China Is an Underrated Rock Climbing Paradise
For the past decade, American climber Mike Dobie has been developing world-class routes outside the remote village of Liming. As the coronavirus triggers anti-Chinese sentiment worldwide, his mission is more important than ever.
Sandstone bluffs riddled with crevices. Maroon precipices wrinkled with scaly turtleback rocks. A never-ending wall called El Dorado (named after the Lost City of Gold) rising abruptly at a slight turn in the valley.
During a call with me on January 10, Mike Dobie and Ana Pautler, his fiancee, described the scenery surrounding their home in Liming, a bucolic town high in the mountains of southwest China’s Yunnan province. They were calling from the car as they made their way from spending Christmas and New Year’s in Seattle to Pautler’s hometown of San Francisco. Dobie, a typically reserved rock climber, bubbled with enthusiasm and giddiness as he described the daily offerings in Liming: a local flea market that pops up every ten days where he gets fresh meat, friendly greetings every morning from a vegetable lady who grows organic potatoes and peanuts, and $2 jumbo stir-fries from his favorite restaurant.
“Life there is paradise. It’s quiet, with lots of rock opportunities around,” said Dobie, 37, who has spent most of the past decade developing trad and sport routes in Liming.
The couple would be flying back to Liming in two days. To prepare for the trip, they had stuffed two giant duffels and a roller bag with 80-meter ropes, resoled climbing shoes, maple syrup, Mexican seasonings, Doritos, and a bag of Tootsie Pops, whose chewy chocolate center and cherry-flavored coating Dobie relishes way too much. He rambled on about their ambitious plan to turn El Dorado, a wall of compacted sandstone and limestone, into a sport-climbing hub. He also hoped to open an Airbnb-style complex of guesthouses in Liming later this year, which would serve as a base camp for climbers. Five or six local households—a number that would grow if the experiment were successful—would host visiting climbers, make them meals, and offer gear rentals, first aid, and rescue services.
At the end of the 90-minute conversation, I wished them luck with their mission and impending arduous trip: a 30-hour flight from San Francisco, including a two-hour layover in Hong Kong, to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital. This to be followed by a three-hour bullet train ride to Lijiang, a prefecture-level city in the northwest of the province; and another three hours by car on the bumpy, meandering mountain road to Liming.
I should have told them to wear masks and hoard hand sanitizer, or cancel the trip altogether.
Born in northern California and raised in Port Townsend, a city of 9,800 located two hours north of Seattle, Mike Dobie was first introduced to the outdoors on his family’s annual trips to Glacier National Park. His favorite childhood memories were of rafting and hiking with his parents in the park’s wilderness. But their abrupt divorce when he was 12 left him feeling betrayed and drove him to alcohol and drugs.
At 13, Dobie was sent to a detox program for abusing marijuana and hallucinogens. In college, he drank a six-pack or two every night. After making it through college as an athletics training major, he signed up for Alcoholics Anonymous in 2008, at 25. While he was in the program, a friend introduced him to rock climbing.
“People who are coming out of drugs and alcohol are usually looking for the true purpose of life,” Dobie says. “You begin to focus on the people around you and the community, and on trying to be a helpful man.”
He became obsessed with holding jugs, flipping his body on rock scarps, jamming his feet and hands into cracks, and moving himself up the ladder of the Yosemite Decimal System. In August 2009, a climbing partner told him about picturesque karst mountains, many still unclimbed, in Yangshuo, China, which had become a popular climbing destination after two Germans first ascended its limestone formations in 1986. Dobie imagined jetting to China for first ascents, peace, sobriety, and a fresh start. In 2010, not knowing a word of Chinese, he left his job as an injury-prevention specialist at a railroad company and snagged a one-way ticket to Guilin, the south China city closest to Yangshuo.
That summer, Dobie moved to Lijiang, a thousand-year-old town on an ancient tea route connecting southwest China with the rest of South Asia, to help a friend start a climbing business. Thumbing through a Chinese tourism brochure, he stumbled upon a photo of rock escarpments in a village called Liming, about three hours away, and decided to check it out.
As he approached Liming, mountains with deep-cutting crevices began to rise on both sides of the road. He was amazed by the formations, which were unlike any he’d seen before. He would later learn that the sprawling, unique landscape before him was a Danxia formation, a type of petrographic geomorphology resulting from millions of years of erosion and sedimentation of glacial runoff, river flows, and wind abrasions.
