Next Stop China

Article by Alastair Lee
Monday 28th September 2009


"Yes, I believe that climbing in China will see rapid development over the forthcoming years and we are certainly impressed with the rock so far..."

Thus I told the world's largest TV audience after climbing just 80m of Chinese limestone. Quite how I'd managed to be interviewed by the Yunnan 6 o'clock news, I'm still unsure. Initially I suspected it was a bit of a prank, but I kept a straight face, which I soon lost when I saw my speech dubbed over with Chinese on the evening broadcast. Our positive response lead to the banquet of the decade with park authorities and the arm from the communist party. The moral? On lowering off a route, if you meet a film crew and an orange microphone thrust face-ward, the answer is an emphatic 'yes, I think the future for climbing in China looks very bright'. There could be a good feed in it, as well as some of the funniest TV you've ever seen!

Looking upriver towards the limestone towers of Yangshuo emerging from the mist 

The unexpected meal confirmed our preconceptions of the Chinese political system. Basically that all organisations are 'overviewed' in some way or another by the communist party. It did little however, to confirm our preconceptions of what the adventure travel experience in China would be like. Before arriving in China my thoughts were of a strict, almost imprisoned population where the westerner would be suspected, at risk and frowned upon. The times they are a changin', and the authorities are now more open to the idea of the revenue tourists bring and rarely bat an eyelid or stop to check your papers.

The people are also very open to new faces; we were always met with warmth, hospitality and the standard slice of curiosity. Many Chinese people have seen few westerners in the flesh, you'll find yourself becoming the attraction rather than visiting it. And when you start climbing be ready for a crowd. Farmers will stop working and sit to watch the spectacle, kids on their way home from school will go and get more kids and if at a roadside crag, don't be surprised if the traffic stops for 15 mins or so. The concept of climbing seems totally unfathomable to the Chinese, surely life is hard enough? Obviously not for us westerners, but that's a different article.


















A local Yangshuo farmer and buffalo

Shangri La?

Running through the Paddy fields the rock looks clean, sunbaked and hard. The setting is quite unbelievable, a precise ideal of climbing aesthetics; a hybrid of a Vietnam film set and Phranang Bay's Thai towers cloned to innumerable spores. The Yangshuo area has it all, roadside crags with a range of bolted routes, lines through bizarre karst shapes and stalactites with outlooks more surprising than Atlantis Under the Sea. It's the climbing tourist's nirvana. Easy approaches to an increasing number of well bolted 6a -7b routes on great rock, duelled with budget living in one of the world's most interesting cultures and an untapped potential that leave the doors open for Yangshuo to develop into Asia's no.1 climbing area.


Crossing the river in the morning on the way to the crags

The Climbing Scene

If you're an old timer on the travel/backpacker circuit, 'the scene' in Yangshuo could really annoy you. It's a bit like Bangkok's Koh San Rd on a quiet day: Floyd vibes, Deniro Movies, Banana pancakes, and a too-laid-back-to-breath atmosphere. That said, the lifestyle here is cheap, and easy rest days can be just that as there's a large selection of 'chill out zones' to drink coffee, some of which isn't instant. Bikes can be hired at 50p a day and rides along the Lijiang River pass the time nicely. The markets are fascinating where 40p will get you a meal putting the £3 dinner at the hotel into an unlikely expensive perspective. Small villages scatter the surrounding vicinity where an overnight stay can give a touch of the 'real China' that the Yangshuo town seems to lack much of the time. Boat trips and visits to the spectacular caves are also interesting rest day activities.

The Climbing Areas

Moon Hill is one of Asia's most impressive limestone features

The extraordinary Moon Hill Arch is as good an introduction as any to climbing in Yangshuo. This ineffable karst formation rises to around 60m, and is sentinel to a collection of striking lush spikes 10mins drive south of town. The arch is a big tourist attraction and you have to pay an entrance fee to get into the park.

As you approach the arch the best routes are on the left, linking the steep section of huge wuecos on solid limestone with views as impressive as the abs you'll need to stay on this overhanging ogre. Through the arch on the left wall are some friendlier 5.10s. The Moon Hill arch is quite mind boggling, unfortunately because it's so popular you'll get continuous hassle from the goldtoothed smiles of the drinks and dried fruit saleswomen. One particularly enthusiastic lady followed us up the 1000 steps to the rock and enquired about the possibility of us buying a bottle of water from her after every route! In retrospect the best ploy maybe to buy something as soon as you enter the park and keep them satisfied from the outset. This really took the edge off the moon magic, compared to the ambience of the 'Copper Door' area where you'll never see a tourist only a handful of farmers or kids returning from school who'll sit and watch with bewilderment at your bolt clipping necessity.

