To Yangshuo and Back

A one week climbing trip for Mr Arnold and myself. Ideally a longer trip would have been booked but such are the limitations of Asian annual leave. Neither one of us have been in particular climbing “shape” for pushing our boundaries, with my recent period of rehab for my back, and lack of time and enough sleep on both our parts to fit in proper sessions at our local wall. Nevertheless, we were very keen to explore unknown territory we had heard so much about from friends and relished the opportunity to climb, as nature intended, on real rock for a few days. For the last many months, my focus has been on maintaining and developing a better base level of fitness for climbing to limit the risk of and intensity of injuries. Also, being ethnically of half Chinese origin (Dad being Thai, of Chinese descent), this would be my first foray into experiencing actual mainland China, a country of rich ancient history but that in its recent decades is cause for more than a few conflicting perspectives, putting it mildly. I have friends in China, mostly from university, had many professional colleagues and also looked after many young aspiring careerists in Beijing in my former corporate time-all aspiring, hopeful and passionate individuals-but never got the chance to visit. This is a tad longer than your average blog post, but an honest and personal account. 

All started well with a pleasant flight from Singapore to Hong Kong. Our travel up to mainland China’s Shenzhen-where we were to get the train-was a little slower than hoped, and things started to get manic around the Futian check point, where you cross the border from SAR HK to China proper. Thousands of people were crossing here, mostly mainland Chinese returning home with bags of supplies from HK: a sense of “human cattle farm” environment was intensifying. As we headed to the immigration point, overseen by tens of armed guards and men in white coats, Thom was suddenly pulled aside and directed against the flow of human traffic towards a small room, me following in concerned tow. A thermometer was promptly thrust under his arm by a masked nurse and he was directed to spit into a cup whilst handing over his passport. Many forms were filled in and chatter in the back rooms and after much lingering, the nurse returned with an official requesting Thom to pee into a cup and that they will take a blood sample, claiming he was showing signs of sickness and it was for national protection: they weren’t going to let us pass if we didn’t comply. Thom wasn’t sick. We weren’t sure what was best to do. If we didn’t at minimum see a fresh needle pulled out of an unopened packet, we were bailing. Also by now, our train from Shenzhen North station, another 30 minutes away, was due to leave in 20 minutes. A fresh needle was pulled out thankfully, and Thom’s vein was suitably double punctured as the blood was drawn leaving him with what would be a bloody, bruise-y mess down his forearm as a colourful reminder of his first visit to China. We were ushered out and told we would be fine if it tests didn't show him to be sick-If he was, they would be coming for him. Bloody Hell. We tentatively made our way through immigration, unfortunately to the gut wrenching sounds of a man screaming as they were being beaten repeatedly behind a white screen. China, was providing an unnerving welcome. 

We loaded onto the next subway ride of sardines to Shenzhen North: having missed our ticketed bullet train, we hoped we could catch one of the next few in order to make our necessary connection at Guangzhou and head on to Yangshuo. No such luck. Arriving at the station we had to join the mass queues for the ticket desks (there are electronic machines specifically for the use of Chinese people only, clearly signed, but NOBODY was using them). Queuing for nearly an hour, with much aggressive exchange ensuing at the front of the line, as I approached the window no less than 3 shouting men shoved in front of me. It took quite a firm stance and tone to get them to stop. We could get another late train to Guangzhou South, but there would be no more connecting trains to Yangshuo. We were issued a new ticket to Guangzhou but had to buy new tickets to get to Yangshuo the following day. Oh and if we wanted to get a refund for the unusable Yangshuo ticket we had to go and queue in another line. For another half an hour. With more shouty people. 

We headed on to the bullet train to Guangzhou South and arrived in what can only be described as some leviathan spaceship planted on the earth. The place was a gargantuan cavern with tens of lines for different bullet trains, flashing lights, sirens and repeating announcements. We could barely get a stable wifi connection to find a reasonable place to stay. That’s the first convenience that goes when you come to China-your regular use of the internet. It is heavily censored but even with VPNs your connection speed grinds to a halt. It was some genuine fortune I connected with my dear friend Rob via intermittent messages, enough for him to send details of a reasonable looking room he reserved on my behalf near the station. Crossing multiple 5 lane wide roads-that were mostly empty save randomly strewn, people-less vehicles on their sides and broken pavement, we wandered through the dark, huge, yet barren area to our place of stay- a semi finished building, mostly covered in renovation sheets along its hallways to a surprisingly clean, dry space to sleep for the night before getting up early to catch our morning train. 

