aWalling lack of information

October 8, 2006

The Great Wall at Mutianyu We left the hotel at 6:15 AM and driver took us to Mutianyu, one of the Great Wall of China sites farther from Beijing. It is very attractive and easier to get on to the wall itself because of the chair lift. We had picked the time and place in large part to see the wall without too many people on it. We got that just right, in fact we almost had the wall to ourselves for the first hour. It was great. I enjoyed taking photos and we walked the wall for almost 3 hours marveling at its size and length. We speculated about what it must have been like to be stationed there and how long it took to build. We wondered where the stone had come from and how it had gotten there. Soyan shared a tidbit she had learned the last time she was in China about a man who had been demoted and executed for building too slowly, only to be lionized later when the discovered the quality of his work.

Of course, I don’t know how long the wall is and I don’t know how long it took to build. I have no idea how many men were stationed there, or what it was like. I have no idea where the stone came from, and I don’t know how it got here. Despite the well organized ticket sales, the ski lift and the theme park style slide down, there is not one single sign, plaque, pamphlet or other source of information about the wall itself. It was spectacular, and I am glad I went, but it many ways the whole thing seemed like “The Theme Park: The Great Wall of China”

I was even inspired to make this silly 1 minute video clip called The Great Wall of China — Thrillride Edition. Of course I have some appropriately reverent photos too.

Narrow Alleyways, Wide Angle Lenses

October 5, 2006

Doujiao Hutong SignMr. Shi waved for me to come, and I followed him through the heavy wooden doors through a series of haphazardly arranged passageways. We were in a compound that was home to a dozen families. There were low old buildings with new air conditioners perched awkwardly on top of the tile roofs. There were shelves filled with neatly stacked coal, and piles of not so neatly organized building materials that appeared to have been forgotten. There were hanging plants, bicycles and laundry drying.

Then we turned a corner and, suddenly, there was an enormous ornate archway with hundreds of intricate carvings. I lay on the dirty stone floor trying to capture the entire arch, oblivious to the dirt collecting on my jeans and shirt. I called out to Soyan asking her to bring my tripod so I could try and capture the arch in in a series of shots. Mr Shi, pointed at my lens with a sad expression, observing once again that it was a shame I didn’t have a wider lens. That was a disappointment to be sure, but I was having way too much fun to care.

As we walked back to the street Mr. Shi smiled and pointed to the stark warning on the front door, “Private home, keep out!” I smiled too. I am a laowai, a foreigner, and we were in smack in the middle of the squat ramshackle houses of Beijing’s hutongs. But I had the ultimate backstage pass - I was accompanied by Mr Shi, a Beijing photographer who grew up in a hutong and has spent years photographing them. He knew every street, door and drum stone. Mr. Shi loves the hutongs, and he was delighted, that I loved them too.

A drum stone and doorThe drum stones are a tourism draw today, but as recently as 20 years ago they were all but ignored, and a foreign buyer exported many of them before anyone thought to stop him. The long ignored ornate carvings are often, but not always, round and shaped a little bit like drums, thus the name. They are the outside portion the heavy stone bases used to support the large wooden doors to the many compounds that comprise the hutongs. The hutongs are the quickly vanishing neighborhoods of narrow alleys running only east/west so the entry gates of all the homes face south. This insures both lots of sunshine and compliance with feng shui, protecting the homes from the northern negative forces. Even smaller alleys run north/south connecting the main streets. This design was first implemented after Genghis Kahn reduced the city to rubble. Now their biggest threat is the impending Olympic modernization.

It was a lucky series of events that brought me here. I was at the Panjiayuan market on Saturday when I stumbled across Da Kang Photography Studio, a retail shop selling spectacular black and white photos of Beijing and China. I looked around the shop and I was immediately drawn to a framed photo of a small boy crouching over a large bowl, sucking up a long braid of noodles. I picked it up and motioned to the woman working there.

“This is a fantastic photo,” I said. Yan Bei smiled and said, “You’ve picked my favorite, that’s the one I put on the cards”. She handed me a small pamphlet for the shop bearing a copy of the photo I had seen, as well as information on the shop and the photographer’s resume. I looked at several more photos and I thought they were very good. I asked Yan Bei who the photographer was and she replied, “He’s my husband.”

The resume hanging on the wall revealed that “the husband”, Kang Xue Song, had been the executive police photographic journalist and had worked for the Beijing Morning Post. I decided I’d try to arrange to spend a couple hours with him in the hutongs. It turned out, he was heading to Tibet for two weeks, so after a flurry of Yan Bei arranged for a friend of his to come with me, and agreed to be my translator. We set a time to meet on Monday near the hutongs.

