David Robinson Photos


China 2004


Prior to this trip (2004), I had never been anywhere across the Pacific. Living in San Francisco, it seemed that everyone I met had traveled somewhere in Asia, some many times to multiple destinations. (In Boston, everyone had been to Europe, as had I, maybe 30 times). So, I resolved to begin to learn something of what we used to call the Orient. I chose to go to China for starters. I also had a photographic project in Tahiti, so on my way to China, I stopped there and then in New Zealand to break up the Pacific crossing.

Normally, I like to travel alone - so I can photograph at will - rather than with tour groups, but being totally unfamiliar with China and the language, I felt I needed to join a group for this trip. I chose an English organization, Explore, and signed up for their tour of the Yangtze River, starting in Hong Kong and ending in Shanghai. As an antidote to group travel, I arranged to go alone to Vietnam afterward in order to travel and photograph at my own pace. The Tahiti and Vietnam photographs and notes appear elsewhere on my website.

This is the narrative for my 2004 travels in China, my first major destination in Asia and these are the photographs. (Note: These comments were written well after the fact, based on memory, a few notes and my photographs).

                Exhibition Photographs from 1963 -

New and Ongoing Projects


Travel Photography / Travel Narratives

India Day By Day (2008)

Turkey Day By Day (2007)

Travel Writing archive

Helen Thomas: The Mystery of the Sahara

Writing on Photography archive



Ordering Photographs

Hong Kong Introduction

In order to avoid starting the China tour with jet lag, I had arranged to arrive in Hong Kong early, two days before the rest of the group. The 12 hour flight from Auckland was not as bad as I had feared. The Hong Kong airport is a good example of how so-called underdeveloped or developing countries can provide facilities far superior to ours. Huge, spotless and efficiently organized, the airport itself was an effective welcoming ambassador for Hong Kong - and for China itself. Getting my bags was hassle-free. Buying my ticket for the high speed train into town was a snap. I had yen. The helpful agent told me which train to take, where to get off and how to find a taxi. Everything went like precision clockwork - until I got into the taxi (which itself was like everything else so far, new and spotless). The driver couldn't figure out the name or address of my hotel from the printed note I handed him. Obviously, I was no help. In the end, however, he got me to the right place. He was confused by my tip, but I wasn't sure why. In any case my room was waiting. (I had booked it at the same hotel the group was staying in and at the same rate).

Free for two days in Hong Kong, I resolved to go out exploring right away. That afternoon, armed with my camera and small map, I began wandering the streets of Kowloon. I could trace a broad loop of streets on the map, so keeping a watch out for recognizable landmarks, I headed out. The map turned out to be woefully inadequate, lacking detail and way off in scale. After several hours of walking, I was dragging just in an effort to make it back to my hotel. Occasionally, I stopped to ask directions - and I quickly came to realize that one of my basic assumptions about Hong Kong was wrong; Hong Kong is not a bi-lingual city in the way I thought. Police, bus drivers and others I assumed would speak English did not. At one point, I passed a bus yard and asked directions. The drivers had to summon an English speaker from two buildings away to help me. (I remembered the taxi driver of the morning who did not speak English). I finally made it back to my hotel and collapsed into bed. For dinner I ventured into an enormous restaurant where I was the only single person and the only foreigner. Nothing like the Chinese restaurants in the U.S. I basically pointed to something and hoped for the best. Not a relaxing meal and a precursor to others I was to experience on the trip.

Still on my own and wanting to see as much as I could, I took a ferry over to the mainland. I was interested to see the bustling river activity and clustered skyscrapers, especially the I.M. Pei building that I had admired from many pictures. I was surprised to see it encircled by so many other skyscrapers that deprived the Pei building of the prominence I thought it deserved. I spent the day walking the streets to get a feel for the city beneath the skyscrapers, the markets and shops and small parks.

Returning to the Kowloon quayside, I found a group of street photographers who had set up shop on the promenade, offering digital photographs of people with the skyscrapers across the harbor as backdrop. Ever since working with street photographers in Mexico, I now make it a practice whenever I encounter street photographers, to get my picture taken. These photographers had the latest equipment and the instant photos were no longer Polaroids but a digital printer.


I vowed that before the group arrived, I would go to Macau. I was curious to see this former Portuguese enclave which Lonely Planet described as "a fascinating fusion of Mediterranean and Asian peoples, lifestyles, temperaments, architecture and food." Following instructions in the guide book, I set out for the ferry. I found a frantic scene at the quayside. A boat was about to leave - 9 AM - and there was a flurry of last minute chaos that I couldn't entirely figure out. A group tour leader was franticly waving a ticket in the air, trying to scalp it before the boat left. One of his group hadn't shown up. The next boat was not for hours, so I took the risk, not really knowing what I was doing and bought the ticket. But it was valid, and I was soon on my way to Macau.

