Križna Jama – Slovenia’s majestic cave

Adventure, Slovenia

Križna Jama is eight kilometers long and considered to be one of the most beautiful and best preserved caves in Europe. It is known by a chain of 50 underground lakes with emerald green water.

“Hurry up”, Gašper says while walking through the knee-deep water of the underground river, “the water rises quickly”. We are inside Križna Jama, an eight kilometer long river cave, known to be one of the most beautiful and best preserved caves in Europe.

There are approximately 8,000 caves in Slovenia’s Karst region, many of them are very remote and nearly inaccessible. Others, like Postojna Jama, are heavily touristed caves and are visited extensively.

Gašper is a Slovenian caver in his thirties and is a specialist for the Cross Cave, as Križna Jama is meant in English.

He has guided a lot of scientists, cavers, photographers and researchers through the cave that is nearly long enough as Mount Everest is tall. He has also accompanied Robbie Shone, a world-famous National Geographic photographer, based in Austria, on his assignment to explore Slovenia’s secret river caves.

“He has been to caves all over the planet, but Križna Jama was something special, even for him”, Gašper tells me while I was referring to this talented explorer whose images made me wanna visit this cave.

Križna Jama is a heavily protected cave system without pathways or electricity. Fewer than 1,000 people are allowed to enter the cave each year. And only less than 100 people get the chance to explore the cave in its entirety.

“These restrictions are necessary to protect this ecosystem and to guarantee its beauty lasts for longer than our own lives.”

The cave is known by a chain of 50 underground lakes which are connected to each other. The pools are normally filled with crystal-clear emerald green water. But due to the last days mass of rain the water already starts to turn milky and visibility is shrinking.

To travel the cave in its entirety explorers must walk and also paddle with rubber boats along the deeper parts of the enormous underground river. From time to time the boat must pass narrow restrictions where it is necessary to lay down inside the boat. “We are definitely not able to make it to Crystal Mountain this time”, says Gašper.

Crystal Mountain, or Kristalna gora, is the cave’s furthers accessible point where less than 100 people go each year. It is an enormous hall where cavers can climb a mountainous pile of collapsed rocks to a point well above the stream.


But to go to Crystal mountain we would have to pass a restriction that is only 30 centimeters large and the water has already risen that much. “So it would not even physically be possible to go there with our boat. We have to go back”.

Although I am little bit disappointed that we have to turn back I know that honest adventures are no scheduled holidays and conditions inside caves can change within hours.

“The water in this cave comes from the Bloke plateau that until recently was covered with snow”, Gašper tells me. But now the temperature has risen, the snow melted and the water is coming in masses inside the cave system.

We make our way back to the cave’s exit. Gašper is attaching the rubber boats to fixed lines inside the cave so that they will still be at the right place after the flood has gone down.

After we have left the river at the point where the water flows into the underground, we walk through the enormous cave to the exit. There is a pathway through rocks that seems to be man-made but Gašper explains that this small lane was once created by ancient cave bears when seeking protecting from the elements or resting for their winter sleep. “The massive cave bears made their way through the rocks pushing them away.”

This makes me stunning and for a second I doubt if he is right. “Have a look at the polished corners of the rock, made by cave bears over an nearly endless period of time”. I am still speak-less while I exit the cave.

Near the entry Gašper shows me a collection of graffiti, the oldest one referring to the 16th century. The cave has been visited for a long time although it wasn’t until the 19th century that explorers passed the lakes and made their way inside Križna Jama.

Not far away fossils of cave bears have been found, a large teeth and some bones can still be seen inside the rock.

I know I will return to the cave within the next months. After the snow-melt and during the rainy summer period visits are not possible and as I have learned not even the winter season seems to guarantee a safe exploration.

In-between I think about my last photo from the river cave: I decided to take a shot in this long tunnel, placing lights and a caver properly. I already noticed the high water level and started to feel how once this tunnel was shaped by water masses.

Gašper told me that some hours later the pathway on the right was completely flooded and visits to the cave had been canceled for several days.


I would like to thank Gašper and everyone at Križna Jama for their time and devotion, otherwise I would not have been able to  photograph inside the cave.

