Ten years ago, Qin Weiwei was training to join the Chinese army. For five days a week at his base in Guilin, he underwent gruelling military exercises. But a chance encounter with climbers scaling the mesmerising karst peaks 65 kilometres away in Yangshuo was about to change the course of his life.
‘During a trip with the army school, I saw people rock climbing in Yangshuo and immediately I wanted to try it,’ he recalls. ‘I began volunteering at the Black Rock climbing shop, and they let me use their equipment to climb.’
Nearly a decade later, Qin – now known in the climbing world as Aniu, or ‘ox’, for his muscular physique – is one of the most successful climbers in China, sponsored by The North Face to take part in competitions across the country, and owner of the shop he used to volunteer in. ‘When I quit the military, my family wouldn’t speak to me for six months. In China, the army is a safe career,’ he says. ‘But when they started to see me on TV and in magazines, they realised maybe climbing was not so bad or so dangerous.’
Yangshuo is blessed with a surreal landscape. Jade green mountains shaped like crumpled witches’ hats rise from the banks of the gently bending Li River, and they surround this small town tucked in a quaint corner of southwestern China.
Having transformed from a sleepy backpackers’ haunt in the 1980s into the epicentre of China’s climbing scene by the late-1990s, and boasting bolted routes with names including Spam the Chinese Ham, Tsingtao Beer and One Love, today Yangshuo is once again evolving: as its popularity rises, neon signs are lighting up the cobbled streets populated with markets selling food, clothes and souvenirs, and frequented by coach-loads of wide-eyed visitors.
Thankfully, a short cycle away from the bustling main strip, through the farmers’ fields and rural villages, is all it takes to restore tranquillity.
Yangshuo owes the beginning of its international renown not to a climber but a foreign dignitary. In 1976, former US president Richard Nixon visited the region that now graces one side of China’s 20 yuan note (the scene is of nearby Xingping). He was transfixed by the local topography, in particular Moon Hill: a 380-metre-high peak with a natural arch at its summit that resembles a crescent moon. Nixon and his wife demanded a closer inspection, and their hosts cleared a path for them to reach this formation, which was the remains of an ancient cave.
Fifteen years later, in the early 1990s, renowned American free climber Todd Skinner arrived in Yangshuo and found himself guilty of the same fixation. Skinner, who died in an accident in Yosemite in 2006, established five bolted routes on Moon Hill on the so-called Nixon path.
‘For years, that mountain had been considered really difficult to climb,’ says Qin, ‘but now that the sport is more sophisticated, there are far more difficult routes in China.’
Snaking up the limestone face of Yangshuo’s White Mountain, for example, is the Spicy Noodle. First ascended in 2009 by American Chris Sharma, it is considered China’s hardest climb, and one that Qin has attempted – so far without success – more than 50 times.
Over the past two decades, more than 1,000 bolted lines have been established in and around Yangshuo, across more than 25 main crags. Difficulty levels run the spectrum, from beginner routes such as the 4c-graded Chairman Mao ascent on the Swiss Cheese crag (named for its conveniently pockmarked face) to steep offerings on the vertiginous Lei Pi mountain, such as the 8a Single Life and the classic 7c Skinner route, which clings to the inside of the Moon Hill crescent – definitely not for the inexperienced.
‘First know your limit,’ advises Qin to a group of beginners at the foot of the Swiss Cheese face, after demonstrating an easy ascent. Still knotted into his harness, his battered bare hands are soiled by a mixture of dusty white chalk and fresh red blood – a small price to pay for the enjoyment and thrill of his sport.
‘When you are climbing you are focused, you can’t think of other things that are on your mind, or about your life. You’re just focused on this route, this hand hold, how you can reach the next bolt,’ he says.
The climb might clear your head, but reaching the summit is mind-blowing. As well as offering climbers crags of a vast variety of shapes, angles and difficulty levels, Yangshuo owns some of the most stunning vistas. Climbers moving up a karst would be remiss not to take a moment to peer over their shoulders to take in the lush farming fields dotted with goats, cows and generally unsullied wildlife, all set against the backdrop of toothy hills.
In the early 2000s, climbing companies proliferated in the town, following in the footsteps of the now-defunct China Climbing Club, as well as Black Rock. Today there are 19 climbing shops in Yangshuo, running tours for and hiring equipment to climbers of all skill levels. In 2008, Guilin-born He Lingxuan took things to the next level: he established the Yangshuo Climbing Festival. It was aimed at raising the sport’s profile in China and has attracted both domestic and international talent. The two-day event – featuring bouldering competitions, training sessions, a music festival and food stalls – takes place in the autumn, before the rains arrive in Yangshuo at the start of winter, when the climbing season is washed out and enthusiasts move on to Thailand and other dry spots in the region.
Half of the festival’s RMB200 (HK$236) admission fee is donated to the Yangshuo Climbing Fund for building new routes and maintaining old ones, and attendees look forward to not just physical challenges but also a big party. Yangshuo has no shortage of watering holes serving cheap Tsingtao and the local culinary delicacy of beer fish: carp boiled or fried in the local brew with tomatoes and spices.
‘It’s a festival, not a competition,’ says Qin. ‘All the guys come here and have a party together, meet up and try new routes.’ The happy, hippy, communal spirit of Yangshuo’s early years, it seems, is alive and well.