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A trip to the caves

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The St. Petersburg headquarters of the Russian Geographical Society. The meeting of speleology and karstology commission. Those are the world’s leading specialists in researching caves and the planet’s natural cavities. This time, conclusions of the latest expeditions aside, they discussed another important topic – underground tourist routes.

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The commission’s secretary, speleologist and researcher Anton Yushko, shows us a booklet from a photo exhibition about Ruskeala quarry, which took place here just a few years ago. Today, the underground grotto of a former marble quarry is among the most popular tourist destinations in the North-West. But, according to the researcher, the potential here is as large as the imminent issues.

  • Undoubtedly, the potential is huge. Speleo-tourism needs to be developed, but the problem is that underground sites are vulnerable. And balance needs to be found – to find new tourist caves, while using the exciting tourist routes.

In European countries, speleo-tourism has existed for almost 150 years. For instance, you can see ancient paintings in a French Lasco cave, while the Spanish “Dragon cave” displays an entire symphonic orchestra.

According to specialists, there are not too many caves at the outskirts of St. Petersburg. There are several dozen man-made ones – at former mining sites. But only a few natural ones. Meaning each cave is almost priceless. According to chairman of speleology commission Yuriy Lyakhnitskiy, the most difficult part is making the underground world more accessible without harming it.

We join speleologist Igor Khlebalov in walking down the ecological route. We’re heading to the famous Sablinskiye Caves. And make a deliberate stop at the bank of Tosna River. Inside the cave, touching the walls is forbidden – not to crumble the fossils and harm the microclimate. And here we can safely study the texture and composition. And even make unexpected discoveries.

Sablisnkiye Caves are former mining sites, where quartz sand was extracted from since the mid-19th century. And the largest of them – Levoberezhnaya – has been functioning as a tourist destination for fifteen years.

Behind the iron bars, there are numerous pathways and tunnels, where you can spend hours roaming around. And the ceiling is so low that it’s easy to understand why hazmat hats are necessary

You can only visit those with a guide, which are experienced geologists and speleologists. However, there’s enough interesting content here for historians too. Here you can see marks from a miner’s tool, there – a full-body mannequin of a miner.

Many parts of it have received names. This long and wide tunnel, for instance, is dubbed Broadway. Or “Captain Nemo’s underground lake” – and you almost feel that Nautilus would emerge from it all of a sudden. It’s a whole new world with its own laws and rules, which every underground tourist has to be aware of.

But, most importantly – you have to remember that you’re merely a guest underground. After mines were closed, they got populated by new permanent inhabitants. For example, you can see butterflies, toads and wood frogs along the underground springs.

And such incredible experience can be made accessible to tourists in Gatchina’s caves or half-abandoned mines of Staraya Ladoga. You don’t have to leave the country to visit that world. It’s almost completely unaffected by the currency rates. You just have to be more attentive to what lies beneath. Literally.

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