Thursday, April 24, 2008

Yangshuo, China… the new Tonsai?

Logan Barber, Edd Stockdale - Dec/2006
A version of this was published in ROCK Magazine.
Photos by me and Boer Zhao

The climbing community around the world is small and the community of constantly travelling climbers is even smaller. So when we, two West Aussies, left Perth in 2005 on separate endless climbing trips around the world we were bound to run into each other in some out of the way random climbing mecca. Unknown to us we would meet in China's south, in a little known paradise of towering limestone karst based around the ever growing town of Yangshuo.

We were both drawn to Yangshuo in September 2006 with the promise of an abundance of yet to be climbed sweeping limestone walls and cheap to cost free living while working for China's premier outdoor guiding company, Chinaclimb. What followed was three months of climbing, guiding, the good life with an international crew of psyched climbers, free flowing bolts and one overworked Bosch drill. Times were good and unlike the nearby limestone mecca of Tonsai in Thailand, Yangshuo has yet to be tainted by excessive climbing crowds and inflated prices.

Yangshuo is a predominantly agricultural town in the Guang xi Province of Southern China that has a bustling and fast growing tourism industry driven by the local farming lifestyle and the almost mythical karst tower landscape. 300, 000 people in the surrounding area make sure that, like the rest of China, personal space does not exist although like mystery food, hair raising public transport and the occasional hot air balloon landing in the middle of the highway, this adds to the cultural experience unique to China.

Upon introduction to Chinaclimb our first instructions were to have fun, enjoy the laid back atmosphere, and climb hard. With the company growing faster than anyone could have imagined, the 40 staff hired for its busiest season ever made for constant parties and an endless soap opera. You have to respect a company that pays its staff with a constant supply of free beer, accommodation in staff apartments, free dinners from Chinaclimb's amazing chefs and occasional monetary bonuses. We worked two or three days a week guiding international schools from Shanghai and Beijing, Corporate groups, and any tourists interested in giving climbing a go. The rest of our time we spent obsessed with the awe inspiring karst towers and the climbing they offered.

A typical day of climbing in Yangshuo did not start very early. Generally we would get super motivated in a party atmosphere the night before and agree to leave by eight o'clock in the morning for a full days climbing. People would start to turn up at the Lizard Lounge, Chinaclimbs headquarters, around nine thirty and we would be lucky to be packed into a mini bus on our way to the crag by eleven. The more people climbing for the day the later we would leave. Around the crag it was impossible not to interact with the local farmers and Chinese tourists who approach climbing with good humour and would sit and wait hoping to witness a whipper, the occasional verbal rant that comes with falling off after the crux of a route and the comical nature of a climber being lowered into a prickle bush. Old ladies and kids scoured the base of the cliffs in search of any drink container they could lay there hands on (even if we hadn't finished with them yet!) as deposit reimbursment associated with recycling is a major secondary income for many farming families. Any of the cliffs we visited near tourist locations most likely resulted in us turning up in more photo albums than possibly imaginable due to that other Chinese hobby; photograph the foreigner. These and many other random starnge experiences during any typical day just added to the unique experience that climbing in China has to offer. By six o'clock the sun would start to set and we would all get ready to devour a typical Chinese feast served up by Chinaclimbs chefs. Onsights, redpoints and almosts were discussed over dinner which would bring everyone together and mark the start of another nights socialising. Once again we would get psyched and plan another 'early start'.

It all started in the early 1990's when a group of Americans, including the late Todd Skinner, stumbled across the visually inspiring Moon Hill, a gigantic arch of tufa covered limestone. This area was transformed over the next few years to become the most prominent climbing area in China offering climbs such as the enduro testpiece Red Dragon (.13d), the technical Apollo (.12a), and a powerful foray on the underside of the arch in Moonwalker (.12d). These climbs cover a range of angles and styles so that every climber can find something to suit and something to challenge. Access to Moon Hill consists of half an hour of energy sapping hiking up stone steps originally placed for a visit from Richard Nixon while he was president of the United States. Nowadays most tourists visiting Yangshuo make the trek slowly up to the base of the arch and manage to form a peanut gallery whose cheers and camera flashes make you feel as though you are a movie star.

In 2003/4 a bike ride into the country side by a visiting climber, James Potter, introduced what is arguably the best climbing area in the region, White Mountain. The cliff is roughly 200 metres long and 60 metres high ranging from vertical to a sweeping 15 degree overhang. The cliff with its water streaked colours is reminiscent of Ceusé, though with a back drop of orchards, rice paddies and water buffalo wandering
by, definitely has a Chinese atmosphere. Currently 26 routes ranging from .10a to .13b/c exist, most toward the harder end of the scale, of which 7 have been put up in the last couple of months. Many of the classics on this crag have just been nabbed with this seasons additions of the crimpy Phoenix (.12c) by Chinaclimb staff member Colton Lindeman, and the powerful 45 metre long Axeman (.13b/c) by a visit from UK climber Neil Gresham. Chinawhite (.12b) is a not so recent classic worth mentioning involving off vertical big moves on smooth limestone huecos. Potential still exists for many new routes on the wall especially in the .13+ to .14 range.

With the Yangshuo region gathering international recognition and in the introduction of guiding companies the amount of climbing areas and number of routes has increased quickly on the seemingly endless limestone walls. To date 28 crags have been developed containing roughly 300 routes. Most crags have not been saturated with lines and the list of areas to be developed in the future grows every week. It surely will not be long before the number of routes and their quality equals and then surpasses those found in Tonsai, Thailand. The absence of a beach and the larger distances between crags adds to a different climbing lifestyle than the laid back, chilled culture in Tonsai and because of this Yangshuo tends to suit the more motivated climber and those wanting a more cultural experience. The attraction of amazing pristine limestone, great food and cheap costs of living make Yangshuo a destination worth visiting

It’s the end of November, winter has arrived and it has started to get cold and wet. Both our climbing trips are now continuing south in the search of warmer weather. Tonsai is the perfect location for our continued limestone sport climbing indulgence before we both leave on our separate journeys chasing the climbing lifestyle around the world. We wonder when and where the next climbing area will host another of our reunions.

No comments: