Volume 34 Number 3 Article 3
The 1996 Yangtze Caves Expedition
or Where Have All the Chicken Breasts Gone?
In 1988-89, Ian James and I spent several months planning a large Combined Services caving expedition to the Tian Shan mountains on the border between China and Kazakhstan. With three months to go, the Tiananman Square massacre took place in Beijing, the expedition was off, and the complete ban on army expeditions to China, which persists to this day, was put in place. This was a great disappointment and I had resigned myself to never having the chance to explore caves in China. Then, during a visit to the BCRA AGM in September 1995, Laurie and I received an invitation from Andy Eavis to join the 1996 expedition to Sichuan province. This was to be the biggest and most complex of the series so far, so we had no trouble in accepting.
To cut a long story short, we accepted, managed to obtain exceptional permission to travel to China from the Foreign Office and MOD, and on 25th July found ourselves with a huge pile of equipment at Heathrow, waiting to catch the evening flight to Beijing with three other members of the advance party. We were to fly via Beijing to Chongqing (Where? - only a city of 12 million people situated on the Yangtze River two and a half hours flying time south of Beijing!) and from there travel by road through a large tract of China normally closed to foreigners, to conduct a recce of a high mountain plateau at over 2000 m called Hong Chi Ba and then move on to Jiang Kou in Wulong County to meet up with the remainder of the team. I cannot remember what time my stomach thought it was, when we sat down to our first real Chinese meal at 22:00 hours local time in Chongqing, but that was the point when the great chicken breast hunt began. Amongst other delicacies we were given chicken wing tips, knees, elbows and chopped back bone, not to mention the speciality de la maison, battered and deep fried feet, but no breast.
The following morning, after a breakfast of steamed dumplings which were reminiscent of smelly face flannels, and assorted bits of chicken carcass, we hit the road for what was to be amongst the most fascinating few weeks of our lives. Hong Chi Ba was not far away as the crow flies, but the journey lasted three days. Ten of us, accompanied by a mound of rucksacks, tackle bags and boxes of mineral water headed off in the expedition transport, a grossly overloaded minibus, designed for use in a city. The first 20km were no problem, because the roads immediately around the city were fine. Thereafter, they varied from poor to appalling and nigh-on impassable, even in dry conditions. Within 45 minutes of setting off we hit our first snag. Coming around a bend we met a tar lorry which had just finished laying down a 1 cm layer of sticky tar all over a 500 m section of the road. We then sat for two hours whilst twenty men with shovels and baskets threw stone chippings on it. There is absolutely no point in getting concerned about this sort of thing. It happens all the time. At least there we had a road surface (eventually). Over the next three days, we lost half our exhaust system twice, the back bumper once, punctured the sump on boulders, had six punctures, overheated the brakes repeatedly and spent hours filling in holes, or clearing piles of stones, so that the vehicle could pass the worst sections.
The chicken breast hunt continued, as we stopped at numerous wayside snack bars for meals. We ate noodles, more chicken bones, rice and loads of vegetables, then we discovered fish. Now a nation which adores battered hens' feet, fried pigs ears and tails and cooks its pork with a blow lamp, is probably going to have a funny way with fish - and so it proved. Ignoring the fillets of carp which were served lightly battered in a superb ginger sauce, the Chinese members of the team tucked into a soup of fins, tails, and, yummiest of all, heads. They practically fought over who was going to have the lips, said to be the finest part of the fish. Various delays, especially the broken sump caused alterations to our itinerary, but meant that we stayed in some amazing places, right off the beaten track. Because the whole of our journey after Chongqing was through sections of the country forbidden to non-Chinese, it was only thanks to our special internal passport that we avoided trouble with the local authorities.
This powerful document worked wonders on several occasions. It was even used one night when we pulled into a town after dark to find that the only "hotel" was full. To our amazement, the Chinese waved the passport and the management turfed out several Chinese travellers from their rooms to make space for us. We had nothing to do with the mechanics of this operation, but did feel that it was probably doing little for Sino-British relationships, especially in the case of the couple who were actually engaged in what can best be described as a naked and athletic embrace at the precise moment the management burst in and told them to move. That said, no other effort was made to improve the presentation of the rooms, so we moved into hot beds, accompanied by full ashtrays and a floor covered in rubbish, the dumping of which is another national pastime.
