Yunnan

A home to royally-kept farmland toned in an infinite array of viridian and amber, this palette of perfection is occasionally disrupted by jet-black forests mystically peppering the Panavision landscape. Majestic wood-smoke hazily fills the crisp mountain air, settling nonchalantly above petite farming villages nestled snugly in valley creases. Azure glacial rivers meander from peak to platter, leisurely conversing with wise, old leathery trees, company only to the cattle who graze quietly along the water’s edge.

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 textbooks 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 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 pharaonic golden 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 thunderstorm 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 in 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, 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, with not a soul in sight. Okay, maybe one.

The Temple of a Million Years

D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan

This particular temple sits towards the back of the Three Pillars complex just outside Dali, 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, with not a soul in sight. Okay, maybe one.

Shangri-La is surely in the top 10 on the adventure-traveller hit-list, 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 find ourselves in Zhongdian, a bustling town considered by the Chinese to be the real deal. We're immediately confronted by dilapidated concrete architecture, diesel-spewing mini-buses, and hordes of loud Chinese tourists exploding from existence at all angles, surely this can't be right, maybe we took a wrong turn somewhere? Rummaging through camera bags we hurriedly check the Lonely Planet and realise our mistake; we've arrived at the wrong end of Eden. Hailing a cab, we pick our way through the 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, my 500mm catches a 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. Panning to the right a little I fall on ubiquitous multicoloured Tibetan flags leading from tree to tree, surrounding a deep red-brown wooden temple roof. Wildly-vivid colours adorn the ancient brown woodwork, a temple surrounded by cobbled streets worn smooth from millennia of dragging feet. Coffee shops and cafes spill out on to small squares filled with dancing Tibetans, each circling to a rhythmic beat of drums and mystical instruments singing a song of Shangri-La. The Chinese may be on to something.

Shangri-La

D4 / 14-24 f2.8 / Yunnan

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.

Dragongate Bridge

D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan

Standing adeptly at the water’s edge, women rake water-born adult Lotus plants from a still lake surface, hauling their quarry to piles as high as themselves. Others balance aboard a bamboo raft, ushering stubborn plants to the water’s edge for harvesting. Towering above the motley crew of would-be sailors, an ancient temple adorns the central placement on a bridge scanning the width of the lake. Once a grand expression on the landscape, the Dragongate now acts as a shelter from the vicious sun for local farmers and tourists. And the occasional photographer.

Terraces

D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan

Rain pummels this isolated village somewhere in the mountains of Southern China, welcome torrents pouring from tiled roofs, washing stone work, cleaning dust from wooden windows framing wizened country faces peering out at the deluge. The crops will be watered well.

Shaxi

D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Shaxi

Wet and beaten from a whistle-stop tour of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, we walk the cobbled streets of another local Na Xi village and finally come to rest at a café. I order cabbage and pork. Longest waiting time ever. From the window I can see a whole severed pigs head laying in the damp heat of a humid afternoon.

The Look Out

D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Kunming

Elderly women massage the weary legs of equally elderly men whilst entrepreneurs off-load the latest craze direct from Shenzhen to eager buyers. Down on the riverside, wannabe pop-stars wait patiently to perform their favourite croon through a 5-dollar portable mic and speaker. The idle audience of fan waving, chit-chatting voyeurs are a tough crowd to please.

Rice Fields

D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan highlands

Ambling steadily, laden with a day’s work, she steps through rice paddies and over irrigation channels churning with dark-brown liquid. Covered eyes offer no secrets, glazed over with the reticence of another day in the field.

The Daily Routine

D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Yunnan

Perched on a rock the captive eyes its captor with internal rage, a rage suppressed over years, cultivated with pain, depression, anxiety, and stress. This humiliating daily routine has taken its toll, the only way out is to fly high. If only he had wings.

Five Blue Hats

D4 / 70-200 f2.8 / Shaxi

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.

We leave Tiger Leaping Gorge wide-eyed and roused, a standing ovation accompanied by the sound of demonic energy erupting from dark fathoms below. Gawping tourists precariously perch on saturated wooden walkways only meters above the iconic cascade, each hoping to catch a glimpse of what lies under. Nothing dares step in its path.

Our sleek black Sedan pulls away from the reaming torrents and hooting tourists, swooping away from the valley floor towards snowy peaks as if a dragon waking from slumber.

Passing fresh-faced and eager cyclists, we start our own ascent to the heavens, our Dragon’s wings beating slowly as we crawl up roads so old we narrowly miss debris tumbling down the steep valley sides. Up we climb, passing through dark, humid tunnels and navigating rocky outcrops, periodically waving to our cycling compatriots who are now panting hard and peddling harder. Salt burns their eyes, the sun their arms. As we reach the cloud line, aggressive nebulae cluster with an untold urgency, merging and clotting in hues of charcoal and slate. Powerful adolescent rays smash through the mobilizing vapor, setting the moist air ablaze, tempting out shy beads of water from the now thinning air. Bulbous water droplets pummel the saturated cyclists, making their ascent an adventure to be told for generations.

Ever upwards we push, our obsidian basilisk leading the charge. Relentless. Effortless.

Peering through thick mist 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 wave once again to our cycling entourage, their spirits lifting as the wet, grey veil falls far below as finally we cast our eyes on the ice-capped peaks and lush green valleys of Shangri-La.

Gently lolloping emerald hills bump and merge seamlessly into one another as if boundaries were meaningless. A home to royally-kept farmland toned in an infinite array of viridian and amber, this palette of perfection is occasionally disrupted by jet-black forests mystically peppering the Panavision landscape. Majestic wood-smoke hazily fills the crisp mountain air, settling nonchalantly above petite farming villages nestled snugly in valley creases. Azure glacial rivers meander from peak to platter, leisurely conversing with wise, old leathery trees, company only to the cattle who graze quietly along the water’s edge.

Snaking our way through this paradise on earth, we pass distinctly Tibetan architecture, old wisened yaks tending well-worked fields, bright-yellow wicker hats set amongst a sea of green vegetation. Reds and blues and yellows and wood and grass and hay and sunlight laid out for all to see in the auspicious royalty of Shangri-La’s summer.

  • Beijing
    Beijing
    Wanderlust
  • Tianjin
    Tianjin
    Wanderlust
  • Xinjiang
    Xinjiang
    Wanderlust
  • Yunnan
    Yunnan
    Wanderlust
  • Vienna
    Vienna
    Wanderlust
  • Kampuchea
    Kampuchea
    Wanderlust
  • Budapest
    Budapest
    Wanderlust
  • Brighton
    Brighton
    Wanderlust
  • Transylvania
    Transylvania
    Wanderlust
  • Shanghai
    Shanghai
    Wanderlust
  • Berlin
    Berlin
    Wanderlust
  • Malaysia
    Malaysia
    Wanderlust
  • Hong Kong
    Hong Kong
    Wanderlust
  • London
    London
    Wanderlust
  • Japan
    Japan
    Wanderlust
  • The Gambia
    The Gambia
    Wanderlust

BARNABY JACO SKINNER

Photographer & Artist

All content copyright Barnaby Jaco Skinner 2018

Latest

Journal

Prints

Workshops

Artwork

Design

About

Facebook

error: All images and text are copyrighted by Barnaby Jaco Skinner 2018
Share This