May 10, 2012 in All, Asia, Eleanor Moseman, Photography

Chance To Share. Chance To See.

I have been planning this solo adventure around China since the summer of 2009. From the beginning, I knew it was primarily a photography project. Travelling by bicycle was a means of transportation and to get me places that trains and buses just wouldn't allow. I wasn't sure where I was going or what I was to find, but along the way I found it - and myself.

It's currently May of 2012 and I'm still riding and photographing better than I have in my life. I've had some breaks along the way, one for financial reasons and the second because of health. Both have allowed me time to step away from the project and return with fresh eyes and emotions.

The past year on my ride was when things really began to open for me in China. I found myself in Western China experiencing and learning firsthand about its different minorities and ethnic groups. Being fluent in Mandarin, the doors flew open for me. Being a woman, alone, I was invited into nomad tents and their lives over and over and over.

I thought I struck a gold mine in regards to stories and images. The Tibetans. What awesome people! When I had entered TAR (Tibetan Autonomous Region) illegally and was starving, I was literally pulled off the gravel roads to eat and have a place to sleep. The roads in Western Sichuan (Kham) and Tibet are nearly impossible to ride. I would push my bike for hours, perhaps seeing a half dozen people all day. The experience changed me for life. There was an immense state of enlightenment. As someone who hasn't yet found a religion fitting for my beliefs, I was in awe of their faith and practices. Their dedication.

It's uncountable how many times I was secretly asked, "Do you have a photo of the Dalai Lama?" I had monasteries unlocked for me, in areas forbidden to foreigners, and there would be a large photo of the Dalai Lama. If they were to be caught with a photo of him, they could be put in prison.

My health was failing by the time I was approaching my month long time in TAR. I was finally police detained and escorted, kindly, out of the province. Again, as a solo woman, I think things were made easier. The Tibetan police repeatedly apologized to me for having to do this and were in sheer awe that an American woman was riding her bike around China. I have been told I am very VERY fortunate to have this experience, and quite rare.

After a two month rest in Shanghai, I headed to Xinjiang. It was slow going at first - it was the dead of winter. I ended up having eye surgery, because I had a horrible infection. What if I had lost my vision in my shooting eye?

It was also slow finding my way into Muslim culture.

When I finally arrived in Kashgar, the magic really began to happen. Locals would approach me and before I knew it, I was spending day after day with local Uyghur families.

As a Westerner, I'm very upset with the ignorance of Uyghurs. We all know of the Tibetans, and my heart goes to them. I have made many Tibetan friends that I still communicate with. But there is another group, the Uyghurs, that face equal religious persecution. It doesn't make the news, it's not broadcasted loudly through groups or on Twitter. There are plenty of "Free Tibet" groups, but where are the hundreds of "Free East Turkestan"?

On a side note, when I began showing some of my Tibetan photos, I was blasted by Free Tibet groups via Twitter and other social networking because supposedly I was promoting the People's Republic of China's occupation and showing "Tibet as a peaceful and happy place". They had also made the assumption that I had paid the ridiculous fee to enter TAR and paid for a guide. This made me irate. What did they want me to do - find the Army and throw myself in front of firing squads? These groups spread a lot of propaganda around, and I'm sorry to say I see a lot of half-truths. I now believe these groups can be as awful as the P.R.C.'s occupation of Tibet. People should always question where they get their information and question the validity of photographs and propaganda.

Tibetans have the Dalai Lama. Who do the Uyghurs have? We are blasted with daily news and stories about how Islam is bad, how to be scared of Muslims. I've had Chinese people from the East tell me I shouldn't go to Xinjiang because the Taliban lives there. It's everywhere - "be scared!" I'm not.

As a photographer, as a woman, as someone that doesn't speak Uyghur, Xinjiang is tough. I was really ready to give up my attempt at photographing the real lives of these beautiful people. But something happened. When I was leaving Kashgar for Central Asia, I was walking around with my new local friends, with my head scarf and my henna dyed fingers, and some locals asked my friends, "Where is she from? Is she Uyghur?"

Photography is only a fraction of the work. The other work lies in finding your way into people's lives. I do whatever I can to adapt, to understand, to be compassionate.

I've started a Kickstarter campaign to help raise additional funds to continue this project. I plan to return to Xinjiang and hopefully parts of Tibet. Emotionally I want to return to Kham, but photographically I need to be in Xinjiang.

Some traveller's ride for vanity, for machismo, to break records. We can’t deny that we have a little bit of this in ourselves, but I think I can speak for all of us when I say that we travel a path in the hope of capturing stories to share with the world. For those that we inspire, the ones that can’t leave their jobs, families and responsibilities, we give them a glimpse into the lives of those they know very little about.

I’m trying to do the best at sharing the stories of Invisible China, along with the Central Asian countries on its western border. Giving the people without a voice a chance to share, and those at home a chance to see.

Click to share thisClick to share this