Being located out in the Taklamakan Desert below sea level it is hard to imagine anything growing in the barren, rocky landscape however Turfan is known for its grapes, melons and the nearby flaming mountains, as well as having the notoriety of being the hottest place in China.
Built some 2,000 years ago the ancient Karez irrigation system not only brings miraculous life to the dusty plains making Turfan a productive fertile pocket of land but it also cemented the town as a key stopping point on the Silk Road for caravans and traders in years gone by.
The totally awesome ruins of Jiaohe are a fantastic place to wander and conjure up visions of what times past might have been like in its heyday.
Home to the stunning Emin Minaret, a building that well and truly caught my eye for its simple yet intricate beauty, this is one of the first stops when travelling west that you will really get a taste of Uyghur culture.
But the morning I spent exploring the local animal market was an unexpected highlight of my time in this desert oasis. Wandering among the action was a great introduction to local life and about as far away from the tourist trail as you get.
We did get lots of enquiring looks of bewilderment, with many not quite actually able to work out what could possibly be interesting about watching herders and towns-people buying and selling sheep, goats and cows.
Everyone was incredibly friendly and curious, though a little camera shy at the beginning. The Uygur food is absolutely delicious, particularly if you are a meat lover and the atmosphere in the old parts of town is magic as donkeys “clip clop” their way along the streets.
Turfan has lots to offer and is an excellent place to spend a few days getting caught up in the fabulous legends of the Silk Road.
Jiuzhaigou is spectacular Chinese alpine scenery, a world heritage site and world biosphere protected area in mountainous northern Sichuan province, China. The picturesque mountainous landscape is peppered with brilliantly coloured lakes and waterfallls ensconced among dense, verdant forests.
I was totally blown away by this place when I first visited in 1997. It was early October and the magnificence of fall was in full swing. The trees were all shades of crimson, orange and yellow contrasting beautifully against the jewel coloured lakes.
The images you see here were taken when I returned at the end of May 2002 and were shot using the gorgeous Fuji Velvia slide film. The impossibly green forests and brilliantly coloured, sparkling water that you see in the images is in my mind exactly how it looked – simply stunning!!!
Straddling the Sichuan / Gansu border is the simply wonderful little village of Langmusi.
The first time I visited this remote outpost was back in 1997. The location is simply stunning, located up on the sweeping grasslands of the Tibetan plateau.
There have been big changes since I first visited, apparently the roads in town have now been sealed – so no more of the muddy atmospheric images that feature here in this gallery. There are more hotels available with hot water on demand and a selection of restaurants/cafes. Back in 1997 there were no streetlights at night and just one small place to eat which by the way served the most amazing apple pies. The yak burgers were pretty good too!
Altogether a totally wonderful find on a journey which was definitely a highlight for me way back then – tourism barely even raised a glint in the eye, however our presence certainly inspired more than the occasional glance. As I recall sitting with a cup of “babao” or eight treasure tea by the fire in a restaurant in Xiahe, which used to be a full day’s journey along bumpy dirt roads, having a nomad woman examining very closely. Actually, when I say ‘very closely’, it probably doesn’t give you the full picture – her face just a couple of inches from mine as she gave me a good inspection.
Langmusi has a fantastic monastery and was one of the few mainstream places where they still practiced the traditional Tibetan sky burial.
Thought I’d delve into my massive collection of film archives to find a few images of a festival in Langmusi, which is a small town out on the Tibetan Plateau in China’s far west. Taken on the 1st June 2002 (International Children’s Day), this festival attracted nomads from all over the grasslands for a day of singing, dancing, horse racing and yak riding.
I was so incredibly fortunate to experience this event with one of my groups (I was a tour leader at the time) and it was definitely worth arriving after 2am in the morning for. We’d broken down on the grasslands in the middle of Sichuan province the previous day. The 8 hour or so wait out in the middle of nowhere while the parts for the mini-vans were driven in was an interesting experience which everyone handled fantastically. The journey was a long, slow one on a terrible road, but without a doubt totally worth it in the end!
The festival was a full day of events. First, we rushed off out into the grassland to see the horse races. I must say I was a little in awe of the youngster who won. Of course, they were riding bareback and most of the riders were under 10 years of age – absolutely put my horse riding skills to shame. Then the crowd jumped into the backs of a couple of big blue trucks and onto horses or motorbikes and took off to the next venue.
Sitting up by the road was a great perch to watch the yak-riding race taking place 50 metres or so down in the valley. It also seemed like a safe distance as I thought that yaks were fairly skittish and strange animals, so to see them being ridden along the grassland was going to be interesting. Once the riders were on board, the small crowd around the animals quickly scattered as they exploded off in all directions. They really are skittish and difficult to control, and were pretty much running all over the place while throwing their riders off. Eventually one guy got a bit of a straight run happening in the right direction and crossed the finish line.
After lunch, down by the stream the rock throwing, singing and dancing was happening, where different groups were almost having a dance off! So much colour and enjoyment both from the performers and the crowd, it truly was an amazing experience.
This was the first time the festival had been held and I actually could not tell you if it has been held since then – in all a very random event that I had heard about through a contact, and even then it was always a maybe. For me this is what made it so special!
The vibrant colours in these images are due purely to the beautiful Fuji Velvia slide film I was using in those days and gee, it really did produce amazing images.
The old city of Pingyao is simply enchanting – well it certainly was when I visited there during 2001 and 2002!
Bursting with charm this age-old enclave’s intact ancient city wall is quite possibly the best in China and offers fantastic views across the old town. This is great for the contrast between the well-touristed and not-often-visited areas of town.
I have a few memories from Pingyao; one was being on the wall and watching as a farmer walked a small herd of sheep into the back streets of the old town, a fantastic photographic moment.
The other was the horse and donkey carts clip-clopping along the rustic streets. I was easily engulfed with horse cart-mania every time I heard one coming, and often the old guys driving or leading them were just as photogenic.
The traditional architecture is fantastic and as with most Chinese towns the best time to be out and about with a camera was from 6am onwards, as this is the best time to catch a real glimpse of local life and miss the tourists.
These images were all taken on black and white film. After going digital more than 10 years ago working with film gives a total different look and feel to images, one that I think works incredibly well with this subject matter.
As one of China’s 4 sacred Buddhist peaks, Wutaishan is actually a collection of five peaks or plateaus that is home to in excess of 50 temples and monasteries.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2009, Wutaishan is a great place to explore for a couple of days.
One of the things that stood out for me here was the level of decorative elements in the brass-work and exterior paintings/murals. Both symbolic and intricate, they really set some of the temples here apart from the many, many others I have visited in China.