With the mega-event of the Summer Olympics coming to Beijing this year, a great deal of focus will be on China’s showcase cities as engines of modernization and commerce. Overlooked may be the incredible geography and ethnic diversity, stretching from the 15,000-foot mountains of Yunnan to the karst formations, clustered villages and rice terraces of Guizhou. These two southern Chinese provinces are populated by a range of colorful ethnic groups perhaps equaled nowhere else in the world.
In China, they’re designated as minorities, where in nearby Burma, Thailand and Vietnam, offshoots are often referred to as hill tribes. The Chinese government has identified 55 official minority groups, with the Miao (including Hmong/Mong, Bai, etc.) numbering between nine and 10 million, yet divided into 82 subgroups. The Gejia (who don’t self-identify themselves as Miao) number as few as 50,000. Historically, the minorities have been highly mobile, one example being the Miao, who some say have ancient roots in Lapland.
My first (film) 35mm SLR
was outfitted with a 28mm and an 80-200mm zoom. I toured Europe on summer vacation and never missed the millimeters in between the two. Ever since, I’ve tended to see photo possibilities in terms of either wide or telephoto, only along the way, my idea of a normal wide-angle was more like 20mm or wider. As you can imagine, the transition to digital with early SLRs was painful until manufacturers began making lenses like the 10-22mm (effective 16-35mm) to give me the wide view to which I had grown accustomed. Also along the way, image stabilization was introduced in medium telephoto zooms. The only thing that I’ve added to this basic kit is a second camera body, so that lens swapping is unnecessary.
It’s with this unassuming outfit that I recently cruised the villages and markets from Lijiang (Yunnan) to Kaili(Guizhou). Many of my favorite trips have been to the hill tribe regions of Burma and Thailand, and it’s from southern China that many of these tribes once migrated.
Please excuse the cliché, but this is a cultural photographer’s paradise. There’s no other way to express it. The variety, the color, the light and the truly exotic sights are available in few other places in the modern world. But most importantly, the people harbor none of the animosity toward the camera one might experience in Africa or parts of Islam. Still, it pays to keep a low profile. Rather than call attention to yourself with oversized pro cameras with big sensors and the associated big lenses, I prefer to carry the lighter class of SLR with little black lenses. As mentioned earlier, two camera bodies make it possible to switch from wide-angle to telephoto without fumbling with changing lenses, a procedure that not only may cause you to miss the decisive moment, but also may attract the attention of a camera-shy subject.
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Tourism infrastructure spans the spectrum. The region of Yunnan represented by Dali and Lijiang rather generally is considered to be the mythical Shangri-La. Today, Lijiang’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site and the recent addition of an up-market Banyan Tree Resort have put it on the map as one of the most civilized of interior cities, where minorities still go to market in traditional dress. By contrast, the province of Guizhou—where minorities account for 37% of the population—was among the last to be opened to tourism. Here, both travel and accommodations are yet to be developed beyond many unimproved roads in the countryside and grim hotels. Tour companies regularly recommend carrying your own silk sleep sack (Silk Dreamsack from TravelSmith.com, $59). It still requires an intrepid photographer with a strong stomach and patience to reach the outlaying markets and villages.
Overall, these provinces of hothouse-green mountains, brown rivers and velvety rice terraces are the home of seemingly countless tribes or ethnic minorities that still are inclined to perpetuate the costumes and traditions of their ancestors‚ but for how long? How long before blue jeans and Nikes take over totally? Constantly on my mind is how fleeting the future of these peoples may prove to be, almost akin to the endangered species that we all fear losing. What would the southern provinces be without the Gejia, Hmong, Bai, Naxi and others that turn out in marketplaces and festivals in their quaint and spectacular dress?
Today, every time I contemplate a relaxing vacation to an island beach, the mountains of the West or cobbled streets in Europe, I’m faced with the dilemma: Those places will be there for years to come, but how long for the minorities and tribes of southeastern Asia? The clock is ticking; the urgency is palpable.