Asia | China | Yunnan Province | jianshui – Swallows Cave
we woke to pouring rain the morning, and our plan to climb lao yin shan is soiled. we decided to go to jian shui, a historical city about 60km west of ge jiu instead. we called uncle li and told him that we’d either get a taxi or catch a minibus at the bus station and he told us to wait in the hotel lobby for him to finalize our plan.
we told him that we didn’t want him to miss work for us.
‘don’t be stubborn. my work is not that busy. you’ve been abroad for too long. here, we’d rather miss work than neglect a friend.’
he told us that a car is ready for us when he showed up.
‘how can you do this? we can’t keep using the city government’s resources. please let us get a taxi.’
‘well, if you insist, why don’t you pay the driver and have him turn the money to our accounting dept. he’s also a good friend of mine and my driver when i go out.’
‘half of gejiu is your friend.’
‘yup. that’s the way things work here. we rely on friends. oh, there he is.’ he pointed to a white car turning around the corner. when the car pulled closer, we realized it was a police car! we weren’t so adament about rejecting his kind offer anymore.
the driver was in 30s and a quiet and stern man, but gradually opened up to us. he laughed as we pointed with awe at the buffalos carts on the side of the road and women in the minority nationality villages dressed in their colorful attires. it was the start of rain season and everything was washed fresh. the fields built in step formation on the mountains, a main attraction of yunnan, were green with newly planted rice.
our first stop was Swallow Cave, about 60km from jian shui and famous for its lime stone formation. Nowadays it’s turned into a hot touristy spot Chinese style, with a young female tour guide dressed in so-called ‘minority nationality costume’ reciting some pre-written information about the cave while the tourists were too busy snapping pictures to pay attention to her words as they echoed between the cliffs.
there is a tragic sensationalism associated with swallows cave because of the swallow nests hanging on the top of the cave, about 60m above the water underneath. for centuries, swallow nests pickers used to climb to the top of the cave with their hands and feet via the lime stone columns and sell the nests as a highly valued nutritional supplement. countless daredevils have lost their lives in this cave from a small slip, a loose grip, or simply bad luck.
nowadays a climbing performance is incorporated into swallos cave’s points of attractions. a nest picker follows a pre-designated route on the moss-covered cave wall, hanging onto limestone formations to reach the top in 6-7 minutes. the selling point of the show is that clibmers wore no protetion and there’s no security devices at the bottom of the cave either.
as teh rest of the group followed the tour guide into the cave, i went to the platform where the pickers were resting. both in their 40s and compactly built, they at first seemed shy and surprised to see a visitor.
they told me that nest-picking has been a tradition in their village since the beginning of the profession, and about 20 people in the village are nest-pickers. the training starts at about the age of 18. before swallows cave became a tourist attraction, there’s at least one accidental death in the village per year, but it never deterred the ambitious few from escalating the slippery wall year after year, making a livelihood with their lives. ‘People die for wealth and birds die for food.(a Chinese proverb)’ He sighed, face covered in the exhaled smoke of his water pipe.
after swallows cave became a tourist destination in 92,the nest pickers accessibility to the cave were limited to half a month per year and their income reduced significantly. A few ‘fortunate’ ones like himself were hired by the management to perform and make 680 yuan ($80 US) per month, which is a lot more than what they get from farming at home. The ticket to see the show costs 30 yuan. The nests they picked risking their lives are worth 300 yuan per kilo, and the price tag on the finishing product is 250 yuan per 10 grams. such is exploitation communist style.
‘Want a smoke?’ He passed the foot-long bamboo water pipe to dad. being the man in the family, he got all the respect and questions wherever we went.
i took the offer for him. those big pipes always intrigued me. he put some tobacco in the sidearm at the bottom of the pipe, and i inhaled as much as my lungs allowed with the top of the pipe over my mouth. the smoke went straight to my throat and i started coughing while they laughed at my lack of expertise. i said ‘take care’ as we left, hoping that they’d be blessed with the same luck until their retirement.