Volume 42 Number 2 Article 7
CES 2005 Expedition to Houping, China
This April Becka and Julian arrived at the expat caver community in Yangshuo, China, home to Erin Lynch, Duncan Collis and Rob Garrett (all old Red Rose members). From here we mounted a five man expedition to Houping where we surveyed 15,025 metres of cave in five weeks. The other three had done this trip often enough to know the routine: 5 hours by bus to Liuzhou, 26 hours hard sleeper train to Chongqing, 4 hours by bus to Wulong, stay overnight to sort gear out at the tackle store and binge at a street barbeque, jolt for 5 hours up a winding road to the very end of the line in a bus that looks like it has been owned by cavers, stay the night in the one dog town of Houping, hump gear for two hours down a track to Mr Wang's house at Er Wang Dong, then slog back up to Houping again to fetch the last load. The final walk in was superb: Er Wang Dong is surrounded by steep-sided valleys, contoured around with narrow terraced fields cultivated by hand or with cows pulling simple, wooden ploughs.
The astounding Erin Lynch Caving Club, formally known as Hong Meigui Cave Exploration Society, has had five previous trips to Houping since 2001. Twenty-seven km of cave had been surveyed with just five cavers involved. Most of this was in two huge, adjacent, non-connecting systems: Er Wang Dong and San Wang Dong ("Second Great Cave" and "Third Great Cave").
Valley Below Er Wang Dong
This region is close to Tian Xing, home to the four deepest caves in China, but Julian doesn't like scary pitches and refused to go to China unless he went on a trip where there were no such pitfalls.
The caving around Houping is perfect - mainly horizontal with enough clambering, thrutching and teetering on piles of loose choss to tell you that you are underground. Erin and Duncan didn't take kneepads and wore thin, easy-to-rip boiler suits showing that there wasn't anything too nasty. There were squeezes and even a dig and enough unexpected twists and turns to entice you to look for more. The main problem for us first-timers was the size and maze-like complexity of the two main systems. It could take hours of stomping to get to the pushing front. One day Erin forgot her survey notebook; it was too far in to go out to fetch it so she recorded the measurements on the back of plasters from the first aid kit and drew the sketch on the side of a Cordura dry bag with a marker pen.
The limited number of spaces on Houping expeditions is necessary to avoid overloading the local peasant farming community, particularly Mr. Wang's ability to feed and house us. The men slept on the floor in the attic among the dust, sprouting potatoes and wood smoke from the kitchen whilst Becka and Erin shared the Wang children's four poster bed downstairs. Mrs. Wang and her daughter were working away for months in a factory hundreds of miles away, like many others from the valley, whilst Mr. Wang's son was at boarding school.
Mr. Wang Cooking Tofu
We soon settled into a routine. We caved most days: there were two main entrances within twenty metres of the farmhouse and the longest walk-in was just fifteen minutes. Most trips went to one of three systems: Er Wang Dong, San Wang Dong, and a new discovery in 2004: Feng Dong. Above ground hours were spent entering data, writing cave descriptions, drawing up surveys, down-loading photos, filtering water and eating mounds of rice, roasted peanuts, tasty veggies and very old pig fat. Given the remoteness of Er Wang Dong village, we had an impressive office with three computers, a scanner, printer and internet access through a telephone wire that had never seen such traffic. Becka had a few solitary walks to hunt tiankeng (large dolines) with Erin's GPS and a small scale map. She scored a near miss with dynamite as she tried to use a not-quite-finished road after ignoring warnings from the locals. Meanwhile Julian spent too many hours hunched over his computer working on Tunnel, his cave survey software, rewriting it so he could draw up the Er Wang Dong survey. Erin pushed his creative skills with idiosyncratic requests such as symbols required for rat shit and nitrate pits and for continuously scalable boulders.
Our host, Mr. Wang, brought us crates of crap beer down the hill from Houping, balanced two at a time on his basket. It tasted fantastic, for a maximum of one bottle, and only if you'd just been on a ten hour caving trip. Mr. Wang and his neighbours had chickens, dogs, cats, pigs, cows, and small children all running around or in pens making noises at different times. One morning Mr. Wang didn't like the chicken noise and tied their legs together, put them in the mud under a basket, and left them there for three days through a thunderstorm. The ones that survived were pretty quiet after that, and so were we.
