Bashang Grassland, Hebei Province, China （中国河北省坝上）
Photo Travel Guide
Main photographic interest: landscape
Bashang Grassland （坝上） is a plain which stretches from northern Hebei province into Inner Mongolia. It is an absolutely gorgeous place and one of the major photographic destination for Chinese landscape photographers. Indeed, it is featured in pretty much every issue of Chinese photographic magazines in some way; you can always find discussions and photographs of the place in the major Chinese photographic forums (e.g., 色影无忌 or 佳友在线). In one word, if you are a serious landscape photographer taking pictures in China, it is only a matter of time when you pay a visit to the place. And once you do, you are bound to return again!
Your final destination and photographic base in Bashang Grassland shall be either Hongshan Junmachang （红山军马场） or Jixie Linchang （机械林场）. The towns are only 18 kilometers away from each other yet Jixie Linchang is in Hebei Province whereas Hongshan Junmachang is in Inner Mongolia. Most photographers choose Hongshan Junmachang as their base because it is simply closer to most scenic/photographic spots.
Hongshan Junmachang is about 420 kilometers away from Beijing and going there is quite a bit of a journey and not entirely straightforward in spite of the relatively short distance. First you need to be in/go to Beijing as the town is accessible from the city only. Once in Beijing, you basically have two options - continue traveling by either bus or train.
If you prefer taking a bus you need to go to Xizhimen Bus Station （西直门客运站； Address: No. 2 Beixiaguan, Xizhimen, Haidian District; 地址：海淀区西直门北下关2号； tel.: 010 62173556/62183454) and take one heading for the County Seat of Weichang County （围场县城）. Buses for Weichang (ticket: RMB58) leave in the morning and depending on road conditions getting there takes between six and eight hours. Be prepared for a long, slow, uncomfortable and at times somewhat unsafe ride.
If you choose going by train you should depart from Xizhimen Train Station （西直门火车站, also known as Beijing Northern Train Station, 北京北站） and take off at Siheyong （四合永; about a seven hour ride; hard-sleeper ticket: about RMB70). From Siheyong you need to take a bus to Weichang (about a twenty minute drive).
Once in Weichang, you will need to further take either a public bus or a taxi to Hongshan Junmachang, which is roughly a two hour drive.
It might be a good idea to book a taxi from Siheyong or Weichang to Hongshan Junmachang in advance (see Local contact below) as otherwise things might be quite complicated and frustrating. The ongoing rate for a ride from Weichang to Hongshan Junmachang is RMB150. It, obviously, is more expensive than taking a bus yet it saves a lot of trouble and time.
All entrance tickets to the area, which one pays as he drives towards Hongshan Junmachang, amount to RMB70.
The grassland is extremely spacious and you will have to rent a car (Beijing Jeep 2020) in Hongshan Junmachang to conduct your photographic work in the area. The ongoing rate is RMB200/day (from before sunrise to after sunset with a break at midday; fully inclusive).
On the way back I suggest taking a taxi from Hongshan Junmachang directly to either Weichang (if you take a bus to Beijing) or Siheyong (if you return by train). If you choose going back by train, though, beware that train tickets from Siheyong to Beijing are notoriously difficult to buy - I strongly recommend securing them in advance in Hongshan Junmachang with whoever organizes your logistics there.
Accommodation and where/what to eat
There are several hotels and guesthouses in Hongshan Junmachang. Dahuzi Fandian （大胡子饭店; tel.: 0086 (0)314 7805098) is one of the places that enjoys a good reputation among Chinese photographers. The ongoing rate for a reasonably clean double room is RMB120/night. Keep in mind, though, that prices inevitably go up in summer and during public holidays. Also, arranging your accommodation in advance will help you to get better prices.
There is a number of sensibly priced Chinese food restaurants in Hongshan Junmachang. Be prepared to eat mutton cooked in several different ways, though. Beef, pork and vegetable dishes are, of course, available, too but, as the saying goes, when in Rome do as the Romans do!
A regular approach to photographing in Bashang on a daily basis is as follows: get up sufficiently early before sunrise to drive to a scenic spot and photograph there from just before daybreak to about 10a.m. (depending on the time of the year); drive back to your hotel, have lunch and rest; at about 2p.m. (again, depending on the time of the year) drive to another scenic spot and photograph there until after sunset. One normally keeps at this during the stay in the area changing locations every time. Obviously, this arrangement is quite intensive yet I find it most efficient and satisfactory.
