Most cavers have been aware for many years of the huge caving potential of China. In the '80s the first Western cavers went out there with the China Caves Project, a joint endeavour with Chinese karst scientists. They brought back tales of huge shafts, river passages and miles of cave, all explored no further than generations of farmers could reach. In the last few years the Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society, founded by American Erin Lynch, has pioneered cheap expeditions to remote areas of the country. A member of my "other" caving club, Matt Ryan, had been living in China for eighteen months or so and caving with the Hong Meigui. In 2002 they discovered and explored the deepest cave in China, Qikeng Dong to -920m near the village of Tian Xing in Chongqing Municipality. I hadn't been on a caving expedition for several yearsand had got the urge again. On one of Matt's infrequent visits to the UK I discussed with him the possibility of coming out for House in Tian Xing. a month. He told me that Hong Meigui were returning to Drake Tian Xing in September and October of 2003, just a couple of months ahead. There were some strong leads that could connect a system called Dong Ba to Qikeng Dong. There was also a deep surface shaft, Da Keng, that had been explored to -80m in 2002. From the end of the rope the shaft disappeared into the depths and dropped rocks fell free for six seconds before hitting anything. How could I not go?
I flew out via Dubai and Bangkok to Hong Kong. From the new airport there I followed Matt's instructions to the centre of Kowloon. Following a steady stream of people carrying luggage took me to the ferry terminal, cunningly disguised as a
shopping centre. Tickets were available to neighbouring Macau, various islands in Hong Kong territory and to the rest of
China. I was going to the neighbouring city of Shenzhen and its airport. The jet foil trip took just an hour and a cour
tesy bus bought me to the airport. I was carrying 25kg of dehydrated food, donated to the expedition, as well as my personal and caving kit, so I was very glad of the bus in the heat. An hour and a half's aeroplane ride to Chongqing saved me two days of overland travel and I was met at the airport by Matt and his girlfriend (now wife) Apple.
Chongqing city is huge and built entirely from concrete, as are all modern Chinese cities and towns. It could not be described as pretty and in the summer has the reputation of being the hottest, dustiest place in China. Here we left Apple, who was travelling on to see her aunt. Matt and I took a four hour bus to the town of Wulong, the local administration
centre for the area we were visiting. On the way we passed through a limestone gorge with many cave entrances, probablyunexplored. The road seemed to be simultaneously under construction and falling away into the river below.
On the opposite bank concrete piers for a new railway line were springing up. The pace of construction in China is incredible. New buildings and massive civil engineering projects seem to appear overnight. After a night in Wulong we made the last two bus journeys to Tian Xing, stopping on the way to register with the local police. The last bus climbed around three thousand feet into the hills along a graded track. The bus used snow chains on the wheels to negotiate the mud.
Tian Xing is a large village in the hills. Around ten years ago they started growing tobacco and this has made them rela
tively wealthy. Many villagers now have things like twin tub washing machines and 250cc motorbikes. Buildings are a mixture of traditional, picturesque, but draughty wood farmhouses and modern, ugly and draughty concrete blocks with big roll front doors on the ground floor street entrance. Some concrete buildings featured fish ponds built into the roof as a food source. Quite how waterproof these were I never found out. We were staying in one of the draughty concrete houses.
Unfortunately it also doubled as the local all night mah-jong players den and we had many sleepless nights as a result.
The weather through my stay was starting to cool down. Most days were lightly overcast, with occasional days of rain. S
imilar in a lot of ways to Britain at that time of year. When I arrived only Duncan Col is (UK) and Ilya Boiku (Russia)
were on the surface. The other three members of the expedition were underground. Da Keng had been explored to the base of a 280m pitch. This was followed by a 200m pitch and a couple of short drops, before going horizontal. A five day camp was in progress to explore and survey the horizontal section.
A couple of days latter Erin surfaced and handed us the survey data. Duncan and I entered it into the laptop and Survex
instantly calculated the vital statistics and produced a three dimensional line survey. We walked over to the entrance j
ust as Vladimir Yurkans (Russia) and Brian Judd (UK) surfaced and we were able to inform them that they had just explored the second deepest cave in China!
The following night was a party for Vladimir and Ilya, who were leaving the next morning. They were planning to travel f
rom Chongqing to Shanghai by boat down the Yangtse. A trip of six days or so. Before Da Keng was fully derigged we wereplaning to photograph the 280m deep entrance shaft. I was tasked with organising this as
I was supposedly the most experienced photographer there. That I had done absolutely no cave photography before cut no ice. The expedition had a smal stock of huge, domestic light bulb size, flash bulbs. These are capable of lighting a chamber, large passage, or shaft. Before leaving the UK I had made some simple, cave resistant, bulb holders and firing mechanisms for these. We decided on an evening trip so that daylight filtering down from the surface wouldn't complicate the exposure.
