Photography (and travel ) in China

China always fascinated me, one of the big pieces of Asia on the map that along with Russia , was carefully avoided when questions came up at school about what those countries were . China was always Taiwan to us and the other places were too godlessly communist to mention. Meeting recent immigrants to New Zealand  made the place even more intriguing with their stories of the capitals of China, Beijing and Xi’an ( formerly Chang’an , the capital of the tang dynasty in the 8th and ninth centuries).The German city of Qingdao ( a German city in China?  At the turn of the 19th century, the Germany had owned  by treaty the place and hurriedly put up a city in German style. It must have been at breakneck pace judging by the size of the original city and the number of buildings from that era still remaining) Along with Shanghai and the ancient water town of Suzhou , it really is an interesting (and huge ) place. And that is just the north and not the interior or the southern regions or Tibet!

These days it seems to  be the number one concern of the rest of the world . What will china do? And strangely for a communist country , it now seems to have the most efficiently functioning capitalist system the world has seen. Of course it isn’t either, its a Chinese system , with all the apparent contradictions that implies to western sensibility. Why there wouldn’t be one never seems to occur to the western media , but seems to make perfect sense to all Chinese , whichever their political persuasion. I can’t remember in the economic rules where it says capitalism has to have a western style democracy to function.

Beijing family in Hutongs ( traditional alleyways) enjoying spring sunshine

Part of the temple of heaven , Beijing

Beijing opera actor applies makeup

Making breakfast , Beijing

Dumpling stall , Beijing

I planned a working trip/holiday there and thought it might be a good idea to take some language lessons before I went. Unexpectedly I found my self  fascinated by the concept of a tonal language , and the arcane but highly sophisticated writing system . I was , and still am , very enthusiastic  about learning more about chinese culture , language and cuisine.

Photographically I wanted to explore another country and culture , particularly one where English wasn’t a major language, and to see what I could achieve traveling relatively  in that kind of environment.

I had worked in Thailand and the Pacific previously , and was keen to see some really major cities again ( call me crazy but living near a nice beach and the sea,in a relatively rural setting – I wanted something a little different.)

Tiananmen square , Beijing

I expected to ease into using  the language on arrival in Beijing. Despite  the previous eighteen months with regular lessons I didn’t feel confident , but arriving off the plane by myself  was quite a shock . I needed to speak mandarin straight away to do the basics , find a taxi and get to the hostel then buy food . Thankfully the hostel staff there and later in other places all had a very good command of English , but once outside the doors it was a different situation.

I spent a couple of days in Beijing by myself , exploring the city , experiencing a  few of the tourist traps and well run historical sites. I spent half a day in the forbidden city and sadly it wasn’t enough time . despite having purchase a map at the entrance , I found it to big to take in in the time I had allocated. I had by passed the hall of clocks with the thought that it might not be that interesting but later seeing the fabulous timepieces in that location I regretted the decision.

Bridal photographers window , Beijing

After carefully avoiding the year of the Olympics , I had found an independant tour company that seemed to offer what I was looking for , independent travel with  language and logistical support . On the internet I found, it seemed to be the solution to the sort of service I was looking for , rather than the package tour kind of trip with sights and Hotels included.

It was avery good experience and way to travel China, and although we went to places that seemed obvious tour destinations , there were often few , if any other europeans there . In fact the bulk of tourists in China are chinese , going to experience some of the highlights of the country often for the very first time .

Electrical wire Beijing

Comrade Obama in Beijing shop window

Our Guide Andy’s knowledge of local areas and appreciation of aspects of chinese life  was impressive. An Australian married to a chinese woman who spoke fluent mandarin and has lived in China for nine years, he had a good knowledge of how everything worked and how to interact with Chinese.

After meting the other members of the tour , we unanimously agreed at our hostel in Beijing the first thing we all wanted to do was see the Great wall, Although a day trip was included , we all were very keen to see it , even if it meant going to Badaling , the main great wall tour destination. Andy warned us it might be a  little crowded and so it turned out to be, with a mass of humanity moving up and down the wall between the first three towers heading up the hill , after that as the hill got steeper, the crowd thinned out . Nevertheless , the approach to the great wall was an awe inspiring experience and to see Chairman Mao’s statement  that “if you haven’t been to the great wall then you aren’t a  real man” was greatly encouraging to my masculinity. After the trip to the Great wall , we spent the afternoon at the temple of heaven , another vast historical site in Beijing . On entering the exterior park we encountered many , mostly older people playing shuttlecock ( where a shuttlecock is kicked around a circle of people) and others talking and playing musical instruments. The weather was cool , so every one including us , was dressed warmly.

