The Invasive Shutterbug
The bus got in at 4am. 4am is not a great time of day to pull into a small town. “You can just sleep on the bus until morning,” the ticket lady had told me. This turns out to be a theory, not a fact. In a cruel mockery of technology, the windows on the bus do not open. “Can you keep the door open?” I asked. “No,” the driver said simply. I lay there in the dark, trying not to breath, weighing my options. The guy behind me’s stinky feet are a few inches from my head, and the musk of sour vomit from the girl who had been puking into a plastic bag all night still lingers in the air. Wandering around aimlessly in the dark with a backpack on would be preferable to this, so I zipped up my bag and got off the bus, unaware of the terrible mistake I was about to make.
Outside the air was clean and damp, the perfect temperature of cool. Crickets chirped. The smell the leaves and good dirt filled my nose. I swung open the creaky gate to the bus station and started walking up the dark winding road. A few dump trucks lumbered by, working on paving the road from here to, it seemed, everywhere else. I really envy the people who will take road trips across China five years from now, because right now it feels like no matter where I go in this country, they are ripping up and re-laying the entire road to everywhere. Ahead of me, I see a shadowy figure with a backpack on standing in front of a hotel, the lobby locked with a heavy chain across the handles.
As I approach, a little 3 wheeled car – which have the design and stability of a wheelbarrow -pulls up in front, and the shadow heads over. I walk up as well, and ask the driver if he can take me up to a place I can watch the sunrise. Yuanyang is famous for it’s centuries old terraced rice paddies carved into the mountainsides, and sunrise and sunset is supposed to be the best time to catch the light bouncing off the flooded paddies, like beautiful mirrors into heaven, a travel website had told me. The driver looks over his shoulder at the man in the back, who just shrugs. “Okay!” He says. I throw my bag in and hopped in the front seat. We drove uphill into the darkness in silence, the logic of predawn quiet keeping a tight seal over all of our mouths.
As the road switched to a gutted out track and our little front wheel lurched through bumpy potholes, I realize we’d been driving almost an hour. It was now 5 am and I was on a dark dirt road in a seatbeltless wheelbarrow with two strangers. “Where are we going?” I asked. “Duoyishu,” responds the driver. OK. I turn to the man in the back, a well heeled Chinese guy with salt and pepper hair and a rebellious goatee. “Are you here traveling too?” “Yes,” he replied. “Where are you from? Your Chinese is very good,” he said. “I’m from Australia.” “Well, then your Chinese is very good too!” Our driver interjects cheekily. “I was born in Taiwan,” says the man. “I moved to Australia.”
Soon we pass a big banner sign over the road reading, “Welcome to Duoyishu Scenic Area.” The road switches from dirt to cobbled grey brick, China’s signature mark that you have just entered a tourist trap. Ten minutes down the road we pull up to a parking lot beside a newly built structure of varnished wood, a multi-terraced viewing station built specifically to watch the sunrise. “I came here yesterday too,” the man says as we get out of the car. In the fog of my mind, I am realizing with horror that this man voluntarily woke up at 4am and then rode in a car for an hour before dawn so he could stand on this platform to watch the sunrise…twice. “But yesterday I got here too late,” explains the man. “You missed the sunrise?” “No- I made it for the sunrise. But there were already no places left.”
I stare out at the multi-leveled platform, which is new and crisp and snazzy as a five star resort, and is also completely deserted. I get this sneaking suspicion I want to stay confused. We buy our tickets – 60RMB a head that I now see no way out of paying – and head down to the platform. My new friend, whose name is Xiaohua, sets up his tripod and camera and then heads into the café, which is decorated with minority crafted fish traps and woven baskets. Its 5.30, and we can just make out the outline of the rolling hills in the distance, deep black against a dark grey sky. About 15 minutes later, busloads upon busloads of serious amateur photographers and their trailing spouses descend like a horde of locusts. Xiaohua, already having staked his claim with his tripod, is relaxed. We watch them scramble, jostling for positions until all four levels of the terrace is lined, elbow to elbow, tripod leg to tripod leg, with members of this strange camouflage pant clad subculture. The Tripod Mafia has arrived.
