LIMING: CHINA'S BEST KEPT SECRET
"Sh*t the bed!" "What time is it?!"
04:15am Kunming – Lijiang Sleeper train
The quiet cabin that I drifted off to sleep in has sprung to life. Groggy travellers rush around the corridor; our compartment sees stressed women grabbing their belongings and dashing off the train. Despite a brief panic this is not our stop, so we sink back into our pits.
"BANG BANG BANG"
Rudely awoken from a deep sleep, this is our stop, the last stop. The cleaner is hammering on the end of my bed, shouting something in Mandarin that I don't understand, I assume it's something like; "Get up you smelly little men". Pulling on jeans, shouldering sacks, we're last off the train and stumble out into the pre-dawn light. Taxi! A short ride takes us to Jinkai Square and barely have my feet hit the tarmac than I am accosted by a middle-aged lady who is shouting something else I don't understand. However, one word I do catch:
And with that we are crammed into the back of a mini-cab to begin the final leg of our three day journey that has taken us from somewhere south of Goa to this province in western China. As the road winds up through hillsides, heading into ever more mountainous country, my head is flooded with the possibilities of the next six weeks. Passing lakes, along gorges and through fields amid wooded landscapes; I press my face against the window and pick out crags; buzzing with anticipation, catching glimpses of a promised land.
Liming required real effort to reach; but once there the splitter sandstone cracks and endless corners that littered the valley made it more than worthwhile. The routes follow striking lines in solid rock ranging from 20 to 200 metres and utilise the plentiful placements available for gear (see logistics for more detail on kit) and a strong traditional ethic is upheld. However the valley is not a "bolt free" zone, run-out sections are mitigated by the odd bolt: think certain slate routes and many British limestone cliffs and you get the idea. So long as care is taken when placing kit and you avoid climbing in damp conditions, most routes feel as safe as sport climbs. Moreover, all established lines have bolted lower offs meaning that Liming strikes a great balance between adventure and sport cragging.
With regards to climbing styles, a background in British trad will certainly be a pre-requisite, but there really is nothing in the UK to compare with this playground. The techniques applied to the sandstone crack climbing in the States would be a better comparison; with 90% of routes not having a face hold in sight. As a result the Yosemite decimal grading system is used. Hand jams, laybacks, finger jams, ring locks and fist jams are the order of the day. Did I mention that you have to jam? Even the most innocuously graded climbs will require sustained effort. Combine this with the often lengthy walk-ins and you certainly earn your evening ice cream and beer.
Trying to portray the complete nature of this quiet, un-spoilt place is difficult. In an attempt to convey a flavour of this wonderful and adventurous valley, here's a taste:
The Lost World, 5.11b*** 200m
A glaringly obvious but ominous wide crack cleaving nearly the full height of the cliff.
Looking from the road there is so much potential waiting to be climbed, but this is one of the more striking lines. According to the guidebook: "Previously the longest standing unclimbed and unfinished route in Liming": bore-hole features estimated to be 80+ years old are evidence of locals scaling up to 60 metres off the ground in search of honey. The following guidebook description combined with knowledge that it had only had one ascent meant we couldn't leave without attempting it:
The chunky off-width through the bulge at 15m is actually the technical crux of the whole route. Linking this into the wide features on pitch two makes for one mega 45m start of the journey. After which, the "Lost World" pitch establishes you in the chimney-line proper; luring the intrepid upward with technical back-and-footing and bridging past the bore-holes and fossil features running through the rock.
Arriving at the stance on "Mysteries in the Deep", it's my lead and the chimney-slot immediately fills me with dread. From this point the 'climbing' takes you into the mountain itself, into a fissure squeezed between the cliff and the outside world. Taking a deep breath, you leave the belay and head into the abyss, trying not to think about the gaping void beneath your heels.
…chicken wing; palm; suck in; push; breathe out; don't think; repeat…
After ten horizontal metres of this strange dance and not a piece of protection in sight, I reach the back of the crevice. No sanctuary there! No kit. No respite. Glancing back to Henry I make eye contact; "look at him out there in the sunlight, bast#rd. I bet he's enjoying watching me struggle." Pushing these bitter thoughts out of my head I press on buoyed by the guidebook description of "you may find a bolt in there" … I f*#kng better had.
As I gain height the cleft rolls back and in the depths I glimpse a lone bolt winking at me. With a sudden burst of energy I grovel towards this siren, calling me from her dark stance. Breathless on a ledge 10 metres above, I crane my neck back and up, almost gasping in horror at the sight of the chossy, block-choked chimney appearing before me. I do wonder if I want to continue: "if these blocks pull out onto yer head you're f*#ked"; unconscious; stuck in the mountainside and lost forever. Placing a dodgy cam and lassoing a block above, I simply keep moving, repeating the same moves as per the previous 30 metres. Grappling with the final boulders sand sifts down off the rubble and runs up my sleeves; I heave over the tottering tower and thrutch for my life, drawn towards the light. Clipping into the belay bolt I breathe better than ever before. Thank Christ.
Sitting back I gladly smash in an energy bar and try not to think about the fact that according to the topo the crux pitch is still to come. Thankfully, Henry cooly commits to run-out back and footing to gain the first bolt; more of the same thrilling exposure continues past a few more well-spaced bolts. As the chimney closes up, ten metres of off-width brilliance leads to easing but still engaging cracks and then the stance. Quietly pleased, we grin and hi-five; before I run up the final airy arête, topping out on to the wooded hillside. With dirty bodies but clear minds we linger and take in the view from one of the best perches in the valley, before beginning the descent. Mega!
