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Health and wellness

Rock climbing in China: why Yangshuo is the best place to go as the sport booms in Guangxi province

Climbers from around the world are visiting Yangshuo county to experience its lofty peaks and unique rock formations, contributing to a rock-climbing revolution that is seeing many new facilities developed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 April, 2018, 10:48am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 April, 2018, 8:16pm

Bristling with lofty and precipitous peaks, Yangshuo county in China’s Guangxi province is frequented by rock-climbing enthusiasts from around the world.

Following the International Olympic Committee’s 2016 announcement that climbing will become an official medal-winning event at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the largest-ever rock-climbing event in China was held on Yangshuo’s Wine Bottle Cliff in August that year.

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For two days, veteran climbers and small children buckled up and clambered up sheer crags, with some untethered free climbers diving into nearby waters after their arduous ascents.

With its abundant countryside natural rock formations, Guangxi has been promoting rock climbing to boost residents’ health and help nurture top-notch climbers to pursue Olympic glory for the country.

The Yunqi Sports Climbing Centre opened last September in the provincial capital of Nanning. The 300 square metre (3,230 square foot) venue is the largest artificial rock-climbing centre in Guangxi, with indoor and outdoor climbing walls up to 15 metres high of varying levels of difficulty.

For 10 yuan (US$1.60), novices can don safety equipment and can try to reach the top of the eight-metre indoor flat climbing wall under an instructor’s guidance. Those with more derring-do and stamina can tackle the indoor convex slopes, or the three-storey-high outdoor climbing wall under the blistering sun.

Liu Fuwang, the centre’s head manager, says the company was set up in 2013 to promote rock climbing.

“We went to Beijing in 2016 to learn about state policies on how to promote the sport, like how to identify and set up outdoor climbing and camp sites, risk management for the sport, and safety measures,” he explains.

Rock climbing started to catch on in the area about five years ago, according to Fan Dong, a coach at the centre.

“The nearest natural rock-climbing cliffs in Wuming [in Nanning] are just 80 kilometres away and there are more than 100 climbing trails in Yangshuo,” he says. “The active rock-climbing community in Guangxi numbers in the thousands.”

After clambering up Yangshuo’s cliffs for more than a decade, American climber Andrew Hedesh released a book, Yangshuo Rock – A China Climbing Guide , last November.

“Yangshuo is the most popular international rock climbing destination within China,” he wrote. “The local karst topography offers a lifetime of crags unique in rock formations, atmosphere and scenery. Potential development is limitless and only bound by imagination.”

A cruise along the 83-kilometre Li River that flows from Guilin to Yangshuo offers impressive views of the dramatic landscape featuring limestone cones, cylinders and hills, many of them a magnet for keen rock climbers. There are about 300 such enthusiasts living in Yangshuo, about 50 of them foreigners.

Hedesh has climbed all the routes in Yangshuo below the level of difficulty of 5.13a – a rating near the top of the Yosemite Decimal System that describes the difficulty of climbs.

The popularity of climbing has grown not just as a result of Olympic recognition, but also because the government has introduced controls to ensure safety.

The first officially organised Guangxi rock-climbing competition was held last year at the Guangxi College of Sports and Physical Education in Nanning, attracting 202 climbers from all over China to compete on artificial rocks.

The Chinese Mountaineering Association launched a nationwide youth rock-climbing contest in 2017, with its inaugural stop in Guilin. Ding Xianghua, manager of the mountaineering sports division in China’s General Administration of Sports, told state media that the contest provided a platform to identify talented rock climbers. It has since been expanded to include more than 100 stops in China.

China has pledged to develop around 1,000 towns with special sports and culture characteristics by 2020. Mashan County in Guangxi was among those selected and was the first county in China to receive state support to develop rock climbing as a way to boost local tourism and reduce poverty.

It is in this county that world rock-climbing champion and China national rock-climbing team leader Zhong Qixin, from Jiangxi province, developed his own trail with a high level of difficulty. The county also boasts seven natural rock-climbing venues, more than 200 trails of varying difficulty and a number of camp sites.

I love the sport as it can train my resilience … [it also] boosts your willpower and problem-solving skills
Coach Fan Dong

Zhong told China News Service in 2017 that the county’s typical karst landscapes and natural conditions favouring rock climbing would make it a popular haunt for rock-climbers and outdoor sports enthusiasts from around the world.

Coach Fan says the sport now has much more official oversight to ensure public safety.

“In the past, there was not much control. Several people could rent a car and head to the rocks in the countryside with all the equipment and climb themselves. Now, official personnel are stationed at outdoor climbing spots. Everyone must climb in the presence of a licensed instructor,” he says.

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He recalls an accident two years ago in Hangzhou in which a hearing-impaired climber fell from a cliff and was seriously injured.

“Not all the safety equipment was properly fastened. When his instructor discovered the problem, he yelled to the climber mid-air, warning him not to take his hands off the rock to descend after reaching the top. But he couldn’t hear the warning and fell down after reaching the top,” Fan says.

“All the equipment and harnesses have to be thoroughly checked to make sure they are in the proper place before climbing.”

He adds that rock climbing, seen as an extreme sport, is rapidly gaining popularity among ordinary people.

“With the exception of people who are overweight, anybody can participate,” he says. “I love the sport as it can train my resilience. Once you overcome the set challenges in a trail, you will seek bigger challenges and find routes with higher levels of difficulty. The sport boosts your willpower and problem-solving skills.”

Driving myself up a wall

As a novice who only swims and jogs to keep fit, my climb at the Yunqi Sports Climbing Centre in Nanning was the first time I have tried the sport.

Having reached the top of the indoor eight-metre-high climbing wall, I felt confident enough to attempt the three-storey-high outdoor wall. Coach Fan chose the easiest route for me, with the bolted-in plastic hand and footholds all located close to, and evenly distanced from, each other.

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He helped me put on a safety helmet and harnesses, while his assistant was stationed on the ground holding the ropes to ensure my safety. It was an easy enough climb at the beginning, but three-quarters of the way into my ascent, my legs grew tired and I had to grit my teeth to finish the climb.

When I reached the top, I rang the bells with great enthusiasm and looked down to the ground for the first time, where a photographer captured my first successful ascent.

Coach Fan says novices must complete five two-hour lessons at the centre before heading to natural cliffs with their instructor. A package of 12 one-hour lessons costs 600 yuan (HK$745).

Getting there: Cathay flies direct to both Nanning and Guilin several times a week.