Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Retreat.

Introductions were made as I grabbed grocery bags and set them in the back of the white Mercedes van. A week prior, I agreed to spend twenty four hours somewhere in the mountains north of Beijing with friends of friends; people I'd never met.

The Po Shang house beautifully demonstrated minimalist and functional furnishing.

We talked and laughed. I grilled for the first and last time of the summer. We ventured through the village and mountains. We ate. Repeat.


Inside:
Waiting for me the next morning.
小白prior to departure.
Outside.
Tower to tower.


That evening we carried couch cushions outside, filling the silence with exuberance fueled by a night sky that remains unrivaled except for that seen on January 1, 2012 in the Outer Banks.

One of my favorite recipes- a dish made too rarely and for little reason.

1. Prepare several servings of Strangers and Acquaintances. Measure generously.
2. Good food. If you can't, find someone who can.
3. Mix company and food and garnish with good conversation. Speak freely.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

800 Steps.

Disclaimer: The nature of this post was both unintended and experimental. We'll get back to photos next time.

----

Green and modest, the fourteen year old Citroen hatchback pulled up to the community gates. My uncle's grin momentarily flashed through the glare as he came to a stop. Although I'm one inch taller than my bear of a father, I cannot recall a single time when he sat in a backseat, nor would I ever expect him to. I sat my bag, awkwardly tumescent with my father's and my (several) cameras, on the backseat and crawled in after it.

We drove north from Beijing; my window open, back against the door. I'd one leg across the backseat, and the other bent with foot flat on the floor. Three consecutive U-turns and ninety minutes later, we finally came to a stop in the last shaded spot of a quarter-filled parking lot bearing no sign of the intended destination. Phones stowed. Cameras towed.

My father and uncle disappeared through a low stone arch in the far corner of the lot as I paused to look at the forgotten lovechild of an FJ40 and a soft-top Wrangler, longing for my long-gone Landcruiser in the process.
BJ2020

My father is wont to be the first to say he's ready and the last to actually be so. Prompt departures aren't in his vocabulary, though we'd skipped lunch in the spirit of expeditious expedition.

I looked left at the ticket booth and then right at an empty, sad, last resort of a restaurant. I decided I'd be fine, and likely safer, with my apple and bottle of water, neglecting an affinity for hunting honest meals at dishonest-looking dives. My father and uncle insisted that we stop in for a meal. Not in a position to protest, I accompanied them; I'd later be glad we did.

----

During my first week in Beijing, really just the week prior, I'd learned that choosing a restaurant is something akin to an oft-ignored set of rules in twenty-somethings' social lives: as last call looms on the hazy horizon, plan accordingly or expect nothing. Don't buy one last round for yourself and the sad-looking girl standing alone over there just because you're tired of talking to your glass. You know, the one clutching, with equal parts indifference and hope, her iPhone in one hand and the rose-tinted remnants of a neglected Cape Cod in the other?

Or do.

Sometimes any company is just the company we're looking for.

(Holding out for more appealing options, i.e. a cleaner, busier restaurant, is rarely a mistake when in China, though.)

----

Heavy vinyl flaps hung from the restaurant's doorframe, discolored and heavily scratched such that transparency gave way to translucence. Perhaps the place and the vinyl had seen better days, days when there was a need for keeping bugs out and cool air in. Inside, a trio of bored women stood fanning themselves near the register. Held open with a brick, the kitchen door behind them revealed an unattended range below rows of hanging woks. With our pick of every table in the un-air-conditioned restaurant, we were led to a table in the corner. The youngest woman passed me with a single menu in hand as I lingered by the register glancing down at a pair of aquariums, one empty and one full. Inside, layers of pink and silver shone from behind black freckles.

A trout-filled tank? A tank full of trout? Just please don't say, "trouts." Mandarin has myriad "measure" words used to describe the appropriate unit of measure for various nouns, analogous, but entirely less esoteric than English terms for various animal groupings- i.e. a congress of baboons, a murder of crows, a crash of rhinos, etc. An issue of culture rather than language, in English, using one of the aforementioned terms might raise eyebrows and inspire whispers about pretense and arrogance. Around the world, where the States' morning is China's night, it's less an issue of favoring the easier option and more one of right and wrong. The situations really are reciprocal, or rather, inverse. Mandarin demands specific measure words while accommodating those said in error. One can always say, "a group of baboons" in English, without offense. Similarly, in Mandarin, a default to the most common measure word (个) won't confuse the listener; but, it's not just an issue of semantics. Matt Pond may have been harsh in saying, "I heard it's modern to be stupid," but it's hard to deny the eroding shores of specificity; we're all on a slide towards the generic and facile.