I was pretty excited, because I hadn’t yet seen the hutongs and having somebody who could teach me about photography and knew the hutongs was an ideal combination. On the other hand, I had really only met Yan Bei for 10 minutes and it was not her husband that would be meeting us, but “a very talented friend.” I was at least pretty confident that they would show up, but I was, by no means, certain.

Mr. Shi and gearI arrived at 7:30 am, a half hour early, and called Yan Bei’s cell phone and she assured me that she was on her way, and twenty minutes later she appeared with Mr. Shi right on time. He was wearing boots, army pants and a photographer’s vest over his shirt, but sported no equipment or camera. After a moment of disappointment, I was relieved to discover that not only did Mr. Shi have a camera, he had an over-sized tricycle with a passenger’s seat that was also a locking equipment cabinet and, a large wire mesh basket carrying a heavy duty tripod that looked like it had seen regular action for 20+ years.

Old woman in front of her home in the HutongMr. Shi seemed to be as purpose built as his bike. He was spritely and energetic, graceful and powerful. Even with my complete lack of understanding of Chinese, it was quickly clear that he was a charming and gregarious. As we began to wend our way through the narrow streets of the hutong, he seemed to know many of the local residents and to put almost all those that he met at ease. We strided through doors marked, “Keep Out” as if they said “Welcome”. Mr. Shi alternately persuaded the locals to let me photograph them and distracted them, long enough for me to shoot a few frames. He whisked us from spectacular doorway to doorway, proudly announcing, “these are the nicest drum stones”, or “do you know the Chinese actor who lives here?”. But he was not a tour guide, he was a photographer.

He produced a portable light to illuminate dark corners, and he critiqued my shots offering insight on the composition. “Yes, the carving is very pretty, but you can’t tell what it is, try shooting from an angle to show the the stone, the hinge and the door.” When I returned with my new shot, he reviewed it and either told me to try once more or beamed like a proud teacher. Sometimes he’d offer a thumbs up and a cheerful smile that said, “that a boy”. Of course, my favorite response was when the smile was followed by his leaping into action with his own lens raised to capture the shot himself.

Just as I had been struck by the intense physicality of cooking during our the cooking class Soyan and I took here in Beijing, she was struck by the physicality of photography. There was equipment to carry and move, and I was constantly climbing, crouching, and stretching or just sprawled out across the ground trying to get the right angle. Mr. Shi was constantly manipulating the environment to get the shot he wanted, moving trash and bikes, opening and closing doors and pulling back errant branches.

Hot Pot Lunch
Five hours after I started shooting and 903 photos later, the four of us finally stopped for an enormous hot pot of lamb and vegetables accompanied by several enormous beers. It was then that I thought I understood a local saying rooted in the knowledge of the strict geographic organization of the hutongs.

“Wo gaoxing de wo bu zhi bei le.” I was so happy I didn’t know which way was north. Indeed, my joy was so complete as to be disorienting.

See a selection of my Hutong Photos. You can also browse Yan Bei’s husband’s photos.

Traffic Travails

October 2, 2006

Beijing TrafficTonight the city is alive! It is a beautiful night. Beijing’s famed pollution has been in check all week, despite the surge of holiday traffic as crowds stream in to Beijing. The streets are thick with people out to celebrate the start of Golden Week, the week long holiday period from National Day, a sort of Chinese “Fourth of July”, to the “August Moon” holiday, a sort of Chinese Thanksgiving. The pesky lunar calendar means that August Moon is almost always in September or October, but that doesn’t seem to diminish the festivities. This week is reported to be the busiest domestic travel and tourism week in China. The Chinese government estimates that 330 million people (10% more than the entire population of the United States) will travel in China this week, so I guess it shouldn’t have been a surprise that we couldn’t get train tickets from Beijing to Xian. The fact that it also it coincides with Yom Kippur is especially convenient for my Jewish friends here in Beijing.

With the city crowded from the holidays, the Chinese perspective on transportation is visible in sharp relief. Whether you are on foot, on a bike, or in a car, the basic Chinese mode of operation is “I know where I am going, now get the hell out of my way”. As a pedestrian you’d think you’d mainly have to worry about bikes and cars, and while it is true that they will hit you without even thinking about it, you have to watch out for your fellow pedestrians too. They will nudge, shove, elbow, trample and generally do anything short of a full blown tackle to get where they are headed, unless of course you are trying to exit the subway, in which case they will stand their ground as unyieldingly as 4000 lbs hand-carved stone lions.

