Happy New Year, Respectful Happiness Emit Wealth, Ten Thousand Things As You Wish Them

Or, 新年快乐,恭喜发财,万事如意! (xin nian kuaile, gong xi fa cai, wan shi ru yi) As they say in China during the Spring Festival. It’s endlessly amusing to me how things sound perfectly reasonable in Chinese, but strangely pretentious or awkwardly majestic when translated directly into English.

But I’m not here to drone on about the nuances of translation. I’m here to tell you about my Chinese New Year holiday! It was certainly different from anything I’ve ever done, and the caving part was illuminating. I went to Chongqing for nearly three weeks to traipse about some Chinese caves with members of the Hongmeigui Cave Exploration Club, to learn how a caving expedition runs, and to get a taste of true rural China.

My journey had many legs, as I made my way from China’s most outward-looking city to its very heart. My first stop along the way was the Yangtze River Hostel in Chongqing, where I had my first taste of the warmth and friendliness of Chongqing people. I got lost between the Metro station and the hostel, so I rang up the front desk for directions. In the end, I sat and waited at a traffic patrol kiosk while a girl ran up to find me. The kiosk was manned by a dignified captain who offered me a seat by the electric heater and a small glass cup of tea, as well as his best wishes for my stay in Chongqing. The girl who came to collect me was a student working part-time over her holiday, and we chatted for a while about studying in England, as she would be spending a year abroad there herself.

The next stop was Wulong, where I planned to spend the night in a hotel, and get an early bus to Tongzi, as it was very near to the holiday and transportation would be in short supply. Turned out that the hotel I booked was a half hour into the hills on Fairy Mountain! Concerned that I might not be able to get back down in time for the early bus that, according to the ticket-sellers, may or may not be scheduled for the next day, I checked into my room, again dismayed to discover that the online price was 4 times the regular price for my room. But all misgivings began to disappear as I found my hotel room to be both clean and comfortable, and stepped out into Fairy Mountain Town and the snowy avenue that awaited. It was hard to find grub, it being the holiday, but in the end some restaurant owners fixed me a meal of minced pork and peppers and a tofu soup, which went down very well. The next morning I was up early to check out and get the breakfast buffet, but I missed the early bus down the mountain back to Wulong. Soon enough everyone, from the front desk attendants to the tourists and their bus drivers, were on the lookout for a bus or taxi that could take me down. I snagged a cab, which picked up person after person, including an elderly couple who looked like they would have walked down if they hadn’t caught the car despite the cold and their advanced ages. I got to the station, got my ticket, and away I went, to Tongzi, and Er Wang Dong (Two King Cave) beyond.

The motorbike from Tongzi to Er Wang Dong fell over as we left the town, skidding on the ice and toppling the two of us. But soon enough we were roaring along on our snow-chains, and unfortunately my joke about getting a discount was laughed away. In Er Wang Dong I was pointed to Mr. Wang’s house, the one “you guys usually stay at”. I tiptoed my way inside, and was greeted by the Wangs. Erin and the other cavers would be coming out of underground camp to meet me, but had not yet appeared. I sat by the fire to wait, as the family made offerings of food, wine, and paper money to their ancestors, following tradition. Pretty much every part of Chinese New Year involves firecrackers, all day every day, so this was the start of a noisy week! In the afternoon Erin and the others emerged, the boys crowding around the fire and slurping down beer in typical caver fashion while Erin went and got changed, appearing a while later with the laptop and logbook in hand, ready to enter data. And that was the beginning of an awesome two weeks!

We were the dinner guests of practically every villager, sharing food and conversation with locals whose dialect was very difficult to discern at times. But I enjoyed learning names and relations, as Erin recorded them into her notebook. Most people were shocked that after ten years of coming to Er Wang Dong, Erin still didn’t know their names or who their relatives were! There was a wedding on 初八 (chu ba, the eighth day of the new year on the lunar calendar, or the 30th of January) at the house across the way. That basically entailed two entire days of eating food, and a third breakfast. We snuck off to cave on the second day, returning in time for dinner of course. Everyone was very generous, despite the fact that most meals beside the wedding feast consisted of merely potatoes, tofu, and pig fat. But as all of it was dowsed in delicious Sichuan spices, I loved every bite!

Aside from eating, sleeping, and 靠火 (kao huo, sitting around the fire), caving was the order of the day! Er Wang Dong and San Wang Dong, the main two as-of-yet unconnected underground (they connect through a tiankeng/heavenly pit) cave systems of the area have much yet to be explored and surveyed. Every day there was something to do, a pitch to be rigged, a crawl, a rift… I learned how to read instruments, set survey stations, and even set a bolt or two! Expedition caving has a different rhythm to it than sport caving, and I prefer it ten times more! I discovered that I become utterly useless if I forget to eat or become wet and cold, and discovering one’s needs and limits is important if one wishes to continue expedition caving! I want to become a better caver, so that I have more to offer on future expeditions. This was my first expedition, but it shall not be my last! Which reminds me that I improvised a little song during underground camp to be sung in congratulations to the expellers of the first and last poos of the camp. For some reason bodily functions are the number one conversation topic underground… Anyway, I learned a lot out at Er Wang Dong, and cannot wait to return! (Which will be as soon as my wallet allows.)

From Er Wang Dong we all left together for Tongzi, spending the night in the Hongmeigui centre, which is oddly like a caving hut, just in the middle of China. We sorted out gear, and were on our way to Wulong the next day, Erin’s computer and two monitors balanced on our laps. “I really need to get a laptop” she kept muttering. Back in Wulong, we took our first showers in weeks at Erin’s flat, after breaking in through the balcony since Erin didn’t have her key with her. A 20m rope and an SRT kit is all you need, and you’re in cat-burgling business! Erin was kind enough to let me stay the night (“I let everyone stay, it’s kinda like a post-expedition thing,” she said), and took me to her favourite hole-in-the-wall eateries. The next day I hopped a bus to the Three Natural Bridges, a karst spectacle boasting 5 A’s of World Heritage goodness. It was pretty badass. The bridges used to be underground, until the tiankengs surrounding them collapsed, exposing them to daylight. They were tall and impressive, and one even tried to kill me by throwing a rock at my head. It missed by 4 meters, thankfully.

I grabbed my things, and said farewell, and got the bus back to Chongqing, wiser than I was when I first set off. In Chongqing I rested, not bothering to see much, although I did make it to the zoo, thinking it’d be pretty pathetic to come to central China and not see pandas. Turned out it was the pandas themselves who were pretty pathetic: the ones not stuffing their faces with bamboo were passed out cold like someone had drugged them (maybe they had), and all were black and grey. It was also a bit sad to see that animal rights activism hasn’t really caught on yet over here; I gazed on in disgust as grown men and women banged on the glass, made obnoxious animal sounds, and tossed popcorn, toys, and even wrapped-up candies into cages. But Chongqing recovered from that blow by offering up some awesome hotpot and 烧烤 (shaokao, barbecue), and all was fine. The Yangtze River Hostel turned out to be a hangout for local expats as well, so I got onto my plane with the closest thing to a proper hangover that I’ve had in a while.

In sum, I had a Happy New Year, and Ten Thousand Things As I Wished, if not better! This little dragon girl wishes everyone Respectful Happiness and Emissions of Wealth in 2012, the Year of the Dragon!

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