitors is to look for scenic spots and see if the formation does “look like” what its name suggests. Indeed, there are many formations that vividly represent the images invoked by their names, such as the upside-down pipa, the daughter and mother-in-law, and the Buddha’s lecture.



It’s worth mentioning that colourful lighting can be flamboyant in many solutional caves, but the Weaving-Gold Cave uses colours in a more temperate manner, creating a quieter atmosphere to showcase the natural, unadorned beauty of the cave.



However, it is more than the shapes of mineral formations or the lighting. For me, the most amazing part of this experience is the relationship between me and the space. It goes far beyond shapes and colours but also involves temperature, sounds, smells, and the incredible contrast between a person and the cave. Very much similar to the moment when I stood at the entrance to the dragon’s grotto in Difeng, the dimensions of the place produce the real magic.


It takes about three hours to walk through the cave via the sightseeing route. Across some 12 km surveyed depth of the cave spread nearly 50 cave halls, with more than a dozen of them spanning 3000 square metres. There are six large halls of over 10,000 square metres. The Weaving-Gold Cave is thus believed to have the most concentrated cave hall group in the world. Many of the halls measure 60 to 100 metres in width as well as height. The widest part even reaches 175 metres. Many photos of the Weaving-Gold Cave look cramped and unimpressive, but should we really be surprised that the real site looks much better? That’s simply because it is presented on the screen in a totally wrong scale!


Clearly, I’m not the only person who associates these magnificent cave halls with immortals’ palaces. Some of them are given the name of legendary palaces. One finds here, for example, the famous Guanghangong 廣寒宮 (Vast Glacial Palace) on the moon and Lingxiaodian 靈霄殿 (Hall of Numinous Empyrean) of the Celestial Emperor. I also loved it when I saw the name Nantianmen 南天門 (Southern Heavenly Gate), the first gate to the Celestial Palace. It’s a name that one often comes across in renowned tourist mountains in China, before trudging up to the top of the main peak. Here in the Weaving-Gold Cave, it marks a series of 448 ascending steps leading to a higher level of the cave where you can look over the forest of stalagmites.



The word dongtian洞天 (grotto-heaven) is familiar, but it is the Weaving-Gold Cave that first showed me the image that had probably given birth to the expression. There is indeed a whole world with breath-taking landscapes in the cave: waterfalls, trees, mountains, rivers, and the sky.



I heard numerous exclamations in amazement along the way, and sighs that the camera cannot capture what’s seen by the eyes. Even those nameless shapes also have a mysterious charm because of the planet’s history engraved on them. Many of the mineral formations are easily over 150,000 years old. The iconic overlord helmet, measuring 14 metres in height, has taken about 500,000 years to form.



I still remember the moment when I passed by the gigantic fallen stalagmites and columns by the side of the public path, indicating via their sizes how many millennia they had been standing before they collapsed. It is really difficult to describe the feeling of walking through a field of massive ruins of the planet’s work from hundreds of thousand years ago. It was overwhelming, as if being confronted with something beyond comprehension. I could only sympathise with the short-lived cicada that has no idea of spring and autumn, as Master Zhuang has aptly described. For once, I think we can take a poet’s words literally, “Beyond the Weaving-Gold Cave, there is no grotto-heaven.”



 

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