The Copper Door (Tunnel Crag)

This was my favourite crag at Yangshuo and the location of most of the pictures with this article. The five sporting routes range from 6a to 7b, cut through jug hauling roofs from caves Yorkshire Authorities would charge you a fee to enter and finish to fine face crimping moves. The rock is tremendous, as is the tranquillity of the surreal approach and backdrop.

Head south on the main road in the same direction as Moon Hill. Leave the wooden stool seat in the crowded mini-bus, at the only river crossing on route a couple of kilometres before Moon Hill. Without crossing the bridge, head along the left side (true) of the river for a 15mins amble. Cross the river to the obvious yellow tower with two caves, rice fields, and rapeseed crops at its base.



















Local activist Simon Lu on typically steep Yangshuo limestone

Banyan Tree Park

Close to the stop for the Copper Door is the Banyan Tree area where there's plenty of unclimbed good looking rock and 3 bolted routes. The first being roadside of the main massive, left of the cave (7b), the other 2 are through the cave and left on the golden sunny side.

Golden Cat

Apparently named for the cliff's similarity with its namesake, I couldn't see myself. This roadside crag gets plenty of sun and hosts 5 good routes from 5c to 6c+. Easy on the left hardest on the right- which I found to be a long 3 star classic starting through a glorious steep and solid, leg stretching roof, moving up beautifully carved slopers to a sharp overhanging finish. 5 mins drive from town on the same southerly road towards Moon Hill, the crag is roadside on the left.

The Panda's Thumb

The name says it all this time. The obvious 'Panda Thumb' like pinnacle on the right hand side of the road a few minutes from the Golden Cat area. The only natural line to be established so far with not a great deal of potential for more. At 5 pitches it looks good with bomber threads, although the Chinese whispers tell me some bold runouts are required. WEAR HELMETS and take some big cams.

A Brief History

Rock climbing in China is a very new sport with only around 2000 native enthusiasts, the majority being beginners. I climbed with Simon the reigning national champion who always finds himself in the top 5, the current standard being in the mid 5.12s (7b/c). Considering the lack of training facilities and publications it's understandable why the Chinese are lagging behind. That said, with increased outside influence the Chinese will surely be a future sport climbing force to be reckoned with.


The author on a superb steep pillar of perfect rock high above the Yangshuo valley

The Yangshuo area was first climbed by the Americans somewhere this side of 1990, I suspect Todd Skinner and his drill posse. Initially 10-15 routes were established in the Moon Hill and Banyan Tree area of grades between 5.10 to 5.13. The past decade have seen sporadic visits by foreign climbers including an Australian named Ken who established 5 excellent routes on the bomber rock of the 'Copper Door' (see photos). 10 or so visits from Beijing climber and now resident Yangshuo climbing guide Simon Lu has brought the current tally up to 40 routes. The potential for new routes of all grades in Yangshuo is enormous. The forest of rock pinnacles offers unlimited sport climbing of all grades, 200m multi-pitches, river raft access all yet to be unveiled.

Remember to always be respectful to the locals since many of the crags are on farmland. At present the landowners seem honoured to host climbers, try to maintain good relations and insure the future of climbing in Yangshuo. Also make sure onlookers understand the danger of falling rock.

Travelling Around China

Getting around in China is pure adventure in itself, rock climbing provides a soothing break from the hustle, culture shock and confusion. We didn't speak any Chinese and managed to travel successfully for a month in SW China, a phrase book with Chinese characters is fairly essential (Lonely Planet). Having said that our first attempt at buying a bus ticket in Kunming took a whole day! If you're just heading to China solely for a climbing trip to Yangshuo you shouldn't have too many problems.

Looking back across the rice fields on the towers of Yangshuo: the future sport-climbing centre of the Far East?

The closest international port is Hong Kong, British citizens still don't need a visa to enter Hong Kong, visas for China can be obtained there, although to save time applying before arriving is wise, as is avoiding any reference to the media on your application. From Hong Kong you can take a one hour international flight to Gullin a major tourist town in China (£100 single fair) or take a ferry or train to the Chinese boarder town of Shenzhen to get a cheaper domestic flight to Gullin (£50 single fair). Cheaper still and more exciting is the option of the sleeper buses and trains, good luck. From Gullin £2 and an hour on the bus delivers you to Yangshuo.


The town of Yangshuo and the Lijang river seen from above

Life in Yangshuo is very cheap, 20p will get you to one of the crags via a small and crowded minibus, 40p will get you a meal at a local market and £3 a night will get you a double room ensuite at one of the western style hotels. Beer is 30p for a 660ml bottle of the local brew.

The best season to climb in Yangshuo is from mid October to the end of Feb. The rain comes in from March and the summers are very hot and dry. The steep nature of the rock means many routes are climbable no matter what the weather.


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