The Corner of Lost Souls

I’m sitting on the bus on my way off Cat Ba and out of Vietnam after 90 days in this country. It feels so weird. It’s the longest I’ve spent continuously in any country after UK and HK. I certainly would’ve never envisaged that I would be doing that here and certainly not that long in a small town on a small island. I remember arriving here in May (which feels like a lifetime ago) and thinking “shit, I’m going to spend three months here”?. It’s funny how quickly that seems to have passed.

Usually Asia Outdoors only give out six month contracts, but as luck would have it, through disorganisation of outgoing and incoming hiring people and their needing staff quickly I managed to negotiate a three month contract. I don’t regret my decision to leave after three and I’m glad I didn’t impulsively extend. Some people have been here over a year and I don’t quite understand how. Being here during the progression into rainy season probably doesn’t help much as it has made it such an effort to go climbing on days off. I can’t remember the last time I went to Butterfly Valley on my personal time. Climbing out in the bay is stunning but also expensive as you need to hire boats for the day. And going out DWS with the company on days off is something I didn’t enjoy too much. The fear of falling and jumping into water from high up severely hampers my enjoyment of the activity. So for me, my time here has felt like a time of being lost and trying to experience more, whilst lacking any real direction. And perhaps that’s where I come from so I’m projecting but I see a lot of people in the same boat as me – particularly those who have been here for over six months. The Corner of Lost Souls as I called it in a conversation with one of my past colleagues.

It’s been an interesting social experiment to see how people react to me. The locals and even westerners would often think I was local or could speak the language. Even this morning on my last office shift I had four people try to speak to me in Vietnamese and one westerner ask me if I can ask the Vietnamese staff of the neighbouring tea stand for some ice. It’s often quite amusing, particularly the embarrassment of the westerners sometimes. There would’ve been a time where it particularly bothered me – a time when my sense of identity was more fragile. Nowadays, I can shrug it off pretty easily. Of course I don’t expect you to know that I’m not local, I am Chinese after all.

I have missed long travel times alone like this when I usually default to escaping into my thoughts. There has definitely been a lot of distractions in Cat Ba. But also, the idea of sitting in a room by myself never seemed that appealing and neither did I find anywhere external to the hotel that I felt comfortable enough to relax.

The butterflies here are exquisite. That’s been a pleasant surprise that I’ve really enjoyed. I remember there was a particular week period around the end of May when Butterfly Valley really lived up to its name. I got distracted regularly whilst belaying by the variety and how many butterflies there were. Even now, there are still some beautiful and vibrant ones around.

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Halfway Through

If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.

– Lewis Carroll

I’m about halfway through my time here on Cat Ba and it has been a quite a ride so far. The work continues to throw up interesting challenges daily and there is continual staffing shifts which changes the dynamic of the group frequently. As July approaches I become more and more acutely aware that a decision on what I want to do after will have to be made soon. A friend/colleague introduced me to the quote above a couple of days ago which really stuck with me. There’s been so much anxiety over picking THE thing I need to be doing next but there’s no grounding for it. I have no aim and no real preference for what I want to do so there’s no need for the anxiety.

Cat Ba is an interesting mix of environments. The town itself is a horrible over packed seaside town which the Vietnamese come to invade during June and July. But going out into Lan Ha Bay for work provides some sort reprieve from the hustle and bustle that is this neon town. It’s a funny lifestyle living here as an adventure guide. Going out onto the bay for work and escaping deep into the island on days off to climb. We work and play as a unit which makes it all very intense, particularly if you strike up a romantic relationship with someone or have a disagreement with another.

I love driving out of Cat Ba Town; I even own a scooter now. My first moving vehicle! Heading out from the busy town onto quieter roads always feels a bit cathartic, especially when you’re turning up the gas so that you pelt along at some speeds.

I’m interested to see what the next half of my time here will bring. If it brings anymore clarity to my future plans, that would be most welcome.

My Temporary Abode

So after being on the road consistently since January, it got to the point where I felt quite tired of moving around. So I’m now on Cat Ba island in Vietnam for a couple of months working here as an Adventure Guide for Asia Outdoors. It’s pretty cool. I would have never imagined myself working outdoors like this in a foreign country. The bay is beautiful although it does make me really sad how much rubbish is floating around. The locals litter a lot as do the big tourist cruise ships which is heartbreaking. The education in Asia really needs to be improved to make the locals aware of how delicate the environment is.

The work is cool, I work with a really good bunch of people who all love the outdoors and are really good fun. The days are long and tiring, it’s proper honest work though which does give you a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. Cat Ba seemed like a good place as there’s plenty of climbing here to go to do on days off. So far, I haven’t quite had as many sport climbing days as I’d like but I’m hoping that will change.

Deep water solo is also an awesome activity that is on offer here that’s perfect now that we’re heading into the hot and humid summer.

This whole travel adventure has thrown up a lot of questions about what I want from life. It’s caused me a fair amount of stress from not having even a rough plan of what I want to do. But one epiphany I had from climbing the other day is that life is like climbing. As you move through the different foot and hand holds, you’ll come across different options but you won’t know until you get there. It was a nice summary of where I was at. It doesn’t matter if I don’t end up living the cookie cutter lifestyle I always thought I had to live. I don’t want that and it’s in accepting that there are other ways to live that will give me the freedom I’m seeking.