Although part of China, Macau, like Hong Kong, is designated a Special Administrative Region. I was surprised to learn I had to go through strict border formalities in order to enter; fill out forms and show my passport to be recorded. The queues in Macau were enormous, and before we even reached them, we all had to fast march down a sort of long chute. Voices that at first I couldn't locate shouted at me to remove my hat; evidently we were being photographed by unseen security cameras on our way in. But I got through o.k.

My mental plan was to photograph Macau from a rickshaw, so as soon as I emerged from the terminal, I sought out a rickshaw driver and made a deal for him to take me around town for the day. He was an old man, and we proceeded slowly, first passing many big casinos - which is why so many people had come here, I guess. There wasn't much to photograph from the rickshaw on the way into town. The first stop was at a temple, my first taste of Buddhist ritual. I had wondered whether any restrictions would be placed on my taking pictures in the temples - always a concern when traveling - but I quickly saw that everyone was photographing. Mostly it was the standard tourist fare, taking pictures of family and friends in front of one shrine or another. (I was to find this all over China; it seemed that in China everyone had a camera, and photography was ubiquitous). Seeing it was custom, I didn't hesitate to plunge in. I felt no restrictions in photographing any part of the temple, nor the people and their rituals.

The other striking feature of this first temple was how young the people were. (Again, this proved to be typical throughout China). In Europe, it is the older people, mostly women dressed in black, who go to the churches to worship. They exude devotion. In China, it was the young, both men and women, all casually dressed. And while they seemed serious while burning incense or lighting candles, they were also evidently on holiday. There were many couples but more families. The various methods of burning of incense were fascinating, but as usual, I was more interested in the forms than in the meaning.

The rickshaw driver waited for me to finish and then pedaled me to the next stop. Whenever I saw something en route, I asked him to pull over so I could get out. So, I ended up taking most of my photographs on foot. We did a full tourist loop of the major sites. If I ate anything, I don't remember. One of the most interesting sites, both visually and culturally was a row of fish drying on a sidewalk railing right next to traffic. At the end of the day, I returned in time for the ferry back to Hong Kong, feeling that my first few days in Asia had gone pretty well.

Group Tour of Hong Kong

I got my first look at the Explore group when we all assembled in the hotel lobby at the appointed hour prior to dinner. They had all flown in together, so preliminary introductions had already been made among them. All Brits, as I had expected, except for me. The group leader was a young Brit herself, Kate. (As always, I'm initially suspicious of foreign guides. But she had done this tour before).

For dinner, we all went to the same restaurant where I had eaten the first night. But this time it was a very different experience. As usual in China, we sat around a large round table to which a string of waiters brought out plate after plate of food. In this case, however, we were to cook much of the food ourselves right at the table. It was not easy or comfortable, but in retrospect, it was a good group exercise for our first night. We all had to share and figure out how to cope jointly. Much chaos, lots of slip-ups but all good natured.

The next morning began our official tour. We took the metro (MTR) then the Star ferry to Hong Kong Island (the central district) and spent some time there. Then we boarded a bus for Stanly and Aberdeen. Stanly is like a fun house of Buddhas scattered along the quayside. (Some statues were said to be Daoist, but I couldn't tell which). I didn't have much time to photograph, only a 20 to 30 minute stop - my constant complaint with tours - but I raced around to as many as I could, trying to photograph in a consistent style, vertical, fairly close in. Chinese tourists were there too, all snapping (digital) photographs, jostling one another for advantage. The statues were huge, colorful and cartoonish. It was hard for me to imagine these figures stimulating any religious reverence. But I had no time to explore that thought.

After Stanly, we boarded our bus for Aberdeen and a short ride in a Chinese sampan. I was able to prowl up and down the quay where fishermen unloaded their catch and where the fish were sorted, iced, boxed and picked up for stores and restaurants. A bustle of activity. The tour of the harbor was brief but riding in one of the ubiquitous sampans that dot the waters of the harbor provided a small taste of what life must be like for them contesting for space and commerce and survival. Our driver - if that is the word - was a wizened woman with a ready and steady smile.

It was a packed first day with a good deal of variety. I felt as if I had seen three of Hong Kong's religions - Buddhism, Daoism and skyscrapers. It is hard to describe how many there are, literally and figuratively over the top.

The next morning, Kate got several of us up at 7:30 to go watch Tai Chi exercises in a nearby park. We walked to it. The park turned out to be a vast and modern sports/recreation complex with several swimming pools and various other facilities. I was impressed with the scale of the pools, envious and sorry I couldn't go in myself. Many people were exercising individually, and I saw several women stacking their umbrella, purses and bags together. One turned on a portable boom box, and everyone began stretching in unison, following her lead. There were several groups like this around the park.

The Li River Cruise

We flew from Hong Kong to Guilin where we stayed in a nice hotel on the river. I think jet lag had caught up with the others on this third day. The next morning, I got up before the group was to meet and went out walking, taking care to remember my route. It was a remarkable feeling to realize I was walking around in China alone. Looking down from space, I could see myself as a less-than- ant-size spec in this vast country for so long a mystery closed to the west. I was hardly the first foreigner to set foot in China, but for me it was still a thrill.

