Hubei Cave Exploration Team – Erin Lynch
Name: Erin Lynch
Occupation: Karst Specialist
Can you tell me how long you stayed in China and how you got there?
I have been in China since 2001. When I first came to China I had an adventure grant.
There was a grant program, if you were member of one of several universities in California you could apply for some money to go to China for anadventure. It had to be something not connected to your job or to your studies, but something that you were passionate about. The grant was only for China because Stan Avery, the owner of Avery Sticking Labels (you use them in your office), went to China when he was young and had a great experience that kind of shaped him, so later he started a grant program because he is a very rich man. Anyway the grant program no longer exists. Still I was very lucky, I wrote an application saying I want to spend a year exploring caves in China and they gave me a grant. I also persuaded some friends to come with me for the first few months. And I loved it so much that I have been doing it pretty much till now.
You said that you came to China to spend a year caving. But how did your caving passion start?
I was studying in Britain, they have many university clubs that you can join there. Once I went to a fair to decide what club to join and I saw the caving club. It looked very interesting and I went to their introductory caving trip, and I loved it. I think that the caving clubs in Britain are great, they are very social and you go caving all the time. I was totally hooked. I did lot of caving in Yorkshire. Over the summer I joined a Cambridge University Caving Club, every summer they go on an expedition to Austria. I’ve got my first chance to explore caves with them. Also in Britain much like in Poland I think, you start out and you do SRT very quickly. So I learned how to do SRT during the first two months, I really love that.
Yes, I joined the Red Rose Cave & Pothole Club and actually other two people who came out to China for the very first trip were also members of the Red Rose Cave & Pothole Club. We needed to come up with a name that was different from China Caves Club, so we thought of Hong Meigui which means Red Rose.
What is so interesting in Chinese caves that you decided to stay here exclusively for exploring them?
China is unique. It has more exposed land stone then the rest of the world combined, so it has potentially more caves than whole rest of the world together. And there aren’t really many cavers here. Here you can walk fifteen minutes away and find a four kilometer long cave. In Britain if you want to find new caves you have to spend many years digging.
I noticed that there aren’t many Chinese people interested in caving, are there?
There are more than there were ten years ago, and I think more people become interested in it. But the caving equipment is expensive, so you need to be able to afford it, and you also need to have the free time for caving. I think more and more Chinese in general are interested in outdoor sports, but of course climbing requires less equipment and it’s also more glamorous then caving. Doing caving you can get quite dirty.
When you founded Hong Meigui were there any Chinese members among founders? And how many Chinese members are there in the club now?
We always had a very close relationship with Karst Institute in Guilin. Initially we went caving and did projects with them. Although they were never formally members, we have a policy that there is a membership fee, and because we would like to encourage more Chinese to go caving with us, we don’t ever charge Chinese people for the membership fee. So they are all honorary members. But there are a number of people, Chinese cavers, who regularly go caving with Hong Meigui, although they are all also members of other caving clubs or geologists who go caving for their work.
Apart from Guilin what are other locations that you were caving in.
I caved in Hubei, Hunan, Sichuan, Chongqing, Yunnan. A little bit in Beijing.
How did you find out about caves in these locations?
A lot of the places were actually showed us by the Guilin Karst Institute. They asked us to go there to help them explore the caves. Many times they are approached by local governments interested in developing their cave and karst resources. I can do SRT and help them with that. Maybe ten years ago I did a lot of that and that was a good way to see many caving areas. Nowadays I mostly just go caving in Wulong (武隆), because I live there and their caves are fantastic.
You mentioned that local governments asked you to go caving in their area. What was their aim?
Mostly tourism development. The Karst Institute will often get contracts to write application materials if an area wants to become a national geo park or an international geo park or a Chinese national park, or a world heritage site. Wulong became a world heritage site and they used quite a bit of our research into the caves in the application materials. It was a big success.
You say that few Chinese caves are actually explored. Now have you made any significant discoveries while exploring Chinese caves?
