Soaring mountains, minority peoples, yaks: all of these things are found in abundance around the tiny villages of western Sichuan province. “Tibet’s backdoor,” this is the place to go if you want to get close to The Roof of the World and its culture but can’t afford a permit. Be forewarned, though, that western Sichuan is a difficult and time-consuming place to access, as it’s virtually absent of train tracks and paved roads. What follows are some tips that I’ve compiled after a two-week trip through the region. I started in Dali, in Yunnan province, and worked my way northeast to Chengdu. Do not attempt to apply my advice to a trip in the reverse direction.

Dali vs. Lijiang

Dali and Lijiang have received substantial attention from independent travelers in recent years. Both are tourist traps of a kind, but I found Dali to be considerably less offensive than Lijiang. Old-town Lijiang was nothing more than a really Chinesey outdoor shopping mall. If you’ve spent time in Yangshuo, you’re not going to be impressed. I couldn’t stop thinking that I was at the China exhibit at Epcot Center. Dali, on the other hand, is actually a working village where normal folks – Chinese, Bai, Naxi, Tibetan, and the occasional Westerner – go about their lives. Get away from the main drag and you’ll be rewarded with a glimpse of life in charming little community. Hot tip: Ask Jia Yang for a bed at Smile Bar, then go see Adam at ClimbDali and arrange a trip to the other side of the lake. You’ll be glad you did.

Tiger Leaping Gorge

Lots of independent travelers come for the trek. Having recently been in the Himalaya, I found the scenery uninspiring. TLG is no Grand Canyon, and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain doesn’t hold a candle to the Alps. It certainly didn’t help that the trek followed a set of powerlines and water pipes. Still, it was fun to get out and do some walking… and some eating. The guesthouses along the way are fun places to meet other travelers and gather your thoughts about the road ahead.

Shangri La

A bit of a border town, Zhongdian (aka “Shangri La”) has become a convenient place from which to attempt to sneak in to Tibet. It isn’t a terribly interesting urban environment, but the surrounding countryside is stunning. Bus-loads of Chinese tourists, and a fair number of Westerners, come for the Ganden Sumtseling Gompa that sits nestled in the hills outside of town. Most folks fork over 85 CNY to see the place; I went for free. How? I wasn’t interested in spending that kind of money so I went for a walk in the fields, leaving the ticket office and heading for the “Shangri La” sign on the hill. Taking lots of pictures, I climbed the ridge on the left, trying to get a good shot of Zhongdian in the distance. When I turned around, I discovered that I’d pretty much walked to the temple itself. I wandered through the alleyways of the adjacent village until I was standing under its golden eves with all the other tourists. No one ever asked for my ticket.

Shangri La to Daocheng

The scenery on this leg of the trip was absolutely stunning, and I wish that I’d hired a minivan instead of taking the bus. It would have been lovely to have stopped for some decent pictures. There’s a long – say, 25km – chain of limestone spires that, from the road, look like they’d make for some amazing new-routing.

Daocheng

This place is a bit of hole. It’s only redeeming quality is HERE Cafe, a cozy little place in the basement of a traditional Tibetan home. It’s expensive but boasts the only good coffee you’ll get until Chengdu, not to mention free Wifi and a cute owner. It’s about 50m to the left of the bus station, on the opposite side of the street. On your walk, you’ll inevitably be hassled by the local minivan drivers. They’ll want to take you to Yading or Litang. They’re a predatory bunch, but give them your 50 yuan and get out of Daocheng that same day if you can. There’s little reason to bother spending the night when more exciting destinations are only a few hours away.

Daocheng to Litang

This ride only takes three hours and has some impressive scenery. Still, the landscape’s not nearly as dramatic as what you’ve just seen on the ride from Zhongdian… that is, unless you’re a boulderer. The area around Rabbit Ears could be China’s most untapped climbing resource! Still, it’s very much at altitude and the weather is persnickety. Hopefully you’ll be luckier on that front than I was.

Litang

Charmless unless you get yourself out into the countryside. There are lots of desperate looking men standing around the main drag and few places with palatable food. It’s pretty much the epitome of a border-town. Still, you’ll definitely get the feeling that you’re in Tibetan territory.

Kangding

The bus ride down from Litang is, admittedly, painful. You’ll be pleasantly surprised with this little hole-in-the-wall city, though. Nestled in a deep river valley, the whole town is maybe only a kilometer wide and five long, so you can easily cover it in a day. While it doesn’t have much infrastructure for Western backpackers, it is pretty interesting from a sociological perspective. This is the place where Chinese and Tibetan cultures have set up their trading post. You’re definitely back in China proper, with its strip-malls and fast food joints, but there’s a striking outland population wandering around.

Chengdu

Big, hot, noisy, and… really relaxed. If you start to get sweaty, you can always head up to Emei Shan or the Four Sisters.You’ve just been out in the boonies for two weeks. Don’t you want a pizza?

The Bai women of western Yunnan are cut from the very earth. Their stars-of-twilight eyes are set against high cheekbones and taught, tan skin the likes of baked clay. They make a perfect prayer to the sun, having worked countless hours under its relentlessness. In their traditional hats of crackling white and pink, their sapphire petticoats, they are art at labor. Both steely and quick to smile, everything about the Bai woman is dignified; absent is the lostness that swells in the throats of so many other indigenous peoples.

The massive lake adjacent Dali echoes the sky. Low mountains that ramble up from its western shores seem imposing from a distance, but in the sunset they are revealed to be infants playing at kings and queens. Their playhouse dominion is a small walled city of cobbled lanes, failing stone houses, willows, pomegranates, and Bai women at market. The air is cool but for the hard sun, and it rained for hours last night. The skin of a cow lay on the flagstone in front of a market shop this morning. The tiny street dogs remind me of someone I loved once.

Adam is married to a stunning Chinese woman called Colleen. They are expecting a child, and she radiates. Superstitious, she’ll avoid cold water after the child is born. They’ve just returned home to Dali from Yangshuo, where we met, and the States before that. Happy to play hosts, they took us to the other side of the lake for two days, to a small Bai village where cactus grows on the dry hillsides above lush farmland. There, on the shores of the lake, is an ornate guesthouse in whose open courtyards swam the smells of a busy Bai kitchen. We passed a quiet night at the water’s edge, lulled by the lapping water and the sounds of the local fishermen hauling whitebait.

The southern jungles have fallen away behind me; icy peaks are a promise now. In a few days, a great swath of land forced up by the Tibetan Plateau will blot out the sky. Dali is my jumping-off point for a journey into remote Sichuan, and by-and-by, Tibet. Days and days on buses, valley villages, and towering rock lay ahead. The Himalaya are out there, across a great, dry distance. I’m already haunted by curious dreams, a product of the thinning air. Sometimes they push through the veil into my waking hours, and I imagine the pause in your eyes as I start to say something miraculous but then forget what it was.

~br

It has been quite a while and I haven’t been very communicative. My last blog entry was made almost a month ago now. I imagine that you’re wondering what I’ve been up to. Well, after Vang Vieng I spent a few days in Luang Prabang, a gem in the heart of undeveloped Laos, wet on the shores of the Mekong. Then came a 24-hour bus ride to Kunming, China. I spent a week there relaxing and reacquainting myself with the developed world. I’ve since settled back into a regular climbing schedule in Yangshuo. Recent days haven’t been terribly productive, due to rain, but there are certainly worse places to be stuck indoors. Yangshuo boasts good food, decent coffee, and lots of wifi.

Despite all the down time I haven’t had much of an opportunity to write. I’ve been working on a secret project since I left Bangkok and my involvement with it has peaked in recent weeks. A few months back I wrote about the insolubility of my motivations, of the way that sometimes certain ideas take hold and begin to compel. Well, I am definitely hooked! I’ll explain:

If you’ve been following along, you probably know that I came first to India back in July. There I was met by a group of climbers and a big red truck. I spent six months with HotRock, traveling from India to Pakistan, China, and Vietnam. The experience was overwhelming. The climbing, the people, and the destinations were all unforgettable. I cannot say enough about HotRock as an organization and a community. They were my ambassadors to the Third World, enabling me to have the experience I wanted when I set out from home. For that I am grateful. Thanks, guys!

Somewhere in China it occurred to me that someone should try do the same thing for climbers who want to visit the States. At home, I can go to a different world-class crag each week and not run out of destinations for more than a year. Most foreign climbers will only ever see a small fraction of them, though, because of their inaccessibility. Places like Red River Gorge and Joe’s Valley are in the middle of nowhere, far from any public transportation. The only way to get out to them is to drive, long-term car rental is prohibitively expensive, and purchase is risky.

You can probably guess where this is going.

What would the ultimate American cragging trip look like? East Coast in the fall, South in the winter, desert in the spring, mountains in the summer. Which crags? Somewhere in Vietnam I started putting a list together. What would you need? A passenger van, a trailer, and some camp equipment. Pretty soon I was running numbers, estimating expenses, and setting a budget. Then I started building a website, writing code. It just kinda snow-balled. I’m one of those if-I-talk-about-it-enough-I-have-to-do-it people. Well, folks got tired of hearing me talk about it. A big German-American kid finally convinced me to follow through.

So the secret project has a name now, a mission, a Facebook profile, and a website. If we can get our acts together we’ll be driving a van full of international climbers around the US starting in September. I’m pretty excited about it. What do you think?

~br

The old man gave us, in the Queen’s English, a brief history of Vang Vieng: “At first there was nothing here. Then at some point in the 1980s somebody wrote in one of these travel guides that you could come to Vang Vieng and smoke opium. That was not true, but when enough Westerners came looking for it, it became true right away.” A long lasting, anything-goes reputation continues to make the haphazard little town a boozing hole of great renown amongst white kids on parade in SE Asia. Of course, the Lao government couldn’t legitimately allow the impressionable youths of the world unfettered access to psychoactive substances on its soil. Instead, the Laos of the new millennium offers us cheap alcohol, Friends, and tubing. For some reason we’re content with that.

We arrived in Vang Vieng at the start of the Lao new year, Pii Mai. This period is marked by three days of festivities, and by “festivities” here I mean karaoke and water-splashing. Water-splashing? Yes, water-splashing. Where the Western world marks its new year with alcohol poisoning and casual sex, the Lao people prefer to throw water at each other. It’s just about the cutest thing ever, and not the least bit raunchy. Entire families stand by the roadside, dancing away to Thai-pop and tossing water at everyone who comes by. Little kids hover on the curbs with squirt guns. Dads shower the pavement with water hoses from lawn chairs near the grill. And in Vang Vieng, obnoxious white people take the opportunity to act like it’s their new year, too.

The goal was to go climbing, but Ruthie and I spent the better part of a week crawling through the dense underbrush along the river. The crags were supposed to be in there, somewhere. We found them eventually, but not before getting scratched, poked, cut, stung, and bit into utter despair. Fortunately, the only thing more plentiful in the underbrush near the river than mosquitoes and nettles is bars. Recall: tubing. This isn’t a life-jackets-and-white-water kind of affair. Think “booze cruise.” And while I was glad to be able to have a beer at the end of a long day of pointless bushwhacking, the scene on the river was just a little too surreal. It’s disconcerting to walk through a tiny village of subsistence farmers, to cross a bamboo bridge built by their careful hands, to look down and see a drunk Brit in a bikini passed out on an inner tube just below. Then again, maybe it would make sense if I were twenty-two and in the river.

~br

There’s a thunderstorm to the south and the skies are going dark. Intermittent rumbles wander up the river. The winking lights on the other bank are another country. The river is the Mekong, the watery eye of Southeast Asia, having spilled down from its headwaters deep in mountainous China. This land was built on its spoils, and many kingdoms have flourished and decayed under its gaze. The culture of this place, of all the places for hundreds and hundreds of miles, are linked to it inexorably. They are merely fish.

I’ve come to another border, the border between Thailand and Laos, but it’s like many of the others that I’ve crossed in recent months. When borders are wide rivers between rice plains the crossing is at once more satisfying and less dramatic than when they’re high peaks between alpine valleys. In my mind, the river is the perfect, benign boundary. The people will be much the same in Laos as they were in Thailand, separated only by that fine thread of water, that prophet of seas, coffer of kingdoms. Their competing destinies are shaped by the politics of their boundaries and the cohesion of their tribes, but their faces will slowly take on the same aspects until I’m no longer sure which was which.

~br

Wearing a shirt feels weird. I’ve had one on, consistently, for at least a week now and still. Having recently had the opportunity to reconsider my position on shirts, I think I’ve accepted my childhood intuition about them as inspired wisdom: they’re pointless and annoying. On the night bus from Krabi to Bangkok I was even thinking about trying to do the rest of southeast Asia shirtless. This seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea until about half way through the in-flight movie, Michael Bay’s The Island. Ewan and ScoJo were running around in the desert wearing full track suits. All I could think about was how much better off they’d be if they were shirtless, and how much better off I was because I was shirtless. Then it occurred to me that I was the only one on the bus that wasn’t wearing a shirt. That made me feel like a crazy person.

Shirts were totally out on Tonsai, and I didn’t put one on the entire time I was there. I carried one around occasionally to swat at mosquitoes, but that was the closest I got. Eating dinner shirtless was especially awesome when it was someplace a little posh, like the fish grill down near the beach. This got me thinking about how much fun it would be if shirtlessness became a general fashion trend, and you saw the fashionistas in Williamsburg eating dinner in their nose-bleed hep bistros without shirts on. Oh, to be the guy that started that one! It would be hard, though. Even if you were doing it just to screw with them, just to hack their backwards little fashion culture, you’d have to have some real big cojones. You’d look like a crazy person, and the effort would probably turn you into one.

Anyway, going shirtless in Bangkok seemed unacceptable despite the fact that the heat there was sickening. The town is just too fashion conscious, a fact that is evident from five or six towering cathedrals of high-end consumerism that dominate the skyline in the middle of town. I’m sure there are things that one is supposed to do in Bangkok, like take in the Buddhist temples or whatever. All I wanted to do after six weeks on Tonsai Beach, though, was sit in the artificially crisp air of a shopping mall and eat sushi. Except for running a few errands, that’s exactly what I did.

Still, Bangkok can wear on you pretty quickly if you’re not adjusted to an urban environment. The place is a big, slick metropolis on the scale of a Chicago or San Francisco. The population is distinctly Asian, but there are still lots of honkeys around. Khao San Road, the backpacker district, is rife with the kind of holiday-at-the-cost-of-dignity tourism that I’ve spent several months successfully avoiding. So, after just two days of bangkockery (the river taxi was the best part) our little Vietnam Fellowship – the only three still in Asia, really: Ruthie, Owen, and I; Melbo’s in another world – set out for Chiang Mai in the north of the country. We arrived after a dismal night on the bus only to be separated by some evil-doing taxi men. Reunited, we’ve gone on to find a wonderfully sweet, laid-back city with some excellent climbing (still on limestone) and a number of familiar faces. Half the climbers on Tonsai are here, it seems.

The other half are likely on their way to Yangshuo, China, which is where I’ll probably find myself in a month. Owen is due in New Zealand shortly and Ruthie goes back to London a few weeks thereafter. Everybody else has scattered, many having returned to their lives. Soon, I’ll have neither a travel buddy nor a climbing partner unless something dramatic happens. The idea of taking on Sichuan and Tibet alone is a bit daunting. (Idea: get my haul bag some clothes, start treating it a little better, and maybe it will come around.) Still, I look forward to solo travel as a challenge, an opportunity test the scope of my control, to have some unplanned adventures.

In the meantime, I have something much more mundane to keep me occupied. I was wrong to think that I could escape the crush of modern life by running off to Asia. The IRS calls, even here. I’ll spend the next few days drinking overpriced coffee and trying to pull together my taxes from right here in Chiang Mai. Ah, the marvels of the Internet age! Let’s hope they bring me a nice return. I haven’t had a lick of income in months – didn’t qualify for unemployment – so they better! Question: Is it right to claim that I’m “out of work” even though I gave my corporate job the finger and turned climbing bum in a tropical paradise?

~br

Sichuan Province, in western China, has seen a number of remarkable first ascents in recent seasons, all on beautiful alpine granite. Changping Valley, in particular, offers dramatic new-routing opportunities like the Miyar Valley, Greenland, and a few other places in the world. Therefore, it was with great excitement that I recently initiated a plan to leave Thailand and return to China for the summer, with the specific intent of putting up a new line in Sichuan.

Unfortunately, I now find myself without a climbing partner. After more than a year of climbing in remote Asia, my partner decided that it was time to go home. I support her in this decision. (One can both “support” and “hate” at the same time, after all.) Still, I would desperately like to follow through with my plan. I therefore write this in the hope that someone with a beefy trad rack and a taste for Asian granite will want to fly to China in month or so and join me.

It is my intention to return to China with or without a climbing partner; I expect to have an amazing travel experience regardless. Still, alpining in Sichuan has become an important objective to me, and I would gladly finance the effort if someone is willing to come out. My schedule is absolutely flexible, though climbing conditions are most favorable in the early summer. I am currently hauling everything (yes, EVERYTHING) that we’ll need, except the trad rack.

If you are interested and available please let me know. I’m also keen to hear about other expeditions that are planning on being in Sichuan in May and June.

Thanks,

~br

I was reminded of this missive by a friend who also finds his life in transition. The reader will note that the tone is lighthearted. In hindsight, I think myself foolhardy for my cavalier play. Some two years after I wrote this a very real, very serious crisis of purpose overwhelmed me and left me reeling for months. It was far worse than anything hinted at in the following:

Friends,

I just thought that I should write and give you fair warning that as of today I am officially having my midlife crisis. Today is a better time than any to start, it being my 23rd birthday, and I want to go ahead and get it out of the way rather than waiting around for it to come to me. 23 is the beginning of the end, after all, and certainly a much better time to have a crisis than say 35, when the Wife and Kids will just want to get in the way.

So you may be wondering what to expect from me during these difficult times. Well, basically I am going to do my best to recapture my failing youth. This may include, but is not limited to, acting out in the following ways: shirking my responsibilities, associating with young men of questionable character, working it with the ladies, playing video games, dressing like an over-aged hipster, pointing and shouting, growing a mullet, riding a scooter, zealous competition in sports, writing overtly cryptic poetry, spending freely, listening to loud music, etc. In general, you can expect an inflated self-concept that borders on narcissism. The faint-of-heart be warned: I WILL BE CYNICAL, especially toward the bourgeoisie Establishment. But please, what ever you do, DO NOT interfere when I go to the Pottery Barn or buy Martha Stewart wares for my apartment! The important thing here is that I recapture the illusion that I am “hip” and “with it” and “a modern cat” even at the extravagant cost of my dignity.

DO NOT BE AFFRAID. I have been planning this crisis for some time now, and if everything goes smoothly I expect to be back to my usual self in 2-3 years. By that time, the somber events of the world will certainly have put a damper on my fun. One morning I will find myself in a strange hotel room in New Jersey with several bottles of Malibu and a Furby, at which point I will pray to God to turn back time so I can have my dignity back. He will decline and I will be forced to reconcile. At this point, I will be the most sober and lucid person I can be and you will all flock to me for wisdom, wishing you had taken your midlife crises early too.

And finally…
HEY LADIES, WANNA PARTY? LOOKING FOR A GOOD TIME? Short-haired girls preferred.

Contact details omitted.

Rock on in your Trans-Am,
Brian

Dated 21-Sep-2001.

I’ve had six very busy weeks since leaving Cat Ba Island. I spent four of them in Vietnam, seeing all and everything, from cities to pristine beaches to dark tracts of jungle. Details are forthcoming (expect back-dated posts to appear here) but the verdict is that Vietnam is one of my favorite places in the world. I was sad to leave. In the middle of February I started a transit – a five-day sprint, really – through Cambodia to Bangkok, Thailand, and then on to Tonsai Beach on the Pranang Peninsula. My arrival in Tonsai was a bit of a homecoming; a friend from the States was in tow and the HotRock crew was waiting for us when we stepped off the boat. We all spent a week together, climbing and generally enjoying our final days as a rag-tag family, before the group disbanded. Some folks have gone on with HotRock to the official exit point in Singapore, but just as many have stayed here in Tonsai.

The peninsula is stunning. Thin strips of beach give way to a groves of palms that climb to the base of soaring limestone cliffs. Jungle hangs from everything, and langars hang from the jungle. It’s a climber’s paradise, the most talked-about destination in Asia, a place that would take a lifetime of climbing to exhaust. Each year thousands of us come to spend a few weeks here in the tiny valley between the karsts and the sea. Many go on to places like Cat Ba, Yangshuo, or Hampi. Just as many stay the entire winter, making tidy homes of the thatch huts amongst the palms. On rest days we lounge by the beach, sip from coconuts, paddle the Andaman Sea, or just enjoy the Thai hospitality. The climbing lifestyle has no better home in the world than Tonsai Beach.

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  1. Never trust the maps in a Lonely Planet.
  2. Turn around when the pavement ends. It is not going to pick up again on the other side of the hill.
  3. Always take a rain jacket.
  4. Definitely turn around when the locals start looking at you like you’re the only Westerner they’ve ever seen. You’ll know the look.
  5. Once you’ve seen The Look, make sure you stop for gas.
  6. Do not follow the motorbike tracks into the jungle just because they’re there.
  7. When you point at the motorbike track in the jungle and ask “Krong No?” and the locals respond “Yes,” that does not mean that following the track will get you to Krong No. Locals simply like to answer in the affirmative because “Yes” is often the only English they know.
  8. Absolutely, positively turn around when your motorbike’s brakes seize up. This is a sign from God that you should not be going down that motorbike track in the jungle.
  9. When the locals stop waving back it is because they do not want to be associated, in a karmic sense, with dead Westerners.
  10. Remember that the only thing worse than a Third World motorbike epic is a Third World motorbike epic in the dark.

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