Long ago, the area around Guilin in southeast China was crowded with jagged mountains. These caused a terrible inconvenience to the people who had to cross them to work. To rid the people of the problem, a brave villager climbed the highest mountain to reach heaven, where he stole a magic whip from the gods. He returned to Guilin, and used the long, powerful whip to slash at all the peaks, turning them into animals and driving them like dogs and cattle toward the sea, clearing the land for the people of Guilin. But, as day broke, a dragon that lived among the mountains alchemized them into formations that were more formidable than ever. Defeated, the man dropped the whip, which crashed to the earth and became the majestic, meandering river Li.
It would serve all climbers well to keep an open ear for ancient legends, especially the ones that involve alchemized limestone towers. Such was my experience, when, last fall, I arrived in the city of Guilin. I had come to see firsthand what this ancient magic had produced, and had arranged for a local guide to help me enter this storybook world. Arriving at the airport, I saw a man holding a placard with my name on it. Without uttering a word, he hurried me into a car and gunned the tin can into the hot night, down a dirty, dimly lit freeway, laying on the horn and spewing rapidly into his cell phone.
Ninety minutes later the car ground to a halt in the Yangshuo district, to the south. I was prompted down Xian Qian Street, a vibrant slash in the tourist district brightly lit with colorful fluorescent lights. As I walked the streets, I smelled chicken heavily loaded with garlic. Food stalls lining the side streets advertised noodle bowls with pond-weed, peanuts and chilies, and tofu hot pots with chestnuts. The tunes of Bon Jovi, Deborah Harry and the Ministry of Sound blared from the bars, a testament to globalization, even in this remote corner of China.
Because Yangshuo was included in a Lonely Planet guide, it now caters to Westerners with countless restaurants for any budget, cafés, mini-marts, hotels, unlimited souvenir shops and bakeries that sell everything from red-bean buns to fried dog balls.
I met my friends just as they were polishing off a carbo-intensive dinner of pizza and beer outside the Karst Café: Olivia Hsu, my good buddy from Sydney; Ryan Gormly, a blow-in from Melbourne who was commencing a round-the-world odyssey; and my partner, Simon Carter, here to photograph the climbing. We also met up with Simon Wilson and Dave Gliddon, comedic fixtures at the Lizard Lounge and adjoining bars, and who were guides with China Climb currently on extended working holiday.
As the group finished, we made plans to climb the towering shadows that I could only barely make out against the night sky. At that point, just one defining characteristic was apparent—that these things were huge.
The next morning dawned unusually clear. Most days, the region’s heavily polluted air creates a haze that settles about the towers like smoke from a campfire. Beautiful, but toxic. I looked out my window at an infinite horizon of random and bizarre-looking rock formations.
Some “scientists” say the limestone pinnacles of Yangshuo were not created by a divine whip, but were actually formed 200 million years ago when two movements of the earth’s crust extruded limestone sediments to the surface. Eons of erosion sculpted these formations into fantastic monoliths that are a natural attraction for tourists. Whatever you believe, the highly featured monoliths, towers and arches are unbelievable and beg to be climbed.
With a guidebook in one hand, I first headed to a nearby area with 20-some crags, each one unique and most just minutes from the road. Butterfly Spring was easily recognizable: A 30-foot concrete butterfly was bolted right to it. Wine Bottle Cliff, with routes from 5.6 to 5.11d, was less identifiable … perhaps we needed a bottle of the local brew to restore our perception. Riverside Crag, as you might guess, resides on the banks of the Li River, where a quick dip in the pure waters is certain to rejuvenate sore muscles.
While those areas were awesome, we couldn’t wait to check out one of Yangshuo’s star attractions—Moon Hill, an unfathomable arch 750 feet high and 1,300 feet across. After a quick hunt for food, I crammed into a minibus with Simon, team Oz and a bunch of locals for the ride over to this classic area put on the map in the early 1990s by Todd Skinner and other Americans who established six routes here.
While Moon Hill kicked off the climbing in this region, Chinese locals and other nationalities have since added other routes, and today, climbers from Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the United States and Great Britain have been drawn to Yangshuo’s nearly endless potential. For example, just last year, the intrepid Brit Neil Gresham and company developed a hard area called Leipi Shan, with lines from 5.9 to 5.13+.
Arriving at Moon Hill, we were swarmed, almost mugged, by a gang of grandmothers in cotton pajamas and hair tied into tight ponytails. Many of these old women had mouths full of steel dental work. All tried to sell cold drinks and beer. The group pounced, each one vying for our attention like chickens squabbling around a rooster. My seasoned companions dodged the hawkers, leaving me behind as they darted up the hill to the climbing.
