8 China travel tips from a professional fixer
In 15 years of shooting and producing films in China, Noah Weinzweig has traveled throughout the country and gained access to some of its most restricted locations.
As founder of Teneighty, a production-services company, the 39-year-old Canadian helps foreign filmmakers navigate China’s tricky terrain -- scouting locations, obtaining permits and pulling guanxi for the likes of George Lucas and photographer Edward Burtynsky.
So how does this rogue traveler manage to get the impossible done? By following these simple tips.
Tip 1: Take the bus to nowhere
"I really don’t care about people dressed up in a bunch of embroidered clothing, you know, I live in the 21st century. I want to know about pollution, I want to know about the effects of a sprawling industrial landscape on the surrounding social politics of the area.
"When I first got to Beijing in the mid-1990s, we used to go to the end of the subway line, just to see what was there. Or a lot of the time, I would just take the bus to nowhere, because if something is in the guidebook, the original spirit of the place is already gone.
"Tourists who go off the beaten path should think of it as 'investigative journalism-lite' … while trying not to get arrested, of course. "
Destination: Take the Shanghai subway to some ridiculously beautiful sights."
See our guide: Shanghai's best hidden scenic spots along the metro
Tip 2: Everything is negotiable, even fines
"I’d rather get arrested than go see some woman with bangles on her head.
"I got on the wrong bus in Vietnam once, in 1992, and ended up being arrested by the military and spending the night in jail. My French girlfriend and I spent three hours negotiating with the military.
"They wanted US$20 each, but we got them down to six bucks each, which actually ended up being cheaper than a hotel room."
Tip 3: Figure out what’s in it for them
"We state very clearly what we’re going to give people in return (for help) -- images for their own internal use, maybe a print for the CEO’s office, that kind of thing. We do give back a little bit, but we don’t give money, and I never bribe.
"Industrial tourism is growing in China, but if you’re an individual, you have to do a lot of preliminary work. You could start by contacting the upper management of the company, and say that you’re just a tourist, but you’d love to come see the process of creating this and that. And you might be successful."
Destination: Yiwu, Zhejiang. A more DIY industrial tourism destination, this city is known for its markets and for pumping out billions of pairs of socks each year. Take the train from Shanghai to New Railway Station of Yiwu.
Tip 4: A little dirt never hurt anyone
"When I was studying Chinese in 1995, there was a one-week break and I went to Datong, because I heard it was the filthiest, dirtiest place in China, or one of them.
"So I got on a train by myself, and I spent two or three days in Datong, walking around seeing a centimeter of coal dust on everything.
"We went into the coal mine areas and watched all these people come out of the mines with coal dust all over their faces, and washing up on the street.
"I just picked a dirty place on purpose, and it was fascinating"
Destination: Datong, Shanxi. China Eastern offers direct flights from Hongqiao to Datong Airport.
Tip 5: Mandatory guides might not be
"I took my girlfriend to Darjeeling a couple of years ago, and we needed a mandatory guide. I go trekking in the mountains for the solitude.
"I live in a city of 18 million people or whatever -- I don’t want to be stuck with some guy I don’t know, I want to be alone with my girlfriend. So we spent three hours sneaking around the border of the national park past the checkpoint, and got into the national park.
"All sorts of other groups met us on the way, with guides, and we were constantly asked where our guide was. We said we told our guide to get the hell back half an hour behind us because we want to be alone, and they all accepted that, so we got away with it for five days."
Destination: Darjeeling, West Bengal, India. Fly to Kolkata and get a connecting flight to Bagdogra Airport or take the overnight Darjeeling Mail train to New Jalpaiguri station.
Tip 6: Follow your nose
"When I was working with the photographer Edward Burtynsky, we were detained by the police three times in one year in the same area. We were trying to shoot electronic waste -- computers and circuit boards and stuff. We found it in piles everywhere.
"We actually used our nose at certain points to track down the e-waste, because we could smell the circuit boards melting.
"It was one of the only times I’ve ever been able to use my nose in that way -- in the 21st century you don’t often have to use your primal instincts any more to find something, but it helps sometimes in China.
"Tourists may find that intuition leads them to more interesting places than they’re likely to find with Google or a guidebook."
Destination: China’s only Cultural Revolution museum in Shantou, Guangdong. Close to the politically and environmentally hazardous town of Guiyu, known for its electronic waste. Fly from Hongqiao to Shantou airport.
Tip 7: Play dumb
"There are certain situations where it sometimes pays just to be ignorant and speak only English.
"When I tried to get into factories, I would call and speak Chinese first, and they wouldn’t really get me the right people to talk to, so I would call them back and start speaking English.
"All of a sudden, I’d get the senior manager of this and that who was educated at Yale, who’s very sophisticated and cosmopolitan.
"So my language strategy would change depending on how I felt about it. Tourists should also think about the context, and adjust their language strategy accordingly."
Tip 8: 'No' is just the first answer
"I’m an alchemist who turns 'no' into 'yes.' Because the first response of anyone, especially in China, when you ask them if you can bring an international artist or a filmmaker into their industrial apocalypse, they’re gonna say 'no'.
"If you’ve got a project, and it’s an interesting project for them, scouting is a good way to establish contact with a location.
"You say, 'You don’t have to say yes or no, just let me come over and see if it’s going to work for us.'
"I give them all the supporting documents. I say, this is Edward Burtynsky, this is all his awards, this is a letter from the government of Canada, this is a letter from National Geographic, this is a letter from God that says this guy is amazing.
"I build those relationships based on truth and honesty and the merits of my request. Even regular tourists should remember that persistence pays off, and it never hurts to carry official-looking documents."
Destination: Tsingtao Brewery Museum, Qingdao, Shandong. No negotiations are necessary for this entry-level industrial tour destination. Fly into Qingdao Liuting International Airport or take a long ride to Qingdao Railway Station.