As I walked through the immigration checkpoint of 白云机场 (White Cloud Airport) in 广州 (Guang Zhou), I looked down on the stamp on my passport that said “departure”, and realized that I was finally heading home. China has been a home away from home for the past 6 weeks, but now I am more than ready to be back in Seattle. I miss my family, my friends, my dog, the fingertip-splitting granite, and the sub-80 degree days.

China has been very good to me. I made better friends in a month in 西安 (Xi’an) than I did in Seattle given an entire year. I know that someday, I will see them all again. Climbing in 阳朔 (Yang Shuo) blew my mind, and I live for the day that I can return to clean up unfinished projects.

It was difficult for me to leave 阳朔; I feel like I was only just getting settled in. It was probably a good time to finish the trip though, as a violent rainstorm came in the same day that I flew out of 桂林 (Guilin). In fact, it had been raining pretty consistently all week, though that didn’t stop us from going out and getting a few more pitches in.

Lei Pi Shan - overhung enough to climb in the rain. Crash and Burn - 5.11d up the black waterstreak on the right, second go

Early Saturday morning (10 am, early for me), 莘哥 and I hoofed it out to 雷劈山 (Lei Pi Shan) to climb before his work at 3. The drizzle kept the temperature down in the mid 80’s, but couldn’t dampen our psyche. 莘哥 is a bit of a sandbagger, and has no qualms about telling me a warm-up route is .11a when it’s really .12a. 雷劈山 is kind of weird – either it’s really thuggish 60-degree climbing with big, powerful moves, or it’s really technical crimping in shallow pockets. I’ll let you guess which one I’m better at.

After returning to the hostel at 2:30, I promptly hopped onto a bicycle, and headed out to Swiss Cheese Wall for a few more pitches. While the rock quality at Swiss Cheese Wall is quite high, it suffers from indistinct routes, leading to quite a bit of over-bolting. Routes meander left and right, and quite often it’s difficult to tell where exactly you are. However, given the picturesque setting, I would gladly spend an afternoon here any day of the week.

Belaying among the bamboo groves

Lomito Complito, an alright .10a with great picture opportunities

My excitement for climbing has clearly turned Chinese

I totally climbed that route on a rope owned by Chris Sharma. When he visited 阳朔 back in ’08, he gifted his rope to Abond, and I tied into one end to climb that day. If only I had known about that rope earlier, I would have been using it every day on all of my projects. If it’s climbed 5.15a, surely it has magical powers to get me up 5.12b as well?

I left 阳朔 with many things undone. I never climbed at 月亮山 (Moon Hill), never sent Yangshuo Hotel, and never ate 啤酒鱼 (Beer fish). All of these are excellent reasons to return sometime in the near future. But for now, my future holds a plane flight back home, a big serving of french fries, and a large Chipotle burrito. Not before stopping in Singapore for two days to visit my grandparents.

Moon Hill

Karst towers on the way to the airport

Who would want to leave this place?

The climbing these past few days has been a bust, due to a combination of bad weather and unavailable vehicles. I’ve spent a lot of time resting in my room, watching movies, surfing the Internet, and making up the sleep debt that I’m still working on from college – this one will probably take me a few years. I’ve also spent a lot of time on the hangboard in the hostel lobby, all while daydreaming about the projects that I’m itching to get back on at the White Mountain.

There is no doubt that the climbing in 阳朔 (Yang Shuo) is completely world class. I’ve encountered features out here unlike anything I’ve seen before, from bowling ball pockets to tufas big enough to sit on. There is a lifetime of climbing to be experienced out here, and even more that hasn’t yet been developed. I hope that in the future, I can come back here with a drill, and perhaps contribute to the amazing amount of rock that I’ve been enjoying.

As good as 阳朔 is, every day I climb out here gives me a new respect for the crags of the Pacific Northwest, such as the fabled Smith Rocks and even Seattle’s own Little Si. Smith already has a reputation along with years of history, but I firmly believe that World Wall 1 could be dropped among the crags of 白山 (White Mountain), 月亮山 (Moon Hill), and it would fit right in. Climbs like Technorigine, Chronic, and Rainy Day Women enjoy as much quality as 阳朔 classics such as Yangshuo Hotel, China White, and Foreign Devils (.12b, .12b, .13c). I’m enjoying the climbing out here immensely, but at the same time it’s getting me ridiculously psyched to get back on my projects back home.

Home. I miss it. After being gone for 6 weeks, I’m starting to get quite homesick; I miss the comforts of Washington. I miss the snow capped mountains (even though limestone karst is a very good substitute), the swing dancing , the family and friends, and the sub-90 degree weather. And even though I believe that Chinese food is superior in all ways, the first thing I’m eating when I get home is the biggest plate of french fries I can find.

