by Hank Leukart
December 28, 2011

Climbing karsts

Rock climbing and Taylor Swift in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

Climbers stand below The Egg, a karst in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

Climbers stand below The Egg, a karst in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China. (view all Yangshuo, Guangxi, China photos)

This is the fourth essay in a series about traveling across Southern China. Start with the first essay to get the whole story.


ÁNGSHUÒ, Guăngxī, China — If you’ve been worrying about Canadian pop-punk star Avril Lavigne’s declining career, don’t. China’s 1.3 billion people love her. They also love American pop-country star Taylor Swift. The first time I rode the Shanghai subway, I found myself absent-mindedly humming along to a muzak version of Taylor’s “Speak Now” — “I’m not the kind of girl/Who should be rudely barging in/On a white veil occasion/But you are not the kind of boy/Who should be marrying the wrong girl” — which, to my utter confusion, was being piped into the train.

Despite my Shanghai subway experience, China’s fascination with these particular Western pop stars is still a mystery to me as I cycle toward Dragon Bridge (Yùlóng Qiao), a 400-year-old bridge about 10 kilometers northwest of Guăngxī province’s Yángshuò, one of China’s most popular climbing and cycling destinations. Earlier in the morning, I rented a bicycle from Bike Asia owner Scott, who helped me map out a route alternating between rocky, dirt paths weaving among marshy rice terraces and newly paved concrete roads winding through small Chinese villages along the shore of the Yùlóng River. As I ride, I watch boatmen ferry Chinese tourists down the River on rickety bamboo rafts. Mist-enshrouded limestone karsts, which look like bent cowboy hats, painted green and turned upside down, are sprinkled throughout the landscape. Farmers, tending to lush orange trees in fields, dot the countryside. I stop for a lunch of Yùlóng River beer fish at a restaurant in a family’s home near the ancient bridge and then take an alternate route back to Yángshuò, biking through a maze of rural farmland to Moon Hill, a hikeable mountain with a rising-moon-shaped arch at its top. From the arch, I watch the sun set behind the alien karsts. Darkness falls, ending another grueling day for the farmers.

I cycle back to Yángshuò in the dark and, after returning my bike, find myself walking by the Luanle Café and Bar. From inside, I hear a young woman singing soulfully and playing an acoustic guitar. The lyrics are in Mandarin. I can’t understand the words, but I can tell easily that it’s the kind of tune that you might turn on when you’re home alone, crying on your couch, gorging on caramel chocolate cheesecake ice cream, after the love of your life has just announced his or her engagement to someone else.

Beckoned by the live music, I walk inside the café, sit at the bar, and order a banana milkshake and a Coca-Cola (my signature, sugar-filled beverage orders when I’m exhausted by traveling) from the waitress. While I’m sipping my milkshake, the musician — a young woman in her early 20s with long, black hair, an attractive, round face, and dimples — continues to croon, performing song after song as though she’s the most forlorn young woman in China. I order dinner by pointing at some Chinese characters on the menu. There’s something yin and yang about the fact that, in China, I almost never know what I’m ordering for dinner, but, when the food appears, it almost always tastes great. When my dinner arrives — a traditional Yángshuò dish of crispy Lí River shrimp — the singer takes a break, and another musician, a man ten years older, takes the stage. He, too, begins singing a song that makes me think that the love of his life just announced her engagement to someone else. Meanwhile, the first vocalist sits next to me at the bar.

Into my iPhone’s Google Translate app, I type: “You have a very pretty voice,” and show the translated Chinese characters to her.

“Thank you,” she says to me in English and blushes. “But he is much better?” she asks, pointing to the man on stage.

“I like your voice better,” I say. She smiles and asks my name and where I’m from. I tell her, and she tells me that her name is Ping and that she grew up in Guăngxī Province (where we’re sitting). I’ve spent the last few days reading Red Dust — Chinese dissident Ma Jian’s seminal work about traveling across China — and I chuckle to myself because every woman with whom Ma Jian falls in love in the book is named Ping. This Ping tells me that she’s studying statistics at a college in Guìlín, the province’s largest city. She travels about 90 minutes away by bus at night to earn extra spending money by singing in the bar.

