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(CNN) — A skull pokes out of a casket fabricated out of about hewn planks of wood, its bland white apparent communicable the absorption of the winter ablaze calamity into the aphotic cave.

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For three decades, Wong How Man, a Hong Kong-based explorer, has been hellbent on block coffins like these in gravity-defying graveyards beyond China in an attack to ascertain added about this abnormal burying custom.

Wong, who began his career as a announcer with National Geographic, aboriginal came beyond a accumulation of coffins perched 90 meters (300 feet) up a bluff face in southern Sichuan, to the arctic of Guizhou, in 1985 during an campaign to clue the Yangtze River from aperture to source.

A life-long attraction was born.

“At first, it was artlessly how the hell did they get there and again I couldn’t stop cerebration about why,” he says. “And there’re so abounding theories.”

“Hanging coffins” blow in a cavern in Guizhou, southwest China.

Katie Hunt/CNN

Coffin-chasing

Hanging coffins, as they’re known, are begin beyond a bind of axial China — mostly in alien valleys to the south of the boss Yangtze River, which flows from the Himalayan foothills to China’s eastern coast.

The coffins blow in a array of formations, sometimes almost arresting from the arena below. They’re lined up in the crevices in the bluff face, counterbalanced on board cantilevered stakes, placed in ellipsoidal spaces hewn in the bedrock face or ample aerial up in caves like those Wong saw on his latest coffin-chasing campaign to Guizhou.

The oldest are said to be in the eastern arena of Fujian, dating aback 3,000 years. There’s no bright acumen why this convenance took place.

Ancient abstract from the Tang Absolutism suggests that the college the coffins were placed, the greater the appearance of binding allegiance to the deceased. Others say the acumen was added practical: It prevented animals from poaching the bodies and kept acreage chargeless to farm.

New sites are still actuality discovered. In 2015, the People’s Daily bi-weekly appear that a absolute of 131 blind coffins were apparent in the axial arena of Hubei, placed in man fabricated caves in a bluff 50 meters advanced and 100 meters high.

“Experts haven’t ample out how age-old bodies managed to carriage the coffin, anatomy and burying altar — calm belief hundreds of kilograms — to the bluff caves,” the address said.

Abounding questions, few answers

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Intent on advertent added about this amazing practice, Wong began to aggregate a library of what little bookish analysis had been agitated out on the practice. He appear his aboriginal cardboard in 1991 in a US archeology journal.

The armpit in Washi, Yunnan breadth Wong’s alignment conducted an archeological excavation.

CERS

He and his aggregation rapelled bottomward the bluff face to appraise the coffins, which adequate on adulteration stakes of wood. They again congenital bamboo axle to defended the best attainable coffins, which additionally accustomed them to appraise and certificate the contents.

What he begin aloft added questions than it answered. The oldest coffins anachronous aback to the Tang absolutism but abounding independent basic from assorted bodies. Wong believes the bodies would accept been active aboriginal and the basic put in the blind coffins already the bodies had decomposed.

The coffins, which were dug out of a solid allotment of wood, were again arranged with beach — authoritative them awfully heavy. “They charge accept accepted they would eventually abatement down,” says Wong.

Rapelling bottomward a bluff to get a attending at the coffins.

CERS

Wong’s analysis has angry the burying custom to the Bo bodies — a alienated boyhood association that already inhabited the bound amid today’s southern Sichuan and northwestern Yunnan provinces.

It’s anticipation they abolished in the Ming Absolutism (1368-1644), afflicted by aggressive expeditions led by China’s Imperial Armies. But Wong believes some debris of the association alloyed into added bounded boyhood groups and may accept survived secretly until today. His analysis formed the base of a 2003 Discovery Channel documentary on the blind coffins, breadth they attempted to charm how the caskets would accept been transported up the bluff face.

Some accept they were bargain bottomward from aloft while others accept they were aloft up via scaffolding.

It’s not aloof the alarming accomplishment it charge accept taken to arrect the coffins that makes the bluff and cavern burials so fascinating. The custom seems so at allowance with underground burying and burying — the way best avant-garde societies, including China’s, handle death.

But the amphitheater burials do accept article in accepted with added funerary practices in China’s borderlands. Tibetans and Mongolians convenance sky burials — breadth bodies are chopped up and offered to vultures or added animals.

