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“We’re On Our Way Up”: China’s King of Rock Climbing on the Journey to Olympic Gold

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Abond is something of a legend in this town.

The 31-year-old rock climber has lived in picturesque Yangshuo in southern China’s Guangxi province for almost half his life. And for good reason — the area’s famous limestone karst mountains have made Yangshuo the undisputed Mecca for China’s climbing scene.

Here, Abond operates his iconic “bar-plus-climbing-gym” project, Rock Abond. Climbers from all over China and the world stop in for the climbers-only beer deal, and to trade secrets on the huge practice wall that takes up half of the bar.

From this headquarters, Abond tends to the city’s climbing community. But make no mistake, this is no quiet bar owner; you’re more likely to find Abond setting challenging routes on the fringes of the city, working with sponsors like GoPro and Adidas, or gracing the cover of National Geographic.

We sat down with Abond and his fellow pro climber partner of 14 years Ting, to discuss Yangshuo’s scene, China’s unexplored climbing destinations, and the explosive growth of Chinese climbing in the race for Olympic gold.

RADII: Maybe you could start by introducing yourselves and how you came to be in Yangshuo?

Abond: My name is Abond, Chinese name Liu Yongbang. I came to Yangshuo like 16 years ago, so half my life has been on the rock.

The first time I came to Yangshuo was on holiday in 2004. Back home in Hunan I loved to climb trees, and I thought “ah, not many trees here… but there’s rock to climb.” Climbing all those trees made me not fear heights, and gave me strong arms. So when I started I was already better than average. Now I’m based in Yangshuo, trying to push this sport further.

Ting: My name is Ting, also from Hunan province. I started climbing when I met Abond — he was my climbing guide the first time I tried it in 2006. I fell in love with this sport, then I fell in love with this man, and we’ve been together ever since.

I love the feeling of climbing and I like to be strong, which is different from most other Chinese women. I like having big muscles, but ultimately my story is the same as Abond’s — when I tried it, I felt that this was my sport.

We’re a country that’s always growing — my father worked on a farm, and now my generation has to go and compete in the Olympics… that’s why if we win the gold, we’re proud.

In 2016, you climbed the so-called “Spicy Dumpling” route in Yangshuo, technically the most difficult route in China. How did you train for something like that?

Abond:?For any route, the first step is to understand it. Is it more endurance, or more power? Will there be parts where I have to take my hands off and jump? First I have to know all these things.

Then I’ll train each individual move — that’s why I have the wall here in the bar. Because you can’t practice those things on the real wall every time. What if that tricky move is halfway up the route? You don’t get to practice it a hundred times up there. So we head back to the bar and change the grips to mirror the real rock, and then we practice. But truth be told, just the other day I was bolting a new route, way harder than Spicy Dumpling!

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Harder than the “hardest route in China?”

Abond: Way harder. I tried it — it’s doable, but it’s hard. Spicy Dumpling is 9A, which is 14D. This one is maybe 9A+, 15A [among the very upper band when it comes to climbing grades]. The moves required are way more difficult, and the route is way longer. Every single move is harder than Spicy Dumpling.

That’s insane. Are there tons of unknown routes like this waiting to be conquered in China?

Abond: Oh man, there are too many! I could tell you spots off the top of my head, bigger and better than the famous Dawn Wall in Yosemite. We have the Taihang mountain range — it’s tall, maybe similar to El Cap, but it’s hundreds of kilometers long. And in Guizhou, there’s the city of Getu. I could show you a huge arch, 200 meters from the ceiling to the ground. But in China we have so much of this, so many spots.

Everybody knows Yosemite is the holy land of climbing, right? Since the ‘70s, that’s been the paradise. And it is?a paradise, because there are so many different routes there. But the closest city is San Francisco, and that’s a five hour drive. The hotel? Expensive. The camp? No shower.

“Climbers Rappelling from the Getu Arch, China” – Photo by Jimmy Chin

In Yangshuo, for instance, we have over 1,200 routes — but also pizza. Bars. Places to stay. Or at Taihang, at the base of the mountain, there’s a little town. There’s a supermarket, a hotel, and you’re a ten-minute car ride away from climbing. China has some of the most diverse topography in the world, we just don’t have all the routes yet. Once there are more routes, there will be more climbers, and from there the community can grow.

It’s like a volcano — it’s going to explode soon… If a sport is in the Olympics, that’s what our country will support. And once our country is on board with it, don’t even worry… In the next two years, China’s climbing scene will grow more than the last 20 years.