The loos in China involve a voyage back in time to when the cess pit ruled. There is never any paper, so an essential travelling item is a roll or two of Andrex: if you are a European that is. At the "hotel" just mentioned, there was evidence that previous occupants of the "ten-holer" gents had been using old playing cards. We never quite worked out how they coped with the problem of the shiny surface, or the size for that matter. But to jump ahead slightly, that was not the most interesting lavatorial experience. In the country areas, all the farm houses feature large wooden buildings, roughly partitioned, with spaced planks for obvious use. Both the humans and the animals contribute and the resulting slurry is carried in buckets to the fields to boost fertility. Some of our team spent several days at one place that only had a small outhouse, and that was permanently occupied by a very friendly pig. As a result, whenever any of them wanted to "go", they had to take a stick in with them and scratch the pig's back, to avoid being bowled over at the critical moment.
After three days on the road and many adventures, we jolted up to Hong Chi Ba from the small town of Weng Fyng. As we climbed higher, the views became progressively more spectacular. This is an area of cone karst, the type of limestone topography that tends to contain deep caves. The classic tower karst of the Guilin area of Southern China is somewhat different. It looks extraordinary, but the water table is high and cave development tends to be restricted and mostly horizontal. We had high hopes for the potential of this area, especially because it rises to 2500 m and thus has a theoretical depth potential of around 2000 m. This magnificent region was practically deforested during Mao's "Great Leap Forward" and this has had two effects detrimental to cavers. First, run off increased dramatically, despite recent attempts to replace the cut down trees. This has washed huge quantities of mud and vegetation into the caves, blocking most of them. Second, the loss of primary tree cover has produced a dense type of "secondary jungle", which is extremely difficult to penetrate.
Nothing daunted, the five of us conducted a concentrated recce of as much of the area as we could cover in three days. This task was additionally complicated because we were not allowed to use our Russian 1:100 k topographical maps in country, and had to rely on local guides to a large extent. We had, however, identified several points of interest in advance, had loaded them on to hand-held GPS instruments as waypoints, and were able to walk right up to a number of places, which turned out to be active river sinks and caves, just as we had predicted back in Europe. Most unfortunately, one really promising site where three rivers sank, and which featured a powerful and very cold draught rather similar to the Berger, only extended to a few hundred metres of passage and large chambers; interesting, but not of earth-shattering importance. More worthwhile was a series of very deep shafts we were shown on the third and final day of the recce, but before that we experienced a "white-knuckle ride" to put any at Alton Towers in the shade.
We had been given a lift in an extremely ancient FWD vehicle, because the road was completely beyond the minibus. None of the electrical equipment worked, not even the wipers, which was a pity because it was raining quite heavily. There were no intact head or tail lights, though the main beam indicator was shining brightly on the dashboard. The shock absorbers had given up the ghost, the tyres were iffy and the steering left much to be desired. When we returned to the vehicle after our trip, it was drizzling and starting to go dark. The driver emerged, eventually, from a building and we were unsure if he was drunk or just knackered from a long session with his girlfriend. We then proceeded along the very narrow and bumpy track back to Hong Chi Ba. At the summit of the pass at 2500 m, in the gathering gloom, the driver put the vehicle in neutral, switched off the engine and coasted for the next 10 km to save fuel, as we descended the unguarded hairpin bends and narrow bridges back down to the valley. The vehicle lurched and bumped sickeningly, centimetres from dizzying drops, whilst the cavers grew steadily more petrified and the driver calmly smoked a cigarette, steered with one hand whilst turning to speak to a mate of his in the back and avoided using the brakes, presumably so as not to lose valuable momentum... Accept a lift in China, and watch your life flash before your eyes!
Split into two groups we tackled Liang Feng Dong and Pian Keng Dong, (Dong = cave). These were the most promising holes and they were situated nearest the road. Unfortunately their very depth and complexity prevented us from bottoming either, which was a shame, because they could well have led into longer systems, and we could have verified how many "enemies of the people" had been thrown down them. Nevertheless a long and rewarding day was spent, hacking through undergrowth to reach them, "gardening" the ledges aid placing numerous expansion bolts to take the line of descent away from falling debris and boulders. Both teams had made around 100 m of depth by the time a halt was called, and stones thrown down were falling at least the same distance again. A return visit could well prove extremely rewarding, because we were assured that the shafts we had visited were simply two of many.
