So yesterday was spent getting half of our wedding photos taken. For those who don't know, in China wedding photos are done before the wedding so that albums and DVDs will be available for the wedding guests to look at. They are also often done by specialist wedding photo studios (many of whom also seem to offer other wedding-related services) which are huge, tackily decorated stores with names suggesting European elegance (yes, I know, and it's tempting to rant about that, but some other time) inside which you can find all the photographers, photoshoppers, make-up people (I will not write 'artist' there), hair stylists, and suits and dresses you could possibly need for your wedding photos. And a lot of the scenery for the inside shots. And people whose job seems to be extracting as much money out of you as is humanly possible.
So yesterday we got the outside shots done. Next Saturday we'll do the inside shots.
Doing the outside shots meant first choosing between a trip to Beidaihe or Shidu. Good thing we chose Shidu. I can't imagine how we'd get fourty separate shots at Beidaihe- oh look, there's us on the beach yet again- but Shidu at least has a variety of scenery, and being mountainous and having a river, plenty of different places we could pose.
Shidu chosen, we were told to go to the store on Wednesday evening to choose our clothes. Clothes chosen, we were told to be at the store by 6:30 at the latest yesterday morning. The store is at Xisi. That's quite a distance from BeiGongDa. Neither of us slept well the night before. We got up at 5. We arrived bang on 6:30 looking somewhat less than our best.
The put make-up on us. I couldn't see what difference the make-up had done to my face. lzh changed into her dress and I got my suit on. Well, no, I put the trousers and shirt on and left the other bits in a bag for when we got there, lest I spontaneously combust in the mini-bus on the way there.
Once everybody was ready, the five couples getting their photos done yesterday, the make-up crew, the photographers and their assistants piled on to the mini-bus and off we went.
The Third Crossing:
Shidu/十渡 is so named because the road, as it winds up through the valley, crosses the river ten times, necessitating ten ferry crossings. Well, maybe there were ferries some time back in the past, but now all the crossings are bridges. Very simple bridges, but still, bridges. I dunno, I guess if you've read the tourist literature you'd probably imagine Shidu as one distinct place. That's how I was thinking. No, it's a valley, and each crossing has its own name and is its own little dot on the map. The names of the crossings, though, are very simple: Yidu, The First Crossing; Erdu, The Second Crossing; and so on. It seems that our photographers had a certain predilection for the Third Crossing, and having crossed it, the minibus parked, we piled out, and the ladies' make-up and hair were redone, with flowers and veils being added. Then the photographers started taking photographers back across the river and got stuck into their work.
I was pleasantly surprised by how painless it all was. Well, for starters, we were surrounded by beautiful scenery in fresh, cool mountain air. Secondly, having got some fresh air and tea that had been stewing in the flask for several hours already and was therefore rivalling a triple espresso in sheer kicking power, I was starting to recover from the painfully early start. But most importantly, the photographers and their assistants were damn good at their jobs. They had stacks of patience and good humour (many a photo had to wait for the couple posing to stop laughing at the photographers' jokes), knew what they were on about and what they wanted, and communicated that well. Also, each couples' photos were broken up into small sets, so there was plenty of time to rest in between each relatively short round of posing. So we did our shots by the pool at the base of the waterfall, then rested, then our shots halfway up the rocks beside the waterfall, then rested, then our shots on the bamboo raft, then rested, then our shots with the horse, then got changed back into real clothes and waited for the others to finish. It was a surprisingly pleasant experience.
But if you're heading up to Shidu looking for natural scenery, you're going to be very disappointed. Sure, the mountains are natural, and the river is of natural origin, but the valley shows just as much human interference as any other long-inhabited valley in China. And I don't just mean the road, bridges and villages. I can't tell how long it's been since the river flowed naturally, but it has been quite a considerable time. Just upstream from the bridge at the Third Crossing is a weir of obviously recent human construction, and behind that weir the river has of course broadened out into a wide, shallow pond. On both sides of the pond are rows of bamboo rafts which presumably are for hire, but which mostly seem to be used for wedding photos.
But wait: Bamboo? I don't think I've ever seen bamboo growing anywhere in north China outside of a park or garden where it has obviously been planted artificially. Somehow I don't think bamboo rafts are a part of Shidu's local cultural heritage. I'm sure that before the bridges were built the river was crossed by ferry, but somehow I suspect those ferries were made of wood from trees that grow naturally in the mountains west of Beijing. Still, I suppose it is possible that bamboo has been brought up here to make rafts for quite some time.
And I can't help but think that if it weren't for the weirs and other artificial waterworks, the river would be reduced to a mere trickle.
And as we arrived at the Third Crossing, an old man punted his bamboo raft over to the other side, and then a waterfall started cascading down the cliff face into an obviously artificial pool. And then the old man punted back over to our side of the river. Hmmmm.
But despite the obvious long-standing human impact on the local environment, it is a very pleasant place to be. I was considering moving there, but something tells me lzh would not be too happy at that suggestion. Anyway, anyone disappointed at the lack of unspoiled natural scenery should remember that the valley has obviously been settled for a very long time, and all such valleys everywhere in the world are similarly influenced by that long-standing human influence.
