Passing fresh-faced and eager cyclists, we now start our own ascent to the heavens, our Dragon’s wings beating slowly as we crawl up a road so narrow we wonder if we’ll make it at all. Higher we climb, passing through long dank tunnels and rocky narrow gorges, periodically waving to our cyclist compatriots who are panting hard and peddling harder, salt burning their eyes, the sun their arms. As we reach the cloud line aggressive nebulas cluster with an untold urgency, gluing and sticking together in hues of charcoal and slate. As is on que the sun breaks through the upper atmosphere, its Powerful adolescent rays smash through the mobilizing vapor setting the moist air ablaze, tempting out shy beads of water from the now thinning air. I wind-up the car window and wedge an 85mm out the small gap as bulbous water droplets batter the now saturated cyclists. It’s evidently making their ascent an adventure they’ll not forget anytime soon.
Ever upwards we push, our black dragon leading the charge, relentless, effortless.
A gunmetal grey cloud-line approaches fast as we reach a few thousand meters, peering through thick mist we try to make sense of the eerie ghosts passing us by, nothing seems real, shapes extruded and elongated beyond recognition. Seemingly trapped in this event horizon for an eternity we suddenly emerge victoriously, punching an exit through the swirling ceiling of this no-man’s land, we heave on-wards shielding our eyes from the captivating fiery orb greeting us with open arms. We wave once again to our cycling entourage, their spirits lifting as the grey veil falls far below. One final push through a narrow stone-hewn gully, and finally we cast our eyes on the ice-capped peaks and lush green valleys of Shangri-La.
Gently lolloping hills bump and merge seamlessly in to one another as if boundaries were meaningless, a home to royally-kept field systems toned in an array of infinitely diverse green and yellow hues, disrupted only by the deep black forests mystically peppering the landscape. Majestic white wood-smoke hazily fills the crisp mountain air and settles nonchalantly above petite farming villages nestled snugly in the valley creases. Glacial rivers meander from peak to platter, leisurely conversing with arcaic trees, company only to the cattle who graze quietly along the water’s edge.
Snaking our way though this paradise on earth, we pass distinctly Tibetan architecture, old wisened yaks tending the well-worked fields, bright yellow wicker hats set amoungst a sea of green vegetation, reds and blues and yellows and wood and grass and hay and cattle laid out for all to see in the auspicious royal green of Shangri-La’s summer.
The Temple of a Million Years
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan
As a young archaeologist in the nineties, I once sat studying Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in the dusty basement of the British Institute for Archaeology in Amman, Jordan. Surrounded by newly unearthed pottery sherds, stone tools, bronze and flint from Jordan’s ancient history, it was hard to fit in my passion of Egypt before one of the directors shooed me off to catalog medieval pottery instead. Eighteen years old and I could already decipher a fair number of glyphs using dusty eighteenth century text books from a small library time seemed to have forgotten. One evening I found myself gazing at the inscription of a stele dedicated to Ramses the Second, a decree regarding the state of his memorial temple, his ‘House of millions of years’. As fate would have it, Christian Jacq, French author and Egyptologist, had just that year stoked my imagination with his latest novel Ramses and the Temple of Eternity, a lavishly descriptive account of this very temple, built for Ramses during Egypt’s pharonic goldern era, the height of the New Kingdom. The novel and stele would stay with me until one afternoon in Asia, some fifteen years later.
Deep in southern China, enveloped in the clouds of an early afternoon thunder storm just outside Dali, I remember Ramses and his magnificent memorial temple as I point a lens at southern China’s dynastic architecture. The majesty of these structures is breathtaking in itself, but it’s the concept of constructing a temple to last for eternity that rings in my ears, and southern China does not disappoint. A momentary memory unearths from a university seminar; that the world is full of similarities – from Egypt to Mexico to China to India to Easter Island our ancestors strove to be remembered until the end of time, to etch their mark on this mortal world for all to witness in awe, to stand in the presence of their gateway to the heavens.
This particular temple sits towards the back of the Three Pillars complex just outside Dali, in China’s Yunnan province. One would be forgiven if they missed it whilst visiting; the main thoroughfare takes you past the core attraction, three large pillars, and then on to a larger temple to light some incense and buy the obligatory wrist bangle. Venture off the beaten track however, and you’re rewarded with this majestic scene, and not a soul in sight. Okay, maybe one.
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yarkant
Shangri-La is surely in the top 10 on most adventure traveller’s hit-lists, but this mythical outpost of Utopian freedom is rather hard to find; as is stands there are currently numerous locales around central Asia that claim its namesake. And for good reason, the tourism boost alone would be enough to fill even the deepest of empty coffers.