A woman with her child sat down next to me on the corner of the bridge while I was watching the bicycle commuters streaming to work. She smiled, so I asked her if I could take her photo. She readily agreed, my first photo in mainland China.

We didn't stay long in Guilin; we were there only to get a boat to go down the Li River. Our boat was due to leave fairly early, and because of elevator delays in the hotel and the group's general laggardness, we almost missed it. I couldn't count the number of boats at the docks, and each was full of tour groups. On our boat, we were one of several groups, all Chinese. It was my first taste of Chinese tourism up close, a recent and remarkable phenomenon. With money to spend now, Chinese tourism is big. The groups are affinity groups such as workers from a factory, so they all know each other to begin with. They all wear baseball caps given to them by the tour, so wherever you go, you can see flocks of yellow bills or red caps that travel in a group and stay together. Everyone carries a small camera, and they all take pictures. One of the groups we were traveling with on the boat had a videographer who officiously positioned people in order to get her group shots just so. Seeing this, on a whim, I joined their group for the photo. They all thought it was hilarious, and after that, I couldn't get free.

One of the supposed delights of the cruise was rattlesnake grappa served by a young woman who held a large jar with the rattlesnakes trapped in liquid like formaldehyde. Designed to shock some and appeal to others, it tasted about like all grappas taste - bitter and pointless. We ate on board, and the boat kitchens fascinated me. Located on the fantail just over the water, the kitchens consisted of enormous woks over gas burners. In this tiny space using elementary equipment the cooks managed to serve I would guess 75 people on board. The crew would not let me photograph our boat's kitchen, so I tried photographing the kitchens on other boats as they passed alongside but with only mediocre results.

There was a steady stream of boats like ours going down the river to Yangshoo, all jammed with tourists doing the same thing. Because of the currents, the boats return to Guilin empty and the passengers by bus. As we proceeded, peddlers and salesmen on bamboo rafts paddled polled alongside. Some brought food for the kitchens, others brought trinkets for the passengers. Once they reached the boat, one man would hold on and another would clamber up with whatever he was selling.

As is the case with many activities in China, it seemed like an enormous effort for what had to be a minor return. But then again, prices tourists pay probably made even one sale worth the effort. Figuring out the proper work-benefit analysis in China is very difficult.

The real beauty of the river cruise is the remarkable mountains along the way. Grey-green in the mist, no trees or rocks interrupt their smooth humped forms. These mountains seem unique to Asia. (I remember them in the film about Vietnam, Indochine).


At first glance, Yangshuo looked like a typical tourist trap. The dock area was filled with shops selling all sorts of postcards, trinkets and tchotchkes (whatever the word is in Chinese). A bit off-putting. However, as we moved further away from the dock, the commerce became less touristy and more Chinese. We were put up in a small hotel overlooking a busy street, and that gave me a vantage point to photograph street activity below. I spent a good deal of time just watching people pass, stop to talk or conduct business. I should mention that since there were several single men in our group, we rotated sharing rooms so no one had to pair up with someone they might not like. Kate made the assignments at dinner. We all accepted the arrangement, and it worked pretty well. One of the most popular tourist events in Yangshoo is night-time cormorant fishing. Fishermen in small boats go out with lanterns and cormorants which are trained to dive and bring back a fish. The birds have rings around their necks so they can't swallow the fish. The fisherman takes the fish from the bird and puts it into a large wicker basket on board and launches the cormorant again. It happens rapidly and with regularity. I found it fascinating - but very difficult to photograph. In order to see some of the fields on the outskirts of town, we all rented motorcycle rickshaws - with drivers - old battered machines rattling and spouting fumes. Great fun. The green segmented rice paddies lay below the humped hills reflected in the water. Farming was by water buffalo; the barefoot farmer walking behind in the water. (A French woman tourist went out in the paddy to try her hand at plowing much to the delight of her compatriots and to the mystification of the farmer who was focused on his task and indifferent to the tourist's excited screams). We visited a small farming village which gave us a taste of the hardscrabble life of rural China. Doorways were festooned with red banners for good luck, providing a burst of color in an otherwise drab environment. Narrow alleys ran between the crude brick walls of the houses. From what little we could see of the interiors the houses were plain and sparse. The courtyards outside were stacked with tiles and bricks which were also used to dry shoes and clothing. Water was outside. Yangshuo had a good feel to it. I could imagine spending more time here on my own. I enjoyed walking around town away from the tourist activity, looking at the shops and market and sampling local street food. Along the river, I came upon a hillside full of tombs all facing the water. Not a cemetery in our sense but obviously an area designated or propitious for the dead. Having done two books on cemeteries in Europe, I am always curious to learn what I can of the customs of other countries with regard to burial. Here, the orientation toward the river seemed important. The tombs were round in shape with a flat front face of slate or black granite. There inscriptions gave the particulars or offered prayers. (I am guessing here since I don't read Chinese). In addition, red streamers were placed around the tombs. The residue of numerous candles littered the ground around. And on one tomb, a skeleton armature of wire covered with strands of paper testified to the recent burning of an elaborate offering. I'm told that fireworks, candles and the burning of paper objects all play a part in Chinese funeral rituals. I learned later that we were in Yangshou soon after the Ching Ming festival at which time Chinese families clean the graves of their ancestors and make offerings. These graves certainly reflected recent activity.


