From the heights of Central China, Tibet being just around the corner, we travel over highs and lows to the earthquake-shaken country of Myanmar, home of Nobel Prize winner for peace, Aung San Suu Kyi.
During the whole trip we are separated from Tibetians living in China, and are only allowed to shoot under strict regulations. We meet very friendly and hospitable people in the midst of splendid surroundings.
Tuesday, November 6, 2012 - We have been in the country for two days now, our luggage had disappeared further ado, but reappeared just as suddenly. We travelled with the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, the highest railway of the world. Most of the trip between Golmud and Lhasa is at an altitude of 4,000 metres. Today is our first day with the team. We are in Golmud, which seems only to consist of big streets and new, tall buildings. Many of the supermarkets have basements. They were built as bunkers during the time of the Cold War in fear of a Soviet nuclear attack. "Dig deep tunnels and store grain", was said at the time. Since we plan to travel up to an altitude of 4,700 metres the following day, Jürgen organized a doctor who will check our pulse to see if we are fit for high altitudes.
The "pulse doctor" with his weathered face sits in a traditional Chinese subterranean pharmacy right next to a modern pharmacy, containing a countless number of ointments, crèmes and shampoos. We are all at best health.
On our way back, the streets are totally packed - three to four vehicles are driving side by side on a two-track road. Then the crash - "Vasco" (one of our vans) collided on a confusing junction. Luckily, no one was injured, but both vehicles are badly damaged on the body. Our van has several dents in the front, but is still able to drive.
Friday, November 11, 2012 - After a hearty breakfast with broth and pastry we head for the Chaka Salt Lake. This typical chloride-salt lake has an area of 105 square kilometres. The salt of the Chaka Lake is exported in over 20 provinces and cities, even to Nepal and Japan. 440 million tons of salt are said to lie here. We travel at an altitude of 3,500 meters and carefully drive over a mountain pass. On the other side of the road, an endless row of trucks drive at walking pace.
Then we are stuck, a lorry missed a curve in front of us. On the other side, a driver tries to get his semitrailer started. After two hours, someone arrives with tools for the broken down lorry. A kind of flamethrower and hammer are used to repair the lorry's axle.
Finally, they begin to regulate the traffic and we can continue. A big relief, since it has begun to snow. The landscape is slowly changing, hardly any mountains anymore, but vast country as far as the eye can see, and big herds of yak. We are at the Qinghai Lake, the largest lake in China.
During the summer, this is a paradise for birds and overrun by tourists. It is already frozen here and there, the sun dipping the lake in a cold light. In the evening we reach Xining, and this time we can check in without any difficulties.
Saturday/ Sunday/ Monday, November 10, 11 and 12, 2012 - Unfortunately, our trip falls together with the 18th Party of Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. The security precautions are extreme, before each interview we first have to ask our Chinese escort. Several self-immolations of Tibetans taint the Party of Congress beforehand. In the district of Tongrem, here in the province of Qinghai, a person ignited himself on Wednesday out of protest against how the minority is treated. The convent, in which we wanted to shoot, lies in an area inhabited by Tibetans. So we don’t get a permit to shoot. We are baffled. And hope that it won't continue like this.
We found a garage for both our vans. "Vasco" needs to have the front side repaired, and “Maggi's” power steering does not sound good. Then the bad news; the hydraulic steering pump is defect, a new one needs to be ordered from Germany.
In the meantime, Thomas and Jürgen have discovered a market around the corner. We find out that it is the biggest agricultural wholesale market in Northwestern China. For the moment, we are allowed to shoot there, but without interviews, since we are not registered for the market. Then we dive into the jumble of merchants, three-wheeled motorized carts, and the hullabaloo of people. We are fascinated. On an area of 16,000 square metres you find all that you desire: Cabbage, leeks, radishes, garlic, Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, cucumbers and many vegetables and fruits that we don't know.
Finally we are allowed to shoot interviews at a temperature of 10 degrees Celsius. Around a small fire site, merchants are sitting and playing chess next to three giggling women exchanging the latest news.
At a fish stall we hook up with a cook who is bargaining for goods. Would he allow us to shoot in his restaurant the following day? We are invited on Monday. In the narrow little kitchen Thomas shoots incredible images of burning flames in the wok, of shouting cooks and exotic dishes.
Rounding it up, we toast to the team and to us with a 20 year-old schnapps.
Tuesday/ Wednesday, November 13 and 14, 2012 - Since the pump for "Maggi's" power steering hasn't arrived yet, we have to stay put in Xining involuntarily. Thomas found out about a temple high up in the rock grottos. It is supposed to be a Taoist temple.
Contrary to our expectations, our escort accompanies us there. A Chinese proverb states; "The emperor is far away and heaven is high". We can shoot, but without interviews today, perhaps tomorrow, when we have a permit. The afternoon sun shimmers on the blue-yellow wooden ornaments on the temple roof. The silhouette of the city can hardly be seen because of the smog of Xining.