----

Three bowls of bland noodles later and we were finally through the front gates. Lining the path, bamboo lattices cut through their source. Beyond, a courtyard seemingly designed more for amusement than meditation.
Turtles on turtles. RMB on RMB. RMB on turtles on RMB on turtles over submerged RMB.
I didn't get it, but you get the idea.
We quickly continued towards the temple and slowed upon arrival, taking our time as we walked through the quiet cloisters of Hongluo Si. The scent of incense and wisteria hung in the air. Clouds formed and dissipated in rhythm as the periodic breeze encouraged smoldering offerings and united wisps of tribute.
Exiting through an opening in the brick either objectively short or appropriately tall for typical visitors, we stepped into an alley adorned with flowers, three-leaved in shades of fuchsia and purple. Passing racks of emperor costumes shining golden in the sun, a shelter of coniferous and deciduous quickly rose over us. An empty outdoor cafe stood a comfortable distance from the base of some stairs, the top of which I could not yet see. (Set of stairs? Flight? Stairway? Staircase? Measure words...)

----

My definition of a "long" or "tall" set of stairs is skewed from a long running love-hate relationship with the DC Metro's Red Line.

Convenient, clean (enough), and not nearly as packed as any form of Beijing mass transit, I may feel more appreciative of the Metro system when I'm in DC again. Until then, my sentiment remains harmonious wiht the many who are just as reliant on the Red Line as the Red Line's escalators are unreliable. The numerous, impressively long, and yet often static apparatus are better thought of as "Occasionally Helpful"; I'd rather say "OH" than "Oh no..." Consider this switch not demotion, but reconciliation, a way of putting mind and expectation to rest as legs are called to work. Like a once close friend now distant, eventually you learn to stop expecting much of anything from the Red Line escalators, appreciating the times they work and ignoring the many times they don't. Control what you can.

Standards and expectations are not one and the same. Maintain standards. Manage expectations. Confusing their respective activities is a surefire way to disappointment- just like the disappointment you'll find beneath the ice and that measured pour of hope at last-call that I told you not to order.

----

Crossing Wisconsin Avenue on a night a few chapters behind, I warned that the elevators had stopped running over an hour prior.

Typical. As we approached the lower Bethesda escalator, I looked back and laughed at Endres who followed just a few steps behind me in her heels. The ascending escalator inhaled panel after panel while its lame sibling sat paralyzed, its preferred state.

From afar, some Metro escalators seem to drop off into nothingness before stepping foot on them, an offering to be swallowed by one of Henry Weese's cavernous paneled tunnels.

She paused upon reaching the edge of the precipice, seeming nonplussed but for laughing a characteristically candid, "Oh, shit." Later that evening, I'd think the same thing for the same reason, though different in circumstance. We began our descent, the clap of our soles echoing syncopated in the empty tunnel, mutually sure of each other's company and unsure of the evening remaining. This was nothing familiar, though every afternoon and evening spent with BWmF started in similar fashion. It was an exercise in expectations and eschewing them.

I didn't quite know where I would end up that April evening, let alone where I was going, but I did know how to get there.

----

I'd begun another exercise of expectations in the shade of Hongluo Mountain. My father and uncle mentioned a cable car leading up the mountain to another temple. Still at the bottom of the stairs, I looked up at an experienced woman slowly following her son and grandsons. Call it restlessness or pride, but I was walking. What's 800 stairs? My dad said, "你上去要爬八百楼梯,走快一点吧。" Just as I started my ascent, my father turned, suggesting we first meet at "the further spot," whatever that meant, wherever that was. I didn't look at the map and I didn't think about names; we're all erring towards the generic.
An uncounted 800 stairs brought me to 中门 (Middle Gate), but not to family or the rumored chairlift. Misaligned expectations were the theme of the day and all was right in my world. Remembering that we were supposed to meet at "the further spot," I asked about the chairlift with no success. Assuming, most reasonably, that while referencing stairs, mountains, and the like, "up" and "further" are related directions, and so I went.
Onward. Upward. The uniform concrete stairs privileging the lower regions of the mountain disappeared, replaced with sharp stones set in a river of concrete that hinted at deliberateness, but gave nothing more. Two young boys resting at the start of the upper trail told me I was halfway there- Wherever "there" was, and what "halfway" was relative to, was something I wouldn't figure out for another hour. A blue door sat around a corner as the path turned parallel to the mountain ridge. The words "天门" were neatly painted above the door frame. "Heaven's Gate." How far is halfway? Halfway, or at least it is most of the time.

After another hour or so of climbing, I begun to think I'd made a mistake. Expectation and reality were converging and proving me rather foolish. The path remained hidden by dense brush, occasionally rising for air and providing views of the mountain below. The mountaintop grew closer and closer, and relative to the duration of my climb, it felt like ages since I'd seen another person. Below, the pavilion at 中门 had transformed into an over-embellished Monopoly piece competing in stature with the now minuscule parking lot.
中门 at 300mm
Twenty minutes later, hearing the exuberant yells of three young men from the adjacent mountain, I realized I was likely going the wrong way. "Fuck." (Actually, I muttered a phrase in Mandarin, but the characteristic candidness doesn't demand translation.) The trio passed me on their way down, laughing and yelling to themselves and some stranger far below about their accomplishment while confirming my suspicion of a dreaded "Oh, shit" moment. You've realized you're not going to meet a deadline, you're going the wrong way, you've forgotten that critical item, etc. They can be expected when we blindly continue along a certain path, focusing on how we're getting there, but not on where it is that we're going.

