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...
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',
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….
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.