In this blog our intrepid location scout Tom Carr-Griffin reminisces about his time preparing for the production of ‘Pertex Elemental Journeys, Episode 5: Made in Yangshuo’ in China.

Finding characters and locations across all corners of the globe can be a challenge but Tom’s scouting skills and detailed preparation are always up to the job, despite a few unexpected adventures along the way.

It hadn’t been quick to find him. You need to be on the ground, talking to locals, following leads. But I knew the area in which to begin.  I was in Southern China, XingPing village, in the region of Yangshuo. I was searching for an old cormorant fisherman and the right setting to put him in.

The Li river is an iconic place (it features on the Chinese twenty Yuan note) but it is long, with many tucked away areas, and much of it is overcrowded and heaving with tourist boats.

Dan, Waldo and myself had set off for the day on rented mopeds to cover some ground, in search of our cormorant fisherman and his setting, as well as options for our main climbing route. Our first port of call was Liu Tao at the Nirvana farm small holding and meditation retreat. Standing by the crowded ferry crossing on the banks of the Li we looked, unconvinced, at the thin beam of wood, no more than six inches wide, being held in place for us to get the mopeds onto the boat.  Waldo characteristically decided that speed would make up for any lack of accuracy and revved the bike hard, launching it towards the plank, missing, and sending the bike wheel-deep into the water, the plank leaping one way and a swift-thinking Chinese man diving the other. 

On the other side of the river, we entered the walls of the Nirvana retreat. Inside, it was calm and cool, rivulets of water ran through the garden and a vast rock face loomed above, enclosing and protecting. We sipped tea with Liu Tao and explained what we were searching for. Two leads came from this – a local photographer, Greg, who had a cafe in town, should be able to help contact a fisherman. For our climbing sequence, he said, pointing towards two peaks in the distant haze, we should travel to Nine Horses Mountain on the far side of the pass. 

We were climbing steeply now, the road little more than a track, muddy and slippery. Our wheels skidded precariously as we tried to keep momentum and broad leaves slapped at us wetly. Sweat beaded from us in the oppressive humidity, and our grins were broad as we doggedly rallied these old, unsuitable bikes through stunning scenery deep in old-world China. Hours later, aching, bruised and elated we emerged, some distance on the far side of the pass, onto a clear plateau high above the river. On the opposite side Nine Horses Mountain rose inspiringly, high, clear, white and daunting. We began scouting the face through binoculars, excitedly pointing out lines and possibilities. It looked magnificent.

A loud blast from an air horn announced the arrival of an oversized passenger liner, barging its way along the river, shattering any peace. We looked down on the Chinese tourists crowding the decks, chattering and snapping photographs. A few minutes later another horn blared as a boat came into view from the other direction. We sat and watched for perhaps twenty minutes as boat after boat ripped up the river and shouted its presence. There was no way we could film what we wanted here. We would have to scratch it from the list and continue the search.

It was evening in the village of XingPing, and the right time to find Greg at his cafe, tucked away down a maze of old cobble streets. We talked over a dinner of local foods and Greg agreed to act as our fixer. There were two or three of the old cormorant fishermen still left, but it was next to impossible for them to make a living from the trade they had grown up in. Over the last fifteen or so years, the area had become so popular with Chinese tourists that locals were no longer allowed to have their boats on the water between eight in the morning and six in the evening. The river was the sole domain of the money-making passenger liners. The noise and pollution from these vast boats had driven away almost all of the fish. Now, these old men kept themselves in coin by working for photographers and film-makers, with the same clothes, rafts and techniques they had used their whole lives. 

Three days later we were getting into position in the early evening. We wanted as much daylight as possible to work with, but had to wait until the curfew on the boats was lifted before the fisherman could join us. He also had to stop at the market on the way to buy fish for the cormorants to fetch. Whilst Greg had lived here for some time now, his Chinese was not so strong as mine, so it fell to me to direct the cormorant fisherman. And so I found myself, on a summers evening, stood thigh-deep in the Li River, shouting directions across the water, and occasionally wading across to negotiate and haggle for some piece of action or other. “Tom, pull your socks up!” I dropped into the water as Matt got some perfect shot or other. Bloody creatives.