In the hope of putting my recent reading into practice and escaping the 36°C heat in the city, I decided to have an excursion into the mountains. I wasn’t so enthusiastic as to set off with just a stool and a staff as Fan Chengda 范成大 (1126-1193) has suggested in his account, but the modern achievement of airconditioned automotive vehicles allowed me to make a day-trip to Zhongdu 中渡, a small town between Liuzhou and Guilin, on a Saturday.
My main destination was the Luzhai Xiangqiao Karst National Geopark 鹿寨香橋巖溶國家地質公園. My mother and I had a very pleasant walk to the scenic spot after which the geopark is named, Xiangqiao 香橋 (Aroma Bridge). It’s said that the spring water near the natural rock bridge makes great liquor with an incredible aroma.
Under the bridge, one can see the entrance to a big cave at the bend of the river, which is called the “Spiders’ Cave”. It was chosen by a cinematic adaptation of Journey to the West for the bathing scene of the seven spider demon girls. As always, these natural spirits know exactly where to find the nicest of places to hang out.
A photo of the natural rock bridge in the landscape, exhibited in the park gallery.
The Spiders' Cave, viewed from under the natural bridge
There is a small collection of inscriptions on the rock by historical visitors. The earliest one came from a certain Lai Jinsheng from the nineteenth century:
A visit to this place two days after the Double Ninth Festival in the twentieth year of Guangxu
Immortals can be found in the caves of the Aroma Rock –
Arriving here, [I,] astonished, thought it was a different world.
Roaming free on the bridge are no one but old countrymen;
Cruising leisurely by the riverside are fishing boats.
Heavenly peaches hang low through all eternities;
[Along] the stone path vines crawl, suspended between cliffs.
The woodcutter, [having] stripped the mountain, is now exhausted,
On his return, even sleeping with the bamboo groves in front.
Auspicious high water in Zhongdu; an occasional poem by Lai Jinsheng
Lai Jinsheng was right about the immortals, who know how to enjoy themselves just as well as the spider girls. At the heart of the geopark is the Nine-Dragon Cave. My mother and I went in just between two guided tours. For most of our visit, we were virtually the only visitors in the huge space. In the still of the cave, the sound of each drop of water was so loud and clear that I stepped carefully and lightly in spite of myself. There were a few moments when I really felt like an intruder in some immortal’s place.
(I realise the colourful lighting might look a bit over the top in photos taken by unprofessional hands with a phone, but I hope these photos give the idea...)
Numerous “icicles” or “frosting” from the ceiling, a banyan tree, an underwater Great Wall, brain striatum stone... I’m sure I saw something similar in my primary school days, as the cave has been a must-go destination for school outings. What’s remained in my memory, however, is just noisy crowds of running kids and stones of bizarre shapes in colourful lighting. It was not until I visited a karst cave of my own volition this time that this incredible creation of nature started to make a little bit of sense.
Fan Chengda was obviously a more conscientious visitor. Apart from brief accounts of the exceptional mountains and caves near the city of Guilin, he also includes his observations about zhongrou 鍾乳 (stalactite, literally “bell’s breast”) in his Guihai yuhengzhi 桂海虞衡志 (Records of the Officer of the Land of the Cassia Sea):
Guilin is adjacent to Yi[zhou] and Rong[zhou]. There is an abundance of caves in the mountains, which far surpass those in Lianzhou. I visited [these] caves personally and looked up to the protruding stone veins, where a breast bed like jade or snow can be found – it is formed by the solidification of stone liquid. The breast bed hangs low like several peaks or tiny mountains upside down. The tip of the peak gradually sharpens and extends like an icicle, with its end light and thin, hollow inside like a goose [plume] tube. The water drips unceasingly, accumulating while dripping. These are the best breasts. [One] holds up a bamboo tube [outside the breast] to break it off. The goose tubes with tips extremely thin and clear like mica nails are most valued by alchemists.
For those who are curious about what alchemists and pharmacologists did with stalactites, Li Shizhen’s 李時珍 (1518-1593) famous pharmacopoeia Bencao gangmu 本草綱目 offers a long list of formulations with attractive effects as well as lethal warnings. For the moment, I think I prefer to enjoy the nice look of stalactites in their original context of a cool, wondrous cave. If I ever have the opportunity to meet the master of the cave, maybe we can discuss whether the stalactite has anything to do with his/her immortality...
 See my previous blog: https://www.rachelleslab.com/post/preface-to-the-section-accounts-of-the-mountains-by-fan-chengda.  The date corresponds to 9 October 1894.  Red characters rhyme.  The stalactites resemble the protrusions of a bronze bell, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bianzhong#/media/File:Zhong_Bell_from_Spring_and_autumn_period.jpg.  Fan Chengda, Guihai yuhengzhi in Quan Song biji 全宋筆記 (Zhengzhou: Daxiang chubanshe) series 5, vol. 7, 103.  Yizhou and Rongzhou were both to the west of Guilin.  Lianzhou was to the east of Guilin and is in modern western Guangdong.  There are different types of stalactites. They may be highly poisonous, and it's believed that they can't be consumed with certain medical ingredients. See https://ctext.org/library.pl?if=en&file=52801&page=120.
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