I’ve got two more days of climbing left, and I plan to make them count. Tomorrow, I’ll be heading back to 白山 where the cooler temps brought by the rain will hopefully help me send Yangshuo Hotel. On Sunday, I’ll make a visit to 月亮山 to check out the massive pitches under the arch, take a lot of photographs, and do my best to pull down on some holds. The on Monday, I’m on a plane to Singapore to visit my grandparents for a few days, before arriving back in Seattle on Thursday afternoon.

If anyone wants to throw me a party at the arrival gate in Sea-Tac, I’ll send you my flight information.

Three days on, one day off. Climbing this much might be a little excessive, judging by the fact that the temperature has never peaked below 94 degrees once this entire week. I’m normally opposed to climbing shirtless (mostly because I have nothing to show off), but it’s a necessity out here. If I didn’t climb with my shirt off, I’d be doing laundry every waking moment that I wasn’t on the rock.

Too hot to climb, but still psyched to try

Given the heat and humidity, it’s been difficult to try and push any sort of limits. I finally feel some of my strength coming back, but it’s still hard to hold onto limestone slopers when sweat is dripping off your fingers. I hang up my chalk bag by the air-vent in my room every night, to make sure it dries off for the next day. Fortunately, I’ve finally been able to pull of some sends, including a pair of .11a onsights and a second-go send of Chuck if ya want to (5.11d). All three lines were at 鸡蛋山 (The Egg), which is full of fun and thought-provoking lines.

Yesterday, we headed back to 白山 (White Mountain) for my third consecutive day on, and I jumped at the chance to climb Yangshuo Hotel (5.12b) for a redpoint attempt. It probably wasn’t my best idea, given the heat and my exhaustion from the previous two days, and it actually turned out to an embarrassing climb. I took at every one of seventeen bolts, too tired to link the 34 meters together. On the plus side, I was able to do every move first go, and am fairly confident I could send if we head out there in the early morning or wait until the sun dips below the horizon.

It doesn't look like it, but the wall is actualyl about 10-15 degrees overhung

Perfect limestone climbing

So today, I rest. Sitting in front of a fan, I browse climbing websites, update my blog, and go through the hundreds of photos that I’ve been taking out here. The 岩邦之家 (Rock Abond Inn) is set up quite nicely, for 118 RMB a night (18 USD) I get my own room with air conditioning, a TV, and the softest bed I’ve slept on since arriving in China. Travelers tip: if your butt is getting soft, bring your own toilet paper: the Chinese options are nowhere near as plush as the Cottonelle that my rear end has become accustomed to. The lobby is set up comfortably too, with couches, Internet access, a TV, and a small cafe. Abond and his crew (including his girlfriend, brother and sister, and three other employees) hang out here most days when not climbing, keeping up to date on their favorite Chinese dramas. For dinner, they have an in-house cook who prepares meals; if you buy groceries and share them, you’re more than welcome to sit down for dinner here as well.

If you're in Yangshuo to climb, and you're not staying here, you're doing something wrong

Of course, there are plenty of other options for food out here. I’ve found that generally, the food isn’t quite as good as what I ate in 西安, and is also more expensive, but is still quite acceptable for a tourist town. Of course, that’s because I’m a cheap bastard who tries to eat like the locals, rather than going to the myriad of more expensive and/or Western options that are available. After paying less than 10 RMB (1.70 USD) a meal for the last month, it’s hard to spend double or even triple that amount. However, if you’re really craving that American meal, many places will sell you steaks, burgers, and milkshakes.

The ultimate shame, even McDonalds has made it out here

I’m not a drinker by any means, but if you were so inclined, the nightlife in 阳朔 is something to be spoken of. When the sun goes down, the main drag lights up, and hundreds of locals and vacationing foreigners pour into the streets. Karaoke pours out half of the doors, while the yells from competitive beer-pong and billiards players come out from the other half.

Last night, after much cajoling and arm-twisting, my Chinese friend 莘哥 dragged me into the street to participate in the local tradition of 泡妞, also known as birdwatching, and/or chasing girls. 35 years old with the soul of a 18 year old, 莘哥 explained to me the power of his come-hither look, while Abond explained that his come-hither only works when his wallet is also in his hand. All in jest, of course. “We’ll just have fun”, 莘哥 promised me, and I reluctantly followed.

West Street during the day

In the end, 泡妞 was a bust. After twenty minutes of watching Chinese men with shifty eyes cast looks towards pretty girls while ribbing each other about who would have the guts to go buy her a drink first, I was still no closer to having a girlfriend than I was before I left for China. Until 莘哥 shows me that he can deliver on his promises, I won’t be going out to 泡妞 with him again.

At least he’s a good belayer.

