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.
Dragongate BridgeBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon 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.
The Look OutBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon 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.
Our sleek black sedan pulls away from the reaming torrents and hooting tourists, swooping from valley floor to snowy peaks as if a dragon waking from slumber.
ShaxiBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 70 - 200 f2.8 / Yunnan
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.
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 and humid tunnels, 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.
The Daily RoutineBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon 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.
The Construction TrailBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 70 - 200 f2.8 / Yunnan
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.
As we reach the cloud line where aggressive nebulae cluster with untold urgency, merging and clotting in hues of charcoal and slate. Powerful, adolescent sun beams smash through the mobilizing vapor, setting the moist air ablaze and 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.
The Temple of a Million YearsBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 14 - 200 f2.8 / Yunnan (original SOLD to private collector)
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.
Ever upwards we push, our obsidian basilisk leading the relentless charge. We peer through thick mist yet nothing seems real, shapes extruded and elongated beyond recognition. Seemingly trapped in this event horizon for an eternity we suddenly emerge victorious, punching an exit through the swirling ceiling of this no man’s land.
Five Blue HatsBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 70 - 200 f2.8 / Yunnan
We wave once again to our cycling entourage, their spirits lifting as the wet, grey veil falls far below. Finally we cast our eyes on the ice-capped peaks and lush green valleys of Shangri-La.
A Tiled RoofBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 300 f4 / Yunnan
Rain pummels this isolated village somewhere in the mountains of southern China. Welcome torrents pour from glistening tiled roofs, cleaning grit and dust from the wooden windows framing wizened country faces peering out at the deluge. The crops will be watered well.
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.
Rice FieldsBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon D4 / 300 f4 / Yunnan
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.
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.
Shangri-LaBarnaby Jaco Skinner / Nikon 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.
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 witness in the auspicious royalty of Shangri-La’s summer.