Wednesday, February 21

Xiaozhai Tiankeng, the largest and deepest well in the world under which an underground forest survives


Part of his name, Xiaozhai Tiankeng, roughly translates to “heavenly well” or “heavenly.” And although it may seem a bit excessive, the truth is that it hits a lot. In Fengjie, a county in the Chongqing municipality —in the very heart of China— one of those treasures of the planet that seems to have been made by a virtuoso of Photoshop is hidden: a totally natural well that reaches 662 meters deep, 626 long and 537 wide. The most surprising thing, however, is not its dimensions or almost vertical walls, but the explosion of life that it welcomes.

Xiaozhai Tiankeng is what geologists call a sinkhole, sinkhole or depression in the ground generated, among other factors, by the effect of water. In the case of the one located in Fengjie, it has been formed over a cave and houses an underground river that measures a total of 8.5 kilometers and ends in a spectacular waterfall. Its sheer size makes Xiaozhai Tiankeng the sinkhole of its kind, tiankeng, largest and deepest in the world. This is how China.org.cn presents it, for example, which explains that during the rainy season a waterfall is also generated at the mouth of the sinkhole.

In addition to its size, Xiaozhai Tiankeng impresses with the biodiversity it houses inside. Its base is so large that it gives shelter —Wondermondo details— to about 1,300 species of plants, such as ginkgo, and wild animals. Among the most fascinating “tenants” that walk through its underground forest, the clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), a feline with unmistakable fur that can measure up to 1.1 meters and usually rests in trees.

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A garden more than 600 meters deep

Just as interesting is its geology: the tiankeng it opens in a vast karstic area of ​​280 km2 made up of limestone. Experts believe that the sinkhole we enjoy today, between 511 and 662 meters deep, has taken shape over the last 128,000 years. For much of its history, until the cave’s ceiling collapsed, it was a huge underground cavity. Throughout China there are also other tiankeng of remarkable size, like Dashiwei.

The most curious thing is that, despite its size, we have only recently begun to study Xiaozhai Tiankeng. The population around it has known it since ancient times, but scientists have been paying attention to it for about three decades, after it was documented in 1994 by a group of explorers from the Royal Geographic Society. “Since that day, it has captivated cave explorers, biologists, and adventurous tourists from all over the world,” notes China.org.

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If you want to be one of those intrepid travelers and see for yourself what this “heavenly well” is like, yes, it is better that you train beforehand. As the interest in Xiaozhai has grown, communications with the place, in the Tiankeng Difeng National Park, have become more comfortable; but at least one of the accesses is a zig-zag staircase with 2,800 steps.

Nobody said that the way to heaven was easy. Nor to his well on Earth.

Cover image | Brookqi



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