Sunday, May 28, 2017

Climbing Karst in Yangshuo China

Magical views of karst towers and rice paddies
China is a crazy place. It has crazy cities, landscapes and juxtapositions of modern and ancient. It is big, busy and a sensory overload. I landed in Shanghai with Brett and Alison after having done basically no planning for this trip. We spent our first two, very jet lagged days wandering the streets of Shanghai and eating dumplings for most meals. Still exhausted, we caught a quick flight to Guilin after meeting Jon and Heather in the airport on our second night. From there, we took a van to Yangshuo, arriving in the early morning. Fortunately our driver had waited for us despite the 2 hr delay. We checked into our disappointing accommodation but promptly went to bed. That was tomorrow's issue.
The Shanghai skyline on night #1
The Oriental Pearl behind an old home
The big 3 in Shanghai
Alison and I were up at 6. I looked out the window and saw where we were. It was a breathtaking landscape of mist, rice paddies and jungle covered karst (rock formations usually of limestone, characterized by underground cave systems and above-ground towers, formed by erosion of other rock types). We spent the morning figuring out new accommodation. We had originally booked at a cheap place, Crash Pad Yangshuo, that looked like it was geared for climbers. It had an outdoor bouldering wall and a craft beer pub next door! Unfortunately, it was also geared a bit more for the long-term dirtbag type, for $7 a night we should have guessed. The place was dirty and there was going to be a shared squat toilet between 5 of us, not ideal when you are worried about how the food is going to agree with you. It did come with a kitchen and would be great for people that wanted to stay for a while, but for a 2 week stay, it wasn't for us. Instead, we checked in at the No Kidd Inn, which suited us way better. The girl at the front desk helped us out so much and we were situated much closer to the restaurants and shops of town.
The first view out the window in Yangshuo
Andrew and Kalen also checked in so all 7 of us were in the same place. We spent the 2 weeks exploring the region on rented cruiser bikes and climbing most days. The rock in Yangshuo is limestone and reminded me of the climbing in Thailand (minus the beach). It is actually formed in the same way which explains the similarities in features. There were tufas, stalactites and caves galore. One thing you did have to be careful about were the insects and snakes that liked to hang out at the crags too. The majority of the climbing was bolted sport routes and ranged from single pitch crags to various multi-pitches that topped out on the towers.

It was hot and humid. We had arrived in the monsoon season and found most of the crags deserted. We also had a few days of overnight rain and showers where we couldn't climb everywhere we wanted. Fortunately, we had a great guidebook with recommendations for rainy day crags. We made the most of the days we had and climbed in some spectacular caves and on big overhanging walls. Yangshuo is know for its hard routes, but there were also plenty of lower grades. Unfortunately with the rain, those were usually the first routes to get wet so I did a lot of top roping on hard climbs while the boys pushed it on 11's and 12's.
Riding out to the crag through the fields
The biker gang with the Wine Bottle Crag on the left
Bikes and rock walls
Misty mountains
JD climbing at The Egg
Jenny at the Egg
Jon and Kailen
Cool views from the Treasure Cave Crag
JD traversing the tufas in Treasure Cave
Brett and Andrew high above the fields at Treasure Cave
Photographer Brett
Working out the moves at Chicken Cave
When I mentioned that I hadn't done much research about this trip, I meant it. I was expecting to be in a small town in rural China. Yangshuo is actually a bustling city of 300,000 people and a main tourist destination for domestic travelers. Climbers and foreigners are by far the minority of visitors which was very evident by the amount of attention we got when we walked through town or passed by on our bikes. Chinese tourists visit Yangshuo for the beautiful Li River, the view of the karst towers, caves, various cultural programs, and the chance to spot Westerners! Large tour buses unloaded hordes of tour groups onto giant golf-cart style buses to shuttle them around town to various markets and attractions. We ended up in more than a few peoples photos. Some people would blatantly take photos of us, others would ask politely and some would be stealthy about it. We had a few younger people claim that they needed photos for their homework. Not sure what class that was for. The main strip, West Street was full of noise, lights, smells and people.
Our favourite dessert destination on West Street
Nighttime lights in Yangshuo
Backstreet Yangshuo
Downtown Yangshuo
"I need a picture for my homework?!?!" Jenny and Alison tower over tiny chinese girl
Bamboo boats on the Li River
Another main attraction for the region is Moon Hill, a massive hill with a hole right through it that you can access on a walking trail with plenty of stairs. Moon Hill had the first bolted sport routes in Yangshuo and some crazy features like bat hangs under the photogenic roof and a few 5.13's. There was some talk of access issues to the climbing, and when we arrived there were signs indicating that people did not want climbers there. Luckily we had been told by some locals that the park was just concerned about getting sued, so they put up the signs, but didn't actually care if you climbed or not. 

