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<A> Rock climbing in Yangshuo
35 years ago, a journey like this would have been unthinkable. China was an inhospitable, closed society, open to few foreigners and nearly no Americans. The reality of today’s China is much different. McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks populate the big cities, but in the far-flung regions of inner China, you can still find the kind of adventures that are worth traveling 6,000 miles for.
Fanciful, lighthearted names like “Baby Frog” and “Twin Gate” give you a false sense of whimsy. But make no mistake about it…this is series business. And serious adventure. Rock climbing in and around the adrenaline sports Mecca of Yangshou in southern China rivals anything you’ll find in continental America. The “Baby Frog” and “Twin Gate” crags may be child’s play to the serious climbers who gather and guide in this part of Asia, but they look like Everest to those of us who’ve spent our time in the indoor climbing gyms around the urban centers of California.
The journey to Yangshuo is part of the adventure. It starts with a 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong. From there, it’s a 90-minute trip to Guilin on one of the Chinese-flagged airlines that get you from place to place inside the People’s Republic. Be prepared…there’s no first class flight inside communist China, and news reports of Chinese airline crashes are an all-too-common occurrence.
From the Guilin airport, it’s a 90-minute drive to Yangshuo, and this may be the most frightening part of the entire trip. The two-lane highway is populated with all forms of transport…cars, trucks, buses, tractors, motorcycles, bicycles, pedestrians and the occasional water buffalo herd…and they all seem to be trying to pass each other at the same time. It’s not uncommon to see a bus passing a bicycle and a car passing the bus on one side of the road, and the same three-wide formation coming at your from the other direction. It’s often best just to avoid looking out the windows altogether and focus on your destination instead of the journey.
The hub of the climbing world in Yangshou is a place called the Lizard Lounge. Its part bouldering wall, part Internet cafe, part bar/restaurant, and full-time climber’s hangout. It’s also the headquarters of China Climb (www.chinaclimb.com), an adventure outfitter started by a pair of New Zealand entrepreneurs and run by a Canadian manager.
Mike Bertuzzi is a good man to know in Yangshou. In addition to running China Climb, he can tell you where to eat, and what to avoid, in Yangshou. He’s also adept at directing you to the best deals in town, and most important, he has a knack for sizing up your individual climbing abilities and pointing you toward the right rocks in this part of the world.
Mike’s number-one guide in Yangshou is Tommy Ouyang, a Chinese native and all-around outdoor junkie. Tommy’s prized possession is a brand-new Trek mountain bike and just for kicks, he decided to ride it from Yangshou to Guangzhou…a distance of more than 600 kilometers…this past summer. Tommy has lived in Yangshou long enough to know all the local roads and shortcuts, and he has a keen eye for the kind of scenery that foreign travelers are looking for.
Tommy’s task is to take you to the climbing site that best suits your abilities, and make sure that you get an appreciation for his homeland along the way.
This part of China is like nothing you’ve ever seen. Towering karst domes look like they’ve exploded out of the ground, giving the banks along the Li and Dragon rivers the appearance of some kind of out-of-this-world landscape. Everywhere you turn, the horizon is dominated by these gumdrop-like shapes, some rising to a height of thousands of feet. If a climber could design his own personal paradise, it would look like this.
Along the way to the site that Tommy has picked out, you pass “Moon Hill,” the signature rock formation of this region that gets it’s name from the Moon-shaped opening near the top of one of the giant karst hills. The first routes on this crag were set by American Todd Skinner back in 1992. Today, multiple 5.13+ routes challenge some of the world’s best rock climbers. On this day, alpinists from France and Germany were putting on a show for some of the hikers that were winding their way up to the top of the “Moon Hill” trail.
The destination this day is the “Baby Frog” crag, a 25 kilometer bike ride from Yangshuo. The routes on this rock are new, with some in the 5.8/5.9 range…perfect for a jet-lagged American looking at his first real outdoor climbing experience.
