Images of a Bicycle Trip Across the Great Wall of China
Photographer and ALZO employee Joseph Kugielsky was recently contacted by an old acquaintance, Kevin Foster, who invited him to be interviewed by a production company to talk about their mutual trip to China, as part of a movie about Kevin that is currently in the works.
In the spring of 1990, Joseph accompanied Kevin to China to document Kevin’s bike ride across the Great Wall, a dream he was pursuing since childhood. Kevin, 30 at the time of the trip, had a spiritual awakening after he was nearly killed in a high-voltage encounter with power lines as a young boy. Inspired by Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, when he watched Nixon take a stroll atop the Great Wall, he vowed in front of his class that “Someday, I want to ride my bike on top of the Great Wall from one end to the other.” 18 years later, he was the first person to do so. The trip was in part sponsored by the Cannondale bicycle company, who custom built the mountain bike Kevin used.
The tour started at the Western edge of the Gobi desert, and ended in Shanhaiguan in Northeastern China, in the Bejing area, covering 1165 miles. Joseph traveled to China twice, breaking up the journey into two parts. His assignment was of course to document Kevin’s journey across the Great Wall, but he also found some time to capture the many faces of this vast empire.
It was 1990, and digital cameras were not yet available, so Joseph brought along his two Nikon SLR cameras with lenses, a monopod, and a large supply of reversal film aka slide film that produces a positive image, used for slides. Carrying around film made the job of a photographer a little more complicated back then: slide film needed to be refrigerated, and had to be transported in x-ray pouches. Of all the equipment, he packed two units of each. (Tip: this is what professional photographers do)
They were joined by a team from the National Geographic Society, including translators, drivers, and government officials who made sure that “the Americans” did not get too close to the local population. It was just one year after the Tiananmen Square protests, so once in a while when people saw Joseph with his cameras, they recognized him as a photojournalist and were eager to share their stories about life in China, but the invisible “Great Wall” between him and the people, created by the officials, made such encounters impossible. This barrier, however, did not prevent him from discovering the country and its people. As is always the case when you’re in a foreign country, the eyes are fresh, and “you let yourself be seduced by imagery.” Joseph was captivated by scenes from daily life, as you can see from the photos, a life that seemed so different from our Western culture, and probably still is nowadays, at least in rural areas. Children at school, or thousands of people, neck to neck, on bicycles, riding into the red dawn of Beijing on their way to work; the red glow was generated by air pollution, due to millions of people firing with coal in their homes. Likewise, the train that brought them to the Gobi Desert was pulled by a coal-fired steam engine.
Joseph’s images show that photography is an art that leaves an impression on your mind, that draw us near the subject in the image. This is something easily forgotten in a time when we are all flooded with images on a daily basis.