Just because you’re climbing in a world-class destination doesn’t make you a world-class climber.

I’m getting my ass handed to me in 阳朔 (Yang Shuo), and I’m loving every minute of it. Steep, featured limestone at a 15-30 degree overhang is not a good place to warm up when I haven’t climbed since the 16th of July. But the stone here demands it. Crazy tufas and drip features litter the wall, and huecos big enough to sleep in (minus the bird poop) are exciting beyond measure.

阿邦 (Abond) is arguably China’s strongest climber, and one of the few to be sponsored by western companies such as Black Diamond and La Sportiva. Passionate about his self-proclaimed job of developing 阳朔 and bringing others to climb here, he’s a great example of a climbing obsession gone right. Every day, 阿邦 wakes up at around 10 am, spends the morning taking care of chores around the Rock Abond Inn, then leaves for the crag around 2 pm when the day finally cools off. The lifestyle certainly suits him, with sends of up to 5.14c (Spicy Noodle, 白山 (White Mountain)) under his belt. He graciously asked if I wanted to join him and his crew, and I was quick to accept.

For the first two days, we climbed out at 雷劈山 (Lei Pi Mountain). First thing I saw when approaching the wall was a 12 year-old kid from 广州 (Guang Zhou) sending 5.13a, leading me to realize that the Chinese climbing scene is much more developed than I ever could have imagined. People climb on old harnesses and fat 10.8mm ropes, but have an ability to crank like their lives depend on it. My aspirations were high, and I was excited to get back on the wall.

12 year-olds climbing .13a

Starting out on a mellow .10a, I quickly realized that 95 degree weather in 80 percent humidity demands much more water intake than I had been drinking. I clipped the draws, slumped into my harness, and began the dry heaves. A splitter headache and 1 liter of water later, I managed to get my shoes off and untie my knot without throwing up. I tried two other routes after that, and couldn’t even make it up past the 4th clip. We returned to the same crag the next day, and I got repeatedly shut down on a .11c, even after chugging 3 liters of water that morning. Being completely out of shape, the thuggy and powerful climbing was completely shutting me down. Although success was yet to be found, I was still having a great time.

雷劈山 - Leipi Mountain

Tufas and drips

Then yesterday, we made it out to 白山 (White Mountain), and everything changed. It’s hard not to get inspired with a 60 meters high and 200 meters long wall of perfect limestone in front of you. The climbing here is of a much more technical nature, leading to thought provoking and committing moves. Somehow, my fingers finally found their strength again. I flashed up most of an awesome .12b called Yang Shuo Hotel, before falling 4 clips from the top of the 17-clip, 34 meter monster. I’ll be back tomorrow to send for sure. Abond made quick work of 青岛啤酒 (Tsing Tao Beer, 5.13a) before sussing out the clips of French Gangster (5.14a).

The monstrosity that is 白山. Yang Shuo Hotel climbs into the double huecos just to the right of center, and up another 30 feet.

白山 is about 20 minutes out of 阳朔, and is surrounded by farmland. Cucumbers and eggplant grow on vines right next to the cliff, and water buffalo watch us climb from a stream a few hundred feet away. The scene is incredibly picturesque, though also comes with some controversy. With an increasing number of climbers congregating at the crag, some of the less considerate have been trampling through the farmers’ fields, and driving across their pastures. Farmers have responded in kind by chopping or hammering flat many bolts accessible from the ground, resulting in many pitches where the first bolt isn’t until 20 feet. Only by the dedication of Abond and other dedicated locals has access been preserved, and hopefully it will stay this way for years to come.

Flattened bolt hangers

A man and his buffalo

Farmland

Use the trail!

After three days on, it’s finally time for a well deserved rest. I feel right at home in China, so the tourist traps of cooking classes and souvenir stands are a little lost on me. I’ve spent most of my time wandering through he wet markets, writing on my blog, and watching climbing videos in the hostel lounge. And mostly, praying for sending temps tomorrow, though the forecast still calls for 94 degrees.

Psyched!

As always, full-sized photos and more can be found on my Flickr stream.

Travel to 阳朔

Posted: August 21, 2011 in Climbing, Travel
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I’ve left 西安. And thus, I’ve also left the many friends that I made in the past month, friends that I now regard as family. I never thought it would be possible to become so close in just 30 days, but the welcoming spirit and earnest attempts to get to know someone better can do that. I’ll miss you all, and live for the day where we may meet again.

Now on the second half of my China trip, I’m in the town of 阳朔 (Yang Shuo). A pretty touristy town, 阳朔 is full to the brim of Chinese tourists and expats pretending to be local. Food costs double of what it does in 西安, and I’m constantly harassed to eat at restaurants, buy souvenirs, and rent mopeds for a city tour.

