I’ve done some climbing. I’ve been cold, hungry, and scared, but my first climb in The People’s Republic was all that, with some rustic flavor thrown in. It’s my third week in China, and my climbing partner heard a rumor of some cliffs north of us. Based on only a sparse description and a very small photo, I quickly agree to spend my weekend looking for China’s next climbing Mecca. It’s like that. The climbing areas are mostly untapped, and the secret hope of being the first climber is a haunting dream. But in China, even the promise of a new cliff sometimes pales next to the challenge of getting there. It’s 7:15 on Saturday morning. We were supposed to meet at 6:30 but my partner overslept, again. I make the effort and greet him with a smile. To get to the downtown bus depot, we use Guangzhou’s modern and efficient subway system and arrive two minutes too late for the early bus. I keep my comments to myself. My partner doesn’t seem to mind. Maybe it’s because he’s Chinese and used to delays. I also notice I have the bulk of the climbing gear, but his backpack seems fuller than mine, I wonder what he has that I don’t, but I don’t ask.
An hour waiting in a crowded, under-ventilated depot is the perfect prelude to the rest of the trip. With eleven other passengers, we board an exceptionally large and extremely well-air-conditioned bus for a two-hour ride. Within minutes I regret not packing my sleeping bag. An artic blast pours from the air-conditioning vent. It’s a cold that lets you count every nasal hair. My partner casually pulls out his down jacket. I casually keep my comments about his parents to myself. Settling into the deep-cushioned seats, I drink my bottled water before it freezes. Our mobile meat locker lands us in Ying De. It’s a cliché that China is a nation of contrast, but one I wholeheartedly embrace. Dressed in shorts and a t-shirt, the 90-degree heat outside is a welcome relief. But Ying De isn’t our final destination.
We need to take a second bus from the opposite side of town. This means what the Chinese carelessly call a taxi ride. I call it staring at death. Windows down, China’s marvelous smells drench us, rotting vegetables, the essence of wet dog, eau d’sewer. Our driver has all the survival instincts of a lemming approaching a cliff. Potholes and the occasional pedestrian flash by, only inches away. We reach our destination and I leap joyfully into the dust and sunshine, shouldering my overloaded pack, Strangely, my climbing partner doesn’t seem as unnerved as I. He gives me a wink, as if to say, I’m daft, how about you? Our next bus is a modified eighteen-passenger van. Half a dozen fans keep the air circulating. I take it back. The taxi we just left was a first-class limousine. Twenty-one passengers and eighteen seats mean bundles of “China Daily Post” double as seats. Unfortunately, I can’t read the Chinese characters between my thighs, but if I could, they would probably say “Passengers are requested to remain optimistic.” Our packs are placed with the gaggle of geese on the roof. I envy them. For the next hour and a half, I watch and listen to coughs, hacks, and spits. The spitting is most attractive and done with much clearing of the throat, just to make sure no one sleeps through it. On two separate occasions, a young boy spares us a pit stop and relieves himself on the floor. Through it all, one thing keeps me smiling: the countless limestone towers we’re passing. I point them out to my companion and he smiles too. As far as the eye can see, limestone totem poles proudly stand 200 meters above flat ground.
Dizzy, stiff, and disoriented I step off the bus. We barter with two motorcycle taxis for the trip to the cliffs. The two oversized mopeds strain up the hills with two riders and sixty-pound packs. The moped ride continues my preoccupation with death. The driver must feel my heart pounding. My arms circle his narrow chest like a shrinking rope. For now, he and I are one. How’s my climbing partner doing? No clue, I have enough to do reviewing my own life as it flashes before my eyes. There is a God. The mopped wallows in the dust as it comes to a six-G stop. If we’re not the first climbers here, we’re close to it. In 95-degree heat, and matching humidity, we harness up. I gulp down a liter of water and launch into the first lead. At only 5.9, the first pitch is straightforward climbing. Within ten minutes I finish my lead and my partner follows.
Pitch 2 is a vertical two-inch crack to a slightly overhanging face, with tiny holds. At the end of the crack, I find a small no hands rest and make the most of it. The holds above look small. With a sequence in mind, I climb towards the crux. My arms must weigh a hundred pounds, sweat strings my eyes, and my calves are on fire. Still, I continue to climb. Instead of enjoying the challenge, I fight to control the situation. Is it a spillover from our death-defying rides, maybe a lack of sleep, or just a new environment? Fear starts to creep in like seawater in a wetsuit. I grip the rock harder, causing more lactic acid to build up in my forearms. Legs shaking, hands over-gripping, and my focus on where my last piece is, I fall. After several more attempts at the crux sequence, I decide I have no more strength and bail. It’s a decision I don’t want to make. 6:00 AM day two, we are back at the start of the route. Cooler air and a more limber body make the first pitch feel easier than it is. This time, my climbing partner doesn’t struggle nearly as much. I re-climb the familiar two-inch crack. Yesterday it felt 5.11, but today it feels like 5.9+. It’s amazing what sleep and some shade will do for your climbing. The third goes just as smoothly. Too soon, we have to rappel and begin our trip home. At the trailhead, we flag down a local bus, fully equipped with geese, chicken, and animal parts. Initially, the bus is empty, but soon we are fully loaded with over 30 passengers. The natural air conditioning system is quite good. Open the window and drive fast. The faster you go, the cooler you are. Also, the bodily fluids on the floor aren’t as pungent and the hacking and coughing are more tolerable. Next comes another mobile meat locker. Once again, my partner uses his down jacket while I freeze. We arrive back at the bus depot and take the subway home. I ask my partner his impressions. He shrugs and smiles. Evidently, he’s used to scenic transportation, luxury accommodations, and the festive air of a Chinese climbing destination.