David Robinson Photos


China 2006


Once again, in order to travel to China, I decided to join a group tour rather than attempt independent travel. This tour was run by Herman Mast with his wife Linda and had been recommended by my friend and fellow photographer Salvatore Mancini who had gone with Herm on a previous trip to China. Salvatore and his partner Susanna were going on this tour as well. At its conclusion, Sal and I were planning to go by ourselves to Thailand and Cambodia to photograph.

Herm is a China expert, Linda herself is Chinese, and they had traveled to China dozens of times. The focus of this tour was Chinese Ethnic minorities and the so-called Autonomous Regions of China, so the tour promised to be special. It was to be a 22 day trip with 23 people. Following Salvatore's introduction, I met Herm and Linda in San Francisco beforehand, and evidently I passed muster because I was accepted into the group. I didn't know at that time that most of the people on this trip were regulars on Herm's trips; they had traveled all over the world with him. They evidently liked how he ran the tours, and Herm, for his part, liked having this loyal traveling 'family' with him.

There were two groups, one coming from the East Coast and one from California. After a 12 hour flight from SFO we met the East coast group at the Beijing airport and boarded another plane for a 3 hour flight to Chengdu. We arrived at our hotel after midnight and got up at 5 the next morning to fly to Guilin where the tour was officially to begin. The rapid pace was to become a familiar part of traveling with Herm.

After checking into the Bravo Hotel in Guilin, we went out to the local cemetery. This day (April 6) turned out to be the day (determined by the lunar calendar) that Chinese traditionally clean their family graves. I had hoped to see this and had mentioned it to Herm and Linda. So, he was able to include this, and I was grateful. The cemetery was full of people and smoke; part of the ritual is setting off firecrackers (to send the spirits up to heaven). There were stands selling large firecrackers and clusters of people lighting them over the graves which were on both sides of the road, some up a hill. I raced around trying to get good photographs. I had only 25 minutes to try to do what I normally would spend all afternoon photographing. So much for group tours, always the same trade-off.

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Village / Farming

After the cemetery, we passed through hills and paddies familiar to me from my first trip to Yangshoo, heading to a small village that Herm had learned of through painters at the Guilin Painting Academy who often painted there. Evidently, the villagers had decided to supplement their meager farming income by allowing tourists to come in and photograph their 'picturesque' (read impoverished) village.

I was attracted to the entrances of houses, the doorways flanked by bright red banners radiant against the drab colors of the buildings and their surroundings. The streets were no more than narrow pathways of dirt and stone. In the courtyards of the houses we could glimpse the simple artifacts of daily life in the village, plastic bowls, tools, clothes and shoes drying, wood for fuel and so on. All added up to a basic, spare existence. We were able to enter some houses where the residents uncomfortably allowed us to look around. They made reluctant but dutiful models.

On the outskirts of the village near the fields, farmers were drying grain. Farther out, we were able to go into a school. Kids were on recess playing basketball and other games. The classrooms were empty but we could get some sense of the instruction. There was a slim selection of books.

The school was surrounded by fields and rice paddies. Rice cultivation is labor intensive, although in recent years small hand operated tractors have been replacing the water buffalos. As we came out of the school, we witnessed a remarkable sight, the introduction of new farming technology in the form of a bright and gleaming rice planting machine. It looked awkward and out of place, and just getting it into the paddy was a problem, provoking much commentary by all the farmers and officials present. A video cameraman was there to record the introduction of progress.

Li River / Yangshoo

From Guilin we made the obligatory tourist trip down the Li River to Yangshoo (repeating the trip I took with Explore in 2004). What makes the trip worthwhile are the bell-curve mountains rising up suddenly from the flat topography. I first saw these hills in the film, "Indochine" and I saw them in Vietnam near Hanoi as well as along the Li River.

The boats are all full of tourists. Last time, the boat I was on was mostly Chinese, this time it was all Westerners. Once again, I was drawn to the open air kitchens on the sterns, and this time I was able to get a closer look - until they closed the door to me. And, once again we had the snake grappa. Peddlers on bamboo rafts managed to pull alongside and hold on in order to sell crystal, carvings, fans and other trinkets. One guy selling huge fans climbed up to show his wares through the dining room window.