Dobie spent a week exploring Liming. By the end of his stay, he was hooked.
Submerged in the sea of mountains at the southeast edge of the Tibetan Plateau, Liming sits at over 8,000 feet in the Laojunshan National Geopark, a Unesco natural heritage site nearly twice the size of New York City. The town of 13,000 has historically been a home for the indigenous Lisu people. Its main road, Hongshi Jie, which translates to Redstone Street, splits the town center and anchors dwellings, shops, restaurants, and guesthouses for park tourists.
In Chinese, Liming means “dawn” or “daybreak.” Local folklore floats the possibility of observing three sunrises and three sunsets in a single day through the layers of sierras and crags surrounding the village. One of these layers of rock, the Dinner Wall, looms above town to the southwest. The crimson surface resembles two open Chinese hand fans loosely stacked beside one another. It got its name from rock climbers who dined in town at dusk and watched the otherworldly shifting hues on the wall as the sun signed off for the day.
For hundreds of years, Lisus have harvested honey and mushrooms on the cliffs. They thrust themselves up the cracks with assistance from stick ladders and removable wooden plug-ins, much like cams and stoppers in modern-day trad climbing. Dobie encountered traces of those primitive ascents while spotting trad lines in the valley. Yellowish sandstones and red towering conglomerates underlain by karst limestones, and sometimes granite, buttressed out of heavily vegetated ridges—all jammed into an area with just 1,500 feet of maximum elevation gain. Dobie quickly realized that the region’s magical landscape and tradition could be the cornerstone of a climbing paradise.
Dobie began to make frequent, extended visits to Liming to explore and scout routes. But his earliest pushes to develop rock climbing in the area were met with wariness by locals. Aside from villagers jarred by the presence of the visiting lao wai—Chinese slang for “white foreigner”—the local government denounced the sport as unsafe and “hurtful to the image of Laojunshan,” according to Chinese climber Zhou Lei, who works with Dobie in Liming. It took Dobie and his Chinese and foreign partners a few months to put together a proposal to explain the sport to local officials and get a green light to start climbing.
In November 2010, Dobie bolted the first route in Liming, a six-pitch 5.10 up the Dinner Wall that he called Soul’s Awakening. He spent more and more time in Liming, developing trad lines on the crack systems deeper in the valley. By 2012, more than 100 trad routes were up, and Liming’s first trad climbing festival was planned for October, with sponsorships from Black Diamond and the North Face.
Dobie was, in his words, “all over the place” during this time, primarily climbing in Liming but occasionally going to Yangshuo to work as an outdoor guide. By then, Yangshuo was at the center of China’s nascent climbing scene, with 600 routes (now closer to 1,000) that attracted a local community of about 100 avid climbers.
One problem was that there were fewer than 15 trad lines. Trad climbing, which requires climbers to carry and place removable anchoring devices themselves, is more technical, expensive, and mentally challenging than sport climbing, where climbers rely on fixed bolts. According to Dobie, at the time there were likely only around 30 Chinese trad climbers in the country, and there wasn’t a go-to trad-climbing destination. Liming itself rarely saw visiting climbers, let alone a local climbing community. But that first trad festival attracted over 200 Chinese and foreign climbers.
It also introduced Dobie to Ana Pautler. While promoting the climbing fête in Yangshuo, Dobie met Pautler, a fellow American climber working and living there. The two started climbing and road-tripping together; they became a couple in 2015. That same year, they returned to the U.S. to spend more time with Dobie’s sister, who had been diagnosed with cancer and eventually died. In 2017, they returned to China, this time moving to Liming with two friends. The foursome rented a yuan zi—a courtyard with a two-story hut, 1.5 miles into the valley from Redstone Street—for $165 a month.
In March 2018, Dobie and Pautler found a jackpot: a 2,600-foot-wide, 260-foot-tall wall that he named El Dorado. Suddenly, Liming’s sport climbing potential and mainstream appeal unfolded before them. Chinese and foreign climbers billed El Dorado as the largest sport-climbing wall in China, and some guessed it could be the largest in Asia. The couple began diverting most of their efforts into establishing sport lines on El Dorado.
