Gweilos In China

By Eric Gregory

Thursday afternoon, the second day of the Year of the Snake, I met Jim at the Hong Kong airport. We took the airport railway into Kowloon, then taxi to the Hung Hom terminus of the Kowloon-Canton railway. Because of my insistence on a Big Mac at the airport we'd missed a train to Guangzhou by minutes and had to wait 1 1/2 hours for the next express train. We used this time to ponder just who exactly is "Hom" and how did he get his nickname. Jim also told me about Japan, where the hotels apparently have toilets with more controls than the cockpit of the space shuttle. Some kind of joystick controls an arm with a nozzle. You guide the blast of warm water down the center of your undercarriage until you reach ground zero. It is like the end of Star Wars with the X-wing fighter approaching the exhaust port of the Death Star down that narrow trench, then letting rip with the photon torpedoes. "Stay on target, stay on target!"

The 1 1/2 hour train ride was uneventful and we arrived in Guangzhou, went through the immigration formalities, and got a taxi to my grand villa. Once there I gave Jim the 10 jiao tour. He was stunned by the opulence. The fine Corinthian concrete flooring and the stylish exposed single strand wiring particularly impressed him. He was also intrigued by the efficient seatless shower/toilet combo with far fewer cumbersome controls than Japanese models. I could see him mentally try to reschedule his body's metabolism to avoid this contraption for any but the simplest of missions.

After the quick tour, we hop back in a cab to find some foodage. We try a restaurant specializing in Beijing duck. It was great. The manager came out to take our order. Soup, steamed vegetables, beef, Yangzhou fried rice, tea, beer, and of course the roast duck itself which was filleted at the table. You roll the slices in little tortillas with spring onions dipped in special sauce. It's a fine thing. Actually better than the Beijing duck I had in Beijing. It was far more food than we could eat.

Friday was to be the start of the fast and furious tour of south China's climbing. The weather was not cooperating, though. It was pouring when we got up. We passed on the Bai Yun Mountain crag (accessible by taxi) and opted for a tour of downtown.

A 20 minute ferry ride ($0.10/person) brought us from the campus to a point a couple miles upriver on the opposite side. Our first mission was to find a toilet. I asked a security guard where there was a public restroom and he pointed us to a nearby hospital. The nurses at the counter cheerfully directed us down the hall, around the corner, past about 2 dozen sick and injured patients to the hospital bathroom. It was weird, but kinda interesting. It was our first and hopefully last look at the inside of a regular Chinese hospital. From there we explored the animal market selling tasty scorpions, turtles, frogs, pigeons, crabs, vegetables, fish and more. We also poked in the jade market where they sell not-so-attractive jade jewelry. After a late Cantonese lunch (couldn't interest Jim in the snake) it was back to the university to grab our stuff and head to the airport.

We flew to Guilin, in Guangxi province. It is a 50 minute flight from Guangzhou. A car awaited us in Guilin and took us to Yangshuo, 1 1/2 hours away. Guilin and Yangshuo are in a region filled with hundreds limestone towers rising several hundred meters out of otherwise relatively flat landscape. It has potential for hundreds of climbing areas, but is largely undeveloped. Nevertheless, it is the rock climbing destination for China. Yangshuo is also somewhat of a backpacker hangout in the same vein as Cuzco, though much smaller, with lots of cheap western and local food and accommodation, and tons of little shops selling local handicrafts. English is sufficient for almost everything.

Ken MacMahon and his wife Karen are an Australian couple based in Guangzhou who have put up routes in two areas in Yangshuo. A week prior to our trip Ken had armed me with a sketch map and two hand drawn topos, drawn through an haze of beer in a crowded bar, and instructions to seek out Mr. Huang, a local climber who owns the Karst Cafe in Yangshuo.

Our driver dropped us off at the Coco Hotel, a comfy, modern $20/night joint, that even had an ordinary sit-down toilet. After checking in we headed to the Karst Cafe. Huang, it turns out speaks minimal English, but his girlfriend "Echo" invited us to ride with them out to Crag X, one of Ken's projects, the following morning. I ran into some New Zealanders who are acquaintances from Guangzhou, and we enjoyed pizza and beer. For ex-pats who have logged more than a year in China the Karst has fantastic pizza. Jim, with recent experience in the outside world, pronounced "yeah, its OK."

