Volume 39 Number 2 Article 2
Letter from China
25th April 2002
Laurie and I returned a couple of weeks ago from a really excellent one-month caving expedition to Leye County, Guangxi province in Southern China. We had intended to try to stay in touch whilst we were away, but unlike two thirds of the team, who were mostly based in and around the town of Leye, we spent over three weeks in the small village of Bei Zhong about 65 km north of Leye and approachable only by a very very rough jeep track. There was a public access phone, but taking it over to pass data and E-Mail would not have been popular with the locals. This trip was the latest in the series of China Caves Project expeditions. Those with long memories will remember that we spent seven weeks in Sichuan in 1995 on a similar trip.
The main object this time was to try to explore a "Hidden River" from both ends. The upper entrance begins near Leye at the base of the world's deepest and second largest doline (600m deep). Strictly speaking it is not really a doline, but a giant collapse feature in an enormous area of cone karst (800km square, with no surface drainage). Previous expeditions had forced a route into the cave and followed it downstream for some distance, until high water ruled out further progress. Nevertheless, with a sink-to-resurgence distance of around 35 km and the capacity to carry huge quantities of water in flood, the system was worth another go. The Chinese Army tried it last year and a soldier was swept to his death in a whirlpool - despite low water at the time. The problem of water levels determined the time of the trip. March-April is the end of the dry season and we certainly hit it right. Many weeks of drought was followed by a month long expedition with only one small rainstorm right at the beginning. The weather was unseasonably hot, so having taken down vests and duvet jackets, we actually needed shorts and sandals in temperatures that hit 35 Celsius at times.
A combination of my back problems and a longish lay off from caving meant that we undertook to sort out the investigations of the other end of the system. Quite apart from that we always prefer to have a go in a previously untouched area, so after a recce to the resurgence, five of us sorted out a load of kit - lifejackets, wetsuits, inflatable boat, etc etc and set off in two jeeps to tackle the area. We were accommodated in the middle of the village by a family who also run the local eating establishment - I chose my words with care. Let us not confuse this with a restaurant or cafe in Europe. This was much better than the last time when we stayed in a farm in Jiang Kou and had the rats running around us at night. I can best compare it to a slightly improved version of a typical caving hostel - say Bullpot Farm, with someone to organise the meals!
As usual, we were working in a closed area, so only special invitations from Beijing and the cooperation of the local party bosses let us in. We were the first foreigners ever to visit Bei Zhong, so were a constant source of fascination for the locals, who crowded round to watch us eat or sit around over a beer in the evenings. After a while, we got to recognise some of them quite well. The regulars included the local wide boy "Uncle Yung", who operated a calcite ball polishing operation with 18 local workers, the village simpleton, who came to stare and pick his nose (both nostrils at once) at great length during meal times, and "Madame Fang", who only had three teeth, the halitosis of a dragon and was senile. Then there were the children. Forget the "one child policy" here. The village and its surrounding areas had a population of around 1,000. The local primary school had over 300 children in its six classes and was striving to educate them all with practically nothing in the way of resources. As a group, the villagers were kindness itself and we very much enjoyed this unique opportunity to spend a significant length of time with them. A few more words of Chinese would have been helpful, but armed with Laurie's Mandarin phrasebook we got along, aided by the odd contact with a local who had a little English.
On one occasion we were joined for a while by a youth who claimed to be an English teacher. He was unusual in that he was clearly homosexual and blatant about it (risky in China) and was dressed in a version of military combat chic. The Red Army is always selling off clothes and equipment to line its pockets, but this individual who told us, "You can call me Miss (sic) Yung" accessorised his combats and fetching green canvas dabs with a white shirt and floral tie. As I say, his English was pretty ropy, but he delighted us during one jeep ride by saying, "I would like to thing an English thong I teach the children." Then in a reedy lisping voice, he launched into "Que thelah, thelah (sera to you), whatever will be, will be....." Doris Day in the depths of China - the mind boggles!
The caving itself was superb. Laurie and I were joined by two or three others for our time in Bei Zhong and together we explored, surveyed, photographed and collected creepy crawlies from 5.5 km of superb river cave. Naturally it was all predominantly horizontal stuff, but it was constantly interesting and frequently quite awkward. For example, despite the fact that we went at the end of the dry season during a prolonged period of drought, the cave was discharging 3 m3/sec (i.e. 3 tonnes per second. This is fine as long as you say it quickly, but it generated one or two dodgy spots below ground, where great care was needed to avoid getting swept downstream, into sharp rocks or nasty-looking sumps. On the whole the objective hazards were not great, but we did explore one cave which involved delicate negotiation of very deep water-filled circular "mills" in the stream bed, which would have been impossible to get out of without assistance. Anyway none of us fell in and when we went back to photograph the place, I secured it all with tight handlines for the placement of safety loops and jammers.
The section of cave furthest upstream was particularly rewarding. It featured a 250 m swim against the current and a further duck and swim under a low arch. The local Chinese tend to poke around in all easy caves, looking for calcite to plunder or earth to be distilled for saltpetre, but they certainly had been nowhere near this particular place, or the iffy holes-in-the-floor cave either. The place was absolutely pristine and we pushed it upstream until we got an almost certain overlap with a cave which takes the modern-day surface drainage in time of flood. We were stopped upstream eventually by a tube about 2.5 to 3 m in diameter which was carrying about two thirds of the whole flow. It took 15 minutes to climb the wall against the current to where the water was issuing from between boulders and about 15 seconds to be swept back! The whole place was a mass of sharp black wet rock - rather like some of the less inviting spots in Yorkshire. The best bit was the discovery of a large to very large passage, which traversed the modern valley from west to east. This type of passage is a real rarity in karst areas, and this particular one was several hundred metres long, so we were highly delighted with it.
At this point in the proceedings everyone at Bei Zhong qualified for a Saga holiday. At 53, Laurie and I were the youngest present, so just to be on the safe side, we got Pete Hall and a couple of the younger element to come and have a real effort at pushing the cave upstream. They did not get further than we had, which on one level was disappointing, on the other it showed that there was still life in the old knackers yet! We have not yet seen the drawn up surveys, the photos (other than our own), or found out the result of our bug collection for the biologist, but it should be interesting. In the end, we had pushed the Hidden River for about 6 km downstream and 5 upstream, so that still leaves about 23 km unexplored and probably unexplorable, because there is a great chunk of shale between karst exposures, which suggests that a lot of it would be below the water table. Nevertheless a good time was had by all and around 30-odd km of passage was surveyed during the trip altogether.
At the end of the expedition we returned to Leye for a couple of days, visiting some of the multitude of caves in the area and rounding things off in general. This included attendance at another meeting of communist party bosses in Leye and the usual farewell banquets. Laurie and I were the guests of Professor Zhu of the Guilin Karst Research Institute in Guilin for a couple of days, then we stopped over in Hong Kong for 48 hours and enjoyed a short stay at the Mandarin Oriental hotel at Hong Kong Central. There could hardly have been a greater contrast with Bei Zhong, but after a month in the sticks, it made a pleasant change. Despite trying to appear in reasonable clothes, staggering into the place in boots with two grubby rucksacks per head made us look rather like tramps. Nevertheless they made us very welcome and we enjoyed the usual HK things - spending money, eating on the floating restaurant at Aberdeen, spending money, going up the Peak, spending money, using the Star Ferry and the trams, spending money and when we had done all that, spending more money!!
Jack & Laurie Sheldon