This is my new friend, an old guy who lives in the village. He speaks an entirely incomprehensible dialect and I don’t even know his name. What I do know is that he’s 84 years old and still does manual labour every day. The first time I met him he was collecting firewood for cooking. Also, 50 years ago he helped build the house that we’re now renting. The hat is a present from us and he seems happy with it. He calls by the house most days to check on progress.
Yesterday was tomb sweeping day, a national holiday for everyone in China. It’s a day where people go to their relatives graves clean the graves, lay some flowers, burn incense and fake money and make offerings of food and gifts for their loved one’s spirits. Here in DaMaiDi, there are family cemeteries dotted around the hills and we were invited to join the neighbours to celebrate this day. For most people, going to visit a grave should be a sombre occasion but here the people are taking food, beer and baijiu (strong spirit), making fires and having an all day party. I was really happy to have been invited to this private celebration. Just like at Spring Festival, Chinese are always welcoming and like to share their traditions and cultures.
Luckily there has been a bit of rain in the past week or there would have been a real risk of burning the whole hillside. This time of year there are strict controls on outdoor fires but we’re far from any authorities and the local police are probably doing the same themselves. A couple of fires were made for cooking, two chickens had their throats slit and the women began to prepare what was to be quite a feast. The men got to work cleaning the graves, pruning trees and then relaxed, smoked cigarettes and drank baijiu, and the kids did what kids do squirting everyone with water pistols. By the time dinner was ready I was absolutely starving but it was well worth the wait. And just like all Chinese social gatherings, once the food had been eaten there was no hanging around. Everything was packed up, firecrackers were strung up in trees and to their ear splitting sound we all set off down the hill. I hadn’t really understood this festival before, but the way it was done here it made a lot more sense. It was like a big family picnic where even the ancestors could come, and celebrate the importance of a close and loving family.
Finally Ling managed to quit her job in Kunming (not as easy as in other countries) and has joined me in Shigu. My Chinese isn’t terrible but it’s not very good either, and it’s been a bit lonely here just me. Also, being confronted every day by all the jobs to do has been a bit overwhelming.
Things have been going much quicker the past week. Ling had a good idea to get the stones out the sand and I finished building the shower wall. By the time I laid the last blocks I felt like I’d got the hang of it. Don’t think I’d like to be a brick layer but it’s better the an office job.
This week Eben Farnworth and I started work on a new crag. It’s on the big wall opposite The Cave, close to the village. Paths have already been established by goat herders and so access is really easy. There are a lot of obvious crack lines and so we decided to see if we could climb it only on traditional gear. Neither of us were brave enough for a ground up attempt and so we found an easier line (a bit loose and with lots of spiky bushes) from the back which topped out on the pillar, about 50m high. From there we bolted an anchor and abseiled down the face to have a better look. The gear placements all looked good so I spent a couple of hours cleaning soil out the cracks and knocking down loose rocks. I could see a woman down below washing clothes in the channel which runs along the hill and provides water for the village. There was one quite big rock (about the size of a TV before we had flat screens) to knock off and I needed to judge if it could hit anyone. She wasn’t in line and so off it went with a slight nudge. It hit the ground with a mighty crash and a shower of stones bounced down the hill. The woman looked up in fright and began running for cover before realising it was nowhere near.
The next day I was to make the first ascent. It’s quite a different feeling setting off up a rock which hasn’t been climbed. No chalk to show where the good holds are and always the feeling something might break. Once it gets a few more climbs it’ll probably be about 6a+ / 5.10b , but with the fear and uncertainty it felt a lot harder.
Eben got the FA on another line to the right and we finished cleaning up what was our access line for some beginner trad practice. Still a long way to go to get this place on the map but it’s all progress. There should be quite a few good trad lines here and a very different style to the crack climbs in Liming.
Back in Shigu again and after the false starts it’s really time to get cracking on the shower. It’s surprisingly difficult to find skilled casual workers here – anyone who can actually build something (not even that well) seems to be permanently busy and doesn’t want just the odd day’s work. They just want to be payed to do the whole job and also get their friends involved. This being the case I’ve no choice but to get on with it myself. Luckily my friend Tom was able to give me a hand for a day and we made a good start on the wall. Like me, he’d laboured for people doing walls and could mix a good mortar but had never actually built a wall.