Bike carrying a 30 foot metal frame
Of course, if a pedestrian rams you without warning (as they most certainly will), it is unlikely to kill you. Nevertheless, one Beijing resident we met has advocated for the pedestrian bell, but it has not caught on the way it has with bikes. All bikes here have bells. These bells serve to deliver a message in line with the Chinese transportation ethos, sort of a “I am going faster than you, I am not going to stop, so get the hell out of my way.” Bikes and pedicabs ring their bells not once to alert you, but constantly until you have given them the clearance they seek. Occasionally the riders will also shout at you to move. While there are bike lanes, the bikes seem to feel free to go anywhere and demand that you move. Added fun is provided by bikers who seem to haul all manner of things with them on their bicycles, say for example a 30 foot metal frame for some unknown purpose, or enough trash to start a recycling center.

Of course in the last decade the number of bikes has decreased dramatically as the number of cars has increased. The same hyper-aggressive bike riders now have cars at their disposal. As most Chinese are relatively new to driving they are, frankly, quite bad at it. They make Mario Andretti look downright timid. They are either unaware of any driving regulations or unwilling to follow them, and they act on the simple assumption that if they honk any obstacle worth avoiding it will move itself. It is no wonder that China has fully twice the fatality rate from cars as the US.

Trash bikeDrivers genuinely act as if they can pretty much drive anywhere (including the on the sidewalk) and honk their horn to clear the way. Overloaded trucks and terrible traffic up the ante in a car too. I exaggerate not all when I say that on our ride to the Great Wall, 75 miles outside of Beijing, I was pretty sure somebody would get hit. Our driver would honk furiously at anything in the road that was not going as fast as he wanted, be it farmer, truck, tractor, animal or another driver. If they did not immediately move he would power forward to pass in the oncoming traffic lane, leaning on the horn all the way to “encourage” oncoming traffic to give him as wide a berth as the road allowed. It is not, however, just long distance driving where drivers have no respect for the road.Overloaded truck

Tonight on Wangfujian Avenue, a chic and popular shopping district, people are out and about for the holidays. The crosswalks are teeming with citizens that know better than to jaywalk, since it can be fatal. The sad truth is that you aren’t really much better off in a crosswalk. Perhaps you think I am exaggerating, that it can’t really be that bad…

Here is a 30 second video clip of a Beijing crosswalk. I am standing at on end of the crosswalk looking straight across the street to the side I have come from. All cars and buses seen in the clip are running red lights. When the clip begins, the green “walk” sign is already displayed (about 2/3 of the way up the screen to the right of center). A car is already in the crosswalk pushing its way through. Listen for the horns and watch the couple at 13 seconds wait for one bus to pass, and then hurry across to avoid a second one. Both buses and cars plow right through the crosswalk with scores of people there and nobody is fazed in the least.

Forbidden city proves very welcoming…

October 1, 2006

Forbidden City roof line The Forbidden city lies at the very heart of Beijing. It was once the playground of the Emperor and his concubines, but since the revolution it is open to you, comrade. That is, provided you don’t mind sharing it with lots of children on school field trips, bus loads of tourists and the out-of-town dignitary du jour.

Despite the crowds and that large portions of the buildings are lacking upkeep and restoration, the Forbidden city is quite a visual treat. The roof ornaments crowning the tile seams over each corner of the buildings are my favorites. You can tell the rank of a building (and presumably its occupants) by the number of animals lined up on each corner. The highest ranked building in the Forbidden City, The hall of Supreme Harmony, had an astounding 11 animal ornaments.

You can see a selection of photos from the Forbidden City here.

Snivelling tourists not welcome.

September 29, 2006

When I say “I can’t stand snivelling tourists” — I really mean whiners — people who complain that the food tastes different and that nobody speaks English. I sort of see that as the point of travel. Well in preparation for the 2008 Olympics the Chinese government has developed an early warning system to identify such travellers. Upon entering China you will be given a from that asks you to check a box if you “Snivel”.

I think the intended meaning was: the act of breathing heavily through the nose (as when the nose is congested) rather than my usage of: cry or whine with snuffling; “Stop snivelling–you got yourself into this mess!” Of course, their way makes it much less useful.

One of the small annoyances and occasional amusements of travel is the baffling array of paperwork at every border, and China’s form is certainly not the first to offer a chuckle. Here is the Argentine Immigration form listing one of several occupation choices as simply “employee”.

On the road again…

September 25, 2006

Tokyo We left LAX 12 hours ago and are in the Tokyo Airport. We leave for Beijing in 2 hours. It still doesn’t feel real, but I am guessing it will hit me when I finally leave the sterile confines on the airport. I spent a few hours on the plane getting a few of my impressions of burning man written up for fear that if I didn’t get them out now, I never would. It feels good to be working on the blog again. I am not sure why it is so hard to do when I am in the US.