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The Road: Forbidden Kingdom

The wind ruffled the pages of the guidebook as we sped along the highway on a rented moto. Enormous trucks swooshed past us in the opposite direction. I tried just to hold onto the book as we weaved through traffic at high speeds. After all, I was responsible for directions and following the roughly drawn map and bare-bones description of how to find the climbing wall. Jean was responsible for not getting us killed by the many construction trucks on this Chinese highway.

“If you don’t already know how to get there,” the guidebook said, “good luck finding this place.” It was proving to be the challenge as promised.

I met Jean for the first time the night before at the Rusty Bolt, the tavern in Yangshuo where climbers gather to tell stories and make plans over cheap, watery beer. He had just arrived from France and was looking for a climbing partner. My own climbing companions were taking a rest day, but I was eager to get out amongst the crags of Yangshuo. This lovely limestone along the Li River is not only one of the most beautiful landscapes on Earth, but it’s also one of the best climbing destinations in China—or anywhere. Thousands of “karsts,” or limestone domes and towers, erupt out of the landscape as far as the eye can see.

Jean and I sought the Fuli Festival Crag, where a few years back, a bunch of pro and amateur climbers gathered to develop and climb the hell out of a new destination, tossing in a little competition and a lot of shenanigans along the way. We had already turned around several times, driving back and forth and looking for the correct turnoff toward the crag.

Eventually, we found ourselves on a quiet road slicing through farmland nestled between karsts. We stopped to pantomime to a few farmers the international sign for climbing, hands grabbing the air and moving them up and down. They looked at each other and laughed, then pointed down a small dirt road. We followed it through a farm of squealing pigs and eventually came upon a handful of climbers we’d met the night before at the Rusty Bolt. It seemed more like luck than good navigation that we had made it.

It was overcast,  and the temperature had dropped from the heat of the previous days, perfect for climbing. I had come here to work on a film project, following two climbers across China, so it felt good to be away from the project and getting in some climbing of my own. I led a handful of routes and Jean offered some insight on my technique in his thick French accent. He was a much stronger climber than I, and I was happy to glean from his wisdom.

China was surprising me. Yes the cities are crowded and grimy, but once you escape them you find yourself in vast, oddly different landscape, with few Westerners to be found. The food is cheap—and delicious. I soon found that despite the difficult language barrier, it was not too difficult to get around. And best of all, the warm people draw you into the place.

Rural China is still far off the beaten path for Western tourists, which makes it a treasure trove of opportunity for those interested in adventure travel. The vast landscape holds so much beauty. For those with even a small dose of daring in their blood, China is ripe for exploration. Favorable exchange rates offer Westerners ample opportunity to travel extensively on a tight budget. Those with sensitive stomachs need not fear unless you are invited to dine with locals (they’re the ones serving copious amounts of baijui, and chicken parts you shouldn’t look at). Otherwise the menus are scrumptious. The street food is as good as you will find anywhere in the world (personal favorites: steamed dumplings for breakfast and Szechuan style stir fry for dinner).

For outdoor explorers, China is even more surprising. It’s not much heralded as a climbing destination (though some mountaineers may remember the legends Jonny Copp and Micah Dash, who died in an avalanche during a climb on the Gongga Shan massif in China’s Western Sichuan Province in 2009). From the karsts of Yangshuo, to the jungles of Jianjiajhe (a.k.a Avatar land), to the sweeping grasslands of the north, or the massive peaks of Himalayas of the south (where, sadly, China still occupies Tibet), there is no shortage of landscapes to explore.

I wanted to take them all in. So back at the Rusty Bolt, I met up with Amy and Rhiannon, the climbers I had come to film. The duo were on a yearlong climbing trip around the world and I had joined them for five weeks here in China to document their story. A couple of people got up from the bar to play foosball. The three of us rose our voices over the din of the bar and the street busy with tourists.

“I’m ready to get in some trad.” said Rhiannon. “Maybe we spend a few days at the Le Pei Shan crag and then head to Liming?”

I sipped my Tsingtao and nodded in agreement. That would allow for a few more days here and two weeks of climbing in Liming. We planned to head from Yangshuo to Liming, a mountainous valley, not far from the Burmese border, where there’s a concentration of beautiful sandstone splitter cracks. It’s a remote outpost on China’s climbing scene, but also famed as one of the best destinations in Asia for trad-climbing.

Before I came to China, I thought five weeks would be more than enough to leisurely travel and climb everywhere we desired. But now that I was here, I realized how how faulty my thinking had been. Five weeks is hardly enough to scratch the surface of what China had to offer. Obviously, China is geographically huge, but travel here is more time consuming than I anticipated. Trains and buses are the main methods of transport (unless you fly), so plan for multiple days to get anywhere. For example, our bus from the border of Hong Kong to Yangshuo, a marvelous contraption with about forty beds instead of seats, broke down along the highway … and simply never moved again. I was anxious, but the next day, another bus picked up all the stranded passengers and took us the rest of the way. Nobody aboard seemed much bothered by the delay except for me.

We arrived in Liming just as a storm broke open upon the valley. The town of Liming is technically within a national park, surrounded by sandstone walls that rise several thousand feet out of the lush floor. The taxi dropped us at the Faraway Inn, a hostel that has become the de facto residence of any climber that comes to visit. Our excitement was quickly vanquished by the news that this storm would settle in and soak us and the sandstone for the next three or four days at least.

Despite our inability to climb, the town of Liming has plenty of charms. Walking the single street of Liming offered a beautiful picture of local life. This is rural China, inhabited by the Lisu people, who carry on their traditional culture. Most people make their living farming the land, selling goods on market day, or by operating a restaurant. Judging by people’s hands and faces, life has made these a hearty folk.

The weather broke and we were finally able to get in some climbing. High above the valley floor, perfect fissures in the sandstone splinter their way up the red rock. Amy, Rhiannon, and I explored the crag, trailed by Jerry and Ding Dong, two dogs from the Faraway Inn who oversee the climbing scene. Liming has only seen climbing development in the last decade. And although there were plenty of routes to choose from, it appears that development could go on for several more decades before exhausting its potential. I was thoroughly impressed by what was before me: The walls recall Zion and much of the rock in Utah. But instead of desert, we were in a lush, almost tropical environment. We had found what we had been seeking.

Walking back into town in the evening, an elderly man with a gap-toothed grin met us on the road. He grabbed our tape-glove hands, pointed to the rock walls above, laughed and pretended to faint. At last, he grabbed the air and moved his hands up and down. We understood him perfectly.

Eric Hanson is a photographer, filmmaker and writer who travels the planet in search of adventure.

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