This Autumn I was invited as a special guest for a promotional Highline event in China. Having never been so Far East, I eagerly accepted. I knew many of the other special guests attending, some of whom are the best in the world and I looked forward to seeing a new country, hearing a new language and trying authentic Chinese food! I left Prague on an early morning and after a long flight, landed in Shanghai. A city of about twenty-five million people, Shanghai stretches as far as the eye can see. Clusters of identical sky-rise apartments surround the overpasses, and the flat landscape is unrecognizable as earth. It almost feels like visiting Mars in the film Total Recall; the bustling streets and constant noises, the chaotic organization of shops, street vendors and scooters, with a gray haze blotting out the sun.
Our organizer and friend Rio, one of the few Chinese highliners, lead us around the city before the daylong bus ride to the highline spot. That evening we ate our first authentic Chinese food, at a restaurant specializing in a certain regions cuisine. We all chose one or two dishes from a large menu of pictures; my choice included seaweed salad and fried calamari. Naturally one in our group chose the fried Cicadas, which most of us tried. Though fried to an almost unrecognizable state, they tasted exactly as expected, like a fried bug. Ticked that off the list! We sat at a large round table, with a lazy-Susanne in the middle. Wielding chopsticks we spun the glass, grabbing at each dish hastily, like the bumbling foreigners we are.
The following day a five hour bus ride landed us at our destination, Shenxianju. The trip was unusual for most of us, particularly because we stayed in Hotels and ate at restaurants the entire time. My sleeping mat and sleeping bag remained lonely in my backpack, along with my down jacket. The weather remained hot and humid the entire trip, with more days of rain than not. The Landcruising team had arrived early to install all of the highlines for the event, the smallest of which was 53 meters long, the biggest being 230 meters in length. A space line hung in the middle of everything, and in the end I enjoyed it the most!
Though I had no expectations for China itself, I suspected the highlines would be rigged in a manner that was unfamiliar to me, loose with static ropes as backups. This style of rigging has taken hold in the highline community, so if I want to be able to walk everything I must learn how it behaves. The backup ropes hang in loops, and when I caught the line they often twisted around my legs and I first had to detangle myself before I could continue.
The very inconspicuous bolts they placed for our highlines.
To our surprise, the first two days were a huge media production. Chinese CCTV had cameras stationed everywhere, and we staged a “competition” on the 53m line.
The point was to create something sensationalist for viewers, though no one in our group took it seriously. The weather did us no favors, and during the entire competition swaths of fog rolled up the valley, at times blocking the entire view of the anchor on the highline. During my turn the weather was such. I could see nothing! After five catches I was eliminated from the game. The media staged other competitions for some of us, including blindfolded walking, and attempts on the 230m highline. After the two days of CCTV coverage, our entire group was stoked to have the highlines to ourselves. We traded camera crews for hoards of selfie-taking tourists, and yet the location was beautiful and the lines beckoned. I began trying to adapt to the rigging style. I took multiple catches and even a leash fall on the 80 meter highline, to my friends delight. Changing six years of highline technique is not a quick process. I enjoyed the fresh bruises nonetheless. I also stood on the 230 meter highline, took a few steps, a few catches, and a crazy whipper. It felt like starting over entirely.
Rio took us all to a massage parlor one evening, quite late, and it is easily the funniest and most bizarre evening I’ve experienced. Being with a large group of men it was no surprise the jokes cracked repeatedly upon arrival, however upon peering into rooms we saw beds and reclining chairs and I began to wonder what we were in store for as well. They were unprepared for such a large group, so we divided into rooms and waited for our massage therapists. I was in a room with Harry from Austria, Julien from Germany and Thomas our faithful Chinese translating friend. We sat in reclining chairs drinking green tea, wondering what we were about to experience. Finally a woman opened our door and asked Thomas if I was ok having a male masseuse. I requested a girl, to be sure nothing strange happened. Twenty minutes later three girls arrived and each took one of us and began the oddities. They spoke endlessly, while Chinese wrestling championships played on the tv. My girl asked Thomas why I wasn’t wearing a bra, to start. I asked him to explain that I had nothing to hold up. Harry’s masseuse had a pure look of discomfort while she described his arms and legs as “caterpillars,” and Julien was told he could attract wolves with his laugh. Thomas laughed as he translated the girls’ conversation, which remained as strange and funny as these examples. They liked our noses, the high bridges, and they all gathered around my tattoo. They inquired about Harry’s mullet. The massage itself was far from relaxing; at one point my masseuse was on my back with her knee’s quickly running on my spine, she explained it was like riding a horse. An hour later, as they girls left the room, my masseuse told Thomas she’d like to take me home to make foreign babies with her and her husband. And I picked a woman to avoid such propositions! Needless to say, by one in the morning we all reconvened downstairs to share stories of our rooms. Harry, Julien and I crowded into a small three-wheeled blue taxi, a glorified box on a scooter, and slowly traveled back to the hotel, laughing all the way.
