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Thursday, May 30, 2013

China - Beautiful, mysterious and unfailingly generous


I rolled into Yangshuo late at night. Exhausted and sniffling from a cold acquired from the past twenty-four hours spent in air-con'ed trains and buses though relieved nonetheless to have made it on schedule. I did nurse some anxiety that I would miss one my connections and would be stuck with spending the night in one of the uninspiring Chinese towns that I had passed through enroute. So far though the journey had been fairly straightforward. The train from Hanoi to Nanning had been surprisingly plush and I shared a large private compartment with a German dude intent on eschewing all air travel as he returned home to Germany from living in Japan the last few years. He'd be the last foreigner I'd see for the rest of the journey. From Nanning to Guilin and then finally to Yangshuo I was the lone non-Chinese far and wide. Unlike, say Thailand which is rather well-designed for tourist consumption, China's entry into the global tourism market feels relatively nascent. English thus is hard to find, whether in public signage, or with employees manning transport hubs. Fortunately any anxieties came to naught as I found friendly faces, helping hands and just enough of a smattering of English to ensure that I was safely deposited from one motorized vehicle to the next. I even struck up a brief friendship with a young student who was keen on practicing her English. She was exceedingly sweet, to the point of making sure that I tasted all of the many snacks that she brought as well as asking me a million questions about my life and travels. Yeah I didn't get to nap much :) 

West Street, Yangshuo at night
 For the past several years I had been devouring media on the explosion of this karst-covered corner of South-West China into the world climbing scene and had heard plenty from friends about the supreme cliffs and the king lines that dotted this rich and beautiful landscape. Nothing, and I mean nothing though would prepare me though for the tourist insanity that was the town of Yangshuo. Take the throngs of wide-eyed tourists at any given time of day at Times Square, add impossibly loud bars (with stripper poles to boot) and myriad souvenir shops, sprinkle in street hawkers, noodle stations and performing animals (and humans), then throw them all together into the cacophonous soup that is the West Street of Yangshuo on any given evening. And that's where I found myself, luggage in tow, with an instant headache, trying to locate my climber's hostel that night. Took a series of phone calls but I eventually managed to locate my bearings as well as my friend Carolina who was just returning from post-climbing dinner with friends. Once I had found thrown my luggage in, we grabbed beers and headed to the roof so that I could be suitably awed with the sights around. Quite impressed I sure was. The Chinese love for lighting up landscapes in glowing neon meant that we could see clear across town, karst peaks in every direction, and the impressive Li river quietly making its way on one side. I learnt that Yangshuo was not so small indeed and has a local population of about 300,000 which swells up depending on the height of the tourist season. I shuddered on hearing that being March, we were still a few months shy of high season. Sharing good vibes with friends old and new that night on the rooftop I felt glad to be there and part of it all. This place held promise to serve as the highlight of my Asia adventures and I was quite ready to experience the culture and the incredible climbing for the next couple of months. 

One of the bridges on the Li river

Bamboo boating on the Li
Learning the djembe from Sonam, my Tibetan friend (with an Indian name)
Post-stir fry food coma!
Ice cream and funny faces!
Morning brought overcast skies and cool temps that quickly overwhelmed my mild sickness and fatigue. This place promised the best climbing conditions yet in Asia and I couldn't wait. The first order of the day was to find breakfast and I followed Peter and Sam to the 'muslim noodle place' - a restaurant that specializes in hand-made noodles, served in soups, or served dry with meat and veggies. They stretch and tease the noodles out of dough right out of order and the operation does remind you of a pizza tossing performance. At about 1.80 usd for a bowl that includes a fried egg it was about as tasty and cheap as food can get. The next order was to rent a bike. All the crags are a bit outside town and biking is a perfect way to commute. . After getting the logistics sorted out we headed to meet everybody else…..at the local McDonalds! Ironic as it was to meet at an American fast food place it did serve as a central meeting place for climbers to rendezvous in the morning and then head out for the day (after unlimited coffee refills, the real reason why climbers convened here). It was so nice to reconnect with friends that I had met along destinations before. Some of them who I had been traveling with all the way back Tonsai! Here's to connecting with friends old and new! Michel, Sandra, Ally, Jordan, Darcy, Olé, Dan, Josh, David, Martin, Viri, Ben, Tim, Joe, Peter, Sam, Elyna, Ayden, Thea, Juraj (Yuri), Haagen, Sabrina and many many more! 

Morning meetup at McDs

Mr Wang, the hand-tossed noodle maestro
Those yum yum noodles post-production!
Keep the noodles coming!
A gang of about ten of us headed out to Lei Pi Shan, one of the signature crags that hosts some of the harder routes in the area. With a dozen or more high-quality routes in the 5.13-14 grade up a beautiful gently hanging 50 meter face, it is an excellent place to find some good climbs to project. The ambience is a bit sullied though by its location right next to the highway. To add to the traffic sounds were also fireworks going off at random times during the day. Apparently no Chinese celebration is replete without fireworks and I have to say that it made me wish for a similar tradition growing up back home! I quickly realized that the grades here may not allow for much easy pickings as Singularity, a 12a/b took me about 3 tries (yikes!) to red point. It is a great route though and I was happy to complete. The camaraderie at the crag was contagious with friends old and new attempting their projects. After a dinner somewhere of rice and veggies I was happy to pass out completely spent. 

