Jul
24

DINER WITH MAO

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After three weeks in Yunnan, I was taken to a special restaurant the day before heading back home. After a three weeks of mostly vegetables, this restaurant was going to completely erase any good my lean diet had on my body! And I am all the more wise for it!

A bowl of pork bellies in Dongguan. It is well worth returning to China just to eat these bits of heaven!

Mao Jia Fan Dian (Mao’s Family Restaurant) is a chain started in 1987 by Mao’s distant niece. It is typical Hunnan style food with lots of heat. From snake to eggplant to tongue-numbing chilies, there is plenty to choose from. But the signature dish here is what I was craving.

Walking up the stairs and out of the searing heat of the street, you are met by a huge bust of Chairman Mao as you enter the restaurant. It is large, tasteful decorated with polished wood floors and furniture. It is bright with large windows and the staff welcoming and polite.

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Jul
17

SEA CLOUD & RICE TERRACES

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Early morning sun and Sea Cloud in Duoyishu

DUOYISHU
YUNNAN – SOUTH CHINA

 

In Duoyishu the early morning air is deathly still, scented with vegetation and slightly thin at 1,700 metres. The sun is not yet up, but over the ridges of the valley, the sky is a deep mauve. Today will be a warm & sunny day – like every other day that bathes this region in crystal clear sunlight.

The walk from the tidy, family-run hotel to the viewing area overlooking these famous rice terraces is 7 minutes along the quiet, paved road. Quiet now. But in an hour, will be transformed into the vital artery that it is, supplying villages with goods, ferrying people about and the only route to move water buffaloes from one valley to the next. This road connects the villages, families and cultures and is about the only way to get around in this vast rice terraced region of Yuanyang. Read More→

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Jun
18

THE BEAUTY OF YUNNAN

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A photo & video montage showing the beauty of the land & people of southern Yunnan Province

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…IT’S TALENT!

This is Liu Fang as she played the Guzheng, a traditional, classical Chinese instrument. It has a beautiful rich and vibrant sound. The pipa on the other hand has a higher pitch and is played sitting in a chair with the instrument in the musicians lap.

Liu Fang is hugely popular all over Europe and enjoys a broad & dedicated fan base. She currently lives in Montreal with her husband/manager, Risheng (a fascinating man in his own right). The love international story of their meeting and eventual move to Canada is right out of a classic romance novel. Who knows, perhaps one day Fang will write a song about their journey.

But for now, we have several albums from which to listen to her music, close your eyes and imagine the long history of Chinese music that this talented musician skillfully shares with us.

Please visit her website, purchase a few albums (also available on iTunes) and find out where she is playing next. And if you are able to, try to attend her concert. You will be amazed!  http://liufangmusic.net/English/

Liu Fang playing her pipa at the George Ignatieff Theatre, Toronto

 

A detail of the guzheng's strings

Categories : LIU FANG, MUSIC, Yunnan
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May
25

A COFFEE RANT IN CHINA

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Coffee falls into the stomach … ideas begin to move, things remembered arrive at full gallop … the shafts of wit start up like sharp-shooters, similes arise, the paper is covered with ink …
– Honoré de Balzac

Enjoying a coffee on the roof of my family-run hotel

As Balzac so wisely eludes, coffee sharpens the mind and hones one’s senses for the day ahead. So, like an addiction, I cannot imagine a morning without the ritual of grinding, brewing and drinking a fine coffee.

This is all fine & good, but there are times when you may experience a period of coffee interruptus. Such a time would be when you travel to China. China is thought to be one of the most tea-saturated countries on earth. China is indeed the world’s largest tea consumption and production country in 2010, according to a U.N. report. And I can believe it.

Go into any home, restaurant, hotel, and business in China, and you will see a collection of tall Thermos bottles corralled on the floor filled with hot water – for tea. A drive along Beijing’s ritzy Wangfujing Street is not without observing a driver in his Mercedes, cigarette & cell phone in one hand and a clear flask of tea in the other! In the countryside, everyone has tea with them in those glass or plastic tea flasks. Some even have what look like big pickle jars filled with tea leaves and water. It’s everywhere!

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Categories : BEIJING, COFFEE, Yunnan
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May
24

CHINA IMMIGRATION

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One of the Smile-O-Meters you might encounter at the Immigration desk

Okay, I’ll put it out there… Nothing in my life raises such a nervous sweat than going through immigration at an airport. And that goes for driving across international boarders too. I am the obvious victim of watching too many cheesy TV shows and Hollywood movies! I can’t help it, when I approach an immigration kiosk or gate, my skin becomes clammy and I begin to rehearse what I will say if questioned, hauled over and stripped searched!

So, you may ask, what does this have to do with your entry into China? Good question. I have entered China from two locations, Beijing and Hong Kong/Shenzhen Customs. Both are the same in their very quaint and ridiculously cute way.

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May
22

BEAUTY OF KUNMING

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A view of the campus grounds at Yunnan University in the centre of Kunming

After a gruelling 16 hour flight from Toronto to Hong Kong, the short hop from Shenzhen to Kunming, the capitol of Yunnan province in southern China is but a blink of the eye. And what a treat for the eye! On approach to the Kunming airport, you are treated to one of this province’s artistic displays, the colourful, patchwork landscape. The canvas is red earth and the painting is a vast display of multi-coloured crops that flow over the soft, undulating landscape.

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Categories : Yunnan
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Apr
15

PIPA VIRTUOSO

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I will soon be in Kunming, Yunnan Province where I will then head south to Yuanyang to film in the rice terraces. This part of Yunnan has always been a destination I have dreamed about visiting. In doing trip research I came discovered the musician, Liu Fang. She is a brilliantly talented pipa player (like a lute). Fang was born and grew up in Kunming. And to my surprise, lives in Montreal, Canada.

 

Liu Fang en concert au TFF Rudolstadt festival / Liu Fang in concert at TFF Rudolstadt festival from MBAM on Vimeo.