Life up at Hong Chi Ba was the toughest we encountered in China. It has only been settled by a hardy group of individuals in the last few years after a road was built up to the plateau, and farming is distinctly marginal. The population have worked the land up to a very high standard by hard work, using hand tools only. There is no electricity, except for limited use of a generator in the evenings, no other services and none of the facilities of a town or village. However, thanks to backbreaking toil for small returns, crops are being produced and cattle raised. One evening we heard that a professional karaoke performer would be visiting, so we went along. The performance was held in a fairly large community room, and sure enough in front of the marvelling eyes of the locals, a laser disc wide screen karaoke machine was set up, and the performer led the way by taking the majority of the songs himself. As our eyes wandered around the room, we noticed young people, whom we had seen carrying buckets of slurry into the fields earlier that day, being treated to soft focus scenes of beautiful young things on sunny beaches, dressed in skimpy bikinis and lying back suggestively on the bonnets of fast cars. The contrast with their daily grind could hardly have been more marked. Of all the amazing or startling things we witnessed on our trip, this was by far the most striking.
Because of the necessity to link up with the remainder of the team at Jiang Kou, we had to leave the Hong Chi Ba area and tackle more appalling roads, deep fried hens' feet and fish heads to be there on time. We drove through places where everyone for miles was contributing to environmental pollution by burning large amounts of poor coal in backyard brick and tile kilns, and where attempts at improving the roads were thwarted by the peasants who had annexed large sections of newly laid carriageway for drying maize and other cereals. No chance of driving over the stuff either, because the grain was surrounded by large boulders. The second day of the trip from, Kai Man to Dieng Jiang was a real epic. We set off at 07:00 and arrived at 22:45, having covered precisely 120 km as the crow flies. In a day to remember, we had three punctures and a two hour wait at road works.
The road works were a story in themselves. About mid-morning, we arrived in a small town, where a sea of mud proclaimed a road widening programme. As we approached the town centre, we came up against a lorry which had broken down in a section of single lane working, forcing those vehicles which were capable of doing so, to drive around it, and drop down a 75cm vertical bank in order to continue. When we reached it, it was too great a drop for the minibus, so we set about finding some tools to make a ramp. This action caused a surge in traffic from the other direction; it was clear that we would not be moving quickly, so we decided to wander past the obstruction and enjoy the fun. A few metres further on, we saw numerous broken windows, and then two Chinese workers running towards us, waving their arms. We then noticed that despite the fact that the road works were in the town centre, the principle means of construction was to drill shotholes vertically, to fire them, then to clear the debris by hand. As usual, there were no red flags and nothing was cordoned off, so we had just been about to step onto a "minefield" of 12 loaded and tamped shotholes: hence the warning.
In the meantime, a small minibus, coming up through the one-way section had also broken down, so confusion reigned. Nobody was willing to help the driver fix a tow rope, because the vehicle was in 10 cm of liquid mud, so that also took time to resolve. In the meantime help for the original stricken lorry was sought, and a local official tried to stem the flow of further traffic into the area. However, in scenes reminiscent of the Wacky Races, more and more vehicles piled up from both directions, driving over mounds of builders' rubble, across pavements etc, all trying to circumvent the difficulty - and not succeeding. Interested spectators began to gather, especially near the newly-laid "minefield", and the workmen, fed up with issuing repeated warnings, retired to a snack bar for a drink, and let fate take over. Time passed, frustration built up, then one enterprising motorcyclist discovered a route through the road works. This took him, had he but known it, straight through the "minefield". Others, having observed his success, followed on, so for the next 45 minutes, whilst the situation slowly resolved itself, a steady trickle of motorcyclists rode, blissfully unaware, over about 10 kg of tamped charges, with their detonators in position. We could only watch in breathless amazement from a safe distance. But perhaps we were worried over nothing. Nobody was blown up.
Later that day, whilst we were halted in one town to buy a new tyre, the driver was taken away by the police and fined for parking! (Corruption, of course; they could see that the vehicle was from another province and that the occupants would be able to pay). To add to the fun, a complete road blockage later meant that we had to pay a local highwayman the equivalent of £3 (i.e. three days' average pay), to show us the way to an alternate route, the extra distance meant that we ran out of petrol, and then, to cap it all, a motorcyclist attempting to pass us on a narrow section, ran up a bank and into a bamboo thicket. Unscathed, blaming us, and very unhappy, he caught us up some kilometres later, and punched the driver through his open window! We eventually arrived, hot, sticky and caked in dust, but we soon cheered up with a midnight meal at a pavement cafe and several bottles of the excellent local beer - 16p per pint, incidentally.
By 3rd August, following another memorable day of travel, we had finally linked up with the remainder of the team at Jiang Kou. Highlights of this section of the journey were crossing the Yangtze river at Fuling on a vehicle ferry which comprised a battered old pontoon lashed to a tug, and negotiating an absolutely heroic piece of road construction between Wulong and Jiang Kou, where the road was being blasted out of a cliff on the side of a gorge high above the river for 20 km. The continuing work was the source of numerous hairy moments as our vehicle edged on liquid mud round piles of boulders and other blast debris a few centimetres from yawning drops.
