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China's Leading Cave Explorer: 20 Years of Undiminished Passion | Faces of Chongqing

By YAN DENG|Mar 27,2024

Chongqing - In the adventurous world of cave exploration, where the thrill of navigating the unknown merges with the rigorous test of climbing, mountaineering, and geological knowledge, Liu Jia, a Chongqing native, has carved a niche for herself as a leading figure. 

Liu, who grew up in the Yuzhong District of Chongqing, started exploring air-raid shelters as a schoolgirl. Today, she is the vice-captain of the Chongqing Cave Exploration Team and vice secretary-general of the Geological Society of China's Committee on Speleology.

Over her 20-year caving career, she has explored nearly a thousand caves across China, covering almost every province, and embarked on cave expeditions in Austria, Russia, Indonesia, and Germany. "Cave exploring is like exploring another planet," she said.

From finance to caves

After graduation, Liu studied finance in college and entered the corporate world as a finance professional. She could not have anticipated then that her passion for outdoor sports would lead her to quit her job to become a professional cave explorer.

Her journey into the depths began in 2004 in a cave in Wulong, Chongqing, where the thrill and the unknown deeply attracted her. The captain of the Chongqing Cave Exploration Team noticed her excellent mental quality and invited her to join the team, where she learned much about caving. She further honed her skills in cave exploration techniques in France and the UK, emphasizing the importance of experience over technique. "The more caves you explore, the more you can sense the dangers," she said.

Her initial decade of exploration was driven by a desire to perfect her techniques. However, what attracted her to cave exploration evolved. She discovered that each cave was like a museum filled with endless unknowns, constantly drawing her in for more exploration.

As her expertise grew, more organizations sought her help exploring caves for their development potential, eventually leading her to become a professional cave explorer.

A professional turn with a growing passion

Currently, Liu's work mainly involves cave resource surveying, design, and geological exploration.

She once cooperated with teammates to explore the caves around the Youyang Taohuayuan Scenic Area and conducted landscape design. This provided crucial insights for the area's renovation and upgrade, helping it elevate to a 5A-level scenic spot. 

Liu has also participated in surveys of caves, including the world's tallest cave hall, Er Long Kou Cave in Chongqing Wulong, with a vertical height of 352 meters, ensuring the safety of highway construction projects.

Liu collaborates with geological teams from Chongqing and Sichuan provinces regarding rockfall surveys. She has conducted surveys in the Three Gorges area of Chongqing to prevent geological disasters like falling rocks and landslides from threatening the safety of vessels navigating the Yangtze River. These high-risk tasks brought her a sense of achievement distinct from regular cave exploration work.

Moreover, she has participated three times in excavating the remains of Red Army soldiers, searching and excavating every fragment, eventually recovering over 2,000 pieces of remains.

"Professionalization has not diminished my love for cave exploration; if anything, it has made me love it more," said Liu. Her clients' demands have pushed her to learn more and deepen her understanding of cave exploration.

Caving until 80

Among the many caves Liu has explored, the Xiaozhai Tiankeng in Chongqing Fengjie County left a deep impression on her. With a mouth diameter of 622 meters, a bottom diameter of 522 meters, and a depth of 666.2 meters, it is the world's deepest natural sinkhole, featuring steep walls and a raging underground river at its bottom.

The British Cave Exploration Association attempted to explore the source of the underground river through manual surveys but failed after six years of effort. Liu made three attempts but faced significant challenges due to the workforce and resources. Nonetheless, her determination remains unwavering: "I still want to complete the exploration of this entire cave, despite knowing how difficult it is."

While exploring the second deepest shaft in China, the Wanzhang Keng, Liu narrowly escaped being struck in the temple by falling rocks at a depth of over 600 meters—a potentially fatal incident. Despite her family's strong opposition due to the dangers involved, she remains steadfast, saying, "Even though my family doesn't support it and cave exploration is dangerous, I still want to explore."

Liu admires Andy Eavis, the oldest cave explorer she knows. He continued to explore caves into his 80s, and she aspires to do the same.

Respect for caves

Liu believes that the future trend of cave exploration in China will lean towards comprehensive commercialization. 

However, she warns against the growing trend of young people exploring caves solely for filming videos and gaining online popularity, lacking genuine passion. This deviates from the ethos of earlier cave explorers, who revered deeply for caves and may mislead genuinely passionate young individuals. 

Liu emphasizes, "Without passion, this path won't be sustainable and may lead to danger."

Furthermore, Liu urges all cave explorers to prioritize environmental conservation. Cave ecosystems are incredibly fragile, and once damaged, they are challenging to restore. 

"Caves are connected to the surface; whatever you do to them will eventually return to you," she said.

(Han Bing, as an intern, also contributed to the report)


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