Yangshoo is a town oriented toward the river and therefore to tourists. I remember liking it the first trip. But this time we didn't get much time to look around; after disembarking and walking around a bit, we boarded a bus to take us back to the hotel in Guilin.


We bussed from Guilin to Longsheng and continued from there on in a smaller bus to Longji (listed officially in the guide books as "The Dragon's Backbone Rice Terraces"). This is a 600 year old Zhuang village set in the middle of endless rice terraces that have been cut into rolling hills. After a strenuous hike up the mountain we arrived at the Longji Wooden Hostel. Our bags were carried up by porters, the larger bags in sedan chairs on poles, the smaller ones in baskets carried by young women over their shoulders. I hung on to my camera bag (as I always do) despite repeated entreaties by the girls to let them carry it.

I was getting to know two friends of Salvatore's from Rhode Island, Bruce Decker and John O'Malley, and their presence added a great deal of amusement and enthusiasm to the group. After a delicious vegetarian lunch - all local produce - Salvatore, Bruce and I went out for a walk on the paths amidst the terraces. The terraces create small crescent paddies and go on for several hills. Paths have been cut between them on the level, so wherever you are on the path there are paddies above and below, in front and behind you. It's unusual to have a man-made landscape so vast and so beautiful.

As I had seen before, there were graves scattered among the rice paddies. Since the grave washing ceremony had occurred only a couple of days ago, the graves were festooned with ribbons, the remains of firecrackers and in some cases Yuan bills attached to ribbons or the graves.

The women of the Zhuang minority - I don't think I can say tribe - are known for keeping their hair long - uncut - and on our walk, we encountered two young women who through gestures, offered to take down their hair for us. We hadn't expected this and didn't know quite what to do. As they let down their hair, pin by pin, it felt like a striptease, much more intimate than one would expect. The unveiling had a voyeuristic, almost erotic aspect to it that we all felt. We understood that we were expected to pay them money for the privilege of watching, and that created in our minds an air of exploitation as well. We didn't know how much to pay, but they indicated 10 Yuan. Where the tradition of long hair came from I don't know, nor do I know when - or why - taking it down for tourists became a money-making proposition. But it was interesting to note how much discomfort it caused us to watch.

Then, not fully recovered from the dismantling of the hair, we came upon a group of young girls on a high path overlooking a beautiful valley. These girls wore totally different costumes, long colorful dresses and parasols. For a fee, they were posing for and with tourists and taking digital photos themselves. In a shed behind the rack where they stored all their dresses, they had a computer and printer set up to process the photos. When I snuck a candid photo of their operation, I had to pay. I doubted the authenticity of these costumes, and once again, I wondered about culture and commerce, concluding that the former would be readily sacrificed to the latter. Chinese Disneyland. Little did I know at that point what lay ahead.

Dong Villages

We departed Longji early in the morning for an eight hour bus ride over terrible roads to the "Sanjiang Dong Minority Autonomous County" and specifically to see the Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge. In the afternoon, we were treated to an open air ethic dance show with villagers in elaborate costumes doing stylized synchronized movements.

Before the trip, I had wondered if I would find these autonomous areas to be like the South African Bantustans, territories reserved for designated ethnic groups under the apartheid regime, nominally autonomous but in reality subservient to the central government and designed to keep the inhabitants in their place. The official Chinese descriptions of the autonomous areas made it sound as if minority culture was being preserved and protected, but I had my doubts. And here in Sanjiang, my doubts began to surface again, because this show seemed to have been conceived only for tourists. Further, the routines were crude and the dancers hesitant, as if new to it all. The routines seemed to me to come straight from some awful choreographer and not from any traditional culture. Once again, it signaled to me that China would sacrifice any part of its past to achieve its modern goals. It all smelled fishy to me. Nonetheless I enjoyed the creative costumes which featured amazing amounts of pressed tin made to resemble silver.

