This is a brief reflection on my trip to China. I had something written up right after I left, but it was lost after my computer went missing in Mexico. It’s not the same piece I wrote before, not even close, but in a way I think it’s better. I wrote four posts about our trip to Yangshuo on the Never Stop Exploring blog, but wanted to revisit it one last time on my own personal site because I feel like it was a very important trip for me. The challenges we faced there, and the community we were so graciously included in have since altered my outlook on traveling and life in general. It was a pivotal trip for me in this respect, and one that I will never forget as long as I live.
Yangshuo is a tourist town, and therefore relatively westernized, but it is not necessarily a vacation destination in the westerner’s mind. I knew this before I arrived because I had been there in 2008 on another climbing trip. It is a busy town, with tons of restaurants advertising western-style dishes and shops selling trinkets, knock-off designer clothing and Rolexes. The streets are often hectic and noisy and crowded and any other irritating adjective you can think of. There was not a night where we went to sleep in peaceful silence, the street below was full of pedestrians; all drinking, eating, singing, dancing, and shouting. I crammed earplugs in my ears each night in order to drown out the sound, but even then I could hear the foggy music and muffled voices. Some of the food we had was quite good, and even the western dishes were alright (but nearly five times the price of the local fare). We also encountered a few dishes that I would not ever touch again, most memorably a breakfast we had called “oil tea” that had no hint of tea at all and reminded me instead of dirty water and cat food.
Transportation was challenging as well, and can be very dangerous. There are far too many people on the road and too few rules to abide by. We experimented with several forms: bicycle, local bus, and motorbike. Take a guess at which was most dangerous. I’ll give you a hint, it involved an engine (to go fast) and, in my case, the company of several adrenaline-pumped men (boys) who thought they were in their own version of Hell’s Angels gang. We did our best to almost get in two accidents on the motorbike, and another time Yuji’s bike broke down in the middle of virtually nowhere. We towed it back with a climbing rope. I’ll admit that I wished for the comfort of my own country and culture on more than one occasion during those first days.
Sam’s video of riding motorbikes………………….
After being in China for a few days, we adjusted to the pace of life and learned to adapt to the way things ran. The irritating nature of loud noises, dangerous roads, and interesting food were all diminished the more we got used to being there. One morning, at around 7am, the only otherwise quiet time of day; we were woken by extremely loud cracking noises. It sounded sharp and was jarring to my still sleeping brain. I slowly realized that I was hearing firecrackers. It went on for 15 more relentless minutes before it finally stopped. I still have no idea why this happened. Maybe there was a holiday I wasn’t aware of. Shortly after, I walked to the supermarket to buy some water and saw several women in red smocks sweeping up the smoldering debris, in the middle of the busy road, as vehicles whizzed by and wove around and between the piles of exploded red cardboard cylinders. Every once in a while, the sweeping would set off another round of cracking and popping. It was so loud it hurt my eardrums. But the women continued sweeping, and everyone else kept zooming by them, as if it were all perfectly normal. I stood there and watched the scene for a few minutes. “This is how it is here.” I decided in amusement.
By changing my perception of the place, I grew to enjoy the things I once hated about it and tried to approach every situation with a positive mindset. This changed things for me. I soon slept soundly through the commotion of nightlife outside our hotel window, nearly oblivious to it. We ate local glass noodles for breakfast one morning, a giant bowl of them, steaming in broth with vegetables and a boiled egg on top. It wasn’t the usual yogurt with muesli, but they were spicy and tasted wonderful. Although I never got used to the terror of the motorbike trips, I started to enjoy the “hassle” of taking the local bus to the climbing areas. We would cram inside a small van, making room for newcomers who flagged down the driver on the side of the road. It was not uncommon to have 15 or more people inside the 9 person vehicle. I liked to ride with the local people, to observe them and wonder where they were going and what their day had in store.
One thing I never got used to was the sheer beauty of the landscape that surrounded us each day. Yangshuo is situated in a relatively unpolluted, hilly part of south central China. The land is lush and fertile, with abundant farmland and rice paddies spread between thousands of karsts, limestone mounds that jut straight out of the earth, resembling the thumbs of thousands of hitchhiking giants. They are some of the oddest shaped formations I’ve ever seen, and fantastic for climbing. The limestone walls and caves are wildly steep and dripping with stalactites and tufas, ready and waiting to be climbed on. One of the most phenomenal sites is the karst known as Moon Hill, a glorious arch standing atop a hill. Nearly 800 stone steps have been carved into the hill in order to reach the arch at the top and each day, hundreds of visitors climb the epic stairmaster to stand beneath it. We visited Moon Hill two times during our stay, on our very first climbing day and again on our last day. Both times, I found its unique beauty enchanting and inspiring.
We made new friends, local climbers and travelers from all over the world, and climbed, ate, and partied with them. Sam and I were fortunate enough to be able to climb with Yuji Hirayama, fellow North Face athlete and climbing legend. His positive spirit and playful attitude toward life created an upbeat atmosphere. This, along with his masterful climbing style, inspired and motivated us to try harder and take ourselves less seriously. We found joy and amusement in things we would have otherwise considered annoying and a hassle. When Yuji’s bike broke down, Sam and I were towing it up a single-track trail when our bike went off track and overturned on top of us. We were trapped underneath it in a large prickle bush. Gasoline was dripping out of the engine onto my clothes and Yuji rushed over to pull the bike off of us. He was smirking, and instead of being angry or upset, all we could do was smile and laugh at our situation.
The good energy from our newfound community of friends carried us through each of our days and into the night. The last few days of our trip were the Yangshuo Climbing Festival. We taught clinics during the day and Sam, Yuji, and I gave a slideshow on our trip to Turkey that night. During my speaking section of our show, I shared my thoughts about community and culture; and related it to the crowd that was in Yangshuo that night. There was no shortage of passion and enthusiasm in that room. Everyone was there in celebration of climbing and the lifestyle that brings us all together. I thanked them for allowing me to share my thoughts and experiences with them, feeling an enormous sense of appreciation and good fortune for the opportunity to be there that night.
I left Yangshuo at 4am the next day, destined for Chicago and eventually Mexico City for the Petzl Roc Trip, an entirely different world, and yet just as foreign to me as the one I was leaving. I felt really sad and lonely at the airport, dreading the long solo journey I was about to embark on and already missing my friends in Yangshuo. Thinking back, I remember not enjoying my first trip to China near as much as I did the second one. I recall feeling desperate to get home to my comfortable surroundings and familiar culture, similar to how I felt when I initially arrived at the beginning of my second trip. I was unable to accept the differences and challenges with amusement and fascination, allowing frustration and ignorance to prevail instead. This time I had changed my perception and let the idea that “this is how it is here” become my mindset. The trip was full of ups and downs, but in the end; every experience, positive and negative, had been a worthy one. I reflected on these thoughts, and wondered why it was different the second time around. Maybe it was the community, or the nature of the festival that made it more positive. Or maybe, I realized, I had grown up a little bit.