Dobie’s efforts were well-timed. In 2012, there were a mere 10,000 climbers in China, according to the Chinese Mountaineering Association, compared with over six million in the United States. China’s first indoor climbing gym was set up in Beijing in 1997, 10 years behind its American counterpart.
But as the country’s growing middle class learned to climb in gyms and ventured into the mountains, the number of climbers grew ten-fold to more than 100,000 in 2016. At that time, the CMA projected the climbing population could reach 500,000 by 2020. After the sport’s induction to the Tokyo Olympics in 2016, underdeveloped provinces in the southwest, including Yunnan, put forward five-year rock climbing development plans to scout prodigies and use the sport to boost tourism, relieve poverty, and raise awareness of outdoor recreation. Last year, the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo grossed $5 million in Chinese theaters, the film’s most successful overseas box office.
Like other Chinese towns, Liming turned to rock climbing as a source of sustainable jobs. In 2019, Dobie, Pautler, a Yunnan-based American friend, and two Chinese climbing partners proposed a plan to the local government: create a climbing base where townspeople would be hired, young talents would be trained, and the town’s indigenous climbing heritage would live on in a modern form. The same officials who had previously threatened to forbid climbing access to the Laojunshan Geopark gave preliminary approval. That summer, Dobie and Pautler got engaged.
By the time they left China in 2019 to visit the U.S. for Christmas, the couple, alongside other Chinese and foreign climbers, had created 56 sport-climbing routes on El Dorado, from 5.9 to 5.13, covering less than a fifth of the gargantuan cliff, along with more than 200 trad and nearly 100 other sport climbs in Liming. Local hostel and restaurant owners estimated that close to 200 climbers, more than half of them from overseas, were coming to visit the area every year.
Dobie, Pautler, and their friends were planning to nail down the details for the climbing center after they returned and celebrated the Lunar New Year in late January 2020. The base was scheduled to open in mid-2020, and Dobie thought it would serve as a sustainable model for other natural scenic areas in China. But that was all before the pandemic.
As Dobie and Pautler were making their way back to Liming after Christmas, inching toward their yuan zi, the novel coronavirus was spreading quietly from Wuhan, the city of 11 million in central China where the soon-to-be pandemic began. After they returned, towns and villages across China started to shut down on January 23. Some 900 miles west of Wuhan, Liming went into a sudden and drastic lockdown on January 26, the second day of the Lunar New Year, when the number of COVID-19 cases in China rose close to 2,700 with 80 deaths.
That morning, en route to El Dorado with drills and bolts, Dobie and Pautler couldn’t recognize their town. Logs and planks, tied together with wire and attached to trees, served as roadblocks. An SUV drove past, blaring the message, “Stay home. Don’t see friends. Wear a mask. Seek medical attention if you have symptoms.” Later, Dobie’s phone beeped—a text from the government conveyed an almost identical message.
Within a few days, vendors like the veggie lady stopped appearing on Redstone Street. The roll-up doors of restaurants and shops were pulled down. Travelers and climbers were ordered to vacate guesthouses and hostels. Limited vegetable selections drove Pautler to “cook potatoes in a hundred ways,” such as Spanish-style tortillas and oven-baked latkes.
“It was depressing seeing villagers walking home from the market with big empty baskets on their backs,” she said. “Especially knowing how jovial everyone used to be.”
As the only resident aliens in town, the couple got special attention from local authorities. They came to collect their passport information, body temperature, and flight and train tickets to see if they had been on the same vehicles with known coronavirus carriers.
More disturbing for Dobie, though, were his news and social media feeds. Online stories from U.S. publications—which Dobie, like many expats and Chinese citizens, access easily through the government firewall using VPN—repeatedly called the deadly pathogen the Wuhan or China virus, despite recommendations from the World Health Organization against naming infectious diseases after geographic locations to prevent stigmatizing certain communities. Widely shared videos propagated the myth that the outbreak was caused by Chinese people slurping bat soup. (Consuming bats is not common in the country, and investigations into the coronavirus’s origins have still not pinpointed a cause.) Conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the virus was manufactured in a biolab in Wuhan, trended wildly.