As the fabled Eden ingrained in modern literature by James Hilton’s cult adventure ‘Lost Horizon’, Shangri-La embodies everything that is balanced, positive and free about our world and, if real at all, arguably stems from Tibetan culture some two thousand years ago. It sounded wonderful, so we decided to take a look ourselves.
Arriving in north-west Yunnan province we found myself in Zhongdian, a town considered by the Chinese to be the real deal. Immediately confronted by dilapidated concrete architecture, diesel-spewing mini-buses, and hordes of loud Chinese tourists exploding from existence at all angles, surely this couldn’t be right, maybe we took a wrong turn somewhere outside Kunming. Hurriedly we check the lonely planet and realise our mistake; we’d arrived at the wrong end of Eden. Hailing a cab we pick our way through this modern monstrosity and finally settle into Kevin’s calm and quiet guest house just outside the old town, the part we should have arrived at had our guide known where he was going.
Hitting the rooftop for a grand vista of Shangri-La’s archaic heart, the sun blinds me through the 500mm, in the distance the telephoto catches the golden glimmer of what I soon find out to be the world’s largest prayer wheel, requiring a full score of healthy individuals to rotate it even a tiny amount. Panning to the right a little I fall on the ubiquitous multicoloured Tibetan flags leading from tree to tree, surrounding what looks like a deep red-brown wooden temple roof. An old Tibetan temple, it seems, lays at the epicenter of this ancient place, perhaps even the heart of Shangri-La.
Wildly-vivid colours adorn the ancient brown woodwork, cobbled streets worn smooth from a millennia of dragging feet, coffee shops spill out on to the small squares filled with dancing Tibetans, circling to the rhythmic beat of drums and mystical instruments singing the song of Shangri-La.
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan
Standing adeptly at the water’s edge, the women rake water-born adult Lotus plants from the still surface, hauling their quarry to piles as high as themselves. Towering above the motley crew of would-be sailers, an ancient temple adorns the central placement on a bridge scanning the width of the lake. Once a grand expression on the landscape, now a shelter from the vicious sun for local farmers and tourists.
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan
Rain pummels the small isolated village somewhere in the mountains of Southern China, the welcome torrents pour from the tiled roofs, splashing the stone work, cleaning the dust from wooden windows framing the occasional wizened country face looking out at the deluge. The crops will be watered well, as will the tourists.
Large bulbous drops of water fall from the dark clouds hanging over our wooden café roof, thus beginning the now daily routine of washing dust and debris from the cobbled roads and brightly colored tiled roofs. Sitting on the second floor of a pristine eatery I watch through the open shutters as passersby shudder under open umbrellas and smoke in the crammed doorways providing a little shelter from the onslaught waiting for a brief window where they run to the next doorway and light up again.
The Construction Trail
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan highways
The construction boom continues at full pelt across the continent, with Kunming and it’s surrounding provinces being no different. The capital of Yunnan, Kunming is a vast concrete jungle peppered with the occasional canal, pet market and tourist cafe. But step outside the city and you’ll find a landscape worthy of the title Shangri-La. The cement business is booming along the Yellow river, with sand and clay mining dotted along the banks as you travel through the lush green countryside, and with new UNESCO heritage sites popping up at an unprecedented rate, there is high demand for this cheap building material all over southern China.
D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan
15KM from the old town and serving the weary traveler with little respite, New Dali appears to be just like every other modern blemish scarring China’s time-honored heritage; A bleak, souless, barcode inspiring and motivating exactly no one.
We wait. We dig. We watch. And as the sun descends, that real China we know and love erupts from the crevices, no amount of white-washed concrete can hold back the cultural bonds that link this fiercely patriotic nation.
A small food market provides the evening’s entertainment before we turn in for the night, resting our bones on another hard mattress, stomach full of pot noodle and local honey beer.
Read More about China…
Because it makes me a stronger photographer. I found that after 15 years shooting digital my field-work attitude had shifted for the worse; I became accustomed to the high FPS my Nikons could turn over, became lazy when bracketing for HDR, began to abuse high ISO and just accepted the grain in all weather. I’d leave my tripod at home and just make do with image stabilistion. Above all, I’d become lazy, relying on technology to finish a process I’d start in my mind. I didn't start like that, it just slowly happened, and I'd soon lost track of why I picked up a camera to begin with.
So I changed.
Forcing ourselves to select a small number of images amoungst a infinite number of possibilities enables us to think deeper about our photography, it gives us motivation and focus during times of lack-lustre malaise, and it aligns our thoughts, encouraging thematic expression in collections.
Give it a try.
Barnaby Jaco Skinner
Photographer & Artist