But the rock climbing(攀岩) here is phenomenal. I’m currently staying at the hostel of 刘永邦 (Liu Yong Bang), known as Abond to the non-Chinese speaker. The 岩邦之家 (Rock Abond Inn) is one of the many offerings for accommodations in 阳朔, but arguably the best if you’re looking to climb. But more on the climbing later.

Getting out here was a harrowing journey in itself. Originally, I had planned to take a train, for a cost of about 550 RMB (86 USD). Turns out that while a plane ticket costs nearly double (900 RMB = 140 USD), a 2 hour plane ride sounds much more enticing than a 28 hour train ride. I booked a flight for 7:55 am, and arranged for a taxi driver to pick me up from the apartment at 5:50.

Unbeknown to me, the taxi driver ended up having another engagement, so he arranged for his buddy to come pick me up instead. But this new driver neglected to call me, nor make himself apparent when I stepped outside my apartment that morning. Standing there in the pouring rain, with no idea where to go, I called the original driver (George) with whom I had first arranged transport. George apologized for the mix-up, and gave his friend a call. I got a call back from George two minutes later saying that his friend should already be out front waiting for me. I spotted a taxi with a driver asleep inside; knocking on the window, I asked him if he was the person sent to pick me up. He replied “yes, yes, I’m here to take an American to the airport”. I got in the taxi, and we drove off. The time is now 6:05, 15 minutes behind schedule.

Five minutes later, I get a call from George saying that his friend had just seen me get into the wrong taxi, and yet had done nothing to stop me. Don’t worry about it, George said, go ahead and make your flight. My new driver now looks over at me, and realizes that I’m of Chinese blood myself, and am not the gullible white American that he had originally planned on driving. So when he tried to charge me 150 RMB (23 USD), I flatly said no. So pulled over to the side of the road, and refused to go further until we agreed upon a price. I called George, and he said not to pay a dollar over 120 RMB (19 USD). Still another 45 minutes out from he airport, I offered the driver 120 RMB, held my breath when he hesitated, and breathed a sigh of relief when he put the car back in gear. The time is now 6:30.

Shade canopies set up at intersections for motorcycles and bicycles

I stepped into the airport terminal at 7:15, with 10 minutes left to check in. I get in line to check in with Deer Air, the airline from which I booked my flight. Fortunately, the line was moving fairly quickly, and I get to the counter at 7:23.

“我们不飞去桂林” she says. We are not flying to Guilin. I look at her in a moment of panic, and she explains to me “your flight is operated by 海南 (Hainan) Airlines, not us”. Nothing on my ticket said anything of the sort. I ran to the second counter, yelled that I was about to miss my flight, and was brought up to the very front. I checked in my bag and got my boarding pass at exactly 7:25, 30 minutes before departure. Running to the gate, I finally get on the plane, the last person to board. I breath a sigh of relief, and close my eyes for the next two hours to 桂林.

At the 桂林 airport, I take a 30 minute bus-ride into town for 20 RMB. Construction on the road prevents us from getting all the way to the bus station, so I walk the last mile, dragging my suitcase all the way. There, I catch an 18 RMB bus for a hour and a half ride to 阳朔, land of the best climbing in Asia. Wandering the confusing streets through the center of town, I finally stumble into the Rock Abond Inn at 2 pm, 8 hours of harrowing travel over. I sleep through the afternoon, explore a little in the evening, and sleep through the night until 10 the next morning. I’m so glad that the journey is over.

Bus to 阳朔, safe for now

Rock climbing here today. Can’t wait.

白山, 阳朔 - The White Mountain, Yang Shuo. Image stolen from Cragging.org

LeBron in China

Posted: August 17, 2011 in Travel
Tags: , ,

Basketball is huge in China. Walk onto any college campus, and you’ll see a hundred people shooting hoops.

陕西师范大学篮球 - Shaanxi Normal University Basketball

I don’t play the game myself; most of my sports interests are focused on climbing and Ultimate, but that’s another conversation. I do follow college hoops and the NBA at a cursory level, and everyone in the world has heard of LeBron James. After watching an hour of The Decision, there isn’t a fan of basketball who doesn’t know who he is. Due to the lack of an NBA team in Seattle, I’ve never been able to see him play in person, and I doubt I’ll be enough of a San Antonio fan to drive up from Austin to San Antonio in the coming years.

Never in a hundred years did I expect to see LeBron in 西安. I was walking towards 师大 (Normal University) yesterday when my friend calls me up, and tells me to head over to the basketball courts. “LeBron James is here, come quick!” he exclaims. As I draw close to the courts, loud thumping music and the roar of a crowd reveals the truth behind my friend’s claim.

