Yangshuo - The Return
People say that a sabbatical from climbing brings you back stronger to the sport. They're right.
Hampi ate up one of my A2s and compressed the cartilage in the same knuckle so severely that I could barely use the finger to type with. I took three months off climbing so much as a ladder, which was a feat to maintain as I trekked through stunning boulderfields and apparently undeveloped limestone crags between the 3,000 and 4,500 metre mark in the Solukhumbu. I even bought my first trad rack while on the mend and but was unable to use it... which led to a few sad nights alone in a Kathmandu hotel room trying to find cracks in the wall big enough to slot a 0.3 Camalot into.
But three months was worth it! For the first time in about a year, none of my fingers are bothering me. I can climb untaped! So what to do to celebrate such a demonstration of patience? A trip back to Yangshuo, the karsty wonderland that inspired this whole past eight months of adventure in the first place seemed appropriate.
I landed in Guangzhou, Southern China, perhaps a bit late in the year for good weather. Grey skies, daily monsoon dumps, and an average of 99 percent humidity at 35 degrees Celsius slapped me hello. It didn't matter, though — the city was inconsequential now that I was free of its grip, no longer another English-teaching ex-pat in Asia. No longer strapped to my ex-company's schedule, I was free to venture out to Yangshuo whenever I wanted. I even had a friend to drive me/be driven by me in her SUV all the eight-and-a-half-hour way from Guangzhou to Yangshuo.
As it is with traveling the circuit of haut climbing in Asia, you ALWAYS run into the same crowd. Climbers from Hampi, however many months back now, were all now gainfully employed variously through China Climb, the enterprising adventure company helping to spread the tendrils of sport climbing throughout Guangxi (and beyond). I would like to go into detail about the rent-free bolting drill available through them, but that's not the direction I want to take this blog in. No, this blog is, instead, a rant. A big nasty rant about something awful going on in a place I love.
The last time I was in Yangshuo, nearly a year before, it was the land of promised opportunity. The next big destination in Asia for a life-changing experience on limestone. True enough, it had certainly changed mine. Now though, local mentality is shifting, the villagers are restless...
Somewhere in this past year, a mafioso personality has taken over at the main crags. It exists on two levels: micro-managed by villagers, or possibly just local mafia squatting at popular crags, spray painting angry warnings about climbing being "forbidden and penalizing your money for between 1,000 and 5,000 RMB" and then demanding 20 RMB for one-time access, enforced by violence; or by the local government, currently installing an 80 RMB/day access-blocking toll booth on the main road leading to such crags as the iconic Moonhill and LeiPiShan where Chris Sharma bolted Spicy Noodles on his last visit.
Now, I can get behind the government toll to some degree, because they are at least paying back into the climbing community with contributions to China Climb and the Yangshuo Climbing Festival, albeit that the toll is a deterrent to most climbers there on a budget of only 100 RMB per day. But what's happening with the locals, who can't even sort out who actually owns the karsts or the access to them, is ridiculous. I wish we had the Access Fund here. I wish that there was a resolution to this at a respective level, face to face, climber to villager, but encounters thus far have ended in climbers either acquiescing and paying the fee, or having their ropes threatened with knives MID-CLIMB.
The situation seems dire, and Yangshuo is certainly not the wonderland I left behind, but it's not hopeless, either. There are literally thousands of developable karsts scattered in all directions from the centre of Yangshuo county (just have a look on google maps). For those interested in making some first ascents and having a bit of development listed under their name in the next guide, Yangshuo is still very much a wonderland (remember the rent-for-free Hilti drill I mentioned earlier). As well, China Climb is developing new areas with a staff of ambitious, hard climbers with land rights already resolved...but these areas are yet few.
I hope that the dream of Yangshuo is not dead forever now, but on my next trip through Asia I intend to know my way around a bolt gun (preferably like that sweet rig that Sly had in Cliffhanger) so as to make my own peaceful way about the place. Sadly, my dreams of climbing Moonhill will have to remain unrealized until a resolution is found, because I'll be damned if I'm going to pay 80 RMB a day to project something out there.
In the interim, I've moved to Tasmania to climb hard trad, scary slab, and a host of mind-bending sandstone blocs a friend has been developing out in the Eucalyptus groves. The friction is good, but damn is it cold down under at this time of year...brrr.