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Memories of Shangri-la_Part 1

Canon New F1 Camera and Canon 50mm f1.8 lens with Agfachrome 100 film

This image was made during my very first overseas trip. Some folks will recognize the Potala Palace, the former winter palace of the Dalai Lama, in the background. The year was 1988 and I was 26 years of age. Now, I need to take a moment to apologize for several things. Firstly, the hat I’m wearing in this picture. Akubra hats, made popular by golfer Greg Norman, were popular with some types of Aussie tourists during the 80’s. I was a bit young for that demographic, but was sold the hat by legendary Collingwood footballer Bob Rose, who my mum loves to say danced with her at the Collingwood town hall in 195o something. She even mentioned this fact to him at a function in the 90’s. Surprisingly he didn’t seem to remember. The second thing I need to apologize for are the photos themselves. I was an experienced wedding and portrait photographer with some extra experience as a newspaper photographer. But I had little experience in landscape and photojournalism. Finally, camera problems and poor processing ruined most of the images I made during the trip.

Nevertheless I believe there’s value in what I have to share so I’ve decided to outline some of the more memorable moments from the 3½ months trip over 2 separate posts. Part 2 will be posted a week from today, while part 1 can be summarized as follows:

Melbourne to Hong Kong

The day before the trip’s commencement I began to feel ill. I ended up flying with what seemed to be the worst flu I have ever had. My sinuses were blocked and the pain suffered was quite severe. None of the drugs in my substantial medical kit seemed appropriate to the task.

My trusty guidebook recommended backpacker accommodation in Kowloon for some unbelievable price, I think around US$3 or US$4 a night. To this day I’ve never met a local, either now or then, who believed that price. It was an absolute dive and most of the people who stayed there, one room for guys and one for gals, were pretty sleazy. They seemed to spend most of their time involved in a range of dodgy activities with the sole aim of extending their stay and, as a result, avoid returning home. Small time black market activities including currency exchange and off-loading hard to buy electrical goods in nearby countries seemed to be popular activities. The thing is they never seemed to do anything of value. They existed rather than lived.

The highlight of my stay was a trip on the Star Ferry where I met Stephanie, a local gal who a few years later moved to Vancouver because of her families concerns regarding Hong Kong’s re-unification with China. We became good friends and stayed in contact for many years afterwards.

Hong Kong to Shenzhen

I took the train into Shenzhen; one of the then newly established special economic zones. Upon arrival I looked for accommodation. With no luck I headed back to the railway station at dusk. The area seemed to be deserted. I was immediately surrounded and harassed by a bunch of thugs outside the railway station. Weighed down by a 20kg backpack on my back and holding a camera backpack and tripod I was forced to do a Lancelot and swing the tripod around. There were so many of them that, if they really wanted to hurt me, I’m sure they could have. Nevertheless, it took all my wits and a dash of post-colonial bravo, to get out of that one.

After about a week in Shenzhen, most of it spent at a brand new, soulless and extremely expensive hotel on the outskirts of town my sinus infection had eased enough for me to get back on the road. Though it is a condition that returns to this day I’ve found ways of managing it. Understanding what your body can cope with physically and being better able to manage stress can help protect your immune system from attack from such debilitating and prolonged illnesses.

Shenzhen to Guangzhou (Canton) by train

I took a train to Guangzhou where I met and hung with some really lovely backpackers from Europe and America. We stayed across the road from the famous White Swan hotel. I remember sneaking in to check out the giant waterfall inside the hotel lobby. Quite a sight back then, especially for a country boy who’d only moved to the city 2 years earlier. I also remember a wonderful German bakery. One evening about a dozen of us sat and drank beer outside on a warm summer’s evening. It was the same beer (or at least one of them) that I’d drunk a few weeks earlier at a staff party at the Loaded Dog Brewery in North Fitzroy, Melbourne. The only difference was I’d paid around $3:50 per stubby in Melbourne compared to 13 cents per 750ml bottle in Guangzhou.