We got to put this theory to the test after a misunderstanding at the gate where we thought we had paid for our park entry, but did not receive any tickets. The taxi driver likely just took off with our cash. A few hours later as we were finishing up our climbing for the day, a security guard approached us. He spoke no English, we spoke no Mandarin. We were convinced we were getting a fine, but he just wanted to see our tickets. Luckily, a Chinese climber was able to translate and sort out the mess. The guy didn't care that we were climbing at all! At the end of the day, he even gave us a ride back to town (for a fee of course) and we all piled into the back of his clean car, soaking wet from a thunderstorm and muddy from climbing.
Hmm... Sign at the entrance to Moon Hill
Moon Hill arch from the top of the hiking trail
Views from under Moon Hill
Jon looking to the next bolt at Moon Hill
Andrew spider-mans up Moon Hill
Brett moving on crimps at Moon Hill
Top of Moon Hill scramble
This lady hikes up the trail every day to sell cold drinks to tourists. We couldn't say no
Navigating in China was a bit difficult. It is rare to find people who spoke English so there was a lot of figuring it out on our own or using gestures and sign language. Trying to find climbing crags adds an entire new element of difficulty to way finding. The guidebook was alternately very helpful or frustratingly misleading. Unmarked roads and trails were the norm and we often passed through tiny quiet villages and agricultural land just outside of town and away from the chaos on our way to the cliffs. I love how climbing gets you off the beaten path and into areas that you would never think to go. We definitely got lost a few times. Fortunately people were very easy going and didn't seem to mind when we ended up lost on their farm, and would often gesture in the direction of the climbing area if we showed them a picture in our guidebook. . 

In addition, all things google are blocked in China and you need a VPN to access it. I never realized how much I rely on google maps, gmail and the google search engine until I wasn't able to access it. It made navigation just that much more challenging.
Some of the approaches were a little wild. Hope we are going the right way!
Relaxing at the bottom of the crag
Topped out on Jeremy's Jiji
Great views from the top
Although the focus of the trip was on climbing, it wasn't all we did. We also ate. A lot!! The region is know for its spicy food and everything came with extra chilis. It would be hard to be a vegetarian in China as even the tofu dishes came with bits of meat (hopefully pork). We didn't go too crazy, but did try the river snails and a number of popular meat and veggie dishes, all cooked in different sauces. Our favourite foods were steamed pork buns from "steam bun alley" and mushroom dumplings from "dumpling drive". Of course we had to have dumplings at most meals too. This was not your typical North American chinese food but it was very tasty. Maybe it was all the MSG?
Colourful veggies at the market
Dinner time at our favourite chinese restaurant
Hotpot night

On one of our off days, we did a chinese cooking class and learned how to make pork dumplings, green beans with eggplant and kung pao chicken. It was super fun!
Heather and Jonathan getting stoked for cooking class
Alison's perfect dumplings

We made that!
It was a great trip, with great friends. A perfect way to celebrate a big accomplishment and our graduation! Thanks so much to Brett, Alison, Kailen, Andrew, Heather and Jonathan for being awesome travel and climbing partners and for all the great photos featured in this blog.
Rainy day walk

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Two Weeks of Leisure in Penticton

