Bashang in the grip of winter is a place of extreme beauty. However many lovers of photography might be deterred from going there by the severity of the weather conditions and the dangers of driving on the winter roads. Here temperatures of minus 20 degrees Celsius are routine.
Last January at the invitation of friends, I plucked up the courage to brave the adverse weather and join them on a journey to Bashang.
On the first day we left Beijing in a cross-country vehicle and reached Chengde in the evening. Arriving at the Hunting Ground the next morning we bought overcoats and boots at a local military goods store and had our vehicle refueled before we left for Bashang.
Driving on snow-covered roads
We drove at a cautious 50-60 km per hour on ice and snow covered roads. Our route took us first through the forests and then with much excitement we emerged into a mountainous environment wondrously festooned with icicles.
It was 2 pm when we arrived at the Hongshan Horse Ranch. The streets were deserted and all the shops, restaurants and hotels were closed. We had accommodation at the Dahuzi (big beard) Hotel. Despite being heated throughout the indoor temperature was only 5-6 degrees Celsius. As the indoor toilets were already frozen, we just had to find a public toilet.
Photography in freezing conditions
We started off towards Huamugou at 3pm. We found the grasslands outside the horse-ranch lying beneath a blanket of snow. In the distance the hills were clothed in white. It was difficult to keep to the track and our vehicle got stuck in a ditch. So it was on with the overcoats and off to our destination with tripods and cameras on our backs.
Even walking through the snow for just for a little while left us struggling for breath. With some difficulty, we reached higher ground to find an undulating chain of hills laid out before us. A few lonely trees stood here and there. Their bare winter branches stood out dark and statuesque contrasting with their snow-covered world.
Quickly we set our cameras on their tripods. Speed was also the order of the day in taking pictures. To have worked slowly would have risked our breath obscuring the viewfinders as it turned instantly to condensation and what’s more there was a very real prospect of having one’s face frozen onto the back of the camera.
It was necessary to take account of the light reflected from the snow misleading the light sensor and one or two stops were needed to compensate.
Falling under the spell of so many artistic opportunities we were soon fully absorbed in our work, our fingers unaware of the icy cold. It was our camera batteries than succumbed first to the temperature. As it started to become even colder at sunset we had to hurry back.
The cold brings a special beauty to the landscape
On the third day we went to shoot an icy wonderland on a hill in the Yudaokou pastureland. Thanks to a freezing mist that had descended during the previous night and early that morning the branches of the trees were hung heavy with sparkling icicles. The sunshine playing on the white vastness presented a scene of dazzling beauty.
In the afternoon we went to Jiangjunpao to shoot more photographs. We lost our way and left the vehicle to go on foot to a vantage point on a nearby hillside. Here we were able to capture more scenic beauty on film. We were presented with a pure and un-spoilt panorama of dark trees set against a white landscape under the blue of the sky.
It gave us opportunities for essentially very simple but at the same time outstanding compositions. Later the scene was transformed with fresh beauty as a weak yellowish light from the setting sun at dusk worked its magic on the landscape and at the horizon.
On the fourth day the outdoor temperature dropped to 35 degrees below zero and we went to Hamuba in Huamugou. Every day at 9am the herdsmen of the village take their sheep out to pasture providing excellent subjects for the camera.
On the fifth day we were hit by icy winds that pierced one right to the marrow.
One feature of our visit was that as it took a long time to warm up the vehicle, we had to take our photos in areas relatively close to the village. Consequently we got to know the routine of the cattle, sheep and horses at the Hongshan Horse Ranch. In the morning and evening we would find a high point from which to capture them on film as they made their way backwards and forwards between their pens and the grazing.
The thermometer kept dropping. It became so cold that it was not possible for us to visit such scenic spots as the Grand Canon, Donggou and Xidapao.
It was only reluctantly that we eventually set off on the journey home.
Transportation: Train journeys and air flights to Beijing are available in most big cities. Minibus services (following Jingshun Road) from Beijing to Chengde, take some 3 hours. With these it is necessary to change at Chengde where there are plenty of minibuses available for the journey of some 5 hours (at 20 yuan plus) to the Hunting Ground. Alternatively you may take an 8 hours' bus ride direct from the Xizhimen Bus Station in Beijing to the Hunting Ground. A minibus service is available from the Hunting Ground to Hongshan Horse Ranch at about 17 yuan. A car hire service is also available at about 250 yuan per day.
Accommodation: Hotels are available at all locations; expect to pay upwards of 100 yuan a day. However in the depths of a severe winter, only the Dahuzi Hotel stays open for business at Hongshan Horse Ranch (40 yuan per bed). At the hotel you can get a jeep together with a guide for 240 yuan per day.
(China.org.cn April 21, 2008)