As the camera operator on the shoot in Sichuan, this week’s film holds a very special place in my heart.
Fengtongzhai is a rural village four hours outside of Chengdu. At the time of filming, all the roads were under construction, and the only way for us to reach the village was bypublic transport. We took the coach to our hotel in Ya’an, then took another coach to Baoxing County, and THEN took a small bus up the mountains to the village. All together, it added up to a 10-hour journey. Luckily, we were pretty much asleep the whole way.
After a long and exhausting journey, I was ready for a rest. However, when we arrived, the crew and I were so amazed by the beautiful nature and the hospitable farmers in the village that I perked right up. It was a completely different world for a city girl like me.
We stayed in the village for 4 days, and I still consider it to be my most memorable shoot. Some of the trickier moments for me include trying to work out how to charge the batteries for the camera when we could only get power from 8pm-11pm, waking up to the roosters’ “cock-a-doodle-do”, holding a beehive whilst trying to find the queen bee and even sharing the toilet with some pigs.
As well as all this, my highlights include having breakfast on the street whilst waiting for a timelapse shot, being offered “honey alcohol” to drink by the farmers daily, watching the sunrise and sunset surrounded by the beautiful mountains and forest and detoxing from the internet! Throughout all of this, I loved communicating with the locals and sampling local food. It was such an amazing experience and I feel so lucky that we conquered the challenge and made our way there. I think it is a great film, but it was also a precious life experience for me.
I still remember Chen Yanyu’s smile as he talked about how much he likes his bees. He earns just enough to live, and he doesn’t demand a lot from life. All he cares about and wants to do is to take care of his hardworking babies. Watching him was probably my favorite moment of the whole trip!
It’s been 35 degrees plus, with 89% humidity in Beijing recently. So hot that those of us from chilly, damp climes are wilting. Normally I like to walk around Beijing – there’s always so much to see, and it’s quite easy to find your way, with street names that so clearly tell you where you are like “so and so North street”; “such and such outside street” (ie outside the old city walls); “such and such gate” (ie by an ancient gate on the old city walls).
But in this weather I dive immediately into the subway – an underground mirror world that’s air conditioned and quiet, and takes me effortlessly to my destination. And is endlessly fascinating.
The Beijing subway system is heading to be the most extensive in the world, as well as the busiest and, being so much newer than those of New York or Paris, for example, it has many of the advantages of recent construction and new trains. Not just air conditioning, but also regularly-placed stations; wifi access throughout; wide passageways and escalators; safe platforms and all signs and announcements on the trains in English as well as Chinese. It’s also entirely logical and as a result easy to navigate, with lines named 1 to 15, each with its separate colour and transfer stations clearly indicated.
One of the things I so enjoy about the Metro is that, as you speed around the city underground, you are constantly reminded of how old a city Beijing is; how dynasty has succeeded dynasty here and how history is there if you know how to look. On Line 2 the names of some stations, and the shape of the line itself, are a reminder of the fact that until the 20th century, Beijing was ringed by massive city walls pierced by giant gates. And that these gates and the walls themselves were torn down to make way for the Metro and for the 2nd ring road – a triumph of progress that seems closer to an act of tragic vandalism to a tourist today, but that is a window into what was important to people in China at that time. (You can see what gates and walls once looked like at the Ming City wall park, one of those fascinating corners of Beijing that many visitors miss https://www.travelchinaguide.com/attraction/beijing/ming-city-wall.htm).
Those station names are one echo of the past; at other stations the design and decoration make that link. At Beitucheng, on Line 8, the swirling blue and white design recalls the city built here by Kublai Khan in the 13th century. His Yuan dynasty became famous for its blue and white porcelain, created with cobalt blue imported from Iran, and then exported all over Asia and the Middle East. Yongle, founder of the Ming dynasty, built his city on top of Kublai Khan’s, destroying much of the latter in the process, including his palace, but near Beitucheng station you can visit the rammed earth city walls of Yuan Dadu, an even bigger city than Ming era Beijing.