Afterward, I wandered down to the river to view the famous bridge (which the guide book says was built without nails over a 12 year period). I came upon a crudely built but perfectly functioning water wheel - there are several working along the river - and then saw young girls doing laundry, bathing and playing in the water. On the way back, farmers were tending their rice paddies in the shadow of the bridge. This seemed far more real than the ethnic dancing.

Zhaoxing Dong Village

On the way from Sanjiang, we ran into a rock and dirt slide that covered the road, making it impassable in either direction. Trucks and other vehicles were lined up on either side of the slide by the time we arrived. But local villagers had emerged with shovels to clear the road. Evidently they were paid by the drivers, but I'm not clear on that.

Our destination was the Dong village of Zhaoxing where we were to stay overnight. There was no floor show here, and this village had a charm to it that made me reluctant to leave. Zhaoxing is small, less than 1000 households, oriented along a shallow river that flows through the town as a main street and leads to rice paddies just beyond. People dried vegetables, grain and dyed wool along the river banks. Our hotel was right in the center of the village on a street perpendicular to the river. Only a few streets could accommodate cars, so there was no traffic. Many of the villagers were in costume, but here it felt natural, not staged.

Zhaoxing is known for its five drum towers, hand made and elaborately decorated, and its traditional architecture. There are only one or two modern buildings, what looked to be apartment flats near the rice paddies. I took lots of photographs and had free run of the village to photograph anything I wanted. People were open, friendly and courteous. I spent a lot of time on a wooden covered bridge spanning the river where men were drying wool. In the afternoon, I came upon a man and his son fast asleep on the bridge, arm in arm, one of the most touching scenes I had ever seen. I also came across a woman carrying a baby which had recently had head surgery of some kind. She carried an iv drip on a bamboo pole, a practical, homespun solution that nonetheless raised questions about the level of medical care in the village. It could be excellent for all I know but certainly seemed free of an abundance of equipment.

A friendly shopkeeper saw me perspiring after an afternoon spent walking around and motioned me to have seat in front of her shop, pulling out one of the typical low stools for me to perch. We chatted without any common language. I bought some cloth from her, including an indigo jacket with dragons that fit perfectly and looks great; it's become my evening jacket.

Accompanying us on the trip was a Chinese photographer, Yu Ya-wan, and his wife, Luo Yin. Yu had spent 10 years photographing in the autonomous regions and is an authority on minority nationality clothing. He had just published a detailed two volume book of his photographs and research. After dinner, we gathered in the street across from our hotel to listen to a presentation of his work with Linda translating. This turned out to be a good introduction to the next part of our trip, but in the meantime I wanted just to absorb as much of the village of Zhaoxing as I could before leaving.

In the morning, I went out again to the rice paddies to photograph. Standing there in the cool of the morning, between the paddies and the hills, looking back on the town, I felt very lucky.

Zhaoxing / Rongjiang / Kali

After leaving Zhaoxing, we stopped at Longtu, Yingtan and Chejiang before reaching Ronjiang where we stayed the night.

I wrote in my notebook that in these days the villages were becoming a blur. We were packing in several stops in a day, all ethnic (Miao or Dong) villages, each with some special feature such as a drum tower or particular costume or ritual. But whatever the attraction or wherever we were, our routine was essentially the same; pull up, file out of the bus, size up the situation (arranged for us) and begin firing away. What the difference is between my photos and all the others who are operating on this same speeded-up treadmill, I don't know. Hopefully I bring something of experience and a trained eye to the task. Without having come on this tour, I would never have seen these villages. But it is an inherently unsatisfying way to photograph.

The most striking thing to me is the fact that people here are indifferent to being photographed. We are free to go where we want, take what pictures we want, and nobody even turns away from the camera. They are totally accommodating. (After photographing in Africa and elsewhere where people are fiercely resistant to being photographed, this accepting attitude always amazes me).

