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My wife Joan and I visited her mother during Spring Festival 2001. The rest of the world calls it Lunar (or Chinese) New Year, but the People's Republic doesn't like the religious associations of that, and calls it Spring Festival. It was not terribly festive; fireworks were banned in metropolitan Beijing, and there were no parades. There were street fairs at various places, but they featured stalls selling food and crafts more than performances.

A bad flu bug I came down with delayed our planned cave visits, but on Thursday, February 8th, we collected a neighbor friend, Xiyue, and set out. Xiyue is a young manager at a telecommunications firm, and Joan's family has known his for many years. Joan thinks of him as her younger brother.

We had considered hiring a car and driver for the day, but the companies that did that would not commit to definite terms. One said that a charge for waiting at the cave would be "up to the driver." We could not rent a car and drive ourselves, because foreigners are not allowed to drive in China. Xiyue doesn't drive. Ultimately, it seemed easiest to hail a reliable looking taxicab and negotiate with the driver about the waiting and return trip. After some minutes standing at the curb ignoring herds of small "buttless" cabs, we spotted an empty VW taxi and flagged it down. The driver agreed to take us, and we piled in.

We scaled the cave trip down to just one definite cave, with a possible extra stop at a nearby gorge that might contain caves. The definite cave is Jing Dong Da Rong Dong (Capitol East Grand Cavern), and is owned and operated by the village of Hei Dou Yu Cun (Black Bean Gorge Village). That's in Ping Gu Xian (Ping Gu County). The name Jing Dong Da Rong Dong looks like some kind of doo-wop lyric when written in Pinyin (our letters), but it sounds very different in Mandarin. As for Hei Dou Yu Cun, we'll leave that alone. The village, while still in Beijing, is about sixty miles from Joan's mom's place. Thursday was the smoggiest yet, with visibility down to about a quarter-mile. There was no apparent improvement in air quality during the two-hour drive to the cave. When we arrived, the taxi meter read Y220 (about $27), and the driver agreed to wait for us and drive us back for a round-trip total of Y400 ($50).

The cave was apparently discovered in 1996 after the village Party boss noticed vapor rising from a vent in the side of a small mountain in winter. It was found that water in a canal on one side of the mountain was the same as that in a spring on the other side. Finally, a trip to Stone Flower Cave southwest of Beijing convinced the Party boss that his mountain was "hollow". Excavation broke into an extensive (2500 meter) cave system, and development began. The cave opened to the public in 1998. Development included building a large, ornate entrance building, with carved stone railings out front reminiscent of those at the Temple of Heaven. There is also a very large Buddha sitting on top of the mountain. The majesty of the Buddha is somewhat diminished by the cell-phone tower next to him, and by the cable-car line up to his feet. February is definitely the off season at Da Rong Dong, so the cable car was not running.

Admission to the cave was Y112 for all three of us. Photography is not normally permitted inside, but we were able to persuade the guide to allow us to take some pictures, since we were her only tour members. The public areas of the cave are floored with polished stone, which might better have been left rough, as it got pretty slick in a couple of wet spots. The cave is well decorated with formations, including a number of very nice stone draperies. Most of the formations are active, and still dripping water. Numerous illuminated signs in Chinese and English label formations the operators have made up names and stories for. "Old wise man does bird a favor," that sort of thing. Other signs of the same type enjoin you with "No Spiting," and warn you to watch your head in low spots. The lighting follows usual Chinese practice of enhancing the colors of the cave, but the colored fluorescents used in Da Rong Dong are not as blindingly obnoxious as the spotlights in Stone Flower Cave. I was glad I'd brought my own flashlight, so I could see what I wanted to. The operators of Da Rong Dong also felt compelled to assemble formations broken during development into creative groupings, which seemed like gilding the lily, given the very impressive quality of the natural ones. Large formations near the walkways are protected with heavy wire frames covered by plastic netting. A boat ride near the end of the tour features steel boats that look like elongated oversized washtubs. Joan and I took a ride like that in Silver Fox Cave a couple of years ago, and weren't eager to repeat the experience. We also passed on buying admission to the place at the end where photography is normally allowed, and tea is served.

When we exited the cave 1½ hours after entering, a wind had come up, and visibility was up to about a mile. We sat in the large (unheated) exit lobby and rested for a while. One of the attendants said that the Black Gorge had a couple of small cave-like features, but they were high up on the walls of the gorge, and the climb was slippery. We decided to pass on the gorge and head back. It was now about 3pm, and traffic had increased. As we entered the outskirts of the city, the car frequently sat motionless. In keeping with Beijing taxi driver protocol, our driver set the parking brake each time. He wasn't as crazed as many of his comrades; he didn't go into the oncoming lane to pass slower traffic, and actually drove for minutes at a time without blowing his horn.















All images copyright © Dan Hoyt