I had been to Chengdu before for a story about Chengdu’s culinary culture and now I was back with a day to roam. I had finished a project for Fortune which highlighted Chengdu’s role as a modern metropolis and a center for global commerce. Like Guangzhou,another provincial capital,Chengdu has two very different faces. The modern one, that kept my head spinning from side to side in order to note the crazy new designs that popped up on every block and then the traditional one that for me embodies the city’s true nature. These neighborhoods of labyrinthine alleys are home to shady ramshackle tea houses filled with pet song birds, their lovely cages and chatter. Sublime.
If I had been asked what I thought about Guangzhou a few years ago I would’ve given the questioner a quick answer, “its a hot sauna in summer and a cold sauna in the winter.” This metropolis was a central transit point on the way to my first China-based exploratory photo project in 2005.
I was documenting highway development in Guangxi, and Guangzhou was a good way to get there. I didn’t see much of it and really didn’t like the weather. Fortunately, a few years later I ended up working on a project about the African Community in Guangzhou which took place in the fall and I saw much different place that was actually somewhat charming. I’m talking here of the old Canton neighborhoods that are incredibly organic constructions meshing nature and city together. In between blocks or along narrow ancient lanes, large trees, ferns and potted gardens give one a sense of shelter.
Living in Beijing and keeping abreast of all things China, I started to hear about a new area of Guangzhou that was being decked out with stunning architectural showcase buildings. This area officially known as Zhujiang Xincheng is known colloquially as New City (Xincheng). I first heard about Zaha Hadid’s designed Opera House. At that point I knew of her work on paper but most of her designs had never been built. Here was her vision coming to life and I made sure that the next time I was down that way I would go see the project. I finally got there just after its completion. The Opera House is only one project of many that’s transforming a large sector of Guangzhou’s new central business district. There are many notable building projects that are cultural institutions,hotels,malls and corporate headquarters. To top it off (there is a sense of a cherry being placed atop the whole development) the Canton Tower sits opposite the site. This colossal tower, the tallest in China and the fourth highest in the world, is lit in a stream of rainbow colors and is one of the visual focal points of the entire area. At the middle of this district is a brand new park that works hard and sometimes successfully to frame this immense project into a dream of a futuristic China. The park is planted with giant gnarled trees and includes man made wetlands with glowing (literally since they are electric) water lotus. To date this area draws visitors but only some of the buildings are occupied. This orchestrated landscape of buildings and nature is a showcase that stands in stark contrast to the old areas which have layers of nature, history and human habitation melding into one another. Both left me speechless.
This year I’ll be making periodic trips to Guangzhou and hope to produce several more blog entries on this subject.
Late last year I was contacted by Forbes to do a portrait of two Mongolian brothers Tserenjigmed and Ganbaatar Dagvadorj who have quickly become prime players in one of the world’s fasted growing economies. Their empire began with the underground trade of skins and furs and has come to encompass supermarkets, milk bottling, fast-food, road construction, real estate development, hotels (including Ulanbaatar’s newest, the Ramada,whose first guests were the 100-member advance party for Vice President Biden), restaurants, retail shops from clothing to furniture, and the shopping malls to house them and even a couple of gold mines. Their most prized asset however is their 500 head herd of horses. A few of these are western style racing horses, housed in a Kentucky farm that they hope will one day race in the Kentucky Derby.
On the night of my arrival, Soyol, a senior executive at the Max Group, promptly took me to one of The Max group’s restaurants called Budweiser Pub. This homey place, specializing in Czech beer and organic grass fed steak, sits on Sukhbataar Square, Mongolia’s governmental, business and cultural epicenter. As dinner progressed I was able to meet friends of Soyol’s who in themselves embody the heady steam thats keeping Mongolia buzzing.
First we met Jack, a highly placed executive at of one Mongolia’s most important banks. He was one of those guys that you know was living large. He reveled in telling me about his partying nights followed up with morning meetings with international VIPs. He’s was a real schmoozer. If one were to hook up with his posse there is no doubt that you would feel it the next day. Then Oscar, the Mexican investment banker stopped over. Soyol and him were classmates in a prestigious MBA program in Japan. Oscar was an upcoming player in Mongolia’s rapid development. He seemed like a guy you could meet on Wall Street or Hong Kong. Over some more beers he shared his insider’s view of Mongolia’s current political challenges. After shots with Jack and beers with Soyol and Oscar I went to bed totally ready for the everything the next day might bring except of course for sleep itself.
Early the next morning I was ready to take a drive. After several quick stops for supplies (all at Max group companies) we started our 200 km drive, 80km of it off-road. When Mongolians talk about a drive its usually broken down to on-road and off-road and then finally with an estimate of time. As we left UB through the emerging frozen concrete jungle and development I couldn’t help but appreciate the full beauty of several coal fired thermal plants pumping smoke high into the frozen crystalline morning sky. It was actually quite beautiful but then again I live in Beijing which is often just smokey with out the charm or sparkle. We passed the gers, frosty slopes scarred with trails and small settlements. The Mongolian world was waking.
One of our stops along the way was to pick up Ordis who is being supported by the Max Group to become one of their award winning jockeys. He is supposed to learn English and then travel to a Mongolian horse farm in Kentucky. That caught me off guard. Apparently, Ganbataar is hoping to have some of his horses and riders go to the Kentucky Derby. Ordis was also our guide. When we pulled off the main road on to gravel path I was happy that he seemed to know the way. I say, seemed, because its hard to imagine anyone knowing the way out there. There are no roads, just criss-crossing trails and no landmarks. Its just open sky and hills. At times the driver would just make his own path knowing that he was heading in the right direction. For the most part this navigation method is fine, unless you happen to end up in a gulch of which there are many. As we road up the side of one hill and down the other I was stunned to see our herd. There were a few hundred horses heading for water on an open plain. We stopped at a ger and had some milk tea. Inside the ger was an incredible little infant swaddled tightly in a flannel cloth. Mom was busy with her hosting. The ger would be our home base for the day. Shen Jie and Ganbattar showed up a while later and we began. They actually arrived in hunting clothes carrying high powered rifles. They were hunting a wolf that had, the night before taken one of their herd. Like princes, their herdsmen assistants started assembling their wardrobe and riding gear. Honestly, I was a little overwhelmed. I had two guys essentially dressed like Genghis Khan who took there warrior roles pretty seriously. They are true descendants.
