I knew little of what to expect as we headed out of Lijiang, crammed in the back seat of a mianbaoche with a motley crew of local co-passengers. They chatted happily away in the language of the Naxi people, mostly indecipherable even to my linguistically gifted Chinese companion.
We had just gotten off the night train from Kunming and were starting the 115-kilometer drive west to the village of Liming (黎明) in the northern part of Laojunshan National Park (老君山国家公园). At Liming we were to join up with experienced rock climber friends to learn the basics of a very specific form of climbing — ascending fissures in sandstone cliffs the "traditional" way, in which climbers painfully cram their appendages into cracks to pull themselves upward, simultaneously using pieces of removable protective equipment wedged into these cracks to catch and hold the leading climber in the event of a fall.
We were excited about the opportunity to climb and had heard the name Liming uttered in hushed reverence by experienced climbers, but we didn't research it or Laojunshan much in advance. The character of the village and surrounding landscape remained unformed in our minds' eye.
The mianbaoche made slow progress, stopping here and there to exchange people, parcels and spoken messages, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. This gave us plenty of time to take in the Jinsha River valley, as this section of the upper reaches of the Yangtze is called. The turquoise ribbon of glacial runoff contrasted pleasantly against the white limestone bluffs and muted brown of the early spring Yunnanese landscape.
Finally, after being shunted into another mianbaoche and carried for a time up a side valley, we found ourselves standing on the dusty main street of Liming, surrounded by a landscape the beauty of which we were not prepared.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 million years ago this area was most likely part of a river or lake system at an altitude of under 1,000 meters, where fast-moving silty water flowing down from a mountain range slowed and deposited large amounts of sand and other sediment. During the intervening period, geological forces compacted this sediment into sandstone while the rise of the Himalayan Mountains pushed it upward to a maximum elevation of 2,800 meters. Erosion from rain and glacial meltwater combined with millions of freeze-thaw cycles to erode and split the sandstone into the dramatic landforms visitors see today.
I am somewhat disappointed that Liming specifically, and Laojunshan National Park generally, do not receive more attention from independent travelers. After Tiger Leaping Gorge it's one of the most breathtaking natural areas I've seen in Yunnan. Park officials have furthermore taken a half-decent stab at containing new construction inside the park — by buying all the land and leasing it back to villagers — and creating a sustainable tourist experience with well-built walkways in high-traffic areas.
It is a bit unfortunate that a cable car had to be built to convey pudgy, under-exercised tourists up the shoulder of the northern valley to see rock formations and interesting erosion patters at the top of Thousand Turtle Mountain (千龟山). But this construction has only affected a small portion of the 550 square kilometers of beautiful sandstone formations surrounding Liming. When we visited in the off season, there were very few tourists, the majority of whom just showed up on day trips to ride the cable car and then screwed off by bus to finish their package tours.
Thus, as dusk falls, despite the visitor center and multilingual signs, Liming takes on a very local air. Lisu villagers, a hard-drinking but overall friendly lot with a strong artistic bent, sit on their stoops enjoying beer and baijiu while chatting away, or while crafting handmade furniture or painting.
It's a place equally suited to an overnight trip for some casual hiking or a multi-week rock climbing or backpacking adventure. While the area surrounding the village is largely a mixture of forest, grazing land and farms set amidst sandstone bluffs, snow-covered mountains beckon on the horizon to the west. The deeper one goes into Laojunshan National Park, the wilder it becomes, with areas that are home to the elusive and endangered Yunnan golden monkey and much other interesting flora and fauna.
American climber Mike Dobie has been the main developing force in Liming, with support from The North Face, Black Diamond and Dali Bar. His self-authored Liming climbing guidebook is in its fifth edition. It is available for sale for 120 yuan at Liming's Faraway Inn (千里之外客栈), and should also be available soon on Taobao. The most popular crags are also featured in the Climb China guidebook, a copy of which can be bought at Salvador's Coffee House.
