Of all of Wing’s adventures on a four-week odyssey through China, his 2020 trip to Long Qing Xia, in the region of Beijing, had the most ups and downs, twists and turns, crushing disappointments, and eventually, thrilling highs.
This chapter of the story began when the group of international artists was still in Changchun near the beginning of their shared journey. Each one had been in China long enough to overcome jet lag and things up to that point had been flowing smoothly. Participation in a different competition however had to be scrapped due to the complications of local politics. So instead, our Chinese host lined up an invitation for three of the visiting artists, including Wing, to travel to a competition in Beijing, China’s capital city, home to thousands of historical and cultural relics. This side trip held the promise of being an exciting, unexpected highlight of the whole trip. The foreigners imagined visiting the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, and sightseeing in one of the world’s great tourist destinations.
However, things started off roughly and became more and more challenging as the journey went on. From Harbin in the far north of China the group, consisting of three artists, a spouse, and a student guide, boarded the high-speed, all-night train to Beijing, arriving in the predawn. Despite all of his best intentions and perseverance, because Jiang Jinyu, the student guide, could not speak a word of English, misunderstandings and miscommunications started to pile up immediately.
When the group, now joined by several other Chinese sculptors, arrived at the Beijing station, the van to the hotel was nowhere in sight. The group waited outside the station in the cold for 90 minutes. Why would a van to a Beijing hotel take so long to show up?
Questions, sleep deprivation, and hunger all contributed to a generally foul mood. When the van finally arrived at the station it was on the wrong side of the street. The escalators, that would have made the whole transition across a pedestrian bridge a piece of cake, were shut off for the night. Instead each artist had to hump their own 50 pound suitcases, two each, up one side and down the other, all the while being hurried along because the van was stopped illegally.
As it turns out, the group of sculptors were not going to a hotel in the city. Instead, the van drove for two hours on freeways, through a tunnel beneath the Great Wall of China, to a lodge in a remote mountain resort. That explained the 90 minute wait. It had taken the driver that long to speed to the station after oversleeping. But why had no one told the artists that they would be so far from the capital? It turns out that no one knew. It came as a complete surprise to our guide and to the Chinese host who had made all the arrangements.
Would there be breakfast? Would the competition begin at once? Or would there be a chance to sleep? These questions and countless others remained unanswered. No sleep, no food, no translator, no wifi in the rooms. WTF?
The setting of the competition, Long Qing Gorge, now coming into view in the early dawn, was very scenic. A bit like Sedona in fact. At the mouth of the gorge, up a long winding approach, was a ticket gate. Inside the gate were styrofoam, fake snow sculptures of gargantuan dogs and hulking, rusting metal structures supporting elaborate light displays. The lodge, where the artists were shown to their rooms, was quaintly rustic. The sculptors were then hustled off to see the ice tent, deep inside the gorge at the foot of a massive dam, where the carving would take place. Inside the tent were dozens of uncarved, colorfully lighted blocks of ice and enormous blocks of snow.
As the artists came to understand, thirty two-man teams representing China, The United States, Mexico, and Finland were to go head-to-head for two and a half days. Each team would create three original sculptures, two in ice and one in snow. Carving would not begin until the following day so there would be some time to rest and take in the impressive surroundings.
First however an important meeting, to be attended by all of the sculptors, judges and local officials was scheduled to began at noon. As the lengthy formal proceedings began no translations were offered. All those gathered listened attentively and clapped as each dignitary and local organizer was introduced. Red team jackets were distributed to all the artists and site numbers were drawn at random. Wing was teamed up at site 14 with Chinese artist Cia Shouhua, two men who had never previously met and who shared no common language.
The visiting artists, their hopes for sleep dashed once again, took the opportunity to explore the curious gorge. What was the special attraction of this place that could draw in paying visitors, both in the winter to see the ice and snow festival, and in the summer when the steep walled gorge provided a breezy getaway from the heat of the capital?
The imposing yellow and green dragon was surprisingly an enclosed escalator constructed to convey visitors to the top of the dam! Built in the mid nineties at the cost of many, many millions, the escalator/dragon is the largest of its kind in the world (not sure just how many escalator/dragons there are in the world).
The dam holds back a man-made lake that winds 14 kilometers into the hills above. In summer there are boat excursions up the lake and a cable car to the rim of the gorge. Many scenic overlooks and historic sites are accessible by these routes but only in summer. From the lofty vantage point at the top of the dam the sculptors were beginning to understand the strange allure of this unique landscape and its imposing human interventions.
Invigorated by the surreal landscape, recharged by a hot meal and a hot shower, tenuously tethered to the known world through very limited wifi, and with a night of rest in an actual bed, the sculptors were more than anxious to begin the competition the following morning.
Wing and his teammate worked separately on their own respective ice sculptures for the entire first day. Lack of communication was not an issue while they sculpted independently. The challenge for the team arose on the second day as they collaborated on Wing’s snow design, Current Mood.
It was decided that rather than trying to work in tandem, the two artists would divide up, Wing focusing on the front third of the composition and Shouhua taking the sides. Whether it was it a stroke of genius or just a freak inspiration of the environment will forever remain a mystery. Wing directed his partner to carve something ‘Chinese’, perhaps a dragon wrapping itself around his pained self-portrait. Somehow the chance combination worked out beautifully.
The third and final day of the competition was to be a short day, ending at 2:00 pm for the judging. Both artists spent the majority of their remaining time fine tuning the ice sculptures. The extra polish and clean details made the ice sculptures truly special and helped them to stand out in the large and highly competitive field.
The snow carving, only Wing’s third time competing in snow, had come together as if by magic in a single day. There was little work left to do on it by the last day. Following the long days of uncertainty, doubt, and feeling overwhelmed, Wing’s experience of creating art from ice and snow in a strange gorge, partnered with a total stranger, performed a kind of miracle. The accumulated bad energies were transmuted into wonderment, beauty and gratitude. Somehow, the crazed and negative expression planned for the self-portrait had metamorphosized and become the dumbstruck expression of one in love.
When the judges came through to evaluate the 90 finished sculptures in the tent, they must have liked what they saw. But of course the results had to wait for the drawn out closing ceremony, again with no translations and lots of clapping.
Wing and Shouhua’s collaboration earned 95 out of a possible 100 points and first place!
Days of uncertain exhausting travel, dozens of crucial questions left unanswered and untranslated, led Wing and his fellow travelers, on an adventure was ultimately triumphant and richly rewarding.
Postscript: Although the travelers were not able to spend much time in Beijing proper, they did visit the Great Wall, ate Peking duck, and ventured just barely within the outer walls of the Forbidden City at closing time. The chapter ends with another high-speed train ride, back to Harbin, departing Beijing at 3:00 am! With the start of frantic holiday travel and the impending outbreak of a major epidemic, the foreigners were lucky to get out when they did. China, baby!
Even more pictures of Long Qing Xia, the other team’s ice and snow sculptures, and other sights of China can be viewed on my Facebook pages: