Outside magazine, April 1998
The great walls of China's top-secret valley are finally open to climbers
As the Boeing 737 glides to a halt at Xichang International Airport, my journey to China takes a turn for the surreal. MiG fighters line the tarmac, and People's Liberation Army soldiers belly-crawl through the infield. Such security is to be expected — this remote region of Sichuan Province, misleadingly called Tranquil Valley, is home to the Chinese space program. But I've been expecting a bit more grandeur and a bit less gunplay. Where are the granite cliffs of this so-called Yosemite of China? Where are the terraced rice fields and snaking footpaths? Where are the pandas?
Two years ago, when the Xichang region was opened for the first time to foreigners, American space technicians began to dribble in to assist with satellite development. Being rocket scientists, it didn't take them long to recognize that the landscape was spectacular — and untouched. No one had climbed the rock walls. No one had paddled the Tranquil River. The more adventuresome of the researchers pulled out their pitons and bikes and started exploring. Word about the place slowly filtered out.
Which is why I now find myself explaining to a sullen and monolingual customs agent that yes, I need all these ropes, and no, I'm not planning to sabotage a satellite launch. A hint: Before visiting Xichang, practice your pantomime for "climb mountain." Eventually, I manage to gesticulate my way into a rattletrap taxi that carries me off into the countryside. And here at last I find what I've been seeking: a compressed and exotic Yosemite, empty of crowds. In the distance, sheer, gray cliffs swell grandly above the valley. At their feet, green hills have been sculpted into stair-step rice fields, dotted, in apparent disregard for gravity, with grazing oxen.
After our driver agrees to take my companions and me to the highest rock wall in the area, we find ourselves in the village of Mali, where a granite behemoth rises about 1,500 feet. To access the rock, we hike footpaths around the backside and top-rope to routes that range from 5.8 to 5.11. Most have been climbed only a handful of times, if at all. From the top, we look out over the lush and tranquil river valley rolling and dipping to the horizon.
Next day, aiming for a different sort of almost-first descent, we head for the Tranquil River. Usually relatively calm, it swells during the spring into a more ferocious Class IV. The stretch from Xichang to Mali in particular becomes a white-knuckle ride of big waves and kayak-eating hydraulics. If your courage falters, however, you can pull out at any point; a dirt road parallels the length of the river.
Don't climb or paddle? Xichang still has its allure — if you like dirt. Mountain biking above the valley is simply breathtaking and, as a side benefit, is greatly entertaining to locals. They ride bikes, of course: ancient, one-speed, balloon-tired Gold Wings. But they'd no more dream of taking these heaps up a peak than I'd dream of leading an ox by its nose. So they're tickled when we set out on the 21-mile trip from the bridge to the top of Mount Mor Pan. The road rapidly becomes a cliff-hanging footpath. We huff along, round a switchback, and to our astonishment almost rear-end a stream of ceremonially robed, longhaired, and preternaturally dignified people. These are the Ti, who've inhabited this mountain for aeons. They nod, let us ride by, and then pass us again as we crank at glacial speed up the final stretch to the summit.
To arrange your own visit to the region, plan on self-sufficiency. No maps exist, for security reasons. Nor will you find sporting goods; bring your own gear. As for accommodations, the Ivy Green Hotel, a onetime tuberculosis sanatorium, has indoor plumbing ($11 per person). It also houses the best restaurant in the town of Xichang, a buffet that appropriately enough offers its own kind of adventure: None of the items is labeled, and pig's eyeballs, I was told later, are a staple.