Friday, January 30, 2015

Cappuccinos and Climbing in Yangshuo

After a solid night's sleep in a comfortable bed and breakfast at the hostel, I resolved to get out and explore the town it had taken so much effort to reach.  I was pleasantly surprised by the meandering narrow walking streets full of people, lined by shops, restaurants, and streetside vendors.  Occasionally I would walk by one chopping a mix of chilis and fresh garlic, the incredible smell making me smile.  I wandered with no clear direction, but somehow wound up near the Lijiang River, taking in the gorgeous limestone karats covered in greenery across the waterway.  I walked over to a small gazebo to take in the view and noticed a nearby cafe that looked great for coffee but didn't serve food.  Instead I ventured around the corner to a spot called Dumplings Dynasty for a tasty plate of the namesake dish before returning to Cafe Ming Yuan.  I sat down and ordered a cappuccino, delighted to see a lion created out of the foam when it was delivered to my table.  

Right as I was getting ready to walk back to the hostel to catch a 5:30 hiking trip, the Chinese man at the table next to me tried to strike up a conversation, inquiring about the Lifeproof case on my phone.  Except that he spoke only Chinese.  After some failed charades, we pulled out our phones and attempted to use translation apps to have a conversation.  Although sometimes the results were just… off… and I occasionally wondered what I had actually said to him based on the responses I got back, the conversation continued for long enough that I gave up on my hike entirely and ordered another coffee.  We were eventually joined by two more of his friends, and the woman he had been sitting with mentioned that she had a friend in town who was a rock climbing guide who spoke English.  And then, they invited me to join them for dinner!

And so that's how I wound up piling into a tuk tuk with four local Chinese, taking a short ride to nearby Chunji Company, and sitting down at a massive restaurant full of locals, the only foreigner from what I could see.  We shared multiple courses of an amazing meal - a sort of soup with tofu and pork, followed by a dish with tarot root and either pumpkin or sweet potato, then rice with corn, two separate beef dishes, the local specialty dish of beer fish - fantastic, perfectly cooked and moist, though a bit spicy, and finished up with steamed buns filled with goose.

I learned that Jia-Xing, the original guy who had struck up the conversation with me, owned a factory in Shenzehn that made iPhone / Apple accessories.  Originally from Chengdu, he had a 15 year old daughter named Jia-Ling who wanted to study in America.  He was resistant to the idea, being concerned for her safety.  He specifically expressed fear over there being so many black people in the US, which made me ashamed and saddened for how racism has made its way all the way across the globe, no doubt fueled by how film and media portray African Americans.  I tried to assure him that she would be fine, assuring him that my own parents also had concerns for my safety when I decided to travel on my own outside of the US.  I can only hope that our brief encounter may have adjusted his opinions on the US, and that he eventually does let his daughter study abroad.

Unfortunately, Jia-Xing wound up leaving rather abruptly, as he had tickets for that evening's water performance, so I never got a chance for a group photo to commemorate the night's unique experience.  But I did get contact information for the local woman's friend who was a climbing guide, and we agreed to meet the following morning.  I met Water (as his name directly translated to) at his shop, Spiderman Climbing, the next day.  After picking out some rental gear and chatting about my (low) level of expertise, we hopped on his moto and rode out to Swiss Cheese Wall, just outside the city, a great little climbing spot with some relatively easy routes.  A couple of guys from his shop were there with a family of beginners and a Swiss guy more on my level, so we shared ropes and got in a few climbs relatively quickly.

I started on a relatively easy 5.8 with a challenging area near the top, then, after belaying for Spiderman - one route on top rope and me saying I knew how to lead belay were apparently enough for him to trust me - climbed a more difficult 5.9 that was long enough to leave me fatigued from lack of endurance.  Next was a quick 5.7, then setting up a 5.10, which I climbed last.  It was fairly easy until the crux, where I had to get him to pull me up a bit, my hands feeling raw, and my arms feeling fatigued from the fairly long routes after not climbing for months.  The views from the top of the routes though were just incredible - the rock jutting out from bright green fields of rice - and I was very thankful I had decided to spend the morning climbing.  The four routes finished me up for the day, and I caught a ride back with one of the other guides, agreeing to contact Spiderman if I was up for another day of climbing.

