Beijing Diaries: On the Trail of Photographer Michael Yamashita, a Modern Day Marco Polo

Posted by Lia Chang on Saturday, 20 December 2003.

Beijing Diaries: On the trail of photographer Michael Yamashita, a modern day Marco Polo

I've just returned from my first mini roots trip to Asia where I indulged in a few of my favorite things--Peking Duck; reflexology; and the cream of the crop in world class photography, National Geographic's greatest hits.

This year the city of Beijing is celebrating it's 850th anniversary as the capital of China and is gearing up for the 2008 Olympics. First on the docket: the opening reception of two fabulous exhibitions at the China Millennium Monument celebrating 115 years of the Best of National Geographic.

Marco Polo Returns to China showcases 100 photographs by internationally acclaimed photojournalist Michael Yamashita, and Eyewitness to the World features many of National Geographic's most compelling images that have graced the cover including the green-eyed Afghan Girl, the first pictures of Machu Picchu and the discovery of the Titanic.

Mike used Marco Polo's 1299 text, The Description of the World as his virtual guidebook, traveling in Polo's footsteps more than 6,000 miles. He photographed the Marco Polo series of images over a period of two years. He traveled often via horse or camel, through Iran, Iraq, pre-9/11 war-ravaged Afghanistan on into China- Pamirs, Xanadu, Sichuan, Yunnan, Tibet, Sumatra, Indonesia, then returning back to Italy by way of Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India. Encountering many of the same sights that Marco Polo wrote about in the 13th century, Mike shot over 10,000 frames capturing such wonders as the remains of Xanadu, the singing sand dunes of Dunhuang and the huge reclining Buddha in Zhangye.

The travels of Marco Polo are chronicled in Marco Polo Returns to China seven hundred years after the Venetian explorer completed his epic journey through China. The photographs were first published in an unprecedented 80-page, three-part series (May, June and July 2001) in National Geographic magazine. The photographic essays were the most popular of 2001 and were tapped by White Star Publishers for a sumptuous full color 504-page book, Marco Polo, A Photographers Journey.

Published in the Fall of 2002, the book is the first fully illustrated, easy to read English text, version of Polos entire journey. Mike shares a first hand account of his own personal odyssey along with 258 photographs that illustrate Marco Polo's specific quotes directly from The Description of the World . There are detailed maps and illustrations with historical chapter introductions provided by noted Italian scholar Gianni Guadalupi.

Exclusively distributed by Barnes and Noble in the United States, 3,700 copies sold out in the first month. When the book was published in Europe, 220,000 copies sold immediately. Marco Polo: A Photographer's Journey continues to set sales records as a best selling photographic book around the world and has been published in thirteen languages.

I am lucky to be making my first roots trip to China under the guidance of this world-class lensman who has specialized in photographing Asia for over 30 years.

During the days, I'm immersed in Mike's three-day photo workshop, co-sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the Chinese Photographers Association for which thirty photojournalists from across China have assembled at the Millennium Monument to participate in. I manage a day for myself photographing the ancient architectural details of the gateways, doors and pavilions in the Forbidden City and scoping out the three floors of shopping stalls at the Pearl Market for potential Christmas presents.

My dad happens to be in town on business during my week in Beijing. He lives in Mill Valley, but as the VP of Asia Pacific operations for Cyberonix, Inc. , an e-commerce company that specializes in providing Java-based Industrial Automation Solutions for corporations in the energy, healthcare, consumer and transportation industries, he is constantly on the road in Asia. I cherish the valuable quality time that I have with him as he clues me into the changes he has witnessed since he first started coming to Beijing in the late '70s while working for IBM , and later Sun Microsystems .

In the evenings, we head to some of his favorite hot spots-- Tianhe Zuliao , a top rated reflexology clinic located near the China World Trade complex, for intense reflexology sessions. Naturally while in Bejing, one must have Peking Duck at the Famous Qian Men Roast Peking Duck Restaurant . Later in the week, we head to Makye Ame , a Tibetan restaurant which serves up traditional Tibetan fare with a twist and talented Tibetan singers and dancers. More to follow on these hot spots in my next column at AsianConnections.

Beijing is a big city, but in true AsianConnections fashion, I literally bump into friends I know from the States who are now working in Asia---Linda Lee of the public relations firm Burson-Marsteller during my reflexology session, and Ying Chan, the dean of Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication while having drinks at the Grand Hyatt. It may be a global village, but it's definitely a small world.

The National Geographic exhibits installed at the China Millennium Monument through January 2004 are the largest in scale that National Geographic has ever mounted in China. They are two of several programs in development as Beijing prepares for the 2008 Olympic Games and celebrates the City's 850th anniversary as the capital of China. Co-hosted by the Beijing Cultural Development Foundation , the China Millennium Monument Foundation , and the National Geographic Society to promote cultural exchange between America and China, the exhibits were approved by the Ministry of Culture of China.

Following their Beijing debut, these exhibits are scheduled to tour numerous cities in China. In January, Marco Polo Returns to China will be on view in Tokyo and in February, additional exhibits will be in Manila, Hong Kong, Taipei, Genoa, and Venice.

In Marco Polo Returns to China , the documentary, Mike's narrates his journey as an American photographer retracing and documenting Marco Polo's route from West to the East. Produced by National Geographic Channel Asia, the film will air in March.

Photographs from the Marco Polo Returns to China Exhibition

China Millenium Monument
9 A FuXing Street
Beijing, P.R. China
Tel: 0086-10-68513322

Check back to Lias Focus for my in-depth features on photographer Michael Yamashita and part two of my grand adventure in Beijing.

Stayed tuned to AsianConnections for the latest at the American Museum of Natural History's fascinating exhibit of Petra: Lost City of Stone , the ancient metropolis carved from the red sandstone in the desert cliffs of southern Jordan, and exclusive one-on-one interviews with legendary makeup artist Shu Uemura, fashion designers Yeohlee, Zang Toi and Amanda Wakeley, Magnum photographer Chien-Chi Chang and U.S. astronauts Dr. Leroy Chiao and Dr. Ed Lu.

Yeohlee talks about her new book, Yeohlee: Work , which surveys her designs spanning the past 20 years and features essays by critics and curators of the fashion, art and design worlds including Valerie Steele, director of the museum at FIT ; MoMA curator Paola Antonelli, Lynn Yaeger, fashion writer for the Village Voice , and from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art , curators Harold Koda and Andrew Bolton. Zang Toi previews his new Spring line and British based Amanda Wakeley shares her exquisite couture bridal collection. In from Tokyo, Shu Uemura gives a rare "makeup artist performance" and muses on the definition of Asian Beauty. I caught up with U.S. astronaut Leroy Chiao, in training at Star City in Russia to be the commander of Expedition 9, the next mission aboard the International Space Station. I'll also be touching base
with U.S. astronaut Ed Lu, who recently returned from six months in residence at the International Space Station. Ed sent me periodic emails of his work and experiences at the Station and I can't wait to share all of the details. Until next time...