Our plane, a small narrow bodied jet on which the faint but unmistakable logo of Aeroflot could still be seen through the inadequate ‘Air
We were also the only people in the whole enormous dining room. The impression was that it had opened solely for our visit.
At the hotel our luggage hadn’t turned up. By now we should have learned the lesson but still no-one had thought to pack anything as sensible and practical as a spare T-shirt into their hand luggage. As it was 90 degrees and we had exploded into soaking perspiring sponges the moment we had left the plane, we were in need of a change of clothes. Robert checked us in while Hector went back to the airport to find out where our changes of clothes had all gone. There was just time for a quick shower to get rid of some of the sweat and cool down before climbing back into the dirty clothes and heading out to the
The drive out to the
The caves, when we reached them, were extremely busy. Crowds of people were waiting to be admitted. We queued with joined them for over an hour in the small, shadeless concrete waiting area. The sun was even hotter now that it was at its afternoon zenith and we were all on the verge of heat-stroke when we finally stepped into the cool dark interior.
Those strange conical mountains are limestone and they are pitted with caverns that have the usual weird limestone stalagmite and stalactite formations. We went down the steep path and entered an enchanted fairyland. Coloured spotlights in dozens of hues and shades had been cunningly hidden among the rocks to illuminate the various features and formations, casting gargantuan multicoloured shadows around them. For more than an hour we followed the path. At the very lowest point of the cave system was a vast natural hall with a perfectly still underground lake that reflected the gorgeously lit roof as if it were a polished mirror. I had never seen anything like it and even now, years later, when I have been in cave systems in many parts of the world, even in the mighty Carlsbad caverns, it still remains the most wonderful of them all. Purists will disagree, saying that what I found so entertaining was the light show, that the caverns themselves were much less spectacular than others, that to appreciate the natural beauty would have been better than the art and artifice of the
Back at the Hotel there was still no luggage. There was however an extremely harassed Hector. Our bags, he said, were safe. Unfortunately the reason that they were safe was that the authorities at the airport had impounded them. He was negotiating for their release. It wasn’t an uncommon problem. All that was needed was a sufficiently large bribe and we would get everything back. Meanwhile we should eat dinner, have a few drinks and a sound nights sleep and wait until morning.
We took the advice and sure enough, when we woke up, our suitcases were outside our doors. OK, the locks were open and broken, clearly having been forced. Inside everything was messed up but seemed to be complete. I didn’t know whether to be pleased or insulted that none of my things had been worth stealing.
I selected some clean clothes from the jumbled together mess and got ready to attempt breakfast. The anti-malarial tablet that I had taken was making me severely nauseous but I went down anyway. By the time I reached the dining room I felt dreadful. The sight and smell of breakfast unleashed a fresh assault from my quivering stomach. I forced down a glass of juice and retreated to my room. It looked as if I might have to miss today's trip on the river Li and spend the time in a darkened room. I lay down on the bed and closed my eyes.
An insistent knocking at the door woke me. I looked at the clock. I had had about two hours extra sleep. The knocking proved to be Robert, checking up on whether I wanted to take the boat trip or not. I was still feeling ill but the immediacy of the problem had eased so I decided to go after all.
Down at the docks there wasn’t one boat there were dozens, a flotilla that looked like a re-enactment of
The convoy moved out and the combination of the fresh air and the lovely day started to blow away my sickness. I was glad I had come.
Out on the river the cormorant fishermen were at their business. They fish with trained cormorants, slipping a noose around their necks to stop them swallowing their catch. I watched one release his bird into the air. It hovered for a few moments then swooped down to skim the surface rising again a moment later with a large fish in its talons. It circled back to the boat it had come from to deliver its catch.
We drifted lazily down the river through a magnificent landscape. It was tranquil and serene and a perfect change of pace from the frantic sightseeing that had filled the days until now. At the back of the boat was a kitchen where cooks were busy preparing our lunch. We ate inside the boat and considering the cramped conditions in which it had been prepared the meal was excellent.
After lunch, all nausea gone I wandered back outside to simply watch the world drifting by.
It seemed that there were many things that were common in our wanderings wherever we went in
In the interval I had another unlikely encounter that left me chuckling for the rest of the evening. I had found out in conversation with Robert that many of the jobs in