Evidently this easy accommodation was not always the case. Yu Ya-wan, the photographer who has spent 10 years photographing Chinese ethnic minority costumes - especially the elaborately embroidered baby carriers that women use to carry infants on their backs - says that when he first went into villages to photograph, the women would not even allow him to see the carriers. These were sacred items for their babies that were so heavily invested in ancestry and posterity that women would not dare risk having an outsider see them. All that has certainly changed; baby carriers by the hundreds if not thousands were for sale everywhere we went. It's a measure of a profound change, and I gather a rather sudden one as well. This supports my thesis that at some point the Chinese government made a decision to emphasize ethnic minority tourism and went to the villages and directed them to dress up, dance and do whatever necessary to support the new policy.

In one village, Linda pointed out a chart on the wall of a small public square. It was recording the pregnancies in the village - which women were pregnant, how far along, how many children they already had etc. All public - and official - knowledge. But the chart was not being maintained that we could see; it was an artifact of the one-child policy, abandoned either because of a change in that policy or because of better record keeping technology. According to Linda, the Chinese government has exempted the minority tribes from the one-child policy. If true, that would be a positive sign that the Chinese do have a genuinely supportive policy toward the autonomous areas.

We stayed one night in Rongjiang, a fairly large city, and after dinner Bruce and I went out for a walk along the city streets, a definite change of pace. Shops were open, and Bruce, always curious and up for adventure led me into several - art supplies, antiques, groceries. Always the people were amazed at his height, so we had a running series of jokes, misunderstandings and laughter. A master designer and craftsman, Bruce introduced me to things all along the trip that I would have never noticed, such as roof details, antique tools and traditional art supplies.

The urban exchanges with people seemed much more authentic - no costumes, no directives to please the tourists - but wherever we were, in ethnic villages, schoolyards, city streets, markets or shops, the Chinese seemed genuinely interested and open. There is crushing poverty in China, which we only can imagine since we don't experience it. But the people we see seem happy, happy in the sense of having energy and being engaged with each other and their lives. They did not seem crushed by work, oppressed by the state or anything like that.

Miao Sisters' Festival, Shidong

In the brief promotional description of the tour, Herm had mentioned that one of the highlights of the trip would be the Miao "Sisters' Meal Festival, which is part of a spring mating/planting ritual." This turned out to be in the village of Shidong, and when our bus arrived, the main street was already clogged with other buses and hundreds if not thousands of tourists. The word was certainly out on this festival.

We disembarked and were directed through part of the village across fields to a smaller cluster of houses along the river. It was there, on the broad bank of the river, that the festival was going to take place. We passed market which I wanted to photograph, but there never seems to be enough time. We stopped to have lunch in a small house and sat on those low Chinese stools eating a box lunch. As usual, there were kids around the house; I can't imagine what China would be like without the one child policy. Some of the women wore colorfully embroidered black dresses. But that was only a taste of what was to come. For some reason, photographers - I don't know if they were Chinese or Japanese or Korean - kept popping in at the door to take my picture. They had SLRs, so they weren't tourists. That's the first time that happened on this trip, but I remember it from my first trip to China and Vietnam. After lunch, I had to go to the bathroom, so I was allowed to use the toilet in the house and got a behind the scenes look at a more mundane part of China.

After lunch, I came across two men slaughtering an enormous pig right on the sidewalk, and this I had to photograph. The pig was tied to a slab of wood, head down, blood running into the street and a dog lapping up the blood. I stayed for the entire process. After the pig was bisected, the two men weighed one half on a shoulder pole between them, and one man paid the other for his half. Then, I was amazed to see that they draped the purchased half on the back of a motorbike, and the buyer rode off with it. The festival notwithstanding, this was the highlight of the day for me, much closer to the real China than the elaborate (and I suspect faux) costumes.

But the costumes here were certainly remarkable with women wearing pounds of silver, layers of necklaces and teetering headdresses. There were dozens of women in identical dresses and silver (really tin, I suspect) like one of our college cheerleading teams. Children, too, were well turned out, laden in silver. There was lots of fussing over arranging the costumes and headdresses. Because of the crowds, the groups couldn't really do much dancing, just a few turns and movements among the throngs. There wasn't a stage, so there wasn't much room to move. There were lots of foreign photographers competing for the best shots, Japanese, German, Americans, and Chinese. Most of the tourists, as usual in China, were Chinese.

