My journey this spring begins when I step onto the train in Beijing West Station. Between podcasts and conversations with complete strangers, the 6 hour trip to Xi’an goes by pretty quick. The people I engage with are friendly, and I need to practice Chinese anyway. Soon enough, I’m off the train and on the metro towards my final destination.

My couchsurfing host greets me warmly outside the subway. I think it odd at first that he chose to meet me rather than send an address. Then I realize how complicated it is to get there. A footpath between outdoor restaurants turns into an alleyway followed by a nondescript entrance to stairs, turns and more stairs. You really could end up anywhere couchsurfing.

My host is cool though, a local who’d studied finance and worked in it about a year before dipping for a 3 year hiatus. He’s been all over Latin America, but picks Iran when I ask for his all-time favorite country. Weary from travel, I set up on the couch and confirm the next day’s sending plans before bed.

Out of the subway and into the bright morning sunlight, Mengyan’s black SUV is easy to spot with the “Changan rock climbing” sticker. A pleasant guy, he makes sure I have lunch to eat at the crag. I’m all set, so we start the engine and head south. A low mix of Chinese and US pop forms the background as we get the conversation rolling. I soon discover his familiarity with the spots— he bolted many of them himself. We cruise out of the city and within an hour are registering to enter the area. A uniformed local has Mengyan write down our names for the record and we’re in.

We drive past impressive faces on both sides beyond the reservoir. I see the occasional boulder, and notice one of particular size with new bolts gleaming in the morning sun. I ask Mengyan about it. Hennan he says, ruling it out as a warm up. We continue up the valley stopping eventually just off the road beside a cliff. A campground on the other side overlooking the river provides the perfect warmup spot.

I’m soon on the 5.10s, onsighting despite over-tenseness— I haven’t climbed sport outside in months.  I’m psyched to be back out though and get on route after route, changing crags after an especially tough one involving a heel hooked clip over a gnarly tree. Yikes, didn’t send that one.

Whereas the first crag consisted of the occasional car and roadside onlookers the next involved a short hike up off the road complete with the occasional donkey-dude with stick duo. They drag various loads up and down the path without much interest in us climbers. We also spot an authentic monk coming down the trail, mouth to his hears like he’d just been enlightened. Several more live scattered in secluded stone hut dwellings. Apparently university students come for month long stints to study their lifestyle. The interaction with the monk pictured below indicates that climber-monk relationships are solid. Mengyan even pays them occasionally for approach trail maintenance.

The caked dirt and early spring plant growth provides some challenge to what otherwise would be a group of mostly warmups. Bent on onsighting, I slap my feet around on one route, leaning back on the sturdy tree behind me. Dui! Mengyan exclaims, confirming the tree as part of the beta. With a chuckle I chimney up to the second bolt, finishing the rest tree free. I note Xi’an as the first place I’ve seen to include anything but rock in the envisioned sequence.

The stoke is real on the last route. I find myself pumped at the crux and clinging onto a slightly negative rail. My feet just can’t find the right spot and know I won’t have the strength to clip if I don’t find a solution soon…a little shimmy shimmy and push through a forearm spasm to a good enough spot. A mild sunlit slab to finish makes for a final onsight. 9 routes for the day and my muscles could already feel the tingling of good old microtrauma. A couple quick stretches before we hop in the car back for the city.

Riding out I smile as we pass street side vendors with local fruits and vegetables for sale. We pick up supplies here on the way in camping Mengyan explains. The sun dips as we return to Xi’an city. Starved from a meager midday meal, food is our top priority. Mengyan makes sure I try one of his favorite dishes “paomo” (泡馍), and is impressed when I finish it. Apparently most foreigners he’s met aren’t a fan of the lamb and diced noodle combination. Bellies stuffed, we step outside and drive to Mengyan’s favorite post climb bathhouse.

Our visit to “Zhenai”, meaning “True Love”, marks my first bathhouse experience. A uniformed greeter guides us through revolving doors into a lobby resembling a luxury hotel. I take in that all too familiar scent of chlorine as we trade our shoes for sanitized flip-flops. Butt naked I enter a vast, dreamlike room, a bit awkward as the only non-asian, but soon soothed by the warm water.

Pools of all shapes, sizes, and temperatures curve around black pillars supporting a high ceiling of the same hue, with endless grids of soft LED lights that resemble the night sky. Jets controlled with the push of a button line the sides and bottoms of the pools, allowing for extra stimulation of one’s sorest regions.

Just as I get dizzy, we step out for a cup of cool water and are instantly refreshed. Mengyan is eager to show me around, so we head to the sauna. A large, shallow bowl in the room’s center provides salt. I learn to spread it topically after sweating for a cleansing effect. We proceed through rooms of various temperatures, most notably one segmented into bed-shaped areas filled with smooth stones. Those not in meditation play on their smartphones.

We finish with a 15 minute body rub, followed by a shower to wash off the coconut oil. I emerge a new man. The newfound relaxed and recovered state far outweighing the confused who’s-whitey looks and exposed male genitalia. I would definitely be back.

Mengyan’s generosity prevents me from paying a penny but I ask him about prices anyway for information’s sake. Entry to Zhenai combined with the body rub totaled about 15 USD each. Smaller, local venues charge as little as 4-5 USD.

As expected of healthy climbers, we finish the evening at a nearby bar. Mengyan is inspired by my mention of craft beer to bring us here. I’m duly impressed by Xi’an’s local brew, and as our buzzed conversation gets more personal I’m grateful to have made a new friend.

Lessons of the Day:

  • Buying individual tickets for the Xi’an subway is a pain. The window teller will tell you to use the ticket machines which only take certain bills. Do yourself a favor and get a rechargeable card—an easier purchase from the ticket machines.
  • Plenty of food for sale at the meeting spot outside the subway stop (qinglongsi-青龙寺站). I could have gotten there early and purchased lunch, lightening my load on the way there.
  • A trip to a bathhouse feels amazing after a long day of climbing, and I’m sure it does wonders for muscle recovery. I wish they were this widespread in the US, but I guess that’s what bathtubs are for.

Get the details on rock climbing in Xi’an here