Entering the spaceship again, we were greeted by the continuing blaring automated announcements and lights (I am not sure they ever stopped). Queueing for some coffee a young woman careered into me sideways with her trolley of luggage to get in front of me with a “why are YOU in my way” expression. By now, the Chinese brash aspect of culture was not sitting too agreeably. My Dad & Thai family, along with millions of Chinese ethnic origin Thais are polite and mild mannered. The Thai way is one of saving face, not raising your voice, even amidst the crazy bustle of Bangkokian life. They maintain a calm amongst the apparent hysteria. The Thai-Chinese way is a far cry from the Chinese-Chinese way which was showing itself to be one of high volume, chaos. The bullet train smoothed out the senses somewhat: 300km/h felt more like a gentle float out of the expanse of city into vastness of green hills and fields. Yangshuo station is about an hours drive from Yangshuo. The station is approached/departed by essentially dirt track roads, which seemed peculiar given the modernity and stature of the station construction. We meandered through villages and grey skies, towering peaks either side.  A quick pass through the peripheries of Yangshuo town - jostling with activity, the air more of a dusty veil - brought us to our place of stay south of the town near the river. Kind, helpful and sympathetic faces were a sincere welcome to the previous 30 hours. 

 Yangshuo Town

Yangshuo Town

The Hidden Dragon Villa is set just out of Yangshuo itself and overlooks farming fields along the riverside, with water buffalo, chickens and ducks, the infamous Yangshuo peaks striking in the immediate horizon. Despite the beautiful setting, a dusty haze clings to everything. We headed soon after our arrival to the nearest easy access crag, Lei Pi Shan: Although set by the loud road, the small crag offers some of the renowned harder 7c-8b routes that many venture to tick off. I managed to catch a some Brits, James and Hamish, whom I had been sporadically communicating with in the run up to the trip (which is always one of the joys of the randomly connected climbing community-Hamish incidentally had already climbed for long periods with both my brother and cousin in Thailand earlier in the year). They were battling hard to send their 7c (Thunder) and 8a (Single Life) projects. In the mix were a strong set of Chinese, Korean and American climbers. We only had a couple of hours of daylight so played on a couple of very higgledy piggledy routes, but also a lovely straightforward 7a (Crash & Burn) and 7b (Singularity).

The following day we made our way to Yangshuo town to grab a guide book and rent a scooter. Yangshuo and its surrounds, is polluted and heaving. The roads are a circus, with scooters weaving between cars or in the opposite direction to traffic, lorries overtaking in the opposing lanes and masses of locals and tourists alike nonchalantly cycling, walking and pulling carts into flowing traffic, across junctions and roundabouts. Smaller more charming and nostalgic motor tractors carrying goods and farming supplies trundle slowly. Call it the Chinese luck that keeps everyone alive. Yangshuo also seems to be in a state of continuous construction, with systems including tearing up the pavement of both sides of main street first, and then building it bit by bit second, leaving the majority of the street shops with ladder access only up to their fronts from the sloped pits below. There is a perpetual smell of burning (including plastic) and fuel, the dust and fumes are overwhelming, a layer coating most surfaces. The elderly and young babies hang and play by the roadside, with no awareness of the amount of pollution they are hoovering up in their lungs. In the evenings, groups of ladies practice dancing and fitness classes on terraces by the main roads, sometimes with a TV plugged in by a very long lead, playing videos to follow. Road sweeping is a manual activity here also, with older ladies and men sweeping up debris with large fanning brushes, not a dust mask in sight. Life exists in mixed planes, with slower, traditional farming families competing with the cheap but shiny lights of mass Chinese production. 

I can envisage the earlier quaintness of this town pre mass tourism: West St-although now a bustling tourist shop spot-and the smaller side streets, are cobbled and weave over small streams with pretty bridges and willowy trees, cutesy cafes lining the sides. The bridges over the main river hold impressive views of the mighty hills. Mass efforts are being made to attract the super rich Chinese and tourist set, with huge hotels and retail plazas being built to bring super luxe labels to the town. But the surrounds of Yangshuo are littered with reams of unfinished building projects, gathering dirt and greenery, where money was pumped in but clearly not enough to complete these homes.

 White Mountain Crag

White Mountain Crag

With a book acquired from the Rusty Bolt climbing shop (120CNY) and a scooter hired for the week from a nearby stall (200RMB for 5 days) we set off to find the White Mountain. First off, I turned a fabric sleeping mask which I got from the plane, into a makeshift dust mask-anything to minimise the amount of dirt being inhaled. From our hotel, we wove our way through village roads and farming fields, reeds swaying in swampy patches. Navigating the main roads was more stressful, with numerous trucks honking and overtaking and many holes and junk strewn to the roadsides to avoid along our driving line. We veered onto more small village roads which turned into a small sliver of a rocky pathway amongst long grass. With so many peaks in sight, it was hard to tell if we were in the right space. Hallelujah for the sound of extended yelling echoing as someone took a whipper off a line in the distance-we had found our way! The White Mountain was a long expanse of climbing face, with plenty of room for people to meander around and relax between routes. Admittedly, I was less keen on the K-pop blaring from the speaker around the busy main section of projects so we took a play on some fun 6s and low 7s, including some tricky face & slab-esque climbing.

