It’s 2am and my phone beeps, waking me up. I reach out for it and knock it off the side of my bed, the top bunk. I’m hoping that’s not the 2nd screen I’ll replace in a month! I make my way down and find my phone, still intact and open the message:
“Tomorrow 9:00am, the climber will come to the hostel to pick you.
What’s your shoes’ size?
Tell me now.”
……..Let’s back up a few days……………..
After heading out of Guangzhou, I’ve arrived in Guilin, in the Northeast of the Guangxi province.
Unlike my recent city stops in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou you can see nature from nearly everywhere you stand. The city is set to a karst landscape backdrop of mountains and is hugged around by the Li River.
I spend a couple of days having a wander around the city. The popular city sights like Lake Fir and Elephant Hill (named due to the growing hole on the side of the hill which now resembles an elephant’s trunk drinking from the nearby river). The underground road walkways which have been converted into electronic markets during the day (you hear about 1000 beeps in the 2 minute walk to get to the other side of the road), and which I saw used as a temporary dance studio for a couple at night :-)
And, in general, just some time flaneuring around the outskirts and getting lost for a while….finding some old local markets in the quieter part of town and taking in the atmosphere.
A couple of days ahead, and I move on to Yangshou, a couple of hours South of Guilin. Yangshou is a recent tourist hotspot, and for good reason. All the mountains and natural beauty of Guilin but on a smaller scale – it’s like the mountains are on top of you, dotted around and inside the town! :-)
I find my hostel and am given the key to my dorm. I walk into a darkened room – all the curtains are drawn over and there is a sleeping figure wrapped up in the blanket sleeping on the far side of the room. ‘Must have been a heavy night’, I’m thinking as it’s 5pm in the afternoon. The room is covered with opened books, notepads, and clothes. I can’t figure out which of the 4 beds is the free one as the items seem to cover all the surfaces. I’ll work it out later, I think as I drop my bag on the floor and go for an explore around the town.
The beauty of the town draws in the tourists. The town has winding streets lined with markets and filled with moving human traffic. It’s coming up to the national holiday week here in China, and I’ve already been warned that it becomes amazingly difficult to use transport and move in popular towns and cities due to the number of Chinese tourists. It’s not quite here yet, but I got the definite feeling that it was building up :-)
And the town is more than ready for the tourism! – Markets, card hustlers, musicians and street performers line the sides of the streets, with the occasional break and scattering when a police patrol shows up!
I head back to the hostel and before heading to my room I check out the rooftop bar. Views! Bam!
Back to the room and I meet my no-longer-sleeping roommate, Jing Yi… or the English version: ‘Safire’. I found out that in China, Chinese people can choose their own ‘English’ name, and non-chinese people can choose their Chinese name. In the latter case, the chosen chinese name is usually a phonetically similar sounding version of the English version…..in the former, Chinese people can just select something which sounds cool – There are a lot of ‘Winters’, ‘Devils’, and ‘Septembers’ knocking around :-)
“Have you eaten already?”, Jing Yi asks still rubbing sleep from her eyes
“No, not yet”
“Let’s go eat!”, She says and jumps out of bed. I’m not too certain if it was a question or a demand.
“Ok” I say, and follow as she has already bounded out of the room.
She takes me through the same streets I’ve wandered in the hours just before. She is keeping a pace with me trailing half a step behind trying to keep up. There is the occasional break as she is stopped every couple of meters for a chat, in Chinese, from various store owners, passers-by, and street musicians.
Wonder how everyone knows who she is? I’m thinking. We get stopped again at a table outside a restaurant. There is a young Chinese girl sitting outside along with a middle-aged British couple. Jing Yi and the girl start chatting and I talk to the couple. Really nice and friendly, on a retirement break – 3 weeks in China.
“This is our guide”, they say and nod to the girl they are sitting with.
I didn’t realise at the time, but this is a really common thing, especially on hotspots like Yangshou. Paying a guide to share your holiday with you, navigating the language barrier, and help organise transport and trips during your stay.
“Is this your guide?”, They ask and nod towards Jing Yi.
“Er…..no”, I say and still try to work out what a guide was.
“Oh! How do you know each other?”
“Er…we don’t, we’re just going to grab some food”
“My hat’s off to you son”, the guy says beaming. “Traveling China alone, braver than I was at your age!”