Unfortunately, we had only two nights in Yangshuo. We left by bus back to Guilin in order to catch a flight that evening, west to Chengdu. But before reached the airport, we had a day of unusual activities booked. First was a visit to the Art Museum with a lecture on Chinese art by the Director. I'm quick to admit my ignorance of Chinese art, so I was happy to learn some of its attributes: no single point perspective, the essence of sprit rather than appearance, reflections versus shadows, the importance of negative space. I wanted to learn more and managed to ask the director a couple questions. But I got the quick impression that Chinese instruction does not normally include questions from the audience. (The instructor is the pitcher, the class the glass into which knowledge is poured). I did ask about how Chinese "read" paintings, and he said it is from foreground to background (as opposed to our left to right reading). And, in response to the second question I got in, he said students at the museum learn both Western and Chinese methods. He didn't respond to my question about whether students learn by copying or were encouraged to experiment. Suffice it to say that in the numerous works by contemporary artists on display (and for sale) I didn't see much experimentation. But, I may be blind to the nuances.

After the museum, we had two strange experiences. First was a trip to the Reed Flute Cave, an enormous cavern that was lit up throughout with brilliant colored lights. The Chinese had transformed a remarkable natural grotto into a honky-tonk and seemed proud to do so. It wasn't enough to appreciate the beauty of its naturalness. I found the effect bizarre.

Then, we were taken to the Medical Institute for Massage - foot massage. We were told that we were to get a complimentary foot washing and massage. But first a lecture. This one on how the foot can disclose information about all parts of the body. To demonstrate, a large chart of the body was produced with diagrams from parts of the feet to parts of the body - including gonads left and right. ("Sorry for women, ha ha.") By pressing a specific part of the foot, a doctor could learn about the health of a corresponding organ. The doctor/director seemed to direct his comments to me (perhaps because I was the oldest or at least looked so) but that did not mean he was open to any questions. (I was beginning to deduce a pattern).

"What's the angle?" a couple of us asked each other. We were soon to find out. We were led into a room with 10 large easy chairs in two facing rows. At each chair a young woman in a white coat waited for us to sit. As we took off our shoes and socks, the women sat on low stools at our feet, poured hot water into wooden buckets with plastic linings and began to wash our feet. Very sensual with biblical overtones (at least for some of us Westerners) but the girls were chatty and smiling as they washed. After the washing came a massage of the feet and calves. As the girls pressed places on our feet, they watched for our reactions. Meanwhile, the doctor circulated talking to us and to the girls. He had a list of specific ailments typically revealed by the massages and also a list of medicines that would cure them. It turned out that he was willing to sell them. For me, my feet revealed that I had sciatica (which I had already told him) and a kidney problem to boot (so to speak). Not to worry; he had two pills that if taken in combination would cure those afflictions. The total was about - only - $100. I decided to risk my health and keep my money. But some others in the group did spring for pills designed to alleviate some of their specific ills revealed by their feet. Boy.


We flew from Guilin to Chengdu, arriving late at night. Our hotel was just around the corner from a large street bustling with activity, all lit up. Shops were open, people were out, it had something of a Times Square look and feel to it. But this was just one town in Sichuan province, and just one shopping area in that enormous town A real sign of what China has become and the direction in which it is moving. Fast.

We hadn't had much to eat, so most of the group decided they wanted to go out for a quick snack - pizza. There was no way that having reached Sichuan, home of the wonderful spicy Chinese food known the world over, I was not going to eat something local. So, I went out on my own - this was around 10 PM - to find something to eat. The streets were crowded and the restaurants full of people. Most of the restaurants on the strip were American style fast food restaurants, glittery and glitzy and not at all what I wanted. Finally I found a Chinese style restaurant with steaming pots in front near the sidewalk and a counter full of food in the rear. The restaurant was on a corner open to the street on both sides with small tables all crowded together. There was a great deal of noisy conversation all around. I couldn't make out anything of the food or figure out how what looked to be a modified cafeteria system worked. So, I resolved that I would just stand in front, confident that someone would come over to help me. None of the staff paid any attention. But, sure enough after a while, a man got up from a table and offered to assist. He had little English but tried to instruct me. Even with his help, however, I had a hard time understanding how it worked or what they were serving. But I pointed to a few things, took a seat and after a short time, a bowl and plate of food appeared. It was unfamiliar food and awkward eating, not satisfying except to know that I had at least persevered and found a local place to eat in Sichuan.

