Belchatow

With the next round of international climate negotiations kicking off in Warsaw this week, I was reminded of my time in Poland when I captured this photograph of Belchatow in May 2011. That was the year I was flown to London to judge a photographic award and booked a flight to Poland to make the journey a little more memorable.

It was a strange trip. I helped award a photographer who's work dealt with the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster. I visited Auschwitz and found myself alone for several hours into the evening making photographs after the gates had closed, a very eerie experience to say the least. I befriended a young couple hitch-hiking over the Tatra mountains on the Poland/ Slovakia boarder and ended up staying with their family for 3 nights in a small village in Eastern Slovakia. They helped me gain access to a few nearby gypsy communities. One of these communities was living in two derelict brick buildings in an abandoned copper mine. One of these buildings was being undermined by a sink hole and was near collapse. Sixty or so filthy children, some with deformities, clothed in rags or nothing at all played in or nearby a rubbish pile of smouldering plastics. A destitute hovel beyond belief. While I stood wondering how so few adults could produce so many children I felt for the safety for the lovely young Ewelina back at the car. Meanwhile Stanislav and I proceeded to wander about too anxious to take photographs. 

Perhaps I was after some light relief, something positive by the time I arrived back in Poland and proceeded to Belchatow. Could this be why this image looks so lovely and hopeful and picturesque. But make no mistake this is Europe's largest single producer of carbon emissions, the largest coal fired power station in Europe, one of the largest in the world. It emits an impressive 30 million tons of CO2 a year. It burns lignite (brown coal), the most polluting type of coal, the same coal mined and burnt at Hazelwood, Yallourn and Loy Yang power plants in the Latrobe valley just east of Melbourne. They are all of the same, they emit a plethora of carcinogens and carbon, causing cancers and climate change. Spare a thought for the families who live down wind from one of these beasts. Ask them what ailments they suffer from. You'll get the picture.

 

Ship Breakers

According to the World Fleet Monitor which covers just about every ship in the world, there are 87,483 ships plying the world's oceans.

A somewhat meaningless number I know, difficult to quantify. When confronted with such numbers my mind invariably performs a little mental acrobatic routine before settling on an imaginary visual reference. In this instance I try visualizing ships as skyscrapers, if one was to take all of these ships and stand them on their transoms in a very, very large dry dock (provided they didn't all fall down like dominos) would they start taking on the dimensions of say Manhattan, or Dubai or Shanghai, or for that matter the three of these large cities combined? At any rate this great heaving mass takes on the proportions of something a little unworldly.

Furthermore when one considers the ships which have proceeded this number it becomes self evident the transfer of energy and the resources taken to manufacture and service this fleet becomes undeniable in it’s enormity.

I recall one year while in Vietnam windsurfing, strapped in to my harness and heading at speed for an oil tanker anchored at some distance off the coast. The closer I got to the thing the more unnerved I became, until eventually, many ship lengths away I backed down and with tail between my legs let the wind carry me back to the comfort of the beach and security of my family. These things are by their nature huge.

According to the World Shipping Council the average life of a container ship is a poultry 26 years. Until quite recently most ships ended their lives by burial at sea, perhaps not such a pleasant thought. Now it is more economically feasible for the owners of ships to drive their vessels ashore during high tide on the beaches of developing countries leaving the dirty and unimaginably unsafe business of dismantling them to the low paid workers of the 3rd world. Here environmental standards and workers rights are lax, almost to the point of being virtually non- existent. Scrapping ships has taken on a value but at huge environmental and social cost.

The birth of the ship breaking industry in Bangladesh started in the early 60‘s when a Greek ship was driven ashore during a hurricane and a devastating tidal surge and could not be re-floated. The ship remained here until 1964 when The Chittagong Steel House bought the vessel and scrapped it. This process took years, but the work gave birth to the industry in Bangladesh.

Today there are nearly 140 ship breaking yards covering 18 km of beachfront just north of Chittagong. This is an industrial wasteland of epic proportions, where thousands of workers are forced to scratch their meager existence out of these hulking steel ruins, the steel salvaged from the ships accounts for half of all the steel used in Bangladesh. About one fifth of large ships of the world are dismantled here. Most of the rest of the worlds ships end their lives on the beaches of India and Pakistan.

Workers who perform this task, some 20,000 in number, are mostly men from the north of the country who’s home villages may have been flooded (economic refugees). Up until very recently boys as young a nine were employed but human rights groups managed to have this practice banned, (I did however meet some 14 and 16 year olds while here). Working with rudimentary protection at best, exposed to numerous risks such as falls, fires, explosions and poisoned by toxic fumes and exposure to asbestos and other hazardous materials most workers only last 20 or so years if they don’t suffer serious accident or death before their time. After this their bodies are often too broken to carry on, they return home instead.

The process of dismantling takes place at a huge cost to the local environment, toxic waste spills into the tidal flats, beaches foul with foreboding sludge is the norm as many of the ships being dismantled are oil tankers.

I’ve been wanting to photograph the ship breakers for many years now, ever since first seeing the work of Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado as part of his epic series ‘Workers‘ It is Salgado’s work, methodology, commitment and expansive vision which has served as a beacon ever since discovering his work as a student of photography back in the late 80‘s.

In many ways the ship yards are synonymous with what has become the norm in recent years in regards to industrial sites and infrastructure of just about any kind. Management has become more protectionist of these compounds. Perimeter fences have become higher, security guards more heavy handed and the full weight of the law protecting those who go about their dirty business is tangible. I blame the toxic and heavy handed era of the Bush administration for this in the first instance, Chaney and his cronies altered our world immeasurably. I say this with no small measure of concern when it comes also to the recent change of guard in Australia. There is evil lurking in the shadows but for goodness sake don’t pick up the papers for enlightenment.

Prior to leaving Sydney I had been in email contact with Muhammed Ali (Shahin), a local man who runs an NGO driven by a concern to create a safer work environment for the ship breakers. In his own words Mr. Shahin has helped provide access to the breaking yards to over 100 photographers, journalists and media crews from all over the world, over many years.

What transpired over the days I was there was an exercise in patience and frustration in equal measure leading to very little of any worth. Mr, Shahin arranged for me a guide and a boat with a skipper to motor south along the coast on the first evening, he couldn’t join us for fear of being shot if recognized. Photography from any ocean craft is a failed exercise given the nature of work I shoot, which is invariably upfront and personal, or studied requiring an expansive scene with a meaningful foreground, middle distance and background. Photographs across an expanse of water provide at the most only two of these elements.

Suffice to say not much to be had on that first evening. Returning the following day with a driver and a guide and the following morning after that we tried several times to sneak past guardes on several different sites, only to be told in no uncertain terms to leave the beach. Visually I could see within 50m all I had come here to record; dozens of men prizing apart large chunks of ships with gas torches, crow bars and sledge hammers, barrels of oil being rolled by men along the oil soaked beach, large plates of metal being hauled by hand by teams of men, all this amongst a backdrop of massive and imposing beached behemoths in various states of dismantlement, scenes on an epic scale. The photographer in me was inwardly screaming to be let out while I was trying to keep my calm and find an opportunity to evade the attention of the guards. We kept being called to attention and retreated back to the workers huts for cups of sweet tea and simple food with simple conversation with young men in soiled clothing.

Eventually it all got too hard and I resigned myself to the simple fact that my visit to the breakers yards was about three years too late. Too many photographers had proceeded me, the ship breakers had already received too much world attention for the comfort of the managers. The managers along with their battalion of security guides are now in damage control.

Very little has changed for the workers and very little if anything has changed in regards to environmental protection in the ship breaking yards of Chittagong. World attention for all it’s worth has come to nothing. The men who control this business have changed only in regard to making their practices of exploitation less overt.

 

The Men

Fat bellied men sporting chunky wrist watches and cheque books are just starting to arrive in Srimongol from the city in their four wheel drives with ambitious plans to secure the tourist dollar and get in while the pickings are good. A large conglomerate fenced-in hotel complex and golf course has recently been built just up the road from our thatch roofed bamboo ‘eco lodge’. It will soon open for business. Buses will start rolling in and with them perhaps a deluge of tourists, both local and foreign. What is pure, natural, beautiful and time honoured about this area and it’s people will likely suffer the consequence of heavy handed tourism as is often the case in the developing world. Tourism, perhaps not as damaging to the environment as other more insidious industries, (Chevron have fenced-in guarded gas wells throughout this region)  it does nevertheless lead to development, the implementation of larger roads, bringing with them more traffic which invariably adds more population. This left unchecked will undermine the very thing which makes this area unique and worth visiting in the first place. What is left of the natural world requires protection. We need to now be more thoughtful and tread more lightly on this world of ours.

Tea pickers of Srimongol

The surrounding area of the small town of Srimongol is known primarily for it’s tea estates which form a rich carpet of green across it’s rolling hills. These estates are interspersed by some remaining tracts of lush primary tropical rain forest. An array of produce; bananas, papaya, guava, pineapple, lemon, lychee, jackfruit, mango, pomelo, orange, fig, rubber and rice is also grown here.

It’s now the tail end of the monsoon season and nature is at its most extravagant. The sky is a play of weather cells; cumulonimbus rising cathedral like, bringing forth the occasional outburst of heavy rain, thunder and at times incredible plays of light. The landscape is a celebration of green, bursting with new life. Tropical regions are at their best during this time, one can almost feel the cells of the body drinking in the abundance of nature, purifying water, oxygen, new life. It can be life giving, intoxicating, a reminder to oneself we are of nature. Some of the scenes alongside the small windy roads, in the thatched-roof villages and in the fields are so beautiful they take your breath away. It would be hard to find a greater contrast anywhere from what is the squalor and congestion of Dhaka less than 200 km away to the west.

The tea bush is heavily dependent on rain for new growth and it’s only these new growth leaves which are harvested, then dried, ground and bagged for export around the world. Monsoon season is the picking season; June, July, August and slightly either side of these months. Here the tea bushes are shaded by koroi trees which give the landscape further dimension and provide welcome shade for the tea pickers, most of whom are women, hindu, some from the surrounding tribal groups. Men make up most of the work force in the tea factories. The area has a feeling of being more in South East Asia than South Asia, it is close to the eastern boarder with India.

