Getting High on the Rocks at Yangshuo

Hailing from a land where I can jog down the road and see great big men like Russell Crowe punching each other while balanced on their surfboards, I knew full well what was going on when I found myself perched on a fiberglass rock, gazing at the reflection of my high-rise apartment block in a 10cm deep, chlorinated "stream".

I'd gone soft. I needed air, I needed nature, I needed adrenaline, and I needed sport.

Yangshuo has it all. On the recommendation of friends, I went on a package trip with Aussie-run rock-climbing joint Chinaclimb. All I had to do was give them a call, and get to the airport.

Three hours later, sitting in the minibus from Guilin airport. I was hit by the heavy nighttime fragrance of tropical Southern Asia. Then suddenly, out of the darkness on either side of me loomed enormous mountains, the likes of which I had only ever seen on painted scrolls. I burst into tears of relief - nature.

Shaking jelly noodles

This is China nature in all its glory - of Karst mountains and caves and rivers and rice-paddies. Forget surfing, diving and skiing, there's tons to do - rock climbing, caving, rafting, canoeing, cycling and swimming.

The first climb was totally terrifying. There I was in a helmet and a crotch-enhancing harness, sprawled across a flat, slippery vertical rock with nowhere to go but down. My guide, Tommy, had no sympathy for my predicament, "No! Don't stop! Climb higher, you can do it - come on, just go left!" But my arms were shaking like jelly noodles and I felt like shouting, "but it's not Oprah Winfrey! I'm hanging off a sheer cliff face!"

I climbed down, received a pat on the back from Tommy, and stood sweating as I watched the more experienced climbers scramble up the same cliff face in two seconds flat, muscles bulging and shining, like giant brown lizards.

My spirits lifted when Tommy pointed out how high I had climbed and realized I had actually made it about 7 metres. I was a legend. I decided to work on my arm strength.

After climbing we went for a swim in a beautiful lagoon valley. The sky was perfectly blue and the mountains rose around us on all sides like crouching tigers all waiting to pounce.

Moon Hill

On day two, I took a motorbike rickshaw from Yangshuo out to Yueliang Shan (Moon Hill), famous tourist spot. It's not a "hill" but it's worth the climb, and just remember - 1,000 steps is a great way to build up your leg strength for rock climbing.

Through the arch of the cave, as far as the eye can see, misted peaks sit, poised like advancing waves. I watched the rockclimbers.

As it turned out, not only was my technique all wrong - clinging desperately by the arms is a cardinal rock climbing boo-boo - but I had totally misunderstood the whole sport.

In fact, my fear of falling to certain death was completely irrational - the truth is you can let go at any time. The belayer (person who stands underneath you and lets out the rope) will catch you. They have a pulley attached to their harness which snaps the rope tight and means they are only actually holding about 10kg, not your whole body weight.

You don't fall down, either, you fall out about half a metre and bounce back gently onto the rock. So you can do that at any point when first beginning and lean back and take a good look at what your next move might be. I guess it's like physical chess in a way.

The amazing climbers at Yueliang Shan (Moon Hill) just seemed to hang there from the limestone roof of the cave (by the fingers of one hand or by their pinky toe) for ages before they made their next move.

My second climbing outing was with a bunch of Aussies, Dutch and English. This time I listened to what the guides said: "Take it slowly, just get to the top."

And I did! Maybe I swore a little bit and had a few precarious moments with one foot near my ear and the other in the air, but thanks to the directions of my guide Tommy, I made it without letting go once.

Successful climbing

Yangshuo by night is gorgeous. The mountains are floodlit, and the streets are lined with travellers and locals alike, who enjoy the outdoor cafes and night markets.

A very good place to go and have dessert (apple crumble) and coffee is Cafe China. There is a rooftop garden on the fourth floor where you can sit and watch people, listen to distant flute music and appreciate the dark beauty of the mountains with their temples all lit up. Here's where I met Patrick, an Irish climber who knew all about the scene.

My third climb with Patrick was a raging success. Mainly because we were climbing with a nine-year-old and an 11-year-old who both made it to the top of the second route in five seconds. They climbed with a tongues-out, devil-may-care style and spent considerable lengths of time swinging giggling from their harnesses. I decided to take the second climb, which had previously defeated me, and treat it like a moment by moment exploration.

And I made it! The feeling of being perched at the top of a climb is incredible. The sense of achievement is one thing, but the view - gazing out at the rice paddies, the mountains, the farmers carrying bunches of grass, the blue skies - it's just so beautiful.

If you're bored with the gym, head to the indoor climbing walls around town. If you're going climbing in Yangshuo give it a go at one of these places first - they're about 30 yuan per visit and they give you all the equipment.

Travel tips

Give Chinaclimb a call. They will organize air travel, transfers, accommodation, breakfast, packed gourmet lunches and four activities (climbing, kayaking, caving, cycling). Prices for a two-night weekend package from Shanghai range from 2,800 yuan (US$338).

( Shanghai Star August 15, 2002)