The next morning we were bused out to the Giant Panda Research Center. There may be research going on, but mostly there is tourism going on. Several pandas - the correct name is giant panda - were frolicking in a large moat-enclosed field. Mostly, they were eating, although there were swings and logs nearby suggesting they might also perform other tricks. They are undeniably cute. Less cute but more interesting were all the panda memorabilia clustered at the gate - shelves full of souvenirs and replicas.

Wenshu Temple

After our fill of nature, we drove to the Wenshu Temple. This is a large Buddhist complex full of statues and shrines and people lighting candles, kneeling and having their picture taken. Once again, I was struck by the difference between worship here and in Europe. Most people were young and in modern informal dress. There was a lightness in the mood, not the dark heavy elderly mood of European worship. (I don't ever go to church in the US except for funerals, so I can't compare this to our worship).


Running behind schedule, we arrived too late to be admitted to the next site on our itinerary. But our local guide said he knew a farmer nearby and maybe we could visit the farm. What a break! This impromptu visit was one of the highlights of the trip. The farmers brought out anything they could find for us to sit on. While the others gathered around to hear about the family, I went out into the fields to look around at vegetables beds and rice paddies. The sun was setting, the last reflected in the paddies. The farmers' children didn't know what to make of all these foreigners who had suddenly descended upon their household.

Boading Shan

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Boading Shan was our first stop the next morning. A remarkable array of stone sculptures cut into a hillside, it puts our Monument Valley to shame. This is only one of 75 similar sites in the area, and this one alone contains 1000 sculptures. The guide books says they date as early as the twelfth century and cover the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing dynasties. They were obviously Buddhist, but what else they were and what they signified, why they were done etc. escaped me. In the brief time we had, all I could do was pick out what interested me visually. They were under the lip of the ground above, so they wee in shade and the light was coming up over the hill behind. Not great for photography. Many sculptures were painted, and tablets of description or inspiration were also carved and painted alongside, reminding me of comic book texts. We couldn't see, much less absorb, the entire site. But it was truly remarkable.

The Yangtze

One week after our initial meeting in Hong Kong, the group prepared to go down the Yangtze, the main focus of our tour. We went by bus to Chongqing, the major starting point for most of the river tours. The quayside had all the typical bustle of departure, porters loading people and their bags, food and supplies and a general atmosphere of muddle. For us, the confusion was multiplied by the boisterousness and impenetrableness of the language. The Chinese language jump starts, like an athlete who can jump 8 feet without first bending his knees. It just launches abruptly, full throat. Westerners are often startled when Chinese begin speaking, thinking they must be angry, that some argument has broken out. But it's just ordinary conversation. It takes some getting used to.

We snaked our way down the sloping embankment, across and through a couple of other boats before we reached ours which was tethered to the others. I don't remember, if I ever knew, the name of our boat. But we were the only non-Chinese passengers on board - there were also two or three Chinese tour groups. We were told that, like hotels, boats had classes, or Stars, and ours was a 3-Star boat, not a 5-Star with more tourist amenities. It is possible to travel down the Yangtze in a good measure of luxury and splendor, but that was not to be our experience. This class of travel was typical of Explore, and generally we felt better traveling in more modest circumstances, thinking we were thus having a more authentic experience. Maybe, maybe not, but we did get a somewhat closer look at how the Chinese travel. As usual, each of the other groups had their identical baseball hats and lots of cameras.

Our cabins (two person) were small, just a narrow bed on each side of a thin aisle leading from the corridor to a door that opened to a narrow outside deck. The paneling was dark wood. Each had a small bathroom. Meals were served in a large dining room aft with the usual large round tables and endless plates of food served in no understandable order - to us. (All of us remarked the entire trip that soup always came out last). The boat managed to rustle up some coffee - pots of Nescafe - for breakfast, but that was it for coffee. One has to wean oneself from coffee traveling in China, but that was not a problem for the others, all Brits. They, however, complained about the tea.

We spent three nights on the boat. Days were broken up by stops along the way, so we could go ashore. Dutifully we followed whatever we were told to do and wherever we were led; we climbed up to a temple (eschewing the chair porters) past hawkers of food and trinkets, took a chair lift to another hilltop site.

Three Gorges / Wushan

The two highlights of the river trip were visiting the Three Gorges and the new town of Wushan. To view the Gorges, we disembarked and transferred to one of a series of smaller tourist boats that took us through the narrow gorges. The water was calm, and we wound slowly through green sloping hills. The area is quite beautiful and pristine, a dollop of tranquility unusual in China. But the Gorges trip was more remarkable to me for the way that the Chinese organized it. A fleet of new and specially designed boats with life preservers, cutely uniformed guides, a canned audio description, banners, photo ops, souvenirs.