The only night to rival the massage night was at the Moonlight dinner the local officials threw for us. They very kindly created a formal banquette at a local hotel, featuring as much western food as they could find, Karaoke, and a strange highliner dance party to loud techno. I don’t think words could do it justice.
I spent one day walking around the National Park, on a well-groomed concrete path traversing the cliff faces. The park is huge and offers many incredible spot to highline, mostly featuring huge gaps. Half of the special guests planned to stay after the event and do such projects, but timing and weather had different plans for us. After a few days we found out that all of China would have a national holiday and all parks would be jam-packed with tourists. Knowing this, we derigged the highlines and began discussing our options. China boasts a wealth of beautiful landscapes and parks, yet traveling there without speaking the language is intimidating to say the least. Because of the holiday week, it would be difficult to attain seats on any public transportation.
Somehow we all decided to go with the flow. Our first excursion was a highline scouting mission to a nearby village, only accessible via a few hours of hiking. The weather was hot, humid and rainy, and it provided the ambiance one could expect. We took taxi’s to a pothole ridden exit under a highway, where we were dropped off in a tiny village boasting brick houses, thatch roofs, all the color of coal and barely standing. Despite this, a few newer flats had been built adjacent, and amongst them sat a man in a garage using his laser cutter. A pile of rubbish with a sleeping puppy surrounded the open door, a black rectangle leading to a dark room. Nearby was a shiny Landrover. China continued to be a country of juxtaposition. We began walking up the stone path, which wound through layers of gardens, small agriculture that I assumed fed the villagers. As we continued we entered a bamboo forest, and the girth of some of the trees was like I had never seen before! Immense, hollow, perfectly formed and green as could be.
At some point we stopped to let an ancient old man pass us, his thin wispy beard and mustache long and white. He worse a traditional triangular straw hat, and had a stick across his shoulders with a bucket attached. He carefully navigated the cobblestone path, unsurprised by a large group of foreigners heading up. That felt like China. Once we reached the village at the top, we found ourselves in a beautiful valley surrounded by rock walls, pinnacles, and bamboo forest. Rice fields hugged the edges of the village and in chickens cried.
We saw some towers in the distance and continued towards them, winding down and up again, splashing through streams and eventually finding a good vantage point. It was no doubt that there was highline potential, but the project would take a number of things we didn’t have at the time: climbing information, good weather, and time. I explored an abandoned, crumbling house while the rest of the boys fled a mosquito attack. Old pots and knives, shoes and cups, bones and ladders, all covered in a psychedelic green moss.
Once we returned to the village, we found an open restaurant and beers were ordered all around. The people lived in simple apartments, upon glancing inside they were dark, with dirt floors, and bed and kitchen shared the same space. Despite the apparent poverty of the dwelling, the owners both had smart phones and a flat screen tv. Priorities, I suppose. An eighty year old local woman, tiny in stature but with a smile full of good teeth, stopped by and stared at us. I succumbed to a tourists desire and took a picture with her. She was beautiful, coming straight from the fields which she still worked with her strong, wrinkled hands.
Following this, there was hesitation to wing it without Chinese language skills, and so we accepted an invitation to Maoshan Mountain, which is the supposed birthplace of Taoism. We hoped there were rocks. We toured the mountain, searching for any opportunity to be active.
Twenty years prior, the Chinese had built a huge metallic man, the creator of Taoism, to sit atop the small mountain. It appeared to be a tourist attraction, and nothing more. No holy spirit was evident to me, at least. After we came, we saw, and we took a photo, we went down the hill to a lake. There was a traditional building floating on the lake, and finally I saw a glimpse of my post-card ideal China.
It became apparent the highlining was out of the picture, so we traveled to a suburb of Shanghai where Rio lives and studies. It rained for the last week of our trip, but we made the most of it. I finally made use of my sleeping mat by crashing on the floor of our hotel room so we could fit three of us in one room. All night the sounds of the karaoke bar above the hotel wafted down to our room, usually with the most drunk and tone-deaf singers performing. We were happy to be connected with the local climbing gym, small but familiar, and we bouldered three days in a row. The last day was spent in Shanghai, killing time before the 11 hour flight.
It was but a taste of China, and possibly the tip of the iceberg. Though we didn’t achieve our highline goals, the trip was funny, and we had an extremely positive group of people, including some new Chinese friends like Hallam, Thomas and Rex. The experience gave us insight into the world of tourists, and laid the foundation for future trips to China. It seems to me it a land of contrasts, and easily the most different place I have traveled to.