I was equally thrilled to see that since October the local Guilin brewery, Liquan, has added a dark beer to their roster, the first dark domestic beer I've seen in China. We had no duck on Friday. Since it was dark on our arrival in Yangshuo, our first impressions were not that Yangshuo has dramatic scenery, but that China's laws prohibiting fireworks are apparently rather flexible. The eastern edge of the town, by the river, was rattling and thundering with huge bombs and lit up by starbursting skyrockets. Chinese New Year the way it ought to be. The revelry continued late into the night. When we turned in we were grateful for the one oddity of our hotel room -- no windows.

Saturday morning we got up and had enormous breakfasts at Minnie Mao's Cafe (get it? -- Minnie Mao's, heh heh). Eggs, bacon, banana pancakes, toast, fresh squeezed juice, fruit plates and coffee -- for a hefty $2.40 a piece. The waitress put a little ceramic pot containing a charcoal fire under our table to warm our legs. Just as we finished we saw Echo and gang headed down the street. We grabbed our stuff and joined them in a 10 minute van ride to the trailhead. The walk in was gorgeous, past tall towers and through rice paddies and a little village. The only drawback is crossing ankle deep water on the spillway of a little dam. After about a 15 or 20 minute walk we reached Crag X.

Crag X has 5 one-pitch sport routes, and gets nice warm southern sun in the coolish winter months. First we did Smokin' (5.10a) then Jim did Xin Jiang Black (5.11a), named for some variety of marijuana which apparently comes from Xin Jiang province out west. Next -- in only my 2nd lead ever -- was Da Pi Gu ("Big Ass") (5.10a according to Ken's topo). During this time we were doing this a group of climbers was going up and down Da Fei Ji (5.11b) which literally means "hit the airplane" but is pretty rude slang for "handjob". (Presumably one's little anti-aircraft weapon gets discharged.) Later, back in the Karst Cafe, Jim and I got shushed for too loudly discussing the routes by name. DFJ traces around the edge of the mouth of a large cave to the highest point and the continues straight up the face. Some of the Chinese were logging some airtime over the cave, but a couple were particularly graceful. We learned that the best of the group was the "number one climber in China" and goes by the name of Ting Ting. He is the captain of the Chinese climbing team, and he was coaching the number 1 and 2 Chinese women climbers, also in the group. While they were working on it, Jim and I poked in the cave which was equipped with a concrete banquet table capable of seating 20 people. The tunnel goes completely through the crag and out the other side. Jim cruised through Da Fei Ji. We passed on a hard 5.12 called Tang Ma De which I think means Fuck You or Fuck Your Mother. I'm not sure and I really don't know who I want to ask. The entire time we climbed the hills were echoing with HUGE firework explosions. It was like being on the set of a war movie.

We hiked back out to the main road and found the Thumb Tower. Ken and Karen were in Yangshuo just prior to us and put up the 1st two pitches of Happy New Year during the holiday. Since it is right next to the road we had a sizeable audience while we climbed; cars and busses stopped and at one point there must have been 50 or more people gazing up. A dude from CCTV took Jims picture while he led. Also while we climbed a team of 5 Chinese were busy scooping the MacMahons' project,bolting on the next two pitches above and to the left. (5 pitches total will reach the top of the tower.)

After rapping we met James and Erin, a Brit and and American who had just arrived in China and are basing themselves in Guilin to search for the worlds deepest cave. Since they arrived, their Chinese caving friends have been on the New Year's holiday so they are occupying themselves with climbing, touring and poking around in little caves in the Yangshuo area. The place is rotten with caves. James pointed the direction to the Jin Mao Chu Dong ("gold cat exits the cave") crag across the way. Jim and I headed off to look for it, but after 45 minutes of searching couldn't find it. (Later we found it 1/4 mile from where James was pointing.) We took a short stroll around one of the bigger towers there then began walking back towards town. Eventually we hitched a ride in a 3-wheeled motorcycle taxi, which Jim called a Tuk Tuk.