One of the planned events at Wushan was an evening performance in the new town square. Wushan is one of the towns being relocated - by moving it higher up the hill - in anticipation of the rise in the height of the water when the Three Gorges Dam downriver is complete. All along the river, enormous signs proclaim the anticipated height of the water. And, new construction projects are visible as well, giving the enormous project an air of inevitability. In toto, about 1 million people will be relocated along the Yangtze.

Much of the new town of Wushan is already complete, and much of the old town below is already under water. The water level at the time of our visit was 140. The ultimate level will be 175. It rose about 5 feet a day in the beginning; that has slowed a bit recently as the river widens. We learned some of the particulars of Wushan from our local guide, "Mike" and from talking to some of the dock workers through interpreters. They all painted a rosy picture. And indeed, seeing what has been accomplished and the scale of the relocation, it is truly impressive. The new town is going to be 40,000 people - completely new. Below, old buildings are being demolished and materials like bricks and wooden beams saved for reuse. All waste matter and pollutants have been cleaned up and removed. Graves, too, were removed, bodies disinterred and reburied, all at government expense.

All those living below in the old town were entitled to housing above in the new town. New apartments were allocated based on the size (square meters) of the old, but if a family wanted to upgrade, they could buy a larger apartment, paying only for the upgrade. Mike was a believer - and a participant; he went from 50 square meters to 150 on the second floor of a new 7 story building. He owns the house and can sell it. All his co-workers in the tourist company also live in the same building.

I asked how space was assigned. First, by seniority (in the company). Second by points awarded for performance (unclear what these points represent). Then, the first floor and the top floor which were less desirable (due to noise and air quality at the bottom and rain and wind at the top) and therefore cheaper. As Mike expressed it, the people on the best - middle - floors paid those on the top and bottom floors for the privilege. I asked Mike if the two boatmen with us also lived in the new town. One, yes, but the other lived in the countryside (and at times on the boat) so he was not entitled to a new house. House assignment depended on whether his old house was or was going to be under water. I asked the first boatman if he liked the arrangement, and he looked at me as if I must be mad. "What's not to like, " came back the translation. Just like a New Yorker.

Still, my question uncovered the farmers' dilemma. They are being relocated to other parts of the country where population is declining as people move to the cities and where farmers are needed. This relocation seems fraught with problems. They have to leave behind the land of their ancestors. What about climate and crops; will they be similar? What about farmers already in the area? I have no idea of how land will be allocated. What about the culture? Farmers are being moved in groups, which may ease some of their burdens. But it seems that if city dwellers are benefiting from relocation, farmers are being penalized.

The question of compensation is a hot political issue, albeit not political in our understanding of the process. There have been protests. But in this matter, China has the advantage few other countries have of near absolute power to order change. Plus, there is a culture and tradition of obedience. Much of the rhetoric strikes me as almost identical to that of Mao's cultural revolution. The state has decided this is good for the country, so this is what you must do, will do. It seemed that the residents of Wushan have accepted the need for relocation at face value and are therefore willing to go along; I'd love to know exactly how it works in practice.

Part of the new town was an amphitheater near the center of town, a vast outdoor performance area with thousands of stone seats. Obviously built for tourists like us, it was also open to the (Chinese) public as well. The seats were about half full this evening, and I sat among several Chinese families who seemed to be manual laborers. I had to assume this was something special for them too, especially the realization that events like this were now open to them and their children at no cost whenever they wanted to attend.

We saw a dance performance billed as traditional but more Disney than Tang or Song. I realized then and there that the Chinese would willingly sacrifice any part of their history to satisfy their dreams for the future. This was faux culture being sold as genuine. I don't pretend I know the genuine article, but I can smell the fake, nonetheless. Disgusted, I went for a walk through the darkened commercial section of town. Stores were not fully operational; otherwise, they would be open and streets full of light and activity. Main streets were lined with plastic palm trees in many colors - thoroughly in keeping with the stage performance, I thought.

Huang Shan Mountain

We flew from Yichang to Tunxi via Shanghai for the next part of the tour, a trip to Huang Shan mountain. A famous retreat for centuries, today the mountain is a major tourist destination. We had the option of walking up or taking the cable car, and I wisely opted for the latter. No matter, by the end of the day, I was dragging from the endless steps up and down required to see anything on the mountain. Even going from the cable car station to our hotel - we stayed on the mountain - was a trek. All our bags were brought up by porters on foot - as is everything else from noodles to beer. These men carry heavy loads up hundreds of steps. They have built up remarkable endurance, but they suffer nonetheless from this hard labor. We could hear them coming from their breathing and always made way for them.

Others in the Explore group eagerly climbed all the steps, anxious for some exercise and the challenge. They recognized I had a different attitude; "You don't like hiking on mountains, do you?" I tried to explain that at home I hike a mountain (Mt. Tamalpais) all the time. But this was different. All the steps on Huang Shan were stone - think of the work to put those in place! - and all the same height. Walking got to my hips, then my knees.