Watch this video and pay close attention at the fingering Fang masters at about 0:36 into the video. This is simply outstanding.

If you have a chance to hear her play, you must make a point of doing so. Here is a link to her upcoming concert dates. http://liufangmusic.net/concerts/

 

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Apr
07

YUNNAN DREAMING

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For a long time, I have wanted to visit Yunnan and explore the breathtaking rice terraces. A friend of mine was there not long ago and after seeing the photos, I knew I had to visit too. I will go to areas which are quite remote and not on the typical tour routes. But this is how I like to travel.

Thanks to Ning Zhang for the use of this beautiful photo of the water-filled rice terraces

I will fly into Hong Kong, then overnight in Shenzhen before flying to Kunming. From Kunming, I head south to the Yuanyang rice terraces.

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Mar
19

MEETING UNCLE JING

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This is more a video post than anything. With Jessica, my Beijing guide, we meet up with my friend and colleague, Bill Schiller in a hutong. It is in this area that we will get our hair cut! Uncle Jing, as he is known, is 92 years old and has steady hands and stories to tell with the point of view of a philosopher and historian. Bill and I will be only the third Westerners ever to have their hair cut by this gentle man.

Categories : BEIJING
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Feb
26

LAOWAI ALERT!!

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LAOWAI (Pinyin: l?owài) is one of several Chinese words for foreigner. Laowai literally translates as “old” (lao) “foreigner” (wai).

Hey! I’m not that old!

The proprietor, me and my two blind massage attendants.

But as I stroll along this shop & stall-lined street within the fifth ring-road of Beijing, I am conscious of one fact… I am tall! Its not like I go around measuring myself beside every passer-by. But when you are surrounded at close quarters, it becomes obvious. I am 193 cm tall (that translates to about 6′ 3″ in Church of England!).

Once, when I was in Xinjiang, I was accused of being too tall for my hotel bed and that there would be an extra charge! Totally preposterous! My sharp-eared guide stepped in to “gently correct” the over zealous hotel entrepreneur! I must admit though, I’ve heard a lot, but that was a first!

Ahhh! And I have found it, my stroll in the sun bleached 5th ring-road area has brought me to my destination, a small massage studio. I have been told by a local it is one of the best around and completely staffed by blind massage attendants. The proprietor is a petit woman who greets me and pulls me inside out of the sun. It is clear I am probably the first Laowai to darken their door. The attendants, a young man who will do my body, and a young woman, who will work on my tired feet, both touch me and size me up with their hands and shut eyes. After a few giggles it was down to business. And what a business it was.

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Categories : BEIJING, XINJIANG
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ALONG THE SILK ROAD (part III)

I had a burning thirst as I entered Kashgar. For days, the dust and grit suspended in the Taklamakan’s air got under my clothes, in my hair, in my shoes and in my parched throat. I enjoy a good cold beer. But even this is hard to find. Oh! Beer is in plentiful supply! But cold beer – that seems to be a foreign concept – literally.

After coming to rest at the Barony Tarim Petroleum Hotel on Seman Road, I dropped my gear and set out in the still blinding sun. This large city has a vibe! Here, one shares the sidewalks with different ethnic groups and the dress styles that distinguish them. For me it is exciting, and not a lot different from Toronto – a city with many distinct races and ethnic groups, making for an exciting city. The different cultures provide variety, unique festivals, amazing foods and diverse art & theatre scenes. Here in Kashgar, it may not be as varied, but there is a true cultural blending which is typical of this area so close to so many ancient cultures.

Not far away, as the shadows lengthened is the site of the famed Sunday market. Sadly, I will not be able to extend my visit to attend the market. But standing on the broad steps of the Id Kah Mosque, one can feel the anticipation and almost hear the thousdands of sellers and buyers competing to be heard, and arguing, trying to get the lowest prices for the sheep standing obliviously nearby.

A sight that always intrigues, is a man having his head washed and handsome beard trimmed. The skull cap removed, shows a snow-white scalp, protected by the ever-present cap above a sun-burned face. The man getting a trim is obvioulsy used to the ways of the barber, who with one finger partially missing (not a good omen in my opinion), lathers the virgin scalp with a bar of soap before the gleaming straight razor is whipped out. Fascinated, I continue watching as the barber tips his clients head back by yanking upward on his equally snow-white beard.

As a man who also has a beard – and could do with a trim after days in the desert, I slink away, not noticed, and retreat into the darkening shadows. Perhaps now that I have survived the surgical mastery of an ear cleaning in Chengdu, the next time I find myself in Kashgar, I may pluck up the courage to go under the knife – as it were!

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OASIS TOWNS AND DESERT HOSPITALITY

A stop along the road to admire the desert scenery!

I didn’t realize it at the time, but leaving Turpan was hard to do. It is a desert city, large by desert standards and lush – as lush as can be in a dust bowl! The ingenious underground irrigation nourished and fed the vineyards of grapes. Fresh dates, and other succulent fruits were also thriving here.

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Categories : XINJIANG
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EMPTINESS!  WELCOME TO XINJIANG!

A typical view from the road as I travel through the Taklamakan Desert

 

I am standing alone on an endless two-lane ribbon of asphalt cutting across the deep bowl-shaped Talklamakan Desert in western China. This desert has one of the world’s most inhospitable climates. In summer, the temperatures here have risen to 130 degrees F. So inhospitable is the oval-shaped desert that sits below sea level, that ancient travelers would take the much longer northern or southern routes around it to transport their goods to market.

A few weeks ago I had been on my way to Vietnam to shoot for my client, Tour East, a leading Asian tour company in Canada. But then, as so often happens, plans change. Now I am here, in the middle of one of the world’s largest deserts, documenting my trip through this amazing part of the Silk Road.