I smile. I think this guy thinks I’m a lot younger than what I am. It has happened quite a bit on this trip…..I think it’s more around expectation that they have rather than me looking particularly young for my age…..a lot of travellers I’ve met are either in the ‘just out of Uni’ bracket….or the just ‘retired bracket’…Out of the 2, I probably squeeze into the former category :-)
“What are you up to tomorrow?” They ask.
“I’m thinking about climbing up Antenna Hill”, I say, “I’ve heard the views are pretty stunning”
The guide overhears us “Antenna Hill? Do you know how to get there?” she asks, and somehow already knowing my answer was going to be ‘no’, starts scribbling on a napkin.
‘No, not yet.’
She hands me the napkin and I take a look at the instructions. “Really?” I say.
“Afraid so”, she smiles. “You won’t find that place by chance”
The instructions read something like a hidden drop-off location in a spy film…..’Walk to the market’, ‘When you see a hot pot stand and a ceramic store, you know to turn left at the next alley’, ‘Walk through and up to the first set of houses, through the front porch and around to the back of the building……’
“Thanks!”, I tell her……maybe I should have hired a guide around China after all?
“Let’s go” Jing Yi says and is walking again. I smile and wave goodbye.
We get through the main streets and into some of the smaller alleys which become instantly quieter. A few more blocks and we have arrived at a tiny local restaurant.
“Don’t speak…I’ll order. In Yangshou there are 2 prices for everything; One for the tourists and one for the locals.” This is true, it’s not even a hidden secret, I’d already spotted the dual menus with price differences in town.
Jing Yi orders a bunch of local specialties. Thin sliced fish pot and stuffed Li River snails. Snails are a first for me, but they tasted amazing. Taken out of the shells, blended with a bunch of herbs and spices, re-stuffed and cooked….Nyam!
The rest of the puzzle slowly starts to come into place. Jing Yi is a street performer here in Yangshou, which is the reason everyone in town seems to know her. She has been living here for 2 months and has a long-term deal with the hostel, pretty much has a dorm to herself, but as it’s approaching the busy period, beds are becoming scarce in the hostel. A belly dancer since she was 18 and, more recently, a fire-poi artist. Jing Yi is also travelling around, although in a different way and timeframe compared to me.
“I try to skill swap”, she tells me. “I’ll stay in a place for a few months, busk for money, and try to learn a new skill in the meantime.”
“I find something I want to learn, find an instructor and ask them to teach me in return for me teaching them something…….I’m in Yangshou for rock climbing. The town is famous for it. I’ve found an instructor, he teaches me to climb and in return I am teaching him Fire Poi”
“Wow, nice! And then?” I ask, my own trip feeling far less adventurous by the second :-)
“I don’t know. Right now it’s good. Climbing is fun. Busking is good. Lot’s of tourists, I can live comfortably for an hour or 2 working per night. In a couple of months though Winter will come and it gets cold….I hate the cold…I’ll leave and find somewhere warm to busk”
“What are you learning?”, she asks. I’m not sure how to respond…that’s a far more philosophical sounding question than I was expecting whilst in the middle of eating a snail.
“I’m not sure….at the moment I’m not studying anything if that’s what you mean? I’d like to think I’m still learning something every day even if I’m not aware of it.”
She frowns….I don’t think that’s what she meant, “Why don’t you just busk? Make some money while you travel…..”
“I’ve never done any busking before….I used to play guitar but am not travelling with one…..I’m not even sure what I’d do even if had one, I’m not much of a singer”, I say. Jing Yi’s frown deepens as if the idea of not having skills to busk would be any sort of problem at all. “I have to go and get my stuff for work….you should think about busking”, she smiles, waves and disappears.
I have a final wander around the markets at night. It’s just as busy, if not more, than during the day. I decide to call it a night.
The next day I take my instruction napkin and make my way to Antenna Hill. The guide was right….I would have struggled stumbling to this place by myself. After walking to the market, spotting the hot pot stand and a ceramic store, turning down the next alley, and after wandering through a number of people’s house porches, I find the small set of cobbled steps to start my way up the hill.
There is an unwritten law I’ve found when visiting spots. The number of people there is directly proportional to how easy it is to find and/or get there. This place was no exception…..I didn’t see another person on the entire walk to the top…and had these views completely to myself……I almost felt selfish!
I get back to the flat. Jing Yi is just waking up.
“You should climb”, she says through a yawn
“Hello! How was your day?”
“You should climb”, she repeats, “…while you are here…you should climb. Yangshou has the best climbing.”
“Yeah, I’m thinking about it, I’m gonna have a look around tomorrow”
“I’ll get you a discount, I know the masters here.”