Food was a big part of the festival, and along the river, vendors were selling everything from baked potatoes to cotton candy. There were also lots of baby carriers and other clothing for sale. Some vendors had racks, but most just laid their goods out on the pebbly ground. It made for colorful juxtapositions. I went from clothing to costume to food to kids. All in all, the festival was a wonderful concentration of children, color and costume. I had a good time photographing all I could.


On our tour bus, we look out and down on Chinese life along the road but seldom do we sample it. On one occasion, however, Bruce in his enthusiasm got the driver to stop so he could get out to look at some kilns that we would have passed by otherwise. They looked like large mounds or hillocks. But Bruce recognized them as good examples of peasant artisan craftsmanship, the source of locally made bricks used for houses. I went with him into the kilns where he showed me how they were constructed. Not good for photographs, however.

We also get some sense of local road conditions, and the day after the Sisters' festival, on the road from Kali to the village of Matang, we were on a well traveled route, a solitary bus among an endless string of heavily laden trucks carrying coal to a power plant. The highway was only five years old, but already it was rutted, potholed and crumbling from the trucks which are visibly overloaded. We saw our first accident, an overturned coal truck. Men were shoveling the spilled coal into another truck.

Matang was another similar but unique ethnic village - the Vietnamese used to say "same-same, but different" to describe the contradiction. This village is Gejia, another minority but related to the Miao. Here, the costumes were equally elaborate but different. As usual, we were welcomed by offerings of some local beverage (which I never take, not for any reluctance to sample but because I am already looking for photographs; no time to waste on these excursions).

In Matang, villagers led us up a gentle and curving path very nicely designed with small stones onto a large flat parade ground also with inlaid stone designs. Matang looked prosperous; what we would call the "infrastructure" was in very good shape. The road and parade ground were obviously constructed for the tourists. On the parade ground the villagers, all in costume, welcomed us with a microphone and p.a. system. But we were only twenty or so, far fewer than those who were performing. Nonetheless, they went through the choreography of their routines in a rote and somewhat hesitant way; I think they were still learning. I can't call it dance because they were really just walking through their routines.

The faces of the women looked different than in previous villages. One, taller than the rest, stood out and was very attractive. I was surprised to see how many older women were in the group; grandmothers I'm sure. I wondered what they made of all this and how dressing up for us compared in their own minds to their traditional chores of farming, housekeeping and child-rearing. I'm sure they still have to do all that too. But I'm sure the dress-up brings in additional revenue to the village, if not to the women directly, except perhaps from sales. It's details like this that tourists miss.

Matang was a great shopping village also. After the "dancing' was completed, women laid out cloths and other items on the parade ground for sale. The women were very aggressive, and crowded around at the slightest sense of interest. But they met their match in Dennis who enjoys the bargaining as much as any Westerner I've seen. He frequently delays the bus with his shopping, and always boards with some treasure. I bought a long, approximately 10' batik runner after some haggling.

Guiyang / Shiqiao

Guiyang, the capital of Guizou Province is one of China's many boom towns, bursting with people and energy to the detriment of any aesthetic. It's full of ugly high rise apartments, but we stayed as usual, an excellent and elegant hotel. Almost all the hotels that Herm has booked for us on this trip have been 4 or 5 star and very comfortable. Breakfasts are always enormous, a mixture of Western and Chinese food. What the Chinese like for breakfast is mystifying to us - and I'm sure the reverse is true, given that the choices are so different.

It was in Guiyang that we had an all vegetarian meal where, nonetheless, all the vegetables were made to look like meat. We all found this very strange; what was the point? And, I wondered about the philosophical question of intent; if meat is a sin - or to be avoided for whatever reason - making vegetables look like meat would seem to raise the question of desire or honesty. Maybe this is some hangover in my mind from Christian debates about impure thoughts versus deeds.