The night bazaar in Urumqi

After a direct flight from Toronto to Beijing, then a fast connection onto Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital, my journey westward begins. A room was booked for me at the new Sheraton in Urumqi where I grabbed a four hour sleep and a shower before being awakened and told my guide and driver were outside waiting for me.

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Categories : XINJIANG
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Dec
18

A HAIRCUT IN BEIJING

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I have visited China several times now. I have traveled throughout the country and experienced its many landscapes, weather and rich & diverse culture.

But one thing I have never done is to have my hair cut in China!

Uncle Jing greets us as we waited for him to take us to his home

I have a good friend and work colleague, Bill Schiller, who is our Asia foreign correspondent at the paper. He told me about “Uncle” Jing, an elderly Chinese man in his early 90’s who is a barber. He cuts hair in his tiny one-room home in a Beijing hutong. Bill wrote a charming story for the Toronto Star about this man who had never cut a westerner’s hair. Bill, always looking for a story and an experience, made an appointment to return to Uncle Jing and have his hair cut.

It was on my fourth trip to Beijing that I was going to meet up with Bill and we would both get a haircut! I met Bill and his assistant, Lilly on the street at 2 p.m. I came with Jessica, my Chinese friend and translator. On the street just outside the entrance to the hutong where Uncle Jing lives, we met a few men who, through Jessica and Lilly, told us they knew our barber and he was a man of great age, experience and spirit. I saw him round a corner, walking slowly, slightly bent-over at the shoulders, and wearing a silk jacket of deep red and luxurious embroidery.

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Categories : BEIJING
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The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall

Like most children with fertile imaginations, I spent most of grade school daydreaming. One such topic that occupied precious daydreaming time was mythic, mysterious, distant and larger than life itself – The Great Wall of China. Often the subject of wondrous things, the Wall stretched wide over the pages of the National Geographic magazines, picture books and maps. Mr. Evens, my grade five teacher illuminated the Wall and elevated it to an even greater height when he pulled down the retracted map of the world. With his finger he traced the length of this ancient structure and told us it was as wide as our classroom and that horses could gallop abreast along its length and not touch each other.

That did it!

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Categories : BEIJING, GREAT WALL
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Sep
25

LAST DAY IN YANGSHUO

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One of the costumed Miao women, known for their dancing are also costumed interpreters at the Shangri-La tourist site.

Today was indeed a full day with a few more trips to the tourist office on West Street including booking a car to the airport for the next day.

Standing on my balcony with my coffee, (thanks to Patricia’s Muskoka Roastery coffee – you are a lifesaver!) I notice I have new neigbours today. Judging by the hanging laundry on their balcony, one is a woman with a gift card for Victoria’s Secret!

In the Shangri-La village, you can watch as the local people make their trditional crafts for which they are known. Here, a woman applies melted wax to an intricate design which later will become a beautiful batik fabric.

This morning was dry! Cloudy as usual, but dry. I tried out a new place for breakfast. A western breakfast today. Just down the street from my hotel, the Venice hotel is a place called Café Del Moon. It has a pretty full and seemingly international breakfast menu. One can order an American breakfast, British, French, Dutch and also an Israeli breakfast! OK, I get the American and the French – Yangshuo has been invaded by the French in the last few days! But Israeli? That was a new one to me. International indeed! Though I think back bacon was missing on all the breakfasts menus in town!

A painterly scene (this is an HDR image) from the Shangri-La site. This is a very typical site not only here, but all over the region.

This morning’s first outing is a boat ride along a short river system at Shangri-La village. This tourist site offers a look at the clothing, crafts and activities of four distinct ethnic groups, the Tong, Miao, Yao and Czhuang People. Costumed interpreters from the four groups are on hand to offer any answers or display their particular skills. These are four groups who have lived in the Guangxi area for thousands of years. Each have a distinct spoken language and express their language through such means as embroidery. Shangri-La is only about 15 minutes from Yangshuo and well worth a visit. Set this up by dropping into any of the tourism offices on the street in Yangshuo.

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Categories : GUILIN/YANGSHUO
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Today was all about the rain – and the river. Not the Li River this time, but the Yulong River . The Yulong flows along one side of a long triangle-shaped peninsula while yesterday’s Li River flows along the opposite side. The peninsula is home to Yangshuo and many other villages and towns. The Li is the river where the larger boats move goods and people. The Yulong is where I’m headed today. Today is the day I go rafting over nine sets of waterfalls. Cue the funeral music!

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Categories : GUILIN/YANGSHUO
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Today was my first full day in Yangshuo. I think I am recovered from my zombie-like, sleep-deprived sleep of the previous day.

The hotel lobby which houses an add collection of painting, sculptures and memorabilia. Note the huge Mao painting on the back wall!

Before moving on with my observations, I do need to put on my art critic’s cap for just a moment and give you a verbal tour of the hotel’s art collection! In the lobby of the hotel, there is a bit of a gallery happening. Above the cashier is a massive, relaxed & grinning Mao wearing his usual tunic, staring down on all the foreigners. Its not bad actually, but the expression is awkward and just wrong. Spotting a grand piece of kitsch, the French hotel proprietor picked it up for a song. Equally as disturbing, and I’m sure cheap, was the frightening Mona Lisa hanging at the head of my bed. It is also painted by the same proportionally-challenged artist. The painter tried – and his skill and handling of a brush is admirable, but poor old Mona looks more ghoulish more than serene. Sadly no picture exists since I accidentally deleted it. But maybe that’s a good thing as Michelangelo rests a little bit more at peace tonight!

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Categories : GUILIN/YANGSHUO
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I rarely sleep late. I know, it’s a sickness!

I’m always up early! But today, I slept until 9 a.m., late for me! Oh god, three hours of sleep after a long rough night fighting the chaos at the Chengdu airport on the tail of a typhoon. I felt like a zombie all day walking around Yangshuo!

The day's constant rain drains off the clay tiled roof of the hotel.