Speaking of the growing climbing community, how do you guys feel about the entry of climbing into the Olympics?

Ting: Oh man. It’s like a volcano — it’s going to explode soon. Compared to the US, climbing is so new here. But if a sport is in the Olympics, that’s what our country will support. And once our country is on board with it… don’t even worry about it. In the next two years, China’s climbing scene will grow more than the last 20 years. Everything will be double, triple, or ten times greater.

Abond: A couple days ago, two Chinese climbers were invited to the Olympic event. There’s only 20 athletes worldwide who will participate. One year ago, a Chinese climber wouldn’t have made it to the semifinals. But at the most recent world championships, two young kids from China beat Adam Ondra. And a lot of people consider Ondra to be the best in the world.

Ting: In China, our government wants to take the gold. You can imagine how much money and resources are behind those two kids in the Olympics.

Adam Ondra competes in the Bouldering World Cup in Wujiang, China

If that’s the case, how long before China becomes the number one at sport climbing?

Ting: Within five years. Maximum.

Abond: Right now in China, we have about five hundred gyms. Next year, it won’t be double, but at least two hundred more. Because the government will instruct every city to build one, and push it in schools.

China can’t succeed at every sport — our football team is garbage. But we can do individual sports. We have so many people, and so many chances to pick the best one. So if we want to do climbing, to really push the limits, we’ll send the absolute best person to do it.

We didn’t create these sports, but we can master them. We’re a country that’s always growing — my father worked on a farm, and now my generation has to go and compete in the Olympics. The change has been huge. That’s why if we win the gold, we’re proud.

How well do you feel the outside world understands China’s climbers?

Abond: It comes down to language. Not a lot of Chinese speak English, and not a lot of Americans speak Chinese. As a bar owner here, I can feel that separation — but I can also feel that the communities are friendly and want to be together.

We’re trying to tackle that problem by learning English, and we even started up an English class just for climbers — [teaching them climbing terms such as]?belay on, slack?— that kind of thing.

Climbers from around the world make the pilgrimage to Yangshuo for its unique scene and diverse routes

But I feel like the Chinese climbing community is closer knit than anywhere in the world, because WeChat brings people together. I’m in twenty WeChat climbing groups, each for a different city. And so everybody knows each other, especially if you’re a strong climber. I’ve probably met 70% of the serious climbers in China.

The sport is so new here, and everyone is still learning. In the US, you have all the resources you want. Everyone in the international scene has similar knowledge. But in China, it’s not like that. One group has some of the knowledge, and a different group has some of the knowledge… they have to interact to learn from each other. That’s the stage China’s at right now, the stage of interaction.

It’s a difference of mindset… The difference between a sport and a lifestyle, and China is good at sports. China will likely become the best at this sport, but it’s going to take a while before it becomes a true way of life for Chinese climbers.

Ting: I want to express my appreciation for all the international climbers — especially from the US, the UK, and Australia — who came to Yangshuo to share with us their knowledge, and helped us develop the scene out here. We really appreciate their contributions. They planted the seeds, and we hope we can return the favor and plant other seeds around the world.

Right now, we’re growing. And Chinese people, especially the climbing community, we’re on our way up. Before, maybe the world wouldn’t consider us as semifinalists. But I think you’re going to see more Chinese faces as world champions.

Abond: You know what I feel? Out of all the climbers, I have to give my biggest thank you to those from the US. Like, first climber to bolt routes in Yangshuo? That was Todd Skinner. Spicy Dumpling was bolted by an American, Chris Sharma. First ascent by Ethan Pringle.

The way I see it, we can always catch up to you guys, but I don’t know if we’ll truly over take you. Because for us it’s a sport. For you, the US people, it’s a lifestyle.

Right now, it’s a difference of mindset. It’s the difference between a sport and a lifestyle, and China is good at sports. China will likely become the best at this sport, but it’s going to take a while before it becomes a true way of life for Chinese climbers.

Additional research/interview assistance by Bryson Kohnhorst

Adan Kohnhorst
Adan Kohnhorst is a Shanghai-based writer, producer, and multimedia artist, and the Associate Editor at RADII. His work has been featured in publications such as Maxim and the Chinese-language StreetVoice, and he’s an active member of the hip-hop and DIY music scenes in Shanghai, NYC, and Dallas. He learned Mandarin in high school so he could train at the Shaolin Temple, but now just uses it to interview rappers.
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