Picking is demanding work. During an 8 hour work day the women are expected to pick a minimum of 23kg of tea leaves, though they average between 35 and 40kg. The more the women pick, the more weighted down they are; the tea slung over their heads falling to their backs in a cloth bundle. This bundle is tied tight and carried upon their heads back to the factory or to a collection point at lunch break and again at close of day. The bundles are then weighed. The women earn somewhere in the vicinity of a dollar for their day’s effort. I say this all too casually, when really the difference between 75c and $1.50 could be measured by the purchasing power of just a little more protein in their families diet, a little more fish or chicken, a few more eggs...

Depending on what value judgement we place upon this meager earning; it can be seen either as exploitative in the extreme or a healthy and gracious way of spending one’s working life; drinking in nature, communally, physically. It could be argued that spending one’s most productive years chained to a desk in a glass tower pumping hot air into the corporate bubble is just as exploitative of the worker. Is it more regal to use one’s mind or one’s body in the engagement of work? Surely the only thing of importance is to what end we use our minds or our body for, to who’s profit and to what benefit...

Here the body is being used for what it was designed for, the lungs are breathing in fresh oxygenated air, the workers are soaking in nature day in and day out and as a result these people remain fit and agile into old age. Some of the women are extraordinarily beautiful, strong, fit, earthy and radiating health. Without exception they have perfect unblemished skin ranging in colours from light brown, to copper, to dense and rich black, which is ever more striking next to their rich, bright coloured clothing. They each carry to work a plastic container of ground water dispensed from a hand pump at a well to keep themselves hydrated through the day. After a demanding day of work picking tea leaves the women gather bundles of fire wood to be used for cooking back at the family dwelling.

Our guide speaks to us of a climate which has very obviously changed. There were, up until recently (five years or so ago) six distinct seasons. This is no longer the case; only three seasons now prevail; the dry session, the wet season, and the winter months, there now prevails an abrupt change between each within this new norm. During the rainy season rain often arrives in more prolonged, heavier deluges, with less frequency. Winters are arriving earlier. The  past two winters challenged long standing records falling to 3ºC, a temperature which was almost unheard of in these parts. Through the year Srimongol’s temperatures do tend to fluctuate a great deal, however that fluctuation is becoming far more abrupt and more pronounced, in a word ‘unpredictable’. Climate change is playing out for the people of this area; I do wonder to what effect this will have in the years and the decades to come.

Bangladesh

I've been busy planning what is the next segment of my project. I've decided to go to Bangladesh. It's a developing country with a lot to lose when it comes to climate change. My assignment wish list reads like a tragic account of climate change impacts: flooding and sea level rise, ground water salinity, industrial pollution, biodiversity loss, failing infrastructure, food security, population density, poverty, disaster response, health, globalisation.

It's an important side of the story to tell. And I look forward to taking you along for the ride!

Day 1-2: Dhaka

Wandered through the Karwan bazar fish market early this morning. A thriving mass of people bartering and moving all manner of (mostly) river fish from all varieties of vehicles constantly coming and going on the broken and busy adjoining road. Rickshaw pullers nudging their way through this chaotic scene of covered stalls, bamboo framing supporting wooden benches. Above this organized chaos sleeping platforms covered by tin roofs suggest quiet and intimate family moments outside of trading hours. Men and boys balancing fish laden baskets and tubs upon their heads. Ice wallah's carving chunks of ice off of large blocks. Tiny children squatting on the filthy ground gathering small morsels of tiny fish; whitebait and sprats having fallen from the benches, happy to bring back a small handful of protein to the family dwelling back at the slum across the railway tracks a short distance away.

Gathered alongside the railway tracks women squatting around wood fueled fires eking out a living selling rice cakes, egg and pastry dishes. Occasionally the threat of a moving train and carriages dispersing huddled groups around them, once the train had moved off into the distance clusters of people casually reunited, seemingly without a second thought to the big lumbering beast of moments past which could very well have taken them all out.

Inviting ourselves into the slum we found a group of women and children gathered around a freshwater tap filling vessels and washing clothing. While trying to get an angle on a photograph I inadvertently stepped, sinking thigh deep into an open sewer. Oh crap. I heard myself yelp like a kicked dog. I grabbed hold of a bamboo strut which fortuitously was overhead within reach. The experience was only momentary and I managed to keep my cameras and upper half clean and dry and my trousers on. The kindly women at the tap proceeded to wash away most of the filth, while bemused but well-meaning onlookers slowly grew in numbers.

After showering back at our lodging we headed out again for Hazaribagh, Dhaka's tannery area. Less notorious than the garment industry, but no less grim, workers and environment here are degraded to sustain a billion dollar industry. All the country's raw leather flows through this point. Nearly all of the country's 206 tanneries are concentrated in this one area. It's a filthy, squalid neighbourhood with open drains, toxic, grey and black and vivid colours of red and blue flowing out to the Buriganga then into the delta, then eventually out to sea. The air oozing a foul smell reminiscent of offal mixed with any number of chemicals; you could almost cut the air with a knife. Strong and agile men heaving carts heaped with hides, others carrying 40kg sacks of chemicals on their heads, boys as young as twelve hovering over large vats rancid, evil coloured and smell alike.

A tannery worker who befriended us was happy to present boys to the camera asking us if we were from UNESCO, as he openly talked to us about the utter lack of any sort of basic safety equipment. Many workers suffer skin allergies, painful chest infections and asthma. Life expectancy for some he said is a sobering 45-50 years of age.

Earlier that afternoon on the way to the tannery I photographed a flooded intersection. Bicycles, rickshaws, CNG's (tuk-tuks) buses, trucks, cars and pedestrians jockeying for position, negotiating their way through and around knee deep water in torrential rain.

I'm thinking this is great; it's my first day shooting here in Bangladesh. I'm here for all these reasons, and more. I've already been presented with so much of what makes this small overcrowded country one of the foremost candidates for an eventful and truly epic mother of a climate change story.

Memories Lost

As I gather my thoughts and sit down to write this blog entry, cyclone Oswald batters the east coast of Australia, thousands of homes are underwater as parts of Queensland cope with record flooding. Helicopter rescue crews are trying to reach hundreds of people trapped on their roofs by the rising floodwaters in Bundaberg. There are fears homes could be washed away by fast-moving waters after the Burnett River bursts its banks. Heavy rain is traveling south, and is expected to reach Sydney by midnight. It's been raining heavily here for the last 3 days. The surf is huge and the garden is getting some much needed rain.

It's been quite a year so far. These floods follow the heat wave which swept across the country smashing temperature records. A new record of 43.3ºC has been set for the highest national average temperature. On January 8th the Bureau of Meteorology added new colours, purple and pink, to its weather map to denote temperatures once considered off the scale: 50-52ªC and 52-54ºC. Hobart achieved its highest temperature since records began in 1882, reaching 41.8ºC. The term 'new normal' has become a conversation topic. This reminds me, somewhat alarmingly, of something I read in Clive Hamilton's book Requiem for a Species back in 2010, unsettling at the time, as the weather events have been this year. Climate change sceptics have been getting a run for their money.

Last week I travelled to Tasmania to photograph the aftermath of the fires which ripped through communities on the Tasman peninsular. Some mixed and strange emotions as I drove the Arthur highway a day after it was reopened to the public, meeting people amongst the ruins of their homes. In Dunalley, 65 properties were destroyed: 30% of its buildings including the school and the police station. One aspect of these firestorms I find most intriguing is their indiscriminate nature. I'd find it more understandable if a fire was to rip through a settlement taking everything with it; petrol stations, houses, power poles, vehicles, fences, trees. Instead, a house will be almost instantly incinerated while the neighbour’s house, only metres away, will be left untouched. Pure chance; it's a cruel blow to lose your home and with it all your worldly possessions while your neighbours are left wondering what spared them from this unfortunate fate.

Scott Griffith's family's home in Dunalley was not spared the fires. He and his wife and four children were poking through the wreckage attempting in vain to salvage anything from their former lives. All that remained amongst the concrete foundations and fireplace were warped corrugated iron roofing, a stainless steel kitchen sink, a semblance of a hot water cylinder, a bicycle frame, a barbecue, steel bed frames and wire mattress springs from what was once the girl’s bedroom. What did they think to save while the firestorm approached as they sped off out of town to escape being burnt alive? If anything? Their wedding album. For reasons unknown they had taken it out of storage for the first time in quite some time, it was there sitting on the lounge room coffee table up for grabs as they ran for their lives. Neighbours across the (once was) fence and a little closer to the inlet stayed behind for the duration of the fire to fight back flames and protect their much loved garden. The garden incinerated while the house remained untouched as they held wet towels to their faces. This simple measure saved their lungs from the heat of the fire and the smoke. For days after they were coughing, painfully. Less than one kilometre from where they were at the time, I came across the remains of three cars down at the wharf, their rims melted, rivulets of alloy which had run down the bank. Alloy wheels melt at 600ºC.

19 year old Dylan Martin took me out to his family farm showing me the remains of his house looking over the inlet. Again total destruction. His Mum & Dad's house within sight just around the bay was left untouched. He and his Dad spent the afternoon of the fires cutting back bush in a nearby gully. Grading land back to bare soil, wetting the earth, forming fire breaks. All this in the hope of protecting their apricot orchid and livelihood. The fires struck on Friday afternoon, they worked in to the night until early Saturday morning, some 15 hours all up. Hard work and determination saved the family home. Out of any one I met during my time on the peninsular, Dylan was the most concerned about climate change, it's not to say the others weren't, just that Dylan brought the topic to our conversation. I wonder…is this because he's intelligent and well informed, or because he's young and idealistic?

In Sommer’s Bay, I met an elderly couple, Byron & Shirley Blackwell who were visibly grieving, and somewhat shell shocked when I pulled in to their driveway. They were sifting through the pile of ashes of what was once their holiday home. They had lost a few treasures of note; framed family photographs which adorned the living room walls, 4 small boats, outboard motors, a lawnmower... They had had many happy holidays with their three sons and more recently their grandchildren here over the years. Only weeks prior to their loss one of the grandsons had made his granddad promise to never, ever sell this house.