The hotel was lovely. After such a horrible night, it was luxury to be in such a comfortable place on West Street, the main shopping and walking street in Yangshuo. After weeks of moving around the rugged landscapes of western Sichuan, it was good to be grounded. I will be using Yangshuo as my base for the next several days since there is so much to see and do around here.

Yangshuo is a pretty town, a town where all the shops and bars have one thing in common – they try to outdo each other for the chance to poke holes in your travel budget! Unlike the past few weeks, this is a pretty crowded place with a lot of tourists from around the world. Its fun to wander down the streets and listen to all the different accents and try to figure out where the people are from.

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Categories : GUILIN/YANGSHUO
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Maybe it was something in the water. Perhaps something airborne. But one thing was for sure, it spread faster than a plague of locusts.

It had been raining heavily on and off and before leaving Sim’s guesthouse, Sim warned me that all flights out of Chengdu were experiencing delays.

Getting to the airport was easy, picking up the ticket from the C-Trip desk was easy. Getting through security was even easier! Wearing large heavy hiking boots and carrying 30 pounds of camera gear on my back only piqued the curiosity of the security staff. I never had to remove my boots, they could care less about the heavy metal belt buckle holding up my shorts, and the suspicious handheld HD video recorder only got a yawn. What they really wanted to see and lay with were the cameras in my bag!

At the departure gates, things were starting to get a little tense! Huge crowds of passengers, to a man, were agitated. You could feel the anxiety in the cavernous Chengdu departures hall.

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Categories : GUILIN/YANGSHUO
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Sep
21

CHENGDU – GUILIN

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My comfy bed - more like a futon in my room at Sim'sAhhhhh! What an amazing sleep! This morning’s sky was an apocalyptic orange, filled with lightening. This place, Sim’s Cozy Garden Hostel, is a secret Sichuan gem in the middle of a city of 10.4 million.

The hostel staff can organize anything for you from a grand expedition into Tibet down to a simple stroll of the panda breeding centre. I have opted for the latter.

The breeding centre is located a half hour ride by private van from Sim’s. It is a very large space surrounded by lush, thick bamboo forest. It is a magical place. The quiet paved paths lead the visitor from one area to another through a tunnel of bamboo created by the bamboo growing up and reaching over to the other side of the path.

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Categories : GUILIN/YANGSHUO, SICHUAN
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Sep
20

LUDING – CHENGDU

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Not much happened today. It was a travel day. The hotel wake-up was set for 5 a.m. and the day was long. The bus was to leave at 7 a.m. and get into Chengdu at 1 p.m. I say this because I experienced on of China’s legendary traffic jams along the way.

At about 11 a.m., the bus was honking it’s way through yet another town until it came to a grinding halt. For two hours the bus moved only seven metres! Many hundreds of vehicles ahead – there was a traffic accident. And this is a problem everywhere… whether it is a traffic accident, a landslide or another earthquake, rescue vehicles have almost no way of responding since the roads are clogged with vehicles or damaged.

Luckily today was just a traffic issue and nothing greater.

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Categories : GUILIN/YANGSHUO, SICHUAN
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Sep
19

DANBA – LUDING

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OK, lied, I thought I’d end up back in Kangding today, but Luding is a town closer to my destination of Chengdu, plus it is different and a new place to explore. The town of Luding is very sweet and it is steeped in a violent past.

In relative terms, Danba has become home! I spent an entire day there with sleeps at each end! There was so much to see in Danba that I may just keep this town open for another visit.

Leaving Danba, the traditional mountain side villages face us and see us off on our day's drive along the Da Du River.

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Categories : SICHUAN
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Sep
18

DANBA

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Morning in Danba. Walking the streets early to find a place to eat. The streets are filled with the sweet smell of wood fires for cooking.

Danba, like so many towns and villages is built along a river. Here the bridge joins both river banks and the mountains are close behind.

Staying in one place for two days is luxury on this trip around Western Sichuan. The pace was slower and I was able to take in a lot of local sites. Danba is a town nestled deep in a lush valley. Encircling this town are souring mountains limiting the amount of sunlight. Evenings come early down in Danba, but staggered along the etched roads on the mountain sides, Tibetan villages bask in the late day sun of longer days.

This is a small piece of paradise, I’m told there was a German who lived a few years in one of those small Tibetan villages. He lived in a traditional-style house and was seen reading and writing on his balcony each day. Sounds pretty idyllic if you want to get away and compose your novel.

Feeling stressed? Need to get away? Perhaps write a novel? This is the place to go! This is a typical Tibetan village on a mountains side.

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Sep
17

DAOFU – DANBA

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“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”— Robert Louis Stevenson

Truer words have never been spoken. Today we moved between snow covered mountains & lush green valleys, all the while descending 2,700 metres from Daofu in the morning to Danba in the evening.

Outside, behind the hotel in Daofu, a young boy bathes before heading off to school

This morning we drove through beautiful country. If your impressions of China are that of crowds, you would be right when picturing the big cities, but get out to the countryside and like Canada, there is a whole lot of space between people! Today it was hard to find many people!

A few monks, nuns and locals hang out near a hot spring.

Today, the people I saw came in small groups. There was the small group of monks sitting by the roadside where out of nowhere, a small hot-spring was located. A few of the monks were bathing, others were sitting and chatting with some locals. They seemed as surprised as I was to see us motoring along the empty stretch of road.

All through this trip so far, I have seen one vehicle constantly. It does everything from acting as the family car, to hauling vegetables, to pulling wagons piled with others who need a ride somewhere. It is the ubiquitous tractor! A little exposure to the rain is no problem, like people on their bicycles, they just hold an umbrella while they drive. The tractor is the single thing that moves and shapes this province, and indeed the country.

The ubiquitous tractor serves as a workhorse and a family vehicle

Today we drove to Tatong to have lunch. The village was basically a street lined with shops, nothing more than that. Again, hardly any people! The place was deserted and resembled more of a set for a movie. We walked in to have lunch at a tiny shop and there were just a few people there, who stopped eating as soon as I entered. I get that a lot! The food was amazing! Fresh and tasty, the meal was very welcome.