“What will you do when you graduate?” I ask, annoyed at myself for asking the question universally hated by college students around the world.

“I’m not sure,” she says, sheepishly. “I want to play music, but it is hard to make money.” I get the feeling that China’s high-pressure college placement tests didn’t put her on a track that she’s particularly pleased about. Unlike in previous decades, now that the country is moving toward Capitalism, Chinese college graduates are no longer guaranteed a job. Our conversation is interrupted when she’s called to return to the stage. I listen to her sing for another hour.

The next morning, I drop by Insight Adventures (formerly ChinaClimb) to ask climbing guides Wade and Nick if they’ll help me climb to the top of one of the many limestone karsts I passed during my cycling trip the day before.

“Sure, we were about to take him too,” Wade says, pointing to a scruffy, 30-year-old guy with a ponytail and long, thick sideburns.

“I’m Amit from Boston,” the guy says in a thick Boston accent. I introduce myself and ask him how he ended up in Yángshuò.

“Well, it’s a little complicated: I auditioned for an Israeli-backed, touring musical version of Zorro in Boston and got the part of the bad guy,” Amit explains. “We rehearsed for three months in Israel and then planned to tour across China, but the show ran out of money. So, I’ve spent the last four months just hanging out in China. The rest of the cast went home. I don’t understand why, since we had a free flight here.” It’s easily the strangest story I’ve heard of how someone ended up on a backpacking trip across China.

The four of us take a minibus to The Egg, a large, limestone mound that looks particularly like an upside down cowboy hat covered with tufts of green underbrush. I put on a harness and climbing shoes while guide Wade zips to the top of the karst to anchor two top ropes above two routes rated 5.9. The bad guy from Zorro and I start climbing simultaneously. For me, it’s not an easy climb. The jagged limestone cuts into my hands as I search desperately for adequate handholds, and I spend a lot of time resting on the rope, exhausted. Halfway to the top, the muscles in my arms already feel totally worn out. (Tired arms are a dead giveaway of an inexperienced climber using poor technique; good climbers use their legs almost exclusively to reach the top of a route.) I look about as elegant as a sumo wrestler in a ballet, but I manage to beat Amit to the top (though only using brute strength as a substitute for good technique). From the karst’s peak, I admire the green and brown rows of rice terraces and the rolling horizon created by a range of bulbous karsts. I watch a grey, fat water buffalo with curved, razor-sharp horns saunter by. Then, I rappel back to the ground, embarrassed by my poor performance.

“For someone who doesn’t climb regularly, you did great,” says Wade. He’s spent four years in China — two years teaching English and two years guiding outdoor-adventure trips for kids from private schools in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Korea. “You should see the Korean kids: most of them refuse to climb because they have never participated in an outdoor activity in their lives. They think that their favorite extra ‘extracurricular’ activity is studying, because that’s all their parents let them do. The worst, though, is the expat teachers from Shanghai who think they’re superior to everyone in China because they’re paid so well. They don’t realize that they’re just puppets that the Chinese schools use to have a Western face and please Chinese parents. Back in America, they’d just be badly-paid teachers. I know. I was one of them.”

“Perspectives become warped easily, I guess,” I say. “One day you think you understand the world, and the next day, you hear a muzak version of Taylor Swift being piped into the Shanghai subway. I thought Taylor Swift was as American as it gets.”

Though I complain that I’m too tired, Wade sends me up two more routes on The Egg. My arms are jelly, but he won’t let me give up. He’s a good climbing guide.