I managed to escape, and began the 30-minute steamy slog to the base of the arch, where I felt as if I had been dropped into an ancient Chinese painting. Around me a checkerboard of brilliant green fields carpeted a landscape of saber-toothed towers. Layer upon layer, the disorganized formations stood as far as you could see, like slacker soldiers in a great army.
At Moon Hill, we found 20 routes from 5.10b to 5.13d. The roof of the arch dripped with stalactites that seemed puzzling to climb, which, of course, is their appeal. Liv and I warmed up on the right side of the arch, tackling a thin, technical 5.10b, then a 5.11a, and finally a magical 5.12a called Apollo. We then tried Over the Moon (5.12c), the prime line on the right side of the arch. At half-height, I wrapped a leg around a massive stalactite and rested for ages while I scouted the next sequence.
The route that I had come for, however, was Red Dragon (5.13d), a visionary effort by Todd Skinner, climbed nearly 17 years ago. This striking line cruises out the super-steep left side of the arch.
The first half of the route is moderate—about 5.12a with sustained and intricate climbing. Then, it’s pure aping out a jungle of tufas, handlebars, sucker rests, more tufas, then smaller holds … and then, the crux. After as many attempts as my body would allow, I lowered, brutally pumped and totally humbled.
Moon Hill may be the area’s most famous crag, but White Mountain is one of the best. It towers above a grove of apple trees and gentle farmlands commanding a presence much like Ceüse, France. Currently, White Mountain has over a dozen routes from 5.10a to 5.13a, with loads of potential for harder stuff. The cliff is 200 feet high, 700 feet wide and steadily overhanging—enough so to remain dry in the rain. The area is sport climbing at its finest: steep and physical, with lots of open-handed slopers and large spans.
Yangshuo has an innocent, magnetic attraction. Perfect limestone, inviting rest-day activities, souvenir shops, bars and an exotic location make this southern Chinese area a climber’s paradise similar to that of Railay Beach, Thailand—only fresh and still sparkling. So far, there are only 200 or so routes. But with over 20,000 formations to choose from, climbers will find that new-route potential is massive and the area is destined to become more popular. The rock is typical of the band of limestone running through Southeast Asia, quite sharp in places but smoother and more rounded on the sheltered, overhanging cliffs. Tufas and stalactites are common, but not in numbers seen in Thailand, thus the climbing is quite varied.
The majority of routes are single-pitch sport routes (trad routes are rare) with some exceptional multi-pitch gems on the taller towers. Grades range from 5.4 to 5.13d. Much like Thailand, Yangshuo is stinking hot, user friendly and very cheap.
While the climbing is some of the best and most unique around, Yangshuo’s greatest gift is an easily accessible, very cool cultural experience. One of the best parts of the trip for me was, in the afternoons, seeing the locals come to watch the climbing while their water buffalo grazed on the green grass. It’s a time of day when everyone seems to be enjoying what they’re doing, and somehow, people from an ancient culture, animals and geology have been placed together with feng shui—in perfect harmony—in an amazingly modern way.
GETTING THERE » Fly or catch a train to Guilin from any major Chinese city, then take a bus, taxi or ferry to Yangshuo.
WHEN TO GO » The best climbing season is September to early November. From the end of March to April can also be quite good, although the area is hot and humid most of the year.
GEAR » Bring a 60-meter rope plus 14 quickdraws. Take extra bail biners and slings to back up some anchors and to fix on spaced bolts.
GRADES » Most routes are around 5.10 and 5.11. Check with locals about specific routes and any updates.
GUIDEBOOK » The Yangshuo Routebook by Paul Collis is available online from www.chinaclimb.com
for $8. The guide is also available in Yangshuo from the various climbing and guiding establishments.
WHERE TO STAY » Rooms can easily be arranged on arrival through China Climb or Karst Hotel for $8 to $12 per night, with hefty discounts given for long term stay ($180 per month).
TRANSPORT » Most crags are accessible by either a minibus (about 60 cents each way), bicycle ($1.30 per day) or taxi (about $3 each way).
REST-DAY ACTIVITIES » Shopping, bicycling around the countryside, caving, canoeing and boat cruising on the Li River, visiting the night markets. Get a massage! A 10-visit pass from Doctor Lily is $50—a special price for climbers. Try the sweetened ginger tea to digest the smorgasbord banquets.
FUTURE POTENTIAL » Titanic! With thousands of unclimbed karsts, Yangshuo’s future is limitless and currently lies in the hands of anyone equipped with a drill, a sack of firecrackers (a local favorite for removing wasp nests), bolts and a beefy supply of enthusiasm.