For her sabbatical project, Elaine wanted to photograph in a country far from Boston that we had never considered before. As luck would have it, a neighbor was a professor of Chinese history. He and his family had recently returned from a year in China and assured us that traveling in China with a 4 year old would be fine. As it turned out, the desire of the Chinese people to meet Julia, and make sure she was happy led to many unexpected and pleasant experiences.
A reform policy change in 1978 permitted foreigners to travel independently and allowed the creation of our own itinerary from Hong Kong to Guilin, Chengdu, Xi’an, Beijing and return to Hong Kong.
Our flight from Guilin to Chengdu was scheduled to stop in Guiyang but had a flat tire upon landing. The replacement tire wouldn’t arrive until the next morning. Luckily, in the rows ahead of us on the plane was a group of Canadian travel writers led by a Ministry of Tourism guide. One of the writers invited us to join their group rather than stay in the airport dormitory. Boarding a mini bus, we drove to the first hotel—which had no rooms. As the sun went down, the guide found a hotel that could accommodate our unexpected group. In a show of hospitality, we were treated to a delicious feast.
In general, the number of people we encountered on the street seemed equal to that of a busy section of Manhattan. However, while photographing the steam trains in Xi’an the impact of a population almost 5 times that of the United states, in a country with a land area only 2.2% larger, was vividly explicit. During the few minutes it took for a train to pass, throngs of people on foot and bicycle would amass on either side of the crossing. Only minutes later another train would pass. Looking at the scene we wondered “What if they all had cars?”
More daunting than the number of people was never having the comfort of blending in with everyone else. We seemed the most interesting attraction of any moment. After a few days in Guilin, Julia took to walking between us to have a buffer between her and her admirers. Taking a photograph, I always had a group of men assessing the subject I had framed, perhaps simply wondering why I would want to make a photograph of something they thought so ordinary. The crowds were always polite, with some offering help, or happy to have a chance to practice their English. It was when we were back in the Kowloon Holiday Inn that we realized that on every level, we had had an exceptional experience very far from Boston.