In the evening, the four of us join the company’s other guides and clients at their climbing gym for a hot pot, a kind-of Chinese stew. Three young, Chinese women spend a half-hour teaching me how to make pork-filled dumplings, though mostly they spend the time laughing at my lack of inherent dumpling-making ability. Afterward, a big group of us surrounds the simmering pot, and we throw vegetables, tofu, the dumplings, and whatever else we can find into it. We’re all ravenous and, by my estimation, we eat about 400 dumplings in 20 minutes. On the table, there are more empty beer bottles than I can count. (In China, empties are always left out as a kind-of badge of honor.)

“The best thing about China is that you can sit on the toilet, take a shower, drink a beer, and smoke a cigarette all at once,” Derrick, another climbing guide, explains to me. (Usually, Chinese bathrooms are one room shared by the toilet and shower nozzle, and smoking is permitted pretty much everywhere.) Derrick tells me that he traveled to China ten years ago to help expand a family business. He never left.

Afterward, I’m so tired that I’m ready to return to my hotel, but I remember that one of the great pleasures of traveling at your own pace is the luxury of spending many days in one spot, establishing habitual haunts and getting to know the people whose paths you cross daily. So, back at a table at the Luanle Café, I again order a banana milkshake, a Coca-Cola, and a random, unidentified dinner from the menu. Ping is performing her never-ending catalog of love ballads.

When Ping takes a break and shares my table with me, I tell her that I’m on a pilgrimage to the west to hike China’s famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. I’m surprised when she tells me that she’s never been there — it’s purportedly one of the most beautiful places in the whole country.

“I’ve never left Guăngxī Province,” she explains. When she’s called back onto the stage, I spend the rest of the night in this café in rural China, writing about my trip and responding to e-mail. Again, I think of Ma Jian’s Red Dust: “It is nice to spend a day writing letters. It feels like traveling through space… I want to think on my feet, live on the run. Never again can I endure to spend my life in one room.” All the while, I’m listening to Ping’s melancholy ballads.

On my last morning in Yángshuò, I rent another mountain bike and decide to tackle a more adventurous cycling trip toward nearby town Xīngpíng on a rolling mountain road above the Lí River. I cycle for about five hours, powering up steep hills and flying recklessly down mountain valleys, stopping frequently to admire the views of bubbly karsts and endless ribbons of orange fields covered by plastic to protect crops from the cold. The route is confusing, and I keep running into intersections not shown on my map. At one, a few young, curious Chinese boys, come to investigate me and my bike, and they point me in the direction Xīngpíng. But, after continuing to cycle through the mountains for a long time, I realize, now, that the road has been veering away from the town, and I’ve missed a turn, probably many miles and many steep hills ago.

In a small village in the mountains, I stand on the road, too weary to pedal another minute, hoping that a fluent-English speaker will magically appear to help me. Instead, a line of about 20 middle-aged men walks by, and I use Google Translate to explain my predicament to them. But, they don’t understand how to use my phone to respond to me with translated messages. Instead, they manage to explain that they’re headed to an all-village dinner, and they continue onto a path into an adjacent forest, leaving me alone. I get the feeling that I’m going to be sleeping here, on the side of the road, in the mountains of Guăngxī province.

But, about ten minutes later, a younger man appears from the forest path. He pulls keys out of his pocket and motions to a nearby pickup truck. I imagine that the conversation, at the village-wide dinner, about what to do about the exhausted Westerner standing cluelessly in the middle of the village road, must have been a good one. For Y100/US $16, the young man agrees to drive me to a nearby town. There, he directs me to a bus that takes me back to Yángshuò.

Drained from my cycling adventure, I again stumble into the Luanle Café and order a banana milkshake and a Coca-Cola. I imagine that I look like I’ve just been beaten up by China, but Ping, who’s singing on stage, smiles at me anyway when I sit down.

“Which Chinese movie and pop stars do you know?” she asks me when she finishes at the end of the night and joins me at my table. This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this question in China, and my answer is always a letdown.

“The only Chinese celebrity I know is Zhang Ziyi from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” I reply. “We almost never get Chinese movies or music in America.”

“Well, Zhang Ziyi is very beautiful,” she says, but she seems disappointed that I don’t know any Chinese pop stars. “I like American music.”