After a long series of abseils and rebelays I arrived at the base of the shaft. It was around 10m in diameter, with the
next shaft round the corner and another six second free fall down its 200m depth.
Duncan was with me holding a flash bulb. Matt was stationed 80m above us and Brian another 100m above Matt. I had threecameras with me, set on bulb and a variety of apertures. I gave the order to fire over the two way radio and the shaft was fil ed with light and appreciative exclamations from everyone. Matt and Brian then had to change the very hot bulbs while hanging from their rebelays. Another two shots and we were done.
I had miscalculated the amount of water I would need for the trip. I was also overdressed in a Dragon oversuit and furry. The caves here were slightly warmer than in the UK. This, combined with my lack of fitness, meant that it took me over three hours to get out. A patient Duncan fol owed me up, derigging as he went and joining all the ropes together with t
hose from the lower pitches that had been pulled up by the camping team as they exited. The fol owing day we returned and hauled the ropes up from a rebelay at -80m, then from the surface. Around 800m of rope had to come up, be taken back to Tian Xing, then washed, inspected and chained.
The village postman had shown Brian a couple of entrances near his house and about forty minutes walk from Tian Xing. Brian, Matt and I went to have a look at one of these. On the way we picked up most of the inhabitants of a farm, plus a cow on a string and its calf, who fol owed us to the entrance. While an old man balanced precariously over the entrance shaft and hacked at the vegetation with a scythe, I drilled a couple of holes for thru-bolts. A long deviation to the opp
osite side gave me a free hang and I set off on my first bit of exploration in China.
Around 20m down I landed on a boulder bridge in the shaft. I had an attack of the jitters here, poised above a drop of u
nknown depth, as I searched around for a place to rebelay in the rotten flowstone walls. Eventually I placed a bolt in t
he base of the rock bridge after finding that it was well cemented together and to the shaft walls by calcite. Another 2
0m and a deviation saw me at the bottom, unfortunately with no way on.
Most shafts explored on expedition end like this, so I wasn't too disappointed. Matt and Brian joined me and we photographed the shaft and surveyed out. An uphill walk in the dark bought us back to Tian Xing, supper and beer. Beer, bottled water and coffee were all the same cost, so you took your pick.
Furong Jiang and Furong Dong
On the day Brian was due to start back for home, we took the early morning bus down the hill to the valley town of Jiang
Kou. At a village part way down the bus stopped and we had a chance to watch an open air dentist drilling a customers tooth!
A new reservoir in Jiang Kou was affecting the water levels at the bases of our caves and Erin and Dunks wanted to find
out from the operators if the reservoir was now full, or due to rise further. We also wanted to get in touch with Mr Li
of Huibang Tourism. Huibang run the Furong Dong show cave and had recently started running boat trips on the new reservoir. Hong Meigui had done some work for Huibang in the past. We were worried to hear that he was in hospital, but from his sick bed he very kindly arranged a boat trip on the reservoir for us.
We misinterpreted his instructions and turned up at the Furong Dong cave instead of the jetty for the boats. After a few phone calls a speed boat was dispatched to pick us up and in the mean time we had a look round the show cave.
Furong Dong puts the typical British show cave to shame. The scale of the passages and formations were so much grander.
The cave had been very sensitively developed with advice from Western cavers and is highly recommended if you happen to be in the area!
The lake allows easy access to some stunning limestone gorges. We saw one resurgence with several cumecs of water emerging and falling 40m to the lake. We believe that this has not been explored, but would require either a wet bolt climb up the cliff, starting from a boat, or a 300m abseil and swing in from above.
The area has troops of rare Black Leaf Monkeys. These will likely be rarer still, as when groups were spotted the boat came in close and sounded its horns to make them move. The Chinese passengers joined in by shouting at them. After a long afternoon cruising the lake we returned to the jetty and had some lunch before returning to Jiang Kou for the night.
We mainly relied on farmers to show us where there were cave entrances. Many were descended during the course of the expedition, some only dropping a few tens of metres, others going a reasonable distance.
Lou Chi Ao Kou (Xia)
Towards the end of the expedition, our landlord told us about a number of cave entrances on his land. He didn't think we would be interested as they were so small, but a couple of them had draughts of warm air coming out. This grabbed our attention and we went off with him to take a look.
