Uncharted Caves of Kyrgyzstan

A team of scientists and storytellers work to survey and protect one of the most remote mountain ranges on earth, and to find the uncharted caves of Kyrgyzstan.

This is the story of how we are beginning to use a completely new way of exploration, using smart technology to our advantage in extremely remote and difficult terrain. Working together across disciplines, we are able to capture huge areas of wilderness in full 3D – meaning we can bring a small part of the planet with us back home for further analysis.

Uncharted Caves of Kyrgyzstan - Teaser
Teaser video of the project. Edited by team member Oliver Akermo/IVAR Studios.

These assets proved invaluable in our expedition team’s search for new caves, and provided us a possibility to analyze huge chunks of wilderness in real-time during the expedition.

The drone scouting team riding into the Axay Uru valley during the “Uncharted Caves of Kyrgyzstan” expedition. Several of these valleys were only accessible by horse and packraft, as even large terrain vehicles struggle to enter. These limestone towers proved to have lots of pockets of possible cave openings, and became a hotspot for both the survey team and the caving team to research, map and explore throughout the expedition.

Kyrgyzstan, Land of Horses

The mountain range of the Tian Shan extends throughout Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and China. Our project location, in the southeastern part of Kyrgyzstan, consists of an arid highland plateau broken of by jagged valleys where the rivers have carved through the soft limestone.

This is a hard place to explore, mostly because of the really tricky terrain that doesn’t allow for most vehicles. While we used large terrain trucks to move about the region, we often had to resort to simpled modes of travel – including packrafting and most of all horses.

There’s a reason kids in this region grow up on horseback.

Cecilio Lopez Tercero and Martin Edström guiding the drone from afar, flying up to a potential new cave opening. Photo by Katja Adolphson

A new way to explore

At the time of our project and expedition, there was extremely limited information available about the terrain and geology of this area of Kyrgyzstan and the Tian Shan. A few similar expeditions had tried to survey this location in the past, but the only official maps and documents available were maps from the Soviet era.

The expedition team looking at a preliminary map of the area, built on satellite data and markings from Soviet-era maps and expedition data.

This meant we simply had to start from scratch in many ways, as most of the available data regarding terrain complexity was just based on very limited satellite information.

Photogrammetry, maps and 3D-models

One of our key goals of the expedition was to prototype and execute a new way of doing aerial surveys of complicated terrain to help us find new caves. Without aerial surveys our team would be left to simply hiking the land to look for caves – which isn’t particulary effective and demands a lot of time. We were sure we could improve this by a tenfold, and we were successful in that regard.

Kyrgyz_CGI-Reel_Final_3D_Renders_1
Sample renders of our 3D models, processed by IVAR Studios

By using camera drones and a process called photogrammetry our team was able to capture enough images to create 3D-models in realtime from our basecamp tent during the expedition. After returning back to camp every day with new images, we were able to process 3D-models that slowly helped us build out complete terrain models of our full survey area.

These models are huge in scope, and can be used in both complex scientific softwares to analyze the terrain and simpler formats where users can “walk through the story” in virtual reality.

Expert caver Carlos Sanchez descends into a newly discovered cave entrance to inspect it and see if it continues further. The cave turned out to stretch 20 meters further in – but then closed off by sediment. This made the cave one of the smaller finds of the expedition, despite the dramatic entrance.

Finding new caves in Tian Shan

Througout our expedition, the team was able to continually review the 3D-models made by photogrammetry in the field and analyze potential cave openings. This was an immense help in choosing between interesting openings and for planning how to access them – a process often involving complicated rappel or climbing.

Throughout the expedition, we made 130 individual drone flights, flying over 220km to manually survey and area of approximately 50km2 (with varying degrees of manual inspection). Our drones spent almost a full 24 hours in the air during the expedition, and we captured over 12500 images that helped us identify cave openings as well as create detailed 3D models of several interesting “hot-spots” of caves in the area.

One of the database maps created during the expedition, indicating cave openings, caves and the large area that we fully 3D-scanned during the expedition. Click to download the pdf.

We were able to map 46 new possible cave openings, out of which 11 turned out to be actual caves confirmed by us. Out of 46 cave openings, we found 36 by drone (compared to 10 found by walking or riding). This means 78% of the cave openings were found by a drone, proving it to be a much more effective workflow for discovering openings in the terrain.

After our expedition team left the area, 19 of the cave openings we found still remain unexplored – and we know there are countless more to be found close to our project location.

This also proves what an incredibly under-researched area this is, as every single cave we set foot in had most probably never been accessed by humans before (at least not in any recorded history we had been able to find).

Protecting the land

Foundation for the Preservation and Exploration of Caves

A core part of the Uncharted Caves of Kyrgyzstan project is to help the Kyrgyz Foundation for the Preservation and Exploration of Caves to establish a geopark in this region. The region of Kok-Kiya has been on their list of need for protection for a long time, but earlier efforts have not proved to be successful yet. The question of environmental preservation is not on the political map or a subject of debate in Kyrgyzstan and Kok-Kiya is an area of potential interest for exploitation.

Apart from attention from the public, a dedicated effort to influence politicians is also crucial to the process of establishing a geopark. Our project brought back much more knowledge of the area and thereby more arguments for the importance of protecting this land – something our team is already at work with.

Stay tuned for more from this project in 2021.

Dr. Katja Adolphson, Dr. Alexey Dudashvili and Mats Kahlström inspect a map of the project locations during the "Uncharted Caves of Kyrgyzstan" expedition.
Dr. Katja Adolphson, Dr. Alexey Dudashvili and Mats Kahlström inspect a map of the project locations during the “Uncharted Caves of Kyrgyzstan” expedition.

The Expedition team

Scouting team

Dr. Katja Adolphson, Expedition leader
Dr. Alexey Dudashvili, Geology leader
Martin Edström, drone team lead
Mats Kahlström, drone pilot
Maria Eriksen, drone team
Oliver Akermo, videographer and DoP

Caving team

Expert cavers Yuliia Izmaylova and Carlos Sanchez preparing for a long rappel down to a possible cave opening the team found by drone.

Cecilio Lopez Tercero, Team leader
Yuliia Izmaylova
Roberto Cano
Carlos Sanchez
Inna Bezdornova

Logistics team

Local team member and translator Tolonbek Rasulov looking out over the valley of Kok Kiya, resting after a long day of work with the team.

Tolonbek Rasulov
Natalya Frantsuzova
Vladimir Levshunov
Oleg Shakirov

Post-production

Photogrammetry and 3D-modeling

Post-production team

Videographer and DoP Oliver Akermo in the field in Kyrgyzstan
Videographer and DoP Oliver Akermo in the field in Kyrgyzstan

Oliver Akermo, IVAR Studios
Julian Schenini, IVAR Studios
Fredrik Edström, IVAR Studios