18th November, 2014

Ken Duncan recounts his adventures through China over the past 30 years and why he keeps returning to this amazing country.

Words and photography by Ken Duncan.

Okay I admit it, if I were asked what I would like for a last meal it would be Peking Duck. If you are going to die anyway, what is a bit more fatty duck skin with incredible accoutrements going to do to you? It’s worth it for the taste sensation, and to go out with a big smile.

As you can tell, I already have a taste for China, which was first ignited back in 1985 when I was invited by my publisher to participate in a book project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the famous Long March undertaken by China’s Chairman, Mao Zedong, and his army. The gruelling march began in 1934 and cost many lives by the time it ended in Beijing in 1949 with the formation of the new People’s Republic of China.

I arrived in China with a 35mm manual camera, a couple of lenses, two Widelux cameras, a light meter, and a small tripod. Some of the world’s best photographers arrived with (literally) trolley loads of camera gear. One asked me where my gear was and I replied, “I travel light.” It was an honour to be invited, but I felt way out of my league.

At the initial photographers’ briefing in Beijing, we saw reconnaissance photos of the Long March route, before various sections were allocated to individual photographers. I noticed a white area, identified as the Great Snowy Mountains. It looked remote and very cold and I wondered which sucker would get to photograph that region. My name was called. The `white area’ was mine – and no substantial information was available due to recent floods and mudslides in the area. I found out later that thousands of Red Army soldiers died in the Great Snowy Mountains.


Ahead of preparations for the photographers to head off on their various assignments the next day, we all went out to a big banquet that night. The restaurant was touted at the best place in China for Peking Duck. They won me that night, but on the roads ahead the food was very different.

I was assigned a Chinese interpreter named Carlos who became a good buddy. In one small town, the local dignitaries honoured us with a big banquet. They knew about the book project and they all seemed to love Mao. The hospitality was wonderful. In those days the only available safe drinks were hot tea, boiled water, or rice wine. According to local custom, it was disrespectful to refuse a drink, so I sipped on the rice wine (which was like rocket fuel) figuring that if I had picked up any bugs, the rice wine would surely kill them.

The locals warned of the dangers ahead – raging floods, mudslides and dangerous river crossings to get to the mountain peaks. Extra people were assigned to come with us – a cook, an army guard and police guard because of rebels in one area, plus a horseman with his assistant and some horses. I was also given a propaganda man (PM for short). I assumed he was there in case I tried to convert anyone to western Capitalism.

When I saw our horses the next morning, I thought someone had shrunk them. Although my horse was a strong little fellow, my legs were dragging on the ground, so we used the horses to carry things other than me.

I quickly made friends with most of the team, but the PM stayed aloof. My travelling friends were wary of him, as though scared of his power. He always departed later than us, then met up with us at the end of the day. He wore brilliant white sandshoes and at the end of each day’s trek, when we were mud-splattered, the PM would arrive without a spot of mud on him. One day we were slowed down by a flooded river and a mudslide. We looked back and saw the PM being carried across the mud by some locals. He was embarrassed that we’d seen him and discovered how he managed to stay clean.

That night, close to our final ascent of the mountain, we stayed in a small village. My interpreter was sick and went to bed early, leaving me at dinner with the team. The PM kept filling up my glass of rice wine and I respectfully kept drinking. Thankfully I have a good liver.

I had only learned a few words of Chinese along the way, but after a while language didn’t matter; we were all laughing our heads off. What I didn’t realise was that the PM was deliberately trying to get me drunk, to embarrass me in front of the others. They noticed that he drank very little, while I drank more than a full bottle by myself.

I suddenly remembered our big climb the next day and headed off to bed. I walked straight as an arrow up the stairs and at the top of the stairs, when I turned back to say “goodnight”, I noticed everyone looking at me strangely. I entered my room, fell onto my bed and passed out.

The next morning the first thing I remember is Carlos lamenting, “Oh, I should never have left you alone. They told me what the PM tried to do. They couldn’t believe you just walked to your room as you did”. I felt as if someone had nailed me to the bed and the room stank of rice wine – it was coming out of my pores. It took all my willpower to get off that bed and get going. I couldn’t let the western team down and give the PM anything to exploit.


Finally, we reached the top of the mountain and it was white – not with snow, but shrouded with mist. It was like being in a steam room. We stayed the night with yak farmers on the mountain and ate some interesting food which I didn’t question – I thought it better not to know. When the PM brought out rice wine, I said, “I will drink with you again, but not now. I have to take photos”. I assured him we would have another drink when we got back to town.

I intended to bunk down by the yak farmers’ fire, but the chief insisted I sleep in his bed. I tried to protest, but Carlos said that it would be an insult to refuse the man’s hospitality. As I drifted off to sleep in the chief’s yak-skin bed, I wondered how many Aussies would give up their bed for a strange foreigner. He was typical of all the people I met on that trip. They had little, but were willing to share whatever they had.

The next day the weather didn’t improve, so we headed back. When we returned to our starting point, the dignitaries threw another party. I warned my team that I was going to try and get the PM a bit tipsy, so they shouldn’t try and keep up with my drinking that night.

