Sanlitun SOHO is an undulating mix of malls, offices and apartments in the heart of downtown Beijing. American photographer Kyle Obermann is lost and using WeChat’s real-time location function to find us in one of the complex’s basement cafes.
Unsurprising, perhaps. The adventure photographer is more at home in the wild. The remoter, the better: up in the foothills, with a camera in hand and Google Maps on his phone (“It’s pretty much essential”).
Obermann has spent the past year combining two of his biggest passions: photography and promoting environmental awareness. His journeys – from traversing the valleys of Yunnan to sleeping on snowcapped ridges in Sichuan – have resulted in magnificent photo opportunities.
Sipping on a flat white in the confines of SOHO, Obermann explains: “There are so many unexplored mountains out there, so many valleys. It is pretty easy to get off the trail and go remote.”
Armed with apps and topography maps (whatever is available – “topo maps in China are like a military state secret, you just can’t access them”), and with several years of hiking experience behind him, Obermann has managed to stumble upon “mind-blowing” scenes.
“I like to look at places people have been to with a new perspective, like the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
“We took a taxi to a famous monastery [in Tibet] and used Google Maps to find a doable route back. We walked through beautiful fields of alpine flowers and grass on 4,800-meter hills. It was definitely a hard 30 kilometers but it was gorgeous, and the first time I ever saw Tibetan antelope in the wild,” Obermann recalls.
Despite regularly scaling heights of 4,000 meters upwards, Obermann has only had one near-death experience in China. While hiking the Taishan Mountain range bordering Hebei and Shanxi during last October’s Golden Week, a blizzard hit his exposed camp on a narrow mountain ridge. “We sat up the whole night against the windward side of the tent to keep it from blowing over.”
But the self-trained photographer isn’t out there for the mere thrill of it. It’s his livelihood. Armed with a degree in environmental science, Obermann currently works at the Beijing office of American non-profit organization Conservation International.
In fact, the day of our interview coincides with his return from Xinglong Observatory in Hebei, after an all-nighter shooting a meteor shower for Chinese National Astronomy. Obermann is still wearing an orange thermal zip-up, a top synonymous with the word ‘outdoors.’
Being in the countryside is “a way to escape and refresh,” he says. “As far as environmental protection in China goes, it’s important to see these kinds of landscapes and the beauty that is worth saving. Imagine what it would be like if there was a system in place to do so?”
Until just a couple of years ago, China lacked such a scheme – one that can be monitored and enforced, that is – for safeguarding its ecosystems. But in 2014 the government amended its environmental laws to help fight pollution, placing greater emphasis on punishing offenders.
Obermann acknowledges, “The environmental situation [in China] is constantly improving – from the top down to the bottom up.”
Yet trekking experiences have shown the conservationist that there is still a lot of educating to be done. “Hiking has become really popular now in China. It’s a good trend, but I think that – like a lot of things that happen quickly here – details of what’s necessary are skipped over, and hikers just go for it.
“There are plenty of people who are more skilled than I am. But I’ve also seen a ton of groups that, frankly, leave a trail of trash behind,” he says. “It’s tragic when you’re in a remote area and run into a group [who’ve dumped] oxygen cans, gas canisters and wrappers.”
Ironically, Obermann admits, people who claim to be more environmentally conscious can be just as blasé. “There’s an education gap between valuing nature and learning how to protect it when you’re outdoors. But I think awareness comes with time.”
Obermann accepts it’s a steep mountain to climb, but points to Conservation International’s education programs as a positive example: “They’re focusing on kids, which is the generation that’s going to matter most.”
We can all do our bit, Obermann says. “It’s your everyday choices [that count]. Look at what you purchase to minimize the impact of packaging, ride your bike and bring a trash bag when you hike. Our options are limited right now because of the lack of infrastructure in China, but it’s about being conscious.
“I hope my pictures help open up the minds of people who don’t have the opportunity to go out and explore. I also encourage them to experience [rural China] for themselves, or support the groups that are trying to protect it,” he concludes. “Because without these groups, those landscapes wouldn’t be out there.