The first was hidden in woodland in a smal limestone cone and descended by a couple of 4m pitches to a small decorated chamber with no way on large enough to make progress. The second however was more promising. Lou Chi Ao Kou had two entrances with draughts. One (Lou Chi Ao Kou Shang) in chossy rock, the other (Lou Chi Ao Kou Xia) in good limestone. The better entrance was soon rigged and dropped into a small chamber with two ways on, a high level and a low level crawl.
While Erin and Duncan surveyed the high level route I had a look at the low level crawl. This soon led into another chamber with a rift heading off and a small stream running on the bottom. Bridging across the rift I made progress past many of the common cave crickets and one of the not so common, but large and venomous red and black centipedes you sometimes find underground in China. This gave the name Long Leggedy Thing to the passage.
The rift continued till eventually a narrow pitch head was reached. After surveying this passage we returned to the surface.
The next trip dropped three pitches of 8, 8 and 4m. This cave had the highest entrance yet explored and was close to the deep potholes of Qikeng Dong and Da Keng. We expected it to gain depth quickly, but its character was totally different, with long winding rift passages, small pitches and small chambers, following a small stream. The lack of deep pitches got to us and one drop was named "The 260" after its awesome, vertigo inducing, 260 centimetre height.
On the last day of caving the passage entered the side of a larger passage, 3m high by 10 wide, disappearing into the distance in each direction. This cave has the potential to be the deepest in China and its further exploration became oneof the main aims for the 2004 expedition.
Dong Ba Derig
At the start of the expedition the team rigged the cave of Dong Ba in the hope of pushing a number of leads left over fr
om the 2002 expedition and hopeful y linking it to Qikeng Dong. A camp was set up at the base of the pitches, but was abandoned when the water level started to rise. The campsite had been a dry idyllic spot in 2002, but the change in the water table bought about by the new dam in the val ey had left it muddy and flood-prone. In addition the entrance pitches can take a considerable amount of water in flood and there are a series of ducks after the first two pitches that regularly sump to the roof.
During the rest of September and October there was never a long enough spell of good weather where we felt happy to risk another camp down this cave, so we reached the end and the need to pull out the camp equipment and the 800m or so of rope on the pitches. This was done in two long trips, the first taking fifteen and the second eleven hours.
For several months after I found prussiking in the Dales and Peak District a breeze as the pitches always seemed to be so short and so few in comparison. The last day was spent washing and inspecting the pile of rope and packing all the gear for the trip out. We finally finished at 2.30am, ready for a 06.30 start loading the bus.
The Long Trip Home
Travelling across China by bus and train with four people and forty nine tackle sacks, rucksacks and so on was an adventure in itself. This quantity of luggage exceeds anyone's definition of a reasonable amount for four. After much negotiation and arguments with officials, broken trolley wheels, mad dashes to bus and train stations, etc we traveled the 700 miles or so from Tian Xing to Guilin where Erin and Duncan are based. The highlight of the trip was a twenty five hour long sleeper train. Lying in your pit and watching China slowly roll by is definitely the way to travel. Each carriage had its own guard and there were people selling food along the corridors, as well as proper restaurant cars.
After helping move the gear up the four flights of stairs to Erin and Duncan's apartment Matt and I traveled on to Matt'
s home in Yangshou, an hour's bus ride away. Yangshou is famous for the limestone tower karst scenery around it and is a major tourist destination for both Chinese and foreign visitors. Despite this and the growth it has seen over recent years the town itself is still pretty charming. I spent an extra day there, rather than in Hong Kong as I'd planned, cycli
ng, eating out and doing a spot of climbing on one of the limestone towers. Final y Matt saw me onto a sleeper coach to
Shenzhen. These are relatively expensive, but another fine way to travel. A luxury coach, fitted with beds instead of seats. After negotiating the early morning Shenzhen rush hour by bus I arrived at the internal border with Hong Kong, had my temperature remotely measured by infra red camera for SARS symptoms yet again and was soon on a train for Kowloon.
I spent the day doing tourist stuff around Kowloon and Hong Kong Island before taking the bus out to the airport and my
evening flight home.
Tian Xing 2004. What Happened Next!
Hong Meigui came back to Tian Xing in 2004. I wasn't able to go this time as I had just blown al my spare money trekking in India. Lou Chi Ao Kou has been explored further to -588m at the top of a large pitch and still has the potential to be the deepest cave in China. It is a difficult cave compared with many in the area and the depth has been hard won. Further extensions were made to Da Keng and many more new caves were entered and explored. For more information on this and other Hong Meigui expeditions visit
Regular expedition updates also appear in Descent and group members have presented at Hidden Earth. My own pictures from this expedition, including the Da Keng entrance shaft, can be seen at