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Deep beneath the city – Exploring Budapest’s Underwater Cave System

Adventure, Diving, Hungary

Budapest is known worldwide for its unique spa culture with more than a hundred thermal water springs originating from the volcanic earth below. Less known is that behind the spring of Molnár János lies one of the most extraordinary cave systems in the world. It is a doorway to a hidden underwater world open for well-trained cave divers.

words & photographs by Michael Biach

Cave Diver in Molnár János.

Budapest is divided by the river Danube into two parts. The hills of Buda are situated on the west bank while Pest is on the flat east side. The cave system of Molnár János is located in the old town of Buda. Its healing thermal waters have been used for centuries and flow into a little pond called Lake Malom (malom means mill in Hungarian). Divers have found Roman constructions on the ground of the lake. Long time nobody knew where the water was coming from. In the 19th century an enthusiastic pharmacist named János Molnár started to investigate the dry areas of the cave and analysed the water of the spring. He was the first to think that there might be a huge underwater cave system under the Buda hills. First underwater explorations started in the 1950s, in the 70s and 80s divers successfully explored and charted 400 meters of the underwater cave. In 2002 a new passage and a whole new cave system were found after divers drilled through a wall into a huge chamber. Today several kilometers of the caves have been explored.

Today scientists regularly explore the cave, mapping the system and analyzing water and mineral samples. Even three new species of the Niphargus have been found inside the warm thermal waters.

Molnár János is also open to well-trained cave divers from all around the world making it a once-in-a-lifetime experience as it is the only natural cave system beneath a metropolis.

Cave Diver in Molnár János.
Lake Malom with the remnants of an old Turkish bath.
Cave divers during a pre-dive briefing in Molnár János.
A cave diver is getting ready for a cave dive in Molnár János.
A new species of Niphargus (visible under ultra-violet light) has been found inside the cave.
The waters of Molnár János emerge into the nearby spas…
… and after a few hundred meters flow into the nearby Danube.

Stolen Beauty – Tribal Tattoos of Burma’s Chin Women

Adventure, Burma/Myanmar, Nature & Wildlife

The isolated mountains of Burma’s Chin state are home to a number of hill tribes that have been separated from modern world for centuries. Chin women used to follow the thousand-year-old tradition of tattooing their faces. The ritual, officially banned by the government in the 1960s, doesn’t attract modern Chin girls anymore. Soon the thousand-year-old tradition could be gone forever.

words & photographs by Michael Biach

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According to an old legend a Burmese king once traveled to the remote hill regions of Chin state, which was known for its beautiful women. The King then displaced a Chin girl, brought her back to his palace and made her his wife. The girl, desperate and unhappy with its situation, finally managed to escape and tried to make her way back home, always afraid that the king could eventually capture her again. In order not to get caught again she disguised herself by making incisions in her beautiful face using a knife. “It was like she was stealing her own beauty in order to protect herself from the king,” Daw San recounts the old fairytale. The woman in her sixties belongs to the Muun tribe, one of the few Chin sub-tribes that originally practiced the tradition of facial tattoos.

 

“It was like she was stealing her own beauty

in order to protect herself from the king” 

 

“Every little child knows this story,” she further explains with a smile. Anthropologists believe that it is more plausible that not the king but hostile invaders from other tribes kidnapped the girls. The tattoos then would allow them to identify from which tribe a girl originates. Myth or truth, fact is that the adoption of facial tattoos became part of Chin culture nearly a thousand years ago and since then has been passed from one generation to the other. Until recently at least.

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Today the Chin people consist of various sub-groups which are distinguished only by the women’s facial tattoos as well as differences in their language. The tribes are mostly situated between the north of Arakan state and the southeastern hills of Chin state.

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The Burmese government officially banned the tradition in the 1960s after the military took over power in a coup d’état. But the Chin-State has long been neglected by the far-away government or, as others say, the Chin state has long tried to avoid contact with outside rulers. In fact the Chin people were in a state of war with the military regime until June 2012 when a formal truce was announced after power was shifted to a civil government. For most of the isolated hill tribes these past events happened without notice.