“Oh, really? What do you like?” I’m secretly hoping that I’ll get to hear her ethereal voice sing Don McLean’s “American Pie,” Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” or REM’s “Nightswimming.”

“I like Avril Lavigne, and I love Taylor Swift,” she says. I ask her if she has heard of Don McLean, Oasis, or REM, but she looks at me blankly. I’m disappointed.

“Oh, well,” I say. “Will you play one more song for me, in English?” She nods and then giggles and blushes. She returns to the stage, says something to the café’s Chinese crowd, and starts singing, directly to me, in English. At first, the song sounds like yet another from her endless Chinese love song repertoire, until I realize that she’s singing Taylor Swift’s “Speak Now” — the same song I heard in the Shanghai subway:

I am not the kind of girl
Who should be rudely barging in
On a white veil occasion
But you are not the kind of boy
Who should be marrying the wrong girl…

So don’t say yes, run away now
I’ll meet you when you’re out
Of the church at the back door

Don’t wait or say a single vow
You need to hear me out
And they said, “Speak now!”

The song sounds a bit jumbled because Ping’s weak English requires her to sing phonetically, but I barely notice because of her emotional performance and sweet voice. As she sings, I see the Chinese tourists in the café mouthing the words. They all know the song. Suddenly, the mystery of teenage American pop stars in China reveals itself to me. Avril and Taylor’s unrequited love ballads go perfectly with couch crying and caramel chocolate cheesecake ice cream. They sound almost identical to the Chinese pop music I’ve been hearing for the past three days.

After the song ends, the entire audience applauds. Ping and I walk out of the Luanle Café together. It’s night, but I can make out the outline of an otherworldly-looking karst, towering above us at the end of the road. As we walk through the streets of Yángshuò, passing café after café, the saddest songs that I have ever heard waft over us, in the dark.

Read the next essay in this series about traveling across Southern China, in which I miss a flight and end up at a reenactment of a Genghis Khan horseback battle.

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Karsts serve as backdrops to the streets of Yángshuò.

Karsts serve as backdrops to the streets of Yángshuò.

Bamboo rafts wait for tourists on the Yulong River in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

Bamboo rafts wait for tourists on the Yulong River in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

A bicycle sits in front of the otherworldy karsts of Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

A bicycle sits in front of the otherworldy karsts of Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

Orange light makes Moon Hill glow at sunset near Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

Orange light makes Moon Hill glow at sunset near Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

The Luanle Cafe & Bar serves up local singers nightly in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

The Luanle Cafe & Bar serves up local singers nightly in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

Chinese vendors play cards while waiting for customers in Yángshuò.

Chinese vendors play cards while waiting for customers in Yángshuò.

Climbers walking toward The Egg in Yángshuò, Guangxi, China.

Climbers walking toward The Egg in Yángshuò, Guangxi, China.

A woman climbs The Egg in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

A woman climbs The Egg in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

The small town of Xīngpíng sits near the Lí River in Guăngxī, China.

The small town of Xīngpíng sits near the Lí River in Guăngxī, China.

Plastic covers protect crops from cold weather in front of karsts near Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

Plastic covers protect crops from cold weather in front of karsts near Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China.