Hundreds of people trying to get closer to King James

As part of a Nike promotional event, King James is touring parts of China for the next week. One of his stops was 西安, along with 北京 (Beijing) and 上海 (Shanghai). Through local tournaments, amateur teams gained the opportunity to play a game with LeBron coaching them; he switched coaching duties between the teams at halftime. Pictures were taken, posters were signed, and the crowd roared when he put on an impromptu dunking clinic at the end of the event.

Image stolen from NikeMedia.com

I could claim that I got close enough to take pictures such as the one above, but that would be a lie. Instead, my pictures of LeBron are the following:

Hundreds of people await his arrival

Seen through the lens of a camera raised high above my head

Getting into his blacked-out van

People are just as fan-obsessed out here as they are in the States. To be fair, LeBron was an excellent host, even greeting his fans in broken Chinese. He did everything he could to give his fans as much face-time as he could. He showed grace and character, and the crowd replied with ever increasing enthusiasm.

LeBron James is just a man who happens to be really, really good at basketball. And China loves him.

华山 – Mount Hua, Part 2

Posted: August 11, 2011 in Climbing, Life, Travel
Tags: , , ,

In certain areas, the staircases are actually quite dangerous. Only wide enough for single file hiking, iron chains stood as railings for the steepest sections. Some of the steps were only 6 inches wide, promising a quick fall to the bottom if someone up above slipped. The steepest sections felt more like climbing a ladder, where the incline increased to 70 degrees, where the previous person’s head would be pushing upwards against your butt. Zero stopping allowed.

The old staircase on the right speaks to a much more difficult climb

This older lady didn't make it all the way to top, but enjoyed the hike anyway

Around 12:30 am, I arrived at 北峰 (North Summit), slightly ahead of schedule. And it was a mad house. The cable car arrives at this summit, and there are two hostels situated in the area as well. As such, it becomes a natural staging area for people to continue towards the 东峰 (East Summit) to watch the sunrise. People eating late-night dinners, people yelling loudly to find friends they lost along the way, people napping on the granite benches everywhere, the scene was one of total chaos. Figuring that I would wait out the crowds slowly making their way up, I sat down on a bench and slept. Feeling cold, I sat up after an hour to put on a sweatshirt. The moment I sat up, someone lay down right beside me, taking my sleeping spot. I glared a thousand daggers at her, but she had already shut her eyes, pretending that I wasn’t there. I did my best to get some rest sitting upright, pretending that it was as comfortable as lying down. By 3 am, most of the crowds had already left to continue upwards, and I finally started my own journey towards the top.

I slept like this guy until someone took my spot

At 5 am, I reached the 金琐关 (Golden Locks), the intersection from which you head off to either the Western, Eastern, or Southern summits. Along the chain railings lining the path, there are thousands of golden-colored brass padlocks attached, each with a long red ribbon. The locks and ribbons are inscribed with blessings; the belief is that if the padlocks and ribbons are left on the top of 华山, the blessings will come true. The fact that you can buy them on the summit doesn’t make a difference. At 20 RMB (3.50 USD) for the smallest padlock up to 100 RMB (17 USD) for the largest, the vendors are obviously doing a roaring business.

金琐关 - Golden Locks

Heading towards the 东峰 (East Summit), the fringes of the crowd gathered there began to come into view. Hundreds of tourists had begun to stumble out of their hotel dorm rooms, or had joined me in the long crawl from the base nearly 3000 feet below. People were jostling for the best position at which to see the sun rise, while trying to avoid being blocked by the sea of black-haired heads. Rather than join the fray, I came to the conclusion that the best way to see the summit at sunrise is actually to stand below the summit. That way, I can take pictures of both the sun rising and the 东峰 as the morning glow hits the granite walls. I meandered back down to the 金琐关, where nearly no one was.

I sat down on the steps, looked out to the east, and stared in awe as the sky changed its colors from a deep pink, glowing orange, fiery red, and finally to a beautiful blue. Latecomers continued to hustle towards the proper summit, oblivious to the show that was happening along the horizon. At that moment, I forgot the hunger in my stomach, the thirst in my throat, and all the troubles that I encountered along the way. The majesty of God’s creation will always leave me breathless. I took as many pictures as I could, trying to cement the memory, though photographs will never do the experience justice.

东峰 - Eastern Summit

Sunrise over the horizon

A glow of color

After a good hour, I began to head back down, anxious to continue avoiding the crowds. I needn’t have worried, nearly all of them lined up to take the cable car down, leaving me to hike down in peace. I later heard that the line stretched back in the hundreds, with many people waiting over an hour to spend 80 RMB (14.50 USD) for the quick ride down.