We returned the following day, Mr Arnold having woken up with a bit more gusto and sent three long lines in a row without a rest including two 7bs (China White and Yangshuo Hotel) which was impressive given the definite lack of endurance or stamina prep. Thom doesn't get emotional hang ups around his climbing which can be very helpful to be around. Having climbed 8b comfortably whilst fit, he’s barely climbed since the transition to Singapore, averaging if lucky once a week in the last 6 months and knew he wouldn’t be coming here to make sends, especially not in a 5/6 days worth of climbing trip. Getting to move and have fun was his purpose. Three days on was the most amount of climbing I had certainly done in recent times, and I was feeling a deep set fatigue in my forearms-I was very happy to get to the top of Yangshuo Hotel-its a beautiful long line with great movement: A bouldery start (yay) with a super traverse on slopey/open crimps led to big moves on good holds. By the cave about 20 metres up though, I was out of gas where I hung half in, half out for what seemed like forever. My arms were no longer working and the remainder of the climb felt unforgiving, particularly, the mishmash slope fest near the top, which I made a mess of in sequencing. It felt wonderful to be that high up on the wall, to move for that long and get to the top, but I felt tinges of discouragement: When you have been injured, when you haven’t been able to climb consistently for long periods, climbing is tough! It’s not that I haven’t been injured before. I have really gotten battered up over the years, but made huge some big strides so that a year ago, I was comfortably making ground on finally sending some 8 projects-but now again, it felt like physically a universe away. Sometimes it does take someone else to remind you that “you are where you are” and that at the foundation of it all “climb because you LOVE climbing, and if you’re not loving it, then something is wrong.” Thom made light work of White Devil 7c, throwing in two dyno-esque moves: there was obviously another way up it, but he goes with what works in the moment. His climbing confidence-much like other my super duper climbing friends I have had the joy of spending time with-is something to always be inspired by: climb ’til you fall; if a hold is good enough, use it, don’t spend forever looking for another one and; have the guts to go for moves-because, if you were bouldering, you would do it, so why not when you’re actually attached to a rope? It’s hard to keep a potentially awkward fall out of your head at times, but admittedly, my best climbing has always happened when you forget the rope and you keep on moving.

 Fuli Ancient Town

Fuli Ancient Town

On our rest day, we took a short ride to a Fuli, an Ancient Village a few miles away. Famous for its silk painted fans and markets, it’s few streets were very desolate when we arrived: worn buildings overshadowed narrow streets, beautiful silk paintings peeking through the darkened doorways. Sporadic groups of men played card games, the elderly observed in stillness on their stools, ladies gathered around tv soap dramas in small shop fronts. When we returned to our accommodation, we were asked if we uncovered the local dog market, which I thank high heaven I did not stumble across. Whilst some things move forward in China, animal welfare is not one of the areas where much progress has been made, despite a partial growing trend in owning a cool or cute looking dog. Admittedly, its hard to maintain objectivity when you are raised in an environment of life long pet ownership and animal care (In addition to having had 4 cats plus 3 strays, I’ve raised a robin, looked after an injured pigeon, like to think of myself as an occasional substitute parent of a certain Aussie Shepherd dog, and even once as a young girl took a rat that had its back legs run over to the vet so it could be put down painlessly) and the environment you are now in is not one where the same value is placed in animals. This was further amplified the following day on return to the Lei Pi Shan crag: The first time we visited there, a local young climber was there was his sweet tiny dog, who was very animated and playful, seemingly well taken care of. The owner was very loving and caring towards her. The next visit, whilst I was up on the wall after Thom had skipped up Thunder and Single Life without much apparent effort, I could see the same young man had returned at the foot of the crag with his dog. Suddenly I could hear him shouting at her and then he started whipping her with her leash on the road side to the point where she yelped and cried. He made his way up the crag dragging her along and continued with the shouting and whipping in front of everyone, mostly Chinese climbers, as she continued to cry. I started sweating on the wall and asked to come down (by this point he had stopped) and filled with a fury, a compulsion, and an apparent “look that could kill” may have said something out loud that alluded to violent behaviour towards this person. At which point, I was advised that causing trouble out here with a local would not be a smart thing for myself, or for her, especially that he had stopped. I was at a loss. The obvious thing in that moment to me was to “teach this guy a lesson” by a method he was inflicting on his dog and yet, three conflicting questions were being thrown at me: one-am I actually justified to be violent towards another human?; two, if I actually hurt this person, is the repercussion for the actual dog going to be much worse because I can’t just take her away with me and there was clearly no welfare facility where I could take her to?: three-quite seriously and realistically did I really want Chinese police on my back in the middle of mainland China? So I left. I have struggled with this event since and my understanding of myself, and others around me, concepts of right/wrong/judgement. I took a long walk along the river. Around town, I saw other men smacking dogs, be that “pets” (as in leashed to a property) or strays. It’s a different environment here, although not new to me-I have been to plenty of countries where animal welfare is not a priority given that even human welfare is not even on the agenda for governments-but it didn’t make the situation any easier to manage. 