There was one thing I found a little odd about the Third Crossing. Just downstream, across the entrance to a ravine, a wall and gate with towers like a baddies fort out of some kung fu costume epic had been built. And there was a front-end loader sitting outside it.
The Tenth Crossing:
And then everybody was done and those who had the good sense to bring their real clothes with them had got changed and lunch was suggested. There was a restaurant just across the road, but the crew insisted they knew a better place up the road. And so we piled on the mini-bus and drove up to Shidu, the Tenth Crossing, itself. At Shidu the valley is narrower and the mountains and cliffs higher and steeper, but it is much more heavily developed than the first three or four crossings, with tons of restaurants and souvenir stands and other tourist trap paraphernalia, and just across the river, two bungy platforms built out from the cliff over the river. Unfortunately we only had time to get lunch, though. The crew had to be back at the store to prepare for a wedding today. At least that was their excuse. So we quickly got some lunch and got back on the mini-bus for the ride back to the store.
The Shadow Building:
I like lzh's habit of referring to the store as an 影楼 (yinglou). Oh, sure, obviously it isn't just a store but a photo studio, and so it should be called an 影楼. That's what it is. But my little habit of translating literally character for word to get amusing little translations (it helps me remember vocab) says: "Ha ha! It's a shadow building!"
But "shadow building" seems to me an appropriate name for the place. I'm liking going there less and less.
We signed up for a reasonably-priced package- not the cheapest, but something easily affordable for us. Because we were introduced by a friend, we were promised a whole lot of extra stuff that would not normally be available in that reasonable price range. But somehow it seems that a lot of things are costing us a little extra, and some of those little extras are being sold at prices far higher (even ten times higher, in at least one case) than their market value. So, at the very least, we're going to have to be a lot more careful about what we get done when we do the inside photos next weekend, and we might have to talk to some people about how we're not happy with some of these surprise extra charges. I mean, we might not have gone for the most expensive package (for the obvious reason that that one is in the utterly ridiculous price range), but we've still spent a considerable amount of money.
Also, sometimes when we've been there I've been left with the feeling that they're doing us a big favour. Uh, hang on a minute: we are the ones paying the money, and even if we did not get the most expensive package available, I think we still deserve to be treated with the appropriate level of respect.
And I find it really quite strange that they'll offer a free bicycle as part of their package, but they don't provide food or drink on those long, long trips to Beidaihe or Shidu.
And I would've thought a studio specialising in wedding photos would have a better range of suits. Apparently it's been written into law somewhere that in all the outside photos, the groom must wear a white suit. No. I'm not appearing in this album looking like a ghost. Not happening. Unfortunately the selection of black suits was even more pathetic. The only passable jacket was too big, and the only jacket that fitted and did not have horrible tacky gold or silver "decorations" on it had tails and required a cummerbund. Ugh. Tails. A cummerbund. Ugh. But what choice did I have? So tails it was. Doesn't matter too much, the photos are going to be photoshopped into something cool, anyway. But still, it was disappointing to have to settle for the least bad suit instead of being able to choose between different passable suits. And just to add insult to injury, in the process of choosing the least bad suit, we discovered that the studio only provides white shoes for the outdoor shots. And this news came too late for us to race out and get a pair of black dress shoes. So there I was at the Third Crossing in tails and sandals, carefully posing so that my feet would be hidden.
I wore my nice pair of black leather sandals, though. The pair that cuts big holes in my feet half the time I wear them (but fortunately they left my feet alone yesterday. At least until we started heading home from the studio- then they decided my feet needed a new hole)
Apparently, though, there is a very strict distinction between the clothes available for outside photos and those available for inside. So hopefully I'll be able to actually chose something decent to wear next Saturday. Of course, the inside photos will involve us getting dressed up in traditional Chinese hanfu for some of the photos, which should be interesting.
Ah well, I can't complain too much. The problems are actually quite minor. Bad suit and sandals or not, the end result of all this trouble will be a cool photo album. That's the big advantage of wedding photos with Chinese characteristics. We won't end up with wedding photos that are essentially the same as everybody else's (look, there's the wedding party posing in front of some random piece of scenery. Again.), we'll have an album that is uniquely ours. Actually, at least two albums, one large and one small, and probably a DVD, too. And sure, the mass-produced nature of these albums mean that it'll be fairly similar to other couples', but watching those photographers in action yesterday was reassuring: They put each couple through a unique set of poses. Some of the poses were similar, sure, I mean, there are limits to how the human body can be bent. But even so, no pose was repeated between couples.
I just hope I get veto rights over the random Chinglish phrases that will be sprinkled liberally through the album.....
Well, it is a long, exhausting and expensive process, but it will be worth it. And this seems like the most troublesome part of the whole wedding process. See, we're all legalised and stuff, we have all the certificates and stamps we need, but we haven't yet had a wedding ceremony, and these photos are a necessary part of that. But after this, I suspect that booking the restaurant and cars and other bits and pieces will be relatively easy, or at least, less troublesome.