What we possess over time, especially our homes, becomes a tangible link to days past, memories. Our memories are profoundly what make us human. The sudden removal of these possessions must come as a huge shock, revealing to us suddenly and unequivocally that the past days are now over and all that remains is in our memory. Perhaps this is why the family photo album tops the list of what is most important to take with us.

A little way up the road was Michael Tichanow's house. Michael's a woodworker, he's also a builder. Over the past 12 years he'd been investing his spare time, love, attention and effort in his own home. Wooden floorboards throughout, wooden bi-folds, large wooden decks looking out to expansive views over the inlet. I can so relate to the care and detail he must have invested in this home of his. I've spent many long hours over the past years on my own property doing similar work. One gains a certain amount of pride and self-worth from this. It's not only the doing of the project which is enriching, it's also the enjoyment of living with it. This ultimately enriches one’s life. By the way he was describing his house it sounded quite unique. On the day of the fires Michael and his wife and most of his neighbours withdrew from their properties on a flotilla of watercraft. He described how he witnessed huge fire bombs hurtling through the air across the inlet from the hill side a kilometre or so away. Fire doesn't always travel along a given path; along the ground or through the forest canopy, in this instance it literally launched itself from the hilltop from afar, much like you would expect a massive cannon ball to, exploding houses in the community as it fell to the ground. Michael's house was one such place. I could well imagine how traumatising it must be to be left with a pile of ashes in place of what once represented something so meaningful.

See my full photo essay on The Climate Institute's website or published in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Anti Atlas Mountains

The recent heatwave, with temperature records broken across Australia, brought to mind a trip I made to Morocco.

I happened upon this particularly beautiful scene in the High Atlas mountains two days drive out of Marrakech during mid-summer. On the low flat deserts east of these mountains I recorded 56ºC on two consecutive days.

I spent a week driving an old rented Renault though the High Atlas and Anti Atlas mountains offering lifts to locals as I went, rarely did I have an empty car. The local bus service is unreliable at best; it sometimes two days late in these remote areas. Few people own a car. It was wonderful being able to be of service to the local villagers and it was not without its moments. Berber is the main language spoken here, some more educated locals speak Arabic and their third language is French, which I don't speak. English speakers are almost non-existent. On one occasion I gave a very old man and a young boy a lift, possibly great grandfather and great grandson. They shared the front seat; it got a little awkward for a time as we drove some distance through several villages. The old man was blind, and I figured the boy was too young to understand where we were and where it was they needed to be. Finally I found two women and a gathering of young children waiting at a bus stop obviously in need of a lift. They clambered in to the back seat, the car groaned over a few small mountain passes. Chatting with the old man the women determined his stop and we let him off at one of the next villages. This came as a relief.

Well after the sun had gone down I'd booked in to a cheap hotel. On several occasions the night temperatures would hold out at around 42ªC. The mattress would retain the heat of the day like an oven tray, making it almost impossible to sleep until around 5 in the morning when it was time to get up and get going again to catch the best light of the day. I'd soak a sheet and lay it over myself which afforded some relief. An hour or so later it would be completely dry and once more I'd have to repeat the process.

In this heat it's imperative to drink at least 5 litres of water a day especially when you are moving around like I was.

Many of these ancient villages are being disbanded due to lack of rainfall in recent years. Aquifers are drying; food is becoming increasingly difficult to grow. The cities are swelling while these rural villages become empty. Studies show Morocco will be among the countries most threatened by climate change: rainfall is predicted to drop 4% in the next 20 years, temperatures will continue to rise. The last few decades have seen larger areas of the world enduring longer, and drier droughts. Climate change is altering the water cycle; hotter, drier soils lose their moister faster, intensifying drought conditions.

It's very concerning to read the statistics regarding fresh water throughout the world. With aquifers drying and glaciers melting, vast populations are going to be without this most vital of human needs. I'm terrified by the prospect of monsoons failing and seasonal glacial melt no longer being a reliable source of water for much of the world’s population. India and China are of particular concern, more than a quarter of the world’s population reside here and many of them rely on glacial melt from the Himalaya for their water.

A cruise down the Yangtze 

Day 39

One of the more intriguing aspects of independent travel is that one never quite knows what's around the corner...

Upon arrival at Chongqing railway station we were presented with a glossy brochure at a travel bureau portraying some of the more charming aspects of a 3 day, Three Gorges Yangtze river cruise. The featured ship was of a reasonable size, rather quant in a Chinese sort of way, seemingly well maintained with clean and comfortable cabins. We booked the cruise sight unseen, perhaps a little naive on our part. Our expectations were immediately quashed upon boarding following a two hour bus ride and a long wait in Changshou, a city downriver from Chonqing. It's good to have a sense of humour at times, and this occasion called for just that.

The Chinese are at their best when holidaying, our spirits were lifted somewhat by a group of passengers on the upper deck performing a Tai Chi inspired dance routine, generally frolicking about and enjoying themselves, albeit in a weird sort of way. The music they were getting animated to would have been perfectly suited to a day spent scrapping barnacles off the hull of a boat, a task I recall performing in my younger years which left me feeling rather agitated. We made our way through to the spacious foyer. While checking in I noted the absence of any sort of charm in this rather large featureless common room; charm is often left off the list of architectural priorities in China so at the time I don't recall this being too much of a concern, everything is relative, as they say. The tiled floor featured an outstandingly high degree of polish which suggested cleanliness, proud and fastidiousness crew members. However the surrounding walls would have benefited from the attention of a high pressure hose, disinfectant and a scrubbing brush. In the corner stood a stack of flimsy plastic stools, no doubt in answer to the more comfortable deck chairs one might expect to find on other luxury cruise ships. In the other corner there was what appeared to be a reading room, at least that’s what the sign said in Pinyin, this was partitioned at waist height by a flimsy hardwood frame and transparent Perspex, furnished by a few worn mattresses and adorned by crates of empty beer bottles. Perhaps understandably there was no spa, no sauna, nightclub, casino, or glass elevator one might expect. There was however a carpeted companionway leading up to the mid deck level and beyond, rather oily and blackened under foot from much use over the years. There was also a smokey and rather rank games room on the upper deck, aft of the smokestack and a dining room, purely practical, not necessarily a space to linger. The bulwark on the starboard side leading to our cabin was rather rusty, keeping in with the general finish of the rest of the vessel, not a particularly good sign I might add. But (one should never start a sentence with the word). BUT it wasn't until we entered our 5 berth cabin when reality hit. This rank smokey little bunk room smelt like a toilet, not altogether surprising as it reassembled one also. The aforementioned glossy travel brochure made no mention of this. Call me pedantic and perhaps a little ungrateful but the smell of toilet permeating through one's cabin doesn't quite reach my expectation of the luxury cruise. This unwelcome fragrance was largely due to the rank little toilet cubicle attached to our cabin, we decided on keeping the door firmly closed leaving this evil little room to fester of it's own accord while we unpacked our bags, settled in and became acquainted with our cabin mates; a couple of good natured middle aged Chinese men who sat on their bunks smoking and offering us shots of rice wine. What better way I might add of lifting ones sprits and disinfecting one system. Shortly after boarding the engines roared to life, deck hands cast off the rusty mooring lines, we settled in to our hard bunks with equally hard pillows and attempted to sleep, ear plugs fitted, tiger balm carefully applied to the nostrils. Within minutes our companions were sleeping soundly, snoring loudly, in unison. I'd always dreamed of taking my wife on a luxury cruise in some foreign land. Dreams often come true, eventually, provided one applies the power of positive thought.

Day 40

We woke early the following morning to rather loud, but soothing Chinese music broadcast through the intercom system, a female voice singing perhaps a few octaves higher than one might consider normal, no doubt poetically expanding on the wonderment of the gorges we were sailing through. Lofty slopes, sparse vegetation, not a bird in sight, a waterline and hill sides which didn't quite look natural to the eye, never the less impressively steep. After a few stops, disembarking for a walk, photographs taken, harangued by trinket salesmen and women, some bad food, strange little towns and a side trip up a narrow gorge on a smaller vessel we found ourselves settling in. Well, not really settling in but at least having fun. By mid-afternoon I decided to deal with the problem at hand, confronted the one crew member who appeared to be the most astute, standing my ground I got an upgrade to another cabin, mid deck, port side. Slightly cleaner, the smell of which was still not quite right but as close to neutrality as one could have hoped for.

Putting Things Into Perspective

Day 30

Mao Tse Tung's complexion is no better regardless of which profile, this time electing to shuffle past his other side, he still didn't look quite right. The party congress is now over so it was possible to get entry to the Museum of China, one of the truly massive buildings overlooking Tiananmen Square. Some awesome contemporary Chinese sculptures as I took note to 'dedicate some time to studying the work of the contemporary Chinese sculptors'. Personally I think they excel at this. A rather large exhibition of photographer Brian Brake's work from his visit to China in the late 1950's and home in New Zealand during the early 1960's. Interesting to note the incredible access he had in China during this defining era.

I took some notes from a rather descriptive restaurant menu. Chinese to Pinyin translations; Particularly taken with the 'Self-restraint Sichuan sausage', but settled for the 'Dish incense roast duck' instead. Here are just a few more examples to whet your appetite: Irritable duck gizzard, The place explodes to understand shrimp ball, The elbow spends local flavour sauce, Small donkey of local flavour, Let clothes plain boiled pork cool, Pork lungs in chilli sauce, Beautiful extreme duck tongue, Humble cottage sauteed bullfrog in chilli sauce, The winter mushroom fertilises the cattle boiler, All rough blood of fog is flourishing, Beijing river stir-fry for a short time, Fragile bone of olive dish kidney bean pig.

Day 36

After a few days in Beijing Sonja & I booked soft sleepers for the 26 hour train ride to Guilin. We joined Greg in Yangshou. My intention was to take a series of portraits of villagers, families, growers out in the fields working. However I remained completely uninspired due to the quality of light, or lack of it. It remained overcast and very grey for the duration of our 3 day stay, so I skipped that one. We settled for coffee, english breakfasts and lots of walking and cycling small roads and tracks through the karst landscape instead and just had a marvellous time of it, it felt like a long weekend.