The path cut across the mountainside towards the young men's source. The corner of a pavilion emerged on the adjacent mountain, just barely visible. The certainty of my mistake didn't change my being too close to turn around. We prioritize components of our realities, often vilipending facts more important or deserving, though that wasn't the case here.
I paused at the top of a steep section of stairs, my hand resting on links of heavy chain serving double duty as hand and safety railing. A few more minutes and I was there, wherever "there" was. 天门. Heaven's Gate. It felt good. It felt bad. I was uninspired by the view and worried that I'd inspired worry. The views in autumn are supposedly breathtaking, though knowing what to expect might mitigate that. The breeze demanded a brief pause and I obliged, setting my bag down, dead weight; a celebration of peace, with rustling leaves providing a continuous applause. The search for the still undiscovered cable car, abandoned. I began my descent finally knowing where I was going and how to get there.

Things came to a sudden halt upon reaching the steel gate through which I'd entered; securing the bolt was a large padlock. Knock. Stand. Wait. Eventually someone unlocked the door from the other side. Apparently I was the last one remaining and I was more than grateful to continue my descent without negotiating rows of densely arranged barbed wire.
Grateful for linen and sneakers.
I reached the bottom in just forty minutes; forgetting thoughts of wherever my mind and body had meandered earlier, now focused solely on the very real threat of falling, both on my face and down who knows how many stairs.

I found my father and uncle enjoying a pot of tea at the cafe. In a rare moment all its own, my father waved and laughed excitedly, welcoming me as I came into view. My uncle turned, joining, as I neared the table.  The contents of a half-eaten bag of ketchup-flavored Lay's spilled onto the table alongside an empty cup. "1600 stairs to 天门," my uncle quipped as I sat and the cup filled.
We walked towards the car, away from mismatched expectations and reminders of my first car. Again, I sat my bag, awkwardly tumescent with my father's and my (several) cameras, on the backseat and crawled in after it.

We drove back towards the city, my window open, back against the door, one leg across the backseat, and the other bent with foot flat on the floor. I had two months in Beijing to look forward to, free of expectations and fresh with a reminder to stay that way.

----


A special thanks to those who helped me pull things together and to those who continue to support this endeavor in word and image.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Prince's Mansion

Only upon leaving the Prince's Mansion did I realize I'd been there before. My last visit to Beijing was on a family vacation in 2007. The heat and crowds were the same, my mind was different.
A sanctuary preserved, in form, though not function. 













A pattern repeated. Chatter and boredom rattled across courtyard walls, the amplitude building before a sudden decrescendo to a murmur. Next measure, crescendo, again. Repeat. The closest group stopped. All together now. The guide had called for their attention. As they held their tongues, I held my focus, searching for my own moments of peace, something with which I'd become slightly estranged after two months immersed in the pace and energy of Beijing.

A glance across the courtyard as an alley emptied its contents. Somewhere behind me, the herd of parasols and visors stretched out before mindlessly corralling, again. Elsewhere, repeat.


A pocket of silence sat unheard. I ran over to greet the moment, the ephemera announcing itself in the curious way that one voice might cut through the din of a crowded room. Looking through the viewfinder, unsure about the absence's presence and opportunity, my fingers fumbled between grabbing the aperture ring or focus ring. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I was there and more as someone in front of an alley than behind a camera.

In attempting to capture the quiet, if only to prove to myself that it existed anywhere one might decide, I realized my hastiness may have worked towards that goal. A curated moment of calm through clumsiness. Crooked and out of focus with insufficient depth of field and contrast, the image, crippled without context, does not raise a voice. It makes sense to me, though, even more so when juxtaposed with the following frame, made less than one minute later.
All parties were equally enthused.
I'm reminded to always recognize and appreciate the little moments- quiet or noisy or otherwise imperfect, yet unquestionably distinctive, as they may be.

Personal update:

I'm excited to share this set, as the experience was marked with a rare consistency and forgotten deliberateness. I hope my sight and tone are seen as clearly as the intent for these images was known while shooting.

Also, as of yesterday evening, I've finished scanning the film from China and the last days of summer. I sent my digital camera off to Nikon last month and have plenty of film to fill the gap until then. Amid schoolwork and other responsibilities, it'll take some time to review, write, and post, but I plan for DeTOx, to be caught up and stateside before the month is over.


Monday, September 3, 2012

五道营

Wudaoying.

A city worker on his smoke break.

Dinner at Saffron. Paella. Squid ink and stained teeth.

Monday, August 27, 2012

6/26/12

I hopped on a random bus at around 8:00 one night. I was trying to go somewhere, though nowhere in particular. Sitting backwards behind the driver, I looked out the window at the disappearing view, ignoring what lay ahead, knowing full well that a moment's passing would bring it into sight.

Here's one of my favorite shots, made while walking back to my apartment...
...and he to his.
The late shift.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

798

Forty three degrees in 798. Beijing's art district.


Saturday, August 18, 2012

6/9/12

Two frames from the Olympic Park.