What lies beneath? (Discover Huangshan)

Have you stared so deeply into someone eyes simply wondering what they were thinking? You are transfixed by those haunting eyes; you must know the story that lies behind them.

I remember when I was a child, I was mesmerized by a picture on the front cover of the June 1985 National Geographic magazine. I remember being hypnotized by the unusual eyes of a young girl thinking they were the most extraordinarily beautiful eyes I had ever seen. I held the magazine in my tiny hands and just gazed at it, slowly drifting away. With each second that passed I fell madly in love with the “Afghan Girl”.

I was about about six when I first saw the infamous photograph by American photojournalist Steve McCurry. I didn’t understand the concept of war or freedom, refugees or Soviet occupation. All that I knew was that girl draped in that tattered red veil and penetrating gaze would marry me one day.

Decades have passed since that renowned picture was published and through the years, I’ve always wondered, what happened to the girl with most mysterious eyes.

In 2002, a National Geographic team returned to Afghanistan to find the girl whose intense stoic gazed captivated the world. In 2003, in a widely anticipated documentary, it was revealed that her name is Sharbat Gula and she lived in a remote area in Afghanistan with her family.

The curiosity of her story had never once left me and I was happy to finally to understand the story behind those exquisite eyes.

This brings be to the photograph below I took in Huangshan (黄山) China.

Portrait of a Chinese man at Huangshan, China. August, 2009.

It had been almost a week into my vacation in the People’s Republic of China and I was now staying in Hangzhou, an unassuming city which had retained many traditional elements of its imperial past. On the recommendation of my Chinese friend, I decided to take a bus from Hangzhou to Huangshan and then make my way to the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage site, Huangshan (Yellow) Mountain located in the south of Anhui Province.

Named the “fairyland on earth” Huangshang is a spectacular natural wonder. Its steep dramatic landscape is simply breathtaking as if carved by the most gifted artisan.  Magnificent pine evergreens spring from between the rocks, on the side of pathways and at the edges of majestic cliffs often twisting and turning and forming the most extraordinary shapes. Some are so unique they can only be compared to a mother, who has been patiently awaiting the return of her children with her arms wide open waiting to give a warm embrace. The higher your climb, the closer you feel to heaven. The air is cool and crisp and even breeze that hits your cheek feels like a welcomed kiss.

Half way through this stunning yet physically taxing journey I was exhausted. My untrained muscles ached. I decided to take a break to compose myself before continuing my climb to the heavens. Many people felt similarly.

Sitting next to me was a Chinese man. We chatted briefly about the trek thus far, admiring the beauty of Huangshan, having small conversations about where we had been and where we were going. With sweat moistening his face, I asked if I could take a picture. He willing said yes and I snapped.

In that click forever remains the piercing gaze of a Chinese man who grew up in rural Shenyang, China and the lingering thoughts of what laid behind those almond shaped eyes at that moment.

Almost two years have since passed and I will sometimes look at my Huangshan album, stumble across this picture and wonder “What has become of him?” And, all I can do is wish him a lifetime of happiness.

– Jenson

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3 Responses to What lies beneath? (Discover Huangshan)

  1. chante says:

    SOUNDS good, now i wanna visit china too.

  2. Aki says:

    It is so interesting point of view. I can feel a kind of strength, firmness from his eyes.
    Usually it’s difficult to gaze at other peoples’ eyes. That’s because I’m shy? Japanese? But once we go out of the place we live, we may be released and enjoy mixing with new people naturally. It helps us in many ways. I wish to have a chance like you in the future too.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

  3. Carla Gaskin says:

    That was great Jenson. Well written and I especially love the photograph. Keep up the good work and continue to find inspiration through your many travels!

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