Though this description may sound more nightmare than dream, there are many more conventional crack climbs to be enjoyed in this mythical valley. Here's my Top 10 must do's:
The Great Owl, 5.9
A lovely hand crack at a gentle grade and angle; making this the perfect introduction to Liming
Souls Awakening 5.10
Start your crack apprenticeship with the original climb to be established in the valley: The corner/crack on pitch three being the money pitch.
30m body-slot-squirm. Guaranteed to leave an impression in your mind, and maybe a scab or two on your left arm…
Back to the Primitive, 5.11c
A 200m adventure featuring just about every style of crack climbing imaginable. The best route in Liming?
This thin corner crack is sheer class; if it doesn't make you smile, no route will.
The Flying Butress, 5.11d
A gently overhanging wall split by a perfect crack feature.
Sinister Rouge, 5.12a
Superb, varied climbing featuring a balancy start, thin corner crux, wild 3D bottomless chimney and finger crack to finish.
The Funky Dan, 5.12b
Gob-smacking open book corner with a fiendishly technical crux where it should be: the top.
Japanese Cowboy, 5.12c
Hands, fists and laybacks to a heartbreaking technical top out.
Another World, 5.13a
Simply stunning: French 7c+ splitter in the sky. The situation, exposure and quality of climbing surely make this pitch world class.
There is a bit of something for everyone in Liming. However it is fair to say that those operating at around E2 and above are likely to get the most out of the place. With the majority of established routes being in the 5.11 grade bracket, climbers at this level could spend a month here and do a different 3 star climb every day.
What's more, the area is far from worked out and there are many plumb lines still waiting to be climbed at all grades. To round up here's just a few of the routes waiting for a repeat and a look towards the future:
The Firewall, "5.13+"
"Steep then steeper": An amazing looking route blasting up the headwall above the Flying Buttress. Featuring offwidth, hands, fists and no doubt a healthy dose of lactic acid.
The Honeycomb Dome, "5.13/4"
"French 8b" horizontal fist crack questing across the great arch of the "honeycomb dome"…
As I final word; I was going to attempt to describe the plentiful unclimbed lines just screaming out to be ascended. But it's probably best you go and see for yourself. So what are you waiting for?
Watch a video about Liming below by Ryder Stroud of itinerantclimberscollective.com:
Most of the routes in Liming are the product of tireless work by Mike Dobie and a small group of developers. Details of all the logistics for Liming are covered in Mike's comprehensive guide book to the area. A new edition of the guide is coming out at the end of June and will be available at:
It should also be possible to obtain older copies of the guide from Mike via the above link.
When do I go?
Spring and autumn offer the most favourable conditions and open up the opportunity to experience the full spread of crags. Climbing is possible in December/January but expect to only climb in the sun. Yunnan province is worth avoiding in the summer due to the monsoon rains. Whenever you visit be sure to take a range of clothes to account for the sometimes changeable weather.
How do I get there?
Fly direct to Lijiang or fly to Kunming and catch the overnight sleeper train to Lijiang; this route is cheaper and offers the chance to experience a bit more of the area. Regardless, once in Lijiang make your way to Jin Kai Guang Chang using either the airport shuttle bus and short taxi or a taxi from the train station. From Jin Kai a 3 hour minivan ride will take you to Liming. On entering the Laojunshan National Park sign in at the gate and pay the entrance fee of 100RMB.
Where do I stay?
The obvious choice for climbers is the Faraway Inn which offers 1-3 bed rooms, comfortable living areas and wifi. There are no cooking facilities. The couple that own the hostel are very friendly and though they speak little English it should be possible to negotiate on the price.
Contact email: email@example.com
Phone number: +86 13578378448
There are other hotels and hostels in Liming which vary in price and quality.
What's the scoff like?
Being in rural China, there is very minimal access to Western cuisine in the village, however this is half the fun. There are a number of eateries offering slightly different versions of the same food. Simply walk in to a restaurant and pick from a selection of veg, eggs, tofu and meat and it will be served with the obligatory bucket of rice. Also worth trying is the fish soup served in the restaurant with the fish tank outside; select your desired fish and enjoy.
Where can I buy food?
There are a handful of convenience stores in the village with supplies such as sweet and savoury snacks, fruit and yoghurt. Beyond this it gets a bit questionable with instant noodles, chickens feet and the like being all you will find on the shelves. A wider variety of fruit, veg and snacks, as well as a strange array of commodities are on offer at the market held on the first, eleventh and twenty first of every month. The normally sleepy village comes alive with colour, smells and tastes; seemingly everyone from the surrounding villages descends on Liming to buy, sell and socialise.
If you require any Western luxuries such as coffee, cereal etc. it could be worth bringing your own supply. Furthermore, there are no ATMs in the village so be sure to have enough cash for your trip with you. On that note, the cost of living in rural China is exceptionally cheap, with evening meals costing around 20RMB (£2) per person.
A note on kit
An extensive rack of cams are vital in Liming, with many routes requiring double and triple of the same size. At the minimum take a full range from 0 to #4 and doubles in the #.3 to #3 range. Depending on your desired objectives it's useful to have #5 and #6 sized cams as well. The chances are there will be other climbers in the valley and it is common place to swap and borrow for specific routes. The parallel nature of the sandstone cracks means that there are very few nut placements available, but it's worth taking a small selection. Beyond this 10-15 quickdraws in a range of lengths, plus extenders and slings and a 70m sport rope is all you need.
There's nowhere to buy kit, tape or chalk in the village.
What is there apart from climbing?
If your legs aren't trashed enough from the daily walks to the crags, then the beautiful hills around the village offer plenty of options for walking. The via ferrata on the side of the Painted Wall sees plenty of ascents per day, with many tourists being guided up it. A visit to the old town of Li Jiang is also well worth it.