I just got back from the most incredible trip to China (thanks to my friends at Ztylus) and, though I'm going to share everything about my experience, I thought I'd give you a quick TLDR before digging in.

  1. Chinese food can never be enjoyed outside of China ever again once you've had it there.
  2. QR codes are everywhere, widely accepted, and are super easy to use.
  3. America thinks they know how to do big. China actually does.
  4. The Chinese people are incredibly friendly and generous.
  5. The Chinese language might look complicated, but structurally it's beautifully simple.
  6. Beijing's air pollution problem is very real and very scary.
  7. Signs of abject poverty can be seen everywhere, even in the centre of the capital.
  8. Pre-20th century Chinese architecture is mind-blowing in its complexity.

Two months ago I was on the phone to Ztylus, a mobile phone lens company I fell in love with last year, and they proposed the idea of me coming out to Beijing to represent them at the China National Convention Centre. Mind-blown I said yes, and 7 weeks later I was on a plane with Rezal, heading to a country I've only ever seen in movies or news reports - and wondering how I was going to kill the 12 hour plane journey.

The first thing you notice when you land in Beijing is how everything seems to be hazed out behind a cloud of brown smog, making it's scale hard to get a grasp of. We were met by Liu, the head of one of the largest photography shops in the city, who became a close friend and companion of ours over the days we were there. I was due to perform for the next three days, starting at 10am the next morning, so sleep was top of my list of things to do upon arrival. Little did I know we were being hosted in the most beautiful hotel right next to the Olympic Green in the north of the city - so sleep came easy, the lights of the Bird's Nest and Water Cube offering a gentle night-light effect.

Waking up the next morning - and after the most incredible breakfast - we headed straight to the CNCC and the Ztylus stage where I'd be performing for the next three days. What greeted me was an amazing sight: a full stage, and enormous screen showing my pictures, videos, and interviews. I was a little nervous when I started my first set as I realised that the language barrier could make things a little awkward, but that quickly dissipated as crowds of photographers and conference-goers started gathering, completely engaged with me.

This continued for the next three days and I quickly developed a group of regulars who figured out my performance schedule, racing over from their booths to see me every time I played. That level of engagement is something I've seen happen in other countries, but over a much, much longer period of time - months, even years - and it confirmed for me what I'd started to realise when we first met the Ztylus team: Chinese people are some of the kindest, most curious and engaging people on the planet. Between shows I was meeting local media crews, spending time getting to know Tim, Zytlus' CEO, and experiencing Chinese culture and cuisine with Rezal. One of the highlights of those first couple of days was experiencing Peking Duck in the most famous restaurant in Beijing that prepares it. Not one part of the duck is wasted and all of it is presented beautifully, with so much care and attention to detail - not to mention deliciousness!

Once my shows were up it was time to spend a couple of days in Beijing itself. I didn't think the magical first few days could be topped, but I entered a completely different world once we left the confines of the CNCC and the Olympic Green. First we explored Tiananmen Square, Beihai Park, and the Summer Palace, and what struck me first was the scale of everything. Walls, gates, paintings, and monuments all seemed to stretch into infinity, colours vivid and entrancing. Beihai Park is a 1000 year-old Imperial garden right in the centre of Beijing, but you would never guess your location from the sheer tranquility you experience when you get lost in the middle of it.

We climbed to the highest point where a beautiful Tibetan pagoda rests, before heading down into one of the oldest markets in the city, experiencing local Beijing foods - which were both incredibly delicious and insanely cheap. We then took a taxi across town to the Summer Palace, an enormous and beautiful collection of temples and Imperial buildings all sitting around a man-made lake. I can't quite describe what I felt while there, but it was something between awe and peace. After climbing an endless series of steps that led to the top of Longevity Hill I found myself looking out over the entire city of Beijing, the scale of it suddenly hitting me. What is amazing, though, is that up there all I heard was the whisper of the wind on the wooden temples, rustling through the trees. Peace.

Our last day saw us visiting the Forbidden City, something I'd be fantasising about since arriving. Again, the scale of it was completely overwhelming. Walls stretched to infinity, courtyards considered mere entry ways dwarfed most modern plazas, and the detail to which everything is crafted stunned me into silence throughout our day there.

Leaving was hard to do. Not only had I met so many wonderful people, but I'd developed a deep appreciation for a nation that I've only ever known through news reports and movies. Media and politicians in the west - and particularly the US - always seem to be finding fault with China, but never offering any real knowledge or perspectives on a country that I think is deeply misunderstood. It's recent history as a communist nation and veritable industrial powerhouse has come to symbolise what most people think of it, but it is so much more than that. It is a deep ocean of cultural knowledge, rich in generosity and creativity, one that we have much to learn from if we only take the time open ourselves to it.

Robert Gillies2 Comments