Also in Guiyang, we decided to try and find a quick cup of coffee, thinking Starbucks or similar. We asked and were directed to a lounge on the second floor of a large modern office building. The lounge was dimly lit and furnished with couches and large easy chairs arranged in clusters. It was quiet as well as dark; some people were reclining others sitting back into their chairs. The place had the look of a new kind of opium den with its atmosphere of reverence and ritual and the public privacy that comes from zoning out in your own space. We didn't have time to be served coffee in this atmosphere, but it was an interesting, if fleeting, insight, a new phenomenon with a throwback to tradition.

In one village - I do not remember the name - we were treated to a bizarre display of martial arts dancing by men in masks and robes. This seemed to me to be the greatest departure from authenticity yet, another made-up, dress-up for the gullible tourists.

The next village was Shiqiao, I believe, where one of the first things we encountered was an archery stand where a (Miao) woman had a number of bows and arrows set out, offering the opportunity (for a fee like any fair booth) to hit targets about 20 feet away. Bruce and John stepped right up. They both had experience. But the arrows were crooked and missing feathers, so neither did that well. After Bruce and John were finished, the woman took several arrows and hit the bulls-eye repeatedly with scarcely any effort. She was good!

In Guiyang we went to the Hingfu temple, listed in the guide book as a C17 Qing Dynasty temple. Some people had enormous sticks of incense, conspicuous devotion, I guess. The temple consisted of many different buildings with various shrines. I confess I find these shrines off-putting and strange, almost Disney-like in their caricatures. I find the architectural details, like the rooflines of the buildings, much more interesting and drying mops visually as interesting as statues. We spent some time relaxing and walking around the grounds and around a greenish lake. On the way out, we came upon a stone mason's yard right on the road. I got the driver to stop and a few of us got out to photograph men carving and sanding. They were like lion tamers in a cage full of lions.

Guiyang / Kunming / Dali

We flew from Guiyang to Kunming where we stayed for two nights in a spectacular 5-star modern hotel. Kunming turned out to be a very pleasant town with the feel of the old China but with unusually good modern architecture. We were to have a tour of the old crafts and antique market, but the local guide didn't know where it was, so we spent a couple hours wandering around downtown before we found it, and when we did, it seemed to be a pale version of what we expected. But we had a good time just wandering. I took one roll of double exposed photos of the displays, hoping that there would be enough to justify the attempt, but I had the feeling that it was largely in vain.

That night we went to a Brazilian Barbecue restaurant where waiters sliced meat from skewers right onto your plate - endlessly. And all this was accompanied by a pair of skimpily clad dancers - a man and a woman - gyrating to loud western rock music on stage. I found it off-putting, but the others thought it was great. Since all the other patrons were Chinese, including some kids - and they were loving it too - I decided I shouldn't complain. The evening was saved by an excellent flautist who played American pop and jazz tunes. That, I could appreciate. After he was finished, I went outside to sit and watch the passersby. I noticed lots of young couples and that the women were generally much better dressed than their men; the women had nice dresses, heels whereas the men had old slacks and dusty shoes. What does that say about modern Chinese society? I don't know.

It was a long bus ride from Kunming to Dali. The highlight of Dali was visiting the now empty house of the richest man in Dali, a merchant who built a grand house with several inner courtyards. Before it was completed, he became enamored of Western architecture and added Western components to the house. It's now abandoned, turned into a mostly empty and decidedly dusty museum. We wandered through the various courtyards. The architectural details were beautiful.


Herm had thought that the Naxi town of Lijiang would be empty, but when our bus pulled up, we could see immediately that we were not going to be alone here. The village is pedestrian only, so our first task was to walk from where the bus dropped us along the main street to our hotel. The street was so overrun with tourists that it was hard to find a path through; as a result, my first impression was quite negative. Lijiang - the infrastructure such as the streets/sidewalks, benches, parks etc. - had been fixed up, and the town looked clean and well maintained. With hardly a break in between them well lit, modern shops filled with all sorts of items for tourists lined the streets. Our hotel was elegantly fitted out but the rooms, arranged around a series of courtyards, were small without ventilation or light except via the door.

