Postcards from China
As a small child, I believed that particular tale often told to gullible small children, that if I dug a hole in the yard deep enough, I’d end up in China. Armed with pail and shovel, I set out on my mission. Realizing that my hard work was not yielding much progress, I finally gave up, concluding that China must, in fact, be very, very far away.
Years passed, and despite that great distance, I decided I would finally visit China. “You’re crazy” and “How adventurous” were some of the responses I received when I told others of my plans to travel throughout the country solo and independently. But in my eyes I was being neither crazy nor adventurous; I simply wanted to experience one of the greatest cultures of people with whom I share this planet. And hopefully take some decent photos in the process.
Armed with my English/Mandarin dictionary, a much too heavy bag of photo gear and an open mind, I set out in October 2007 on what would be one of the most profound and wonderful journeys of my life.
Upon arriving in Beijing, albeit exhausted from the nearly 8,000 mile journey from Miami, there was one place for me that couldn't wait - so I made a beeline from the hotel toward Tiananmen Square and that iconic portrait of Chairman Mao.
Standing in person before the portrait was indeed surreal. And Chairman Mao's gaze does seem to follow you around wherever you go. Hundreds of tourists stood behind the barricades snapping photos, which gave me the courage - something I wouldn't try anywhere else in China - to include the soldier in my image. Still, it felt a bit unnerving. It was already dark, making the scene before the imposing red wall even more dramatic. These soldiers seemed stern and were clearly there to guard, not to be tourist attractions. I hoped not to call attention to myself - a foreigner - with my big camera, alongside many others - mostly Chinese - with their camera phones.
I waited until I saw an “interaction” between the soldier and Mao. Yes, they were both overlooking the square - and all its people - together. When the soldier turned toward Mao for a brief second, Mao's eyes were looking approvingly upon his soldier, and I captured the moment.
Wandering through a Beijing hutong, I came upon a sight that made me smile - a dog sitting upright on a chair facing his master, a craftsman with wonderful character appeal, while the man sat on the ground working on another chair.
I am not usually one to take photos of peoples' pets, but I saw this as a great opportunity. I greeted the man and expressed my admiration for the dog, and "asked," in that nonverbal manner using charades that photographers use when they don't speak the language, if I could take the dog's picture. He answered me in the affirmative, and then said something to the dog that might have been the Chinese equivalent of "look at the camera and smile." And he quickly went back to work on his chair. The dog obliged, and I stepped back to compose the frame, being sure to include the man as well. I also took care to include the background, full of color, texture and Chinese characters, which added to the image's sense of place.
I quickly snapped a frame before the dog lost interest and returned to overseeing his owner's labors, and thanked them both with my best "xie xie" before continuing on my way.
All over Beijing, one is reminded of the upcoming Olympic games. By the signs, advertisements and souvenir shops. But also by the bulldozers and cranes leveling the old in favor of the new. I was thrilled that Subway Line 5 had just been completed - probably because of the Olympics - as it made transport from my hotel much easier. But otherwise, I wondered about the positives and negatives that the Olympics bring to host cities. Sure, there would be many positives. But all that money spent, stadiums built, and especially the urban-renewal-on-steroids. But I couldn't help but notice that for all the new and shiny, there was still much of Beijing that was quite the opposite. And I was glad to be able to still experience it.
After spending the morning wandering around old neighborhoods that had thus far been spared from the wrecking ball, I came across this bus stop advertisement for the 2008 Games. I wanted to capture this dichotomy between the flashy new Beijing of the Olympics and the traditional. I put on my "central casting" hat and waited for the right subject to cross my path. And he appeared. A man in a canvas hat pushing an old bicycle - clearly not the model we'll see in the Velodrome - weighed down with packages, against a background of the Olympics poster. Speed vs. slow. Shiny vs. rusty. The new Beijing that China will show to the world, vs. the Beijing that I was lucky enough to still find.
In planning my itinerary, I felt that if I did nothing else aside from visiting the Great Wall, my trip would still be complete - it had been up on my Life List of must-sees for as long as I could remember. I wanted this experience to be a profound one, so after researching my options, I decided that instead of the heavily touristed Badaling section of the wall, I would book a backpacker bus and hike from the more remote areas of Jinshanling to Simatai.