Thakhek: Green Climbers Home

We’re currently on our way to moving on having spent 25 days at Green Climbers Home in Thakhek. Having only planned to stay for 16 days, when it came to the leaving on our original end date, neither Ed or I felt ready to leave. The climbing was good, but so was Kalymnos and Tonsai. What really makes Green Climbers Home special is the people who turn up there. It felt like an adult summer camp where the days are spent throwing your efforts at the wall and nights are late hanging out with your friends you’ve made. Out of the people we met, I don’t think there was a single person who actually left on the day they had planned to leave which is real testament to the way the place is run. If you go, you will find that you have an entire valley to play with – a climber’s paradise. What was also really surprising was the proportion of people who arrived having never climbed and were there to learn.

I do think some of the grading at the crags are a bit off. Even the 5s and 6as proved to be challenging, more so than at other places we’ve climbed. Also, since I’d travelled for the prior two months with no training or climbing, it really whooped me the better half of the first week we were there. The climbing didn’t get easier, but I did get more comfortable and could climb harder.

My sport climbing goal for 2018 was to do my first 7a. I managed 6c+ in Tonsai in January before running out of time to project a 7a route there. Knowing how relatively weak and out of shape I was when I arrived, I didn’t really have any expectations of being able to climb hard. But after throwing myself continuously at a climb called Schwitzerland, on the eleventh attempt I finally made it. It’s a route with lots of lovely flowy technical moves, something I’d normally be really into but for some reason the climb was very intimidating to me. I’d managed to get to the last few moves about five times before I managed to send it. And even on my send try, I still didn’t quite believe that I could do it. My biggest weakness is currently and has been for quite some time a mental hurdle. Physically the moves actually never gave me too much trouble, my endurance was perhaps lacking a little but I could perform all the moves without trouble. I never felt quite comfortable on it to fully commit though. Whereas on a 6c route I’d projected a week earlier I could happily go for moves and fall without holding back. The emotions when I finally clipped the anchor was undeniable. Nothing else puts me in such a state as climbing does. What made it even better was that the friends I had made were climbing at the crag right next door so some could see me and cheers accompanied my pathetic sobbing. It was the best way to repay their belief in me throughout the days I projected the climb. Now I have the evidence to prove to myself I can do this, hopefully I can climb more confidently in future.

It’s only been two days since we left and already I miss the place, the lifestyle and most of all the people. Every single person who left before we did, I missed them and now I miss everyone like cattle misses their herd when they’re lost. I would definitely like to go back, although it’d be incredibly hard to replicate the time we had. Nevertheless, the 25 days has made my life and memories infinitely richer.

End of the First Leg

Currently sitting on the boat to Koh Tao having left Tonsai this morning. It was probably a good time to leave as there were numerous cases of Tonsai tummy (myself included) and, more worryingly, Dengue fever cropping up.

It was my first time doing such a long climbing trip and it was really good but I don’t think I was prepared for quite how mentally tiring it would be. Majority of the visitors to Tonsai will be there for climbing, most casual holidaymakers would choose Rai Lei which makes sense – the sand is nicer and there are more resorts. But it does mean that it is nigh on impossible to escape the climbing talk save from locking yourself in your room.

But that is the main complaint (which really isn’t much of a complaint really) I have. I very much enjoyed my two weeks staying and climbing in Tonsai. I definitely felt like I made a lot of progress on the trip having managed to redpoint Stalagasaurus (6c+) on my fourth time up on the wall. My goal of 7a is definitely achievable. The most important thing I have gained is thinking I’m capable of it.

If you’re going for a short time or have a little more money, I would certainly recommend staying at Dream Valley Resort. It’s a bit more luxurious than the non air conned cinder block rooms at the other places but still very affordable by western standards (I think we paid £32 per night, sharing between two). When you’re putting yourself through the heat and humidity of being at the crag and climbing all day, it was definitely a relief to be able to get back to a comfy hotel room that offered WiFi and air con. In Tonsai this seems far and few between.

Favourite dish was definitely the noodle soup with big noodles at Andamans. Super moreish but also really good food for when you have a dodgy tummy. I would definitely taking precautions for in case you get the infamous Tonsai tummy.

So anyway. That’s Tonsai done for now with plenty of progress and also projects for future. Onwards to diving in Koh Tao!

2nd Rest Day Update

So at the end of rest day number 2, I haven’t quite managed to finish Stalagasaurus clean yet although I feel better today than I did when I pumped out yesterday. It’s such a big mental game. The height, the gradient, the possibility of success, the potential of falling… It’s all factors that intimidate me. But I know all it takes is just to keep pushing through until you get used to the height, the gradient and the falling. The possibility of success… Well, that’s not something to fear but I do come across it every so often. The slight hesitation of “if I finish this, then what next?”. It sounds silly, but I hope I’m not the only one who gets it.

Rationally I know I am physically capable of redpointing the climb. I’ve done all the moves separately with absolutely no trouble – three times in fact. It’s just stringing it all together and not over gripping. Sport climbing is still such a new ballgame to me but I’m as impatient as a toddler who’s just learnt to walk. I want to get better, I want to push my grade. These will be the thoughts I need to hold onto when the pump is on and I’m battling to finish my project.

My first attempt on Stalagasaurus