Michael Dobie moved to Liming in September 2010 with two friends who discovered the Chinese village in a travel brochure. Crisscrossed by dirt roads, the rustic setting in the mountains of Yunnan province offered few amenities.
"It was pretty wild," Dobie said. "People were walking miles into town for supplies. It was kind of just one street, that type of traditional village."
But the group came with a purpose — to establish traditional, or "trad," climbing in China — and for this, Liming offered two advantages. First, its endowment of soaring sandstone cliffs was rich with cracks and crevices ideal for the sport. Second, the local government embraced their vision and granted permits to explore the surrounding crags. In early 2011, Dobie set out cleaning routes, removing undergrowth and knocking away loose rock. By the summer, he'd finished more than 40.
Traditional climbing differs from other varieties like sport climbing in the method climbers use to protect themselves against falls. While sport climbers tie into a line of permanently fixed bolts, traditional climbers carry along a set of removable anchoring devices that they jam into cracks. The skill involved in making placements that will hold a person's weight and break a big fall adds difficulty, and the extra equipment costs are significant.
In part because of these differences, sport climbing became popular in China as early as the 1980s while traditional remained all but unknown. By 2010, other southern cities such as Yangshuo and Kunming had cultivated homegrown sport-climbing communities, with hundreds of routes developed by multiple generations of enthusiasts.
"I consider Yangshuo the Yosemite of China because it's where rock climbing started here, and it's the largest place in China," said Andrew Hedesh, a Yangshuo-based climber and author of a forthcoming guidebook on the area. But the dearth of traditional climbing frustrated Dobie.
"At the beginning I saw it as a service project," he said. "All the people developing over the last 20 years in China have all been foreigners doing sport climbing. So the Chinese, that was all they knew."
Less than a year after its inception, however, Dobie's project took on an unlikely life of its own. Word of his efforts in Liming spread abroad, and professional climbers, including Matt Segal, began to notice. Segal visited Liming in 2011 to explore and develop new, more challenging routes, documenting his trip for a wider, international network of climbers with sleek videos and colorful articles.
The next year, Liming held its first trad festival, backed by sponsors. Segal returned to participate.
For most of China's modern history, a tumultuous political climate and strict regulations left the country closed off to foreign explorers. But as restrictions were eased in the late 20th century, its vast interior and potentially exceptional terrain have captivated the interest of outdoor enthusiasts. Mark Synnott, a professional mountaineer who was one of the first foreigners to climb in a newly opened Tibet in 2002, is among them.
"One thing that stuck with me since that trip is how much of China, back then and still today, is unexplored," he said. "China may be the place that holds the biggest treasure trove of unexplored mountain territory in the world."
Given the scale of China's unexplored inland, Liming's evolution under Dobie might suggest a coming boom in new climbing areas. But the same ruggedness that makes China's outback so enticing also creates obstacles to new development.
"Yangshuo is in Guangxi province, and within Guangxi there are already about 12 different climbing spots," Hedesh said. "It's just that nobody goes ... because they're in the middle of nowhere."
For this reason, some climbers doubt that the sport is moving away from its traditional centers.
"I think Yangshuo is going to continue to be the epicenter of climbing in China," said Adam Kritzer, the owner of Climb Dali, a club in central Yunnan. "There are probably a few-dozen potential Limings in China, but they aren't going to get developed any time soon."
Yet while the familiar sport-climbing hubs still dominate China's climbing scene, others see a transition ahead. Driven by a growing Chinese middle class, rock climbing has become increasingly popular as an outdoor recreation sport.
"Climbing has been in parts of the Chinese community for the past 15 years, and it's really been in gyms and Yangshuo, but now people want the adventure part of it," said Colin Flahive, a founder of Dali Bar, a natural food company in Kunming that sponsors China-based climbers. "With climbing there's the exercise ... so going to the gym is almost as exciting as going to the crag. But when you move past that, the excitement of going to new places and exploring new spots is the second phase of climbing, and I think that's where everything is moving at this point."
This expansion into new areas has been helped by entrepreneurs who have seized on the sport's growth as a business opportunity.
"There are these Chinese outdoor companies that want to become larger names, and so what they do is they hire people to go develop routes," Hedesh said. "They get an entire team of famous rock climbers, travel around for a month and put up 50 routes in an area."
The relatively free license to develop far-flung rural areas for rock climbing is another aspect of China that many find exceptional. Where other countries have rigid national laws governing public land, China's land administration system gives a great deal of authority to leaders at the local level. So climbers are generally welcomed.
"The freedom we have here is really nice," said Peter Mortimer, a researcher at the World Agroforestry Centre and a Kunming-based climber. "I've bolted and climbed a bit in Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and there there's always issues — there's a lot of red tape. But here I'm just kind of free of all of that, which appeals to me."
With growing numbers of well-off Chinese able to travel in search of newer and better terrain, some believe this coalescence of natural advantages will make China's hinterland more appealing to the next generation of climbers.
"Krabi in Thailand, which used to be all Europeans and Americans, it's now almost all Chinese climbers going down there," Flahive said. "In that search for adventure, there's going internationally, but then there's also developing the local stuff. In Yangshuo, the rock is getting polished. People are craving something new."