Somehow hiked that ridge on the left with 500 other people

The hike down was much easier than going up, and was actually quite pleasant. I passed many people sleeping off the trail, collapsed on the ground, too tired to make it up to the summit the previous night. The sounds of the cicada was deafening, and spoke to the life that the mountain held. I enjoyed all the views that weren’t available in the dark, and looked in awe at the sheer staircases that looked so much steeper in the light.

Too tired to continue

Cicada - the most obnoxioius insect ever

华山 is made of the most incredible granite; golden medium-sized crystals had perfect texture, and just begged to be climbed. Some of the boulders that I passed on the hike down rivaled the Cacodemon boulder of Squamish in size, and boasted features unique as those found in Hueco Tanks. The cracks in the mountainside held obvious lines up towards the summit, even though they were quite dirty with vegetation. 杨老师 of the 西安 rock climbing gym said he’s climbed the mountain in a 6-day push before, and that the rock is really stellar. Unfortunately, the Chinese seem to be more interested in developing money-making hotels and selling Red Bull than investing in the natural resources right under their feet. I would love to make a multi-pitch ascent of 华山 some day, but imagining reaching the summit after 6 days only to be greeted by a tourist fresh out of his hotel room left a sour taste in my mouth. As such, next to zero development has been done on the mountain, other than the one multi-pitch route to the top, and a smattering of shorter lines.

Perfect granite

Oh really? I didn't know there was stone here

Dragon dike

On the way down, I passed a few temples and abandoned homes, speaking to the Taoists that used to frequent the mountain in search of enlightenment. I also saw these porters, carrying loads of watermelon, Red Bull, and other foodstuffs and souvenirs up the trail. Speaking to an older gentleman who must have been at least 60 years old, I learned that they each earn 60 RMB a day, working for 8 hours. The accessibility to 华山 stems from the back-breaking work that these men endure every day.

Ancient homes

These men carry goods all day

While this man cleans up garbage

Finally reaching the base of the mountain at 8:30 am, I looked back up at the summit, and marveled at the fact that I had thought it was a good idea to go up and down 3000 feet in just 7 hours of hiking. But the beauty and majesty of 华山demanded it. Even with all its quirks and misgivings, the adultery it suffers at the hands of tourists, and the broken backs of men who made it the way it is today, 华山 stands with pride. When society crumbles, hotels fall into disrepair, and vendors abandon their wares, the mountain will remain the same. I hope some day that 华山 can return to its natural state: wild and free. Only then can it have peace, the same peace that I found on its summit.

Cooling off after the hike

Back at the trailhead

He who climbs 华山 will forever have peace

Note: Once again, all photos and more can be found on my Flickr stream.

华山 – Mount Hua, Part 1

Posted: August 10, 2011 in Climbing, Travel
Tags: , , ,

华山 (Mount Hua) stands as one of the Five Sacred Taoist Mountains. With five main peaks rising over 3000 feet above the plains of inland China, the granite monolith stands as a striking symbol of the beauty that this country’s natural landscapes has to offer. As a peak of Taoist significance, temples stood at the base of the mountain as early as 200 BC, with immortality seekers and Imperial pilgrims making the arduous trek to the summit.

东峰 - East Summit

With the installation of a cable car to the minor summit in the mid 90‘s, 华山 now sees hundreds of visitors every day. The ancient wisdom holds that those who summit 华山 will find internal peace for the rest of their lives, and being that Chinese are obsessed with proving their mettle, there is a constant stream of tourists aspiring to reach the top. Regardless of whether or not you’re looking for personal enlightenment, the beauty of the mountain demands a visit.

Cable Car on the 北峰 (North Peak)

Only 120 kilometers from 西安, a 45 minute train ride for 35 RMB (5.50 USD) gets you out to the tourist town surrounding 华山. With a family of visiting Americans, I headed out there around 1:30 on Monday afternoon. The plan was to take the cable car up to the minor (北峰 – Northern) summit, tag the Western, Southern, and Eastern (西, 南, 和东峰) summits in the late afternoon, then spend a night at the summit-top hostel. That would provide the maximum amount of sightseeing for minimal effort. I was okay with this plan, though in my gut I’m a little opposed to taking a cable car up a mountain. And I’m definitely opposed to staying in a mountaintop hotel, the very existence of which I find immoral.

I then found out that it’s pretty common to climb the mountain through the night. Starting at around 10 pm, many people take around 4 hours to get to the 北峰, then another 3 hours to go to the 西峰 (Western summit) to view the sunrise the next morning. A little apprehensive about solo night-hiking, I was assured that the path was very clear, and that there would be plenty of people on the route to prevent any major mishaps from happening. Being a Boy Scout, I was already prepared with some warmer clothing and a headlamp to hike through the night. I had plenty of water too, and was told that I could buy food at the base of the mountain. 7 hours up, a cable-car ride down; sounds like a fun adventure!

