Rock climbers find a new mecca in Yangshuo, China

By Mike Ives
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 1, 2010; 1:21 PM

The first time Bob Keaty visited Yangshuo, in 1996, he rented a bike and pedaled out of town. He wound through sleepy villages, past rice paddies and livestock. The place looked like, well, other places in rural China. "A cow town," Keaty thought.

Then he noticed hoary limestone towers rising from the fields and disappearing into the mist. And nobody was scaling them! The Shanghai-based recreational rock climber could not believe his good fortune.

Soon Keaty was visiting Yangshuo, a small city in Guangxi province, five or six weekends each year to set new climbing routes. Now he is practically a topographical feature of the region: He lives here, runs a grass-roots climbers' association and helps organize the annual Yangshuo Climbing Festival.

"There's a mystic beauty to this landscape, especially in the spring, when you have low-hanging clouds moving through the towers," said Keaty, an Albuquerque native who speaks fluent Chinese. "You can go to a crag and have the whole place to yourself, and you can watch birds flying and farmers doing their thing."

Keaty, 52, is one of many expat and Chinese climbers who are swooning over Yangshuo's karst scenery, which features craggy limestone towers and caverns. As visiting professional climbers raise the area's profile in international climbing circles, Yangshuo tour guides are welcoming infusions of adventure tourists. Local climbers say their vertical playground is now one of Asia's must-climb destinations.

I got a taste of Yangshuo's climbing scene last November at the second annual Yangshuo Climbing Festival, a three-day extravaganza sponsored by Black Diamond Equipment, the North Face and eight other companies. The festival included an indoor climbing competition, but it also was an excuse for visiting climbers to informally scale rock towers in the surrounding countryside.

My climbing partner was Tom, a friendly Australian with chiseled biceps. We met on a Friday at festival headquarters, the charmingly dilapidated Yangshuo Kungfu Centre. On Saturday morning, we rented bikes and pedaled toward what we'd heard were Yangshuo's most popular rock towers, a.k.a. crags.

The crags were hard to find, so we cycled around for several hours, happily lost among rice paddies, fruit orchards and mystical-looking limestone formations. Bemused farmers stopped to watch us pass. Around midafternoon, we arrived at White Mountain, a dramatic outcropping that overlooks a sleepy village.

Most of the 20-odd climbers at White Mountain were from Guangzhou and Shenzhen, major cities in neighboring Guangdong province. They lent us a rope, which I fastened to my harness with a figure-eight knot. Tom fed the rope through his belay device. As I scrambled up the face, he took in the slack until I was suspended 60 feet off the ground.

Climbing, I felt as if I were back in the Shawangunk Mountains - "The Gunks" - a popular climbing spot in the Catskills near New Paltz, N.Y. But when I finished the ascent and swiveled my head, the view recalled ancient Chinese landscape paintings of farmers herding livestock, gray clouds sweeping across fields and birds alighting on tree branches.

I drew a breath and tried to etch the scene in my mind. Except for the tinkling sound of climbers' carabiners brushing rock, it was blissfully silent. For a moment I wished I had brought my watercolors.

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