At Dongsi, on Line 5, bas reliefs show life in Old Beijing. Street traders, a procession, two strolling friends all pass under one of the 8 colourful ceremonial archways built by Emperor Yongle, but which were removed in 1954. (For other interesting Beijing metro stations, have a look here)
A friend – whose grandfather was part of the original Metro construction team – told me that when Lines 1 and 2 were opened in the late 60s, the subway was such a novelty that Beijing families would buy tickets, not to go anywhere, but just to experience subway travel. And in a way that’s what I do today. Speeding through the tunnels, in the cool of the train, watching moving video adverts on the tunnel walls – something I’ve never seen elsewhere; trying to improve my Chinese by listening to the announcements carefully before they are repeated in English; glued to the cartoons, mini-dramas and information videos on the on-train TV screens and spotting the links between this subterranean world and the history of the city, I’m mainly enjoying the fact that the subway is a great place to people watch. In fact, it’s the best place I know for watching a certain kind of Beijing person – the up and coming generation. Educated, tech-savvy, fashionable, these under 30s are the dominant group among your fellow travellers on the Metro. I love to observe their fashions – idiosyncratic, cool and sharp, but often with a touch of sentimental whimsy. I enjoy their interactions – there’s always lots of chatter and laughter on the Beijing metro – and their body language. I’m fascinated by what people are watching on their phones – and that goes for almost everyone. Above all, what I love is that you rarely see that miserable commuter look – so common in Paris or London – where everyone is trying to pretend they’d rather be anywhere else but here…Most people seem to be having as much fun as I am…
Most people are familiar with the landmarks of Beijing, but what are the other must-sees that locals would recommend? We’ve rounded up our top tips to help you live like a local during your stay in Beijing.
If you want a green way to get around Beijing, why not hire a bicycle? Skip the traffic and head up the backstreets to take in the sights and sounds of the city in between your destinations.
Get up early and join in “morning exercise” at any city park – line dancing, ballroom dancing, Chinese opera, tai-chi, badminton, aerobics, martial arts of all kinds …There’s something for everyone.
Hou Hai Lake – ‘Back Lake’ – is the largest of the three lakes of the Shichahai area of central Beijing, and is a great place to cool off on a hot day. The man-made lake has beautiful views, and there’s plenty of places to grab some food or a drink to sit down and enjoy them.
We can’t discuss Beijing and not talk about Food. Make sure you head to Gulou and try mantou (steamed bread) fresh out of its bamboo steamer. Apparently Beijing Duck tastes better in Beijing than anywhere else, so try it the traditional way with pancakes, cucumbers and Hoisin sauce to see for yourself! Hotpot, with fresh vegetables and hand-pulled noodles, is not to be missed. For a less traditional eating experience, stop by the Cat Cafe for cuddles with your coffee.
Jingshan Park dates from the Ming dynasty and its design is based on the principles of fengshui, with a hill to protect the Forbidden City from northern winds. Its Wanchun Pavilion is the highest point in Beijing. It’s the best place to get a bird’s eye view of the Forbidden City and at sunset on a clear day you get a great view of the spiky mountains that surround Beijing to the West and North.
Karaoke bars, known by locals as KTV, are huge in China. So huge, there’s over 100,000 karaoke bars in total. Do as the locals do and have a go to see what the fuss is all about.
Be a part of Beijing’s history by walking down Qianmen Street. The 600 year old pedestrian street is full of shops and restaurants. You can visit China’s oldest brands and learn more about traditional silks and shoes. On Chinese Public holidays, you can hop on the tram to get a lift from the top to the bottom! Turn off the main street to experience the narrow alleyways of a vibrant traditional hutong. This area was once the haunt of Beijing’s artistes and performers, and it’s still got a lively, bustling feel with tiny restaurants and atmospheric wine shops.
798 Art District is the site of Beijing’s most-established modern art scene. The “District” is in fact a complex of decommissioned buildings, filled with a diverse selection of ambitious exhibits. Cycle ten minutes to the North, and you reach Caochangdi, an up-and-coming art community that some insiders say is beginning to rival 798 for innovation and creativity.
One of the most peaceful and beautiful ancient sites in Beijing is the Confucius Temple. Among the elegant buildings are dozens of standing stones, with the carved names of every single person who passed the Imperial examinations – stretching back hundreds of years. These highly-educated officials were the backbone of the Chinese administration from the 600s until the examination’s abolition in 1905.
Take a ride on Metro line Number 8. Built for the 2008 Olympics, each station’s decoration is unique and matches what’s going on above ground. Ride North to the huge Olympic Forest park with its lake, hills and trees, and then walk slowly back into the city via the Olympic Green, site of the iconic Bird’s Nest stadium and Water Cube.