Day 37-39

The chemical reaction that creates cement releases large amounts of CO2 accounting for 5 percent of global emissions and heating materials to create that reaction takes a lot of energy, much of which is generated by coal. Cement has no viable recycling potential; each new road, each new building needs new cement. Demand for roads, dams and buildings throughout China is intense, cement factories are just everywhere. In the smallest of villages locals are building bigger houses, everywhere. Unimaginative concrete and brick three storey structures. Concrete roads raised above the surrounding fields are being laid throughout the countryside. Local townsfolk, men & women - some of them well into their 70's - gang together in work crews mixing up concrete in oversized concrete mixers powered by noisy diesel generators. Towns and cities nationwide are building out and building up. New concrete high-rise apartments and commercial buildings abound, massive cranes are on the horizon of just about every city. Bridges, roads, raised motorways and massive raised concrete pillars accommodating the nationwide implementation of a fast train network can be seen for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres. It is unbelievable the amount of new concrete, everywhere. Undoubtedly the construction project that takes the cake is the Three Gorges Dam. We decided we were willing to have another crack at going there to view it.

Chongqing has the distinction of being THE mega-city that's never talked about, a quick search on Flickr or Google pictures will display aerial photographs of this city appearing as a contender to Manhattan. Like everything else in China, Chongqing is bazaar in its contrasts, it is both utterly grey, decaying and filthy and ultramodern and sleek in almost equal measure. One would be wise to avoid eating any street food here as it would abound with heavy metals, so too the water, however you could eat off the polished floors in the ultra-modern upmarket shopping malls. The city has a metro system better than most other major cities around the world. The guide books suggest Chongqing is perpetually foggy and it certainly was the day we were there. Grey and dismal.

I'm starting to get a better understanding why the Chinese are tripping over themselves in their quest for monetary wealth. On the face of it (removed from the wealthy and sophisticated coastal regions at any rate) life can be so dispiriting and grimy, surroundings are largely just plain butt ugly. However, inside these large new gleaming shopping malls there is a glittering display of modernity and opulence. Polished marble, floor to ceiling glass, vivid colour, all sophisticatedly packaged to represent desire for a better life. In the west I find these shopping malls and the consumerism they garner slightly abhorrent, all together unnecessary and unnatural and I'd even go so far to term them physiologically unhealthy. However everything is relative. Luckily I live in a desirable house, in a desirable part of town in a desirable country, surrounded by an abundance of nature. I often take long bike rides in the nearby national park, almost daily I'm in or at least near the ocean. Whereas here in most cases people don't have access to nature, it's been paved over, there is virtually no birdlife, the night sky is non-existent, fresh air is something of the past. Even the old charm we in the west think of as being 'quintessentially' Chinese has been pulled down and laid waste by either Mao and his thugs or by the old men who occupy the large buildings of Tianamen square in Beijing. Understandably the Chinese of today want the new and all it represents and they are going to extraordinary measures to get it, as rapidly as possible. In many regions the 'environment' has already been destroyed. Therefore this rampant growth knows no bounds as the 'environment' is no longer a limiting factor in the push toward this new world of theirs.

Full Circle

Day 26/27

Spent two charming days in Shanghai with our ex-pat Kiwi friends Kirsty & Paul. Went to a jazz club on our first evening until the late hours, drank too much and had one hell of a great evening. Spent the mornings wondering around the French concession eating street food, good strong coffee and pastries. So very relieved to have handed over my shot film for safe keeping. For the first time I was able to log in and open my blog page, well at least the home page at any rate. Relieved and pleased to see Garrett's doing a great job of uploading it.

Day 27/28

Sonja and I drove the 1,200 or so kilometres north to Beijing to deliver the car back to it's rightful owners whilst Greg booked a sleeper berth on a train heading back to Xian to meet a cute young thing he met on the flight over to Guangshou.

We made good time until the afternoon of the 2nd day. Three lanes turned to two, then it became a case of weaving through lanes of fast moving trucks who were in turn weaving through lanes of fast moving trucks. Young drivers of these huge rigs have little sense of lane placement, pulling out unexpectedly doing in excess of 110 kph. Came to another standstill by 2 in the afternoon. Another opportunity to read and curl up in the back seat and sleep. By 4 in the afternoon we were moving again. By 5 heavy fog had rolled in. Then it was a 20kph crawl with virtually no visibility other than the vehicles taillights ahead which made it even more tenuous as some heavy trucks just don't have taillights. Finally by midnight we pulled off the road and found a hotel to bed down for the night.

Post note: This same day, due to heavy fog in Anshun, Guizhou province, a total of 36 vehicles were involved in a series of pileups on a 1 kilometre stretch of expressway leaving nine people dead.

In 2011, 62,387 people were killed in more than 210,000 road accidents in China, according to traffic authorities. Clearly the road system in China is not working as it should.

Day 29 

Arriving at the toll gates at 10am we waited a while for the fog to clear and gates to open, finally gave up. Chatted to a couple of Chinese business men, oil barrens. Friendly, good humoured, wealthy deal striking Christians anxiously trying to get back to the Beijing airport for their departing flight back home to Houston, Texas. Sonja and I tried entering a few other toll gates but gave up trying, all were closed. Instead I got busy photographing hot house growers in the atmospheric fog, many of them gave us gifts of vegetables accompanied with a smile. We then rocked up to a toll gate waiting amongst the other motorists for a further four and a half hours before we were finally let back on to the motorway, and back to Beijing to my favourite little hostel within cooee of Chairman Mao and Tianamen Square.

Full circle.

So good to have the rental car attendant pull out of the parking lot and drive the car away…
Consequently those last 124 kilometres in to Beijing took a total of 31 hours to drive.

Traffic, Traffic, traffic

Day 20

World Bank has reported that 16 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are Chinese. Datong, NW of Xining (another confusing double up of Chinese place names) must surely be one of these cities. Trapped in a valley, air thick with pollutants, we drove the back streets capturing some revealing portraits: people within and outside of their family homes, heavy industry looming in the background. Thought it best to leave before overstaying our welcome, again, unbelievable access to so much good material. I've shot more film on this trip than I have in this past year and way more than any other road trip previous. Material just keeps presenting itself to me, very inspired to be shooting so much good and meaningful subject matter.

Just west of Lanzhou on the six lane motorway we encountered ten kilometres of standing traffic, hundreds upon hundreds of truck drivers sitting in their cabs waiting, waiting, waiting for hours on end. Frustrated motorists weaved their way through the trucks, impossibly trying to inch toward the toll gates which once again didn't appear to be working as they should. I feel so sorry for these truck drivers, they seem to spend the best part of their days and nights in traffic jams for no apparent reason, many of them are husband and wife teams.

Toll gate inspectors tried to move us on after we had just bedded down on a defunct roadway sometime after midnight, cold and tired we weren't going to budge. They were only doing their job, making sure these weird foreigners remained out of harm’s way. We were gone an hour before first light...

Day 21/22/23

Stayed for two nights in Xian close to the Muslim quarter within the old city walls. Collected Sonja from the airport. She arrives with a big smile and another 50 rolls of film, perfect timing. The film will all be shot in the coming weeks. Hopefully her smile won't fade with the frustrations experienced being on the road in China...

A multitude of Chinese tourists in the crowded streets, hundreds of stall owners cooking Muslim food: mutton kebabs, oven-cooked flat bread. Feel like we are back in the real world again. A few westerners around, not many; first we have seen since leaving Beijing. Saw the warriors and too much old excavated stuff for my liking. Cycled atop the city walls to the accompanying saccharin sounds of Michael Bublé and Kenny G over the open air speaker system. Had good coffee (Chinese just don't do coffee) and had a very inspiring chat with Jeremy Marte -   tour-du-monde-autostp.fr -   this young man (bother crazy Frenchman) is on his fifth year hitchhiking around the world. That's real travelling; he has only once boarded an aircraft (from Darwin to Indonesia). All other travel has been onboard ships, yachts, cars trucks...

After taking a cable car we then walked to the western summit of Hua Shan, one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China. Scenery reminiscent of Al-Capitan or Half Dome, Yosemite; awesome granite slopes, groves of hardy pine and cypress. Got to the top just before dusk and proceeded to climb down the icy steps under lamp light in complete silence other than the not yet frozen trickles of water. No crowds, no Chinese tourists. Got back to the car by 10 pm, shaking legs, relieved and even more so that there was a bus to take us the final 15km of road back to the car. Lots of quant Pinyin signs along the way:
'passenger no entry', 'no tossing', 'no burning', 'no striding', 'tourism enquiry place complaint', no watching when walking no watching no walking' , 'Please attention of the heavy weather and non-lip',

Day 24

Spent half the night driving through a truck-infested river valley on a two lane road, dusty and dangerous as all hell. Overhead a canter-levered concrete motorway not yet opened, 100 km or so. Passing what appeared to be cement or lime works. This country is using an unbelievable amount of concrete. Finally found a side road and a place to pull over, 3am laid out the swags & slept. Cold….

Day 25

On the outskirts of a small town we find a mountain of discarded plastic. Men & women using bail presses to press the plastic into tight, manageable bundles.

Encountered eight busloads of Chinese at the convenience stop eating large tubs of instant noodles happily chatting away, smoking cigarettes, shuffling around trying to keep warm. A man in a thick, quilted, pyjama suit looking like he'd stepped out of a 70's advert for home fashion wear. Things are getting more 'ordinary' as we travel east toward the coast, away from the obscure mountain desert regions of where we had been.

After a day and a night and part of the following day attempting to reach the Threes Gorges Dam we gave up trying.

