I went for 18 days, shooting lots of pretty video for the small production company I work for. We have a fun little travel show that you can find here. Plenty of nice high def images to look at and not too much substance to get in the way. The show also puts a bit too much emphasis on high end shopping for my tastes. Who wants to go to all the way to China only to shop at Louis Vitton? But for a low budget production company, the quality is very high - and at 22 minutes the show screams along and stands up against just about anything you can find on the Travel Channel.
As for the trip; I had a blast. I also had the best job, I was the third camera crew (me and a local assistant) whose only job it was to drive around and shoot the sights. I was surprised that we didn't work directly with the government, but rather with the local tourist bureaus; which created some frustrating situations with being shut down by local police. But overall things went pretty smooth.
Hong Kong was my least favorite, simply because it was the most westernized and basically a giant city. The food was pretty good, and the locals were friendly enough. Still, it was congested and noisy. I really longed to see some rural scenery, but the best I got was half a day at a beach called Repulse Bay that had a beautiful Chinese Temple style lookout. The rest of the four days in Hong Kong were of the urban sites, big shiny buildings and such. The night shooting was fun, with all the neon and party people (reminded me of UC Berkeley's cafe's at night) plus I also got to go on a dinner cruise around the harbor which was pretty spectacular.
The vibe in Hong Kong was definitely upbeat, even on the occasion when I would walk around by myself or with my fellow crew members; but I expected as much in a city that is basically capitalist and enjoys many of the freedoms we do here at home. I braced myself for the mainland, expecting a much more somber outlook from the locals.
I was surprised that the people of Shang-Hai were just as upbeat, maybe even more-so, than their Hong Kong counterparts. Again, it was basically a big urban sprawl, and my duties were to shoot big ugly buildings and shopping centers - but I still got a lot out of occasionally stepping off the beaten track to fascinating little alleys and markets. I was pleasantly overwhelmed by people's friendliness at meeting an American, everyone seemed to put on their best face for this goofy faced visitor.
In Hong Kong I had been following the developments in Tibet on CNN. When I got to Shang-Hai I tuned in faithfully that night, only to have my screen go completely blank when a Tibet story started to come on. I checked the BBC, it was the same result. Somewhere someone was watching what I was watching, and pushing a big red button when anything they didn't approve came on. Chilling. I also noticed in the hotel and elsewhere, there were no western newspapers. No NY Times, or even USA Today. Yes people were upbeat, the city was big and modern - but it also had shanty towns, a multitude of poor people, and COMPLETELY controlled media.
After the skyscrapers of Shang-Hai, the town of Xian was a huge relief. Only a small city (merely 8 million) in the center of the mainland, the outskirts of Xian had lots of the rural imagery that I had been waiting for. The people were also even friendlier still. Plus I got to meet about 8000 soldiers from two thousand years ago. The Terra Cotta Warriors were breathtaking. And we got to get down at eye level with them. A day of a lifetime which I'll never forget.
It is hard to describe, but my mother's mom, who has been gone for a few years now, was with me very strongly in spirit the moment I stepped inside the massive pavilion. As I caught my breath at the sight of the soldiers, the image of my grandmother filled my head. I was surprised by her presence and the emotions that hit me at the thought of her, she who had mentioned to me only once or twice how excited she was to have made the trip. As cynical as I can be, I couldn't escape that somehow I was connecting with her. Real or imagined, who knows, but I am ever grateful that it felt real to me that she was there.
We were only in Xian for one full day, so I'm sure I missed the many other places it has to offer. The rest of the crew got to see the ancient city wall, which they said was awesome. I was stuck seeing a sight of ancient hot springs, which was cool seeing as it was well over two thousand years old as well.
Next was my favorite; Beijing. Like London, Washington DC, Paris, and Moscow, the city is so overwhelmed with history, that it couldn't help but affect me greatly. I would have like to spend a few weeks taking it all in - but in our limited time we got a good dose of highlights.
We encountered our first real dose of bureaucratic stupidity, repeatedly getting denied to shoot big sights that had been arranged ahead of time. This kind of doublespeak was very familiar to me from my adventures in India, but it drove my boss crazy. Still, we managed to get permission eventually to shoot everything we came for.
First was the great wall. The pictures don't do it justice, and neither does the gorgeous video I shot of it. The cherry and peach blossoms were in full bloom, and though the day was overcast, there was enough filtered sun to get some tremendous shots.
The Forbidden City was, well, forbidden. We were allowed only one camera, so I got to basically take the afternoon off and play tourist. Fine by me. I got to take my time and really see it on my own terms. Massive is the one word that best describes it. Of course the big main building that you see in the Last Emperor was covered in scaffolding and the good people of Beijing failed to mention it to us (hey, we didn't ask) but I know our lead operator still got great stuff.
A bunch of other highlights included, the Summer Palace (big ass man made lake, huge pagodas) the Temple of Heaven (the best and biggest dose of real local culture that I found on the whole trip. A long outdoor corridor filled with local street performers and citizens playing cards and mahjong.) Snack Street, a local night market that served all kinds of tasty treats, including scorpions, snakes and cockroaches.
But perhaps the biggest highlight (or most memorable, would be the right word) of the whole trip for me, was on our last day. With tiny camera in hand (we weren't allowed to shoot with the big one) I journeyed by myself to Tianneman square. For those of you even vaguely familiar with the history of this place, you would be overwhelmed - as I was, at the sheer emotional weight the place carries. From the giant Mao picture at his mausoleum to the big ugly open space that was the sight of so much turmoil and bloodshed; it was another day that I'll never forget.
We left a day early, having exhausted our resources at convincing the government to let us promote their country. I was pretty nonplussed by the idiocy - but I know it made a lasting bad impression on my employer.
Overall my own impressions were decidedly mixed. I was amazed and overwhelmed at the history and culture, and hungry to see more. Even this trip which was decidedly focused on urban China, held so much to fascinate and enthrall - I've really only just touched on it here. China has A LOT going on.
I was also a bit saddened at the censorship, and at the solemnness that eventually did come out of my local guides when we talked for any length on the subject of Chinese history or politics. Yes, they have come a long way - and with the advent of cellphones and the internet the genie is truly out of the bottle; but I think the road they face is still very long and rocky yet.
In my occasional internet forays I was unable to access basically any of the political blogs I enjoy stateside; and the news suddenly turning off was just as disconcerting to me on the last day as the first.
I look back on China fondly, and I pray that it's people will eventually kick the old guard out. In a country where the "official" tally of people executed last year was over 8000 (as opposed to the US tally of around 60) it stands to reason that they have some serious work to do.
I hope the Olympics go well, though I know deep down we probably shouldn't be there. And I hope we can all find a way towards peace as the inevitability China's world dominance comes to pass.
China - beautiful, impressive, kind of scary, well worth going.