China’s Great Arch of Getu

China’s Great Arch of Getu

China's great arch of getu

In the burgeoning domain of Chinese domestic tourism, natural wonders clash with artificial installments


UPDATE, 11/22/2018: Getu’s Arch is closed until further notice at the moment. It’s possible to sneak in but you’ll have to take the stairs. Big renovations are currently underway in the whole of the valley. 

China's Great Arch of Getu

China has a few attractions that demand an explanation of their awesomeness in their names; in this case, the Great Wall and the Great Arch of Getu. We’ve all heard of the Great Wall. Not so much Getu’s Great Arch.

Tucked away about 2 hours drive from the provincial capital of Guizhou province (one of China’s most rural and rugged) is a natural marvel of open space and delicate curves, housing millions (no exaggeration) of birds and some of the hardest and most epic roof climbs in the World. Though China boasts the planet’s longest and highest arches respectively, Getu has it’s appeal as a natural amphitheater for both biodiversity and human activity.

Arch of Getu

The first glimpse of the river, cave mouth, and arch can be described as borderline mythical. Thousands of birds are pasted across the sky, with songs that rise and fall with the piping of the wind through the arch. An icy river meanders into the mouth of a cave and eventually spills into what is supposedly the largest underground cave room on Earth, the Miao room, yet unopened to visitors and cavers alike. Best of all, unlike other Chinese tourist haunts, the place is devoid of thronging crowds.

Light Streaking through the Arch of Getu

It’s easy to be overcome with rapture, then, and wax poetic about the landscape. However, there is another impression of the place that leaves a stain on it’s reputation, notably regarding natural values in the face of burgeoning tourism and government regulation and interference.


Decrying the actions that people and governments take, in their own countries with their own resources, can be a point of contention. The anthropological view from the outside, called cultural relativism, states that we ought not make moral judgments about customs that arise as a part of people’s culture.

While this is well and good (though, some would say, philosophically defunct) we must be careful to take it too far, especially where the line between acculturation and governmental action is concerned. While this point applies here tangentially, the case with Getu more cut-and-dry.

arch of getu largest cave chamber
Steps which straddle a river leading to the world’s largest cave chamber by volume

There’s a series of steps, many overlaid with concrete, carved into the cave as you as ascend towards the arch. Though a subtle defamation of the cliffs, this can be forgiven, especially because of how common these steps are in Chinese natural areas (hiking in populated areas in China means ascending an endless amount of artificial steps gorged into the mountain).


However, as you approach a natural oculus that springs from the ceiling into to the jungle, you see a curious sight. Against the backdrop of dampened moss and water-worn boulders stands a glass elevator that takes visitors past the mouth of the giant skylight.

Elevator leading to Great Arch of Getu
The elevator in question

After the Petzl Roc Trip to the Great Arch, The Chinese government expected a wave of mass tourism, and prepared accordingly. Their preparation, though, was in the vein of catering to not-quite-off-the-beaten-track travelers, of whom often demand accessibility to be carved out of ruggedness. The government seized land from farmers, private property-ownership was abolished around the arch, and construction began. The elevator stands as a legacy of this, as does a prim concrete slab housing a bathroom in the skeleton of a building that was supposed to be a restaurant (directly under the arch proper).

Great arch of Getu

The only thing that has saved the area from further degradation, in fact, is the lack of that expected  tourism boom. Guizhou remains less popular than Yunnan and Sichuan for both natural resource and cultural excursions, and the climbing at Getu is fantastic but multi-pitch grades are stiff. Tourism flows here at a low ebb, often forsaken for Miao villages and river rafting ventures more proximal to the city of Guiyang.

Yet the elevator still stands as a bastion to pacification in tourism. It’s not easy to bushwhack through the jungle; hell, it’s not even easy to take a trail strewn with dirt and mud and roots. Stairs, though, those are familiar. And an elevator? That’s convenience of the highest order. Imagine taking in the vista of a sublimely karsted valley while enjoying hors d’oeuvres and a glass of Chianti at a newly furbished eatery. For many weekend travelers, this seems appealing, with the modifications being a non-issue.

View From Getu's Great Arch
View from the platform under the great arch

There’s a correlation between the uniqueness of a natural destination and its wildness, however. Places truly unlike any others often offer up a minimum of interplay with humans and human structures. They’re holy, far-flung destinations, and their uniqueness conjures up a flare of exoticism. We tend to tread lightly in their midst. This is how it should be. We’re awed in the face of the unspoiled, and the unspoiled expresses itself most fully in the unique.

The excesses of restaurants and elevators, then, don’t have their place mingling with our natural wonders. To have a moment of cavernous presence squashed by the ringing bell of a mechanical operation is to lose a sort of opportunity that can’t be gotten back.

Staring into the cave mouth at the arch of Getu

I would entreat anyone to drop the façade of their relativism and understand that these great places simply can’t be sanitized without losing something implacable.

Values, then. Valuing what is unspoiled over what’s modern, at least in singular places. Valuing the slow pang of beauty in your abdomen over convenience. And, most of all, having the ability to value anything at all over making money, or appeasing vanity, or catering to a poshy market.

It’s a testament, though, to how these natural places endure that they retain their awesome quality regardless. And I mean awe-some in its form of evoking awe, because a strip of plastered glass is still naught but a ribbon floating in a river of space by contrast to what can be seen around you here.

Space and Contrast from inside the Arch of Getu

These thoughts and more had traversed my mind during the trip, but I was still allowed to behold one of the most excellently kept natural secrets in China. The climbing was world-class (though I couldn’t do much), as were the people and performances.

The locals, still prostrate even as tourist marvels, continue to climb barefoot and with dizzying speed to the nest of a flag that they wave for the people below. The climbing and the place are written into their blood, and even their minor celebrity can’t pierce or displace their humbleness.

In them, the cave, and the arch one can detect a bit of sentiment, and even a challenge; let the modern come, with all its trappings, as it’s only a drop of bitter fluid in the clear, cool water of the meandering river below.

More light streaking through the Arch


Tips and advice

  • To get there, you’ll start out in Guiyang (贵阳), the provincial capital of China’s Guizhou province. From the airport or any other location in Guiyang, hail a cab or find yourself a ‘hei che’, also known as a black car, to take you to Jin Yang Ke Che Zhan (金阳客车站), Guiyang’s central bus station. Buy a ticket to Zi Yun (紫云), which is the closest town to Getu National Park. The ride is spectacular and you can arrange transportation to Getu in Zi Yun. You can also arrange a visit with a local tour operator, which may be a superior option if your Chinese is next to none.

 

  • If you can swing it, bring a Chinese friend with you. Guiyang, and especially the rural areas outside of it, are essentially English dead-zones. When asking for directions or place names, it’s helpful to convince a local to write things down for you, things that you can show taxi drivers who are certain to know only Chinese, and likely only the local dialect of Guiyang Hua. Once you’ve arrived at the tourism office before the entrance to the park proper, they’ll be able to negotiate a package for you should you decide to bring a guide.

 

  • As far as guides are concerned, you’ll want one if you feel like climbing and don’t have a rope. They can be hired at the large tourism center where one is dropped off by their bus or taxi. One of the local Getu climbers (again, don’t expect them to speak English) will take you whatever route you want, unless of course you’re opting for 5.14s. If you are, you’ll probably have your own rope. The cost is about 150 yuan, a paltry sum.

 

  • Stop over at the local Miao villages in the area. You may catch a performance of knife-ladder climbing, and the food is cheap.

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