Cave adventurer warns of human encroachment

Lu Feiran
For many children born in southwest China's Guizhou Province, unexplored caves are plentiful and make for perfect adventure spots. Cheng Guangyuan is among the adventurous.
Lu Feiran

For many children born in southwest China's Guizhou Province, unexplored caves are plentiful and make for perfect adventure spots. The province is home to all recorded forms of karst caves in the world.

Cheng Guangyuan is among the adventurous. He explored his first cave when he was under 10 years old, but back then he didn't realize that one day he would become a professional cave explorer, as all he remembers now is the fear and thrill he felt being in a dark place. Cheng has explored more than 530 kilometers, covering more than 300 caves. He has seen how Mother Nature works her wonders in places hidden from sunlight: Stalactites grow in weird shapes; rivers flow quietly yet powerfully; fascinating species of animals live in an independent ecosystem.

Cave adventurer warns of human encroachment
Courtesy of Cheng Guangyuan

Cheng Guangyuan

"To me, the most charming thing about exploring caves is that it's like opening Schrodinger's cat box," Cheng said. "The caves are just there, waiting for you to find them. And before you enter, you can't be sure what you'll discover."

The purpose for the exploration of caves changed for Cheng as he gained more experience. At first, he wanted to enjoy different sensory stimulation. He was thrilled, for example, being deep inside a dark silent cave, trying to sense the surrounding environment to the best of his ability despite sight limitations. Later he became interested in cave-dwelling minerals and creatures.

It is hard for Cheng to say which cave is his favorite, but the Shuanghe Cave is special. It is believed that Shuanghe, located in Suiyang, a county of northern Guizhou, is currently the longest karst cave in all of Asia; its end has still not been discovered. In 2019, a team formed by Chinese and French explorers reached 217 kilometers deep inside, breaking the Asian record for longest cave trek previously held by Clear Water Cave in Malaysia.

From 2008, Cheng explored the cave five times throughout a decade, and each time it gave him new surprises. Little creeks within emitted green and blue light; ponds, waterfalls and cliffs created dreamy scenery; the stalactites had shapes that he seldom had seen in other caves. Some stalactites resembled clouds, and some stalagmites had intriguing radial-pattern crystals.

Cave adventurer warns of human encroachment

Cheng Guangyuan has explored more than 350 kilometers of caves in Guizhou Province, including five visits to Shuanghe, the longest karst cave in Asia.

"The scenes in such caves were created by combined powers of Nature," Cheng said. "For example, the cloud-shaped stalactites were formed by water dripping into shallow ponds within the cave. When calcium carbonate gathered, it deposited in the shape of ripples."

But sometimes less-known caves would surprise Cheng as well. Last year in an unnamed cave in Longli, a county southwest of the provincial capital Guiyang, Cheng and his team discovered a species of insect, which has still not been officially named. The insect resembles a beetle, but has a bright golden color, with no eyes but a long neck. The team consulted professor Tian Mingyi, a ground beetle specialist with South China Agricultural University, who told them that the insect belonged to the "blind ground beetle" but was highly specialized because of its living environment.

"Every time we find a rare species of animals, we take a sample and ask experts to identify it, but we don't take samples of rare minerals or special geologic structures. For those we just take pictures," Cheng said.

Cave adventurer warns of human encroachment
Courtesy of Cheng Guangyuan

A cave-dwelling beetle Cheng discovered that scientists would probably name after him.

He said he is a very careful explorer so that he has never encountered much real danger in those caves, but there was once that he got lost.

It was in 2010, when Cheng was still a green hand, and lighting and navigation equipment were less developed than today. He and his teammates went into a former mine, where they were fascinated by its shining minerals. In their excitement, they forgot to mark all the passageways.

"There were lighting facilities, but they were poor quality and not helpful. It made things difficult," he said.

The structure of karst caves is more or less the same. Numerous halls are connected by intricate passageways. Sometimes a passageway can reach several chambers that look similar to each other. Cheng and his crew realized that they were lost far from the entrance.

"At that time we had two choices, either to look for a way out separately or to wait for rescue," Cheng recalled. "We had companions waiting outside the cave, who knew to search for us if we weren't out by a certain time."

So the team decided to wait. They sat down in the chamber, took out their food, water and medicine, keeping themselves fed and hydrated. It was a good decision: Their companions finally came and led them to safety.

The experience made Cheng realize that professional skills and equipment are essential to cave explorers. He himself became a rescuer.

"We don't recommend anyone without training to explore caves, and especially, never enter a cave alone," Cheng said.

He recommends training on the single rope technique before entering a cave.

"The technique was adopted by the French a century ago. Before that people brought ladders into caves for places they couldn't reach just by climbing, but ladders are big and it was not safe," he said. "A rope makes you more flexible."

He added that there are never too many things to prepare prior to embarking on an expedition: One needs to check the weather, ask locals about their understanding of cave conditions; inform companions of your exploration plans, including a specific ending time.

Cheng said cave exploration should be taken seriously and should never become too commercialized.

"Now you can see many cave exploring activities promote themselves as 'treasure hunt' tours, which is bad in so many respects. Sadly, caves that have been damaged by human interaction have left a deeper impressions on me even than those beautiful ones," he said. "It's a constant reminder for me to do whatever I can to protect them."

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