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Yunnan: Shutterbugs' paradise
2014-02-27
By Peter Zhang

For shutterbugs like me, Yunnan is definitely a paradise.

Unlike other places around the country, which may offer one or two interesting attractions at one time or another, Yunnan, nestling in southwest China, provides endless themes of photography in all seasons.

Calling itself “Colorful Yunnan,” the province boasts not only snow-capped mountains, blue lakes, red soil, white waterfalls, green woods and flowers of all colors all year round, but also ancient towns, distinct features of subtropical highlands and rich multiethnic culture, since it’s home to people of 52 nationalities out of the country’s total of 56.

Last week, with a group of photographers, mostly amateur and a couple of professionals, I flew from Shanghai to Yunnan to capture some iconic scenes in spring there, namely, the bright yellow rape flowers and the terraced paddy fields, and also its perpetual red soil. It’s my third pilgrimage to this heavenly land in recent years.

After arriving in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, at noon last Sunday, we took a bus heading directly to Luoping to capture some shots of the famous rape flowers there before sunset.

Louping is a county about 230 kilometers to the east of Kunming. In spring, photographers, professional and amateur alike, are smitten by hundreds of acres of rape flowers there, which paint many valleys golden.

In some places, the swaths of rape flowers spiral all the way down to the bottom of valleys and local people call them “screw fields,” as layers of circular-shaped fields resembling the lines of a screw.

We arrived there just in time for sunset, the opportune moment to shoot pictures of the golden valleys before it got too dark.

All of us climbed to a mountain top for a panoramic view and by the end of the day, everyone came away with some satisfactory shots.

Encouraged by the good beginning, we planned to rise early next morning to glean some sunrise shots.

But no such luck this time as all mountains and valleys in the area were shrouded in heavy white fog in the morning. We were determined not to allow the bad weather to dampen our enthusiasm, so we ventured out anyway.

With a visibility of less than 50 meters, we groped in the dense fog for hours, hoping the sun would break out soon.

Locals told us that in weather like that, the sun could come out as late as 1 o’clock in the afternoon. As we didn’t want to miss our schedule for the next stop, we couldn’t wait till then, but neither did we want to leave empty handed. So, we decided to shoot a few close-ups of rape flowers laden with beads of tiny dewdrops.

Against unfavorable odds, flexibility often helps us shutterbugs to come away with some good shots.

Our next stop was Yuanyang, known for its terraced paddy fields.

The Hani people have inhabited the Yuanyang area since ancient times and they have built more than 10,000 hectares of terraced paddy fields along the slopes of high mountains. The fields are still an essential part of their life today.

The best time to shoot pictures of the terraced fields is in early spring, after the fields are ploughed and filled with water, but before they are planted with rice seedlings.

The still water turns the fields into numerous mirrors, reflecting the blue sky and floating white clouds.

Especially at dawn or dusk, when the clouds change colors with the rays of the sun, a whole mountain slope of terraced paddy fields looks like a colossal piece of stained-glass artwork.

We were lucky this time as the sunset was nearly perfect. The only problem was that there were not enough clouds in the sky, thus fewer changing colors in the water of the fields.

But most of us were satisfied with the shots we had captured there and all of us were deeply impressed by the extensive expanses of paddy fields.

Yuanyang is now a relatively beaten track as it attracts millions of tourists every year. Last year, more than 7 million people visited.

We were told that there were more terraced paddy fields in neighboring Honghe County and that was just the place listed in our itinerary after Yuanyang.

We arrived in Honghe in the evening, not the right time to shoot photos of paddy fields in deep valleys. So, we planned an early session the next day.

The weather was quite promising at the beginning, but then we experienced showers during the day and thick fog by evening. As a result, we missed many opportunities for a nice shot.

However, we were still impressed by the distinct features of the terraced paddy fields there.

In Honghe, as the terraced paddy fields are built on steeper mountain slopes, they are not as extensive as the paddy fields in neighboring Yuanyang, but they are definitely more poetic.

For instance, some paddy fields here are dotted with slender willow trees, which were reportedly planted there accidently after some local rice growers left behind their sticks made of willow branches in the fields after they called it a day.

The trees’ reflections in the water of the paddy fields looks like musical notes written on a stave.

Another good thing about Honghe is that it’s less crowded than Yuanyang.

Our third destination was Dongchuan, about 160 kilometers to the northeast of Kunming. Here, we had prepared to take pictures of the red soil.

Rich in iron, magnesium and other metals, the soil there displays a deep, burning red rarely seen anywhere else. And it is said that the Dongchuan red land is the second largest in the world. The largest area of red soil is in Brazil, but many believe it’s not as awesome as the one in Dongchuan.

Experienced photographers will tell you that the best seasons to shoot pictures of the red soil there are May, September and November.

This is because capturing an ideal shot there requires at least three conditions:

First, moisture. Moisture can bring out the deep color of the soil. In May, there is a lot of rain, which will soak the soil and make it look redder. But it also calls for great patience in waiting for the short spell of sunshine during the month. To ensure that you come home with ideal shots, you’d better plan to stay for a few nights there.

We were there in the wrong season. But luckily, we arrived just after a three-day snow melted, thus the soil contained enough moisture.

Second, the land should be newly ploughed. Ploughing can turn the more moisturized soil up and expose it to the light. We also had this condition available as local farmers were busy engaged in the spring ploughing.

Third, the ideal light. In the accentuating crepuscular light, the soil can become so red that it might make you feel heartache. Here, we missed it totally.

The first morning in Dongchuan, we got up very early and rushed to an advantageous point to wait for the sunrise in freezing cold.

After shivering in icy gusts for nearly one hour, it began to dawn. But just about the time the sun was to cast its first rays over the tip of a high mountain, a large, black cloud floated over and completely blocked the sun.

When the sun eventually climbed out from behind the black cloud, the right moment to capture a dream picture had already slipped away.

Some photographers, however, prefer the season when some plots are covered with new or ripe crops while others are newly ploughed so that the sharp contrast among strong red, green, yellow, white and other colors could remind people of Van Gough’s oil paintings. Others liken the scene to “a color palette left behind on the Earth by God.”

That’s why both tourists and shutterbugs are advised to visit Dongchuan in September and November.

How time flies when one indulges oneself in a hobby. Our one-week trip in Yunnan soon came to an end.

But when we got aboard the plane back to Shanghai, we had already begun to plan our next visit to the shutterbugs’ paradise in southwest China.

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