2017 03 - Hanoi to Shangri La

14th April 2017
Retford & District Photographic Society - Press Release - Joy Allison
13th March 2017
Images by Colin New

From Hanoi to Shangri La

Colin New returned after four years following a trip inspired by the BBC’s 'Wild China'. He set out a substantial display of prints - unusually the same images he then projected. He explained his belief that a print, properly mounted, is always better than a digital projection. Digital images have the merit of being more visible for a larger audience and he wanted us to enjoy the prints before the talk and during the interval.

Colin's visit to the Far East began in Hanoi, North Vietnam, and finished in Chinese Tibet. His narrative followed the route taken with a small group of fellow travellers, who conveniently turned out to be mostly keen photographers. From Hanoi he travelled to the coast where he boarded a modernised junk. He expected the iconic islands off the coast set against gorgeous blue sky. The reality was rather different and the captain advised that his passengers remained in their magnificently appointed cabins a little longer. Colin went on deck regardless and was captivated by mist over the islands. It framed the vessels moored in the tranquil harbour, giving him infinitely more atmospheric images than the familiar views.

Colin feels that travel photography is often the poor relation relative to wildlife and portraiture and landscape. He believes a successful travel shot should not be a composite of elements from various sources but authentic to allow the visitor to see the same view. It should show the commonplace as well as the extraordinary or magnificent and people shots should look unposed and natural.

Heading north away from the coast they visited a Confucian university, now gardens and a shrine, where they came upon graduating students having photographs taken. Colin captured some charming, natural images of happy young women clad in vibrant academic dress. Another unexpectedly vibrant scene followed at the next stop where the 'Sweeping of the Tombs' was being celebrated. This colourful spectacle clearly formed part of the local culture and was not performed for tourists.

Visits to several local markets were colourful in their own way. People were happy to be photographed and enjoyed seeing their images on the camera display. Colin learned that the girls, colourfully clad in traditional dress, made their own costumes to demonstrate their skills and attract the young men. Indeed a 'courting market' on a different day allowed young people to meet and get to know each other. The markets where food and everything from singing nightingales at over $1,000 a time to live chickens and horses were for sale were universally gathering places for the locals.

Colin particularly wanted to visit the rice terraces and enjoyed a visit in North Vietnam which was very different in character to what he later saw in China. Here the terraces were smaller in scale and came right up to the houses. They rarely saw a western visitor.

Visiting Black Dragon Pool Park they were able to capture images of the only language in the world which is still based on hieroglyphics, although the children now also learn to write in Chinese characters. They visited a very poor area which until recently had no written language and appeared to be well off the normal tourist map. Here Colin captured a charming image of a lady who had solved the universal problem of slipping spectacles using a thread and a safety pin. Another woman had blue stained hands from dying threads with indigo for the embroidery she made and sold. He also spotted blue ducklings and a blue chicken and couldn’t decide if the birds had eaten the indigo or whether people dyed their flocks to identify them.

Moving from Vietnam, they entered Hunan Province, known as 'China South of the Clouds'. Colin described this as ‘The land of the selfie stick’. Everywhere they went locals were photographing themselves using phones, compact cameras and sometimes home-made sticks.

One day the men opted for a very early start to go cormorant fishing. Their local guide and their effort paid off when the fishermen joined them with their birds. The guide persuaded them to manoeuvre to help the photographers capture them working, resulting in a nice tip for the fishermen and a very successful session. The masses of tourists arriving as they left seemed destined for a very different experience.

On a mountain trip their guide found a small local cafe. To their surprise a 12 year old girl was in charge helped by some younger children while the adults were away working at a local festival. The young girl, assisted by their guide, produced a delicious meal for the ten strong group while the younger ones went to fetch them beer. This unusual experience ended with the children showering their departing customers with the contents of a large box of rose petals.

Moving higher they encountered snow - much to the amazement of the Australian members of the party and delighting Colin when he could tell them to ‘stop whinging’. We were treated to the rare sight of snow-capped rhododendron blooms. They soon arrived at Shangri La, made famous by James Hilton’s novel 'Lost Horizon' in the 1930s. The Chinese government, keen to capitalise on the publicity, built a wooden 'old town' at the village where they believed the book to be set. This was completed and fitted with an £800,000 fire prevention system. Unfortunately not only was it switched off to prevent a freeze up when fire spread from an electrical fault, but they could not get their fire engines down the tiny 'traditional' cobbled streets. The whole town was destroyed. Colin did, however see the building works creating a replacement, wooden and ‘traditionally built old town'. Tiny fire engines were reputedly on order.

Colin's tour ended with his final wish - a visit to the Chinese rice terraces. These are frequently visited by western tourists and he captured some enchanting views of the sunrise reflected in the water.

The short session following the interval was entirely different, beginning with a presentation on Victorian baby photos. They tried to picture just the child, but getting a clear image meant keeping the infant still for at least 30 seconds. The mother would restrain the child, but was herself bizarrely concealed under drapes. These images were very strange but no doubt looked better in their oval mounts which would have hidden the draped mother.

The final part of the evening was an unexpected delight. Colin entitled this 'Turner's Boatyard’. Visiting by chance on a wet day he spotted an old boat being rubbed down. With the eye of a seasoned photographer he noticed the Turner-like colours in the paint and managed to capture a whole series of images of sections of the hull which looked for all the world as though they might have been the work of the famous artist.