Hide-and-seek: GPS leads treasure hunters to hidden caches

Geocaching is obscure in China but an addictive hobby around the world. Caches are hidden in outdoor locations, and seekers use mobile navigation devices to find them. 
Ying Hao / SHINE

Ying Hao takes his pursuit of geocaches on trips around China and overseas.

Most people use global positioning systems to guide them as they walk or drive to a destination. But for Ying Hao, 38, GPS is the conduit to a relatively unknown recreational hobby.

It all started 12 years ago when Ying, who works in architecture, acquired a GPS unit. Studying the user manual, he noted a line that said the gadget could be used to “play geocaching.”

Geocaching? Ying had never heard the term. He logged into Google back before it was blocked on China's mainland, searched for the word and discovered a whole new world of outdoor fun that has some similarities to scavenger hunts or orienteering.

Geocaching is a global outdoor activity in which participants use a GPS or similar mobile navigation device to hide and seek containers called “geocaches” at locations specified by coordinates. Participants register, for free, on the website (www.geocaching.com), and then enter the world of geocaching enthusiasts.

A typical cache is a small waterproof container including a logbook and sometimes pen or pencil. A geocacher enters the date the cache was found and signs it with an established code name to prove authenticity. Once that’s done, the logbook is replaced exactly where it was found for the next person to find. 

In some cases, small objects are left in the cache boxes to be traded. Anyone taking something is supposed to leave another object in its place.

The geocaching website in Australia defines the activity this way:

“Geocaches come in all shapes and sizes. You can find a tiny little one as small as your fingernail, or a huge geocache with exciting 'treasures' inside. It can be as easy or as hard as you like to make it. You can drive up to your geocache and spot it from the car, or you can choose to hike for miles in snowy mountains in search of that elusive container.”

Much to his surprise, Ying found that there were even hidden caches awaiting him here in Shanghai.

“I liked the feeling of achievement when I found my first cache,” he says. “It was on July 22, 2005, in a Shanghai park.”

The activity has developed many splinter variations. There are mysterious caches that give seekers clues to solve. One geocache website lists variations that include traditional caches, virtual caches, locationless caches, movable caches and webcam caches. 

The hunt can sometimes involve complex searches requiring travel or specialist equipment such as scuba gear, kayaks or abseils. 

“Every time I went to a new place, I would check the website beforehand to see if there was a cache around,” says Ying. “The habit has stayed with me to this day.”

Ying Hao / SHINE

Ying Hao holds a small cache he found in a Shanghai park.

Sometimes cache hiders give hints that may at first seem confusing, leaving searchers to puzzle out what are actually clear clues. 

“The feeling of achievement was really good,” says Ying. “It felt like a mystery solved.”

When Ying took his wife and daughter on a trip to Cambodia, he went off to search for a cache that was supposed to be near a bar. According to the clue, it would take several people to find it, which Ying thought was unusual.

“I didn’t believe that it required several people to search, so I just went there alone,” he recalls. “And when I reached the place, I immediately saw that the cache must be in a pipe.”

That presented no difficulty to an old hand like Ying. Hiding caches in pipes is quite common. All you need to do is run some water through the pipe and wait for the cache to float out.

“I went to the bar and asked a waitress for some water,” Ying says.

“Just for you?” she asked, obviously knowing why he was asking.

“Yes,” I replied.

“In that case, you’re not going to find it,” she said.

But the waitress gave him the water anyway, and Ying was still confused as he poured it into the pipe.

“I hadn’t noticed that the pipe had several tiny, tiny holes in it, where the water leaked out,” he says. “If you want the cache to float out, you need several people with you to cover the holes with their fingers.”

Ying had made friends from among other geocachers in Shanghai. Many were expatriates. He never learned their real names. Everyone used screen names from the website. But that didn’t spoil the fun of their get-togethers.

“Some of them had great ideas about hiding caches, while others were really obsessed with searching for them,” he says.

One of the best hiders Ying ever encountered was a woman who went by the name “MusicBetty.” Wherever Ying found her caches, he always received a good surprise.

His search once took him to a park near Xujiahui, where he had never been before. He not only found MusicBetty’s cache on an outing with his daughter but was pleased to find an area of popular science in the park.

One of the best seekers Ying has ever encountered was a man from Czech Republic. Within days, he managed to find all the 30-plus caches hidden in Shanghai, breaking a record.

Ti Gong

A string of shells was a trading item left in a cache found by Ying Hao in the Gubei area of Shanghai last year.

Sometimes people who aren’t geocachers stumble across the caches. They are called “muggles,” after the Harry Potter term to define people with no magical powers.

“One of the rules of hiding caches is that you cannot bury them underground,” says Ying. “So you need to disguise it well, making it easily recognizable to seekers but not to muggles.”

But in China, it is really difficult to keep anything hidden for long.

"Industrious public cleaners often uncover caches in their rounds of duties, and infrastructure upheavals often reveal others,” says Ying.

Of the several caches he has hidden in the city, only two remain. One was handed over for him to “maintain” by an expat leaving Shanghai. The other, designed and hidden by Ying himself, is still in Penglai Park in Huangpu District.

Looking at a map of hidden caches on the geocacher website, one sees clusters of dots all over the world. There are many of them in places like Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, but few on Chinese mainland. Only Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen seem to have much activity.

When Ying tries to introduce geocaching to his Chinese friends, the dialogue goes something like this:

“You go to a place and find the container. You sign your name and log your findings on the website,” Ying said.

“And then?”

“That’s it.”

“What’s interesting about that?”

Ying dismisses the indifference to the fact that most Chinese people aren’t really interested in outdoor activities.

“Too many people want everything to have a purpose,” he says. “If they can’t see a practical purpose in geocaching, they then conclude it is meaningless.”

Ying says the intellectual revolution surrounding mobile devices has made traditional geocaching a bit out of date, but he doesn’t see the activity disappearing. If anything, it may become more sophisticated, with the advent of technology like augmented reality.

Last year’s hit “Pokemon Go,” which also sends participants on hunts, may spill over to increased interest in geocaching.

“I believe there will be more interesting developments, and I can’t wait to see where they lead us,” says Ying.

Ti Gong

Those who find caches record names and dates on logs inside the finds.

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