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Arrival: Beijing #23

by Bernard H. Wood on November 8, 2013

Trips and Tales: Part 134

If you think you are getting lost, you are probably close #5

Offers of help flood in from all around, when SD appears vexed in mid-sentence and the pregnant pauses take over from street-trade negotiations or enquiries over directions. Her knowledge of the Chinese language is minimal but complete strangers are willing to drop everything and come to her side as aides to translation. “It restored my faith in humanity” she enthuses.

Beijing scenery

In fact, much of this whole experience seems to be about re-assessing and re-wiring the human connection. So what was her faith in humanity like before? – I realise I should have asked. Perhaps she meant it merely as a figure of speech? SD does mention several times about “trusting in the good nature of others” and how the various episodes in her journey had ultimately lead her to abandon her misgivings and encourage – even force – her to dive into a sea of hands in the hope that they would buoy her up. It seems they did.

Oh good grief; this is starting to sound like something out of The Celestine Prophecy, or some other New Age pseudo-bible. I instinctively retch – though perhaps you just have to “be there” to get it. Words alone may render the whole experience trite. However it comes across, her choices and approach does appear to have succeeded in getting her parked alongside, and immersed in the real deal that she was looking for from the start.

And how to preserve this experience, these memories? Well, SD took 2000 photographs across her three-week journey, so be forewarned if you should be at her house and she offers to bring out the ‘holiday-photos’. We discuss her photographic criteria and approach to the subject.

There are interesting cautions and lessons to be learned in the use of cameras, outside of fstops and the like. In some weird parallel to quantum physics; the act of observation – via the camera – does indeed appear to influence the outcome. People in your frame “see the camera and not you”: the photographer, the person, she reveals. And so they react differently, less ‘honestly’ perhaps, and with added baggage about being photographed by yet another tourist who views you as a free visual commodity. You may view the whole journey through the eye of the camera and see little of the reality behind the imagery. That will also be short-changing yourself when you visit places like Badaling where you see The Great Wall as featured in a previous blog post.

This of course was a potential hazard to SD‘s striving for authenticity. Take care. “It can be useful,” she says of the tourist photo-snap, “there can be some nice images” – in amongst those stolen portraits – “but I wanted to know the person first”. At any rate she says: “I remember better by just experiencing ” – rather than viewing the world at a distance, from literally ‘behind glass’. We concluded: you can miss the true experience of the world at your feet by trying to document everything through that damn lens.

So SD uses the camera to create ‘experience documents’ that are taken “every now and then” so that she can remind herself the “meeting, feeling culture” she encountered at a later date. And above all, she says: “I saw the building; I wanted to take pictures of things that were cool, rather than record everything that happened!”

Take it as read then that ‘me and the donkey’ are out, whilst curious fried chickens wrapped in leaves, or an indefinably Chinese arrangement of ornamental pillows is decidedly in.

I’ll have to show you some of them, sometime (the photographs, not the pillows).

Whether you’re on a trip departing from Beijing or want to have your unique experiences of the Chinese capital at the end of a classic Trans-Siberian trip, you’re in for some superb visual treats – as SD‘s account shows.

[Photo by kconners]


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  2. Arrival: Beijing #24 Trips ans Tales: Part 135 If you think you are getting lost, you are probably close #6 We left SD last time with her photographs:...
  3. Arrival: Beijing #10 Our final piece in the series on Beijing looks at the Southern/Western Suburbs and Rural Beijing....
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