Guangzhou to Wuhan

Back then buying a train ticket for a westerner in China was an extremely difficult and frustrating experience. I had planned to travel in a very different direction, possibly to Guilin, and had spent many hours in a queue carrying my entire luggage, only to be moved from one line to the next. Eventually I made my way to the line supposedly reserved for foreigners, but jammed backed with local Chinese. When I finally made it to the ticket window marked Foreigners Only the woman behind the counter shrieked and slammed the shutters closed. Anyway, when all seemed lost, I spotted another wide-eyed foreign devil in a far off queue. After a quick chat I drastically changed my travel plans and accompanied my new best friend to Wuhan. Steve was an American who was working as an English teacher at a university in Wuhan. He was also a giant, well over 200cm in height, and one of the nicest guys I have ever met.

One night we were invited to visit an elderly professor in his apartment for dinner. I was both excited to be visiting a local in their home and by what I was sure would be a bountiful and exotic table. When we arrived I noticed the poorly finished concrete floor in the living room. The professor dragged up 3 teenie weenie little wooden stools. We squatted down onto the stools and ate dinner: a watermelon, the pips of which we spat into a plastic bucket in the centre of the room. The professor asked me if I was Steve’s girlfriend. I explained the cultural sensitivity, and the potential consequences, of just such a statement being made to an Aussie guy. He replied, “Not very funny”.

Wuhan to Chongqing

From Wuhan I travelled down the Yangtze River to the city of Chongqing. I remember the top deck (above water) was set-aside for tourists, at an appropriately inflated price. I snuck down to try to chat with some local Chinese passengers. They were housed, behind bars on the lower (below the water level) deck. It was a tragic site to behold those folks. I was quickly found and relocated by a member of the crew.

As I remember the down river trip lasted 3 days, one of which saw us abruptly woken, very early in the morning, and told to “get outside and see, NOW!” Unfortunately the ogress who entered my room woke me with such a start that I jumped immediately out of bed causing the cotton sleeping inner I slept inside to fall down to my ankles. So there I was, buck naked, with the daughter of Genghis in front of me. She pointed straight at me and exclaimed, “Hah!, not very funny”. In my defense I would like to add that it was a particularly cool morning.

Remaining quite the gentleman I slipped into shorts and tea-shirt and walked, with as much grace as I could muster, onto the deck to behold the beautiful site that WAS the Three Gorges. It was sublime and a definite highlight of my first trip to China.

In Wuhan I also met a really nice Chinese guy who appeared to be selling coca-cola from a little bucket filled with water. It was a front as he was a kind of entrepreneur, for his time, and he helped me understand the value of Foreign Exchange certificates to local folk. Without them it was almost impossible for locals to be able to buy western electrical goods like fans, refrigerators and televisions. Foreign tourists were not supposed to use local money and were expected to exchange a certain amount of travelers cheques or cash at government run banks and currency exchanges. In return we were issued with Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC’s) that we were then supposed to spend at overly priced government hotels and special retail outlets set up for overseas tourists. But, depending on the exchange rate, if you swapped your FEC’s for local money (Renminbi or RMB) you’d get up to a x1.7 rate. That would mean for US$100 dollars worth of FEC’s you’d get the equivalent of US$170 dollars in local money, which you could then use to purchase all manner of goods and services at something closer to the local rate. This practice allowed backpackers to travel longer than they would otherwise be able to afford. It also meant that the local with the FEC’s could now go into one of those specialty outlets (I forget what they were called) and buy the Japanese made goods they craved. This was my first experience with the black market. I thanked the chap for the information and moved on.

Chongqing to Chengdu

From Chongqing I took an overnight train to Chengdu. It was horrendously hot and cramped. I stood with my backpack on my back holding my camera backpack and tripod for the entire journey. I remember a seemingly 10-month pregnant woman sitting on the floor inches away from me gazing up at me for the entire journey. Her stoic attitude was quite inspirational and helped me keep my cool, though I wondered what had happened to the soft seat ticket for which I’d paid.

Chengdu is a very, very old city with a history going back before the time of Christ. But the modernization of the city had already begun, although tentatively, when I arrived. I remember being impressed the first time I saw the great Mao statue and being surprised by the number of prostitutes (cats as they were commonly called) that were openly stalking the streets.

