Climbing in Yangshuo

Author: Shaw BrownFlake Out, Low Mountain © Shaw Brown

In this article, Shaw Brown describes his trip to the limestone towers, or 'Karsts' of Yangshou, China in November 2005

Yangshuo, I was to find, is a well known backpackers’ stop off in the south of China, where they re-charge their batteries before heading off to Vietnam, Laos and for the more adventurous Burma. It is also a popular tourist destination for the fairly recent but booming Chinese tourist industry, which is not surprising as it is set in beautiful Karst scenery (Limestone towers) on the side of an idyllic river that meanders many miles amongst the Karsts. The town has something of a dual personality, half is devoted to the tourist trade in a similar way to Bowness-on-Windermere, however the other half is ‘real China’ with street markets, noodle stalls and the chaotic but surprisingly safe street traffic.

 

I had always fancied a trip to China to see the more regular sites of the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Terracotta Army. However the combination of available climbing, a resident contact and cheap flights to Hong Kong meant my first taste of China was crossing into Shenzhen from Hong Kong and then looking for a bus that would take me to Yangshuo. This proved a little more daunting than anticipated as Shenzhen is about the size of Birmingham and the bus ride is 13hrs so you don’t want to be on the wrong one! Everyone was very helpful and if you are armed with the Chinese symbols of where you are going then you can’t go far wrong. I even had time to have a good look round Shenzhen’s massive markets and parks. It was quite an eye opener with live snakes and other goods unusual to the European eye on offer.

The bus ticket is about £15 for a surprisingly luxurious sleeper bus with comfy bunks and Karaoke TV (not as bad as it sounds). The overnight journey to Yangshuo starts off very smooth on a 6-lane motorway for an hour, but the next 12hrs are on the sort of bumpy roads that you expected in the first place; you will be lucky if you doze nether mind sleep. I hear that some people who use the service regularly take valium! The alternative is to fly to Guillin and then catch local buses to Yangshuo (2 required). I did this on the way back, but you lose a day because you are not travelling at night. Anyway, if you are on the sleeper bus you can roll in to Yangshuo, sort out your accommodation, (£40 for two weeks, can be a lot less for dormitories, sharing etc.). You then can hire a bike at 30p a day and be climbing by lunchtime as I did - not sure if I would recommend it though.

The main reason I was in Yangshuo was to meet a work colleague who has escaped for a year to travel around the word and take in a few major caving expeditions on the way. He had completed his first major expedition somewhere in the depths of rural China and was staying in Yangshuo while he was helping write up the survey. China has probably has 1000 of miles of unexplored caves so is of interest to anybody who is likes to cover new ground. There has been a dedicated team based in Yangshuo for several years organising exploration trips, the details of which can be found at http://www.hongmeigui.net . This is also a useful resource for information obtaining Visas etc. under the ‘muddy planet’ section. Any comparisons with the Lonely Planet guide are purely coincidental!

My accommodation was a very clean En Suite room arranged through the Karst café by the proprietor Echo. The Karst is Yangshuo’s longest established climbing guide service and holds the local new route book. It is an excellent base for any visiting climber and is also used by the resident caving society as their base. The local guidebook can be purchased there and is penned by Hong Kong resident Paul Collis. Although the guide is in a photocopied A4 format it is in its 5th edition and the content is comparable to professional guidebooks. The grades are in the Yosemite decimal system and the routes although mainly sports have been given decent names.

There are other climbing establishments, China Climb being more dedicated to climbing, however I had such a good time at the Karst I find it difficult to recommend anyone else. The cavers usually dominate the music selection at the Karst, however, for the first week I was there, the strong British climbing team of Neil Gresham, Seb Greive, Mark Garthwaite and Grant Farquhar were dominating proceedings and had plugged in an Ipod churning out dance/rave music. They had been christened the ‘gang of four’ by the cavers, I assume after the in infamous Chinese ‘gang of four’ who were executed after the Chinese Cultural Revolution! Sadly I did not see them climb but was told that Neil’s performance on a new sports route on Moon Hill was inspirational. I suspect that we will see it in the climbing press and maybe in a future climbing DVD as it was all filmed. Some of the antics in the bar were fairly extreme as well - I felt a bit sorry for the clients who had to wear the Karst’s climbing helmets after the ‘gang of four’ had paraded around Yangshuo wearing nothing other than the aforesaid headgear to cover their embarrassment.