The following day, the entire team visited the nearby Furong Dong, recently discovered, and one of the world's finest show caves. During a team meeting it was agreed that we would divide our efforts for a few days. Eight members would transfer to the village of Tian Man, high above Jiang Kou, where there were known to be deep caves and considerable potential for further discoveries. The remaining four, including Laurie and me, would work in and around Jiang Kou. In the event, this decision was liberally interpreted by our Chinese hosts. A further day of work in the massive Furong Dong, during which we attempted, unsuccessfully, to extend the system, was followed by four days in a dramatic karst area above Wulong, where a band of Silurian shale at 1100 m causes numerous cave systems to resurge as springs or large horizontal systems.
During this period we were accommodated in an old school at Qing Sui. We had the use of a classroom , and made up a sleeping platform on top of several desks pushed together. The food here was plentiful and varied, but almost completely vegetarian. They took trouble to cater for our every need, even offering us beer for breakfast - shades of Henry VIII. In the course of three days of intensive work, we surveyed numerous caves, including on the first day, a 2 km long system called Chiao Zhe Dong, which meandered, joint-controlled, back into a hillside. The passages were of railway tunnel dimensions, about 8-10 m wide by 4 m high. We were far from being the first visitors; the cave had clearly been worked extensively in antiquity to extract saltpetre for gunpowder production, but it was nevertheless most interesting. The following day, we explored Xia Dong, a cave with an entrance so large that an industrial calcite crushing plant was installed in the entrance. This was similar to Chiao Zhe Dong, but only 1 km long and intercepted by an active stream. Other highlights of this period were our visit to a large resurgence cave, producing 4 cubic metres of water per second which was canalised and used no fewer than three times by different hydro-electric power stations lower down the mountain. Unfortunately, despite having a very large entrance, it sumped after only 250 m. 30 m above it, however, was a large cave entrance approached by a traverse along a narrow ledge, which had once been fortified and used as a place of refuge in troubled times by the local people.
It is often difficult to say just how ancient such features are in China, because caves were frequently resorted to as late as 1949, during the turbulence of the communist takeover. Certainly this one, Lao Long Dong, had numerous interesting features, such as water storage tanks, a 8.5 cu m (grain storage?) pit and a shrine built on the site of an ancient Taoist temple, which had been tom down by the communists. The re-emergence of the shrine was unusual enough, the gathering together of piles of old and broken religious statuettes was too; but the most remarkable feature of the altar, was that amongst the new votive offerings, were several miniatures of Chairman Mao. This bizarre juxtaposition was either a case of Mao being placed alongside the Gods in the order of things, or the peasantry insuring against all future possibilities.
Our journey back to Jiang Kou was punctuated by a three hour delay, when an overenthusiastic blasting team blocked the entire road with a series of huge explosions which brought down hundreds of tons of rock, but finally we were back, and we linked up with the rest of the team at Tian Man the following day. We had surveyed 3.5 km of passage, and they, despite the vagaries of the weather, had pushed several caves down to the 400m-500m mark. With all twelve members working together for the final two weeks of the expedition, a great deal of ground was covered, many caves were visited, and some of the hardest and technically most complex caving thus far attempted in China, was carried out. Surface recces with local guides, or to places predicted off the maps were carried out, and as is inevitable on such trips, a team of ferrets led by Dave Brook was still turning up "new" caves the day before our departure. Some of these days were extremely hard going. The temperature was in the upper 30s Celsius with high humidity at times, and many of the caves were 1-2 hours steep walking from our base.
On 20th August I had to fetch some supplies from Jiang Kou. The town is about 6km as the crow flies from Tian Xing, but the journey takes an hour and three quarters by tortuous road. Immediately before we left, a further 12 Chinese villagers piled in to the minibus to take advantage of a rare lift. Sitting behind me was a woman in her early twenties who was perspiring slightly and looking uneasy. Travel sickness is very common in rural China, so I hoped that she was not going to be sick on me during the rough, lurching journey. We arrived without incident, but there was an unexpected delay before we could set off on our return to Tian Xing. The reason soon became clear, when we realised that we had an extra passenger; the woman had been in the later stages of labour with her first baby. She had not made a sound, nor did she during the equally rough return. To cap it all, when we visited her some three hours later to give her a present for her new daughter, she was busy doing some house work.