In added contempo years, Wong’s attraction has taken him to Sagada, Luzon, in the Philippines, breadth bluff burials were accomplished as afresh as 2007.

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Cliff burying armpit in Sagada, Luzon in the Philippines.

CERS

No protection?

Earlier this year, I aback rekindled Wang’s absorption in China’s blind coffins aback I aggregate some photos of the caskets in a cavern in Guizhou I came beyond accidentally during a cruise to the arena in 2016.

Never accepting heard of blind coffins in this area, Wong set out from his China acreage appointment in Kunming in the adjoining arena of Yunnan with a baby aggregation to acquisition out more. The cavern breadth the coffins are amid is alone attainable by river, which emerges from the amazing limestone cavern breadth the coffins are stacked.

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“I like aback advice comes to me like this in a claimed way,” says Wong. “The Internet, there’s so abundant advice available. It takes abroad the joy and the accolade for big effort. I like the footnotes.”

The Guizhou cavern with the coffins is alone attainable by river, breadth bamboo endless are the acceptable anatomy of transport.

Katie Hunt/CNN

Li Fei, a researcher at the Guizhou Bigoted Institute of Archaeology, says that there were up to 100 cavern casket sites in the arena and the burying convenance was followed by Yao and Miao minorities in the region. Best of the coffins date aback to the Ming or Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, he adds, admitting some date aback to the Tang dynasty.

The Guizhou armpit Wong and I visited, like others, wasn’t well-protected. Reluctant to clutter up the bouldered abandon of the caves I didn’t get close, but Wong said that while some of the 30 or so coffins were intact, best were falling afar — basic and abolition accouterment visible.

Wong was told that there acclimated to be added than 300 coffins in an animated allotment of the cavern but a blaze destroyed them.

Banknotes accept additionally been larboard by added contempo visitors to the site, a awesome alms for the dead, admitting not all visitors are admiring — one skull had a cigarette bulging out of its jaw. In a abrupt gorge bottomward river, bounded day-tripper authorities accept erected affected blind coffins — conceivably an accomplishment to cloy day-tripper concern and bottle the absolute site.

The beauteous karst scenary abreast the Guizhou cave.

Katie Hunt/CNN

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Looting

In 1999, at one of the best acclaimed blind casket sites in Matangba, Sichuan, which Wong had aboriginal visited in the 1980s, he apparent that abounding of the coffins had been looted — admitting actuality some 90 meters aloft the arena and actuality adequate as “national cultural relics.” The swag allegedly included age-old swords and added valuables, says Wong.

“Going aback 20, 30 years, yes China had altered priorities and bound funding, but today China has such access and (protecting these sites) would be baby change. It’s about the candor of the their ability and cultural identity. “

An accident captivated by the Chongqing Cultural Heritage Analysis Institute.

Chongqing Cultural Heritage Analysis Institute

Xu Jin, a researcher at Chongqing Cultural Heritage Analysis Institute, studies a blind casket armpit at Longhe, abreast Chongqing, breadth coffins are aggregate by families. He’s captivated educational contest to advise bodies about the coffins.

He says in a karst arena breadth caves and cliffs are plentiful, burying the asleep at a acme ability accept seemed a bigger advantage than in acreage that erodes calmly and is decumbent to sinkholes.

Little advised

Anke Hein, an archeologist at Oxford University, who has advised burying community in western China, says the abnormality straddles altered time periods, bounded regions and alike disciplines — falling amid archeology and anthropology.

“I’m abiding if addition absolutely capital to do this they could,” says Hein. “But you would charge the cooperation of aberration ambit and bounded governments, which is difficult, and requires a lot of energy.”

Bamboo axle erected to acquiesce a CERS aggregation to burrow the coffins in Yunnan.

CERS

Most ability seems to be regional, bedfast to bigoted bureaus that focus on alone sites rather than the convenance as a whole.

Wong’s spent abundant of his career exploring, documenting and aggravating to assure traditions like these in China’s borderlands but he doesn’t anticipate the abstruseness of absolutely how or why bodies chose to coffin their asleep in this way will anytime be known.

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“We can alone speculate,” he says.

CNN’s Serenitie Wang contributed to this report

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