We discovered a new species of blind fish. It’s a type of fish called a loach, it’s about three inches long and white and does not have eyes. There are similar species in caves in other parts of China. But the one we found is called Triplophysa rosa and is endemic to Wulong. So we collected some specimens and we sent them to a professor in Kunming who is very good at studying fish… Also Hong Meigui has explored the deepest cave in China which is 1020 m deep, and we have explored the second third and fourth longest caves in China, all of which are in Wulong. In general the caves in China can be quite large, because there’s been so much rainfall. Large and old but again you get all sorts. China is known for having very big caves (洞穴). And big tiankengs (天坑).
Can you explain what is the difference between a cave and a tiankeng.
Tiankeng is defined by geologists as a surface pit with vertical walls. Must be at least 100 m wide and at least 100 meters deep. And it must have depth to width ratio between 0.5 and 2. So if it’s very deep and quite narrow or if it’s very wide and not so deep – it’s not a tiankeng. Many of these you can see in google earth. I think there are less than two hundred known in the world.
Do you often cooperate with international cavers.
Yes, I think throughout the last decade we had more than 150 cavers from at least 15 different countries. I think different countries have different strengths for their caving which are often dictated by the caves that they live near. Polish cavers are very, very good at rigging and rope work because the caves in Poland are very vertical. American cavers do very detailed surveys, because American caves tend to be flatter, but they might be not so used to rebelays. British cavers are also quite fast in rope work, because they do lot of sport caving.
When you go to expeditions, sometimes to quite remote places, how do local Chinese perceive you?
In Wulong I have many friends, villagers that I have known for a decade and they are very, very welcoming. They think we are a little bit weird but they also think we are very hard working, because we go into the caves and then we come back late at night after being underground for many hours.
Any differences in social perception between woman cavers and man cavers?
I think that many Chinese people are quite surprised that women want to go caving. But you know in the villages the women work outside in fields, so I think city people are more surprised usually. Still there are not many Chinese female cavers, mostly man. I know some Chinese woman who occasionally go caving. One of them is a good friend, I keep trying to get her to come caving but she would rather go ice climbing. Normally she works as an outdoor guide. Oh, Julia Tian is a Chinese caver, she does some cave diving as well. She is based in Nanning. Julia was an architect I don’t know what she does now.
Do you have many occasions to interact with people from villages? I heard that sometimes you are invited to some ceremonies.
Shizilu village (photo by A. Iskra)
I’ve been going to Er Long Dong (二龙洞) village for over a decade and so we spend every spring festival there. It’s wonderful particularly because the young people are back so we have lot of fun. We go to their spring festival celebration and of course to the weddings and funerals. Funeral customs the first time I saw them were very interesting: the whole village got together and everyone cooked something. They were many days of eating and drinking, they also had a brass bands there who would hike around the mountains and play. They would burn paper money and the stuff which is called food for the dead (looks like noodles). I remember they put a live chicken on top of the coffin. I haven’t seen that before. And they of course got these round funeral wreaths. In Wulong when you have a wedding or a funeral it’s a big party, so everybody gives money to the host. There is a table with a guy writing down everybody’s name and how much they donate. Then the host gives a present to person who gave them some money, for instance a cigarette or a towel. For a wedding the more money you give the bigger gift host gives back to you. You get like a towel or if you gave a lot you get a really big blanket for your bed. Also, at least in Er Long Dong , all the women who helped out with cooking, were given washing powder (laugh). Once I went to the 60th birthday of one of the villagers. They had hundreds of local people come. I think there were like 25 dishes on every table. All the women came in and cooked. They even brought their woks with them. They had fires along the floor in one kitchen as well so that they could keep everything hot and one of those big woks full of plates of the same dish. They had a dance troupe come who performed some traditional dances but they also did Britney Spears “Hit me baby one more time”. I’ve got it on video.
Do caves have any special meaning for local people? Have you heard any stories about the caves?