During this part of the expedition, we were rather spartanly accommodated, in part of a large farmhouse. Many chose to sleep on rush mats on the floor, but some of us made "beds" out of planks, old cardboard boxes and rice sacks. This did at least give the rats the opportunity to run under as well as around us. Our largely meat-free diet, which was almost identical at every meal, and midday snacks of a couple of boiled eggs and rusks, meant that those who needed to, including me, burned off a satisfactory amount of excess weight and were considerably fitter at the end than the beginning of the trip. It is not often that you set off for a twelve hour caving day on two jacket potatoes and a corncob. Our three major discoveries during this period were Dan Wan Dong, Da Dong and Mi Dong. The exploration of any one of these would have justified the expedition, to find three deep and complex systems was a great bonus, as was the opportunity to visit the even higher entrances, some three hours walk away and set in spectacular cone karst at around 1400-1500 m. We had no opportunity this time to explore them, but with depth potential in excess of 1000 m, they are obvious targets for future trips.
Of the three major caves, Da Dong was the most sporting, comprising a long series of short, but frequently awkward, pitches in an active streamway, down to a sump at -550 m. Dan Wan Dong was also at least 400 m deep, and was the most interesting from a speleological point of view. It was clearly an extremely old system with a complex history of flooding, infill, scouring out, and extensive cavern breakdown. It contained numerous misfit streams and much evidence of multi phase development. The largest chamber featured huge sediment banks which would repay detailed scientific examination, because they would undoubtedly yield information on climatological change and the orientation of the earth's magnetic field extending back many thousands of years. As an appetiser for Alf Lathain, Laurie and I collected ten sequential samples from a three metre bank, but without proper equipment, we could not guarantee their orientation.
Mi Dong, situated half way down a large dry river valley and a villainous two hour walk distant, featured the biggest and most spectacular entrance yet found by the China Caves project. It was rather like the main shaft of Gaping Gill in Yorkshire, but set in jungle and multiplied many times. It was formed by massive collapse of a huge river passage. A precipitous descent of 100 m down a funnel-shaped feature on loose vegetation and rock reaches a point where the floor of an enormous daylight chamber can be seen at the base of a 90 m pitch, which is broken by one or two very small ledges. Figures seen in this chamber are swallowed up by the scale. It features a large waterfall at the upstream end, and its own micro-environment, before plunging into the hillside as a large and very wet stream passage. This place provided memorable and tough caving, and it was never pushed to a conclusion, despite some determined work.
Altogether, by the time we assembled the statistics at the end of the expedition, we had surveyed over 11 km of passage. This bald statement disguises the fact that we had visited 50 cave sites, had explored several major systems, not always to a conclusion and postponed work on others until a future occasion. It was a considerable achievement, not only in terms of work achieved, but also because for the first time, the Chinese authorities had allowed a team to live and work in the midst of a local agricultural community, and had not dogged its footsteps continually. The bonus for us was that we obtained a real insight into the way of life of a hard-working friendly and helpful group of people. A cave is a cave, regardless of where in the world it is situated, but the surface surroundings vary enormously, and leave the most lasting impressions.
On our last evening in the village, our hosts prepared a special meal for us. This involved the somewhat noisy killing of a pig, fortunately out of sight of the squeamish, and the despatch and preparation of three chickens. Our eyes lit up, chicken breasts at last! Wrong! Once again, pleasant though the dishes were, there was not a trace of the elusive white meat. In desperation we asked the Chinese where they were, and all was revealed. Much of Chinese cookery makes a virtue of necessity, creating marvellous dishes from parts of animals other cultures scrap. As a result, they do not like chicken breasts. They mash them and give them to babies or boil them down for chicken stock.
Our return journey to UK via Fuling, fast ferry to Chongqing, and flight to Beijing was interesting, but uneventful. We managed to squeeze in a day of sightseeing in the capital, which is as optimistic as trying to see London in the same time. Nevertheless, we filed past Chairman Mao in his mausoleum on Tiananman Square, marvelled at the fantastic adjoining rows of tacky souvenir shops, which sell everything from Mao dolls and photographs to Mao rice wine and cigarettes and managed a whirlwind tour of the Forbidden City. If you are ever in Beijing, go and see it, but be warned, there are over 800 buildings. You cannot do it justice in a short time. A day as a tourist brought to an end a truly memorable expedition. China is a country well worth visiting, but there are really are two faces to it. On the one hand, there is Beijing and the major tourist sites, on the other is the China we were privileged to see, before the breakneck speed of development changes everything beyond recognition. We thoroughly enjoyed the trip and would recommend it to anyone who gets the opportunity.