Culture, China travel photos and fantastical worlds

One of the things that attracts me to fantasy as a genre is the ability to read about — and, even better, create — fantastical imaginary worlds that really sing themselves off the page. It’s the chance to visit wondrous places that only exist in fiction, and I heartily wish I could go there for real.

It’s probably not surprising therefore that I love real-world travel as well. Although there are still a great many countries I haven’t yet had the chance to visit, I’ve been lucky enough to visit such interesting places as Nepal, China, Alaska, New Zealand, and a fair chunk of Europe and the UK.

When travelling, my focus is almost always on the historical and cultural — particularly when the two combine. Show me an ancient temple or archaeological site and I am there. But I also love experiencing how others live in a modern context. It all informs my writing by providing inspiration for the creation of culturally vibrant alternate worlds that underpin fantasy storytelling.

As part of this week’s WordPress photo challenge, where the theme is culture, I am therefore going to share just a few of the photos I took during my trip to China in 2006:

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Each of these photos evokes a unique aspect of Chinese culture for me:

  • Calligraphers adorn the full length of the path leading to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, demonstrating the art of forming beautiful characters with just the right brush strokes…
  • Authentic dumplings are made near Yu Yuan gardens in Shanghai — the locals line up for these much as we might for coffee or jam donuts…
  • The reverence with which the locals burn incense at the Tibetan Buddhist Yonghe Gong temple in Beijing provides insight into the faith of other cultures…

As both a traveller and writer, I feel enriched by such experiences, all of which find their way into the melting pot of my mind to inspire my writing and worldbuilding. (I am not suggesting writers should necessarily appropriate elements of other cultures, but allow them to inspire us to create cultures of our own.)

China is certainly an amazing place, and the moments captured in these three photos barely scrape the surface of its cultural heritage. The Great Wall of China, for example, is simply breathtaking. I would love to return some day and see more of China’s remarkable monuments, buildings and landmarks.

I would love to hear about other favourite travel experiences — in either China or beyond. Do any other travellers passing through focus on history and culture as I do? I’d also love to hear from any writers whose work is informed by their travels, and how.

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ADDENDUM Tuesday 30 April — For anyone that’s interested, here are links to the travel posts I wrote after my China trip in 2006:

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Postscript: I’ve spent the past four days at the Australian National Science Fiction Convention, Conflux9. Coming up in the next few days therefore will be my thoughts on the con — including a worldbuilding workshop I attended on the first day. Stay tuned!

36 comments

  1. We are headed to China for the first time in September. Your photos got me excited all over again! I agree with your thoughts on travel and have been fortunate to see most of the world so China is a huge check on the bucket list for me. Thanks for the reminder!

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  2. I certainly love learning about the history of a place that I am visiting.

    Before trekking through Tiger Leaping Gorge, I learned how the trail formed a part of the ancient Tea Horse Road, also known as the southern silk road. It made our trek even more fascinating.

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    1. Even the name ‘Tiger Leaping Gorge’ evokes such wonderful images. I haven’t been there, but anything to do with the Silk Road is of great interest to me. I’d love to get back to China and travel along the old silk road… Thanks so much for stopping by and leaving a comment.

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  3. Right on, Ellen. As you know, I just got back from a long trip. I have dozens of photos of fortified palaces in India — architectural details, interior decor, artifacts crammed with decoration, the view from the battlements, the view OF the battlements… Something there was setting off my fantasy writer’s radar. I can only wait and see what will come out of my fingers someday!

    I’ve made a point of writing stories in secondary-world settings inspired by cultures that appear less often in this genre. Of course I try to be sensitive to issues of appropriation, and hope that my attempts to broaden the genre will do more good than harm. So far I’ve adapted Ancient Egypt, the Inuit, Jewish culture (for urban fantasy), and most recently, part of Thailand — another place I visited on my trip.

    Writing European-based fantasy is easier (in some ways — not to belittle anyone who’s doing it!), but the world is so much bigger than that. Maybe that’s why I haven’t drawn storytelling inspiration from my past travels in Europe…at least not in such a direct way. Any travel is bound to enrich a writer’s work, whether fantasy or not!

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    1. It sounds like you had an amazing trip, Siri. I haven’t yet been to either India (although I came close with Nepal) or Thailand (except for the airport – heh). But it sounds as though you take similar photos to me for research/inspiration purposes.

      I know exactly what you mean regarding trying to extend fantasy worldbuilding beyond simply Europe. With the world I’m currently writing in, I’ve tried to make the world non-derivative of anywhere in particular. Although I guess everything comes from somewhere… As one of my friends says, fantasy gives writers so much scope to be completely creative, so why limit ourselves to cultures we recognise?

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      1. I’m fascinated by your effort to develop a non-derivative setting. For me, worldbuilding is tough and the planet we live on offers plenty of scope, so I lean heavily on existing cultures and locations, but I know other writers who absolutely love building from scratch. I’d love to hear more about your process, if you’re comfortable sharing!