Erin, Julian and Kids
Earlier generations of Chinese miners had reached all easily accessible parts of the caves - as well as some very obscure sections - exploring in search of nitrate. Nitrate mining was banned in the 1950's, with most of the activity, we believe, dating prior to and during the Second World War. The burnt remains of their bamboo torches were common and occasionally we found Chinese writing on the walls including some poetry. At many of the main junctions they had built huge stone pits which they used to process the nitrate. In Er Wang Dong we found a trench dug to avoid a low crawl and a small mud channel which the miners had made to collect a trickle of water to feed a series of pools. Nearby we discovered an abandoned tea-set complete with cooking pots by the remains of a fire, tongs, a kettle, a teapot and cups. Abandoned in haste or just forgotten?
Erin at Nitrate Pit
In San Wang Dong Erin and Julian found an obscure climb that led up to a series of short crawls and then broke out into huge passages where we scored a series of 50m survey legs. So that's how you survey two km in a day! Duncan co-ordinated us as flash-slaves to take a series of medium format camera shots using PF200 flashbulbs (thanks Megga-flash!) to try to convey the impressive dimensions of these new finds. Intriguingly, in this new area we again found evidence of nitrate miners - yet we were sure that they had not come in the way we did, because we'd had to dig.
Playing detective, Rob and Becka followed the faint traces of T'Owd Man: remnants of bamboo from old ladders; faint paths; rocks moved to make stepping stones over a pool. A live frog guarding the entrance to a narrow inlet gave us our final clue. From here a small, easily overlooked climb led us up to a stooping passage which we sped along, racing to survey out before tea-time. Dusk was falling and a bat collided into the back of Becka's head as she tried to take a compass bearing. Finally we emerged at a ledge perched midway down the vertical side of a huge shaft: Shi Wang Tiankeng - Great Stone Shaft. A waterfall opposite crashed down from the forest 40 metres above to the floor over 50 metres below us. When we returned we realised that we still could not exit by the route the miners had entered from the surface. We think that this was most likely by ladder from a hole above but we couldn't free-climb up to it. Instead, we concentrated on dropping down to the level of the base of the tiankeng. Unfortunately the large stream passage we reached here quickly dropped to a series of deep pools in a steep canyon, curiously heading away from the resurgence. It will take extra rope and more settled weather to follow this route.
San Wang Dong
San Wang Dong
Stal in Feng Dong
Becka at Stal in Feng Dong
Finally it was time to leave Mr. Wang's house and let him get on with the potato harvest and rice planting. Local porters helped us to carry our gear up the hill, and together we had a final feast at the superb little restaurant in Houping. We sneaked in one final caving trip to tie up the loose ends in Chuan Dong ("Through Cave"), one of two shorter caves that we explored from Houping this year. Disappointingly, the upstream lead finished, but not without giving us the final few metres we needed to reach 15 km surveyed on the expedition and bringing the total surveyed by Hong Meigui in the Houping area up to 41.9 km. Er Wang Dong (15.7 km) and San Wang Dong (17 km) remain tantalisingly close to a connection with many leads left to push, whilst Feng Dong (1.5 km) to the south should probably also eventually link in to this system. There are also more distant tiankeng marked on maps, which may be easiest to access underground, as well as a series of active streamways that we could not explore this year. There is a plenty more cave to be found here and the next Hong Meigui expedition to Houping is planned for March 2006.
There is much more information about the expedition on the Hong Meigui website at www.hongmeigui.net and more photos on Julian's website at www.goatchurch.org.uk under the Far Away Trips section, plus a link here to information about Tunnel, or email Julian at firstname.lastname@example.org. We would like to thank Rob, Duncan and Erin for preparing the way, looking after us so well, and having learnt all that darned-tricky Mandarin, and we all appreciated the support of the China Caves Project and Meggaflash.
Link to PDF survey
Becka Lawson and Julian Todd