National Geographic : 2014 Jul
China Caves 133 bright screen, Pani flies us through the virtual cave—and I can finally see where I am. It’s an out-of-body experience. As the expedition moves on to two other great chambers, Miao and Titan, we are reminded that Hong Meigui is an oddity in China for reasons beyond its scale. First explored in 2001 by foreign cavers, the chamber did not have a single human footprint until they arrived—perhaps because the two cliffs at its entrance discouraged locals. Many caves in southern China have a human history that dates back to at least the Qin and Han dy- nasties, two millennia ago. Underground studies during that time were in the pursuit of chi, or life energy, which the karst regions were believed to possess in great abundance. Stalagmites and rim- stone pools also provided ingredients for early aphrodisiacs and medicines; cave chambers be- came places for prayer. Even today farmers use cave entrances to store and dry grain. On our way to Hong Meigui, we had stopped in Fengshan, eight hours west of Guilin and part of the new, 360-square-mile Leye-Fengshan Geopark. Here was a large municipal cave, Chuanlongyan, that enclosed a two-lane road, an open-air museum, and a public amphitheater. When I strolled down the road one afternoon, a young couple had stopped their motorcycle in a far corner of the museum parking lot and were kissing in the darkness. “ This is the best use for a cave,” admitted the geopark’s resident foreign expert, French caver Jean Bottazzi. Bottazzi, Eavis, and Smart showed rough scans of local caves to a regional official in Feng- shan. He immediately wondered if they could tell which sections of a cave were unstable. Eavis, successful at caving in good part because he’s successful at navigating officialdom, picked up the utilitarian thread. “Yes, of course,” he said. Smart added, “You could rope off any danger- ous areas, so tourists keep to a safe path.” The karst region’s tourism boom—fueled by China’s growing middle class and a nostalgia for iconic landscapes—is on everyone’s mind. In Fengshan we also saw families in orange life jackets pushed by boatmen up an aquamarine new 17-inch laptop out of a waterproof case and hands it to Pani, who sits in the muck with the computer on her lap. Eavis stands nearby, shuf- fling bags out of view and generally trying to has- ten the process—the faster this cave is scanned, the more chambers we can visit—to the frequent annoyance of the meticulous Pani. They attach a blue-green Ethernet cable to the laptop and push a button on the laser scanner, and suddenly it comes alive, its head silently revolving as the team seems to hold its collective breath. Three minutes later the results appear on Pani’s laptop. The rendering is in black and white and low resolution. But it is stunning. There, as we crouch in the dark in the mud, staring at the A boatman guides tourists down the Poxin River as it emerges from underground. The river is part of an extensive geopark that also includes Dashiwei Tiankeng, a 2,000-foot-deep collapsed cave.