We had plenty of time to walk around town, and slowly my attitude changed toward the place. Yes, it was crowded and oriented toward tourism with what seemed to be a thin veneer of Chinese culture. But it was beautifully done, I had to admit. And, who was I to say what was and what was not Chinese culture. Whatever Lijiang represented, it was Chinese, and by definition then, this was Chinese culture.

Evidently, one reason Lijiang looks so good is that the town was leveled by an earthquake in 1996 which killed 300 people. The Chinese government put a lot of money into rebuilding - and they did a good job. They also built a new airport, and as the Lonely Planet guide says, turned Lijiang from "the preserve of the hardy backpacker" into a "major tourist destination." I found the Lonley Planet description of Lijiang to be pretty accurate; "...a delightful maze of cobbled streets, rickety old wooden buildings, gushing canals and the hurly burly of market life."

Bruce, John, Sal, Susanna and I all agreed that the saving grace of the trip (and of China) was the Chinese sense of humor. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with smiles and were able to joke with people, especially shop girls and merchants. Bruce was especially good at it, especially if the girls were pretty, which they often were. At 6' 4" Bruce always drew gasps and giggles, and that was always a way into some kind of exchange even without language. It was this Chinese sense of humor that cut through all the commercialism and artifice. Bargaining was a game which both sides could enjoy. The merchant would write a number, we would counter, sometimes by writing on our hands, amidst much laughter, feigned shock and all the rest of it until we reached some agreement. In one café full of backpackers, the young waitresses were quite hip and in casual Western dress; although they were Chinese, the cafe didn't seem like China.

We spent a day outside Lijiang on the well-trodden tourist route. The first stop was a place that looked like Easter Island in wooden miniature. Part of the Ba culture, it featured stellae set out in barren fields with colorful pictographs painted on them. Prayer flags were everywhere and often in thick clusters. But the most bizarre attraction was a long walkway like a riverbed of garishly painted figures. On each side were raised narrow wooden pathways from which tourists could peer down on these displays. And what tourists there were! As usual, we Westerners were immersed in a sea of Chinese tour groups. Here, guides with bullhorns walked on the painted figures giving descriptions to the groups above them on the platforms. My old doubts about the authenticity of all this culture for hire returned in full force. But lacking a guide of our own, we were left to wonder what it was all about.

The second part of this Ba interlude was a compound made to look like a traditional village - much like Plymouth Plantation in Rhode Island - with demonstrations of traditional paper making and wine making and an ingenious system for using water to activate a mortar and pestle. Inside the hut, two men were stoking a fire over which sat a large pot of fermenting grain. At a table, we could buy a small cup of the local wine for 2 Yuan. It was sold by a beautiful young woman - I was instantly smitten - who took time from selling to explain the whole wine-making process to us in halting English. Since at that moment there were no other tourists about, she paused to ask us the meaning of several English words and how to say certain things. She was bright, curious and set on learning English; she showed us her exercise book and said she got up early every morning to practice before going to work. She was truly inspiring, determined to succeed and make something of her life. I couldn't see her serving wine for long. I would have loved to stay around to teach her.

At one point we passed horses available for rent and elsewhere a group of yaks all dolled up for photo-ops. Then we took a chair lift up the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to what was called Dry Sea Meadow. The meadow was encircled by a wooden walkway along which were stationed girls in costumes ready to have their pictures taken. And, they had costumes for you too. Each group - there were dozens - had a computer and printer and gave you the print within minutes. For a fee, of course. For years I have photographed street photographers wherever I travel. I started working with them in Mexico when Carol worked for Polaroid, and I've patronized them and photographed them ever since. I am always fascinated to see the variations country to country and how in China the street photographers have adopted the new digital technology.

