Words & Photography: Derek Cheng
The mere sight of the Moon Hill arch in Yangshuo left me with a blazing sense of awe. The plethora of hanging stalactites under the arch created the impression of a half-open jaw with particularly menacing teeth. For most, it is a prized view after climbing the 700-odd steps on Moon Hill to get to the arch, but for rock climbers, it is much more than just a pretty sight.
For decades, rock climbers have visited Moon Hill to test their skills on the many routes through the arch. The most coveted route, one called Over the Moon, weaves its way through a forest of hanging limestone icicles. Halfway up is a large, almost-horizontal stalactite, which is big enough to sit on.
Conquering the arch requires plenty of effort, so I took my time at this perfectly formed perch, trying to gather my composure before tackling the upper half of my climb.
“Stick your hand inside the hole at the back,” instructed a fellow climber from far below.
I did and grasped something hard and cold. It was a small bottle of baijiu. It is unclear whether a swig of this Chinese rice wine is meant to inhibit or enhance your chances of success for the rest of the climb but seeing as I had made it this far, I thought I’d earned a swig!
A prehistoric landscape
China is famous for its thousands of karst limestone towers, which soar to dizzying heights from lush, green surroundings. They are so plentiful that the area looks like something out of by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Roaming dinosaurs would not look out of place here.
The limestone rocks that make up this picturesque landscape were created by two crustal movements in the earth that happened over 200 million years ago. These movements forced limestone sediments, more than 200 metres below ground, to the surface, turning the area that was once an ocean into a large landmass. Over the years, monsoon rains and winds eroded the limestone sediments, creating giant caves, sinkholes and towering karst pinnacles.
Climbers began visiting the area, just south of Guilin, in the early 90s. Since then, Yangshuo – Moon Hill in particular – has been on the list of many rock climbing enthusiasts.
Rock climbing is often thought to be a somewhat dangerous extreme sport but modern equipment makes sport climbing – where climbers are protected via a series of bolts on the wall – relatively safe. Of course, climbers must train and adhere to safety regulations, practising caution at all times and ensuring that protective equipment is always in place.
Yangshuo’s immaculate limestone formations cater to climbers of all levels. Experienced climbers can go all the way to the top of a karst tower, from where they will be rewarded with a view of the magical landscape below. For beginners, there are countless easy routes and many guiding companies offer lessons. While strength and experience with heights is an advantage, all you need to start with is raw enthusiasm.
Tales of the unexpected
Though accidents are rare, mishaps often go hand-in-hand with climbing and make for engrossing tales. A day climbing at a crag known as the Egg in Yangshuo saw my foot dislodge a chunk of rock the size of a fist while halfway up the wall. The rock lunged at my belayer, the person at the other end of the rope, responsible for catching me if I were to fall.
My belayer took evasive action and launched himself off the ledge he was standing on. I looked down to see a pair of inverted legs in a pit of shrubbery, dangling as if gravity had reversed.
“Are you alright?” I yelled.
“Yeah,” he replied and then apologised for pulling me off the rock face.
“You didn’t. I’m still on, and holding you. Get up!” I called down. He quickly gathered himself, and I continued climbing.
A surprise of a different kind awaited fellow climber Rob Campbell, who was confronted by a rat as he tried to insert his hand into a crack at the top of a climb at a crag called Swiss Cheese. He promptly launched himself off the cliff into the arms of his belayer, who lowered him safely to the ground.
Climbing in Yangshuo
The town of Yangshuo has been described as one of the most beautiful places in the world and is popular with both locals, as well as foreigners. Visitors can hike up surrounding peaks to take in a view of the cityscape, or ride a boat down the Li River to the Crown Cave. The cave is 12 kilometres deep, its chambers replete with paths, handrails and multi-coloured lights revealing stunning stalactites, stone pillars and rock formations inside.
Climbers usually arrive in Yangshuo during spring or autumn and stay for long periods, as the cost of living is quite minimal. My daily routine would begin in the morning at the food stalls on Hospital Street where I would feast on rice noodles with roast pork, beans and greens for just USD1! Paying a little extra would get me a glass of hot soy milk and a stick of youtiao (Chinese cruller). At the neighbouring stall, I’d pick up some steamed buns, both sweet and savoury, for mid-day sustenance. The sweet fillings included red bean and egg custard while the savoury variety had pork, noodles and vegetables. For dinner, check out West Street, the tourist epicentre of Yangshou, which is peppered with souvenir shops, watering holes, juice bars, bakeries and street stalls. You can usually find a number of stalls that offer freshly made noodles, dumplings and roast duck. To end the night, I’d recommend Rusty Bolt, a favourite haunt for cyclists and climbers, for a cold Tsingtao beer.