Amid sporadic caring messages from Dobie’s American friends and relatives, he received one that nauseated him. Linked to the text was a video clip claiming that the outbreak was planned by the Chinese government to gain economic advantage over the West. He deleted it immediately and corrected the sender.
“There’s some serious hate toward Chinese going on, and the pandemic makes people think they can rationalize it to be not immoral,” Dobie told me in an email.
Here in the U.S., I was watching the same phenomenon play out. I was born and raised in Beijing, where I spent most of my life until I came to New York City for journalism school in 2018. In late February of this year, my social-media feed began to swell with news of disturbing incidents—people who looked like me were being yelled at, spat on, even stabbed for wearing masks, standing in a subway station, or shopping at pharmacies.
Part of me wasn’t surprised. One June evening in Manhattan, not long after I graduated in 2019 and several months before we’d even heard of the coronavirus, I was stretching after a jog along the Hudson River when I felt a sudden violent bang on the back of my head. Doubled over from the pain, the only word I caught from the shouting, cursing white cyclist who had struck me—most likely with his fist—was “Chinese.” From then on, I mostly exercised indoors until I moved to Santa Fe for my fellowship at Outside. My first few times hiking in the mountains surrounding Santa Fe, I could feel the chill on my backbone whenever I crossed paths with a white stranger.
Still, living in the high desert of New Mexico when the novel coronavirus arrived in the U.S., I felt insulated from much of the rising anti-Asian racism at first. But on March 6, I wrote a story about the coronavirus for the New York Times. Almost immediately, several hateful emails popped up in my inbox, including messages like, “You f—king zipper heads eat anything that moves. I hope you all f—king die”—and worse. On March 16, my first day working from home, my landlord teased me that COVID-19 was “a normal flu” and wouldn’t last long because it was “made in China.” (I managed to move out in a month.)
My frustration peaked when the racists and xenophobes got the highest endorsement possible. That afternoon, the president of the United States, for the first time, tweeted about the “Chinese Virus,” and then repeated the phrase in daily briefings for a week, despite an almost immediate outcry that his comments would fuel racism against East Asians and Asian Americans. More than 2,100 anti-Asian hate incidents have been reported across the country since March, according to the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council, a Los Angeles–based advocacy group.
Scrolling through the suffocating, sometimes racially charged pandemic news cycle—in a locked-down state with a 2 percent Asian population and nearly no compatriots—I grappled with my fears and fury mostly on my own. Over time, reading Dobie’s posts on social media and having sporadic conversations with him and Pautler became a source of comfort. Although most resident foreign climbers had fled China by late January, they stayed in Liming.
“The wet market you do not see in North America is behind the meat counter at Safeway and the slaughterhouses of the livestock (that is where H1N1 came from),” Dobie posted on Facebook in mid-April. “Creating and convincing [Trump’s] followers this agenda of hatred is downright disgusting.” Dobie’s posts stirred heated discussions between him and his friends.
“People who call it a Chinese virus are racist and very passionately brainwashed to justify their China hatred, which has been a theme since the Trump years,” Dobie wrote to me on WeChat. He vowed to keep promoting Liming, the peaceful, off-the-beaten-path idyll that he loved. He hoped that at least in his circles, seeing the beauty of these mountains might mitigate bigotries against China and Asian faces. “Our posts about Liming show that China isn’t just a country where people are oppressed,” he added.
Pautler and Dobie kept busy. With permission from their landlord, who happened to be the community leader, the couple continued to develop routes around their house. On an early February morning, as cooking smoke rose from dwellings and clung to the valley floor, they detoured to a narrow back trail shaded by dense vegetation and flanked by uncultivated, thorny shrubs. Thirty minutes of trundling led them to a cornucopia of sandstone splitters on shorter 80-foot crags. Gazing upon the batch of reddish-brown rocks, Dobie ascertained that this secret garden could keep them busy for a while.
“In the spirit of the times... this one will be named... The Quarantine Zone,” Dobie announced in a post to more than 1,000 denizens of a Facebook Group called Liming Rock Climbing. For the next two months, hundreds of hours of jumaring and rappelling on ropes, scrubbing loose rocks and undergrowth, and hammering bolts yielded dozens of trad and sport climbing routes. Dobie regularly shared the progress with the group, whose members responded with applause and thankful notes.
