Fifty Shades of Brown

Out today to a world-famous series of valleys of Mesozoic rock, known in Chinese as the “Rainbow Ridges” for their beautiful multi-coloured strata. Do not believe everything you hear.

“It’s just fifty shades of brown,” says the director.

Our driver, who has been supplied by the marketing office, answers her with a weary and hostile tone, which makes me think that he has to say this rather a lot.

“Don’t you have eyes? Can’t you see the subtle gradations? Anyway, the many colours only really show up after a rainstorm, but in the sunshine, at the sunset, in springtime…” He continues to list an absurd set of parameters for the valley looking the way it does in the pictures. We soon discover that even the publicity shot that brought us here, taken in the valley, was in a location that was impossible for a car to reach, and had been created with the magic of Photoshop.

I start to realise why the visitor centre has three windows: one for information, one for tickets, and one for complaints.

Four locations in the park are set aside for scenic views, but all of them have been thoroughly ruined, festooned with toilets, construction sites, visitor centres, and in one place, a permanent loud-speaker loop of a man singing a song about horses. Also, mirabile dictu: camel rides. So the director gets the driver to drop us off at a secluded spot where I can wander along the base of the mountains, while our drone buzzes above me.

“Don’t actually climb the mountains,” warns the driver, “because there’s a fine.”

We walk a couple of hundred metres across the plain, and start to set up the drone. Immediately, a jobsworth on a moped beeps his horn and drives onto the plain with us, gouging up deep tyre tracks in the soft wadi.

“You can’t go off the road,” he shouts.

“We can’t go up the mountain,” says Clarissa the fixer. “We can go off the road.”

“No you can’t!” The security guard is quite adamant about this, despite the fact that he has no trouble riding his motorcycle into the middle of it, and from the tracks all around, he is not the only one.

“Yes we can!”

“On whose authority?”

Clarissa waves a pink piece of paper from the Marketing department, who have given us access at the request of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But this isn’t good enough, because the security guards only answer to the Head Security Guard, and he is having lunch, while the Head of Marketing is somewhere in the park that doesn’t have radio reception. Clarissa and the security guard argue for so long that we could literally have done our drone shot and left again. Meanwhile, a group of Chinese women see us standing on the plain and decide that if we are there, they can go off the road, too, and start climbing the slope. This results in the surreal sight of the security guard bellowing at us that we are not allowed in, while three Chinese women cavort behind him, taking selfies on the supposedly forbidden ridge.

As far as the guard is concerned, he is doing his duty by obstructing us until his superiors confirm otherwise. Clarissa makes a point of taking his uniform number. He makes a point of setting his mobile to record, and placing it in his top pocket. After half an hour has been wasted, the director announces that the park can shove its publicity up its arse, and Clarissa pointedly rings the marketing department to tell them after travelling a thousand miles to get their rocks on film, that we have wasted our allotted time waiting for a man on a moped to get out of the way, and that their rocks will consequently not be appearing in the National Geographic documentary, even though they boast on all their signage that National Geographic decreed them to be one of the ten wonders of the natural world. We stomp off back towards the car park, from where we sneakily film some footage over the fence, after the director sees a nice view when she goes into the bushes for a piss.

Our driver, however, who seems to know everybody and everyone, knows another place where he can get us in. The mountains there are sort of like the ones in the park, he says, and he knows a dry riverbed between them, where we can get some good shots.

Which is why I find myself driving a Buick, wheel-spinning my way along a wadi, sending flints and quartzes flying, bumping along the ridges and gullies carved by spring streams, as the Yuneec Q500 Typhoon buzzes overhead, and our spare camera, bolted to the dashboard, films me at the wheel.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. Some fragments of these events made their way into season two of Route Awakening.

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