Conquering the crack
To try out crack climbing – a type of rock climbing where a climber follows a crack in the rock and uses specialised climbing techniques – a visit to village of Li Ming, part of the Loajunshan National Park is a must. At 2,100 metres above sea level, Li Ming’s mountain air is extremely refreshing.
It is a charming and quaint village with a handful of shops and guesthouses, under massive sandstone cliffs that envelop the skyline. Li Ming is quiet, except on Thursdays – market day – when the indigenous Nakhi people descend the mountain to sell local produce.
The cracks of Li Ming are as majestic as they are intimidating. Crack climbing is unique. Regular rock climbing entails placing your hands and feet on features in the rock – anything from huge holds to tiny dimples. Crack climbing, however, has only one feature – inserting your hands and feet into crack formations and twisting until they gain traction, which can be quite painful.
Sometimes, my hand would fit perfectly, and upward motion would be a breeze. However, this was not always the case, requiring some creativity. Wide cracks were even more difficult, as they were sometimes too wide to wedge hands or feet inside. I’d usually resort to sticking as much of my body inside as possible, and then desperately thrusting up. Progress, if any, was slow.
Crack climbing is a discipline that represents the adage, ‘the harder the struggle, the greater the reward’. Soon, I found myself wanting to try steeper cracks, to see how I could manipulate my limbs and how much pain I could endure in a bid to reach the top.
All the amazing aspects of climbing are magnified in Li Ming – an adventure wonderland in a stunning location. It was hard to leave this mountain village, after two weeks of learning new skills and pushing new limits among new friends.
Life in Getu
If Yangshuo made China a well-known destination for climbing, Getu Valley in neighbouring Guizhou Province, about 700 kilometres from Yangshou, made it a superstar!
Getu is an isolated farming village that has changed little in decades. A few houses are scattered among valleys of terraced paddy fields of different hues of green, dwarfed by gargantuan limestone sentinels. The place feels sacred and mystical, partly due to the mist that envelops the valley every morning, and the soft rain that shrouds it with an ethereal hue.
In 2011, outdoor and climbing company Petzl brought some of the world’s best climbers to Getu to develop routes inside the famous Great Arch.
The Great Arch is an enormous cavern that is 164 feet high, 230 feet wide and 449 feet long. Superlatives cannot adequately describe its magnificence, and as if to accentuate its enormity, there are two smaller arches just below it. Climbing this magnificent formation involves not only scaling its walls but also its ceiling, which requires great physical prowess that only the best climbers possess. The 120-metre-high route on the outside of the arch is surely among the most memorable I’ve been on.
My climbing buddies and I were the only visitors in Getu when we first arrived but by Golden Week – a week-long holiday for the October rice harvest – the sleepy village had come to life with about 50 other climbers and a sea of local tourists. The festive air was infectious, and we would end each day by feasting on local food, copious amounts of celebratory beer and the occasional game of mah-jong (a Chinese game played with rectangular tiles).
Over the moon
Having experienced Li Ming and Getu Valley, I was determined to conquer Moon Hill’s most challenging climb. Over the Moon, the route through the arch, had defeated me on numerous occasions, but I was climbing closer and closer to the top each time.
One cool morning, after a meal of succulent roast duck and sugary doughnuts from West Street, I trudged back up to Moon Hill. I was anxious, but determined to try the route one more time. It personified everything I love about climbing: a phenomenal challenge requiring an assortment of acrobatic moves, and a test of endurance.
With a group of buddies urging me on, and as tourists snapped photos, I started up the climb, swinging from stalactite to stalactite to arrive at the sit-down rest, halfway up the route. I didn’t bother reaching for a swig of baijiu this time. Climbing is often thought of as a meditative experience, so with that in mind, I relaxed, breathed deeply and envisioned the top half of the route.
When the time felt right, I stood up and pulled back into the arch, moving higher from handhold to handhold. My arms were tired and I hesitated more than once, but I kept pushing myself. Just as my energy levels were flat-lining, I realised that I’d made it to the top.
Though breathless and exhausted, a wave of joy swept over me. Success in climbing often summons a unique sense of euphoria. And I was, as the name of the route suggested, ‘over the moon’.
The Great Arch is situated in the Ziyun Getu He Chuandong National Park, which is also home to the Miao Room, one of the world’s largest cave chambers. The cave is big enough to accommodate a 747 jumbo jet, and is named after the region’s indigenous people.
Sport Climbing vs Traditional Climbing
Yangshuo and Getu are sport climbing destinations where climbers clip their safety rope into bolts on the route to catch any falls. Li Ming, on the other hand, is a traditional, bolt-free climbing area, and climbers place their own protection (ropes and air-climbing equipment etc) as they move higher. Climbers should bring a set of quick draws and a rope to Yangshuo and Getu, and a full rack of traditional protection for Li Ming.
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