Terra Galleria Photography

China on the run (new images of Beijing)

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I had a great month in Asia, but I was now feeling eager to get back home. The flight to San Francisco was scheduled as an inconvenient 3.40AM departure from Ho Chi Minh City airport, with a 5 hour stopover in Beijing. When I showed up at the airport at 2.30AM, no activity was taking place. Checking the departure board, I didn’t even see any flight between midnight and 7AM. Outside the terminal, two Chinese men were spreading on a bench. They barely spoke any Vietnamese or English, but after comparing tickets, we concluded that we were on the same flight, which had been delayed until 7.15AM. Since they had checked out from their hotel, they had nowhere to go, with the terminal closed to passengers, but at least I could take the taxi back to my auntie’s house in central Saigon to catch a few hours of sleep.

After less than three hours of flight, the plane from Air China made its final approach. A large city emerged from the haze. The flight was supposed to be direct to Beijing. It could have been Beijing, except that even with my patchy knowledge of Chinese geography, I knew that it was too short of a flight. The airline made no announcements in English, however the attendants told us to exit the plane with our luggage. After a month spent in temperatures upwards of 90 degrees, the outside air felt cold. Despite the temperature in Saigon, I had taken a sweatshirt for the flight, but it was far from enough when I exited the plane to step onto the tarmac. I read the name of the airport, Shenzhen, on the side of the bus.

Inside the terminal, several hundred people were lining up for immigration control. At first, the airline staff had us follow them in a special line, but after some waiting, we were re-directed into the regular line. I began commiserating with a vivacious middle-age woman who was standing in line next to me. It turned out that Tina – this was her name – was also flying to San Francisco. Once we made our way to the booths, the officers did not process us, but instead told us to go and sit in a waiting area with not enough seats, while they would process all the travelers behind us. Only when the line was empty, hundreds of passengers later, did they look at the transit passengers. It wasn’t a casual look: an officer took a good ten minutes examining carefully every page of my passport. I noticed that I was given an additional day in the country. After that we were told to hurry up, since the plane had been waiting for us.

When we made our final approach to Beijing, it was past the boarding time for the next flight segment, but the flight attendant said “no problem”. However, as Tina and I got out of the gate, there was not a single sign (at least in English) pointing to the international connecting flights. The best we could do was to wander towards the baggage claim area. From there, we eventually found a sign for domestic connecting flights, and at last an English-speaking person who could point us to the train leading to the international departure terminal. By the time we got there, our plane had departed. We were told to return to the main terminal, and after some paperwork, to wait for a mini-bus to take us to a hotel for the night – without our checked luggage. Fortunately, we were amongst the first to get on that minibus, since the airline had crammed several more passengers than the number of seats !

After being assigned the room, when I showed up in the lobby for dinner, an hostess asked “delayed flight ?”, and pointed me to a huge dinning room with a small buffet set-up. Missed flights seem to be a frequent problem, maybe due to fact that China requires a visa even for transit passengers. Since I had no problems on my previous trips connecting through Taipei or Seoul, I made a mental note to avoid flights connecting on mainland China in the future.

But for now I had the morning there, and I wanted to make sure to forget the inconvenience and take advantage of the opportunity offered by the “free” stopover. I began plotting a quick visit to the city for the next day. Tina and I found out that we were both Vietnamese, and living just a few miles apart in San Jose. We decided to travel together. My roommate, a man serving with the US Army in Germany, was eager to join us, but since his flight departed mid-day, he preferred not to take the chance. Our flight was in the afternoon, with the shuttle scheduled to take us to the airport at 1PM, so we would have the entire morning. Curiously, although internet was available, the hotel did not provide Wi-Fi. I was glad I had a notebook with a ethernet socket, rather than just the iPad. After downloading the PDF chapter for Beijing from Lonely Planet for $5, I figured it out quickly where to go. The problem would be to get there, be sure to get back in time not to miss our flight for a second time, and, last but not least, how to cope with the 15 degrees F (-9 C) temperature using just a thin sweatshirt. The hotel was located near the airport, therefore an hour from central Beijing, far from any businesses. Although they were nice – in a direct, frank way – only a handful of the staff could speak English.

To make an already long story short, as you can see on this page of pictures of Beijing, we managed to visit both the historic and contemporary centers of the Chinese universe, the Forbidden City and Tianamen Square, and I even squeezed in a few street photographs !

Since there was so little time, it was important to work efficiently and make every image count. Because of my large format work, people sometimes see me as a contemplative photographer, but my extensive experience at locating the “best spot” helped me find varied compositions without wasting time on shots that wouln’t be interesting. I made sure to tell a complete story, including the vastness of the ceremonial courtyards as well as the intricate architectural details, the timeless atmosphere of the ancient palaces, as well as the throngs of Chinese tourists. Although the guidebook advised that several visits are needed to see everything in the Forbidden City, in just one hour, I walked almost the entire half-mile length of the palace, and photographed a good fraction of its main structures that I had researched the night before – not to mention souvenir shots for Tina. Since this was quintessential architectural work, I used the superb 24 TSE-II tilt-shift lens, handheld, for many of the images, resulting in precise images without convergence which to me are more faithful than the vast majority of photographs taken in that place. We were running most of the time, but would you have been able to tell by looking at the pictures ?

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