The village of Tatong which resembles a movie set is all but deserted.

Soon, a group of people entered the restaurant and were making a lot of noise. At first I didn’t pay any attention, but then I happened to notice that everyone was fussing over one of the young women in the group. When I caught a glimpse of her I knew why everyone was agitated. Her lips were blue and face white and pale. She was not at all well and was suffering from the affects of altitude sickness. Some cans of oxygen were found and after taking some oxygen for a while, her colour returned as did her composure. I surmised that they must have driven up here from some place like Danba which is not too far away and much lower.

Women walk the length of a wall of prayer wheels, spinning the wheels as they go

Like other villages, this one had a temple. It was undergoing some renovations, but still was charming. It was small and inviting and had a cistern of holy water and a tap. A self-serve anointing station! Again, hardly any people here either. Just two monks in a booth selling tickets to see the temple and a few workers renovating the place.

Returning to the main road and heading on down to Danba, there was a lovely structure set against the backdrop of distant mountains. The

A horse having a nap. At first glance I thought perhaps it was dead!

exterior walls were lined, and capped with rows of white stupas. I have seen stupas in all sizes during this trip. They contain Buddhist relics and some contains the bodies from a burial. These are locations for worship. Not many people ere either, in fact, there were more dogs and horses, that there were people. I declined the offer of a ride. Having been thrown off the horse in Yajiang, I was going to take a pass on the offer. In fact, as I looked, one of the horses appeared to be dead – but he was just having a nap!

Rows of white stupas line this lovely place for worship set against the distant mountains.

Another small group, this time five people, seemed totally out of place. It was a photo shoot of a white dressed and jacketed bride and groom. Off the side of the road, out in a field of dried and yellow grass and lavender wild flowers, the two were sitting on the ground. Standing, were three people, looking more like gangsters. One was the photographer, the others were the assistants. This was an original location for wedding photos to be sure. They must really love this spot since it is pretty much hours from the nearest village!

A photo shoot for a newly married couple - in the middle of nowhere!

A slightly larger group of people were ahead of us in a traffic jam. About 20 vehicles. Road work was being done here and again, traffic control was something nobody considered. From down at road level, it was next to impossible to get anywhere. If one were in a helicopter looking down, I’m sure if one strategic vehicle moved, the rest could then flow. But nope! I hopped out of Su’s van and motioned for him to drive forward, inching his wheels ever closer to the edge of the road so he could squeeze past a China Post truck. Slipping off the roadbed would not have been far, about 20 cm, but would have caused a lot of damage. There was one young woman wearing a mask to keep the dust out of her nose and mouth. She held a red traffic control flag, but she had o idea how to use her powers, she was just as perplexed as the rest of us.

A puzzled road worker with no idea how to clear the traffic jam around her.

The road down to Danba is a photographer’s dream. The road followed a rushing river and plunged deeper and deeper into valleys as we drove. The sun was getting low and highlighted the beautiful homes on the hillsides. I’m sure people lived in them, but we didn’t see a soul! A few times we pulled over to take advantage of the light and shoot some of the homes. I didn’t have to worry about traffic – there was none!

A home with a million dollar view! Nearest neighbour? About a kilometre!

One of the many mountain views during our drive between Daofu and Danba

Closer to Danba, we encountered more people. Danba is a big place. This was going to be the biggest place yet after leaving Chengdu and Kangding. The river began to slow as we got further down, an indication that w were leveling out a bit at the lower elevation. Along the river there were dozens of small footbridges and some that were just wide enough for a vehicle or a few yaks! I would not have wanted to test the bridge with Su’s van, but they did make for lovely photos with the river rushing under them. There were some neglected footbridges with boards missing. I assume neglected, but one never knows!

Traffic begins to build as we near the town of Danba!

Once in Danba, I felt something strange and different and admittedly a little unsettling. I found I was not the only foreigner around! For many many days, I have been the only foreigner I have seen. Now it is me who is looking at the foreigners and wondering where they came from! What a reversal!

We will stay in Danba for two nights sine there is much to see here. In fact, one can stay a week of two there is so much to see.

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Sep
16

GANZI – DAOFU

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Today I broke into a police station!

Well, not intentionally – Honestly, I didn’t mean to set the police officer running from across the street. I just needed to use their toilet and Su pulled up in front of the walled police station and I walked in. The toilet, like so many is a concrete box with an open door on each end, one for men, the other, women.

A typical public toilet.

Su hopped out of the van to run interference for me and explained to the officer that I was only in need of the facilities, nothing more. I’m only going to publish a small, non-graphic toilet photo, they are all pretty much the same. One squats over a trench. There! That is enough, the rest you can imagine.

The police officer was still hanging around when I left the squat bunker and was pleasant enough. The town here probably has never seen a westerner before, let alone one so desperate as to cause some alarm! Read More→

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Sep
15

BAIYU – GANZI

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The Road & Track Edition

I am safe and sound and back in Ganzi. If there were alcohol here in my motel room, I would be writing this totally liquefied. But good thing there isn’t any because I might go on and on making nonsensical Star Trek references about maneuvering wormholes at warp speed!

Setting off from Baiyu, a monk sees us off on our long drive.

What was a 270km, 6-hour drive took us 10 ½ hours. We left Baiyu at 9:00 this morning. The drive to Ganzi is another one of those circuitous affairs that spooks you whenever you come up on a hairpin turn, not knowing if the oncoming motor bike, car, van, or overloaded transport truck would be on the outside or inside of the same turn.

What was that… the brake cable coming loose?

A wooden suspension bridge along the way.

The day was a picture-perfect day with big puffy white clouds and deep blue skies. The driving conditions were perfect, however the road and obstacles were not in our favour.