Most photographers find that three full days is an adequate length of time to photograph in the area at one time. Although three days do not suffice to visit and photograph at all scenic spots, such an extensive shooting for a longer period would be quite exhausting (both physically and artistically). This is another reason why one is bound to visit the place more than once!
Major scenic spots in the area include the following: Jiangjun Paozi （将军泡子） and Yeyahu （野鸭湖）, Mount Lama （喇嘛山, 1867.3 meters above sea level), Mount Wucai （五彩山） and Daxiagu（大峡谷）, Mount Mao'er （猫耳山, also known as Paozigou, 狍子沟）, Xidapaozi （西大泡子, also known as Gongzhuhu, 公主湖; entrance: RMB20), Huamugou （桦木沟）, Qixinghu （七星湖）, Beigou （北沟）, Donggou （东沟）, Xiaohetou （小河头）, etc.
Best time of the year to visit
Bashang is visited by photographers all year round as the place offers very different types of scenery in different seasons. End of May and early June is the best time to photograph spring colours. In the end of June and early July cole flowers bloom and it is the ideal time to photograph endless fields of green and yellow. End of September is the best time to photograph autumn scenery. Winter landscape in Bashang is very attractive, too.
It is absolutely crucial to check the weather in the area before you set out. I have heard stories of photographers going to Bashang in summer to only spend several days in the hotel as it rained all the time. Likewise, it would be wise to check when exactly yellow and red colours reach culmination in autumn.
Sunset and sunrise
There are quite a few great places to photograph at sunrise and sunset. To put it differently, you should be photographing at sunrise and sunset at different locations every day. I personally found that Jiangjun Paozi was a brilliant location for both sunrise and sunset photography; Mount Mao'er is a great place to photograph at sunrise, whereas Beigou is a superb site to take pictures at sunset. At the same time, I somewhat regretted going to Xidapaozi at sunrise and Donggou at sunset.
Going to Bashang without arranging local transportation and accommodation in advance is a bit of plunging into the unknown as there are quite a few variables along the way (read: opportunities to be ripped off, miss a bus or have difficulty arranging accommodation). Due to this I strongly recommend to contact Mr. Zhao Ning （赵宁） on 0086 13932478587 or 0086 (0)314 7805057 and ask him to arrange your transportation from Weichang/Siheyong on as well as accommodation. I found him very friendly and trustworthy; also very importantly, providing services to photographers is his specialty and he is very knowledgeable about the best photographic locations in the area. Zhao Ning also might help you to buy a return train ticket to Beijing. (Please read Disclaimer here.)
Photo and other gear recommendations
Bashang is an extremely spacious place and you will definitely need at least one telephoto lens. On my first trip to Bashang in early October 2005 I shot 15 rolls of 120 Fuji Velvia 100F slide film and only three shots were made with a standard lens - the rest were taken with a Hasselblad CB 4.8/160 lens, which is roughly equivalent to 90mm in 35mm. In about 85% of situation I thought that this focal length was about perfect and in the remaining circumstances I felt I needed a lens of a longer focal length. Wide-angle lenses? Did not cross my mind even once. Although your approach might be different, the general consensus among Chinese photographers is that Bashang is a place to use telephoto lenses.
Tripod is a must as most productive shooting occurs around sunrise and sunset. Make sure you have enough batteries (especially in winter) and recording media (digital or film) for the whole trip. All your equipment should be carried in a weather-proof bag(s).
Issues to be aware of
Bashang Grassland, on the average, is 1500 meters above sea level. Make sure you bring sunblock - even in autumn!
Daily temperature differences can be quite drastic - make sure to bring enough warm clothing.
Sand, generally, is a not major problem; however, on windy days and when photographing in sandy locations it might be of a great concern. After just half an hour in a strong northern wind I had to thoroughly clean my camera; I also had to disassemble my tripod for cleaning after photographing around Jiangjun Paozi.
Average temperature in winter is about minus 20° (centigrade). This, of course, is perfectly normal for Russians and Canadians but might be a bit of a surprise if you are from, say, Singapore ). Be prepared!
Many photographs of Bashang Grassland in autumn can be found here.
It would be best if you go with other photographers as a group as you will be able to split taxi/car rent fares and accommodation cost between you thus making your trip much more economical.
If need be, Internet is available in Hongshan Junmachang.
Some Chinese Web sites (as here) suggest that the place is unsafe and that the locals are unreasonable. I personally did not experience any of that and would ignore this sort of sources of information.