Get more top tips from Beijinger Lee as he shows you his top tips for a weekend in Beijing.
What stands out to me the most when I watch this timelapse is the diversity of colours. The vibrant reds and oranges of sunset of Hainan Island, the greenery of Kham and Zhejiang and the bright lights of bustling Beijing at night. This timelapse is a great way to get a taste of the vastness and diversity of China. As Travel Editor, I’m continually excited and amazed by the possibilities in China. So, I thought I’d dig a little deeper into each of the featured locations to help you plan your dream trip. Where would you go first?
Fast Fact Files
‘Hainan’ literally means ‘South of the Ocean’.
This tropical paradise is the place to go for golden sands, balmy weather and coconut trees on the coast, and luscious mountains inland. There’s even a growing surf scene to get involved in.
The population of Hainan is just over 8 million.
Eastern Coastal Province of China
Hangzhou is the capital, home of the famous West Lake which has inspired Chinese Artists and Poets throughout history.
Home to the arched bridges and canals scenes of Wūzhèn
Thousands of Islands are dotted across the shoreline to be explored, the most well known being the lush Buddhist Island of Putuoshan.
‘Bei’ means Northern, and ‘Jing’ means Capital, so Beijing literally translates to Northern Capital! It sounds obvious, but is actually the 16th name given to the city in its history. It’s the nation’s second largest city, after Shanghai.
The Forbidden City in Beijing is the world’s largest preservation of wooden structures from the Ancient World!
It’s also home to some very unusual cafes, where you can cuddle a cat with your coffee.
It’s the third longest river in the world, but the longest river within a single country.
The river passes Fengdu Ghost City, “the home of the devil”, a town of tombs and temples.
The river flows 3,915 miles from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the mouth of the East China Sea.
Where would you go first in China? Let us know in the comments!
The images we see of China on the news – and even in documentaries – are nearly always of the populous, fast-modernising eastern plains and seaboard: the great urban centres of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. These are cities with bristling skylines, lit up at night with vivid neon displays, where traffic roars 24/7 and commuters and consumers hurry to work and to play. This is certainly where the majority of Chinese people live – or aspire to live. And it’s the economic engine of the country. But there is another China that many visitors miss entirely. The fact is China is vast. Beijing to Guangzhou takes 8 hours, and that’s on a high speed train whizzing at 300km/hour. To travel from Shanghai on the East Coast to Kashgar in the West takes over seven hours on a plane – that’s the same as flying from Europe to the USA!
And many parts of China are so cold in the winter; or so mountainous; or so inhospitable that travelling is quite hard, even today. It was only in 2013 that the last county in China was connected to the national road network. Before 2013, the only way to reach Motuo was on foot, 10 hours over a mountain pass.
So that’s why I love this timelapse video. It gives a tiny glimpse of China’s geographical variety – and makes me dream where I might visit next…
Up in the far north, where the Heilongjiang river marks the border with Russia, people cope with Minus 40 degrees in mid winter and hack holes in the river ice to catch fish to vary their diet. nearly 4000km to the south, Hainan island is a total contrast – a tropical paradise. Inland, karst geology makes for giant caves and fantastical rocky outcrops, all draped with jungle vegetation; while along the coastline, holiday-makers surf and scuba-dive and locals fish and make sea salt in giant natural salt-pans of volcanic basalt.
High up on the Tibetan plateau in an area known as Khampa, locals race their sturdy mountain ponies – that were once the basis of trade between Lhasa and the lowlands. Tea from Yunnan especially, and from Darjeeling in India, was compressed into “bricks” and transported on people’s backs up onto the plateau. On the return journey, they brought sturdy mountain ponies, in demand for their sure-footedness and their endurance.
In south-west China, over more than a thousand years, locals have sculpted terraces from the hillsides to grow rice.
The terraced fields need to be kept full of water or there will be landslides, so they have created an extraordinary system of water management that ensures every field on the mountain side is kept irrigated at just the right level. This method of rice growing also contains a virtuous ecological circle. Fish swim in the rice paddy water alongside the seedlings, eating insects; while ducks eat the smaller fish and fertilise the soil with their waste.
Natural wonders, jaw-dropping engineering, delicious food, bustling cities, ancient temples, glamorous fashionistas, visionary thinkers. This is the site to meet China's icons – past, present and still to come