I found a hostel at the base of the mountain for an afternoon nap, resting up for the hike ahead. Originally asking 250 RMB (45 USD) for the 6 hour stay, I talked the guy down to 180 RMB (30 USD) and a free shower when I came off the mountain. Always bargain in China. The bed was a sorry excuse for a bed in terms of hardness and comfort, but the air conditioning and TV were a welcome distraction. Why the room had 18 foot ceilings, I may never know. At 9:30, I woke up, packed up, and checked out. Another 10 minutes of bargaining with the hotel manager (no I don’t want a tour guide, no I don’t want to buy a headlamp, no I don’t need a porter), I finally headed off to the trail head.

Hotel for an afternoon

Throngs of people waiting to get in

This is where things got a little iffy. I knew that there would be a crowd of people joining me on the hike, after being told how popular it was. What I didn’t expect was over a hundred people clamoring at the trail head, all looking to race up the mountain. A massive crowd of people were pushing and shoving, vendors hawking their drinks and food, with a huge video screen in the back telling of the glorious Communist take-over of the mountain from Kuo Min Tang military forces in 1947. Lining up to buy my ticket, I prepared 100 RMB (17 USD).

Video screen lighting up the hillside

Park Gates

This is where things got worse. The lady behind the counter wouldn’t sell me a student ticket, and instead, insisted on charging me the full price of 180 RMB (30 USD). I explained to her that I was an American, then provided my student ID, my passport, and my drivers license as evidence. But in a more than bitchy tone, she repeatedly yelled back through the glass that all Chinese students have state-issued ID, and that I had to have that in order to get in. I spent a full 5 minutes trying to explain that I am a citizen of the USA to no avail. Now, faced with having to give up my hike to seek greater enlightenment, I gave up and paid the 180 RMB. Which left me with 20 RMB for the cab fare back to the train station, and 0 RMB for food. The four small buns and two pears I packed were suddenly all the food I had until my train home at 12:47 the next afternoon.

Finally making it past the gates of the park, I began a steady pace uphill. A gentle incline led to slightly steeper hiking, though it was all pretty manageable for the first 5 kilometers. It was pretty steep in some places, I estimate that we gained about 600 feet of elevation in that first section. The crowd began to thin out as many stopped to take breaks at the many rest stops along the way. Red Bull was available for 10 RMB (1.5 USD), along with instant noodles. The path was actually constructed of flagstones, with street lamps all the way, I didn’t have to turn on my headlamp for the first half of the hike.

Plenty of souvenirs, too

Promptly at the 5 kilometer hike, the smooth pathway stopped, and the stairs began. I could see the faint glow of street lamps lighting up the ridges high above me, but I could possibly imagine that the stairs would take the most direct path up towards them. In just 4 kilometers of stairs, I gained 2600 feet of elevation. At a 60 degree incline. On stairs. Every hundred feet or so, there would be a small flat platform to rest, and people dropped like flies onto them, nursing their tired legs. I kept trucking upwards, the promise of smaller crowds awaiting me.

Single file stairs

Staircases during the day

Note: Most photos were taken during the day on the way down. Once again, all photos (and more) can be seen on my Flickr account.

Language Lessons

Posted: August 7, 2011 in Life, Travel
Tags: , ,

My Chinese has been getting a lot of exercise. Coming to 西安, my speaking command of the language was somewhat adequate, though much could be improved with my reading and writing. Having to practice every second of the day has helped my fluency in Mandarin; hopefully it will be a noticeable difference to my Chinese speaking friends and family when I return home.

Ordering food in a restaurant has never been that difficult, you simply point at the pretty picture, and say “I want this”. At Dairy Queen, I can never remember the words for vanilla soft-serve, so I always just go to the counter and ask for “the ice cream that costs 7 RMB”. That usually gets my point across. The local drinks than I enjoy – 酸梅汤 (plum juice), 蓝马课 (Landmark, a fermented pineapple soda), and 白开水 (room temperature water, not the boiling hot water that Chinese normally drink) have all made their way into my regular vocabulary, and I’m normally able to get what I want.

Taking the bus is a little trickier. Each bus stop has a name, and the signboard at each stop lists the various destinations that a certain route will take you in tabular form. Even with a map in hand, the names can be very cryptic. The same street can have multiple names, depending on whether it’s north, within, or south of the old city wall. I’ve learned to read the names of all the stops that I frequent, though many times it’s been easier just to ask for help from a local.