Unfortunately, the sand we got looked like it had been dug out of the first bend of the Yangtze River just down the road. It was full of small round pebbles and much more annoyingly lots of pea sized stones which made trying to lay the blocks flat almost impossible. After a late start we managed to get five rows of blocks down, and despite the problems with the sand it’s actually quite level. Certainly not the worst block wall in the valley.
We had our first guests last week, my climbing friends from Kunming, bringing words of encouragement, advice, whiskey, some fruit trees, a drill and some bolts. I’d still been quite apprensive about the whole thing but having people here and all being supportive, it’s put me at ease and I’m confident it’ll work. Although I’d wanted to get more work done on the house by now, I think it’s been good to spend the time here and look at everything closely.
We got to work on the crag behind the house, clearing rubbish, flattening an area to put a slackline, making a path, rolling loose boulders down a hill and bolting four routes. It’s a beautiful little crag, nestled in a little valley with lots of walnut trees which will provide good summer shade. We named it the Flying Squirrel Crag after said animal made a spectacular leap from a hole after being disturbed by Peter’s drilling.
With the arrival of spring festival my initial enthusiasm had waned. Trying to get anything done at all was proving to be a near insurmountable task. Every year it’s the same. Everything slows down, shops start shutting, people stop working, and then finally the whole county shuts down. I’d wanted to get someone in to help do the walls. However, everyone was far too busy doing the rounds and taking it in turns to be plyed with food and alcohol. Frustrated I used this time to explore some of the trails by motorbike and get to know the surroundings a bit. I was hoping to find a backroad link to Liming but the higher passes still had snow and my 150cc road bike, although surprisingly capable, just wasn’t up to it. Just before new year’s eve I returned to Kunming, found a lorry driver still willing to work, and then together with Ling and all our possessions made the real move to Shigu. New year was spent with the family who own the house. Exciting for us but for them I could see a little sadness at giving up their beautiful family home for a more comfortable life in the city.
After settling in to my new home the first job is to build some showers. We’ll start with a couple of outside showers for the sake of ease and then later look to fit them into some of the rooms. There’s a perfect place for them just behind the kitchen. Just need to destroy a concrete water tank first. There’s a shortage of water here for two months a year but this is far too small for our needs. We’ll build a bigger one later in the fields at the top of the village.
To assist in my destruction my neighbour, whose name translates to Plum Red Star, lent me a big sledge hammer. News got around and it wasn’t long before everyone in the village had been round to watch the foreigner working. For a lot of the older ones I don’t think they had ever seen a foreigner in real life, and so I beacame a source of entertainment in their otherwise routine lives
With my initial enthusiasm the tank came down quickly, but a more arduous task was to rebuild the retaining wall around the garden, which had partly collapsed. A week later and the wall was built, and the foundation dug. Thankfully, there shouldn’t be too much more back breaking tasks as I’m not really built for it. To help putting in the foundations I got a couple of villagers in.
I arrived in Shigu today. After 3 days and 600km motorcycling I’m tired, sadel sore and in need of a nice hot shower.
The previous week had seen some real wintery weather, with snow falling on the hills around Kunming; not ideal for motorcycling. Before I set off, I had a quick look at the weather forecast and all looked good. However, just 30km into the ride the clouds came down and I spent much of the day riding through freezing fog. Even with multiple players of wool, duck feathers and a waterproof outer, I was far from comfortable. I thought about turning back but continued anyway. Thankfully the weather lifted shortly before my arrival in ChuXiong.
For the whole of the next two days I was treated to beautiful sunshine and I was able to make the most of the mountain scenery. My thoughts were filled with what was to come – a small village in northern Yunnan where nobody speaks English, and their only knowledge of the world is what they see on state television. I was getting into the rhythm of riding. The hum of the engine, wind in my face, throttle, brake, mind the pothole, beep at the driver about to pullout without looking. Like in a trance, all thoughts are gone. Just me a and the bike and an endless road.
As I approached the familiar valley, I was brought back to reality with a sudden jolt. Despite my discomfort, I wanted to keep riding, Sichuan and the Tibetan plateau were beckoning. Keep going, never stop.