For dinner we had sweet & sour pork and fried duck with pineapple. We got the little charcoal pot again.

After dinner we strolled down to the river to see the fireworks. It is a real spectacle. There are 6 or 7 vendors with a regular arsenal of explosives on tables, and Chinese folk were laying down money left and right. A few yards away, the same crowd of people was detonating fireworks as powerful as small sticks of dynamite that shook your bodily organs. Little boys were lighting off high explosives, (then running up to check why the fuse was taking so long). Much older middle aged boys with some liquor in them were laying down large bills for fireworks barrages the size of milk crates, lighting them and looking pleased as the town was lit up and rattled by their purchase. The more expensive fireworks were approximately the same magnitude as what a small sown migh set off on the 4th of July. The street by the river was non-stop noise, light, flashes and smoke and paper and sparks. The odd motorcycle or police car would wait for a lull, then race through the intersection between barrages. Even the two gweilos (Cantonese for "gringos") from Syracuse got caught up the infectious enthusiasm and purchased something that looked like a 1/4 stick of dynamite and a cigarette lighter, all for about 40 cents. Then we noticed it had no fuse. The vendor communicated that we light what appeared to be a bit of pink bubble gum stuck directly on the end. Concerned that this might be a very funny practical joke they play on foreigners, we appealed to the crowd for advice. Several people examined it but also were puzzled by the lack of fuse. I tried to set the pink end on a little pile of paper and lit the paper but the paper went out. I tried to get Jim to light it. "No way, dude!" The crowd was amused at my obvious skittishness. Finally the disgusted vendor held it for me while I lit the pink stuff then he pitched it into the intersection. It blew and windows shook all over town. No joke.

Next Jim egged me into buying a huge rocket. It looked like a bottle rocket scaled up so that the stick was about 1.5 meters long. Then we had to find a place to launch it. We found a hole in the sidewalk from an old fence, but the vendors thought it too close to their wares. The vendor suggested we lean it up against a granite post on a bridge at one side of the intersection, but we thought it might go over some buildings. Finally, we stuck it in the loose dirt in a planter around a small tree. I rammed it up and down a few times to make sure the the hole was nice and loose <beavis laugh>, lit it and stepped back. The fuse burnt, we had ignition, but the friction of the dirt was still too much. The whole crowd took a couple more paces back as the rocket burned at full power, still pinned to the ground. The whole crowd, that is except Jim, who was enjoying the show and thought that was exactly what rockets were supposed to do. He finally took the hint and stepped back just as the full sized starbursts went off at street level. Fortunately no injuries. For a moment I thought we might incur the wrath of the crowd for such a dangerous stunt, but they were all doubled over in laughter. After watching the fireworks for a while longer we headed back towards the Coco, falling asleep with dull thuds of fireworks still audible through the walls.

Sunday we rented mountain bikes. For $1.20/bike/day + $0 deposit we got what I thought was a pair of exceptionally fine machines. 15 gears, suspension, studded tires. Jim pronounced "yeah, its OK." OK, so the brakes were a little soft and the seat gave me an atomic wedgie, but they were just what we needed. With climbing gear in packs we headed out of town and down the road to Moon Hill. On the way we passed Huang, Ting Ting, Echo, and the gang sneaking into Big Banyan Tree Park a back way through a village so they didn't have to pay the entrance fee. James and Erin were with them. The were heading to the crag with the routes that "that crazy Todd" (Skinner) put up. We seized the opportunity for free admission and followed them in. The routes were hard. Jim went 2/3 of the way up one, took a short fall, tried again and backed off. James tried and got to the same height. Jim gave it another whack and finished the pitch. I got a little better than halfway up, tried the hard part several times, and finally elected to conserve some forearm strength for the rest of the day. Meanwhile the Chinese guys were on a route to the right of us and taking these 20' whippers. Fearless. Then they'd yell out "Xiu xi!" ("rest!"), hang a bit and go for another run at it.