Climbing for the lesser mortals also proved to be of high quality with a good spread of grades and the climbs generally well equipped. There are roughly 250 equipped routes at the moment and the potential for more, at all grades, is endless. The quality of the sports climbs was the best I have encountered, very little polish and in an unusual setting. To be fair my sports climbing repertoire is a bit limited as I have only climbed in Spain, however I don’t think you would argue with the quality here. There is some existing trad climbs of up to 5 pitches and plenty of new lines still available. However there are a few problems with trad climbing. One is that the lines are generally very dirty, they are easily cleaned with a yard brush, as are most of the sports routes, however if the line stays trad then they are usually not cleaned. The second is that if the trad route is generally is any good it will be retro-bolted and then cleaned. To be fair, retro bolting probably is reasonable because a trad rack is generally too expensive for the locals and most people travelling through only have a sports rack. To sum up… for a sports climber who fancies a change and putting up new routes this place is Mecca just for climbing alone….for a trad climber who likes a little bit of sports climbing, the place is good, but not as good as Spain but then you are here for the Chinese experience so it’s all a bonus anyway.

Karts, Yangshuo
Karst, Yangshuo © Shaw Brown

The climbing is good but when combined with the whole Chinese experience then it becomes special. The hospitality is first rate; everybody is very helpful even when the language barrier is total. I had heard that the food was going to be very different to my local Cantonese restaurant so I was not sure what to expect. It was a pleasant surprise to find that the food was excellent and was not full of indescribable bits of indescribable animals. There is no doubt that if you really want to eat dog brains then you can, however you are not going to be served it in a regular dish. I was lucky to be with people who could speak reasonable Mandarin so I paid Chinese prices in the local restaurants (about £1 for an all you could eat banquet of goose, duck and lots of different vegetables). As a normal tourist you would be charged double this unless you spent a lot of time haggling. Overcharging tourists doesn’t sound very hospitable but it has to be remembered that this used to be Government legislation and although the situation is improving, old habits diehard. Locals usually take their breakfast at noodle bars on the street having either noodles or dumplings. I have to admit to going Western most mornings, as dumplings on top of a hangover don’t mix. The noodle stalls were good for an ultra cheap supper if funds were low (20p).

Beer was about 30p for a pint of reasonable lager and was fairly dangerous at that price but not as dangerous as the local firewater made from rice. At 53% alcohol and only costing £1.50 a litre it is lethal. Particularly as the locals would be insulted if you do not down your glass in one, it wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t keep refilling your glass. The practice is contagious; I had the same problem with a young Swedish guy who had gone local in Yangshuo. I got my own back by taking him climbing after a particularly heavy session.

View of the Karsts
View of Karsts © Shaw Brown

Cycling was a good way of working off a hangover and most of the crags in the guide are within cycling distance. For me the cycling was a major part of the holiday, cycling out through the town in the chaotic and anarchic traffic and then through the paddy fields was magical. Maybe old hat for the seasoned traveller but for a person who has not been to Asia it was something special. I spent a day doing a big tour of the area, we rode on single speed ladies town bikes where a mountain bike would be more appropriate, but this was bloody-mindedness as mountain bikes could be hired at 60p a day over the 30p mounts we had. The ride was very spectacular and we were pleased with our day, not bad considering we only had a tourist tea towel map!

You cannot rent a car in China however public transport is excellent, Taxis will take you right to the crag and if there are a few of you, you can hire a car with driver for less than you would pay for car hire in Europe. We ventured further afield for one day’s climbing; this involved a bus and ferry ride and it was to a distinctive Karst called the Camel, featured on the old 20Yuan note. It only had a few routes in the guidebook but we found new routes had been equipped and if we had been feeling really adventurous there was a route with 5 pitches that was still being developed. Because it was off the beaten track the locals were extra inquisitive but in a very pleasant way and would not take money for the fruit they gave us. They were very curios about our climbing rope and how strong it was, it was a shame we did not have any old rope to give them. An excellent day out.

Sadly Yangshuo is not as photogenic as say Krabi in Thailand, this is due to an almost permanent heat haze and lack of sea and beaches, this does not distract in real life though. It probably will never be as popular as Thailand (this could be a good thing) however it is still a beautiful place and I would recommend it for anyone who wants to see a bit of China and take in a bit of climbing as well. If you fly to Hong Kong then you could also sample climbing there; I believe there is some good sea cliff climbing. My flights to Hong Kong were £360 return from Manchester booked through www.lastminute.com, so it can be fairly low cost way to sample Asia. Once in China as I have already stated you can live very cheap but comfortably. The climbing is best between late September to late November when it is still warm but after the rainy season, it can also be good in late spring.

If you want to borrow a guide or require more information then contact me at shawbrown (at) hotmail.com