Liming is one of the best crack climbing areas in the eastern hemisphere and has been compared with more famous sites such as Indian Creek and Moab in Utah. But unlike those places, Liming features many variable-width cracks and mixed-feature routes, meaning more routes can be climbed with a smaller amount of protection gear.
Most climbs near Liming can be hiked to, but having a car or motorbike makes it a lot easier and faster to get to the trailhead of more distant distant crags. This is especially true along the road up the South Valley, which is several kilometers away from the village.
"It seems like people in China are pretty comfy clipping bolts on limestone," says Dobie, who is on a mission to introduce traditional climbing in a country where sport climbing overwhelmingly dominates. Dobie continues, "But I believe it will change and there will be more of a market as climbers want to do something different and learn more skills. In addition, the new things we are doing will be more appealing for sport climbers, with some bolted and face sections. But climbers will need a base level of 'trad' knowledge to climb these routes because they are hard and you'll probably end up falling on gear. Most mixed routes in Liming are ending up super high quality, but super hard. Liming is really unique in that sense because we maintain an ethic while still introducing bolts. I really hope it becomes an example for the rest of China."
If you want to get high without the exertion of crack climbing, there is also a via ferrata — a series of iron rungs driven into the stone far up the cliff with pre-installed fall protection cables. It's up the Anqini Trail, across the gulley from the Pillars climbing area. Ask ahead at the visitor center if there will be staff there to collect your fee and let you on because when we walked past the gate was closed and chained.
About an hour drive back down to the Jinsha River and then south near Shigu (石鼓镇) there is also some limestone sport climbing being developed in an area with huge long-term potential. A climbing-oriented guesthouse is being constructed and the owner, Reuben, can point your toward the areas that have already been bolted. These include a massive multi-pitch that has yet to see a first ascent.
Hiking and biking
The area around Liming is full of trails and walkways ranging from staircases running all the way up Thousand Turtle Mountain, to small goat paths on the flanks of the South Valley. There are also purportedly hiking paths — shown on a fairly undetailed map available at the visitor center — linking Liming to other areas of Laojunshan, including the 99 Dragon Pools (九十九龙潭) area written about previously by Adam Kritzer. But I did not personally hike these, so cannot comment on how well marked they are and to what extent they are paths or merely dirt roads.
My sense is that with a backpack, tent and several days worth of food, you could get way out there and see some pretty cool nature, especially deeper into the enormous park. But this trip was limited to the area around Liming, so I can't vouch for what it's like out in the more wild areas. A few bikable roads also run through the park and are ripe for exploration.
Room and board
We stayed at Faraway Inn, which I recommend. The owner is a low-key local who has a unique aesthetic sensibility and has decorated the guesthouse by hand with remarkable statues and fixtures made from recycled materials and local stone and wood. Rooms are not fancy, but prices are reasonable, starting from around 60 yuan per night for an ensuite room. Cheaper dormitory options are also available. Faraway can be reached by calling 13578378448.
Other choices include the Nuomadi Inn (诺玛底客栈) 'boutique' option across the street from Faraway, which starts from around 300 yuan per night, plus several other inexpensive local guesthouses, mostly concentrated in the village, but with a few further up the valley. For a truly high-end experience in a remote location further within the park, the deep-pocketed should check out Kingsway Geladan Tented Resort.
The food we had in Liming didn't show much ethnic influence, with the exception of baba bread sold from a cart on the main street. In general, all of the meals I had in Liming were delicious and reasonably priced.
Two restaurants just up from the entrance gate shone in particular — the dining room attached to the Luoyi Guesthouse (络绎客栈) and the Jixiang Fandian (吉祥饭店), the latter of which also serves good noodles at breakfast. Dinner in Liming hardly breaks the bank, and is typically 20 to 30 yuan per person.
Comprehensive and relatively up-to-date transit info is available from Junshan Climber. Faraway Inn and other guesthouses may also be able to help you arrange transportation. The park entrance fee is 105 yuan with an available student discount. Hint: if you can't read English, a foreign driver's license looks a lot like a student identification card.
Images: Dali Bar