Hours after writing the final exam of my University career, I jumped on a plane and flew to Kamloops to meet Kyle who had been cruising around the interior of BC for the two weeks prior. He met me at the airport and we made a B-line for Penticton where we would spend the next two weeks camped out in the front lawn of our generous hosts, the Stathers. Woody's family has an apple orchard on the Naramata Bench above Penticton and it was the perfect base camp for adventures!
The amazing view of the orchard from the Stather's porch
Kyle was adamant that this was to be a climbing trip but the weather wasn't so great when we arrived. It was a good excuse to go biking. Our first shuttle up to the Naramata Beer Run demonstrated that it was still early season. We stopped driving when the snow got too deep, then pushed out bikes up through the slush and sleet to the trailhead. We must have been the first bikers of the season on the trail, because we were pushing through untracked snow for a long time. Finally we hit dry dirt and enjoyed a fast rip to the bottom. We did not go back for a second lap.
Shuttling above the snow line
A snowy push to a snowier trail
We took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up at Legend Distillery. Somehow Kyle and I convinced Woody and Chad to go retrieve the vehicles while we sat on the sunny patio and sipped Gin and Tonics. We also had to pick up a bottle of local gin, "Doctors Orders."
Can't complain when the trail ends at a distillery
Over the two weeks, we took advantage of our location to check out a few of the local wineries on the Naramata Bench. Most have free wine tasting if you buy a bottle, or $5 pp if you don't. It was fun sampling the local wines and having the Kettle Valley Railway bike path right there for a quick pedal back to the trailer afterwards.
Biking in the morning, wine tasting in the afternoon
Cheers to vacation from Hillside Winery
Whenever there was a break in the weather, we would head up to Skaha Bluffs. Woody was an awesome tour guide and showed us around to some of his favourite crags. Kyle had a tick list of routes to try during the 2 weeks so we kept busy by climbing almost daily despite the occasional rain shower.
Cool and wet in Skaha Bluffs
Kyle on the Raven and the Bear 5.10a
Kyle on the via ferrata up to the crag
Kyle and Woody were pushing each other hard. The friendly competition made for a great atmosphere at the crag and got me stoked to get on some harder climbs and occasionally do some leading. I am still working on my headspace on lead, but the trip to Skaha really helped me focus. Having so many days on rock in a row is great for your confidence and strength! By the end of the trip, both Kyle and Woody were red pointing 5.11s and I was leading up to 10a.
Kyle trying to work out the moves
Jenny is a top-rope tough guy - grunting up a steep 11a

High steeping on lead - Mea Colpa 5.9 sport
Woody's first 5.11 redpoint on Frozen Knuckles

The culmination of all the hard work for Kyle was an his first 5.11a sport onsight on Nemesis and his 5.10a trad lead on Ready to Strike at Diamondback on our last day. Ready to Strike was a route we had walked past a dozen times and despite being nervous about the route, Kyle stepped up and onsighted it. Way to go Kyle!
Kyle crushes Ready to Strike - 5.10a trad
Pulling the roof on Ready to Strike
We did have a few down days, including a rainy one where we went to check out Cave Hill at the back of the park. Cave Hill is an area with all sorts of tunnels through the rock. Woody guided us through one of the passages. It was very wet and slippery from all the recent rain, which made some of the underground V0 boulder moves a bit challenging. The cave starts with a few steep sections that you have to hand-over-hand down some ropes, then you are in complete darkness. It was fun working our way through the cave and out the final squeeze. If you go check it out, don't forget a headlamp and be prepared to get dirty. It took us about an hour to get through the cave, although it felt like 15 mins.
Checking out Cave Hill
Woody under Cave Hill
The exit from the cave defies gravity
Upon emerging from the cool, dark cave, we were hit by a wall of hot air. A big thunderstorm had started while we were underground and from where the cave exits, we had a great view of the bluffs and Penticton below. We sat and watched the storm from the shelter of the ledge, then scrambled down to start making our way back to the car. En-route we were caught in a downpour and hailstorm which fortunately only lasted a few minutes.
Thunderstorms descend on Penticton and Skaha Bluffs
Caught out in the rain on the way back to the car
Unfortunately the trip eventually had to end. Thanks again to Woody and his family for the amazing time at their beautiful house and for showing us what Penticton living is all about!
Full bloom in the orchard