Elena Senti, Milanese photographer, tells The Italian Eye Magazine about her travel into deep Southern China, through Hunan, Guangxi and Yunnan regions, among villages, rice fields and navigable rivers, to the legendary Shangri La, the doorway to Eastern Tibet.
China is the name of a country. Of the most populated nation on the globe. Of a mythic land that has never been as close to us and to our chronicles as now. China is the name of an ancient empire, of a great republic and of a powerful economy. China is also the name of the oxymoron between a still vital tradition and an overwhelming and ever-changing innovation. But most of all China is the name of a universe so vast that results elusive and vague for everybody.
‘What’s China?’ or worse ‘How’s China?’ are question not to be proffered even to a great sinologist because the answer would produce more doubts than certainties. A country that have been unified and became a nation in 221 b.C. (when in England there were still Celts) has a so complex history and tradition that cannot be summarized in any answer. As well as we cannot talk of one China: we shall talk about the many (33), and much different between each other, provinces that form this huge country. This diversity goes from the deserts of Inner Mongolia to the high Tibetan peaks. From the tropical forests in Guangxi and Guangdong to the Yellow River valley. From the shining lights of Shanghai and Beijing to the silence of Gansu Temples.
A trip to China, unless it lasts years and years, will never give a full view on the country, because these differences are to discover slowly and as much slowly to relish. Elena Senti, Milanese photographer, tell us about her travel in a still unspoiled part of the country, Southern China, sharing with The Italian Eye some shots and some tips on an itinerary that includes wonderful places.
International flight to Chengdu.
Arrival in Chengdu and flight to Guilin. Overnight in Guilin.
Entire day spent visiting the rice fields in Dazhai Jinkeng, in the Longsheng region. Visit to Yao minority villages. Strongly suggested the 5/6 hours trekking between Dazhai and the more touristic Ping’an: it’s hard but the views are worth the effort. Overnight in Guilin.
Li River cruise between Guilin and Yangshuo. In the afternoon bike ride in the countryside, among local farms and peasants. Night in Yangshuo.
Visit of Yangshuo and its surroundings. Bamboo boat ride on Lì River. Night in Yangshuo.
Visit of Fuli and Xingping, two little and picturesque villages
Back to Guilin where you can visit the famous Red Flute Cave and Guilin old city with its lake and its pagodas.
Transfer with Driver to Daxu old city. Back to Guilin where in the afternoon you catch a high speed train to Changsha first and than another to Huaihua. From there you catch a private transfer to Fenghuang, little village overlooking the river, where to spend the night.
Entire day to discover Fenghuang.
From Fenghuang to Dehnang, a Miao minority village where to experience Miao traditions. From Dehnang you continue to Zhangjiajie National Park.
Days on tap to explore Zhangjiajie National Park, one of the most gorgeous spots of entire China, with its peaks and its marvelous vegetation. On the 13th day you fly from Zhangjiajie to Kunming, Yunnan.
Full day to admire the spectacular Lunan Stone Forest. Overnight train to Dali, where you get the following morning.
Dali city exploration and visit to the lake temples settled on the mountains around the city.
Departure for Lijiang, one of the best preserved old cities in China. On the road you stop at the Zhoucheng market and at the Bai minority Xizhou village.
Complete visit of Lijiang and of its surroundings.
Early morning departure for the legendary Shangri La (Zhongdian), mythic city that has always been the doorway to Eastern Tibet. Full day between temples and Buddhist monasteries in a very peaceful atmosphere. Overnight in Shangri La.
Flight from Shangri La to Chengdu, where you have to stay overnight.
International flight from Chengdu
Why did you decide to travel to Southern China?
At the very beginning the idea was more to go to Nepal. I had the intention to document the effects of the earthquake on the territory and on people’s life. But owing to health issues (the recent rising of an epidemic plague) I had to change destination. Observing the globe map my eye went straight on China, a place I always wanted to visit. At that point I started to surf on Google analyzing the territory and Chinese provinces looking for three of them to visit.
The research was long and hard because first China is highly interesting everywhere and then because of its size: to find three interesting to me and close to each other provinces was not an easy game. I also didn’t want to go to any big city or touristic spot during my stay so my decision was at the end to visit Guangxi, Yunnan and Hunan, all the three of them in the very Southern China.
Was the China you found the same you were expecting?
Absolutely. In my mind China was exactly how it is. I imagined breathtaking landscapes and interesting faces. And so it was. As regards the food…. Maybe I had been too hopeful.
What surprised you the most?
Definitely the beauty of landscapes. There are some natural wonders that are impossible to find anywhere else.
And what disappointed you the most?
What could sometimes vanish the beauty of the places is the immense mass of people. China has over one billion inhabitants and you easily notice it. Everywhere you go you find long queues and huge crowds. Is very hard to feel lonely and in peace within the main touristic spots. Moreover nobody speaks English so it becomes very hard to communicate with them and make them understand what you are trying to say.
The most beautiful venue you went to?
Surely Zhangjiajie National Park. This is the place James Cameron took inspiration from to design Avatar colossal movie scenography. The National Park is formed by high stone peaks covered by vegetation on their top. When clouds thicken at their base they really look like moving in the fog, exactly how in the movie.
Is rural China still unspoiled or do you feel the progress?
I’m sure that peasant’s life has not changed very much in the past hundreds years and even the places might be still very similar to how they were in the past. Of course nowadays you find a souvenir shop almost everywhere and you see farmers enjoying their smartphone but, all in all, the atmosphere is still the same of our imagination.
The most incredible experience of your travel?
To do horse riding in the national park without any noise except for the one of the horseshoes on the ground.
And the worse?
The food poisoning in Yunnan, when I was at 3000 meters high in a guest house without heating. Fever and pains for one week.
How did you like the population?
They are not that bad after all, apart from the complete lack of hygiene they’re famous for. Sometimes very rude (pushing to get ahead) but always very helpful. Definitely a noisy population with no rules while eating.
Would you suggest anybody to go for your travel in Southern China?
Yes, but I would suggest not to do it in July or August (when I did it), because of the incredibly high temperatures, the bad weather with fog and lack of sun, and because the plenty of Chinese tourist overcrowding the main touristic spots.
Which tips would you give to somebody going for this trip?
First of all you need to hire a private driver that drives you around because for some transfers there are nor trains nor airplanes and public transports as buses are extremely slow or totally absent. Some distances are very long and signals are written only in idioms so it’s even impossible to rent a car without a driver.
To photography lovers: tips?
For those who love portraits I would suggest to penetrate well among ethnic minorities. But never forget to have bills with you because they always want a tip to be portrait. For landscapes lovers I repeat myself: go to Hunan National Parks, simply stunning.
Words by Federico Sigali
Pictures by Federico Sigali
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