During my month-long travels through the countryside of China, I have visited several inspiring natural wonders. Some I have seen before and others I am seeing for the first time. Yesterday I visited an amazing natural sight near Gui Hua village, which is near the town of Da Fang and the city of Bi Jie, about a four-hour drive from Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province in southwest China. The destination was a local place of some legend, Jiu Dong Tian, or Nine Caves and Sky. From Da Fang, we took the short route, which wound precariously up, around, over, and down countless small mountains. As a benefit of my wife’s childhood school days in the area, we were provided with a four-wheel-drive police car and her classmate (now a local judge) was our guide. After nearly an hour and a half, with another 45 minutes to go, we could go no further.

The road in front of our car had collapsed, taking a nearby house with it. Debris was strewn down the hillside below. After some deliberation, two options were presented. We either had to turn back, potentially abandoning our goal, or walk across the narrow pathway above the vacant road bed. Cars would be sent from Bi Jie to meet us on the other side. After half an hour or so, we received the call that the cars had arrived. We carefully walked across the mixture of boulders, sand, and mud and reached solid ground without incident. We transferred into the new cars and continued on our way.

The uneven pavement turned to gravel. Gravel turned to stone. Stone turned to packed earth. The recent rainfall (added to the erosion of years past) had created deep ruts in the trail. The vehicles finally came to a stop at a coal-gravel car park. The area is also one of China’s main suppliers of coal and energy. We got down from our rides and walked toward the entry booth, passing what appeared to be a few abandoned food or merchandise kiosks. This was obviously not on the list of Top 10 tourist destinations. With threatening skies, we walked down the slippery, but well cared for, cement pathway, noticing a drop in temperature with nearly every step. In moments, we reached the wide-opened mouth of a huge cave with stalactites hanging from high above. The whole picture resembled the gaping maw of a grotesque, prehistoric dragon.

Narrow staircases had been constructed by which to scale the walls of the cavern. They connect the labyrinth of small caves that honeycomb the rock wall. Turning frequently to look from where we had come, we noticed that the entrance and exit of each tunnel gave a different view of the great vertical opening of the cavern. The ever-present bit of sky offered a welcome glimpse of the outside and explained the cavern’s name. A fierce thunderstorm resulted in a loss of power to the caves. Lit by flashlight, the mood of the climb seemed even more ominous. Tight crawls, uneven steps, wet and mineral-encrusted walls, and the dank smell of ancient air created an eerie feeling as we wound our way through the catacombs. At last, encouraged by a hopeful flicker of light from above, we ascended a staircase.

The staircase opened to a kind of balcony, which gave a bird’s eye view of a river far below and the sheer vertical cliffs opposite. This was most likely the origin of the cave, now perched high above the river. We had reached the end of the first of the nine caves. Realizing we were safer where we were than out in the open, we enjoyed the falling rain and blustering wind within our impenetrable stone fortress.

As the storm abated, we made our way back down to the floor of the cavern. As a reward for our intrepid spirit, one of our escorts presented me with a tin of a locally grown tea.  This special gift, known by the same name of Jiu Dong Tian, was grown not far from the caves and was picked before Qing Ming (April 4-6 on the western calendar). The long, slender bud and leaf sets smelled fresh and sweet. It was a fitting treat; after reversing our earlier route and reclaiming our original cars, we made it back home and enjoyed the delicate and very welcomed refreshment of the precious leaves.