“You guys never stop! Awesome work for the world climb community. Gratitude till next!”
“I also want such a quarantine,” a Russian climber commented at a time when most global citizens were being placed under stay-at-home orders.
By mid-March, when it appeared that China had controlled the outbreak and no villagers had contracted the disease, Liming began a phased reopening. But now, with most of the world under travel restrictions, the influx of foreign climbers has yet to arrive. “The locals who run shops, restaurants, and guesthouses live paycheck to paycheck, and are devastated by this year,” Pautler says. “I hope people who had considered coming to China before won’t put off the plan in the future.”
Dobie’s tenacious rock-chasing in Liming has garnered him a reputation for being an unflagging, even obdurate hermit in the Chinese climbing community. He speaks limited Chinese, and most of his friends are expats. He relies heavily on his Chinese friends to put together proposals to the local government, including the base camp idea. One Chinese climber described Dobie, perhaps unfairly, as having “an American savior attitude.”
Dobie is wary of falling into that narrative. “It’s a thing I’ve tried to avoid from the beginning,” he says. “Developing climbing is just a service to others.”
Nonetheless, skepticism of his motives has dwindled over the years. Most Lisu villagers welcome his presence and the potential economic benefit from climbing. A few concerns remain, including the possible impact of route development on the Danxia formation. One local official identifying himself as Mr. Bee told me in a text: “Drilling holes on walls. Uprooting flowering plants. Cleaning up rock faces with a steel brush. No impact? How come?” (Dobie argues that the effect of bolts and anchors is minimal.) Still, even Mr. Bee is a staunch supporter of the base camp, because of its potential to combat poverty.
Once Liming fully reopened in early April, Dobie’s Chinese partners began inspecting dozens of households in town for the potential as possible bed-and-breakfast venues. If everything moves forward as planned, the climbing center will be in place by the end of this year. Meanwhile, Chinese climbers are returning to Liming to try out the Quarantine Zone, as well as classic trad routes and El Dorado. Dong Wenjie, the only indigenous Lisu climber in Liming, is one of them.
The 21-year-old was born to a primary school teacher and a farmer. Growing up under tight economic constraints, Dong would help his family collect firewood in the mountains and tend their chickens, pigs, and homegrown vegetables. But their simple lifestyle didn’t limit his dreams about the cliffs he gazed at every day.
Six years ago, while camping alone under a sandstone wall to “feel the rocks in a closer distance,” Dong saw some foreigners climb the rock. Though too shy to say anything to them, he became obsessed with the sport. “Their moves were like the ballet on the rock,” he says. He thought the climbers’ heavily taped, bloody hands looked adventurous and cool. Later, he’d hear talks about a lao wai named Mike Dobie who had been in Liming for several years, setting up climbing routes. But it would be a while before the two met.
In 2016, Dong became a climbing major at a university in Kunming, China, where he worked part-time at climbing gyms between daily training sessions, which allowed him to save money for carabiners, climbing shoes, and quickdraws. In three years, he became one of the top competition climbers in Yunnan province, lead-climbing 5.13Cs and bouldering V7+.
In 2019, Dong introduced himself to Dobie through an English-speaking friend, and invited Dobie and Pautler to a family dinner for the Lunar New Year. After the feast, the couple joined Dong’s family and friends for a bonfire party, where the locals danced to traditional rhythms and performed hulusi, or cucurbit flute, a woodwind instrument popular in the province. Dong began climbing with them soon after.
“Mike is selfless,” Dong says. “Developing routes in my hometown without asking for any payment—I have to thank him from the bottom of my heart.” He hopes to one day take over Dobie’s responsibilities when the American can no longer be in China.
“It’s so exciting to see him climb in the place he grew up,” Dobie says. “When the base gets up, it will create a work opportunity for him in his hometown. I am sure if that happens, other opportunities will follow.”
Dobie hopes that Dong will be the spark that sets off a fire of local climbing interest in Liming. Meanwhile, he’s not sure when the flow of visiting climbing enthusiasts will return. He worries that people from different countries will bicker under the pitches, since nations around the world are increasingly at odds with each other over COVID-19, causing tensions and xenophobia.
“But no matter what, I’ll always have a foot in China,” Dobie says. Because, despite the pandemic, Liming’s soul is awakening.