Another trip outside Lijiang took us to a private house in a small farming community for a specially prepared dinner, done very elaborately despite the cramped quarters. After dinner since it was still light out, John and Bruce and I decided to take a walk down a small road near the house. We soon came upon a large white wall with hieroglyphics painted on it. We figured this to be Naxi which is one of the few languages in the world that is written in hieroglyphics. But what they said and why they were here, we couldn't tell. It looked to be a private house. Curious, we peeked into the open gate and then slowly walked into a stunning inner courtyard. The ground was inlaid with beautiful patterns of small grey stones. At one end stood a large rack of drying corn. The house had wooden balconies from which more corn was hanging. As we stopped to admire the surroundings, a man came out from the house and approached us. Here we were, three foreigners just walking into his compound uninvited. But the man was very warm and welcoming. His wife and baby came out as well. With no common language, we managed to convey our admiration of his fine house and he managed to convey to us his pride in it. He was happy to have us take pictures. Then he led us to a shed along one side of the courtyard where he had assembled a collection of old farming tools, sort of a museum. This was no ordinary farmer, I thought. Or if he was, he was not only successful but a man of culture. Of course, we never found out. I couldn't get over the fact that we had just walked in and he had welcomed us graciously and with enthusiasm. A very special experience.






Jiuzhaigou / Huanglong

From Lijiang we flew to Chengdu for the night and then flew again the next morning to Jiuzhaigou in northern Sichuan, close to Tibet. We landed in snow, all of us shivering at the sudden change from the temperate climes we had been used to. We hadn't been expecting this. Our plane, we learned later, was the last one in before the weather took a turn for the worse. Herm was worried we might not get out two days hence.

The main attraction in Jiuzhaigou was the Huanglong National Park. Like most Chinese parks, it takes it's name from mythology. In this case, Huanglong refers to a yellow dragon, and on one of the Chinese websites I read that the park "is indeed laced with a golden-hued calcium carbonate which in the right light, certainly could lead one to conjure an altruistic mythical beast." I wouldn't have conjured up that image exactly, but the colors of the placid lakes and pools were certainly bizarre, yellow, green, blue etc. All of the pools were surrounded by wooden boardwalks and platforms to accommodate hordes of tourists (presumably in better weather). In contrast to the pools, the park also had extensive waterfalls that were more lateral than vertical, running over dark rocks like cream poured over chocolate cake.

The Jiuzhaigou region is really a 40 mile valley of lakes, gorges and mountains at an elevation around 10,000 ft. The valley was declared a World Heritage Site in 1992. Aside from viewing the natural beauty of various parks, we took a trip to one of the Tibetan villages open to tourists in the Shuzheng Zone. (Most aren't.) We didn't really see anything of the village life, just the prayer wheels, flags and shrines plus a few tourist-trap shops. But the intensity of the colors was in sharp contrast to the surrounding mountains.

On our bus trip, we passed a monument to Mao's Long March where in 1933 he and his band of soldiers had passed through. Now a meeting place as well as a monument, it was covered with snow and surrounded by women and pack horses. Bruce, of course, mounted one horse much to the laughter of the women. There was even a snowman. (I didn't know the Tibetans made snowmen; maybe it was a Han Chinese or some tourist).

We spent another day in a national park - the name of which, I'm not sure, to be honest - where porters were carrying heavy and enormous wooden boards and other goods up the mountain past a series of calcium pools. Both men and women were laboring hard, struggling alone, only with the occasional rest. It seemed almost medieval in its hardship and complete reliance on human muscle.

The hotel we stayed in provided no relief for those who didn't want to go out in the cold to see the natural beauty of the mountain. Those of us who did were much warmer, due to exercise. The hotel lobby was enormous, an all-marble atrium that was impossible to heat. So, they just left the doors open, and it was bitter cold.


Our flight did get out. We flew back to Chengdu where Salvatore and I bid farewell to the group. Some of the group had left us in Ziuzhaigou to continue on to Tibet. Sal and I were on our way to Bangkok; we were able to get enough cash out of an ATM to purchase our plane tickets, so saying our goodbyes to the group, we prepared to go off alone to explore Thailand and Cambodia and photograph at our own pace.

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