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#8 Xi'an Mountains, China

China is one of those countries that you struggle to explain to people that haven’t been there before, you sort of have to go there to fully grasp how bonkers it is. There is just so many people and so much going on! Let alone trying to navigate your way to a remote mountain range, to see an endangered monkey, when you don’t speak Chinese and travelling are travelling alone. There isn’t too much information about golden snub nosed monkeys on the internet - well at least for a westerner to find - so trying to plan this trip proved a mission on it’s own.


With the help of a Chinese speaking friend I just had about enough information to take the plunge and book this trip, and I’m glad I did. After a couple of flights, a taxi, a train and then another taxi I had arrived at my destination in the Xi'an mountains. Jet lagged, as I often am, I got my head down for the night with a plan of waking up early the next morning to go an find the monkeys. Finding them wasn’t hard, and within 20 minutes of hiking up the mountain I had found a large group of them.

Golden snub nosed monkeys are the highest living monkey in the world and because of this they can also cope with extremely cold weather conditions, which is one of the reasons why they have the thick orange coat. I had originally given myself 2 full days with them - something I later extend to 3 - so I wanted to make the most of my time there. I would get up before sunrise and spend all day in the mountains until sunset photographing them.


China isn’t the sunniest of places, in fact I don’t think i’ve ever seen the sun shine there, and I’ve been 6 times now! There is always a layer of cloud or smog overhead diluting the sun. It makes for quite tricky conditions to shoot in, but at least you don’t have any nasty shadows to contend with. These conditions actually suits my style of photography quite well. The landscape isn’t the prettiest, at least at this time of year. There is lots of bare trees and dirty and messy looking ground, so trying to photograph them with a nice setting proved to be the most difficult part. Thankfully they have their beautiful orange coat which lets them stand out from most of their surrounding, that coupled their interesting blue faces - along with a fearsome snarl - make them a very fun subject to photograph, even if they are some what vicious. It would take me 3 days to fully gain their trust and let me get some close up portrait shots with anything other than a 400mm lens. A reason enough to put the time into your subject and give them the space they deserve. If you let them come to you your results will undoubtedly be better for it.


My hotel was nestled some 40 minute drive up the mountain from the nearest town, so really remote by any other location i've been in China before. Great you may think, but it does have some downsides! Like when I went to pay for my room and none of my credit cards would work. We all had a laugh about it, me and all 6 members of staff who were trying to sort it out. I think it was quite a novelty having a British man staying at the hotel. Thankfully there was one youngish man who spoke good enough English and I could explain the situation. That night he offered to drive me down the mountain in his beat up pick up truck to get cash out. By now i'm starting to panic some what, if this doesn’t work what is going to happen next, what am I going to do?

Luckily my card works and now I’m rolling in it. As a thank you to the guy who was kind enough to drive me down from the hotel, I tell him to pick a place to eat and I’ll treat him to dinner. Reluctantly after some heavy persuasion he agrees to me buying him dinner. We go to his favourite noodle restaurant. I say restaurant but that might be exaggerating some what, it’s basically someone’s living room. The whole town is like stepping back in time, there isn’t a whole lot going on there. Not many westerners come this way. When one of these sleepy Chinese towns appears on a movie you always think it's some what over dramatised for the purpose of production. Well this place would fit this stereotype perfectly.Anyway the noodles were superb, and cost me a little over a quid for both of ours - you can't grumble at that. After dinner I had to pose for a photo with the head chef, who was very proud that I was the first westerner that has ever stepped foot in his restaurant! After a quick stop in the local shop to stock up on some snacks (Chinese snacks aren't quite the same as what we have) me and my new friend head back up the winding mountain roads to the hotel. Without his help I’d be well and truly lost, I hadn’t fully appreciated how out in the sticks this place really is, thankfully there is always someone to help. We make an agreement that he will drive me back to the train station when it’s time to leave in a couple days time - now that i’ve managed to extend my stay here.


As mentioned before, the setting for the monkeys - especially this time of year - isn’t the most photogenic, but I had been praying that they would venture down to a little stream near where they hang out. I had been told by the park ranger that it was unlikely that they would. Fortunately on my last evening there (isn’t that always the way?!) I saw a couple of them moving towards the river, so I took the gamble and waded across it and set myself up on the other side. Patiently waiting with my fingers and toes crossed they started to come down, I was able to get some close up portrait shots and then my favourite from the whole trip - one with a male posed next to the water. It was over in a matter of seconds, thankfully I managed to grab a couple of photos just before he leaped across the water and onto my side of the river and then shot up the mountain side. Having spent several days with them, not only had they began to trust me but I was learning there moves, anticipating what they would do next to give me the best angle/shot. Perseverance really does pay off in these instances, and I'm glad I decided to stay for the extra day. All my favourite photos and memories came in the last 24 hours.


The final morning came and I waved good bye to the friendly hotel staff, my new found friend was sat outside, waiting in his beat up 4x4, and off we went to the train station. A couple of selfies later with the locals and I was on my way back to civilisation, next stop Chengdu.

Chengdu has a famous panda research centre which I wanted to visit. I normally only photograph wild animals, but pandas are so rare to come by this would have to do. A couple of hours here was enough for me. It’s an important facility to the conservation of these world renowned animal and it was great to see so many, even if it didn’t provide photographic opportunities. From here is was onto Shanghai for a week of work - proper work that is.


zacharytknowles

April 2019.

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