I’d crossed the border into Shenzhen the night before using some semi-vague directions of how to get to the bus station. After purchasing a ticket to what I hoped was my destination, I boarded the overnight bus to Yangshuo. The bus was set up with three rows of pod-beds, kind of like what you’d imagine the Knight Bus from Harry Potter to look like.
I had trouble sleeping and the bus driver was smoking as he drove, and seeing as there was no conversation to be had with any English speaker on the bus -or off, for that matter- I decided to join him. I held up my pack in his peripheral so he wouldn’t have to take his eyes off the road and without flinching he pulled out a lighter. We exchanged exactly zero words with one another and watched the sunrise in between the limestone hills.
It seemed that the driver and I noticed at the same time that the smoke alarm on the bus was sounding. It was a subtle beep, but enough to be annoying. He looked at the alarm, looked at me, and looked back at the road, unphased.
I was kicked off the bus a few minutes later when my new BFF yelled ‘YANGSHUO’ and dropped me off at the edge of town. I was alone. I vaguely remembered what street my hostel was on, but couldn’t quite recall. A portly middle age man on a motorbike drove up, looked at me and then patted the back of his motorbike. Did he seriously think that I would get on this contraption with him? He pulled out a map. I pointed to the ground and gestured to the map. Where are we? He pointed to a point on the map fairly far away from where I thought my hostel was. Too far to walk. I looked around, feeling a little defeated.
I hopped on the back of the bike with a backpack full of climbing gear, a severe case of jet lag and all the hopes in the world that this man wasn’t going to drive me out into the country and rob me. Though this all quickly faded into the back of my mind, because I was on the back of a motorbike, twisting and turning through one of the most beautiful places on Earth and already swamped with an overwhelming sense of adventure… and I couldn’t stop smiling.
Climbing in Yangshuo
A week later my friends Heather and Phillip had arrived, and I’d already met up with my friend Tyson and another expat, Matt. Tyson had written the guidebook for the area and considering our extensive climbing history throughout the states, his recommendations for routes that I’d enjoy was spot on. I really like vertical, technical routes, and Yangshuo’s terrain provided more than enough climbs for me to love. The biting bits of limestone cut into my skin like little gerbil teeth, the friction was something to get used to (a lesson in re-learning how to trust my feet), and the slight angle on everything added a physical element to all the climbing.
Ninety-five percent of the climbing is single pitch sport climbing, all well protected and fairly tall. There are routes that are completely overhung, slabs, slightly steep, crimpy, juggy, slopey… you name it, it’s there. At each crag there is something to warm up on, something to project, and something for your days where you don’t want to max out but still want to get on something fun. My favorite climbs were a 5.11b slab at Dragon City and Face Route (5.11a) at White Mountain.
As far as the ratings go, they were generally spot on after getting used to the rock or running up a route once. There are a lot of chalked-up holds that shouldn’t be chalked up and a few cryptic technical moves. If anything they err on being a bit harder than one might expect out of that grade.
For me, it’s important to remember that wherever you find yourself in the world, you should leave your ego at home and not racked up with your gear.
Adventurous areas like this are a sharp reminder that grade-chasing should always be secondary to fun. My greatest accomplishment in China was going out and having fun with whoever was with me at the crag, every single time.
Massages are really cheap (60 yuan for 60 minutes), so if your shoulder is feeling weird, your back is warped or your neck is killing you from an attentive belay, can easily work out your ailing body. I got a massage from a blind man twice a week while I was there and am convinced of the helpful power of massage for sporty folks. I told the guy that I was a climber, ‘Payan’ and when he went to massage my shoulders he laughed, saying something that I absolutely didn’t understand followed by, “Panyan! Yes!”
Biking to the Crag
All of the crags are accessible by bike, although the rides can be fairly long and harrowing expeditions. The bikes are rough-and-tumble rentals from a shop named ‘The Alice’. These bikes don’t look especially fast or tough, but they are the only road bike that I have ridden that can also conquer rocky and muddy country roads. If this bike was a person, it’d be a small but terrifyingly strong bartender who might have worked at Roadhouse before Patrick Swayze showed up.
The bike rides out to The Egg and White Mountain were long in the beginning of the day and even longer on the way home. The riding was always pleasant- you’re surrounded by lush green towers and the gigantic buses and farm trucks that bike friendly (granted, the traffic is comprised of gigantic buses and farm vehicles that pass you safely, but do so a lot closer than you might be used to); however, the biking on the city roads is enough of an experience to induce stress sweats.
There is a high volume of vehicles, some driving on the wrong side of the road, and pedestrians have chosen to play a real life game of Frogger in this traffic. You, as a biker, must navigate this, and it’s all set to the tune of a thousand horns behind and in front of you. My first day riding with Matt and Tyson left me with a tense grip on the handlebars and I was nearly run over by a car. They would look back occasionally to make sure I hadn’t died, but if they had been any closer they might have seen a look on my face that can best be described as ‘adrenaline-fueled fear and excitement mixed with nausea and happiness’. After a few rides I got the hang of it, but was always hitting ‘high alert level 10’ when I’d be biking in town.
Family Breakfast and The Place with that Pumpkin Dish
Every day started off with Family Breakfasts and ended with a jaunt down or around West Street, the main tourist drag that ends with a stunning view of the Li River and other karst towers. West Street is a closed-in version of the Las Vegas strip, with tons of people and even more lights. The climber’s bar off the strip known as The Rusty Bolt was a good meeting spot for everyone after a long or short day out. But compared to the neighboring North Korea-themed bar called DMZ Bar was decorated with about 50 gaudy chandeliers, a stripper pole, and texture on the walls to give a cave-like appearance to the interior, the Rusty Bolt seemed pretty standard and on the boring side. It did, however, provide a great space to play a great game of Cards Against Humanity that had us all laughing for a solid 3 hours.
One night we headed to a rooftop bar under the guise that there would be a hip-hop show, led by a Yangshuo resident who went by Stussy and a local band comprised of a few expat guys from the UK. At night, giant spotlights are shown on the surrounding mountains. That coupled with the residual lights from the street below gave the night a brightness that made the area feel bustling, and looking out at all this from an exposed rooftop made me feel like the queen of the whole dang city. The hip hop show didn’t end up happening that night, but I did manage to get myself into a rap battle (which I lost), a competitive game of foosball (which I lost), and 3 dance battles (all of which I won!).
Food wise, we were constantly blown away by how good everything was. We frequented 2 restaurants while we were there: Gan’s Noodle and the restaurant that we called ‘The Place with that Pumpkin Dish’. An expensive meal would run us about 80 yuan each, which is about $10. We got our check at the Indian restaurant and had the reaction of “Wow! 80 quai? Kind of expensive, huh?” Keep in mind that this meal had consisted of beer, lassi, everyone getting an entree and a large order of naan. To say that we had become spoiled by the low prices was an understatement. It took about 30 seconds for us to start laughing about how ridiculous we were being because we all knew that if we’d order the same thing back here in the Bay, the tab would have been $30 easily.