Often the stories we are told are that somebody’s grandfather went to this cave and came out in a totally different village many years ago. Or you can go into this cave for three days… I know that in Laos there are often temples in caves. Here sometimes you will see little shrines for ancestors in caves but that is very uncommon. I think mostly people think of caves as of economic resources here. You’ll see that many villagers hope, when they see people coming to explore the caves, that maybe the caves would be developed for tourism. And they also want to get the water from the caves. So they think about how it can be useful for their lives. And of course you’ve seen all the nitrate pits in the caves. 70-80 years ago they were extracting this material and making money from that.
I heard that they used nitrate during World War II for making gun powder. Do you know if they used it only during war period?
I believe they used it during World Word II, I don’t know the exact date when they stopped. I’ve asked many villagers and didn’t get any clear answer. Although I asked an 80 year old woman a few years ago and she just remembered them doing it (extracting nitrates) when she was a child. So maybe 70 years ago they stopped.
Do they only used it for gun powder? Some villagers were saying that they also used it as a fertilizer.
I would assume that they probably used it for both, but it’s very difficult to find information about this in China. Probably also for fireworks.
I also heard that during the war period many local people were hiding in the caves…
I’ve surely seen indications that people lived in the caves. I would really love if someone came out with video camera and collected stories from the old people. It’s almost too late now. People who remember those days are few and far between now. In caves you’ll sometimes see hards and little structures that were used by people who cooked. There are many signs of modification to the caves.
Has any archeological research been done in the caves?
Not archeological – anthropological. In Kunming they are bunch of scientists who look at bones of ancient humans that sort of things. Those are often found in caves. We have seen many artifacts that are probably several hundred years old. But we have not been able to find a scientist to dig them for us. I think the problem is that there is so much work to be done in China, people are mostly interested in really old stuff. We of course cooperate with geologists and I’m in touch with a bat scientist. We take pictures of bats that we see and we send them to this bat specialist. And he actually wrote some letter to a magazine. One among the species of bats that we saw in Wulong cave is called a trident nose bat, and that was the most northerly observation of that bat. That’s kind of cool. There is a collection of vertebrates with scientist in Beijing and Guangzhou. Sometimes we’ll collect specimens of bugs and send them to them.
Are these specialists Chinese?
Of course. You are not allowed to export. We have had experts from the States and other countries come here and help with the collecting which we’ll then give to the Chinese scientists.
Don’t you have a master’s degree in geology yourself?
Yes. My thesis is on the caves.
Apart from that was your education anyhow connected to caving?
Not at all, my undergraduate degree is in mathematics. And then I was at Cambridge studying applied math and theoretical physics (laugh).
I noticed that there were few caves here used as waste pits. Is this problem common in China?
Unfortunately it is a common practice. And you see this in the States as well. People just don’t know any better. I hope that in the future there will be more education. Certainly in the States you pull cars, washing machines and refrigerators out of pits. The big problem is that so many people get their water from the caves – that’s why education is so important.
You have lived in China for over a decade. What changes did you observe during your stay?
When I first got to Er Long Dong village they just got a road there. They had unreliable electricity, no cell phone coverage, no phone lines and no concrete buildings. Nowadays there are concrete buildings everywhere. There is a road that goes all away from through Er Long Dong. Before it used to take a long time to get to Er Long Dong, we used to walk down there. I remember when the villagers strung the phone lines. Actually some guy from the phone company came with a truck and dumped off a concrete pylons an then a month later they came back and told the villagers where to dig the holes to put the pylons up, then they had a guy climb it and put the wires. Then they have to pull them up the mountain so a whole bunch of villagers had to help. I think many more of the villagers are going away to work. You see all of them have fancy cell phones and everything. I think they want these things now. Maybe before they weren’t so aware of them. I think they want a better quality of life even more so then before.
What are your plans for the future?
I think I would like to get a summer job in the US, maybe for a national park or a national forest. But I would like to spend at least part of every year in China for the rest of my life.