Ricki Sheldon, an American from New Mexico who came to Yangshuo to work for China Climb, met us as the site. She’s brought all the required ropes, helmets and harnesses, along with a handful of Snickers bars and a much-needed medical kit. Banging through the brush on a mountain bike can leave you with cuts and abrasions that just might turn into something nasty. Better to treat them with antiseptics and bandages, rather than run the risk of catching some kind of rural Chinese rot.
Gazing up at the seemingly-endless vertical rock face of “Baby Frog” can be a bit intimidating. Ricki volunteered to lead-climb the first route while Tommy belayed her from below. Ricki’s confidence and graceful movements spoke volumes about her experience, and watching her scale the route was a lesson in how to handle this challenge. Once she set the top rope, it was time to give it a go.
This was both a new route and a new experience. Because very few people had climbed on this crag, the rocks were still very sharp and irregular. And unlike indoor gym climbing, there are no specific handholds or colored routes to follow! You make your way up the face as best as you know how, pausing only to catch your breath and occasionally pull away from the rock long enough to take in the amazing scenery. Topping out at 65 feet above the Chinese landscape is unlike anything you’ll ever experience. You’re sweating like Mike Tyson at a spelling bee, but the sense of accomplishment and awe are amazing.
After nearly two hours of climbing at “Baby Frog”…including one route of more than 75 feet…you’re ready to call it a day. Hands, knees, shins and just about anything that you could use to get traction are the rock are scraped and skinned. Again, the medical kit comes in very handy.
The bike trip back to Yangshou is much more direct. In about 30 minutes, you arrive at the Lizard Lounge. Jumbo-sized Tsing Tao beers are in order, and at only 50 cents per bottle, it’s a welcome respite from the rigors of the day.
Day two dawns wet and cold, much different that the humid heat of the previous day. The destination this morning is “Twin Gate,” a climbing site that features both scenic vistas giant caves…perfect for hiding out if the rain gets too severe. And, it’s only 10 kilometers by bike from the Lizard Lounge. Along the way, you pass farmers bringing in rice from their fields, and preparing new land with water buffalo-driven plows. The industrial age has yet to hit much of rural China, and the natives aren’t quite sure what to make of these strange-looking people who have all the energy to climb up their local rocks…for fun! The native Chinese are consumed with the everyday chores of existence, and climbing must seem like a frivolous act to them.
“Twin Gate” is one of the more well-worn sites in the Yangshuo region. The rocks are a bit smoother and more regular, but the challenges seem greater. A dragon-head shaped outcropping on one of the routes is a rock anomaly called a “tufa.” The dictionary defines it as a “calcareous and siliceous rock deposit” but from down below, it looks like a giant pain that you’ve got to get by on the way to the top of this 60-foot route.
Even starting these climbs at “Twin Gate” is a challenge. With one foot on, and one foot off, you hang by two crimpy little handholds, trying to swing your right leg up on the rock long enough to give you something to push off of and move your hands up. You finally get up on the vertical face of the rock, but you’re already wiped out.
25 feet up, you come face-to-face with the tufa. Down below, Ricki is giving encouragement and pointing out the “bomber” handhold that’s hidden around the left side of the dragon head. Blindly grabbing at anything that feels solid enough to support you, you finally poke a finger into the hidden hold, move your feet up, and maneuver around the tufa. You’re less than halfway up the route, but you feel like you’ve conquered a major mountain.
Just then, it starts to rain. Not heavy rain, but enough dampness to wet the rock and make things even more challenging. Nearing the top of the route, you slip and fall…but Tommy’s belay catches you after only dropping about six inches. It’s a reminder that this can be a dangerous sport, and with the skies darkening, it might be time to call it a day. You top out on two more “Twin Gate” routes, mount the bikes, and head for lunch. As you’re crossing the Dragon River, and approaching a local lunch spot, the skies open up. The rain chases you inside, and after eating, you accept a ride back to town in a minivan packed with bikes and climbing gear.
The Yangshou adventure is over, and you’ve survived your first climbs up real rock. You say your goodbyes and thank yous to Tommy, Ricki and Mike, and retrace your travel back to San Francisco. Two days later, you’re climbing in your own neighborhood gym again. It all seems so easy here at home.
That night, you start planning your next trip to China.