“Sounds good, thanks. Hook me up”
And that night I receive the text demanding a shoe size, which causes me to almost break my phone. I reply ‘UK size 10’ and vaguely wonder if that means anything at all in Chinese shoes before falling back asleep.
The next morning and a Chinese guy in a yellow T-Shirt knocks on the door. I open it.
“That’s me, nice to meet you” and we shake hands.
“I’m Water”, he says and then looks me up and down. “You look strong”, he nods his head approvingly. I like this guy.
He hands me a pair of size 10 climbing shoes, I get on the back of his bike, and we head to the mountain he has selected for the day. It was raining slightly the night before and so he has picked a wall which is top-heavy and with a slight overhang…the part of the wall we would be using was dry for today’s climb!
There are another 2 of his regular students waiting for us at the base. “Hi, I’m Kim”, the girl tells me. The guy comes over, “Hi….I’m……..”
he pauses and I realise that he might not have even given himself an English name yet……and this may just be the moment that he is going to decide! What a moment!…..he could choose anything!…….the entire list of nouns are at his disposal!……….a dictionary of cool and mysterious names of which he can select and be called forevermore……..“…I’m……I’m John”.
“Nice to meet you John, I’m Craig”
We start the first climb. John takes the lead and scales the wall, securing the safety rope into the clips at the various points. Generally flying up the wall, but at the odd point that he feels a bit stuck, Water shouts up in Chinese and gestures with the hand or body position which would be best for the spot John was stuck in.
After the 4th or 5th clip of the rope, John dives his hand into a crack in the mountainside for a grip. He looks surprised and starts shouting down something to Water and Kim who were looking on from the ground. After a few seconds he pulls something out of the opening, drops it and lets it flutter to the ground.
“What’s that”, I ask
“Oh, just a snake skin” Water tells me.
“Just a snake skin?” I repeat
“Yeah, you sometimes get them here” Water says, still monitoring John as he ascended.
Great…..I think. Nothing like throwing yourself in at the deep end. Don’t just worry about falling…..be careful plunging you hands into snake-filled dark holes at the same time!
John makes his way down after securing the final buckle. It’s my turn. I hook myself up and am given the mandatory first-timer’s crash helmet to wear. John is belaying for me (he has the other end of the rope tied to him in case I slip), and I start my ascent.
It starts off well, and I make may way up to the middle of the run and then suddenly I can’t see my next move. It’s reached a point where it’s one of those ‘leap of faith moments’ – the grip you need is out of reach so I have to push-off with my legs and hope to grab the grip.
“You can do it!”, I hear John shout encouragingly from below me. “Jump and grab to your right!”
“He means Left”, Kim shouts up after him.
I jump, reach, and the grip slips out of my hand. It’s a strange moment when you miss on the wall. Even though the logical part of your brain knows what you are doing: that you are doing a controlled climb and your attached to a rope with someone supporting you. In that split second that you miss, the primal, evolutionary instincts kick in with the thought ‘This is how you die today….you’re falling off a mountain’.
My hand catches a luckily placed second grip as I slip and I manage to catch myself before the rope slack catches me. I catch my breath and finish the climb. A quick look around – it’s awesome! I only wish I could climb and bring the camera along!
“Well done! Now jump down”, John shouts from below.
I kick off the mountain with my feet and the thought comes a fraction of a second later as my hands let go of the final grips – ‘I wonder how much this guy weighs?’ and have the momentary thought of him being pulled off the ground on the rope by my body weight and us both being stuck, swaying like a weighing scale, on the side of the mountain for the rest of the day.
Fortunately, he weighed enough and could lower me slowly back to the ground :-)
Kim finishes up the round on our first wall-run. She goes up faster than either of us, uncliping the rope for us to use on the next run. John starts again but this time he can’t progress to the top. Water is shouting instructions for a few minutes and John trys a few things but is unsuccessful. Finally, Water starts shouting up, “Wang Xia! Wang Xia!” (Down!)
John returns back down, looking slightly sheepish and unbuckles himself. Water takes the rope and buckles himself up for the first and only time of the day – to finish the job of attaching the rope. At this pont, I understood just how suitable Water’s English name was…..he just flowed up the rock face. No hesitation…just purely efficient movement….it looked so easy!
We finished up the run and then a couple more. Was a great experience in all and I felt really lucky to be able to give it a go. :-)
The final day, and I take another well-known recommendation for the area and hire a bike for the day. Cycled along the river to take the rest of the beautiful landscape (and to take a break from the throngs for a while). Final few pics below.