x-sports in china

One of the last times I went climbing at Jiulong, was the monster Hong Kong/Southern China climbers visit to Bamboo Grove, armed with bolt drills and hangers. I spent some of the last day belaying Eman on a particularly nasty overhung crimp-fest, which he destroyed by blowing a crucial edge.

He just sent me a photo, showing its first ascent, and putting it at 7c+/8a. What the photo doesn’t show is the fold in the smooth limestone where the photographer is standing. The curtain of rock twists into a z-shape, going back on itself, in and down making a wide crack-like entrance into the cliff above the underground river. Inside this deep alcove, but not too far from the entrance are several large glazed-brown pottery urns, sealed and clustered together. Inside each is the slowly decaying body of a local resident.

But back to climbing. Being able to quit your job and do something non-productive and un-business-like like climbing is either something you do when you’ve got money and can afford to not work, or when you really don’t care how poor you are because everything you that can satisfy you is on the rock.

I didn’t really meet too many people in China who fall into either of those categories, though there were some climbers who had enough of an income from somewhere that it allowed endless days in the vertical. I think the ability for people in a country to have wilderness recreation of any kind, from hiking to mountaineering is a good indicator of the country’s wealth and its even distribution. China in that respect is only just starting to get both, and the outdoor scene is small and relatively expensive.

Ma Hetai of Guangzhou takes regular weekend rock climbing trips to Yangshuo, a tourist city in the karst peaks about a day’s drive from home. He piles into a car with friends and stays with another friend who owns a bar in Yangshuo. Ma owns his gear, a one-time expense, so his trips cost 100 yuan (US$12) to 200 yuan per trip, mostly in road tolls, an acceptable price for the average Chinese wage-earner.

Scaling cliffs “meets needs” that ordinary nightlife and tourism – staples of China’s young moneyed generation – cannot, says Ma, who has practiced the sport for three years.

Asia Times

Extreme sports battle for business

By Ralph Jennings

BEIJING – Ma Hetai of Guangzhou takes regular weekend rock climbing trips to Yangshuo, a tourist city in the karst peaks about a day’s drive from home. He piles into a car with friends and stays with another friend who owns a bar in Yangshuo. Ma owns his gear, a one-time expense, so his trips cost 100 yuan (US$12) to 200 yuan per trip, mostly in road tolls, an acceptable price for the average Chinese wage-earner.

Scaling cliffs “meets needs” that ordinary nightlife and tourism – staples of China’s young moneyed generation – cannot, says Ma, who has practiced the sport for three years.

The number of people like Ma – practitioners of “extreme sports” like rock climbing, bungee jumping and skateboarding – has been increasing by about a factor of five each year in China since the mid-1990s, when extreme sports first appeared here. “This is especially true for young people, since their exposure to the sports is increasing,” he said last month amid dozens of amateur climbers, most in their twenties and thirties, testing their skills on an indoor Beijing climbing wall rimmed by outdoor sports ads to the tunes of Rage Against the Machine.

Ma’s age, his reason for cliff climbing, and his expenses are typical for China’s new extreme sports sector. These sports, which made their first official mark in China during the Shanghai “X Games” held in May 2001, are struggling to become an industry. Although individual companies are profiting modestly from equipment sales and organizing group tours, businesspeople say consumer income, transportation and overall sporting awareness problems have limited the development of an extreme sports industry thus far.

“In 1998 I produced an “X Games” exhibition to introduce the concept to the masses, and had Pepsi sponsor the deal with DJs, stages, and the whole parade,” says Cortney Smith, owner of Bungee International, a Shanghai company that specializes in extreme rides design and construction. “After that, I saw that to make a living in this industry was going to be a charitable effort from my passion, and not a means to own a car, so I diverted [my] efforts into the amusement park industry and land development.

“There is a perceived image [that extreme sports] is big because of the media, attention, advertisements and the eye-catching properties of what it is,” says Smith, whose company built mainland China’s first bungee tower in 1995. “A few years ago there were many rock-climbing places opening, bungee sites going up, roller-blade teams forming, skate parks opening, and mountain bike sales but I haven’t seen more openings these last couple of years. Many of those businesses failed.”

Over the past 10 years, China has seen a bit of everything: cliff climbing, mountaineering, off-road biking, skateboarding, surfing, bungee jumping and various snow-based sports. Three Chinese magazines cover extreme sports. The Shanghai X Games drew 200 athletes and 20,000 fans, the state-owned Shanghai Star newspaper reported.

Businesses that sell equipment or organize trips can make money. Extreme Experience, a 600 square-meter, half-year-old Beijing outdoor gear store owned by a developer who has trekked to the North Pole, organizes everything-included weekend rock climbing trips for 200 to 300 yuan to the Beijing suburbs and summer trips to Tibet.

Gear for sale includes 880-yuan ice axes, boots for 1,600 yuan and Everest tents for more than 2,000 yuan. Extreme Experience, which also sells memberships to an in-store climbing wall and offers diver training in a seven-meter-deep tank, plans to add 1,400 square meters of additional space by early 2006. The shop competes with smaller stores that have more branches in better Beijing locations.

“Extreme sports have a future,” says Suyileitu Wenhua, the assistant club manager. He says the relatively wealthy cities of Beijing, Guangzhou and Shanghai show the most promise: “After [former leader] Deng Xiaoping, there have been lots of changes. But you won’t see it in smaller cities. For the most part, people there are dealing with basic subsistence issues.”

Trip organizers must also offer added-cost bus rides to accommodate the general lack of private cars and preferences for group over individual activities. The eight-year-old Beijing Flying-Man Club, for example, takes some of its 200 members and three coaches out for weekly paragliding and microlight aircraft flying lessons in the Beijing suburb of Changping. The club charges 2,100 yuan for eight hours of coaching, equipment usage and transportation, said club marketing assistant. Members pay, he said, because “lots of people like the feeling of flying”.

Mountain biking tours also begin with a group bus ride, said Paul Stepanek, owner of Bohdi Bikes, a mountain bike store and tour organizer founded in Shanghai seven years ago. Bohdi takes busloads of 30 cyclists to rural Shanghai and adjacent provinces for trips. The company competes with name-brand mountain bike shops in major cities. The fat-tire business has “grown but not exploded” and remains “too small to be significant,” Stepanek says. “[Most customers] are guys on the bleeding edge – mavens and white-collar types wondering what to do on the weekend.”

Official statistics say urban Chinese earned an average of 9,422 yuan per year in 2004, while rural people earned 2,936 yuan. But Ma Wenjie, a purchasing manager at TGI Friday’s in Beijing, spent 6,000 yuan on transportation, lodging and legal fees, after buying equipment, to hike 6,500 meters up Mount Everest on a weeklong volunteer trash-pickup mission. She scaled the mountain in 2002 at her own expense, despite safety warnings from family and friends, because that year she had enough money. “When my friends saw the photos, they wanted to go, too,” Ma Wenjie said. “Everest is a special place. It’s the world’s highest mountain. It’s got a lot of appeal.”