Welcome to Guangxi Province, a land of karst mountains, rice farmers and – rock climbers. Yes, the famous karst mountains of Guilin in the south of China can now be climbed.
GUILIN -- Hen‘s Egg Mountain: surely that can't be hard to find. It must be the one over to the left, the one that's clearly shaped like an egg. Or else it could also be the one next to it, or the one behind that. Turns out they all look a bit egg-like. Better to ask someone. "Hen's Egg?" says an elderly woman in the village. "Some ways away," she says, pointing to a footpath that leads through what looks like jungle.
When we get there, we're happy to find that the steel bolts to put your rope through are the same as the ones we're used to. Since we brought our own ropes, climbing harnesses and carabiners, everything seems very familiar as we start our climb. It's only 20 meters up that culture shock really hits: in a monsoon mist we see white egrets, and farmers wearing conical straw hats. We also see limestone hills, some as high as 200 meters, jutting up sharply from the rice fields below. For a minute it's as if we're in a time warp, far from the 21st century…until the mood is broken by the arrival of two very loud Spanish climbers with their mountain bikes.
But you can't have everything: if there weren't other climbers nobody would put bolts in -- and Qiu Xiang would be out of a job. Qiu first went climbing 12 years ago. He tackled the most famous mountain in the area: Yueliang Shan (Moon Mountain), so-called because through a semicircular hole in the limestone the sky looks like a huge moon. "From that day on, I was hooked," says Qiu, who has since become one of the best climbers in the region.
In 2004 he founded his own company, Spiderman Climbing, in Yangshuo, a tourist destination located in the heart of Guilin mountain country. "We've seen more and more climbers coming here over the past four or five years," Qiu says. "That's partly because some famous people came here and took pictures for magazines; that really helped."
400 climbing routes
If you look out from the top of Moon Mountain across the whole chain of hills that extends well into the distance, it seems amazing that climbers didn't discover this dream landscape a lot earlier. The hills, after all, are not exactly a secret – many guidebooks to China feature pictures of the unique limestone formations by the Li River.
Geologists call the stone formations "tower karst." They appeared around 40 million years ago, when tropical rains progressively dissolved the limestone leaving these hills and caves.
While package tourists and backpackers have been coming to the area for many years, western climbers were relatively slow making the trek over here. American climber Todd Skinner, who died in a Yosemite Park climbing accident a few years ago, created the first climbing route on Moon Mountain in the early 1990s, when the sport was virtually unknown in China.
Later, Chinese climber Huang Chao created further routes. Many of the others of what are now a good 400 climbing routes are the work of Paul Collis, a hobby alpinist from the UK. He lives in Hong Kong, and since 2003 has been publishing a climbing guide (now in its ninth edition) to the area around Yangshuo.
Climbing pioneers say that the boom is going to ruin the area because so many locals want a piece of the pie. Several small businesses offer climbing courses. And for a few years now there has even been a climbing festival, held in the autumn. Others have figured out an easier business model: hanging around climbing areas and demanding an "entry fee" from climbers. This is something that more and more climbers are complaining of.
Paul Collis thinks it's right that locals should earn money from the climbing boom. But at the same time it makes him angry to see people who did nothing to create the climbing routes "standing there asking for money." Collis, in contrast, spent countless hours – and a considerable amount of his own money – putting bolts into the cliff faces. It makes him so angry, in fact, that he has moved on to climb lesser known areas in China.
Growing local interest
That locals should play a greater role seems appropriate, however, not least because the booming economy in China means that many Chinese are discovering rock climbing. About half of his customers are now Chinese, says Qiu. Still, most Chinese visitors to Yangshuo stick to more "traditional" activities, like photography, eating and karaoke crooning.
"If only 1% of all Chinese were to become interested in outdoor activities, we would earn so much that we could take off for half the year," says Yi Ouyang, who has worked for a decade as guide for a climbing tour operator. Yi recalls that when he began here, there were only about 200 climbers in all of China; things have sure changed since then.
"Now, every larger city has a climbing association," he says. Last year, the company Yi works for decided to focus on general outdoor activities and is now also offering bike and kayak tours: competition is so fierce now, there's no way to earn a living anymore by just offering climbing courses.
After we finished our climb, we made our way to the river to swim, across rice fields bathed in golden evening light. "The river winds like a band of green silk, the hills are like jade hairpins," wrote Han Yu about this landscape. The Chinese poet penned those lines 1,200 years ago. That much, at least, hasn't changed.
Read the original article in German
Photo – Grey World