The temple of heaven is the last in a series of locations running through the centre of Beijing where the emperors , lived or received guidance. An aerial map showed me the way the city was laid out  all the way from the bell and drum towers  through the Forbidden city to the far end of the temple of heaven.

After a very spicy Hainan style meal we enjoyed with Andy, learning the finer points of shouting FUWUYUAN! to get the waiters attention. After the meal we bought some food and water in preparation  for the next day  when we would do a hike along the Wall from Scimitai to Jinshanliang .

The hike along  proved to be one of the highlights of the trip . On arrival at Scimitai, we were immediately  confronted with some of the spectacular feats of engineering the wall with towers and the wall following a dizzying path along ridge lines  that seemed somewhat pointless to defend in the first instance as they only guarded steep cliffs – perhaps they in themselves would prove no obstacle to a determined invader. The approach to the wall meant running a gauntlet of hawkers selling everything from souveniers to bottled water . After talking to some of the  sellers I discovered they  were usually farmers in the growing season but to make some additional cash in the other seasons they sold stuff on the wall . I also discovered that if you might look like you were going to buy something , or the possibility of any other financial transaction  , then my limited mandarin was immediately understandable by the seller who might benefit, and it didn’t matter how badly I mangled tones or grammar, and spirited negotiation was a good way to quickly improve. This was to prove very useful later on . Andy said I should be happy to buy stuff I was getting so many free lessons.

The great wall is best taken step by step. In some sections I would look up to see what seemed like thousands of stairs heading up a hill and despaired I was ever going to get to the top , but slowly we did , then headed down the next hill and started to repeat the experience. Thankfully despite poor weather the two days previous, the day was hazy but fine, a cool breeze was welcome . Some of the sections of the wall we traversed were in poor condition with steep drops either side , it was a nerve wracking climb to get through one of the towers

Some of the time on that day was really quite magical . I frequently got left behind when stopping to take photographs and often found myself completely alone , which in one of the worlds most populated countries seemed quite strange.

Walking on the great wall 2010 near Scimitai

Dumpling seller, Beijing 2010

Gateway to the Lama temple , Beijing 2010

Burning incense at Yonghegong ( Lama temple) , Beijing

The Throne room in the forbidden palace , Beijing

Beijing Opera performance, Beijing

The great wall at Scimitai, near Beijing

The crazy construction of the great wall along ridgeline at Scimitai

Double happiness! The Forbidden city Beijing

Broken tower on the great wall

Tang dynasty era Triple Glazing in the forbidden city

After Beijing and our walk on the wall , we headed further north to Chengde, the home of the Emporer’s summer residence and still a fascinating historical spot .

Much cooler than Beijing because of its altitude and more northern location, The town and residence are laid out along a river .  The residence remains a resort , now with the main buildings a museum and the park open to the public , surrounding a lake and with temples and pavilions place around the exterior.

Walking through the summer residence was a fascinating experience. A few aspects stood out  – the large plaque that denounced the agreement of shame , when the five powers invaded China. That was news to me and I wondered who the five powers might have been . As it turned out it was the usual suspects – Britain , France , Russia , Germany and the USA. I got the feeling suspicion of the west was definitely not just a communist era phenomenon. I walked quietly by to a display of the dowager empress Cixi , who maintained power and her position in China  by quietly assassination of any potential heirs to the monarchy.

The parks at that time of year were really pretty . Although the vegetation was mostly brown , recovering from the winter. The lakes were iced over and deer ran over the top between the shores. A stream of people strolled through the paths , many tour groups but a lot of locals as well. A closed amusement area hinted at the parks summertime use . With another member of the tour group I was on , we climbed one of the pagodas and then a hill that overlooked the main part of the city , as well as the summer residence.

Rou jia mou being prepared

Street Scene , Chengde

Buddist Monk , Chengde

Temple buildings in the baby Potala palace , Chengde

Tai Chi in the summer residence , Chengde

Prayer flags and triple glaze tang dynasty ceramics, Chengde

On a day trip we went to the Baby Potala palace. Built by one of the emperors to host the  emperor of Tibet when he came to stay – which could be for extended periods so I guess it was to make him comfortable .

I was very surprised given all the reports about religious suppression in China  how prevalent monasteries and temples are , I asked how seriously people took them , considering they were supposed to be living in a secular state and the answer was that nobody took it too seriously , but if you really wanted something , there was no harm in going to the temple to pray for it . that made sense . An RMB each way.

In Addition, the government seemed to be going to a lot of trouble to make sure many of these places were well preserved and maintained. Perhaps they are having a RMB each way too.