How to Climb and Bicycle in Yángshuò, Guăngxī, China

  • OVERVIEW: Yángshuò is one of China’s most popular climbing and bicycling destinations. The area’s remarkable landscape, made up of hundreds of alien-looking karsts — small limestone mountains — will impress almost any adventure traveler. Nevertheless, a warning: that the town has been overrun by Chinese tour groups, and its pedestrian streets, lined with dance clubs playing Chinese and Western dance music, are heavily Westernized. Yángshuò is an excellent destination for outdoor adventure, but the fantasy of visiting a rural Chinese town here is long gone (for that, you can try cycling to some of the nearby towns found on local maps).
  • LOGISTICS: Fly to any major international Chinese airport (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, or Hong Kong). From there, the fastest way to get to Yángshuò is to take a domestic flight to Guìlín in Guăngxī province and then take a bus (1 hour, Y20/US $3) or taxi (1 hour, Y250/US $42) to Yángshuò. You can also take a bus directly to Yángshuò from Nánníng (6.5 hours, Y121/US $20) or Shenzhen (13 hours, Y232/US $39), or a train from Beijing (23 hours, Y416/US $69) or Shanghai (22 hours, Y341/US $57). When trying to take the bus from Guìlín to Yángshuò, be aware that touts at the Guìlín bus station will attempt to usher you onto slower, local buses and/or try to trick you into overpaying for the bus. Keep in mind that the bus driver may be complicit in the scam. Thus, be sure to buy a ticket only at the official bus station ticket counter for an express bus, direct to Yángshuò. When your bus arrives just outside of Yángshuò, it’s likely that a disingenuous taxi driver may board the bus and try to convince you that you’ve already arrived in Yángshuò so that you’ll disembark and take his taxi. Don’t get off the bus until you’ve arrived at the Yángshuò bus station proper (all passengers will leave the bus then). Keep in mind that some local buses may not stop at the Yángshuò bus station, which can make things more complicated. Regardless, do your best to make sure you get off the bus within walking distance of West Street (Xi Jie, Yángshuò’s main pedestrian street lined with bars).
  • BICYCLING: The best equipment, maps, and advice for cycling Yángshuò can be found at Bike Asia, located in the storefront to the left of Kelly’s Café in the courtyard where Guihua Lu has a bridge over a canal. Walk northeast on West Street (Xi Jie, Yángshuò’s main pedestrian street lined with bars) from the comfortable Ai Yuan Hotel and take the second left onto Guihua Lu. Note that Bike Asia has moved from its previous location above Bar 98 in this same courtyard. They’ll set you up with a mountain bike, detailed map, helmet, tire repair kit, and bike lock for Y60/US $10 per day. Owner Scott is especially helpful and friendly, and he’ll happily help you plan a cycling trip appropriate for your level of experience. Common day rides include the loop along the Yùlóng River from Yángshuò to Dragon Bridge (4 hours, 20 km, GPS track) and the loop along the Lí River from Yángshuò to Xīngpíng (6 to 8 hours, 40 km, unless you take a 1.5-hour bamboo raft ride from Yángshuò to Xīngpíng and then only cycle the return route). My failed trip to Xīngpíng turned out to be a beautiful mountain route in the mountains above Yángshuò to the small town nearby town of Putao (5 to 7 hours, 40 km, GPS track). It’s a pretty ride, but keep in mind that the route is hilly and strenuous. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the turnoff to Xīngpíng that eluded me (I think it’s a dirt road to the right with a Nine-Horse Fresco Hill sign). Pay close attention to Bike Asia’s routing advice if getting lost scares you.
  • CLIMBING: Insight Adventures (formerly ChinaClimb) is located to the left of the House Lizard Bar and a Chinese food restaurant on Xian Qian Street, which you can reach by walking northeast from the Ai Yuan Hotel on West Street (Xi Jie, Yángshuò’s main pedestrian street lined with bars) and taking the last major left turn before the dead end into the Lí River road. For Y250 (US $42), Western, English-speaking climbing guides will take you on a half-day climbing trip to a nearby karst. Trips leave at 9 AM and 1 PM. Insight’s excellent guides provide all necessary equipment (harnesses, shoes, helmets, belay devices, ropes, anchors, and chalk) and will cater to any skill level, including beginning climbers. They can also provide information and gear for independent, expert climbers and can arrange multiday and multisport adventures. Note that some locals block routes to certain peaks and attempt to collect climbing fees illegally. The best way to discourage them is to refuse payment and give photos of the offenders to the local police (though they are persistent enough that you may be forced to find another climbing spot).

Dragon Bridge Cycle and Moon Hill Hike GPS track (download GPX or KML)

Yangshuo to Putao Cycle GPS track (download GPX or KML)