• Katie Trojak

Moped Crashes and Rock Climbing in Yangshuo, China

Yangshuo was a small tourist town nestled in the karst mountains near Guilin, China. The day after we left camp (read more about that here!), my friend and I found ourselves on a plane then a bus heading to our hostel.


There are so many outdoor activities to do in Yangshuo, you just need to know where to find them. I had done so much research on the different hikes, viewpoints, and water sports one could do while there. I was determined to do all of them during our 5 days.


One of the main streets in Yangshuo

I was most excited to go rock climbing. People came from all over the world to rock climb the karsts in Yangshuo and I loved rock climbing, but had never gone on a real rock face.


Of course, I didn’t count on sleeping through the first few days from exhaustion from camp.


By the third day, we still had no prospects for rock climbing. I tried booking online, but the research I had done lead me to locations but not companies that would take you out and loan you equipment.


A view over Yangshuo and the karsts from one of the hikes we did the day after

So after waking up that day, we walked along the long secondary road where all the activity companies were. I wasn’t thrilled to just be booking through a general company rather than a rock climbing company, but I was so dead set on rock climbing that I was willing to compromise.


I picked a random one that I had a good feeling about and walked in. It was a long conversation using google translate to break the language barrier. I tried to be stalwart in what I was asking for- rock climbing, loaned equipment, and transportation to and from the location. But they were firm in what they could offer and I eventually caved.


For 150 yuan, about $20, I would be able to go rock climbing with loaned equipment, but I would have to find my own way there. It was several miles down the road.


I looked at my friend, at a loss for what we could do. He shrugged. “The hostel rents mopeds.”


I blanked, horrified at the idea of riding one of those death traps for miles along stretches of completely unknown Chinese highway.


The main street in Yangshuo at night time

I didn’t have anything particularly against mopeds or motorcycles, but did I trust the rusty mopeds outside the hostel? Did I trust the random Chinese highway? Did I trust myself to suddenly learn how to safely steer when I didn’t even have my drivers license? No, no, and no.


But it was my only option. I handed over my yuans.


Just a few hours later I was given a quick lesson on how to ride a moped. Months later, I don’t even remember how to ride one. Squeeze something to go, squeeze something to stop, turn the handle bars to go left or right. Try not to fall off.


I like to think that we practiced, but there were so many cars, people, and rickshaws that we had no more practice than pulling away from the hostel before we were off.


Sitting on my moped after I got the hang out it

The company had shown me a map earlier with the location for rock climbing marked off that I had taken a picture of on my phone. Of course, pulling out a phone while riding on a new vehicle at 20 kmph isn’t encouraged, so we relied mostly on the crude vocal instructions given to us by the person manning the store.


A few turns then a few miles then just by the giant parking lot. Seemed simple.


The busy streets soon turned into busy highway streets. There was a lane specifically for moped travel, but that didn’t ease my anxiety at all. I was having trouble knowing exactly how hard to press to accelerate and I would end up leaping forward then slowing down repeatedly.


Like a leapfrog.


We flew down the road.


At the head of one of the sections of highway, we slowed down and tried to compare where we were to where we were trying to go. We checked just in time, too, because we were just about to miss a turn. All we had to do was turn around, backtrack a drop, then cross the street and follow that road.


A quick selfie of my friend and I on our mopeds before we raced off

My friend turned his moped in a circle with ease, aligning himself on the sidewalk to go back.


I turned my handle bars sharply, accelerated a drop, and began to turn. In the oncoming lane, another moped quickly approached with a father and son riding with the ease of a lifetime of practice. They were coming up way too quickly.


In an attempt to get out of their way, I panicked and immediately squeezed the accelerator, roaring the moped in the direction I had turned the handles.


In a split second, the moped flew out from under me and went skittering away while I scraped across the highway floor.


I had crashed! I crashed on the moped!


