China’s Unknown Landscapes 2012 Trip Report

By Joe Van Os on Nov 06, 2012

I write the majority of our tour descriptions and itineraries, and all of the trip reports from the tours I personally lead throughout the year. I have a great editor in my office, Hedy Slack, who takes what I write and arranges and punctuates it in a way that makes me look a little more intelligent than I really am.

When writing, I try to avoid clichés like “photographer’s paradise” and “land of contrasts” and many of the other platitudes that are used in brochures and on websites throughout the travel industry. But when I travel through China—that great land of contrasts and a photographer’s paradise—those are the very phrases that always come to mind when thinking about how to describe that startling country.

On our September China’s Unknown Landscapes trip our group met in Shanghai. From our landmark hotel along the “Bund” in old (and picturesque) Shanghai we looked across the Huangpu River to Pudong (new Shanghai) with its glitzy skyline and marveled how Pudong had risen from a rice field only a little more than 20 years ago. My own travels in China—and the construction in Pudong—began at just about the same time. After dark, Pudong can be lit up like Las Vegas on steroids and makes for wonderful nighttime photography—a photographer’s paradise!

The next day, after a quick shoot at the classic rockeries of Chinese-style Yu Garden, we boarded our flight to Zhangjiajie City (a mid-sized metropolis you’ve probably never heard of with a population of 6 million—about twice the size of Seattle) and then drove to a tourist sector in the Wulingyuan District of Hunan Province. That night, we stayed at an incredible 5-star hotel.

In the morning we sent our “checked baggage” by truck up to a mountain guesthouse, our next lodging. We traveled by a spectacular cable car up the slopes of Yellow Stone Village Mountain—the first National Forest Park in China and a World Heritage Site—carrying our cameras. Here, at the park that inspired James Cameron to create his Hallelujah Mountains in the movie Avatar, we shot for an entire day before checking into our less than 0-star guesthouse at Tianzi Xiao Zhai. Talk about a “land of contrasts!” We went from a luxurious 5-star hotel with a giant breakfast buffet to a really (really) Spartan guesthouse where, on several occasions, I met the main ingredient of our chicken dinners in the garden—alive, before they were chased, chopped and “wokked” an hour later.

But there is one really good reason for staying at the guesthouse (and I’d be happy to supply 2012 trip participant references as to why it is a good thing!). It allows us to get up early in the morning, travel only a short distance and, for a while, have the best photography locations—in the good light, for about an hour and a half in the morning and again in the afternoon prior to sunset—all to ourselves. By 9:30 or 10 AM thousands (literally) of Chinese and Korean tourists arrive by cable car and elevator and flood the trails in a torrent of humanity (they leave by about 4:30 PM). While this may seem overwhelming, the hordes of people were extremely polite around our tripods and we were able to work around them and get good shots despite the crowds. There was not a “Western” face to be seen—so perhaps this trip should be called China’s Unknown Landscapes for Westerners—because the Chinese and Koreans certainly know about Wulingyuan!

The photography is extraordinary! Yes, a photographer’s paradise. Each amazing lookout offers a new perspective over the eroded pinnacled landscape that seems to transform continuously throughout the day as light and weather change. The trails here are relatively short and “paved” with hand-carved stone blocks. While the altitude and numerous stairways are tiring, almost anyone in reasonable shape can do this trip if they go on their own pace!

Since the airport at Zhangjiajie does not have service to Kunming, our next destination, we drove the four hours to Changsha in our bus. Changsha is city of 7 million people—and another one you’ve probably never heard about. China has many cities like that! From there we flew to Yunnan Province and, that night, checked into an ultra-spectacular 5-star hotel at Kunming’s Green Lake.

The next morning, we boarded our bus for a five-hour journey through Yunnan Province’s verdant lowland farmlands, and gradually made our way to the higher elevations of the Dongchuan Red Lands. Here, a picturesque mosaic of plowed and deeply-red soil, white-blooming rape (think canola oil), and corn and potatoes, plus a throng of other more obscure Chinese vegetables, combine to form hillsides swept with a rich tapestry of graphic form and color. This broad area is phenomenal in the respect that every aspect of the agriculture—from planting to harvest—is done manually without any power equipment and all crop transportation—from field to market—is still done by a woven basket carried on the farmer’s back or by horse and cart.

At Dongchuan we stayed at another relatively Spartan guesthouse that has a higher 2-star rating—whatever that means. Probably because it has hot water, reasonably comfortable beds and more live chickens! We left our bus parked at the hotel and chartered five minivans, which were more conducive to driving some of the narrow roads that crisscross the region. Formerly, those roads were almost certainly ox cart paths!

Virtually all shooting is done from the road or by walking a short path used by the farmer to access the field. The area is wonderful for picking out sections of crop patterns with medium telephotos and has applications for wide-angle shooting, as well as for broad stitch panoramas.

We were hoping for blazing blue sky days—what the area has had in September for the past three years! Instead, we arrived just after 23 straight days of rain. Luckily for us, the rain had stopped but it was strongly overcast and downright misty throughout our stay. Because of that, field plowing activity was on hold and the vibrant reds of already plowed plots were a bit muted—as plowing stirs up fresh dirt for lots of color. White rape was in full bloom. Along the roadsides, truckloads of beehives were placed in strategic locations to use as pollinators for the rape. Unfortunately for the bees, all the rain had precluded them from harvesting nectar for almost all of the 23 previous days. Seed pods were forming in the rape seed crops—so bees were obviously pollinating, but the beekeepers were feeding them sugar to supplement their diet.

The area in the world that most closely resembles Dongchuan is right here at home in the Palouse Country of Eastern Washington State. While Dongchuan may lack the Palouse’s beautiful dilapidated barns, it boasts many amazing overlooks that allow a broader panorama of the patterned landscape than does the Palouse—with the exception of Steptoe Butte.

Overall, these two “unknown” Chinese locations offer fantastic opportunities for landscape photography. It was the first trip I’ve done in a long time where I did not need to haul around the heavy telephoto lens I usually take with me for wildlife! What a treat to have a much lighter backpack to carry in this “photographer’s paradise!”