I showered up and had some dumplings for lunch, then returned to Cafe Ming Yuan for my daily coffee with an intricate foam design - this day I got an anime character that I wouldn't recognize at the time, but I now know to be Tortoro!  I did a bit more wandering after my caffeine and character cappuccino fix, getting a closer look at the Lijiang River, as tour boats passed by and dozens of tourists wandered out into the shallow water to take selfies.  As dinnertime approached, I wound up grabbing some fried wontons and dumpling soup at a busy street nearby, people watching on the outdoor patio, before heading back to the hostel exhausted from the day's activity.

Sadly, the next day was spent hiding out from nonstop rain, becoming a complete waste of a day, and canceling the water performance I had hoped to attend to celebrate my 11 month travel anniversary.  I wound up spending the entire day between the hostel and the cafe - this day was a panda in foam - writing and Skyping.

With the weather finally clear the following day, I rented a bicycle and set out for Moon Hill, determined to finally see the iconic landmark.  The ride was pretty long on my way-too-small single speed bike, but the scenery was gorgeous, despite the hoards of tourists and tour buses that made me feel a bit claustrophobic on the little road.  I finally reached Moon Hill, looking up to see the crescent ridge of earth with the circular hole in the middle off in the distance.  The girl at my hostel had acted like it was a  long and challenging hike to the top, but what I found were… paved stairs.  While it was definitely an uphill trudge, it only took about 20 minutes to reach the top.  Sadly, there were no climbers up there to watch or photograph (likely because the weather was still so wet), but there was a stunning view of the valley below from the opposite side of the rock bridge, a hazy scene of greens and blues, rock and rice, and far in the distance, a bit of the river and the town itself.

Once I had fully taken in the view, I turned and started to head back, only to bump into a girl from my hostel and her friend - Simone from Germany, and Zoe from Australia.  As we stood there chatting, two American guys - brothers Paul and Justin - chimed in as they passed us, and we all wound up chatting, eventually sitting down and sharing some beers the guys had carried up to the top.  As it turned out, Paul spoke Mandarin, and he was quite a help the rest of the day!  We all pedaled our tall selves (seriously - my height was average at best among this crowd) on our tiny bikes back, returning to the city with one quick detour to take some photos of a field of lotus blossoms on the side of the road.  Back in the city, we all went to a restaurant with an outdoor patio, sharing dishes that were all incredibly flavorful, though a bit spicy for me!  After lunch, the girls returned for naps and showers, and the guys joined me for coffee (dragon this time!) and helped me check to see if the water performance would be happening that night (sadly, no).

Since the water performance was still a no go, I agreed to meet up with them later for dinner and drinks.  I found Simone at the hostel, so she joined as well, sharing a couple of drinks with the guys by the riverfront, then going to another large, brightly lit restaurant where we were definitely the only foreigners.  Paul ordered us a range of delicious local dishes, thankfully getting me a few that were less spicy this time.  We all continued on to local climbing bar the Rusty Bolt that evening, joined by two British guys at a table, laughing over beers until Simone and I decided to turn in for the evening, leaving the guys to continue bar hopping!

Despite having a flight that evening and having had a few drinks the night before, I contacted Spiderman for one more climbing session the following morning.  We met at 9, traveling out to a spot called Wine Bottle Wall with one other belayer and two beginner Chinese climbers.  This spot wasn't quite as peaceful as the first, being in very close proximity to a popular tourist spot that was blasting music, but the rock itself was still quite nice.  We did four routes again - a 5.7, a 5.8, and two 5.9s - the very last one again leaving me struggling at the crux with raw hands and exhausted muscles, but it was a great feeling to be back on a real rock outside in such a gorgeous place.

I returned to the hostel for a quick shower and some lunch before catching a shuttle bus for the over an hour long ride to Guilin, during which we were inundated with loud sounds from a Kung Fu movie playing in Chinese on the bus.  Thankfully, we were dropped right at the airport with plenty of time before the flight, and I lucked out with a sort of upgrade (a seat with actual legroom!) and actual food (not recognizable food, but food nonetheless) en route to Chengdu, my next stop in China.  I had debated staying an extra day in Yangshuo - it would turn out to be one of my favorite stops in China - but I had a timeline to maintain within the massive country, and I needed to keep moving.  But if I ever do return, the area in and around the lovely little climber's paradise will be one of the places I make sure to see again.