Exploring China with photographer and author Mark Vranicar

Culture | by David Perry
Posted: January 19th, 2011 | Updated: January 11th, 2012 | Comments
China Photography_travel photography_chinese culture_chinese landscapes Mark Vranicar enjoys the heights of Hua Shan If it's become cliché to say that China today is a land of striking contrasts, that doesn't make it any less true, as Mark Vranicar's new book Expressing the Orient: A Photo Exploration of China makes clear on page after page. Mark, who lived in Xi'an from 2006 to 2009, blogs aboSnowut China regularly, bringing his first-hand experiences into dialogue with those of others, often framing the ongoing conversation with considerations of China's language, culture and vast history. Here, Mark talks about his book and about his ongoing fascination with the Middle Kingdom. Buy Mark's book here or enter our Ctrip China Travel Photo Contest for a chance to win a prize copy! >>> China Travel: What brought you to China and why did you choose to settle down in Xi'an? Mark Vranicar: I wanted to do something abroad after I graduated from college. I knew that I'd regret it if I didn't get outside of the US on some kind of an adventure while still young. At first, the plan was to go to Japan. The JET program fell through though and I had to scramble to find something else to do. After Japan, I looked into going to Chile, Taiwan, and South Korea. As I was trying to figure everything out, I met a woman in my hometown of Kansas City who was involved in the Kansas City/Xi'an Sister City Association. She knew some people in Xi'an who could help me get a job teaching English. I didn't have the most positive impression of China in my mind at the time—human rights, pollution, etc.—and was hesitant at first. But the more I thought about it—booming economy, rich culture, opportunity for a cushy teaching job—the more I came around on going to mainland China as a good idea. The initial plan was to be in China for one year and then go back to the States. I ended up loving life in China and stayed for three and a half years. Mark Vranicar - Veiled Mark Vranicar - Taking a Break China Travel: Your photos and blogging clearly show a deep connection to China and its people. Are you planning on returning? And if so, where, of all the places you've visited, would you want to live and why? Mark Vranicar: I definitely still have a very strong love towards China. Although I'm not experiencing daily life in China living here in Kansas City, I'm reading tons of books about China and am getting a good academic/historic background on the country I lacked while living there. I would not be opposed to living in China again. Right now, though, the US feels like where Qian, my wife who I met in Xi'an, and I should be. I suppose I could see that changing one day. No matter where we end up wanting to live, we have two massive and, in my opinion, great countries to chose from. If Qian and I do stay in the States more long-term, she's a teacher and has summers off every year, we're going to be taking plenty of vacations back to see her family and travel in the Middle Kingdom. I'm already really excited for the trip we'll be taking back to Xi'an next year.   Expressing the Orient: A Photo Exploration of China, by Mark Vranicar China Travel: You feature some beautiful photographs of people throughout China as they go about their daily business. Are you the "shoot first, ask later" type, or do you generally ask before you take portraits of people? And have you ever had anyone get angry or refuse to be photographed? Mark Vranicar: I don't generally ask people about taking photos of them. Taking portraits—whether you ask or don't ask—is always a little tricky. I've had people cover their face or tell me to get away and I have no qualms leaving them alone. But most of the people I shot didn't seem to mind, or at least weren't vocal about it. Portraits are hard to pull off. But they can be the most moving photographs. People like looking at pictures of other people, especially exotic faces from faraway lands. China Travel: You juxtapose photos wonderfully, amplifying the "pictures say 1,000 words" effect by at least a factor of two. A few sets of side-by-side photos, from the Leshan Buddha and Mao's portrait looking out over Tian'anmen Square from the Forbidden City to the ruins of the Silk Road oasis town of Jiaohe alongside the towers of Shanghai's Lujiazui, provoke enough thought to fill a graduate seminar. Did you set out to make these comparisons, or did they sort of emerge on their own as you were putting the book together? Mark Vranicar: I'm glad to hear that you were able to notice this aspect of the book and really appreciate the kind words. The placement of those photos is intentional. I wasn't necessarily taking the photos thinking, "This photo of Silk Road ruins will look great next to the Pudong skyline photo in my book." But in reviewing all of my shots for the book and deciding how they'd be placed, I was very conscious about which photos would be placed next to others. I tried to play a lot with contrasting themes—ancient history, rapid growth, new wealth, traditional culture. China is a very confusing place. I'm obsessed with the place and am often bewildered about what to make of what is going on there. I tried to express that sentiment in the book. mao-dafo China Travel: You really capture a side of China many people—both in China and around the world—don't seem to know much about: The amazing beauty and diversity of its natural, outdoor spaces. What would you say to someone who says, "Great, but what about all the pollution and industrial overkill? The blue-sky paradise you showcase isn't the real China?" Mark Vranicar: I didn't create the photos in Adobe Photoshop. They are real. Most foreigners who go to China either visit or live in Beijing, Shanghai, and maybe a handful of the other largest coastal cities. If one limits one's self to large commercial and industrial centers, then, yes, China can seem to be a dystopian hell. But I'd contend that only spending time in those places isn't seeing the real China. There are countless places of natural beauty in China. I've only seen and photographed a small slice of them. Don't get me wrong, China has serious pollution and environmental problems. My Chinese hometown of Xi'an has horrendous air quality, one of the worst in China. The city is surrounded by mountains that you can't see because of the smog. The air is that bad! Saying that, there are places in China that have not been spoilt.   "Father and Son" in Pingyao, by Mark Vranicar China Travel: Do you get different reactions to your book from your Chinese and Western friends? Mark Vranicar: Everyone who's seen the book on the internet or in person has been really supportive and encouraging. China Travel: From all your travels, do you have a single superlative moment that you'd like to share? Perhaps the funniest or scariest or most inspiring or __________.... Mark Vranicar: There were so many highs and lows and everything in between traveling in China. I'll highlight a few.
  • Being able to use my Chinese to get to talk with locals and people on trains was always fun. I went to China knowing no Chinese. I never conquered Chinese to a "fluent" level, but I studied a fair amount and got to a point where I could carry conversations with people on a wide array of topics. There are countless random people who I ran into that'll be some of my fondest memories.
  • Seeing the five peaks of Hua Shan during the day is unreal. The steep cliffs, the Daoist temples, the thousands upon thousands of steps going straight up. It's a magical place. Several other mountainous places also stand out to me – Emei Shan, Yangshuo, Karakul Lake, the Great Wall. I guess growing up in flat-as-a-pancake Kansas has led me chasing mountains all around the world.
  • Being able to share China with so many people I care about was special. My parents and brother came over for a few weeks in 2007. I had several friends from the US come over. I traveled extensively with friends I made in China. And my wife, Qian, and I have great memories traveling outside of Xi'an. I realized that I don't like traveling by myself. I need companionship when on the road.
  • Getting giardiasis (a stomach parasite) at Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan Province was one of my worst experiences in China. I didn't have any antibiotics and was in a remote place with no doctors or pharmacies to help me out. My friend who I was traveling with, Joseph, got the bug too. We were a mess. I lost 15 pounds in two weeks before I got everything figured out. Needless to say, but I spent a lot of time in the bathroom those two weeks with problems coming from every direction.
  • The scariest moment was in Xiahe in Gansu Province. My friend, Andy, and I were the first foreigners in months to see the Labrang Monastery after the Tibetan riots in 2008. It's a long story, but we were able to buy bus tickets to Xiahe in October of 2008 when it was illegal for foreigners to go there (I'm not sure whether foreigners are allowed to go there now). We hadn't realized the restrictions on foreigners traveling there and were simply interested in seeing the Tibetan Buddhist monastery. Upon entering the city limits of Xiahe, armed soldiers donning full riot gear ran onto the bus to interrogate the foreigners. They started barking Chinese to us. I definitely broke a sweat during that scene. Everything worked out in the end and we got to visit the monastery. But it was a pretty intense entrance to the city.
  Mark Vranicar at Lake Karakul China Travel: Do you have a favorite photo from the book? Mark Vranicar: I have several that I really enjoy – Monks, Teenagers in Tiananmen Square, and Father and Son, to name a few. But my absolute favorite photo from the book has to be the very last page. It's a picture of me taken by my brother, David, at Karakul Lake in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region near the border of Pakistan. This photo is at the top of my blog and is my Facebook profile picture. This picture is the ultimate to me—I'm surrounded by several of the tallest mountains in the world, the clouds seem to be hovering just above me, there is a beautiful lake in front of me. I'm happy knowing that I can go to my grave having been to a place as unworldly as Lake Karakul. China Travel: Back to Xi'an: You have photos from all over China, but only one photo from your adopted Chinese hometown—the great shot from the soup kitchen in Xi'an. Are you planning to do a Xi'an only book with all the photos you must have of the city? Were you more interested in travel, and Xi'an felt too domestic? Or what? (By the way, is that the same soup kitchen that Xi'an-based blogger Richard Frost talks about in his China Travel Blogger Spotlight)? Mark Vranicar: There are a few other shots from in and around Xi'an—the pics of Wal-Mart, Starbucks, and KFC—and a few from the countryside near Xian—the library with the portraits of Lenin in the background, the Buddhas at Famen Si, and Hua Shan—off the top of my head. But yes, Xi'an isn't that prominently featured in the book. I noticed this after I finished writing the intro to the book where I talk up Xi'an so much but then follow that up with very few photos. I think the lack of Xi'an photos has to do with it being my "home city" and feeling uncomfortable going around the place acting like a tourist. There's certainly a lot to see there. I'm just not the one to take photos there. The soup kitchen in this book is the same soup kitchen that Richard wrote about. Richard and I are both friends with Tony Day, the founder of the Yellow River Soup Kitchen. Tony is doing so much for the people who need it most. His work and his organization's work are truly inspiring. "Monks" by Mark Vranicar