I'm fed up with toll booth attendants vacuuming the cash out of my wallet. I'm fed up with not being able to read any of our road maps; towns, cities and landmarks often have 2 or 3 different names, none of them corresponding with those on our GPS which is frustratingly programmed to within only a 200km radius. Secondary roads go nowhere turning hours of travel into days and are just downright dangerous given the amount of heavy trucks hurtling along them, lights on full beam, many of them coming at you on the wrong side of the road, ditches drop off suddenly so danger lays on both sides. This little game of navigational chance is made just a little more intriguing given pinyin road signs have no semblance to either road map nor GPS. Is there an english expression for this form of frustration? Expletives at this point would be appropriate, think of the downright dirtiest words that come into your head. Yes, they will do...

We are 900 km from Shanghai and have decided to drive straight through regardless of what we miss along the way.

Tolls, more standing traffic, more trucks, a few hundred kilometres travelled here or there. Hot water dispensers along the way are a saving grace. More large utilitarian buildings acting as conveniences. Canteen food which doesn’t look appropriate for consumption, overly packaged and processed; one wouldn't contemplate consuming unless you had an innate desire to be embalmed from the inside. Starting to miss real food, the good stuff which comes from the garden. Food which has not been pulverised into some other innate lifeless form or has been overly cooked, salted or is not swimming in oil. The fruit is good though and now we are getting in to the more futile area it is becoming more plentiful.

The world is now noticeably becoming more westernised, people are better (?) dressed. More billboards advertising crap no one needs, less weirdness as we approach Shanghai, there seems to be something missing in this equation thought, less intrigue, not as foreign as the last weeks.

From Baotou To Gansu

Day 11

Attempting to drive out of Baotou in an insanely complex traffic jam: cars, trucks and three-wheeled diesel carts at all angles jockeying for position. Our GPS has just crapped itself; refusing to reboot. Yesterday we drove to Datong looking for material to shoot but had less than favourable stark light and found nothing of particular interest. Left town with a colourful new thermos and hot water; drove into the night, parked up west of Hohhot (Inner Mongolia) waking up to a clear sky and frost covered swags. The motorway along this route is on the verge of being opened. It is possible to travel fifty-plus kilometres along a newly tarmacked outside lane, sporting one long continuous barrier. No option to pull over other than at conveniences along the way: hot water dispensers, canteen food, petrol, toilets, dusty and utilitarian. The architects who masterminded these buildings must have had dreams just a little too large in scale for their limited imaginations, resulting in the clumsiest, ugliest and oddest of buildings. Staff looking upon us as though we have just landed from Mars; not particularly curious just pleasant and friendly to a fault. The terrain is very arid and uninteresting apart from a chain of mountains to the north of the road, low-lying light brown scrub, and light-brown mountains—light-brown everything. The summer months have definitely passed. Vast stretches of road interspersed with the occasional industrial town, road builders’ barracks and some kick-arse coal-fired powered stations. The air is acrid and filthy at times and yet a stark, cloudless blue sky lies between these groupings of industrial monoliths. Cash-only for petrol and road tolls. My wallet was getting rather empty, which was a little disconcerting. We have driven through a few police blocks, all nerves; waiting from a distance until the police are busy with a bus-load of passengers then casually drive through looking pleased with ourselves.

The outskirts of Baotou were dusty and rank, as insidious as any minus five-star town one might have the pleasure of visiting. Piles of coal were being shovelled off trucks on to the side of the road to be distributed amongst households as workshops prepared for the approaching winter months. The commercial centre of town was a world part: an endless row of stylish shops, underground malls and throngs of fashion-conscious middle-class people. A pretty young woman engaged us in conversation and took us for coffee at a stuffy, ornate establishment to practice her English. Oh, how life can be so sweet at times.

While waiting at the toll gates, upon entering the town of Wulashan, a five-tonne truck fitted with a tow bar reversed into us. It crumpled our bonnet, leaving us with a hefty bit of repair work and few anxious moments while police ushered us through. Pulling over at the other side of the gates we got out of the car at the very moment our pre-arranged contact, Mr Hua, strolled over the tarmac to greet us. An exchange of words with the truck driver—Mr Hua as our interpreter—and a police officer who had taken possession of the truck drivers' licence. He offered to negotiate a cash fee for on-the-spot repair work; something he could little afford, no doubt. Decided both he and I were, potentially, in as a bad a situation as one another, which I resolved with a hand shake, a pat on the back, a smile, and a farewell. It was worth it just to see the relief on the man's face. Perhaps some karma earned but an uneasy feeling when calculating the cost of the repair. Mr Hua escorted us to our hotel and then on to the workshop where it was determined by the repair foreman to be a day’s worth of work. And here’s the best part: 350 yuan (A$54) all up. (I was expecting $900 or more.). While all of this was taking place, our GPS came to life again!

This evening we ate in a plush private dinning room in our hotel in the company of Mr. Hua, his policeman friend Mr. Tuan, and Mr. Lee, the hotel manager. The restaurant manager and a cohort of others joined us for toasts of wheat wine and the taking of photographs. Our hosts extravagantly ordered way too much food and proceeded to treat us as though we were somewhere between high-ranking officials and long lost friends. Westerners visit their town only once every year or two; for them it was a special occasion. Accepted the evening and hospitality with good humour—our stomachs on the verge of exploding before retiring for the night.

Our hotel room dresser was well stocked with: a variety of packaged foods and beverages, an ‘anti-germs’ towel; a shaver with instructions to 'please wet the bear with warm water or warm towel before shaving'; a pack of ‘No. 990’ playing cards; a variety of condoms sporting labels such as ‘Man God Dew’, ‘PsaxDoll Sex and Shake’. Men’s socks and Women’s Panties conveniently packaged as one 'comfortable consideration new vogue and character'.

Day 12

Loaded film and brushed the coal dust from my camera equipment. On the way out of town in Mr Hua's minibus (Mr Tuan driving), we were stopped at a road block while police checked and photographed our passports; phoning through to senior officials to ask whether to let us through or not. Apparently officials throughout the country are over-zealous in the lead-up to the change of guard in Beijing next month. We trekked across a few real-life sand dunes before driving to Mr. Hua's environmental commitment of the past five years: a 300 square-kilometre wetlands reserve. It was an effort on his part to make nearby communities, landowners and farmers aware of the fragile nature of this huge body of inland water, and to care for the preservation of it. Major problems are being experienced because of fertiliser run-off and encroaching desert. A thankless task, expert opinion suggests that this unique wetland environment will be overtaken by desert within the next thirty years.

Day 13

Good to be on the road again. Two hours south-west of Wulashan we pass a barren, redistributed landscape: small mountains levelled, replaced by roads and factories; coal slag piled high into small mountains—the legacy of unbridled industry resulting in untold atmospheric emissions and mountains of spent energy. For two hours, a stretch of heavy industry to our left and to our right. Diminishing visibility as we enter a soupy haze so thick it's difficult to see beyond 500 metres. It becomes less and less desirable to stop for photo opportunities, with less and less to see. Further on, the haze lifts and we pass farmers tilling fields and cutting back bracken on the roadside. The landscape is scrubby semi-desert. We pass remnants of ancient crumbling walls, the occasional yurt and see a total of three camels; a scant reminder of what once was. Relieved to enter Gansu province by early evening and a more interesting landscape as we climb to an altitude 1,650 metres. We sleep out underneath a blanket of northern stars on a dusty side road; warm and comfortable despite a cold clear night and the constant rumbling of trucks to one side and the occasional train to the other.

Day 14

This morning we are at last off the main highway, so we can stop at will. And whenever we do, we are invited in to locals’ houses for green tea and a hard-baked uninteresting corn bread. Their houses are simple brick-and-tile buildings, generally facing an inner courtyard; neatly kept, and adorned with Han oddities. Piles of corncobs arranged in courtyards; a pile of coal around the back. Each house has a coal-fired cooking stove and a coal-fired pot-bellied stove in the living room. Without coal these people would be facing unbearably cold winters. Coal is fundamental to their lives. Bricks are kilned, houses heated, electricity generated all by the convenience of coal. A very simple primitive existence; one that resolves around the seasons and the necessity of the autumn harvest of corn and wheat. One family invites us into their home to watch a long-winded DVD of their father’s recent funeral. After forty-five minutes we leave politely, but not before the obligatory succession of photographs.

Spent a very rare and beautiful afternoon in a primary school attempting to provide English lessons while trying to keep warm in the bitterly cold classrooms. Outside a dust storm whistled through the courtyards,  transforming itself in to a snowstorm as the afternoon wore on. Only one classroom of the ten or so had their coal stove fired up, radiating a luxuriant heat. All of the rest of the little children had to suffer the near-freezing conditions—although they didn't seem particularly perturbed. Hardy and attentive, these kids. Teachers alternated between rooms; handling two if not three classrooms per session. Pulled some of the younger children out of class, one or two or three at a time. Photographed them in the tiled and cracked earth courtyards in the wonderfully atmospheric fading light. Swirling autumnal leaves and dust transcending into wispy sleet and a powdery droplets of snow settling on their little faces, their patchwork clothing, the ground, and the surrounding packed-earth walls. Incredible and rare. So mystically Chinese in nature, like something out of an epic piece of Chinese cinema. Such an utter privilege.

Booked into a hotel in the next small town along the way and, by 8pm, five police officers invited themselves into our room to do a routine check of passports and have us fill out forms. An anxious forty-five minutes while two of them went off to take photocopies of our passports. Oddly, the most obvious questions were never asked of us:,just how did we get here all the way from Beijing? And how did we intend to get back?

Day 15

Couldn't wait to leave that small town, but not until a hot shower, de-icing of the car, and a hot bowl of spicy noodle soup. Mostly rudimentary garrison towns along the way. The majority of the people are still Han but there or one or two who are Central Asian in appearance—to our benefit; not feeling so conspicuous anymore. Some of the Central Asians west of here could pass as Europeans: they have similar features and are of a similar build. Frustrating, though, as locals are more likely to expect us to speak Mandarin or a local dialect, and perplexed when we don't. It's nice to leave the coal belt and heavy industry behind. The air is cleaner and we are now seeing wind turbine blades transported on trucks, and the occasional wind and solar farm—a promise of what Gansu has to offer. The Chinese now lead the world in renewable energy. I'm excited at the prospect of witnessing and recording some of this first hand.