The man slowed his moped before it ever got to me, but I leaped to my feet anyways. Him, his son, and an elderly woman walking nearby all quickly met my eyes, concern flooding their faces for the crazy white girl who had just crashed her moped.


I waved them off and steadied my vehicle, assuring my friend that the scrapes running up and down my legs were minor.


My poor legs. After six weeks in China, they were completely battered from endless mosquito bites, scratches from helping with the camping class, scrapes from a dozen other activities, a blood infection (read more here!), and now being slammed into and dragged along the highway.


I was more embarrassed than anything. “Dway-butsi, dway-butsi. Xie-xie.” I stumbled over the little Mandarin I was able to say. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Thank you.


One of the most famous karst formations a bit away from Yangshuo

After I shook myself off, I tentatively started the moped up again and was soon racing off down the highway again. Metropolitan signs faded to cruder roads and forest rather quickly. We passed the markers and pulled into the parking lot.


My heart sank. This was not rock climbing.


Back in the one room tourist company building, I had shown them what I wanted to do. Rock face climbing. This was via ferrata, where bolts and rigs were placed into the cliff face to make it easier and more of an adventure.


I had done enough artificial climbing, I really wanted to do real rock climbing.


The sun would be setting soon, but I hadn’t crashed my moped to give up here. I left my friend down by the motorbikes and walked up to the main desk. Once again using google translate and pointing at my receipts, I explained the confusion.


Realization dawned on the man’s face. He said that I could do this, but if I really wanted to, then another man could take me down to where I was supposed to be. I pleaded with him to take me to the rock climbing.


Before I could blink, there were now three of us on mopeds racing down the highway in the complete opposite direction. My friend and I followed him, weaving in and out of moving cars, parked cars, and other mopeds. We ran right past the place I had crashed. My heart was beating unbelievably fast.


Down the highway in another direction, we watched the metropolitan highway fade to rural fields and farmland once again.


Once we got past the bustling roads and my fear of crashing into anything that moved near me, I began to understand exactly how to use the moped. After a while, it almost felt like flying.


The road was straight in front of me, cutting through rice fields and running towards the sun. I urged my vehicle to go faster and faster, racing my friend and taking my breath away. The wind whipped through my loose, short hair. I flew.


We finally pulled into the tiny parking lot for the rock climbing center. It was a small set up on a small cliff face, just a few paths to the top where the ropes are rooted.


The man who had guided us from the last location passed me off to one of the workers, handing them my receipt and explaining in Mandarin why I was there.


With few words, I was guided over to the desk and given a harness and shoes. My friend sat down and watched amused as I stepped into all the gear. Before I had even fully registered that I was there, I had a helmet on and was ready to go.


Cheekily posing as I prepare to climb; if you look closely you can see how badly my legs are torn up

I sat down and breathed for a few moments, heart still beating rapidly from the moped ride to get here. I handed my friend my phone, begging him to take a few pictures of me while I was up there.


And then I was ready to go.


For those of you who don’t know anything about rock climbing, it’s very difficult. Even for the routes you can do indoors, it’s challenging to be quick and sturdy on them. And that’s with handles that were made to fit hands.


The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) ranks from 5.2 to 5.15c. A lot of common indoor routes are ranked around 5.3-5.5. A 5.8 is where you really start to transition from well practiced beginner to intermediate, when your muscles are developed and your technique practiced.


I knew I was pretty good at rock climbing and I had spent all summer running around and kayaking with kids, so I knew I was relatively strong. I figured I would start around 5.5 to 5.7 and if I was feeling really confident about it, try a 5.8 to feel accomplished.


I told the guide this and I’m not sure if it was lost in translation or if they wanted to give me a challenge, but I quickly found myself being hooked up to a 5.8 ascent.


It was my first time climbing on a rock face and they put me on a 5.8.


I started my way up.


Starting the challenging climb

I quickly found that climbing on a cliff face was much more challenging than any route I had done indoors. The hand and foot holds were small and there were few that I could use to propel myself higher.