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        1. Siri — Maybe I’ll do a dedicated post on it someday soon. I’m hoping to post a bit about worldbuilding coming out of the recent convention I attended, so maybe I’ll incorporate it there. I have to say, though, there are probably recognisable bits and pieces, but I didn’t want anyone to be able to say, “That’s clearly European” or “That’s clearly Asian” if you know what I mean…

          Anyway, that’s what I’m attempting. 🙂

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  4. I didn’t know you’ve been to China…how cool 🙂 Not that the other places you’ve been to aren’t also cool, because I’m sure they were all amazing–it’s just that China holds a special fascination for me.

    I’ve only been to Norway but I’ve been there three times. I’m not really sure, but I think my first trip there might have had some small part in why I’m writing fiction again after not doing it for about 20 years. I’d never been to another country before and it was a transformational experience for me. I think it shook some things loose in my brain and a couple months later, BAM! I’m a writer again.

    I think culture and history or fascinating, but I’ve never focused on it in my travels. I just look for places that speak to me 🙂

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    1. You definitely need to go to China, Mike. If Norway transformed you into a writer again, imagine what China could do (given your particular writing interests…)!

      I haven’t been to Norway and would love to visit someday. I’d love to go back to China too, because there is so much more to see — I’ve only really been to Shanghai and Beijing with excursions to the Great Wall and Suzhou thrown in.

      Really, this world is a massive and amazing place and I don’t think I could ever run out of new places to visit. My next trip is to the UK again (for the World Fantasy Convention) but there’s still heaps of the UK (notably Cornwall and Devon for this trip) that I haven’t yet visited! I feel more inspiration coming on…

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      1. Yeah, China is so huge that it must’ve been tough picking out what you wanted to see out of all the options. The Great Wall would definitely be a must. I would also want to visit the Shaolin Monastery, and maybe Hong Kong.

        There are some other places I’d like to visit if I ever get the chance–Iceland, Australia, New Zeland, and Antarctica are pretty close to the top of the list.

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        1. Yeah, well, Australia is worth a visit of course. 🙂
          I’ve always wanted to visit Antarctica too.

          As for China – I was staying with friends, mainly in Shanghai, which is a fabulous city. There are SO MANY MORE places I want to get back to, including the Shaolin Monastery…

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    2. Mike, Norway is a wonderful place to visit! I’ve only been there once, but I’d love to go back. I found it was close enough to North American culture (and humour) that the differences could catch me by surprise, but the mountains and fiords were out-of-this-world amazing. What was it that spoke to you about it?

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      1. I’m not sure I can attribute it to any one thing, so this is a tough question for me to answer. I think part of it is that Norway has a lot of accessible places you can go where it’s easy to imagine you’re in a land that exists now much as it did in ancient times when mythology best explained things about the world that people couldn’t understand. It’s a country of wild and almost magical beauty, and place that feels good to be 🙂

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  5. I am not as well traveled as you all, but I dream of the day that I will be! I bicycled through the Bordeaux region of France one year (with a group of other cyclists), and fell in love with the French countryside and its people. It opened the spigot of yearning to widen my travels and experience the cultures of in many countries. Thank you for sharing your experiences in China. A small sip to quench my thirst for travel … for now … 😉

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    1. I’ve always wanted to do a mulitple-day cycling tour through the countryside somewhere — that was until I got on a bike in the Loire Valley (France) for a day and felt very uncoordinated! But I guess I’d pick it up, right? It seems the perfect way to travel, because as you state you have time to take in the scenery and meet the locals. Perfect.

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  6. Love your photos. I also love how you connected traveling with your passion for writing. Seeing new places, experiencing other cultures, and going on adventures open us up in ways that staying home in our usual routines will never do. I yearn to travel more, see more, do more. Crave it, actually.

    I’m looking forward to reading about your weekend at Conflux and what you learned about world building. I have not tried writing fantasy, though my new WIP has a certain amount of steampunk elements in it that I think need a fair amount of world building to go with it.

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    1. Thanks, Tami — I think pretty much everything I do feeds back into my writing somehow. Might as well keep the blog on theme. 😀

      Conflux featured several steampunk-themed events actually, including a high tea. I’m not an expert in this area, though. I sense a learning curve for you! Maybe we’ll find ourselves meeting up at an SF-themed event sometime in the future…

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  7. I can imagine how a trip to China or any other country/culture would inspire new avenues of writing. I love the picture of the little girl and her giant paintbrush!

    I am not very well traveled, so I don’t have much to share as far as that goes, but would enjoy seeing the great wall some day!

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    1. Yeah, travel is one of the best ways for kicking your muse in the what-for! China is amazing. Someday you will get there, I’m sure! (I’d love to walk the length of the Great Wall, but I think it’s impossible.)

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