China Post

I'm spending the next seven weeks in China documenting what it's really like on the ground: how they're perceiving the impacts and opportunities of the climate challenge . I hope to make it all the way to the remote desert of northwestern Gansu which has become a hotspot for renewable energy production.

19 October 2012

I left for the airport this morning with a touch of trepidation. Last time I was preparing to go to China, five and a half years ago, I found myself rolling around on the tarmac beneath a semi-trailer, not a particularly good alternative. I have some residual psychological baggage left over from that episode. As a result I've felt more than a little anxious and unsettled these past months preparing for this trip.

Back then I was just starting to embark on the first stage of my environmental project. I remember I was just a little too angry about this whole environmental climate change thing, angry at the big polluters and the climate change deniers. I was prepared to be a climate warrior at just about any cost. Perhaps there was a reason I didn't manage to get to China back then, perhaps that episode with the truck ultimately saved me from an even greater danger… China can be a heavy place at times. I'm more realistic now, more focused, less angry, I've got a body of work behind me, I'm not so willing to place myself in the path of danger to prove my point, it has already been made and has been recognised as much as I'd hoped for, perhaps more than I had anticipated.

It's not until now, having boarded my flight to Guangzhou that I'm excited about this China road trip. I'm starting to feel excited and inspired by the thought of the opportunities, the experiences and the work which lay ahead. Seven weeks is a large commitment of time. I'm much better placed now than I was in early 2007; some funding from The Climate Institute has come through which eases the financial burden somewhat and a few contacts from TCI have been made which may be helpful especially in getting access to some important subject matter.

I'm travelling with my younger brother Greg. We are reliant on getting Chinese drivers licenses on arrival and obtaining a rental car before we head as far west as Gansu province, circling back to Beijing before the winter months set in. In four weeks from now we collect my wife, Sonja, we then plan on a similar trip farther south through the warmer provinces. I've found it difficult acquiring information concerning getting a license but from what I understand it is possible to get both license and car from the airport in Beijing. Train or bus travel is not a particularly good alternative given the amount of camera gear I've packed (65 kg all up including swags and a few items of clothing). A driver/ interpreter would be a valuable addition to the trip but I'm not so sure any driver would be willing to swag out through the night in the middle of the Gobi desert this time of year, or to travel the distances we intend to. The beauty of travelling by vehicle, apart from the autonomy it provides is that its possible with the swags and good down sleeping bags to park up and sleep just about anywhere, saving precious hours during the best light of the day. This is only possible with two people, three would be too tight a squeeze.

Last time I spent any amount of time in China was in the mid eighties, I took trains and hitch hiked many thousands of miles. In those days blue and green Mao suits were prevalent and still fashionable. Plastic high heel shoes were all the rage, sun glasses the size of television screens were in. It was as though they were so desperately trying to copy the west, the only source of inspiration they had at the time was Soviet Russia and the eastern block which was also so desperately trying to copy the west; a kind of hand me down of bad ideas and bad taste. 1970's Hollywood can be thanked for this. China has changed so much during those times, this is going to be one hell of an interesting ride...

Day 1 

After a mountain of bureaucracy and adopting chinese names; my official chinese name is now Chen Da Wei (The great one), Greg's official chinese name is now Chen Da Ming (The smart one) by all respects we are going to make a good team, especially according to chinese officialdom. After much frustration and a wasted day we finally got our chinese drivers licences, well, temporary licences in any case, which are only good for the general Beijing area but at least that's a start, I'm happy with that for now. Too much detail to elaborate on, suffice to say the main objective now is to get a rental car and chance our luck by taking it further than the general Beijing area. Without a comprehensive chinese drivers license it is not possible to drive a vehicle outside the general Beijing area, this is China though and many things are impossible until you try your luck and find out otherwise.

Day 3 

We have hired a car and are testing the waters for a few days, heading out of town a few hours to have a look at an ancient village and to hike part of the Great Wall. Good roads so far, charming people, autumnal colours and a taste of freedom. Its good to leave behind the frustration of the previous days. We intended to swag out tonight but it's likely to drop below 0ºC so have found a nice clean little hostel instead.

Day 4

Very fitting that the first photograph of the trip taken is that of the Great Wall, a beautiful scene under low light, autumnal colours and beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and many distant parts of the Great Wall and various ramparts with the omnipresent jet trail in the sky; the very ancient and the modern captured in a single exposure… We climbed a steep and slippery slope at 5:30 this morning spending an hour or so admiring this beautiful view which just seemed to go forever, layers upon layers of mountain ridges, the light clear, almost crisp and the sky a beautiful pale blue due to heavy rain fall and strong winds which swept over Hubei province yesterday clearing the smog of the industrial coal belt to our west, temporarily at least anyhow.

This afternoon we got busy photographing some of the growers in a complex of tunnel houses (hot houses/greenhouses). We happened upon a delightful elderly couple who had turned their tunnel house in to their home, they had built a small brick room in the corner which served as both bedroom and lounge. The flue of the cooking stove vented through the underside of their bed for warmth through those fidget nights. To a point they were living within a closed loop; everything within this approximately 8m x 60m environment effectively and efficiently sustained a healthy diet and a happy life, albeit with the use of some sacks of fertiliser. Growing a variety of vegetables and herbs, using underground water for their crops and for washing. Chickens and Geese housed in an enclosure on the far side of their living quarters. Discarded vegetables fed to the birds, bird droppings maintaining healthy soil, so too the ash of their fire place. Such a privilege to witness such a microcosm of sustainability and to meet such a charming and welcoming couple.

Day 5

Heavy frost this morning. Local villagers preparing for the onset of winter gathering coke and firewood. Corn crops harvested, fields laying fellow. A police check along the way which is a little disconcerting. I'm trying through my local contacts to find a driver/ interpreter but if this doesn't eventuate we have decided to hit the road and attempt to travel west regardless. Several thousand km's lay ahead of us, at this point I'm feeling it may be a necessity to attempt this on our own, perhaps a little too optimistic but we may have no choice. I'm guessing the worst that can happen is a hefty fine and to be turned back. We met a girl from Hong Kong at the traffic police bureau in Beijing airport who we're sharing this short driving trip with. She attempted to get a Chinese license but failed due to holding a ten year China visitors permit, bureaucracy moves in many mysterious ways. She's fluent in both Mandarin and English, her skills have been invaluable over the last couple of days, especially in regards to interpreting and signing of model release forms which are in simplified Chinese, never the less many of the older people here are illiterate.

Sat in a restaurant in a funky little Chinese tourist town amongst a team of road workers this morning. Stemming trays of dumplings and soup on the tables, just the sort of food for these cold mornings. Starting to feel we are actually on the road now and a few moments of magic are starting to happen. I love the idea of rural China in autumn, rural and completely foreign. I would far rather just keep going now getting deeper in to the strangeness of the whole thing, not looking forward to returning to Beijing but unfortunately we have to in order to exchange vehicles, meet with contacts, attempt to find a driver and purchase another layer of clothing for the extreme conditions which lay ahead.