The chalk dust pouch wrapped around my waist and I dipped my hands in to grip the rock more. I remember feeling the pebbles against my fingertips as I dug into the holds. I remember the cold rock as I slid my body across the face.


Every rock climbing technique I had ever learned raced through my head. Spread your body out and distribute your weight. Use your legs so you don’t tire your arms out. Take breaks if you need to.


And I needed to. About halfway up, I stopped on a little alcove, grateful for the relief. I looked out at the rice fields and karsts surrounding me. Being so high and feeling the wind on my face was glorious as the sun faded in the distance.


Giving a little smile from the alcove I took my break from

It was also terrifying. I love heights, but being up on a high rock face with just a rope keeping you from falling flat on your face was horrifying. I rationally knew that they could catch me if I fell (probably), but it’s much harder to convince myself of that.


I usually loved going as high as I could on man made rock climbing courses, either indoors or outdoors. But there was something very different looking at the gray of the rock in front of me rather than the brightly colored plastic I normally saw.


It felt like the only thing between me and falling straight down and crashing on the rocks below were my hands that pulled me higher and higher.


But up and up I went. Higher and higher, on a 5.8 rock face.


This picture might give you more understanding of just how high up I was heading

I’ve done a lot of terrifying things when traveling. I’ve been in a lot of terrifying situations. But I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared as I was when I was on that wall.


My arms ached. The front half of my body was cold from the smooth rock while my back felt the beating sun as it receded. Dust fell on my face.


I strained and reached and pushed and pulled my way to the top. After that break, there wasn’t another one that I could take, though there were certainly several spots on the wall where I had to stop and take a breath before continuing.


There were several spots I thought I was stuck and couldn’t continue.


After minutes and minutes of my heart beating out of my chest, my brain telling me I was going to die, and my forearms screaming from exertion, I finally touched the top.


Nearing the top!

Relief washed over me and I looked out once again over the scene. I pushed aside my fear of certain death and took a moment to enjoy.


The sun was still falling behind the forested karsts, which stretched narrow and tall towards the soft sky. Colors swirled around in the clouds over the rice fields, a shallow green color, that rippled in the shy wind. There was a giant butterfly carved into the side of one mountain, a tourist attraction we hadn’t had time to see, and I could see it’s full length.


I wish I had my phone to take a photo, but the image exists only in my head now.


The climb was so worth it. It had been so much harder than I had expected, being my first climb outdoors and ranked so high. I was scared out of my wits. But I got to stand at the top of the clifface, satisfied that I had been able to climb a 5.8 and enjoying one of the most beautiful views I had ever seen.


I signaled to the man below, letting him know I was ready to come down.


For a moment, the clearest thought ran through my head. “You’re a random tourist off a random road in China climbing at a random spot that you didn’t check the safety ratings of and are about to belay down a very tall cliff face with only a rope and a man holding you up. You’re going to die.”


But there was no other way down. So I took a deep breath, looked out at the view in case it was the last thing I ever saw, and lept from the top of the cliff.


Spoiler alert: I didn’t die.


The ground raced towards me as I continually pushed off the face to bound to a stop.

I couldn’t help but let out a squeal when my feet touched the grass again. I had done it!


Imagine looking out over this from high up on the cliff face

I did two more climbs before I left, a 5.7 and a 5.6. And while they were still terrifying and challenging, they were nothing compared to that first climb I did. My first climb on a real rock face ever.


I’m not sure if I’ll ever rock climb again. I’m not kidding when I say it was one of the most terrifying moments of my life. But the feeling of completing such a hard climb was incomparable to anything else I had ever done. The hardest moments sometimes really do bring the best rewards.


And that moment rock climbing in China, with the colors in the sky and the rice fields, with the ground far below and the gray rock, with my aching arms and beating heart, I will never be able to forget.


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