After retuning to Beijing for a couple of nights, and negotiating the Beijing railway station , we caught the hi speed train to Qingdao. We passed through Jinan and Weifang  along with other cities on the way. The train was incredibly smooth and comfortable , totally unlike other trains I have been on , not that I have been on  many. I spent some time talking with the people sitting next to me on the train ,(and later met them again while negotiating the Qingdao coastal walk ) .

John is a psycologist studying English and his partner Dujuan  worked at a wool importing company so knew quite a lot about New Zealand.

Monks in the Baby Potala Palace,Chengde

Musician, the baby Potala palace Chengde

At Qingdao we stayed in  a hostel in an old observatory on the top of a hill in the German quarter. Walking around to the back of the building gave a spectacular view of the  city . People came to the top of the hill in the morning and the evening to play Jianzi , a shuttlecock game where a shuttlecock is kicked through the air by players standing in circle .

One of the main benefits of the dragon bus service is that the guides know the best places to eat in the cities we pass through , and you don’t have to pay a fortune. Qingdao has the usual western fast food food restaurants you can find in any international tourist city but if you know about them ,it has the most fantastic small restaurants specialising in seafood, dumplings and other foods . One seafood meal we enjoyed in a small hole in the wall restaurant was superbly cooked ,and served with ( what else?) Qingdao beer. It was a a little strange the group of us entering the restaurant and  taking over the entire room , and the interior decoration was nothing special , but the food really didn’t disappoint.

Walking down to the main city area and the waterfront was easy and interesting ,,. Not only were there the old German buildings but some curiosities like a Russian orthodox church made of a deep red , almost purple, coloured brick .

Old and new buildings , Qingdao

Mayday memorial , Qingdao

Qingdao is a very large industrial city , and the old city is surrounded with ranks of large apartment buildings in various stages of completion . The outer areas of the city are home to many heavy industries, but curiously , one of the main businesses in the Central area is wedding photography. People come from all over the interior of China to have their wedding photography done by the Sea,, to the extent there is a street called wedding photography street. On any given day you can see recently married couples getting their best set of pictures

taken at the seaside .

A walk through the Badaguan scenic area also reveals an interesting mix of building styles. Many of the famous figures of China’s past had residences here , and many of the historical decisions relat

ing to China were made here , but its worth a look to see the mix of architectural styles . On the day I visited , there were Wedding photographers making full use of the scenic backgrounds in the street and beside the sea.

European style hotel , Badaguan

A couple of the highlights of Qingdao was the restaurant visits. Modest interiors but the food was fantastic and of course drunk with the genuinely delicious Qingdao beer. The beer

Waterfall and blessing ribbons, Laoshan national park , Qingdao.

factory tour was , well , a beer factory , but to someone who knows nothing about the process of making beer , it was quite informative. The history of beer making form the Germans to the Japanese and finally the Chinese got to have a go, reflected the history of Qingdao itself.

Sculpture , downtown Qingdao

Dried fish display in the food market , Qingdao

So , on the bus and off to Qufu. If you didn’t already know , Qufu in Shandong  province is the centre of the Confucian universe. Home to the Confucius temple , the Confucius residence , and the Confucius tomb. Known as the three Kongs ( Kongzi is Confucius in Chinese ) to some of the locals in Shandong province. Qufu  has a very pretty city wall and moat, and because of the influence of the Confucian family themselves , no nearby motorways or train stations to disturb the sleep of generations in the Confucius cemetary, which not only has the man himself , but thousands of descendants buried there.

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7 thoughts on “Photography (and travel ) in China

  1. Sean Shadbolt Post author

    Hi Jamie,
    Thanks very much for your comments. I intend to go back soon as I can ! I totally enjoyed the experience and find it hard to identify highlights although the walk on the Great wall was definitely one. I hope to have a much better grasp of Mandarin next time and really had to ramp up study considerably as it was frustrating only being able to have very limited conversations with the locals , I felt like I was missing out. Would love to do a group and definitely that is something for the future. Still working on this article ( its only taken me a year to get this far!) and there is more to come. Just getting back to the writing after a couple of months of having to do other things which is why you only just found it . Hopefully it will inspire a few people to go and also to enjoy Dragon Bus’s great service. I certainly intend to do another Dragon bus trip when I return . It was a great way to see a lot of China and not just the regular tourist destinations, although they were great to see as well.

  2. Jamie Dickson

    Hey Sean,

    Great write up and even better photos! Funny thing is that I found a link to this blog while in China, and as I’d not seen it before thought that I’d have to make a comment.

    So, when are you returning back to China? What about you put together some of your photography mates (not just from NZ) and we’ll put you on a Pass that will get them into and out of the main cities, but also into some off the track sites, villages and lives of locals?

    Anyway, happy to see your shots, read your comments and better still find that I can still find such things via google in China…..


    Jamie Dickson
    Dragon Bus China

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