Yangshuo Climbing Festival: Day One

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Ni Hao, Outside Readers,

Mike Ives here — a freelance writer based in Hanoi, Vietnam. For the next few days, I'll be filing dispatches from the second-annual Yangshuo Climbing Festival in Yangshuo, China. If my aching fingers will cooperate.

A little background info on Yangshuo: This touristy town in Guangxi Province (which borders Vietnam and the Gulf of Tonkin) is an overnight bus ride from mega-cities Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. The late American climber Todd Skinner set some of the first Yangshuo routes in the early 1990s. Last year's inaugural fest drew more than 350 climbers from 15 countries.

And a word about me: I've been living in Asia since May. Before that, I was a staff reporter at Seven Days, the alt weekly in Burlington, Vermont. I'm not a particularly committed climber — my favorite part about top-roping at the “Gunks,” near New Paltz, New York, is the post-session souvlaki. But I understand words like “beta,” “crimp” and “jug,” and I know good climbers when I see 'em.

Many are in Yangshuo this weekend. It's easy to see why: Yangshuo's urban core of dumpling shops, touristy boutiques and internet cafes is flanked by postcard-perfect karst cliffs. Fifteen-minute bike rides past farms, mud-brick houses and peach orchards land you at the base of more than 300 primo sport routes. Indeed, says Ryan Gellert, managing director for Black Diamond Equipment Asia, Yangshuo has lately become “ground zero” for climbing in China.

Gellert was in good spirits at the festival's opening ceremony, held Friday night at Yangshuo's decrepit Kungfu Training Centre. So were the hundred-and-fifty-odd climbers from all over China, Europe, Australia and the United States. Alex Honnold, a Black Diamond-sponsored athlete from Sacramento, told me he was impressed by Yangshuo's karst, and the climbing community that scales it.

We were sipping spicy ginger tea at a makeshift bar. “This is a really nice grassroots event,” said the skinny, 24-year-old vertical wizard. “Other [climbing] events are a lot more corporate.”

Indeed, Yangshuo's Kungfu Training Centre is anything but spiffy. The green-and-yellow flooring looks exhausted, the cement bleachers are filthy and the bathrooms are, well, very Chinese bus station. Not surprisingly, last night's event had the feel of a middle school dance, minus the hormones.

Perhaps the nicest thing at Kungfu HQ was the shiny wooden climbing wall, which Gellert says was built specially for the event and will be donated to the Yangshuo community. That's where Honnold and others will compete against Liu “Abond” Yong Bang, a local climbing guide, in a two-day bouldering competition starting Saturday night.

“We won't be competing,” Abond, who won last year's comp, clarifies. “We'll just be having fun.”

At Yangshuo, are the two mutually exclusive?

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