It’s taken me a couple of weeks to recover from our trip to China. Not just the jet lag, or that stomach bug that hit me the first day we were sailing down the Yangtze. It’s been the emotions, and the thoughts that have affected me most. Those intangible parts of travel that shift your perspective on your world, on THE world. It’s the reason that you travel that has made it most difficult for me to come back.
Before the opportunity slips away, or before the trip slides too far into the past, I wanted to share a few of the images of China that are deeply imprinted on me. Because they’re inspiring all I’m doing/thinking about lately, and because they are my greatest souvenir. We started our trip in Beijing, explored the untouched portions of the Great Wall on the outskirts of the city, then moved on to Xi’an, Chongqing and the rural villages along the Yangtze before concluding the trip in Shanghai. Many of my favorite shots were taken in the rural villages, the part of China that I hadn’t visited before. I think what affected me most about these images was that they felt so much more simple, colorful, and innocent than the overwhelming impression China left on me as a whole.
The last time we visited, it was 2007 and I was in China to race, so our focus was different. We had sandwiched trips to the major cities in on both sides of my events and took in all the major tourist sites we could. The China I remembered visiting was difficult to navigate because the local expectation was the exact opposite of my own; how much personal space to give the man or woman standing next to you. Where to pee. Where to spit. Where to throw your trash, whether or not to remove the face from your food, the bones, the skin. How loudly to speak. I was prepared for these intricacies this time around. What I wasn’t ready for was just how quickly China is growing up, and how impressive, curious, shocking, frightening and inspiring it is, all at once.
Industrialization in China appears unstoppable and as a result, the Chinese people are seeing and feeling small increases in their quality of life each year. The discrepancies between the very wealthy and the very poor are vast, and so different classes feel their new-found wealth in different ways. For some, this means having electricity or coal to heat their homes. For others, they have the power to buy the things that newly rich people over the world want – new cars, fancier foods, conveniences. Nearly one-third of the world’s population live in China. That’s about 2 billion people on a land mass just about the size of the United States. Cars choke the highways, diabetes runs rampant in Chinese children, and the air quality in Beijing is measured at some 16x worse than the “safe limit” indicated by the World Health Organization. Runners in the Beijing Marathon wore gas masks to protect themselves from the air as the race filled the streets on the 11th of October.
Nearly halfway through our trip, I awoke on the 18th floor of a very comfortable western hotel in the heart of Xi’an. I opened the curtains to let in the morning light, but the streets and sky were still dimly lit even though sunlight should have pierced through the skyscrapers. Below me, the blinding screens of tremendous television sets displaying ads in Chinese were flashing, and the string of cars parading down the road had begun bumping along, their red brake lights punctuating the dark. It wasn’t the beautiful start to a new day that I have come to expect when waking well rested – instead, a black hole sun burned orange over the buildings, an ominous hole in the deep grey sky. In that moment, I had a hard time believing I wasn’t traveling on another planet. That clean, quiet little Rocky Mountain valley that I call home was just a few thousand miles from here and now light years away. This was a slap from the web of interconnectivity that spreads across the world; I might have traveled through China, but I was still “home.” This was my air, my sky, my sun, my problem too. Every everyday decisions we make – about corporations to support, brands to buy, lifestyle choices – impacts Chinese industry, and psyche. It made me want to recycle every last almond butter jar, ride my bike for every errand, eat only vegetarian meals, make only sustainable clothing purchases. But that’s a bit unrealistic, just as it is to think that all of my daily measures alone could negate the collective decisions the Chinese are making -to support their families, to make ends meet, to live the lives they’ve imagined and sometimes merely just to survive.
Back in Boulder, where the brilliant snow has fallen for days, and clean, crisp, invigorating air fills my lungs when we take walks through the prairie with the dog, it has been easy to separate the beauty of China from the complex emotions I had while traveling there, and allure of the deep history and intricate traditions of this place takes over again. But, I hope that by sharing these images I keep some of those emotions fresh to remind me that the I’m a citizen in the world, no matter where I am physically on the globe.
I’m sure it’s not surprising that there is a soft spot in my appreciation for food, for people, and the junctures where they collide, and that these things make China a highly photogenic place. An aged hand carrying a basket of tremendous green pomelos, a stack of noodle bowls from breakfast waiting for washing on a tattered street corner. The clouds shifting over the gorges as our boat sailed through. A strikingly beautiful bride – dressed in red – at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, celebrating her new life among the tourists. The old farmer’s bicycle in Fengdu, and the simplicity of the kitchen and dining room where his family enjoys their bounty. The view from a side car as we zoomed around Shanghai, and the little baskets of Sichuan peppers drying in the sun I seemed to see on every ledge in the countryside. Among all other things that modern China is, it is these things too, and this is the picture of it that I’m working to keep painted on my mind. – xo L