On the 14th of November, the Chinese commemorate the dead souls with the Guijie Festival. We are lucky to experience colourful liveliness in the temple. Relatives come and bring fruits and cakes so that the souls of their dead ancestors feel well. The atmosphere of the morning service is so festive that it touches us deeply. In the evening we meet up with a representative of the VW workshop in Xining at the airport. We are waiting for Jin who will bring the spare part from Germany. As he lands, we are all happy owners of a three stage hydraulic pump.
Thursday, November 15, 2012 - Early in the morning we drive to the VW workshop on the edge of town to pick up "Maggi". We interrupt the morning roll call of the employees. In an almost military-style ceremony, the employees commit to good customer service and more. Today we want to drive about 500 kilometres towards Chengdu. We are rewarded with an incomprehensibly beautiful landscape.
555 Yellow River, November 15, 2012 - We all pause for a moment for the beautiful view. After only 200 kilometres we come to a police check of the town of Tongren. They tell us the snow fall is too strong. But the real reason is another: We would have to drive through the town of Hezuo, but it is completely sealed off, since Tibetans live there. Someone saw Thomas shooting out of the bus and reported us.
Xu Shusheng, our Chinese escort, is able to convince the police, but we are to avoid Tongren. To make sure that we actually do that, the head of the public security office accompanies us personally for the next 150 kilometres - with emergency lights. It is absurd. We don't intend to shoot a film about the Tibetan minority. But they obviously want to avoid us even mentioning them at all. Then the escort leaves us. Carefully, we drive over the icy mountain pass at an altitude of 3,500 metres in total darkness. Around 10 p.m. we arrive in Linxia.
Monday to Tuesday, November 19 - 20, 2012 - We actually notice that we are heading south, we have 15 degrees Celsius, a few boats are on Lugu Lake. The lake lies on the southeast foothills of the Himalaya, it is said that the people of the Musuo live here in a matriarchy, at least the women are supposed to be in charge. The water is as smooth as glass and the mountains look like a film set. The Chinese spend their holidays here, especially the rich ones.
At our arrival, we are to meet La Zu, the cultural official of Luguhu. As our Chinese escort tells her of our wish to meet up with one of the people of Musuo, the modern, attractive young woman pauses for a moment, then invites us to her home. She lives on a farm. The flat main building is 200 years old, flanked with three-story high buildings to the left and right of it. Behind the residence live ten pigs, right next to a corn field.
The fire is cozily crackling, a bit of light shines through the roof hatch into the windowless room, which is constantly filled with smoke. We are in the house of La Zu's mother. She is a Musuo and in charge here. She is a cautious woman of 57 years with a warm, dark voice. She introduces us to her extended family; two brothers, two sisters, a cousin and her 12-year old son.
She briefly explains how the household works: they all consult each other, but she has the last say. One of the biggest decisions was about having the new building be leased. She had the idea to lease it to a hotel operator, and did not regret it. Her brother of about 55 years of age nods in approval.
The Musuos live with their grandmother’s family under the same roof. Marriages don't exist. After dark the men come over to the women and return to their own maternal households the next morning. More than one partner during a lifetime is normal for the women, as well as for the men, but not at the same time! If a man comes over, he hangs his hat outside on a hook, an obvious sign. Visitation relationships without weary divorce disputes.
Wednesday to Friday, November 21 - 23, 2012 - We are looking forward to the warmer Dali, a day's journey away from Lake Lugu. Dali lies in Yunnan, between the mountains and Lake Erhai, and awaits us with 20 degrees Celsius.
The modern centre on the other side of town was costly and beautifully renovated. Strolling through the spacious streets is a lot of fun.
Saturday to Sunday, November 24 - 25, 2012 - We leave Dali, which has enchanted us, and head over to Ruili, the town bordering Myanmar. We immediately are caught in a giant traffic jam that costs us four hours of travel time. Luckily, it is as warm as in spring time, and Thomas, our cameraman, uses the time to dry his freshly washed socks.
We arrive after dark. Big shopping streets, all very clean and rather slow-paced. The city seems to be relaxed. But Ruili is supposed to have changed a great deal since the end of the trade barrier between Myanmar and China. Casinos and night clubs emerged, and drugs are circulating, despite the drastic punishments. But this evening we notice nothing of all of that.
Monday, November 26, 2012 - We are at the border from China to Myanmar. During our customs clearance, we are standing between two giant trucks, which supply Myanmar. Beer, household goods, spare parts for automobiles, textiles - 85 percent of all goods come from the neighbouring China. Then we slowly roll over to the other side. Shin Daewe, a documentary filmmaker, awaits us in Myanmar. She has prepared our journey.
On our entry into Myanmar, the officer on duty turns our papers around and around. "It is unbelievable, unbelievable! Are they really legitimate?" Shin Daewe must have the papers verified per fax from Yangon. Half an hour later, the moment arrives: We are allowed to drive on! Ingo and Gregor are the first Europeans entering the country in their own vehicle for the last 20 years. An indescribable feeling! We head for Lashio to stop for the night. On our way there, we see astonished people everywhere waving at us. It takes us six hours to drive the 190 kilometres to Lashio on small, bumpy mountain roads. In the evening we sit in the warm tropical air in a small cook shop and are plain happy to be here.