A night train connects Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, with the popular holiday spot of Lijiang. Climbing 500 metres above Kunming, the 500km journey takes 10 hours, making the K9602 one of China’s slowest commercial trains. But a second-class ticket buys you a cosy bunk bed in a carriage bookended by bathrooms and hot-water dispensers. A flask of tea and a good book preceding an eight-hour nap – there are worse ways to travel.
When Hong Kong-based photographer and publisher Magnus Bartlett visited Lijiang in 1985, journeying behind the bamboo curtain wasn’t so easy: “It was like time travel; the only vehicles in the cities were bicycles, PLA jeeps and limos with red flags for officials. The people we met were nervous, often astounded. But the country was virgin, really untouched.”
That year, Bartlett accompanied late British travel writer Bruce Chatwin on a trip into deepest China, and when we meet during the Beijing book fair in August, the photographer arrives brandishing film of unpublished photographs of the journey. He holds the film up to the light and I’m treated to a full colour storyboard of Chatwin in motion; getting a shave from a village barber and looking at a map in a peasant’s home while sporting a pair of Nike jogging pants, a camera dangling around his neck.