I’d say that I probably understand about 80-85% of the Mandarin that’s being spoken around me. However, there’s always that 15-20% that I just don’t quite pick up, whether it’s vocabulary that I’m not familiar with, or the distinct northwestern accent that people have here, as opposed to the southern accented Mandarin that I grew up with. The funny thing is, if I approach someone, tell them I’m an American and speak only in English, they’re usually more than happy to help me. Foreigners are exciting, and helping one discover China seems to be a guilty pleasure for a lot of them. However, if I converse with them in Chinese, when they say something I don’t understand I’ll have to stop them and ask them to explain what they mean. At this point, they just look at me like an idiot, trying to understand how someone can reach 21 years of age without a working knowledge of the language that I supposedly grew up with.

Other times, people take meeting me as an opportunity to practice their own English. Most of the time it’s taxi drivers. Over my previous two weeks, I’ve spoken to taxi drivers about everything from weather and food in China, to philosophy and the education system in the USA. I once had a driver hand me a pen and paper, asking my to transcribe the words he told me into English, so that he could practice them when he got home. We got through “mid-Autumn festival”, “girlfriend”, and “break-up”. Apparently he was planning something, I’m glad I could help.

I found a gym.

火石攀岩 - Firestone Rock Climbing Gym

The only gym in the city of Xi’an, in fact. In a city of 8 million people, there is exactly one climbing gym: 火石攀岩体育馆, the Firestone Rock Climbing Gym. Located on the 6th floor of a shopping mall, this 25 foot wall is where the dedicated climbing crew of Xi’an trains daily. And by “crew”, I mean less than 20 people.

More overhanging than the Warehouse?

The gym is run by the man in the picture below, 杨东 (Yang Dong), referred to by his customers as 杨老师 (Teacher Yang). Spending 5 years in Japan, 杨东 started rock climbing by a chance meeting with Yuji Hirayama’s (Japanese rock climbing superstar) former coach, and continued training under him for his entire stay. Having traveled Asia to climb quite a bit, he regales me with stories of Japan, Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, beach sport-climbing in Thailand, and the local crags out here in inland China. In an effort to use the empty space on their 6th floor, the shopping mall sought him out to open a climbing gym, in order to attract more customers. Still a relatively new sport to this area, the gym has seen moderate success, and I can only hope that it sees more.

杨东 - The Man in the Xi'an climbing scene

A consistent mid 5.13 climber, 杨东 is also an accomplished comp climber, having taken 3rd place in bouldering at the Chinese National Championships a few years ago. Now, he spends most of his days running his gym, and training the next generation of youth in the sport. Some of the kids that come to work out are ridiculous; an 11 year old girl, having only climbed for 1 year, is already pushing into the mid 5.11’s, and took 2nd place at the national championships this past year. I met another 11 year old boy, also climbing for a year, who was pulling down on V3-V4 problems with ease. Competitions are run a little differently here in China, registration for them is free. However, they’re all completely spread out, and often require a 10 hour train ride and overnight accommodations to participate in. 杨东 travels with all his kids to these events, speaking to the dedication that they all have for this sport.

饺子 - Dumpling

In addition to 杨东, there are a few other employees at the gym that I’ve met. 饺子 (Dumpling) has been climbing for just under a year and a half, but is excited enough to work here full time. 蚂蚁 (Ant) has been in the sport for almost 3 years, and spends most of his days helping to train the youth team. The purple-shirted dreadlocked guy doesn’t speak much, I call him the doleful one. And yes, those are all nicknames, I don’t actually know any of their real names.

Closing Shop

The wall is built from fiberglass and resin, and the holds are all old-fashioned resin-poured as well. I asked 杨东 where they purchased their materials from, and he responded evenly “we make them”. He then reached behind the desk and pulled out a pair of climbing shoes, and said “we make these, too”. Apparently the solution to not having things available for purchase is to simply make them themselves. Ropes, carabiners, and harnesses are still imported via Beijing, but he says it’s simply easier for them to manufacture holds and shoes themselves. It’s actually become a key part of their business, to sell walls to schools and parks in the area.

Routes are set differently at this gym, too. Instead of resetting the wall every few weeks, and mixing the holds about, the current set stays on the wall for about a year. Instead, they take photos of the wall, and draw out different boulder problems and routes on paper, all of which get filed in a large binder for customers to peruse through. “This saves on tape maintenance”, I’m told. It’s not a bad idea for such a small gym, though many of the holds feel pretty greasy as a result. A 10-pass punch-card was 150 RMB (23 USD), so I’m not about to complain.

杨东 has promised me that he’ll take me out to the local granite crag before I leave, to say I’m excited is an understatement. It’s still young, but the climbing scene here is burgeoning rapidly. Through his broken English and my poor Chinese, 杨东 tells me about the 5.14 project he’s working on, and the new mid .12’s that he’s bolted that I should try. They’re every bit as psyched as anyone I’ve met in the USA.

More pictures to come.