Feeling like we are leaving Eastern China behind us now; the buildings are becoming more Tibetan in appearance. The landscape is opening up as the mountains become more distant, larger, snow-capped. Altogether a larger, more dynamic and more romantic landscape. We are around 2,300 metres at times. Billboards along the highway warn us to take heed, 'Don't drive when tire' and 'overspeeding prohibition'. Large chunks of ice on the road, which have fallen off trucks, and black ice that has resulted in a few overturned cars.  Overloaded trucks breaking down, resulting in standing traffic many kilometres long. But mostly the roads are exceptional and traffic flows freely. Very relieved to have made it to Zhangye on our ‘Beijing only’ drivers’ licenses. Booked into a hotel in the centre of town; room smells of cigarette smoke. In China, one has a choice to smoke or not. Passive smoking is a different matter altogether. It's impossible to get away from the smell of it. Like coal smoke, it permeates everything.

The Men

Fat bellied men sporting chunky wrist watches and cheque books are just starting to arrive in Srimongol from the city in their four wheel drives with ambitious plans to secure the tourist dollar and get in while the pickings are good. A large conglomerate fenced-in hotel complex and golf course has recently been built just up the road from our thatch roofed bamboo ‘eco lodge’. It will soon open for business. Buses will start rolling in and with them perhaps a deluge of tourists, both local and foreign. What is pure, natural, beautiful and time honoured about this area and it’s people will likely suffer the consequence of heavy handed tourism as is often the case in the developing world. Tourism, perhaps not as damaging to the environment as other more insidious industries, (Chevron have fenced-in guarded gas wells throughout this region)  it does nevertheless lead to development, the implementation of larger roads, bringing with them more traffic which invariably adds more population. This left unchecked will undermine the very thing which makes this area unique and worth visiting in the first place. What is left of the natural world requires protection. We need to now be more thoughtful and tread more lightly on this world of ours.

Tea Pickers of Srigongol

The surrounding area of the small town of Srimongol is known primarily for it’s tea estates which form a rich carpet of green across it’s rolling hills. These estates are interspersed by some remaining tracts of lush primary tropical rain forest. An array of produce; bananas, papaya, guava, pineapple, lemon, lychee, jackfruit, mango, pomelo, orange, fig, rubber and rice is also grown here.

It’s now the tail end of the monsoon season and nature is at its most extravagant. The sky is a play of weather cells; cumulonimbus rising cathedral like, bringing forth the occasional outburst of heavy rain, thunder and at times incredible plays of light. The landscape is a celebration of green, bursting with new life. Tropical regions are at their best during this time, one can almost feel the cells of the body drinking in the abundance of nature, purifying water, oxygen, new life. It can be life giving, intoxicating, a reminder to oneself we are of nature. Some of the scenes alongside the small windy roads, in the thatched-roof villages and in the fields are so beautiful they take your breath away. It would be hard to find a greater contrast anywhere from what is the squalor and congestion of Dhaka less than 200 km away to the west.

The tea bush is heavily dependent on rain for new growth and it’s only these new growth leaves which are harvested, then dried, ground and bagged for export around the world. Monsoon season is the picking season; June, July, August and slightly either side of these months. Here the tea bushes are shaded by koroi trees which give the landscape further dimension and provide welcome shade for the tea pickers, most of whom are women, hindu, some from the surrounding tribal groups. Men make up most of the work force in the tea factories. The area has a feeling of being more in South East Asia than South Asia, it is close to the eastern boarder with India.

Picking is demanding work. During an 8 hour work day the women are expected to pick a minimum of 23kg of tea leaves, though they average between 35 and 40kg. The more the women pick, the more weighted down they are; the tea slung over their heads falling to their backs in a cloth bundle. This bundle is tied tight and carried upon their heads back to the factory or to a collection point at lunch break and again at close of day. The bundles are then weighed. The women earn somewhere in the vicinity of a dollar for their day’s effort. I say this all too casually, when really the difference between 75c and $1.50 could be measured by the purchasing power of just a little more protein in their families diet, a little more fish or chicken, a few more eggs...

Depending on what value judgement we place upon this meager earning; it can be seen either as exploitative in the extreme or a healthy and gracious way of spending one’s working life; drinking in nature, communally, physically. It could be argued that spending one’s most productive years chained to a desk in a glass tower pumping hot air into the corporate bubble is just as exploitative of the worker. Is it more regal to use one’s mind or one’s body in the engagement of work? Surely the only thing of importance is to what end we use our minds or our body for, to who’s profit and to what benefit...

Here the body is being used for what it was designed for, the lungs are breathing in fresh oxygenated air, the workers are soaking in nature day in and day out and as a result these people remain fit and agile into old age. Some of the women are extraordinarily beautiful, strong, fit, earthy and radiating health. Without exception they have perfect unblemished skin ranging in colours from light brown, to copper, to dense and rich black, which is ever more striking next to their rich, bright coloured clothing. They each carry to work a plastic container of ground water dispensed from a hand pump at a well to keep themselves hydrated through the day. After a demanding day of work picking tea leaves the women gather bundles of fire wood to be used for cooking back at the family dwelling.

Our guide speaks to us of a climate which has very obviously changed. There were, up until recently (five years or so ago) six distinct seasons. This is no longer the case; only three seasons now prevail; the dry session, the wet season, and the winter months, there now prevails an abrupt change between each within this new norm. During the rainy season rain often arrives in more prolonged, heavier deluges, with less frequency. Winters are arriving earlier. The  past two winters challenged long standing records falling to 3ºC, a temperature which was almost unheard of in these parts. Through the year Srimongol’s temperatures do tend to fluctuate a great deal, however that fluctuation is becoming far more abrupt and more pronounced, in a word ‘unpredictable’. Climate change is playing out for the people of this area; I do wonder to what effect this will have in the years and the decades to come.

Bangladesh

Its been a while since I last wrote. Been busy planning what is the next segment of my climate change photography project. I've decided to go to Bangladesh. It's a developing country with a lot to lose when it comes to climate change. My assignment wish list reads like a tragic account of climate change impacts: flooding and sea level rise, ground water salinity, industrial pollution, biodiversity loss, failing infrastructure, food security, population density, poverty, disaster response, health, globalisation.

It's an important side of the story to tell. And I look forward to taking you along for the ride!

Day 1-2: Dhaka

Wandered through the Karwan bazar fish market early this morning. A thriving mass of people bartering and moving all manner of (mostly) river fish from all varieties of vehicles constantly coming and going on the broken and busy adjoining road. Rickshaw pullers nudging their way through this chaotic scene of covered stalls, bamboo framing supporting wooden benches. Above this organized chaos sleeping platforms covered by tin roofs suggest quiet and intimate family moments outside of trading hours. Men and boys balancing fish laden baskets and tubs upon their heads. Ice wallah's carving chunks of ice off of large blocks. Tiny children squatting on the filthy ground gathering small morsels of tiny fish; whitebait and sprats having fallen from the benches, happy to bring back a small handful of protein to the family dwelling back at the slum across the railway tracks a short distance away.

Gathered alongside the railway tracks women squatting around wood fueled fires eking out a living selling rice cakes, egg and pastry dishes. Occasionally the threat of a moving train and carriages dispersing huddled groups around them, once the train had moved off into the distance clusters of people casually reunited, seemingly without a second thought to the big lumbering beast of moments past which could very well have taken them all out.

Inviting ourselves into the slum we found a group of women and children gathered around a freshwater tap filling vessels and washing clothing. While trying to get an angle on a photograph I inadvertently stepped, sinking thigh deep into an open sewer. Oh crap. I heard myself yelp like a kicked dog. I grabbed hold of a bamboo strut which fortuitously was overhead within reach. The experience was only momentary and I managed to keep my cameras and upper half clean and dry and my trousers on. The kindly women at the tap proceeded to wash away most of the filth, while bemused but well-meaning onlookers slowly grew in numbers.

After showering back at our lodging we headed out again for Hazaribagh, Dhaka's tannery area. Less notorious than the garment industry, but no less grim, workers and environment here are degraded to sustain a billion dollar industry. All the country's raw leather flows through this point. Nearly all of the country's 206 tanneries are concentrated in this one area. It's a filthy, squalid neighbourhood with open drains, toxic, grey and black and vivid colours of red and blue flowing out to the Buriganga then into the delta, then eventually out to sea. The air oozing a foul smell reminiscent of offal mixed with any number of chemicals; you could almost cut the air with a knife. Strong and agile men heaving carts heaped with hides, others carrying 40kg sacks of chemicals on their heads, boys as young as twelve hovering over large vats rancid, evil coloured and smell alike.

A tannery worker who befriended us was happy to present boys to the camera asking us if we were from UNESCO, as he openly talked to us about the utter lack of any sort of basic safety equipment. Many workers suffer skin allergies, painful chest infections and asthma. Life expectancy for some he said is a sobering 45-50 years of age.

Earlier that afternoon on the way to the tannery I photographed a flooded intersection. Bicycles, rickshaws, CNG's (tuk-tuks) buses, trucks, cars and pedestrians jockeying for position, negotiating their way through and around knee deep water in torrential rain.

I'm thinking this is great; it's my first day shooting here in Bangladesh. I'm here for all these reasons, and more. I've already been presented with so much of what makes this small overcrowded country one of the foremost candidates for an eventful and truly epic mother of a climate change story.

Lone Pine

The recent bout of US weather extremes and renewed energy around climate action following Obama's State of the Union Address reminded me of my experience in California a few years ago.

I was travelling north from Lone Pine in California's High Sierra. Due to scrub fires the road was closed, stretches of tarmac were ablaze. The following day I chanced upon two bus loads of inmates from an L.A. penitentiary, they had just returned from the surrounding mountains having fought fires through the night. I singled this man out, more out of gut feeling than anything else, a Navaho; I liked his look. Jokingly he suggested he make an escape while I photographed him doing so to the amusement of his fellow inmates and a handful of guards who cheered him on as he ran around in circles. Eventually he tired, stopping, this look of defeat and desperation came across his face. Perhaps he realised there was no escape after all.