Some of the more elderly or infirm Chinese tourists were carried up by porters. But in general, the Chinese showed little sign of fatigue on the mountain. Many carried standard issue walking sticks. They embraced the experience with enthusiasm. Once again, they were in groups with identical baseball caps, and here they were led by guides with bullhorns, overriding any semblance of tranquility. Long before you could see the next point of interest along the trail, you could hear the guides blaring their spiel.

Huang Shan mountain is indeed beautiful with unusual rock formations, severe hills, pine trees, sun and mist. It has inspired generations of Chinese painters and poets. But for us, appreciation had to be fleeting, meditation quick, a microwave kind of nourishment. In this situation, only photography offered any lasting appreciation. The Chinese seemed to sense this too, since they were photographing constantly. The image that excited me the most was the reflection of trees in a shallow pool with coins on the bottom that looked like jewels in the branches.

The Chinese have a tendency to anthropomorphize nature, discerning in it animal figures and forms, their way of explaining and domesticating natural phenomena. That's not unique to them. But what seemed unusual to me was that once the analogy had been established, it became fixed, immutable. If the roots of a particular tree seemed (to someone at some point) to look like a dragon's tail, that tree was given that name, fenced in and a marble plaque erected to proclaim it. There was no arguing, no alternative, no new vision. It was as if Chinese imagination had been put in formaldehyde, forever frozen like some mummy in a museum.

The Chinese didn't pause to rhapsodize over the beauty of a natural scene. They read the plaque, nodded or grunted approval and took a picture. I never saw any Chinese on the mountain taking a photo that wasn't of someone they knew or in a designated area. One can list similar complaints about tourists anywhere who shoot first and look later (if ever) but the absolute lack of any deviation among the Chinese on Huang Shan mountain was striking. Chinese imagination, no matter how brilliant it might have been in the beginning, had become just another established orthodoxy.

I opted out of any activities one afternoon just to rest up and read. I managed - a miracle! - to find a secluded bench with a nice view where I could sit and reflect undisturbed for almost a half hour. And that's what I did to recharge. We began our descent the next morning and passed another remarkable example of what I was just talking about. A viewpoint called Heavenly Capital Peak had somehow become associated with lovers (like Niagara Falls) but here the symbol of love had become padlocks representing everlasting commitment. As a result, hundreds of large locks, almost all identical, had been attached to railings around the site in an unmistakable and fixed analogy. It was a fitting way to leave the mountain. I pledged never to do anything like Huang Shan ever again.


Traveling with a group of Brits in some ways required a second cultural adaptation, not just to China but to the group also. Conversation among people with the same language or dialect is often a sort of short hand in terms of casual enunciation and dropping the ends of words and sentences. As an American - separated from the British by a common language as the saying goes - I often struggled to comprehend all that was being said around me during the trip. (To be specific, in addition to about a dozen English, there were three Scots and one Irish woman in the group). In contrast to American groups I've witnessed, no one in this group asked or offered much in the way of personal history. At the beginning, everyone learned I was from San Francisco; by the end, most knew I was a photographer. But no one ever asked me if I was married or had kids or anything else that might smack of getting too personal. No heart-to-hearts typical of Americans thrown together. Nor did I ask similar questions of them; I really didn't care. I liked them but didn't need to know what they did etc. In that sense, I adapted to the British culture.

There was a fair amount of good natured ribbing about America and its customs (not its politics, thankfully). Many scoffed at the rumor they had heard that Americans take leftovers home from restaurants. Others mocked our ubiquitous food chains, including Starbucks. But when we found ourselves in front of a real Starbucks in Tunxi, I almost got trampled by the Brits rushing to get in. They wanted tea, which is odd, because Tunxi is one of China's most renowned tea growing centers, and they could have had a much more indigenous pot of tea with a little searching. As for me, the coffee was delicious.

Tunxi had a nice feel to it. We spent some time browsing in shops along an old street full of antique stores and souvenir shops mixed in with local goods. Some shops were like hardware stores, some were miniature museums. And we saw tea merchants preparing their tea for sale, some right on the street. One of my prize finds in Tunxi was a wine (bottle) cover in the costume of an ancient warrior. I hadn't seen these before, although I've since seen them for sale in the U.S. After a casual afternoon of shopping we boarded a plane to Shanghai, our final destination.


The last day and a half of the tour were spent in Shanghai. Two group events stand out. One was a visit to the Shanghai Museum and the other was our last supper. The museum is a remarkable building, beautifully designed, an elegant and modern treasure trove of ancient Chinese archaeology, arts and crafts. The building features a central staircase off which the collection is arranged according to medium as well as epoch. The presentations, displays and lighting are the best I've seen anywhere. The treasures that China has collected there are truly amazing. It would take years to learn everything, and I can't say I understood much at all of this unfamiliar universe. But visually it was stunning.