The PM sat beside me at the banquet but I took hold of the bottle, saying, “Please, let me serve you”. I kept filling his glass and watched to make sure he drank his wine. After he’d had about half a bottle he began to act like a child. He asked me if I knew Kung Fu and I said, “not personally”. His english was limited, so the humour was lost on him. He got up to show me what he meant. The town leader was watching him carefully. The PM did a big Kung Fu side kick, connected with the table, and knocked food all over the dignitaries.

Some of the leaders jumped up and told the PM he was an embarrassment to the town and should leave. Sheepishly, he headed for the door, but he must have been seeing double, because he walked straight into a wall, then slid along it until he found the opening. The leader was very apologetic, but the tension had lifted and we all enjoyed the rest of the party.

When Carlos and I left the next day, everyone came to say goodbye, except the PM. The town dignitaries graciously presented me with a parting gift – two bottles of China’s finest rice wine. They believed I liked it, but it certainly wasn’t the right spirit for me.

After completing that first assignment, I knew I would return to China one day. Twenty-eight years later I was back in China doing reconnaissance for a photographic expedition I was asked to lead for Australian Geographic and Helen Wong Tours.

Amazing change had occurred during those 28 years. China had awoken – and with upwards of 1.3 billion people, that’s a lot of breakfasts! No wonder big franchises like McDonalds want in on the action.

Since that reconnaissance trip and a subsequent tour, I am hooked on China and will be leading other adventures into the more remote areas of this exotic nation. I do not believe all our western ways are good for this emerging nation. My heart is to document what is left of China’s great culture, as well as its natural wonders. I also want to be able to record the change as China emerges into this new era. I believe it is important for people around the world to see all that China has to offer. It has far more than Peking Duck, The Great Wall and Terracotta Warriors.

Admittedly, I’m not keen on spending much time in the rapidly expanding cities, although they have some must see attractions, great shopping opportunities and fantastic cultural shows. If you are not a fan of crowds, then you are in the wrong country, as you will have to deal with multitudes of people at some locations. When visiting attractions, it is best to arrive before the gates open, so you can be among the first in. That’s about as good as it gets.


I don’t really understand why they still call the old palace in Beijing the Forbidden City. It’s not forbidden any more. By midday in peak season it’s a bit like attending an AFL Grand Final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground – except you can feel like the football. Beijing has many wonderful places to see and serious shopping temptations. Good luck to any man who takes his loved ones to the Jade Centre. What do you say when your beloved tries on a stunning piece of jade jewellery, then looks you in the eye and says, “What do you think, honey?”.

The Great Wall, just outside Beijing, is one of the must-see destinations. But I recommend you do the trip at sunrise, or stay on until sunset, to avoid the crowds and to see this wonder in the best light.

In crowds the Chinese locals can seem to be pushy and it’s easy for Australians to get offended. Keep in mind it’s not personal for them – it’s just a way of life. If you are in a crowded area, always be mindful of your personal space and keep a firm hold on your valuables. Clever pick-pockets take advantage of crowded situations and a friend of mine had his wallet stolen. When it comes to shopping, take it easy. You can get caught up in the excitement and end up paying too much. Remember, bargaining is part of the Chinese culture and they love the challenge.

There are many other exciting cities like Chengdu, where you will be able to see heaps of pandas at The Giant Panda Research Base and a fantastic Changing Face and Cultural show where you will see talented people changing faces and costumes in the blink of an eye.

Another great place to visit is Lijiang Ancient Town, a very eclectic town with many interesting shops. Here you can do some interesting shopping and people watching. The area has an intriguing vibe and the enchanting Black Dragon Pool Park is not far away.

I also recommend a stay in Kunming, with a visit to the Stone Forest Scenic area. This city hosts the Shangrila – Dynamic Yuuan Show. The shadow peacock dance will blow you away.

Enough with shows and shopping – let’s get to some of what I believe to be China’s greatest treasures. There are many little-known gems, like Tiger Leaping Gorge on the Yangtze River; or Jiuzhaigou, with its bright crystalline lakes, snow-capped mountains and waterfalls. Adventure beckons in scenic Guilin on the Li River, with its craggy, mist-shrouded peaks and fishermen working on bamboo rafts. Hire a small local boat for this adventure as the sun rises. Most tourists do the trip on big boats at around 9-10am but by that time the river has peak hour traffic issues.

I’m encouraged by the Chinese people’s love for their natural environment. It’s beauty helps bring a sense of peace, especially for those caught up in the vortex of city life. In a nation growing as rapidly as China, the people need to be protective of their natural assets, lest they lose them. Balance is found when humanity works together with nature. If we don’t respect creation, our actions may return to hit us on the head like a boomerang or, in their case, a Nunchaku.

I wish you the very best, China. You no longer need to be imitators; it’s time for you to shine with your own innate creativity. I look forward to visiting you again, as I know I have only scratched the surface.

If you would like to join Ken on his next expedition, visit www.kenduncan.com for details.