Across the globe, fires have been getting larger and stronger. In the past 20 years the area scorched by fire in the western U.S. was six times greater than in the two decades that preceded it. These infernos are in large part a result of longer drier summers which are only poised to get worse with climate change.

I am all too aware that in order to expand and strengthen my project on climate change portraits will pay an increasing roll in shaping my message. Indigenous peoples of our world are amongst the most affected. Whenever I view this image it inspires me to seek and capture many more engaging and telling portraits. The look of defeat in this man’s face provides for me a clarity of mind, a reason to keep doing what I do; questioning humanities roll in this world and our connection or for that matter, disconnection to everything we hold dear.

 

Memories Lost

As I gather my thoughts and sit down to write this blog entry, cyclone Oswald batters the east coast of Australia, thousands of homes are underwater as parts of Queensland cope with record flooding. Helicopter rescue crews are trying to reach hundreds of people trapped on their roofs by the rising floodwaters in Bundaberg. There are fears homes could be washed away by fast-moving waters after the Burnett River bursts its banks. Heavy rain is traveling south, and is expected to reach Sydney by midnight. It's been raining heavily here for the last 3 days. The surf is huge and the garden is getting some much needed rain.

It's been quite a year so far. These floods follow the heat wave which swept across the country smashing temperature records. A new record of 43.3ºC has been set for the highest national average temperature. On January 8th the Bureau of Meteorology added new colours, purple and pink, to its weather map to denote temperatures once considered off the scale: 50-52ªC and 52-54ºC. Hobart achieved its highest temperature since records began in 1882, reaching 41.8ºC. The term 'new normal' has become a conversation topic. This reminds me, somewhat alarmingly, of something I read in Clive Hamilton's book Requiem for a Species back in 2010, unsettling at the time, as the weather events have been this year. Climate change sceptics have been getting a run for their money.

Last week I travelled to Tasmania to photograph the aftermath of the fires which ripped through communities on the Tasman peninsular. Some mixed and strange emotions as I drove the Arthur highway a day after it was reopened to the public, meeting people amongst the ruins of their homes. In Dunalley, 65 properties were destroyed: 30% of its buildings including the school and the police station. One aspect of these firestorms I find most intriguing is their indiscriminate nature. I'd find it more understandable if a fire was to rip through a settlement taking everything with it; petrol stations, houses, power poles, vehicles, fences, trees. Instead, a house will be almost instantly incinerated while the neighbour’s house, only metres away, will be left untouched. Pure chance; it's a cruel blow to lose your home and with it all your worldly possessions while your neighbours are left wondering what spared them from this unfortunate fate.

Scott Griffith's family's home in Dunalley was not spared the fires. He and his wife and four children were poking through the wreckage attempting in vain to salvage anything from their former lives. All that remained amongst the concrete foundations and fireplace were warped corrugated iron roofing, a stainless steel kitchen sink, a semblance of a hot water cylinder, a bicycle frame, a barbecue, steel bed frames and wire mattress springs from what was once the girl’s bedroom. What did they think to save while the firestorm approached as they sped off out of town to escape being burnt alive? If anything? Their wedding album. For reasons unknown they had taken it out of storage for the first time in quite some time, it was there sitting on the lounge room coffee table up for grabs as they ran for their lives. Neighbours across the (once was) fence and a little closer to the inlet stayed behind for the duration of the fire to fight back flames and protect their much loved garden. The garden incinerated while the house remained untouched as they held wet towels to their faces. This simple measure saved their lungs from the heat of the fire and the smoke. For days after they were coughing, painfully. Less than one kilometre from where they were at the time, I came across the remains of three cars down at the wharf, their rims melted, rivulets of alloy which had run down the bank. Alloy wheels melt at 600ºC.

19 year old Dylan Martin took me out to his family farm showing me the remains of his house looking over the inlet. Again total destruction. His Mum & Dad's house within sight just around the bay was left untouched. He and his Dad spent the afternoon of the fires cutting back bush in a nearby gully. Grading land back to bare soil, wetting the earth, forming fire breaks. All this in the hope of protecting their apricot orchid and livelihood. The fires struck on Friday afternoon, they worked in to the night until early Saturday morning, some 15 hours all up. Hard work and determination saved the family home. Out of any one I met during my time on the peninsular, Dylan was the most concerned about climate change, it's not to say the others weren't, just that Dylan brought the topic to our conversation. I wonder…is this because he's intelligent and well informed, or because he's young and idealistic?

In Sommer’s Bay, I met an elderly couple, Byron & Shirley Blackwell who were visibly grieving, and somewhat shell shocked when I pulled in to their driveway. They were sifting through the pile of ashes of what was once their holiday home. They had lost a few treasures of note; framed family photographs which adorned the living room walls, 4 small boats, outboard motors, a lawnmower... They had had many happy holidays with their three sons and more recently their grandchildren here over the years. Only weeks prior to their loss one of the grandsons had made his granddad promise to never, ever sell this house.

What we possess over time, especially our homes, becomes a tangible link to days past, memories. Our memories are profoundly what make us human. The sudden removal of these possessions must come as a huge shock, revealing to us suddenly and unequivocally that the past days are now over and all that remains is in our memory. Perhaps this is why the family photo album tops the list of what is most important to take with us.

A little way up the road was Michael Tichanow's house. Michael's a woodworker, he's also a builder. Over the past 12 years he'd been investing his spare time, love, attention and effort in his own home. Wooden floorboards throughout, wooden bi-folds, large wooden decks looking out to expansive views over the inlet. I can so relate to the care and detail he must have invested in this home of his. I've spent many long hours over the past years on my own property doing similar work. One gains a certain amount of pride and self-worth from this. It's not only the doing of the project which is enriching, it's also the enjoyment of living with it. This ultimately enriches one’s life. By the way he was describing his house it sounded quite unique. On the day of the fires Michael and his wife and most of his neighbours withdrew from their properties on a flotilla of watercraft. He described how he witnessed huge fire bombs hurtling through the air across the inlet from the hill side a kilometre or so away. Fire doesn't always travel along a given path; along the ground or through the forest canopy, in this instance it literally launched itself from the hilltop from afar, much like you would expect a massive cannon ball to, exploding houses in the community as it fell to the ground. Michael's house was one such place. I could well imagine how traumatising it must be to be left with a pile of ashes in place of what once represented something so meaningful.

Anti Atlas

The recent heatwave, with temperature records broken across Australia, brought to mind a trip I made to Morocco.

I happened upon this particularly beautiful scene in the High Atlas mountains two days drive out of Marrakech during mid-summer. On the low flat deserts east of these mountains I recorded 56ºC on two consecutive days.

I spent a week driving an old rented Renault though the High Atlas and Anti Atlas mountains offering lifts to locals as I went, rarely did I have an empty car. The local bus service is unreliable at best; it sometimes two days late in these remote areas. Few people own a car. It was wonderful being able to be of service to the local villagers and it was not without its moments. Berber is the main language spoken here, some more educated locals speak Arabic and their third language is French, which I don't speak. English speakers are almost non-existent. On one occasion I gave a very old man and a young boy a lift, possibly great grandfather and great grandson. They shared the front seat; it got a little awkward for a time as we drove some distance through several villages. The old man was blind, and I figured the boy was too young to understand where we were and where it was they needed to be. Finally I found two women and a gathering of young children waiting at a bus stop obviously in need of a lift. They clambered in to the back seat, the car groaned over a few small mountain passes. Chatting with the old man the women determined his stop and we let him off at one of the next villages. This came as a relief.

Well after the sun had gone down I'd booked in to a cheap hotel. On several occasions the night temperatures would hold out at around 42ªC. The mattress would retain the heat of the day like an oven tray, making it almost impossible to sleep until around 5 in the morning when it was time to get up and get going again to catch the best light of the day. I'd soak a sheet and lay it over myself which afforded some relief. An hour or so later it would be completely dry and once more I'd have to repeat the process.

In this heat it's imperative to drink at least 5 litres of water a day especially when you are moving around like I was.

Many of these ancient villages are being disbanded due to lack of rainfall in recent years. Aquifers are drying; food is becoming increasingly difficult to grow. The cities are swelling while these rural villages become empty. Studies show Morocco will be among the countries most threatened by climate change: rainfall is predicted to drop 4% in the next 20 years, temperatures will continue to rise. The last few decades have seen larger areas of the world enduring longer, and drier droughts. Climate change is altering the water cycle; hotter, drier soils lose their moister faster, intensifying drought conditions.

It's very concerning to read the statistics regarding fresh water throughout the world. With aquifers drying and glaciers melting, vast populations are going to be without this most vital of human needs. I'm terrified by the prospect of monsoons failing and seasonal glacial melt no longer being a reliable source of water for much of the world’s population. India and China are of particular concern, more than a quarter of the world’s population reside here and many of them rely on glacial melt from the Himalaya for their water.

Anti Atlas, Morocco

 

Putting Things Into Perspective

Day 30

Mao Tse Tung's complexion is no better regardless of which profile, this time electing to shuffle past his other side, he still didn't look quite right. The party congress is now over so it was possible to get entry to the Museum of China, one of the truly massive buildings overlooking Tiananmen Square. Some awesome contemporary Chinese sculptures as I took note to 'dedicate some time to studying the work of the contemporary Chinese sculptors'. Personally I think they excel at this. A rather large exhibition of photographer Brian Brake's work from his visit to China in the late 1950's and home in New Zealand during the early 1960's. Interesting to note the incredible access he had in China during this defining era.

I took some notes from a rather descriptive restaurant menu. Chinese to Pinyin translations; Particularly taken with the 'Self-restraint Sichuan sausage', but settled for the 'Dish incense roast duck' instead. Here are just a few more examples to whet your appetite: Irritable duck gizzard, The place explodes to understand shrimp ball, The elbow spends local flavour sauce, Small donkey of local flavour, Let clothes plain boiled pork cool, Pork lungs in chilli sauce, Beautiful extreme duck tongue, Humble cottage sauteed bullfrog in chilli sauce, The winter mushroom fertilises the cattle boiler, All rough blood of fog is flourishing, Beijing river stir-fry for a short time, Fragile bone of olive dish kidney bean pig.