So what to do with a couple of warriors and 500 horses? As I maneuvered the herd and my subjects I was to meet the one horse that seemed to be like my long lost cousin. As I was standing on one of my cases to shoot the brothers I was almost toppled off the case by a smallish horse head between my legs. This curious pony had found a friend but I was not sure if was me or my black case. He seemed to stay close to that case wherever we moved it. The other 499 horses backed away for every step we took toward them. I did have a fleeting thought that I could get trampled to death but then I realized how scared they were of us. The herdsmen who handled the pack were amazing. These guys are the true grit of Mongolia. If they were in a Western one could only imagine their nicknames like Grumpy or Pops or The Kid. The shoot went well and we went back to the ger, have some mongolian snacks (pre-cracked goat skulls on the menu) and prepare for another long journey but this time mostly in the dark.
When we finally left the sun was just setting. Shen Jie and Ganbattar re-assembled the wolf hunting party, found their rifles and radios and left for the hills. We started what was a grueling mostly in the dark, 2 hour sprint across the Mongolian steppes. Though we had three working GPS units we still asked three separate passing vehicles on how to go. Imagine the former description and then add total darkness. I definitely imagined the possibility of getting stranded but I was assured that we were heading in the right direction. Bottom line we made it back to the paved road and then to the Budweiser Pub. The next day as I drove to the airport I couldn’t help imagining Ordis, our guide and jockey in training, transposing the harsh Mongolian steppes with the mannered Southern horse farms of Kentucky.
Camera 5d ll
lens 35 1.4 and 50 1.2
Flash 580ex ll and 580 with diffusion
Slaved with Pocket Wizard Flex set
Generally the lighting was set off to the side and the ambient exposure shot slightly underexposed.
My friend Keith, a fellow Beijing-photographer, and I hired a translator and a driver to find some good places to shoot these communities. The methodology for finding these cave houses might seem a bit random but it proved effective. In Beijing Keith and I sat at a cafe and loaded Google Earth. My Google Earth was already littered with digital pushpins marking places where there were thumbnail photos of cave houses. Like a scientist studying a lunar lanscape I zoomed into these areas to make an almost alchemical judgement on whether this was cave house gold and whether the area was accessible. Our driver didn’t trust my foreign made Google-powered intelligence but eventually he was won over and we started the search.
Our first stop was Shijiagou, a very small village that sat near a big bridge and a little stream. This was pretty random, direct from satellite intelligence we plopped down in the middle of Shanxi sleepy-ville. A few elders skeptically greeted us and when I went into the trunk to retrieve my cameras and tripod I felt like I was on the edge of a deep cultural ravine that still needed to be crossed. We could see the houses all along the road but with out a guide we just started to wander up hill hoping to find something to shoot. One older man yelled up to us and then for a short period became our guide to the village. In short order, we went from strangers to pied pipers with kids following us and even guiding us further up the hill to a few more houses. It had been a bit of a rough start but Keith and I were able to do a few decent portraits. The best thing I learned though was that little girls of the village liked to paint their nails with red liquid that they made from flowers growing on the hillsides.
The next day started a bit rough. The driver had a made call to a friend in Taiyuan who recommended an area near the Yellow River and several hours west from Taiyuan. Keith and I went back to our personal satellite tracking system, aka Google Earth, and zoomed into the region. Again looking at small thumbnail photos we found some great shots of cave houses just south of Qikou. We got in the car with a plan but soon it became clear that the driver,who initially gave us the starting point for our search was now talking like everything was either too far or to hard to get too. A couple of very tense hours en route passed before we arrived at a plan. With out too much difficulty we ended up finding ourselves at base camp “cave house mecca”. We were staring up a ravine at a multi-tiered stone village all made of ancient cave houses, its name was Li Jia Shan. We peeked our head into a arched gateway where an older man, Mr. Cui welcomed us in. He and his wife were long term house sitters for the owners of this beautiful cave house complex. He was kind enough to tell us the founding myth of the village.
In the first year of the Qing Dynasty, 1644 AD, a member of the Li family was about to give birth. On the very same day their cow was also give birth. The women delivered a baby but the cow had a strange and mythical creature that the village had never seen. This beast was made up of different animals and is commonly referred to as a Chinese unicorn (Qi Lin). The villagers were so scared of this new creature that they tried to kill it and dump it in the Yellow River. What the gods had sent as a miracle for the Li Family was seen by the villagers as a curse or even a precursor to disaster. Soon after the mother cow, the mother and her child all perished. Though the villagers had tried to smash the Qi Lin with a pick axe but the creature survived the assault. Its remains were nowhere to be found. Later that summer the divine punishment continued. The entire village which used to be near the banks of the Yellow River was washed away in a flood. Now the village sits atop a ravine that overlooks the river.
Its unclear what Li Jia Shan’s trajectory is. The village was made prosperous by its work helping transverse the Yellow River’s upstream rapids. They were employed by vessels to move cargo from ship to shore. These days the only chance it has will come from income as a cultural tourist site. Many families have already moved to near by cities. Some small children are still around but mostly, its the grand mothers and fathers that remain. The date orchards ,currently its main source of income,require outside laborers for the harvest.