I had read various reports about the hike. My impression was that there were a few steep sections but overall it was not difficult and could be completed with time to spare before the bus departed from Simatai four hours and 8 km after dropping us off at Jinshanling. So I had visions of leisurely setting up my tripod along various vantage points and taking hundreds of fantastic and dramatic panoramas of the winding wall. I packed my tripod and lenses into my now very heavy backpack in eager anticipation.
The first sighting of the wall from the bus did not disappoint. Nor did the feeling of taking those first few steps and realizing I was actually on the Great Wall of China! That exhilaration soon was met by hyperventilation and exhaustion, however, as the unseasonably hot sun beat down on the steep, never-ending steps and crumbling rock up and down the wall. I managed a quick break to snap a couple of photos in that unfavorable sunlight, but it became clear to me that I would have neither time nor the opportunity during this grueling hike to seek the best spots, unload the tripod and lenses from my backpack, take the pictures, repack everything, do it all over again, and make the bus back to Beijing. In fact, the camera itself stayed in the backpack for most of the day, as parts of the hike were so steep and required all fours, and a heavy camera swinging around my neck would surely get banged up or at least confuse my sense of balance.
In this particular image I chose what I thought was an unconventional composition of breaking up the wall from foreground to background. One can still conclude that it is all part of the same structure, while appreciating how winding the wall actually is.
Satisfied that I got at least one and maybe more decent images, I was okay with my camera being stowed away in my backpack. It gave me the opportunity to focus on navigating the sometimes difficult and always tiring terrain, enjoy the beautiful vistas and the camaraderie with my fellow travelers, and…continually pinch myself to assure that I was not dreaming but was really atop the Great Wall of China! Even the hyperventilation and exhaustion were overpowered by feelings of accomplishment and exhilaration!
While researching my tentative route around China, I consulted my trusted travel advisor, Mr. Google, with the inquiry, "the Tuscany of China." It wasn't that I expected, or even wanted, Italy to be literally replicated in China. But my only familiarity with the country involved the metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. And I wondered if I might find a kinder, gentler place somewhere that embodied what I loved about the hill towns of Italy.
Mr. G. suggested that I might enjoy Chengdu. But it turned out that I wasn't able to fit Sichuan Province into this trip.
I did instead find myself in Lijiang in Yunnan Province, an incredibly picturesque cobblestoned town with narrow winding lanes. And public squares where, if you looked past the hordes of tour groups, one could find the locals going about their business, playing cards, socializing.
In Sifang Square, I spotted this group of gentlemen sitting closely together and passing the time engaged in lively conversation. It was the same exact scene that is a staple in the Italian piazza. And one that I find, for the most part, missing back home in our rushed existence. Dolce far niente, the sweet art of doing nothing. And these men had that sweet art down to a science. I was particularly attracted to their expressive faces and animated interaction, and especially the sense that they were truly enjoying each other's company. I shot this frame at the moment I detected an interesting variety in the directions they were facing. I chose a tight frame because what was important to me was that universal human interaction, without the distraction of the background setting.
I believe I had found “la dolce vita” in China after all.
I had been hesitant to buy into the marketing hype and refer to this place as "Shangri La." After all, I had read that the town of Zhongdian, or Gyalthang as it's known in Tibetan, was renamed for James Hilton's fictional setting as a way to boost tourism.
But I was captivated upon arrival by the monastery's presence above the town, the saffron-robed monks, the Buddhist prayer flags waving in the wind and the fresh air of the high altitude. I spent my days wandering around the monastery, taking in the rural scenery, being in awe of the mountains in the distance.
I took many photos of one or the other - lamas heading to prayer, the wonderful architecture of the monastery, mountain panoramics, farmhouses. But I wondered if there was a way to put it all together, to express a bit more of what was so special about the place in one frame. I found my answer one late afternoon when the sun was getting low and beginning to cast a golden glow on the white walls of the monastery. Heading down the long flight of steps, I stopped to admire a colorful window and noticed that I was also overlooking the farmhouses with hay drying on racks as well as the snow peaked mountains - and that I could get them all in one image. I didn't want, or need, to show the entire monastery - the ornate window and texture of the wall sufficed to convey its character and its beauty and its presence above the surroundings.