Chengdu isn’t that interesting a destination in itself, but it’s a great staging place when travelling throughout the province of Sichuan, the most populous in China. On one such excursion I teamed up with an English lass (Liz, with whom I’m still friends), an American woman named Leif, and a German guy named Klaus to climb (it’s a walk actually) the holy mountain of Emei Shan. At 3,100 meters it was a tough 2-day slog from the bottom.

I’ve been to China on 4 occasions, each time including Chengdu in my itinerary. The reason is simple, that’s where I met Zhang Shu Lan, a great girl who I’ve stayed friends with till this day.

Later Liz, Leif and I teamed up with a Taiwanese-American guy, named Lee, who was re-discovering his Chinese heritage, for a flight into Tibet.

Canon New F1 camera and Canon 50mm f1.8 lens with Agfachrome 100 film.

Chengdu to Lhasa

From Chengdu I took a plane trip to Lhasa, Tibet were I spent 5 wonderful days exploring Lhasa, including visits to major monastic centers in the area. The above image was made inside a military compound next to the airport, about 100km from Lhasa. I new it was potentially risky walking through the gate with a camera in hand, but the idea of using a satelite dish to boil water for tea was, to my mind, hilarious and maybe a metaphor for China in 1988: a traditional society and a country on the edge of massive modernization. I got a few shots before being asked to move on. Fortunately I was directed to the bus which was to take me into Lhasa, rather than the plane to return me back to Chengdu.

After our initial stay in Lhasa Liz, Leif and Lee I undertook a 4-wheel drive trip for 1,000km down to the border with Nepal, prior to crossing and making my way onto Kathmandu and beyond. On route we visited Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city and the seat of the Panchen Lama, where I made the above image. I almost never crop. On this occasion it seemed that a panoramic crop was beneficial in emphasizing the sense of mystery I felt when looking at the reflection of the Buddha statue in the huge candle bowl.

Canon New F1 camera and Canon 50mm f1.8 lens with Agfachrome 100 film.

Next stop was Gyantse with its famous fort before heading onto Chomolongma (Mount Everest) where we camped at base camp prior to undertaking the final leg to the Nepalese border where I said emotional goodbyes to my friends Liz, Leif and Lee.

Between the two countries there was a sort of no-man’s land, with official Chinese and Nepalese checkpoints at either end, which extended for around 7 km. Anyone crossing the border was required to walk. I was happy to do so as, during the last few hours, the descent of several thousand meters from the Tibetan plateau made breathing so much easier than it had been for the last 10 days. With the sudden impact of crippling headaches, due to the thin air on the plateau, suddenly gone, I felt the lethargy leaving my body and being replaced by a desire to push on and cross that border.

After about an hour of walking a Chinese border guard suddenly appeared in front of me with a “show me your papers” like expression. After 6 weeks travelling through China he was the best dressed local I had met. His English was also excellent. It was ironic that, after 6 weeks difficulty trying to communicate with locals, I got to hear such a high standard of English from the last Chinese person I was to see on that trip. It seemed strange that someone like him would literally jump out from behind a rock, on the edge of the world, with a show me you papers kind of line. Being somewhat quick tempered in my younger days, I chastised him for this impudence. Of course I realized later that he was only doing his job and may well have had no choice as to where he was posted or what his responsibilities would be. Fortunately, I embarrassed him enough for him to withdraw and allow me to continue my journey without further harassment.

Once into Nepal I discovered that flooding had washed the road away. The trip onto the Capital, Kathmandu, was tough as it involved quite a bit of walking that day and the next. At the advice of a Nepalese chap I ate in a local roadside café, which proved to be a mistake. Both of us were ill on the second day of the walk. In my case the problem persisted until just before I returned home 2 months later. Finally diagnosed by a UN doctor in Srinagar as having contracted Guardia, I recovered almost immediately after being issued with the right medication. But I’m getting ahead of myself. On the afternoon of the second day of walking the road became stable again and we were able to catch a bus to Kathmandu where rest, hippies and the kind of food that western backpackers often crave awaited.

The rest of this adventure will unfold in the final installment due to be posted next Monday.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


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