It's a three-and-a-half-hour flight to the east and then another seven-hour drive south into the countryside.
That's a lot of traveling. Is it worth the trip for a visitor?
Yeah. It's like if someone visited America and said, "Yeah, I've been to America; I went to New York City." Any of us would say they had to be joking. That's great, but that's the tip of the iceberg. I think that's true of China. China is as enormous and as varied as America. The landscapes of central and western China are just not to be believed. You feel like you've stepped out of the modern world and into Shangri-la. It's just so, so beautiful.
Tell me how you would travel there from Shanghai. If you really wanted to see the landscape of The Painted Veil, you would go from Shanghai or Hong Kong to Guilin, and from Guilin you would drive south to Yangshuo. There you can take tour-boat rides on those rivers through those hills. It's like a river valley that cuts through these impossibly steep, sort of sharp limestone hills that are covered in trees and pines and things. There is not a way to describe it. You really feel like you have gone into one of those Chinese paintings of a tiny bamboo raft being pulled down a river, with people in their straw hats. It is authentically that landscape, and we really didn't have to dress it up much for the film. The most that we had to do (because we were coming into it a little later than their actual rice harvest) was make an agreement in the spring with that whole little district to guarantee them their rice crop if they would plant it a month late so that it would be nice and high and green when we were filming. We traveled down there in the midst of our shoot, and we were coming through all these fields that were being harvested, and we were all having heart attacks. We came up over the ridge and looked down into our valley, our remote little valley, and it was just full of fields of green rice and yellow rice. Of course, in China, this cost a couple of thousand dollars, but it was really one of those things that makes you smile about making movies. They all looked at us like we were insane.
I understand you stayed at backpacker hostels?
There were a couple of very charming little hotels. They put out Ping-Pong tables for us in the courtyard, and we were there for over a month. That was Huang Yao. Then the other place after that … in the film, when you see those shots of the big river snaking through those hills and the compound where we live? That was in another town, called Yizhou. It was a bigger town that had a lovely hotel right on that river. It was called the Holiday Inn. They call a lot of hotels the Holiday Inn, even though they have nothing to do with the Holiday Inn [chain].
Where did your father live when he was there?
He lived in Kunming, in Yunnan, in southwestern China. Yunnan is, without any question in my mind, the most beautiful part of China that I have been to. It's the Rockies and the Grand Canyon, all rolled into one. It encompasses everything from Burma's rain forest all the way to the top of the Himalayan peaks. It is just the landscape of your Shangri-la dreams: incredible mountains, deep river valleys, gorges, beautifully terraced fields cutting up the hillsides, beautiful ancient towns like Lijiang, and people of incredible ethnic diversity. I would wander around in northwest Yunnan for six months. From Beijing or Shanghai, you would probably fly to Kunming, which is a wonderful city. From Kunming, you could jump to any of the smaller towns like Lijiang or Zhongdian. Also, I would say that my brother, Jim, is one of the only people in the world running commercial river trips on the rivers of northwest Yunnan. My brother was really the first person to really start running regular commercial rafting trips on some of these incredibly adventurous rivers that cut through these gorges in Yunnan. People book his trips through a big travel company called Mountain Travel Sobek. My brother, Jim, runs the Yunnan Great Rivers trip, on the great bend of the Yangtze and upper Mekong. They do it every February and April, and it is the trip of a lifetime. Truly. I have done the Grand Canyon, and never in my life have I seen river gorges like these. It is the river trip of all time.
What else is worth traveling across China to see?
When transitioning from Beijing to Shanghai, a couple of us took a flight to a town called Xian, which is the city where the famous discovery of the underground terra-cotta warriors happened. You look on the map and you go, "Holy cow, am I going to go all the way out there?" Then it's like going to Chicago; it was easy. The ancient city wall [of Xian] is still intact. You can go up on bicycles and ride the whole perimeter of the top of the ancient city wall. There is something about it that is really cool, because you are riding the perimeter of the ancient city, yet the modern city is all around you. And, of course, the tombs of the terra-cotta warriors - they've been turned into a major museum. You step in, and it just blows your mind. You just cannot believe the scale of it and just the audacity of it. It's so incredible to imagine some guy drilling a well on his property and punching through to a cavern and lowering a lantern down and seeing this. It's staggering. They estimate that it could be on the order of 30,000 of these life-size figures and military units with horses and wagons built in terra-cotta, and they have restored nearly 10,000 of them. They stand there like this army, and it's so from a different time. I'm not personally one to traipse out just to see the thing that everyone wants to see. But this was definitely worth the trip.