Our last supper took place at an elegant restaurant in an area of Shanghai called the French Concession. (That name itself would be a good one for a restaurant). I say elegant, but not to mean snooty; no matter what the quality of the establishment, there always seems to be an air of exuberance in Chinese restaurants, generally provided by the customers. We were no exception to that; we consumed plenty of beer and endless plates of heaping steaming food, each better tasting than the previous one. (We split the cost at a modest 50 Yuan each). You would think that we hadn't eaten for weeks. In fact, the food on the trip had been very good. After my initial resistance to the quantity and unpredictability of the meals, I had grown used to the pace of serving and free-for-all sharing at the table. But this meal topped them all.

We took a bus over and then took taxis back to our hotel. It's a good thing none of us were driving. We had toasts and tales, lots of jokes and fond reminiscences of our past two weeks together. By the end of the trip, I had come to like the group. I told them I enjoyed their company, thanked them for accepting me as a Yank and confessed I had understood maybe half of what they had said to me. I thought our young guide, Kate, had done a super job. She handled all the vagaries of group travel in China without slip up or evident stress. (She did loose about 12 pounds, however, and she didn't have too much to begin with).

As with the Hong Kong hotel, I had arranged to stay on in Shanghai at the same hotel where the group stayed. The group left for the airport and back to the U.K. and once again on my own, I set off to explore more of Shanghai. I headed for the Bund, the old European area of Shanghai along the river where I anticipated finding interesting remnants of European architecture. What I found were dull and dark buildings that would be unremarkable in any European city. Across the main road I came upon another remnant, a large memorial to the Chinese proletariat worker done in Soviet brutalist style. All in all, I was not impressed by the Bund.

Since it was Sunday, I wanted to visit the park where (I had read) Chinese come to practice their English. I found the park and the place, and indeed it was full of young Chinese anxious to improve their English. There weren't many foreigners there, so I immediately attracted a group who began addressing and questioning me in their school book English. I spent an hour or so engaging as many as I could in conversation. More remarkable, I thought, were the Chinese pairs speaking to each other only in English; it takes discipline to do that. On my way out, one young Chinese girl approached me to talk. Her English was quite good, so I sat down with her for about twenty minutes. She worked in some branch of the government but was hoping to be able to change career and advance; hence her desire to improve her English. She had a lot of questions. I enjoyed the conversation, but I also wondered whether she was sent to find out who I was and what I was doing. Who knows? It's the thought itself, my thought, that is troubling. In any case, the thirst to learn English is widespread and sincere. To the extent that the Chinese government will allow it, there would seem to be plenty of opportunity for foreigners to teach English in China.

The park was full of other activities, and Chinese families were taking full advantage of good weather. One of the most interesting was the children's fishing pool. Excited kids were perched all around it holding tiny poles and lines hovering above finger-size goldfish. I doubt any fish was in danger, but the kids loved trying. The Chinese love fishing, and this was an example of how young the fascination starts. I also found a large water fountain similar to the Boston one that I had so often photographed. Kids have a universal reaction to the streams of water, and I had the same (photographic) reaction to them.

Near the museum, I had discovered a vast underground mall full of shops including a cafeteria style restaurant. I marked that down for future reference. But when I decided to return, I was able to find the mall but not the restaurant within it. So, using gestures, I asked a Chinese man for help. Sometimes in a foreign land, knowing how to play charades is important. I made the gesture for eating; no reaction. Then I rubbed my belly; right away he got my message - and responded with his own gesture for eating. But his gesture was in Chinese - mimicking eating with chopsticks out of a bowl; mine had been Western, like eating a sandwich. I got my dinner. Beyond that, it was a nice cultural lesson for me.

I spent most of the rest of my time in Shanghai walking the streets looking at markets and street life. My hotel was near the main railway station, and outside on the vast plaza were camped groups of Chinese men and women plus some families who had come from the countryside looking for work. They had no place to stay so just camped out. I had read about this migration, but this scene made it very real. They looked hungry, destitute and forlorn, whatever hopes they may have harbored reduced to sleeping on the station plaza. I kept my distance.

I also took a boat tour on the Huangpu river. On the boat I could relax and reflect on the trip and all that I had seen in the past two weeks. I hoped my photographs would come out. (But of course, I would have to wait until I returned to the U.S. to find out). Between Tahiti, Hong Kong, the Explore tour and Shanghai, I had taken 45 rolls of slides and 25 print rolls. Because I didn't want to carry all the exposed film with me on the tour, I had left what I had shot up to that point in Hong Kong at the hotel - about 33 rolls. Now, I was on my way back to Hong Kong for a night, to reclaim my film and get ready for the next leg of my journey. I flew out the next morning for Hanoi, Vietnam. I had made it to China and had made China visible and real, my reality. Did I know China? Hardly. But I knew something of it now, and that's a start. That's all I wanted.

back to Travel Narratives