The last day we headed to a different spot, Banyan Tree, to climb away from the crowds and in full roaring sunshine. Todd Skinner’s Line (7b) is a beautiful long line with wonderful movement but I struggled to keep my head clear. It was one last dusty scooter ride to drop off the scooter in town before packing and getting ready to leave the following early morning. It was a rapid week with a lot to process, not just in terms of climbing, but the complete life/culture experience. We made our way on a more straightforward train ride this time out of Guilin North, about an hour drive away. We passed through miles of hot, hazy polluted sky as the towering peaks and hills of the region faded into the background and my my thoughts ruminated.

By the time we got to Hong Kong, also recognised for its pollution problems, the air seemed positively clean! I do love Hong Kong. As a city baby, its one of the places of the world I always enjoy visiting and I almost moved here a few years ago. It’s efficient, functional, safe, filled with incredible food and the energy of cultural diversity (It is unnerving then, that Hong Kong is continuing to feel the intensifying squeeze of the last two decades of Chinese parentage with increasing restrictions being imposed…but I will leave you to the inter webs to read up on what’s been going on the last couple of years). However, one of the things I have never gotten round to doing is actually climbing here. It is easy to assume that quality climbing is non existent in this dense metropolis, yet there are numerous crags with excellent climbing from grades 5-8b on Hong Kong island itself (yes, really in the Mid Levels), Kowloon side, and Tung Lung Island, a short ferry ride away, which is where we decided to head to for half a day before getting our flight home. It was a warm but beautifully breezy day to play on excellent granite rock on this sea cliff crag-which made a great switch from the (sometimes incredibly polished and sweaty) limestone we had been on. Given the public ferry runs only on weekends, it was very busy from 11am onwards so getting there early was a smart call on our part to play on some wonderful slabs and cracks. For a few hours, my head felt clear and I moved because it felt good to move without any other thoughts or distractions. Everybody here was very enthusiastic and encouraging, creating a great vibe. I didn’t want to leave but alas, time was up and we had to go. I will definitely be wanting to come back here. 

 Tung Lung Island, Hong Kong

Tung Lung Island, Hong Kong

On reflection, I was pushed challenged physically and mentally in more ways than one. I am really pleased that I got to move and demonstrate to myself that I am moving in the right direction and maintaining a decent level of base climbing fitness. The patience in my rehabilitative exercises, ClimbFlow and other yoga practice is keeping my limbs attached and developing a stronger me that I hope will prove to keep climbing for many many years, and that in the near future I will be getting back to pushing my boundaries. I was reminded that I love moving up the wall for its own sake, irrespective of grades, and that nature gives us these incredible gifts to play on and enjoy. Equally, it highlighted that I would like to be able to go on a longer climbing trip that gives more days to get into a rhythm and work on lines. Going on climbing trips brings a whole human experience: I have been exposed to some very difficult places that illuminate the complexity of human existence and what we are doing to the environment and its other inhabitants and I find it hard to ignore those complexities, that are sometimes very subtle & cumulative as opposed to brazenly obvious. China is one of those places that I have openly found challenging. The nature & scenery is undeniably beautiful and the climbing opportunities are extensive. There is so much history & tradition alluding to a culture that once spearheaded the way on philosophy, aesthetics & art, science & engineering that I have been enamoured with for many of my younger years as part of my heritage. I have to make note that the staff at the Hidden Dragon Villa were warm, kind and considerate people who looked after us so well, and we met lovely people throughout the week. As mentioned at the beginning, I have worked with and also career managed many brilliant and wonderful people in China so my perspectives are not meant as a slight at people who work hard, and endeavour to live life according to the aspirations and hopes that any one of us may have. The good, the bad and the ugly exist everywhere and right on our own doorsteps: it is the good of people that you hope overall will have meaning, value and purpose in the bigger picture, that it can still bring some change for the future. The highlights don’t gloss over the present picture I have built based on my experiences of being there, albeit one small part of it. Higher powers of systematic control have created the strained and challenging environments the people have to manoeuvre through and China has a some way to go to make progress on a social and environmental level. Perhaps at a different time of year, I may have had a different experience and formed different thoughts. Perhaps in the future, it will be different and it will be worthwhile visiting again because there is so much I hope to be able to explore and experience there.

© Photography Thom Arnold