One enters Baimo Cave through a small, water-curtained orifice. Once inside, a lofty vault in the limestone is revealed – an illuminated chamber decorated by evocative natural rock sculptures. While our tour guide points to a tangled stalagmite, observing with classic Chinese symbolism, “This one is called Peacock in his Pride Worshiping Avalostesvara,” I find myself distracted by the sound and sight of water bursting out of every crack and vent. It drips from the ceiling, while subterranean streams surge underfoot, suggesting just how Bama County’s cragged landscape has been shaped, inside and out.
Deep inside the cave’s sanctum we come upon several people sitting on rocks, some meditating, some merely lazing around, others bartering prices for local produce from nagging Bama farmers. But all, my companion explains, are bound by a belief in the healing properties of the cave stone.
“They buy monthly passes,” says Zhang Xingyuan, a kindly local businesswoman who is showing me around, “and come here daily from nearby Poyue Town. Sometimes they even hold events in the cave.”
The old market town of Poyue, located just up river, caters to China’s sick and stricken (as well as a fair few hypochondriacs). But don’t expect to see hospitals or care homes. Traditionally, Poyue was a place where ethnic Zhuang and Yao villagers – those native to this remote region of Guangxi Province in China’s deep south – traded wares. Nowadays, its economy has expanded to accommodate part and full-time migrants from the industrial north and east. All along its muddled streets, opportunistic rural folk hawk rare fungi, strange herbs and organic vegetables to those seeking refuge from China’s choking megacities.
These ailing exiles perched on Baimo’s rocks like stone lions, seem to give credence to the cave’s name, which literally means Cave of A Hundred Ghosts. It’s a strange, almost haunting sight, especially when one considers some people are here in a last-ditch effort to ward off an untimely death. Others, of course, are in the process of recovery, their malaise fading with the weeks, months - sometimes years - they spend in the bosom of Bama’s bounty.
To come to understand exactly why these misfortunate mortals afford such a deep belief in Bama’s supernatural powers, one only has to accost a Bama local. We occasioned on Mrs. Yang, a diminutive, vivacious Yao lady who was following the ancient path from Poyue to the mountain-lands, where the Yao minority people traditionally dwell.
“I’m 99 years old,” she gloats. “You wouldn’t know it would you? I’ve just been down to buy some corn, corn porridge is key to a long life, you should come to my village for lunch if you want to stay healthy.”
We politely decline the offer, as Zhang Xingyuan wants to me to have lunch in a restaurant she likes in Longevity Village.
“All this food is locally grown,” she says of the wok-fried greens and sumptuous tofu she has ordered. “It’s what the villagers eat to stay healthy.”
Longevity Village is a riverside town typical to this area of Guangxi Province: shabby village houses face the river, their backs clinging to the limestone crags, while opposite the luminous green of rice paddies dominates the lowlands. Except the Zhuang people here have largely given up farming in favour of a new, far easier means of making money, namely tourism.
All day coaches bus-in wide-eyed sightseers from affluent places like neighbouring Guangdong Province, to stock-up on everything from Bama spring water to Bama wild tea.
As if anyone were in any doubt about Bama’s capacity to heal, a billboard poster boasts that Longevity Village is home to five of the oldest people on earth, including six centenarians, the eldest of which is Mr. Huang Xinbo who was allegedly born in 1898. This makes him a startling 117-years-old. What’s more, one can visit these remarkable elders who while-away the days in the front rooms of Longevity Village’s many guesthouses and eateries, welcoming lucky red envelopes in exchange for a photo or a blessing.
I decide to spend the afternoon in the village and check into The Source of Life Good Health Hotel. It’s a lovely, inexpensive riverside guesthouse operated by the Huang family. 77-year-old grandfather Huang Songmo welcomes me.
“Before the road came in 2007 not many outsiders visited Bama,” he tells me, an indication of how new tourism is, and how unbroken rural tradition had been before the world learned of Bama folk’s long lifespans.
“We often have five generations dining together,” says Huang’s son.
Indeed, nimbly operating her chopsticks in the corner, Huang’s mother Huang Ma Songmo is enjoying the meal, despite claiming to be 112-years-old, born in the reign of Emperor Guangxu in the last years the Qing dynasty.
The next day I look out over the surging Panyang River and try to digest this imprecise, if enchanting, belief that locals and outsiders share in the restorative magic of Bama. Of course, one most consider Chinese Traditional Medicine (TCM) when trying to grasp Bama’s allure. There is a long tradition in China in the idea that rare and exotic products have mystical properties, and the long lives of Bama villagers support this view.
But for me it was not so much the rocks, the rare foods, or corn stew that has made Bama a cradle of wellbeing. As TCM focuses on holistic cures, one has to absorb the environment in its entirety, to consider the many factors that have enabled Bama to foster healthy long lives: its mountain-filtered water, its fresh and varied produce, and perhaps most importantly, its isolation from the ills of the world.
Alas, the world beyond is now seeping in, and will inevitably erode what made Bama so remarkable, namely, its isolation.