Then Jim and I grabbed our bikes and cycled out to moon Hill. Moon Hill is a big hill with a huge hole bored right through it. The hole is probably 150' across. We bought tickets, locked our bikes, dodged about 20 old ladies hawking drinks ("Hello, water!") and hiked up. Twenty minutes later we were at the hole. We passed through and on the other side were about 15 really steep routes. Don't know who set them, but apparently Lynn Hill has done them. One goes up the inside of each side of the arch, and we were told some people link them going up one side, upside down across the middle, and down the other. We spent an hour trying to find a do-able route. Jim climbed up, traversed, downclimbed, traversed, upclimbed, crossing several bolt lines looking for something moderate. We were about to bail and go for a bike ride, when James showed up and pointed out a moderate one (5.10a) next to the arch. James lead it. I was pretty happy to get up it with only one small hang. Scraped the crap out of my hands on the rough rock but I'll recover. Jim greased right up it. Then came something I've never seen before. Jim was out-keened. James said OK, now lets try some of these other routes, and Jim declined. We belayed James while he headed up one of the harder lines. He was a bit slow going and eventually we had to coax him down as we had a flight to catch in Guilin in the evening. It was 4:30. we figured we had just enough time to run down the mountain, hop on the bikes, get to Yangshuo, pound some food and catch our 6PM car to the airport.

We had just set off when I recognized a dirt road off to the side as one I'd cycled on when I was in Yangshuo in October. We decided to sacrifice dinner for the sake of scenery. We tore down this little dirt road through vegetable gardens, rice paddies and little villages as the sun sank lower over the towers. It was very green and very spectacular. Awesome. We got to town at 5:35, returned the bikes, dropped into the seats in the nearest cafe and asked what could be cooked in 10 minutes. We got rice, sweet & sour chicken and "drunk duck", duck with a wine, fruit and vegetable sauce. And some fresh squeezed OJ. Then the driver met us, loaded us up and took us to the airport in Guilin. In downtown Guilin there is a hugh billboard for Bosch drills. They must see big things for the Yangshuo area. We ended back in my apartment in Guangzhou at 10:30PM. I offered Jim a taste of Wu Liang Ye, one of China's most famous spirits, which nearly caused him to retch on my carpet.

Monday we dragged our tired bodies out of bed and headed to the train station for the first express train south to Kowloon. The crossing back into Hong Kong territory was uneventful. At the Hung Hom station we hopped a local KCR train north a few stops to Kowloon Tong station, switched to the subway one stop to Lok Fu. Jim and I emerged from the subway carrying heavy packs - his had a full rack, spare clothes, and munchies; mine a rope, spare clothes and Jim's %*&%*@$%^!*#@! 20 pound laptop. We were also layered up a bit with long underwear, cause it was a bit chilly in GZ that morning. However in HK in mid-day with full packs we were beginning to sweat. With crap directions in the guidebook, we wandered around the streets of Kowloon not quite blending in perfectly. We tried to get a cab to Lion Rock Park, but the driver spoke no English (I know no Cantonese other than "thank you","no problem" and "happy new year"). Eventually we found the park by asking directions from a little kid who translated the question to his dad, who in turn answered back to the kid, and the kid finally translated to English. Once at the park we started slogging up about a million steps on the trail to the crag. A half hour later, sweating profusely we reached a sign that says "DANGER steep cliff ahead. No access beyond this point." We immediately accessed beyond that point and found ourselves at the base of the crag. Lion Rock is a big granite promontory on top of a mountain overlooking Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. The guidebook was not fantastically useful in discerning the routes, but after a false start on a 5.11 sport route, we found a (5.9) called Catastrophe that was fun for both of us. We hung out at the top for a bit and took photos of the view. You could see the old Kai Tak Airport right in the middle of town, cruise ships in the harbor, Macau ferries speeding in, and general traffic a thousand or so feet below us. We rapped, did a very short (20') crack and then hiked out down to Kowloon. With just a few hours left in Jim's China Adventure, we took a ride across the harbor on the Star ferry to Hong Kong Island and looked for food. We settled on a Thai restaurant in a little neighborhood on D'Agular St. It turned out to be delicious. We had Tom Kai Gai, Pad Thai Noodles, and duck with orange.

Then I dropped Jim off at the Airport Express railway and sent him on his way.