This would be an excellent time to talk about the vehicle in which I have been cocooned for many days. It is a white Chang An Xing Guang 4500 van, only one month old. In North America, we are used to the not-so-mini mini vans squirted out by the likes of Ford, Nissan, Chrysler, GMC and others. Those are bigish boxes with bells and whistles and even entertainment! However, the Chang An 4500 I am getting very cozy with is not what you would think of a van. Yes, it is van shaped. It is about the same height as your average soccer-mom van, but the wheelbase is more like a Mini Cooper. Read More→

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Sep
14

DEGE – BAIYU

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Dirty, ink-stained fingernails and a printing process which predated Gutenberg by centuries! I am in my element! I am not standing in a pressroom filled with Heidelberg web presses, I am standing in the Dege temple mesmerized by the frenetic activity of seated men printing Tibetan sutras and other “books”.

Just inside the temple gates, men sit washing red ink off the wooden printing paddles.

The Dege temple is not the biggest temple on this journey by any stretch of the imagination. It is painted a deep red and has an orbiting parade of worshipers walking the temple grounds in the typical clockwise direction. Together with the worshipers, dogs, delivery vans and motorcycles add to the activity on this wonderfully sunny cool morning.

Passing through the entrance gate of the temple, you arrive in a sunlit courtyard where men wear waterproof aprons and wield plastic scrub brushes as they clean long wooden rectangular blocks of wood. Getting up close and risking being splattered with the soupy red-stained water, you see the wooden “paddles” are intricately carved in rows of text. The language is Tibetan and the paddles are the blocks upon which the pages of books are printed.

A closer shot reveals intricately carved Tibetan scrip which is carved in reverse for printing.

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Sep
13

GANZI – DEGE

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Today, I have no idea where to begin! There was so much to see and do between Ganzi and Dege. I will not dwell on the drive, though the drive was easier and less of the ‘main event’ as it has been in the past. Today’s drive was a means to and end.

A treat for early morning eyes as we packed the van for today's drive.

Leaving Ganzi was a little tough, since it was so very comfortable, and I knew I was again going to be visiting upcoming towns which were going to be again, rough and uncomfortable!

Even before driving out of the gated parking out behind the hotel, the beauty of this region impressed me. Rising over a blue shed roof next to the parking lot, the impressive mountains were up earlier than I, catching the morning sun. I will get another look at tem, as we will be back here in a few days.

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Sep
12

XINLONG – GANZI

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Ahhhhh! You know that euphoric feeling you get when you fall back onto a soft, comfortable bed after a marathon! I had that today! Running? Nope! But over the last two days, the driving was the marathon and the hotel here in Ganzi is the prize for finishing. And if some of you are concerned about where Su is staying, not to worry! He too is probably relaxing in his room and feeling the same.

A typical scene along the road between Xinlong and Ganzi. The valleys are filled with beautiful small villages.

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Sep
11

CUO PU VALLEY – XINLONG

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Leaving my cozy pile of mats and garishly printed cartoon-printed comforters was tough! It was chilly and we had a very tough trip ahead of us today.

Breakfast with Su and the monk in charge of the temple

The day was raining again and cloud hung low. But trough the open window to the next room was the smell of  breakfast. More butter tea and more bowls of grain meal. I sipped tea and warmed my hands around the steaming tea. Is it me, or am I getting used to this tea!

Su, the senior monk and I were still a little groggy from a late night, so we sipped and ate in silence. The quiet was accompanied by the rapid and hushed tones of two very young monks in the next room reading their sutras. The sound was mesmerizing, like staring into a campfire at night, I was taken away with the chanting and never wanted it to end – it was lyrical and poetic in a way.

After saying our good byes we crossed the deep river again. It was a little tense but Su managed it after many attempts. The Chinese van Su drove was an amazing vehicle with great stamina!

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Sep
10

BATANG – CUO PU VALLEY

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Like a Christmas morning as a child, I was excited for today to begin. I learned a bit more about the Tibetan opera in town. It’s a big deal! Actors, tents, costumes, food and good times!

Prayer flags and smoke mix with the low clouds in the morning in Batang.

As usual, I study the view outside my window each morning. My views have ranged from the spectacular to the downright depressing and ugly, with grilled windows keeping the ne’er-do-wells out and trapping the occupants – and their flowerboxes, in. Today’s view spanned a wide economic swath beginning with mud & wood shacks and their few rows of corn, to a lovely, whitewashed four story building complete with ornately painted window frames, tended garden and shiny vehicles.

Beyond the homes, about a kilometer away, massive green hills rose up and disappeared into thick cloud. One of the lesser hills looked to be on fire, with smoke billowing from it’s top. Following the smoke down revealed again, ore prayer flags and a large structure, most probably constructed from rocks but was far away so I could not be entirely sure. The smoke rose and mixed with the cloud creating a beautiful scene.

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Sep
09

LITANG – BATANG

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Litang is a small town which we approached yesterday from a high mountain pass. The town sits solidly on what can only be described as a broad flood plane. The area is flat with a wide valley surrounding it. The town is predominantly grey, with not too many trees.

Inside the temple, beautiful sculptures and woodwork is found everywhere

This morning’s time was dominated by an amazing temple. It was huge! The temple was still undergoing some renovations and was buzzing with activity. Women were carrying huge loads from one building to another, even Su got into the action, carrying loads.

The temple was also home to many young monks. With the sight of me wandering into the temple’s square, monks came out of the woodwork to check me out. Though they did not speak English, there was one word they all knew: “Hello”! After a cheery greeting, many would turn away and giggle and feel very proud of their association with the west!

I was very ignorant in thinking that these young monks, around the ages of 6 -12, would be studying day and night, only to interrupt their studies with prayer. Was I wrong. Oh yes, they do that of course, but hey, they were kids too! They had great senses of humour, would tease each other, and also, as one demonstrated, had a gift for showing off!