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The Chin-State is still one of the country’s poorest and most isolated regions, with a 73% poverty rate according to an official survey. Some areas are widely inaccessible. While this is the reason that local traditions have survived the past centuries, it also means that malnutrition, childhood mortality and the risk for women to die in child bed are tremendous. Efforts of NGOs to push for the construction of streets and the implementation of governmental action could bring an improvement to the people’s living and health standard.

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“People are now hoping that they will profit from the truce and from the booming tourist industry in Myanmar,” says Nay Aung, a 28-year-old guide from Bagan who is regularly organizing trips into the area for NGOs and adventurous tourists. Traveling to hill areas of Chin state is quite challenging and by now still far off the beaten track. Areas are only accessible by four-wheel-driving jeeps on damaged rough tracks. The two-to-three days drive is halted by river crossings, mudflows or flat tires. New roads are currently under construction, often with the use of low-paid child labor, but are not to be expected before the next three years. “Part of the roads get damaged again during the rainy season,” says Nay Aung, “this makes it hard to finish the construction”.

 

“All the faces with tattoos are those of old women”

 

The mountainous area has always been wild and inaccessible. The Chin accepted the harsh and inhospitable conditions of the mountainous regions for centuries by choice, so they could avoid foreign influence and invasion.

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But times are changing and more and more Chin, especially the young, are willing to open their region for a better health care, maintenance and modernity. “All the faces with tattoos are those of old women,” says Daw San. Her striking face is graced with distinctive patterns that symbolize a pearl necklace and a dominant ‘Y’ that is illustrating a sacrifice trunk. The tattoo shows that she is a member of the Muun tribe. The differences in the patterns of the about twelve facial-tattoo practicing Chin-tribes vary from simple dots practiced by the Daai tribe or straight lines by the Yindu tribe to spiderweb-like tattoos of the Laytoo or even the full-face tattoos of the Ubun tribe where not even a single dot is spared.

“Every tattoo has a spiritual meaning and defines the values of the tribe,” says Daw San. The sacrifice trunk in her face reflects the totem of her village. “So we know who we are and we can find our ancestors in the afterlife by identifying the tattoos,” Daw San is convinced.

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The Chin, although most converted to Christianity by American Baptists a hundred years ago, are strongly committed to Animism. Every man or woman needs a ‘House of Spirits,’ a secure place for the afterlife. Once in his or her life, the tradition says, a member of the Muun tribe must hold a sacred ceremony to avoid harm by spirits and gain peace for the afterlife. During the week-long celebration the Muun will sacrifice one chicken, one wild pig, one goat and one wild buffalo and will divide the food with the tribe’s shaman and the remaining villagers. If the ritual is fulfilled one will collect flat stones from the river to build a ‘house of spirits’. After the death of a tribe member its remains are cremated and the ashes are laid to rest under the stone altar. “One is deemed to be alive until the bones have been disappeared,” explains Daw San. Only the most experienced hunters – or the wealthiest villagers – are able to repeat the ritual a second time in their life. “If this happens,” Daw San recounts further, “one is allowed to build the altar next to his or her home.”

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The town of Mindat is situated five hours on foot through the mountains from the ‘house of spirits’ cemetery of this group of Muun villagers. The town doesn’t differ much from other places in modern-day Burma. Local boys play soccer as the sun goes down; some girls drive through the village on motorbikes; and trucks and jeeps park in front of the town’s market. The place is completely alien to the remaining tribe-members who live their lives quite isolated on the hills.

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“Today the girls, at least in Mindat, see the fading custom as an unattractive relic of the past and they are aware of outside beauty standards,” says Daw San with a cautious smile. Decades ago it would have been out of question for a man to marry an un-tattooed girl. “When I was a little girl”, she says, “it would have been impossible not get tattooed. Every woman was proud of her tattoo.”

 

“Today the girls see the custom as an unattractive relic of the past”

 

Daw San is aware of ongoing development in the remote corners Chin state where she lives, and this gives her hope that a better life is on the way. She is happy for this, but she also fears the consequences for the Chin’s traditional lifestyle. She doesn’t doubt that her face is one of the last with a tribal tattoo.

“Soon,” she says, “this thousand-year-old tradition will be gone forever.”

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