Trying to figure out some move at Lei Pi Shan
Beers by the Li river post-climbing
I was sick the first week in Yangshuo but managed to climb most days. The first few days were spent sampling quality routes at White Mountain and Moon Hill amongst others. Both these crags are stunning. White Mountain is massive overhanging wall of bullet limestone towering over rice farms and  lesser karats. Highly concentrated, it holds some beautiful 6s, a high number of 7s and then 8s all the way up to a 9a, famously bolted by Chris S and sent by Ethan P. None of the climbs are gimmes but I managed to claw my way some 6s and a beautiful 7b called Phoenix that I red pointed on a later day. Every rose has its thorn and White Mountain does face the sun so one has to be careful on which days to visit as it can be fairly unbearable on a warm day with the sun beating down. I came back a few times on cooler days to try some other climbs but didn't realize  any of the harder lines.
White Mountain the magnificient

Biking around the crags
Moon Hill on the other hand is a completely different kind of mountain - a high arch on top of a hill that offers the most sublime views around and that one climbs about one thousand man made steps to gain.. Climbing in this surreal environment is a privilege and I doubt that a similar sporting endeavor at a comparable locale would be allowed in the US (take the Delicate Arch in Utah for example). In fact Moon Hill is a tourist attraction in its own right and well, the local Chinese tourists spent about an equal amount of time gazing wide-eyed at us as they did taking in the views around. We could hear the rapid camera clicks as we were climbing,  and lowering down both Peter and I were asked numerous times for pictures (and even autographs!) Flattering but we knew better. Anyway I managed to send my hardest flash to-date with a 7c called Moon Walker. Peter yelled ironclad beta and I thanked Jailhouse training yet again for helping find knee bars . In fact with knee bars the climb is probably more like 12c. Extremely steep, it passes two caves in the roof of the arch before finally ending at the 3rd. I tried hard, rested where I could, yelled at the crux and managed to clip the chains with my last reserves of energy. I wish I could channel this kind of focus and effort more often when I climb. The ability to try hard is what ultimately separates the pros from the joes. Lowering down I was completely spent and it was a good couple of hours before I tried my next climb. Peter stylishly cruised the climb right after. On a separate day I would come back to on-sight the mega-classic 12c Over The Moon. 
Haagen flashing Over The Moon at Moon Hill

Enjoying the shot of whiskey on the rest on Over the Moon


Life in Yanghsuo felt like a universe in parallel. A small tourist getaway in the Chinese scheme of things, it was massive and dense compared to the other climbing locales I had visited yet. And while the town had allegedly been 'discovered' by Westerners a few decades back, today it burgeons with Chinese visitors today who overwhelm the few Westerners around. The 2nd most visited place in the country (after the Great Wall in Beijing), the Chinese come here for short escapes from their hard-working lives, take in the sights, shop, eat, and party hard. And while they can be loud and crass, they are also warm and extroverted and eager to make friends. We were enthusiastically invited into gatherings while visiting restaurants and clubs. Frequent accommodations were made for our lack of knowledge of the local tongue while asking for directions, ordering food, buying supplies etc etc. Any pre-conceived notions about the Chinese personality were quickly dispelled. As somebody with tan skin and 'exotic' features I was often the object of more curiosity than my white companions. To my amusement they had a tough time guessing my race and would confuse me for being Latino, Persian, and even African sometimes! Sad in a way as Indians are very under-represented in both the general backpacking, as well as the climbing circuits. 

Unfortunately right as I was getting settled into the environment and finding my climbing rhythm. The rains came pouring down about 2 weeks into my stay. What were occasional downpours became daily and nightly affairs. The first few days of rain we were able to climb at some crags that were steep enough to provide shelter and stay dry. Later, everything became gradually wet. I had selected a couple of projects that I had to sadly abandon as crucial holds had become wet. Tufas especially would become wet first and then would hold on to the water the longest. Tired of wet rock, wet laundry and being cooped indoors, I decided to shift course and head early towards Getu He, a remote climbing village made famous by the Petzl Roc Trip a couple of years back. 
Wet approach to wet crags. Olé likes it though!
Don't pee everywhere in China




Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Reminiscing my little staycation pre-travel!

About 5 months have flown by since I started this trip (I left San Francisco about Dec 6th). But since I quit PayPal in early November, I should be noting a half-year anniversary if I calculate my journey to have commenced when I quit work to dove headlong into this gap year. Apart from hectic exit arrangements which spiced the tranquility of my final few days, the month of November was perhaps my most rewarding month in San Francisco yet. With time from the office freed up I really did relish the brief staycation life. I trained intensely at the rock gym but also surfed and danced heaps (can you tell I've been hanging around Aussies?), not only to relax but also as bonus cross-training! With all these physical activities I think I was probably the fittest I remember being in a while. Spending time with friends took on a new meaning as I realized that I was not going to see them for some time. Some of the most fun moments included a surf weekend in Santa Cruz with the boys, a couple of salsa events (esp the Habana D'Primera show at Yoshi's), cooking with friends (esp a Japanese cookout at home) and a trip to OR to climb at Smith Rock and see a friend in Eugene (great town!).
Tenemos una rueda de casino
Sushi prep!
Beautiful Smith Rock - a marvel of park management too. 
Hike to the base - forgot which wall this is.  
Can you spot the climber?

Goodbye dinner - at my favorite Cambodian restaurat

I miss El Rio and I miss that hat!