We head back out to Xiaohua’s claim. I put my coffee cup down next to his tripod. Claim staked. “So, what are all our cameras pointing at here? Kind of a big mystery isn’t it?” I gesture to the darkness with my coffee cup, speaking to Xiaohua in English. A young Chinese guy who has set up a tripod on the other side of Xiaohua turns to me. “Actually, if you are wondering, it is this,” he says in fluent, Chinese accented English. He pulls out an Ipad and scrolls to a few pictures. “We are here.” He shows me glimmering pictures of rice paddies shining before a sun rising over a line of mountains that matches the horizon in front of us. “Oh. Wow. Thanks.” There goes that surprise. “I’m from Alabama,” he tells me. He hesitates, then adds seriously, “Can you believe that?” Australia, Alabama, New York if you count me – apparently there is something about taking pictures of old, old rice fields with state of the art equipment that really speaks to the overseas Chinese.
“The sun is starting to rise!” Someone yells. It’s like a military command, soldiers at the ready, shutter speeds set, let the clicking begin. My. Lord. I have never in my life witnessed a more un-savored sunrise. It’s overwhelming, this hectic, scrambling, crowded rush, the barking voices, the serious, focused tone of the moment. Somehow the sunrise had been stripped of its sunrisyness. I saw only about five people actually watching the sunrise unfiltered through a viewfinder. They were probably the tour guides and the drivers. They stood off to the sides, far from the crowed perfect vantage points, watching as the first glow of orange pink began to shine from behind the crisp black shadow of mountains. They stood with arms crossed lazily across the railing, watching as the terraced pools of water transformed from a deep murky black, to a glassy midnight blue, to gray, and finally to gold as the sun lit across the water in all its glory.
The Tripod Mafia have turned photography into a competitive sport. The rules, as far as I can gather this morning, are to capture as many shots as similar to pre-existing approved prototype images as possible, while at the same time preventing fellow players from doing so. To enter game play a potential player must have a tripod, a DSLR camera, a very long zoom lens, and at least one item of camouflage or tan clothing with excessive pockets. I keep wedging my way into the crowd, asking politely if I could get in for just a second to take a picture, but it was like getting between a mother lion and her cub. People actually growled at me. “It takes a fraction of a second to take a picture,” I grumbled. “You’ve been standing in the same spot for half an hour. This is ridiculous,” I said aloud to everyone and no one. No one moved around, for fear of losing their designated spot at the railing – the only change of perspective any photographer got was done by shifting the angle of his or her tripod.
I walked away feeling miffed, thinking maybe these people should consider giving up photography and taking up kickboxing or knife throwing. I hopped back in the car with Xiaohua, him anxious to make it to the next designated viewpoint before the rest of the mafia. Since Xiaohua was my only ride back into the town an hour away, I rode around with him for the rest of the day to the other wooden platforms our ticket allowed us access to. I watched the photographers watching the rice paddies. Sure, they were beautiful, but so where mountains and forests and lakes, and any other small village up in the mountains, but nobody seemed to care about those. To me, Yuanyang was just some nice town I had thought might be fun to visit, but to the mafia members, this was some kind of holy pilgrimage mission. There was something going on here, some special significance locked into these rice paddies that I didn’t quite grasp.
It reminds me of a trip I took to Taiwan’s Palace Museum with my mom and my grandmother. The most famous piece of art in the Palace Museum, which contains all the greatest treasures of the Forbidden City that the Guomingdang managed to smuggle out before the Communists took power, is a cabbage. A tiny little white and green jade cabbage, about two inches long. Replicas and postcards of it dominate the gift shop. It has its own security guard to keep watch over it. It is to the Palace Museum what the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.
“I don’t get it,” I’d whispered to my mother. She and my grandmother had sighed. “It’s a cabbage,” said my mother. “There’s nothing to get.” Then she and my grandmother had stood their sighing over the sight of the cabbage while I just watched them feeling befuddled and vaguely sleepy. Kind of like I do now, staring at the rice paddies. My mom had tried her best to help me get it. “Its something everyone can understand and relate to,” She said to me. “Everyone eats cabbage. You don’t have to be rich or cultured, even an uneducated housewife can understand a cabbage. It’s just an ordinary part of everyday life, but you’ve never seen one as beautiful as this before.”
