Underground adventures in China

Photographer Robbie Shone joins a team of explorers to document one of the world's largest caves.
Caving Expedition to explore the caves of the Tongzi mastersystem in northern Wulong County, Chongqing Province of China
The elephant's playroom © Robbie Shone
By Tarquin Cooper

When it comes to discovering new places, it's generally felt that the map is pretty well filled in. But there's a place that even Google Earth doesn't go — and that's underground.

For the small and elite band of cavers involved in underground exploration a whole world of possibility exists. In remote areas like China, huge cave systems are being explored and mapped.

Caver and photographer Robbie Shone, 33, has been on two trips to a cave system north of Wulong, approximately two hours east of Chongqing, (With a population of 30 million it's one of the largest, if least well known cities in the world.)

“It's an area of huge cave exploration,” he says.

Robbie Shone shooting during the expedition in the cave
Robbie Shone: cave explorer and photographer © Rob Eavis

The Briton, who's based in Innsbruck, Austria, was there in March 2012 and again earlier this year to document the caves with his camera. (You can check out his spectacular images in this gallery.)

He joined full time American cave explorer Erin Lynch whose team has discovered one of the world's largest chambers, Cloud Ladder Hall, in 2007, which is approximately 300m high and 150m in diameter.

“The striking aspect — which is unique — is it's full of cloud. It has its own weather system. It's what makes it impressive and that adds a level of mystery to the place,” he says.

“When you shout, your echo comes back 5-6 seconds later. That's pretty intense.”

Caving Expedition to explore the caves of the Tongzi mastersystem in northern Wulong County, Chongqing Province of China
Light shines through Cloud Ladder Hall

Robbie says the appeal lies in being able to discover something new. “You could be the first person to to walk down a passage, you just don't know what you're going to find. That's the great aspect of exploration.”

“The photography is a real challenge,” he adds. “There's no natural light and it's not easy dragging all my equipment around.”

The caves in China differ from Europe and the rest of the world. In the Alps there are a lot more vertical shafts and cavers spend a lot more time on ropes. It's also a lot colder. Caves start at 2,000m so temperatures normally hover around 4-5°C.

In China meanwhile, the average temperature is more like 16-17°C.
“You sweat a lot more,” says Robbie.

Next up for the Innsbruck-based photographer is a return trip to the Gorner Glacier in Switzerland at the end of this month to explore its ice caves and moulins — vertical shafts in the glacier. Some of his previous shots can be seen here. But for sure he'll be back to China.

“You could spend a lifetime exploring caves there,” he says.

Check out more of his photography at www.shonephotography.com

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