Yeah, I've bought into the propaganda, it's Shangri La as far as I'm concerned.
I could have easily spent all of my time in Shangri La in the remote and tranquil area of the monastery. But I had heard that there was a giant Tibetan Buddhist prayer wheel in the Old Town quarter of Zhongdian, so I decided to take the Number 3 bus to find it.
One would imagine there would be no problem spotting an 80 foot golden prayer wheel in an otherwise low-rise town. But somehow I got lost in a maze of narrow cobblestoned streets and was forced to ask for directions. Unfortunately I discovered that there is no entry for "giant prayer wheel" in my Rough Guide Mandarin phrase book, so I must have looked pretty silly pantomiming praying then walking around in a circle to the shopkeeper who sincerely wanted to help. Luckily she called over another shopkeeper who figured out my horrible attempt at Charades and pointed me in the right direction.
The obvious photo, upon initially approaching the prayer wheel, involved pointing the camera up and including the entire thing. I tried that but looking through the viewfinder did not yield inspiration. Even trying different creative angles left me rather cold. I decided to get closer.
Yes, the wheel was tall, and yes, it was round, but it occurred to me that I could convey its size without necessary showing the whole thing. Instead I decided I could more effectively make my point of its grandeur by filling the frame with a portion of the wheel and including a human for scale. Several people were circling the wheel, spinning it to submit their prayers, but all but one were dressed in western clothes, likely tourists. The one woman in Tibetan dress would be my subject. I wanted to be as respectful and unobtrusive as possible, so I stood back in a nonchalant manner, pointing my camera into the distance until I peripherally spotted the woman approaching. It took three revolutions before I captured her alone in my frame.
After getting my shot, I couldn't leave without joining in and taking a spin of the wheel of my own.
I was inspired to find the "old Shanghai" after reading an article, and a wonderful accompanying slide show, by the New York Times' Howard French in which he described photographing street life in neighborhoods that were in the shadow of modern Shanghai yet untouched by that modernization.
Fangbang Lu was one of the streets that French photographed. While in the touristy Old City area, I noticed on my street map that it was nearby. At first I thought I was in the wrong place, as this Fangbang Lu was crowded with souvenir shops and tourists, and no sign of "real" life. But my instincts led me further down the street to the point where the locals outnumbered the occasional foreigner.
A lucky peek around a side alleyway yielded a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration or any barber shop on any Main Street in any city - a barber dressed in his white coat attends to his customer, metal shaving bowl on a stand beside him, while the next customer reads the newspaper and waits his turn. A barbershop in the open air with walls of corrugated metal and scraps of wood, no running water, a simple hand painted sign, in a neighborhood where time seemed to stand still, but a universal scene nonetheless.
I tried to remain undetected from the corner of the alleyway so not to disturb the moment, and was able to capture this scene.
"Traditional vs. Modern" is a theme that ran throughout my journey. Nearly every news story that I had read about China spoke of the changes to that country - the western commercial influences, the tearing down of traditional hutongs to make way for office buildings, the demise of the old way of life and the question of what effect such changes will have on the culture. And it was clear to me, from all the building cranes and Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets that I spotted in the most unexpected places, that "progress" was certainly on the march.
Along Shanghai's Bund, I came across this rare tranquil scene amongst the throngs of tourists - a senior man overlooking the gleaming modern skyscrapers of the Pudong District across the river, a not too subtle metaphor of the past contemplating the future.
The man's face as an individual didn't matter, and would actually detract from my metaphor, so I was careful to shoot when he was looking in the distance while still making sure his age was apparent. I also wanted the man to serve as a surrogate for the viewer, so the viewer as well is against the wall overlooking the skyscrapers... and wondering too what the future has in store.
I now realize how wrong I was throughout the years. China is not far away at all. It is not an alien place where you must be “crazy” or “adventurous” to visit. And not because of the modernization and “westernization.” But because even in the most remote of regions where life cannot possibly seem more different than ours, a smile is still a smile.
The world changed into a very, very small place as a result of my time in China. I can’t wait to get out my pail and shovel again and discover where else my digging will lead.