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Sep
08

YAJIANG – LITANG

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Morning finally broke on a sleepy, quiet Yajiang. Today, Su would return to pick me up and has agreed to be my driver for the next week or so. This solves many headaches.

After such a horrible night and no sleep, I question my sanity as I sit here, prayer wheels spreading out in a long row behind me in the middle of town, and a scene from a movie before me. Local women lead horses along the dirt road steel side-long glances at the westerner sitting and drinking steaming liquid from a shiny silver mug! Yes. Quite out of place! A few yaks try to bust in on a small vegetable plot only to be chased away by what looks to be a 5-year old with a stick! And then a small girl I noticed yesterday veers off her course and walks right up to me and stares into my camera, recording her.

Not at all timid or shy, she greets me with a smile and a puzzled look at my mug – it is the shiniest thing in the village! it is my coffee mug, a shiny stainless steel, double-walled mug from Mountain Equipment Co-op ( http://www.mec.ca No, I do not get a cut from them by mentioning their name!!). But what is inside the mug, despite my poor surroundings, is pure luxury! Coffee! Hot, steaming black coffee from my friend Patricia Snell and her company, Muskoka Roastery ( http://www.muskokaroastery.com ), north of where I live back in Toronto. Patrica sent me a few bags of my favourite blend, Northern Lights for my trip. Along with the mug, I have a small, fine-screened basket into which a carefully pour some coffee grounds and then slowly pour boiling water, filling the mug.

It is here I sit, watching life unfurl and drink my daily coffee, savouring the rich black java and inhaling the aroma of Northern Lights, a small taste of home! The coffee is working its magic and waking me up after a very long night!

A simple meal for breakfast - fast food, Tibetan style!

Early in the morning I set off on a trail ride on a very sturdy horse, up about 5oo metres to a most beautiful green plateau. Picture that corny, bright green hillside image when you open up your PC. Well, this plateau should be the image. It is real and it is stunningly lush and just as green with the added touch of free ranging horses.

The horses are quite different that the ones back home. These are short and very round and quite used to hauling materials up and down very steep narrow trails at high elevations. On several occasions, the horse would mosey on over to the very edge of the path, almost defying gravity on the edge of the cliff to edge around a yak also occupying the same footpath. And here I thought my fear of cliff edges was to be limited to those of the automotive kind!

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Sep
07

KANGDING – YAJIANG

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Rising early, I said good-bye to Kangding and ducked low, into the white van. The night before, arrangements were made with a driver to pick me up at 7:30 the next morning. But of course, he was early! He had been waiting since 7 am!

Driving through the countryside with the trees painted white

The drive today took me from Kangding, west to Yajiang. The morning broke into stunning balmy sunshine as we motored along country roads fully embraced by soft-shaped green hills to the right and left. Along the sides of the roads, poplar trees with their trunks painted white to a height of about 1 metre. I have seen these a lot around China. I have not yet heard of a reasonable explanation for the painting, so if you have any ideas, send them in.

I have heard and read of a few good ones (very sarcastic here…) 1. To keep the animals from eating the bark. Hmmm! 2. The prevent insects from climbing the trees. As if! And what about the insects that can fly? 3. And this is sort of plausible… to act as a reflector at night to keep drivers safe as they hurtle along the roads like nocturnal missiles. Yah! You are right, still looking for answers.

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Sep
06

CHENGDU – KANGDING

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Today was a day of great contrasts. What began in a nice large bed in a city, any amenity one could wish for – ended in Kangding, my first real Tibetan town. While not in Tibet, this area is also called a Tibetan Autonomous Region.

Eight a.m. in Chengdu: the bus threaded its way through an hour’s worth of very thick traffic to a freeway before launching me onto the famed Sichuan Tibet Highway. This is reported to be one of the most difficult and dangerous roads in the world. Not only is it an engineering feat because of it’s elevation at times, but the fact that it was built in the 1950s is astounding The road hugs mountain slopes of 80 degrees and often the driver must pull well away, to the outside of the roadway, to avoid overhanging rock cuts.

On the sheer-drop-to-death side of the severely potholed road are occasional safety barriers that would be very useful if one was riding a bicycle. Not recommended on this road, but frequently chosen. Classroom sized boulders occasionally careen down the slopes and add to the potholed complexion as well as taking out those useful bicycle barriers. All in all though, the drive, however. is awe-inspiring and breathtaking in every sense, and not to be missed.

The town of Kangding. Like many of these towns, a river runs through it.

The reward for today’s seven-hour epic drive is the town of Kangding. Once off the bus, there was no doubt Kansas was left far behind and I was in a very different world. The temperature is lower, the faces darker and ruddy, the painted buildings more like the colourful detailing of Tibetan themes; and a noticeable shortness of breath from an increase in elevation.

And this is just the start!

The hotel is cheap and is a must-stay for backpackers On the wall, there is the logo of the International Hostel Federation. I am in a fourth-floor walk-up. This building is typical in that there are no carpets to hold the bright orange earth from hiking boots, walls are whitewashed with no decorations, save for the graffiti of past travelers marking their passing, and compact fluorescent bulbs to light the way, welcoming you down the long featureless corridors of white walls, and shiny white tiled floors.

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Sep
05

CHENGDU

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Ear cleaning is a serious profession and a delicate one. Note the concentration on this man's face.

Chengdu is covered in dense heavy cloud and fluctuates between a steady light rain under low-lying cloud and frequent bursts of torrential downpours.  Even though, one cannot escape the magic of this ancient city.

The hotel I am staying at is the Jinli Free Time Hotel. It is a small, unassuming hotel tucked away through a private driveway off the main street. Forget about the gym or a pool, you will find none of those amenities here. The hotel is clean with pleasant staff, public computers in the small lobby and the guest rooms very reasonably price. Room rates rage from 138 – 198RMB. At today’s exchange in Canadian dollars you are looking at $21 – $30 including a hearty Chinese breakfast buffet.

