Touring China’s Underground

China's new frontier is down deep

By: Christopher Batin

It’s the greatest and oldest collection of art in the world, with names such as Crystal Palace of the Dragon King, Flower and Fruit Mountain and Primitive Forest. These are Nature’s best sculptures, on display in dark canyons and amphitheaters far below the earth’s surface. While finished in sublime fashion, they are nevertheless works in progress. The medium is created from dissolved mountains of limestone and remolded into intricate marvels shaped over hundreds of thousands of years by the Hand of God. Welcome to China caving, a new frontier for dedicated spelunkers as well as tourists who are discovering the real China underground is nothing to fear.

It’s easy to understand why.

China contains about half of all the cave-bearing limestone in the world and has developed, in varying degrees, more than 400 caves into tourist sites. These are more than just mere holes in the ground. Cave Country is synonymous with jungle rivers, remote karsts and isolated mountains. Caving tours are perfect for adventure travelers who prefer natural over man-made wonders, yet still want time to take in topside tours between underground visits.

Forget crawling through wet damp tunnels with headlamps and fighting off vampire bats. Caving in China can be dangerously rugged or walk-in-a-park easy. The rough-and-tough cavers who plummet down vertical shafts and wade into underground rivers know what is available your clients will probably want to focus on the easy caving adventures instead.

China is developing and promoting caves for the casual tourist, and some of the best are found near China’s largest tourism attractions.

“We have two types of tours,” said Jason Hu, director of Beyond Deep/Chinacaving.com. “One is for professional cavers, which means they need to have previous caving experience and single-rope technique for those large vertical drops. The other is for general people who are healthy and physically capable. If they can hike, camp or have any outdoor experience, then they should be okay to go on this caving adventure. A typical 10-day trip is $1,250, per person, plus airfare.”

Zhijin Cave

Zhijin Cave is China’s largest cave, located four hours by car from Guiyang. Its seven-mile, four-hour tour of nearly 50 galleries offers stone pillar waterfalls of cascading stalactites, massive underground amphitheaters and underground streams, rivers and canyons. Some of its grottos reach over 500 feet high with chambers nearly two football fields wide. Caves and imagination go hand in hand. Look for the floodlamp-lit Gorgeous Southern Gate of Heaven or Fairies and Immortals.

Expect moderate difficulty, similar to hiking in alpine country over rough terrain.

Yinhu Cave

Opened to the public in 1999, Yinhu Cave is a huge underground system still being explored, with portions open to tourists. Underground river boating is a must-do attraction along with the ground tour.

Admission cost here and for most caves is affordable to anyone: About $3 to $8 for the walking tours, and $2 to $5 for riverboat tours.

Reed Flute Cave

If your clients can easily walk and climb a moderate number of stairs, Reed Flute Cave near Guilin is a favorite. Expect an hour tour, but private tours allow much more time at the various attractions.

Transportation is available, but a chartered van or car is faster and allows time for shopping at the vendor stalls outside the cave, as well as enjoying the many bridges, gardens, ponds and mountain scenery at the cave’s entrance.

I recommend a half-day tour. Schedule your clients to arrive early, before the crowds appear at midday. The late arrival of individual tour guides, large groups and overpowering megaphones can be unsettling and distracting. Early tours allow touring the cave first, and visiting the park attractions afterward, with time left for another cave walk-through, a temptation not easily resisted.

The trip to Reed Flute Cave is often packaged with a Guilin tour package, which includes a visit to Elephant Trunk Hill and a Guilin city tour.

Seven-Star Cave

Nearby and equally impressive on its own merits is Seven-Star Cave, much less known and with fewer tourists. Formations there resemble animals of all types, and dense evergreen forests. The cave is 2,500 feet long, and over 130 feet wide and has a rich history of use and visitation since the Tang Dynasty over 1,300 years ago. Take time to photograph the ancient inscriptions on cave walls.

Most caving tours are part of general tourism packages for specific areas like Guilin and Beijing. If you don’t see cave tours listed, ask for them.

With officials saying that 70 percent of China’s caves are still to be discovered by scientists, it’s certain that more exciting discoveries await, but start booking tours now. Your clients won’t be disappointed with being kept in the dark in China’s underground.

GEAR FOR THE CASUAL CAVER

Pack Vibram-soled hiking shoes, a pocket penlight, activated hand-warmers, a knit hat and gloves. Wear a baseball cap to keep water droplets off your eyeglasses, and pack a tube of eyeglass defogger. If you get into a bind, rub soap on eyeglasses and wipe clear. The must-have item is a headlamp with extra batteries. I prefer a Princeton-tec multi-bulb LED headlamp.

CONTACTS

Jason Hu
416-835-1695
www.chinacaving.com

Li Liang Zhong
Shan Shui Travel
011-86-773-288-7277

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