Day 36

After a few days in Beijing Sonja & I booked soft sleepers for the 26 hour train ride to Guilin. We joined Greg in Yangshou. My intention was to take a series of portraits of villagers, families, growers out in the fields working. However I remained completely uninspired due to the quality of light, or lack of it. It remained overcast and very grey for the duration of our 3 day stay, so I skipped that one. We settled for coffee, english breakfasts and lots of walking and cycling small roads and tracks through the karst landscape instead and just had a marvellous time of it, it felt like a long weekend.

Day 37-39

The chemical reaction that creates cement releases large amounts of CO2 accounting for 5 percent of global emissions and heating materials to create that reaction takes a lot of energy, much of which is generated by coal. Cement has no viable recycling potential; each new road, each new building needs new cement. Demand for roads, dams and buildings throughout China is intense, cement factories are just everywhere. In the smallest of villages locals are building bigger houses, everywhere. Unimaginative concrete and brick three storey structures. Concrete roads raised above the surrounding fields are being laid throughout the countryside. Local townsfolk, men & women - some of them well into their 70's - gang together in work crews mixing up concrete in oversized concrete mixers powered by noisy diesel generators. Towns and cities nationwide are building out and building up. New concrete high-rise apartments and commercial buildings abound, massive cranes are on the horizon of just about every city. Bridges, roads, raised motorways and massive raised concrete pillars accommodating the nationwide implementation of a fast train network can be seen for hundreds upon hundreds of kilometres. It is unbelievable the amount of new concrete, everywhere. Undoubtedly the construction project that takes the cake is the Three Gorges Dam. We decided we were willing to have another crack at going there to view it.

Chongqing has the distinction of being THE mega-city that's never talked about, a quick search on Flickr or Google pictures will display aerial photographs of this city appearing as a contender to Manhattan. Like everything else in China, Chongqing is bazaar in its contrasts, it is both utterly grey, decaying and filthy and ultramodern and sleek in almost equal measure. One would be wise to avoid eating any street food here as it would abound with heavy metals, so too the water, however you could eat off the polished floors in the ultra-modern upmarket shopping malls. The city has a metro system better than most other major cities around the world. The guide books suggest Chongqing is perpetually foggy and it certainly was the day we were there. Grey and dismal.

I'm starting to get a better understanding why the Chinese are tripping over themselves in their quest for monetary wealth. On the face of it (removed from the wealthy and sophisticated coastal regions at any rate) life can be so dispiriting and grimy, surroundings are largely just plain butt ugly. However, inside these large new gleaming shopping malls there is a glittering display of modernity and opulence. Polished marble, floor to ceiling glass, vivid colour, all sophisticatedly packaged to represent desire for a better life. In the west I find these shopping malls and the consumerism they garner slightly abhorrent, all together unnecessary and unnatural and I'd even go so far to term them physiologically unhealthy. However everything is relative. Luckily I live in a desirable house, in a desirable part of town in a desirable country, surrounded by an abundance of nature. I often take long bike rides in the nearby national park, almost daily I'm in or at least near the ocean. Whereas here in most cases people don't have access to nature, it's been paved over, there is virtually no birdlife, the night sky is non-existent, fresh air is something of the past. Even the old charm we in the west think of as being 'quintessentially' Chinese has been pulled down and laid waste by either Mao and his thugs or by the old men who occupy the large buildings of Tianamen square in Beijing. Understandably the Chinese of today want the new and all it represents and they are going to extraordinary measures to get it, as rapidly as possible. In many regions the 'environment' has already been destroyed. Therefore this rampant growth knows no bounds as the 'environment' is no longer a limiting factor in the push toward this new world of theirs.

Gansu Province

Day 17/18

Gansu Provence is undergoing an extensive implementation of renewable energy, wind and solar. Much of this is taking place within the Hexi corridor.

With the help of some local contacts provided by Ms. Wu Yuwen at Climate Bridge, I managed to photograph a solar farm under construction, near completion and got access to a wind turbine assembly plant. Once the customary introductions were made over a cup of green tea at the Goldwing facility I heard the word 'forbidden' in context to the taking of photographs of the assembly plant. For some unfathomable reason it turned out to be acceptable to take photographs from the distance of a mobile gantry. This provided uninterrupted views of the factory floor were orange uniformed technicians assembled up to 50 hubs, nacelles and drive mechanisms. Possibly this turn of events was due to some sweet talking from our local interpreter Ms. Qin Ying. We then moved on to the factory floor to capture unhindered closeups of the same. Moving on to the large hangers where the fibreglass rotor blades were manufactured it was established my 'big' camera was to remain in the car. We were then shown around the large external concreted holding yards where neat rows of rotor blades were parked up ready and waiting to be trucked away for assembly and a productive life ahead on various wind farms throughout the province. This I preceded to capture with my medium format camera.

Having reached our western most destination it was now time to head south to a warmer and more fertile part of the country, away from the bitter temperatures and flat brown landscape of the north. Much of what I have set out to do on this section of the trip has been realised, with a few additional perks along the way. I'd be lying if I said there hasn't been a certain amount of stress on this journey, an almost constant concern of being found out for our Beijing-only driver’s licenses, being reprimanded, turned back, fined or worse. Also the capturing of some very hard subject matter, industrial, filthy, and downright damning which has been no joy ride. A task made no easier by the fact I choose not to use an SLR digital camera but instead to capture much of my imagery on large format. This camera inherently takes time and effort to set up and break down and by its very nature is rather obvious in intention. Suffice to say I have not once been reprimanded. Without question if I had of been so bold as I have been this past ten days in say Australia, or the U.S. I would be writing this blog from a very much compromised position. I have aimed my cameras at some unbelievably raw subject matter. At times I've thought of China as one big coal caked industrial cesspit with the foulest of air. I've met people whose quality of life has been so diminished by the omnipresent coal dust and rank thick air clogged with pollutants it's made me question even more deeply just what we humans are doing to the environment with our seemingly unrestrained need to consume our planet until it no longer resembles a habitable environment, but some distant planet.

Some of the people who are living amongst this industrial filth are coming down with cancers and respiratory deceases and dying by the age of 50. Regardless of this their demeanour at least at face value appears positive, almost upbeat as if saying to themselves 'I know this is a compromised existence but I'm damned if it's going to get me down'. I find this perplexing, I don't know whether to draw strength from this or not...

Here is a little list of pollutants one might expect to inhale daily if living downwind from a coal fired power plant, of similar heavy industry fuelled by coal:

Carbon Dioxide; the primary cause of global warming. Sulphur Dioxide which causes acid rain which damages forests, lakes and buildings and small airborne particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs. Small airborne particles which can cause chronic bronchitis, asthma and premature death. Nitrogen Oxide which leads to formation of ozone (smog) burning through lung tissue making you and your family more susceptible to respiratory illness. Carbon Monoxide which causes headaches and places additional stress on people with heart decease. Hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds which form ozone. Mercury which can make fish unsafe to eat. Arsenic which causes cancer. Lead, Cadmium and other toxic heavy metals, and trace amounts of uranium.

It may be a good idea at this stage to check your share portfolio. If you have shares in coal then please get rid of them, this would be a very positive step toward a greener life and a lighter carbon footprint...

Day 19

I'm surprised just how good Chinese motorists are out this way considering in most cases they have been behind the wheel for less than a generation. This sweeping statement does not always apply however. Here are a few anomalies. Despite sensible and obvious road markings only sissy's appear to take any note of them, preferring instead to take up two lanes. Double yellow lines serve an aesthetic purpose only however they do act as a reasonably efficient way of navigating around the cities, more so for the visually impaired. Drivers are exceptionally good at pulling into the main flow of traffic from side streets, this manoeuvre is performed in most cases without thought or visual reference. Pedestrians are to be ignored at all times, they have no relevance. There is an uncontrolled urge to speed then to slow down for no good reason. Car horns are of much more use than indicators and why dim your head lights when you can high beam all the way. On a more positive note Chinese motorists are exceptionally good natured, to get behind the wheel in china is to remain passive calm.

Chinese cities are under lit to western standards. Or put another way, western cities are severely and unnecessarily over lit. It's not as though lights are absent it’s just that they appear to have no need to turn a lot of them on through the night. Many of the street lights are powered by small individual solar panels, some even sport their very own little wind turbine. How refreshing this is to see, so practical and easy to implement.

There comes a time with every photographic trip when the most important thing becomes the exposed film. The safely of this takes on a value well in excess of anything else - passports, camera equipment, vehicle - everything else other than this film is replaceable. I'm keen now to see this film securely back in Shanghai or Beijing but we still have some mileage ahead of us. Still I'm relieved the hard part is over. Today Greg and I are starting to feel a connection with this road trip. It often takes this long on the road to get a feel for things. Less hotel rooms and more nights sleeping out would have been more to my liking but the cold just didn't allow for this.

We have no music and are really missing this; the car stereo system doesn't have an iPod connection. Radio reception is generally good but every station is clogged with overly enthusiastic announcers and a Chinese version of the rehashed commercial mediocrity one might expect hear spewing from shopping malls and fast food outlets throughout the western world.

Today we took a B road through a dramatic mountain pass climbing to 3,762m. A vast open landscape with striking snow-capped mountains in excess of 5,000m. Massive glacial valleys, herds of yaks and the occasional odd little remote dusty town peopled by central asian Muslims, towns which the Han haven't yet bothered to populate, much. Other than in the markets of Zhangye, up until now has been a distinct absence of religious iconography or houses of worship.

These Muslims do good food. More interesting, tasty, spicy. Sheep meat is big in these parts. Market venders sell a variety of dried fruits and nuts, a welcomed break from bland noodle soups and steamed dumplings and the almost complete lack of fibre of late.

Booked in to a funky little mountain town, dusty streets, doorways draped with the obligatory heavy quilts or thick plastic blinds to keep the cold and the dust out and the heat in. Feasted on a variety of dishes, warming ourselves by a coal range amongst truck drivers watching the television news as it flittered between the U.S. elections and the Beijing Party congress. Relieved indeed Obama is in for a second term. There is some sanity in the world after all…