The best part of this hotel is that it is just a block or two from the famed Jinli shopping area. This is a trendy area of pedestrian only streets with bars, jewelry shops; craft stalls and stands selling an amazing range of traditional snacks. Some even fried on sticks and these, for the hearty and adventurous!

In this area are people specializing in ear cleaning! I knew of this and was squeamishly curious. Imagine a guy with a headlamp standing with many long, very thin steel rods, and going deep into your ear! It’s a very strange sensation to say the least. But I can honestly say, despite the discomfort, it was well worth it! These guys are no amateurs! They know what they are doing and this skill has been passed down for generations.

The 19 year old young man who looked afer my foot and body massage.

After much walking, the best way to end a day is with a foot massage and full body massage. A foot massage begins with soaking your feet in a wooden bucket filled with piping hot tea. After a steeping of close to 15 minutes, your feet are then brought to their knees! In my case, a 19 year old boy who has hands stronger than most adults! The massage business is in a large store front with armchairs around the perimeter for the foot massage, and tables in the middle, row upon row for the body massage. Here, massage is done, clothing-on. Despite the clothing, my 19 year old lad still knew how to bring the baby out in me! Like the ear cleaning – it was again work every bit of discomfort!

Tomorrow a 7 hour bus ride awaits. The first leg of a trip up high into the mountainous region of Sichuan.

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Sep
04

ON TO CHENGDU

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The Cathay Pacific flight from Toronto to Hong Kong, all 15 hours, was relaxing and seemed much faster than these flights in the past. Perhaps it was because this time I had an entire row of seats to myself in which to stretch and sleep. In fact, the plane looked as though it was about 10% full. So lots of room, and no end to the helpings of whatever food or drink one wanted.

Even the three hurricanes headed to Hong Kong cooperated by shooting up the coast giving me a smooth landing. Having now been in Guangzhou for two days in the high 35+ degrees and unbearable humidity, its time to make my way west to Chengdu and then into the mountains.

Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province and is such a wildly fascinating place. The food. The culture. The landscape. The pandas! I await all with great anticipation!

Chengdu has seen far too much tragedy in recent years and days, it wall be wonderful to feel the resilient spirit of the people who simply move ahead and take all things as part of life.

From Chengdu I head west and into the high mountains in a mostly Tibetan area. The going will be very rough at times. Some times, a horse may be needed to reach the particular sites I wish to film and write about.

The pounding rain that has drenched Guangzhou all day today is letting up just a little and hopefully will clear for a picture-perfect flight tomorrow morning to Sichuan where I shall post again.

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We’ve all seen it done, and many of us have done it ourselves – altered images. I work for a major Canadian newspaper, the Toronto Star and part of our journalistic ethics surrounds photography. We want our readers to believe and trust what they read and see printed on our pages.

To that end, we have a code of ethics which governs the treatment of photos. For our readers to trust and believe, we have a responsibility to present images truthfully and unaltered.

The same goes for travel photography. The ground is thick with shameful examples of photo manipulation that has run in magazines, newspapers and television. Examples of pyramids being moved in a photo to improve the composition. Electrical wires removed. And one of the worst… skin colour darkened or lightened to make people appear more “ethnic”.

I have taken our newspaper’s photo code of ethics and re-written it so that it directly applies to travel photography. Please feel free to copy this and share it. If we all abide by the sentiments in the Travel Photographer’s Code of Ethics, it will create more accurate images and promote more sensitivity toward scenes and people in different areas of the world.

In this example, I spotted someone's prayer wheel resting on their hat. It was a lovely and simple scene. The before-and-after shows what can be done to enhance the composition without changing the image. I held my camera high over my head and shot down on the hat. I did not touch or move anything, this was shot exactly as I found it. The 'after' image is the result of lightening the highlights, sharpening the image slightly and saturating the colours.

TRAVEL PHOTOGRAPHER’S CODE OF ETHICS

Travel photographers are also journalists. They observe, capture and tell stories with honesty and accuracy, through a visual medium that captures a moment in time.

That same medium can also be misused, abused and cause harm. Photographs taken without sensitivity toward those being photographed can be invasive. Pictures can be manipulated, both during the making & afterwards and they can also be displayed without context. Images can lie.

The Travel Photographer Code of Ethics is committed to the making and publishing of truthful images, free of manipulation, distorting the truth, and also capturing scenes without cultural distortion or interference. Images will captured as events unfold and as unfettered as possible by the presence of the photographer.

Travel photography establishes and maintains credibility and builds viewers confidence that what they are seeing is fair and representative of events as they occurred. Photographs of staged or re-enacted events have no place in travel related web sites or publications, nor should they ever appear in photo essays. Such photographs shall not be orchestrated by any Travel Code of Ethics photographer.

Travel photographers must also ensure caption information is comprehensive, accurate, fair and representative of what the photographer witnessed. If a caption is necessary to explain that the content is not real, then the image should not be used.

Altering the content of travel photographs through technology is not allowed. The moving of a pyramid or the moon, or the merging or erasing of portions of photographs, does photojournalism irreparable harm. What may seem innocuous to some inevitably leads to an erosion of public confidence.

Manipulation aimed at correcting technical deficiencies, such as cropping, burning & dodging, spotting for dust, noise reduction, contrast and colour balancing, are acceptable. That said, these adjustments and enhancements should be used with great care and should not alter the integrity of the image.

I photographed this woman in Litang, in Western Sichuan. I shot her many times, but chose this frame because it is a "moment". I had showed her the pictures iI shot of her and she began to giggle. Quickly, I shot her with her hand covering her smile and that was the shot I liked best. Try to capture a special moment - anticipate what your subject might do next and be ready to capture that moment. Do not ask your subjects to pose for you in any particular way - wait for the right gesture or expression. If you are lucky, you will be able to capture an emotion rather than a static shot of someone simply staring into your lens.

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