China Travel: What was life in Xi'an like as an expat? It seems like there's a pretty tight expat community on one hand, but like it's also a place where you can immerse yourself in Chinese language and culture more easily than in Shanghai or Beijing, where so many expats get by for years with minimal Chinese.

Mark Vranicar: I'd say that your assessment of Xi'an is pretty accurate. There are foreigners living there (and a lot always traveling through as well). But the numbers pale in comparison to some of the other large cities in China like Beijing, Shanghai, or even Chengdu. I like the fact that there are foreigners living there while at the same time the city isn't teeming with them. It's a really nice balance. I heartily recommend Xi'an as a place to live for a foreigner wanting to live in a culturally unique city that still is still very accessible to a newbie to China. One other positive Xi'an has going for it is that the locals there speak a relatively "clean-sounding" Mandarin. It's a great place to learn Chinese. There is a local Shaanxi dialect, but most people speak Mandarin in a similar way to the Beijing standard. Many of the other cities in China foreigners flock to—Shanghai, Chongqing, and Chengdu to name a few—have "funkier" sounding accents or dialects. Expressing the Orient: A Photo Exploration of China, by Mark Vranicar

China Travel: As a seasoned China traveler, what are your top five pieces of advice for people making their first visit to the Middle Kingdom?

Mark Vranicar:

1. Don't travel during Chinese national holidays if at all possible. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people take to the rails, streets, and airports during the three, week-long national holidays celebrated throughout the year. The lines and congestion can be unimaginable. Spring Festival begins on the lunar New Year, Labor Day begins May 1st, and the National Holiday is October 1st.

2. Get out of major cities, at least a little bit. If you go to Beijing, go to the farther away sections of the Great Wall (Simatai is a great choice). If you go to Xi'an, go a couple hours east to climb (or take the cable car to the top of) Hua Shan. If you go to Chengdu, get out to see the Buddha at Leshan.

3. Eat local food. Chinese food varies wildly. Every city has local dishes and flavors that you'll never find in a Chinese restaurant in the West.

4. Don't spend all of your time fraternizing with backpackers in youth hostels. I got real tired of this scene the longer I stayed in China. It's fine to hang out with other travelers, but it's important to remember to get out into the location where you are traveling. Go have a beer and eat street food with locals on the street. Take a map and randomly walk the streets. Try to remember that you didn't travel halfway around the world just to hang out with western hippies.

5. Try to learn a few basic words or phrases in Chinese. Chinese is not impossible, especially if you just want to learn "survival Chinese." Numbers, food, and a few verbs will take you a long ways. Chinese people won't think you are stupid if you try. In fact, they will be impressed with whatever you spit out. Knowing at least a little Chinese will make your travel experiences a lot more fulfilling.

"Teenagers in Tian'anmen Square" by Mark Vranicar
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