Maybe these rice paddies are like a giant jade cabbage. Rice, that simple, humble, lifeblood, made exquisite. The only difference is, no one lives in a jade cabbage. A jade cabbage doesn’t get really indignant when you invade its area and give it nothing. The viewing platforms, with their pricey entry tickets, are run by the Kunming Exhibition Center. The big hotels in town, where the busloads of tourists stay, are also outside owned. The locals here are almost all Hani and Yi minorities that to the dominant paradigm of Chinese tourism, are considered part of the tour. They get a very small piece of the pie, and to try and benefit from the newly established tourist industry, locals are left staked out at each viewpoint hawking postcards or hardboiled eggs, offering to shlep tripods or pushing their little children dressed up in every item of minority garb known to their tribe forward for paid photo ops.
A lot of these hawkers are kids who should be in school. It’s an uncomfortably embarrassing scene to partake in. Even if you buy one kid’s postcards, you still say no to 20 others, brushing them aside with a curt no thank you as they try to break you down with their whining and pleading. Move along child. Can’t you see I’m too fascinated by the hard work of your ancestors to buy the cold beverages you have carried here for me? Go away. I have important photos to replicate and call my own. After a mind-numbing day of worshipping dirt and water, we head to Laohu Zui, Tigers Mouth, to watch the sunset. I vow to try to see past the Mafia, past the 5 year olds offering the carry my bags, and actually look at the rice paddies, to enjoy watching the sunset over one of most beautiful corners of the earth.
I sit on the wooden stairs, breathing in the smell of pine and studying the tiny green and red leaves, the smooth bark, the sharp edges of a pinecone beside me. I feel the rough edges of a rock and the moist crumble of a clod of dirt. An eagle flies by so quietly it blocks out the mumble of the crowd with its enormous wings. A tiny black spider jumps. The sun starts to drop over the horizon, and the pools of water contained in each paddy shimmer from grey to red to brown to gold, each a mirrored portrait of the sky above framed in the long lines of the green paddy walls. The sun disappears, unaware of its audience, a glowing ball of fluorescent orange sinking slowly behind a far away mountain.
A little girl who comes up to my waist comes over to offer to carry my bag for me, or to sell me some postcards. “Shouldn’t you be in school?” I ask her. She starts to argue with me, waving postcards in my face, and then suddenly says, “Look!” And points to a cloud of gnats buzzing in front of our faces. “What are those?” She asks me. Something has changed. Our incredible surroundings, not the stunning landscape but the mesmerizing spectacle of gnats, has superseded our annoying conversation. She’s not a saleswoman anymore, just a kid, and I’m not a target anymore, just a grownup who is supposed to know everything. We stare at the bugs together quietly, both amazing at how they buzz like that, moving so quickly and in so many directions while they’re all staying still in the air.
The next day I wake up and go for a run down a dirt path beaten rough by water buffalo. Tall fonds of bamboo arch over the trail beside banana trees and evergreens. Two Hani women swat a couple water buffalo down the trail, yelling at them. Empty baskets for collecting wood sit on their shoulders. I watch them, wondering if minority girls feel like modern clothes are incredibly boring. I think I would, if I had the option of wearing silver headdresses and cloth rainbow tail feather flaps everyday.
Men with hoes over their shoulders walk out to the paddies, breaking up soil in the yet unflooded, unplanted fields. I pass a few houses standing on their own – unlike the brick and concrete structures in town, these are handmade from stone and mud mortar. Laced bamboo fences keep in chickens. A man strolls by, 3 fat ducks waddling in front of him. I smile at everyone, but no one smiles back. It’s hard to mistake the get the Get-Out-Of-My-Town-Glare, and that is what I’m getting. I stick to the main path, and don’t venture down to any of the smaller villages. On the way back into town, where the trail switches to a steep concrete hill, kids are barreling down on those 2 wheeled hinged skateboard things that are so popular, and I can’t help but notice, Hani kids are bad ass. No fear, squealing with delight as they rip down the hill, double riding the babies who can barely stand up on their own. It’s not a bad place to grow up, I think, but it might be a bad place to grow old.
It would be sad, if you were old, seeing this happen to your town on your way out. If you were young maybe you would welcome contact from the outside world, even in the form of asshole tourists. But the older generation, watching these tourists swarm in to capture an image of lifetimes of manual labor without giving you and your people any credit, or more importantly, money – no wonder they just want us to get out of here. So I got a ticket out of town, and that’s what I did.