Tibet Autonomous Region and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, the two important locations along the ancient Silk Road have always been veiled in mystery in the eyes of many people around the world, including Photographer & Film Director Liu Rui, better known as Aaron Liu.
To lift this veil, Liu hopped in his small SUV and took off on a journey that would take him more than 42,000 kilometres around China.
“Like many people, I was very curious about these two mysterious places, which lead me to head there and explore,” Liu said.
The results of his travels can been seen in his documentary Solo Road Trip Around China seasons one and two and 500km away from home. The show has earned hundreds of thousands of positive reviews on video platforms such as Youku, Bilibili and YouTube, while his Sina Weibo account has gained more than 340,000 followers.
Travelling in Tibet
Born in the Southwest China’s Chonqing Municipality, the 35-year-old Liu once worked as a designer in Shanghai, but he gradually grew bored of the day-to-day work routine, leading him to quit and set off for adventure.
Liu has been to Tibet for three times. When he set off for Tibet in 2017 and met up with one official in Tibet, he was told that in some traditional Tibetan families, all the male children in a family will marry one woman and live together as a big family. This fraternal polyandry surprised and intrigued him, making him even more excited to travel around the region. “This custom was very fresh and new to me as most of China adheres to monogamy,” Liu said.
Liu originally thought that locals lived carefree and slow-paced lives, that is until he met a local village official.
“The official told me she once worked overtime for three days straight to count votes for a local election. This made me think that the pressure she was under was just as great as that of many other civil servants in major cities,” Liu said.
As Liu continued his journey, he began to feel that while Tibet has a long and rich history, it has also managed to keep up with the times by mixing modern elements into local culture.
Liu noted that going on pilgrimages to walk around certain holy hills is one way that locals express piety in their religion. However, as transportation in the region has become more developed, some young people are now choosing to ride motorcycles instead of walking.
Since Tibet has many natural sites, one can find many wild animals living in this beautiful paradise including wild bears. Liu said encountering one of these bears while camping in the wild was one of the most thrilling experiences from his trip.
“At first, I had no idea what it was, and then I saw a pair of eyes glowing from the light of my torch. I was extremely scared and rushed back into my tent at once. I was too scared to sleep, so ended up staying awake until 7 am the next day,” he said, adding that he will never forget the heart-stopping experience.
Adventuring in Xinjiang
“If Tibet is a place that touches my soul, then Xinjiang is a place that satisfies my desire to look at beautiful scenery and eat yummy food,” Liu said.
“Many of my friends told me that I needed to try the local crunchy pancake, but I was not that interested in it since eating a dry pancake in hot weather did not sound appealing to me.”
But one time while he was getting his car fixed, the mechanic shared half of a pancake with him. Feeling a bit obligated to try it, he took a small bite and was stunned by the flavor that spread across his taste buds. He later begged the guy to show him where he could buy more of the pancakes so he could take them on the road with him.
Liu said that due to the abundant sunshine in the region, the vegetables and fruits in Xinjiang are very fresh and sweet. He felt that he was getting spoiled by being able to eat such delicious produce and he actually was a little disappointed after he left and had to go back to eat the fruits and vegetables in his hometown.
One time on the road in Xinjiang, he happened to see a hunter carrying an eagle pass by him.
“At first I thought the old man was carrying a feathery rooster while riding a horse. But when I got closer to him, I discovered that it was actually an eagle, which I had never seen in real life before.”
Liu said he felt very fortunate to see an eagle hunter out in the wild, as many such hunters at scenic spots charge money to show off the bird’s hunting skills. Liu said that the only disappointment came due to the language barrier, as he could not communicate with the Kazakh man, who did not speak Putonghua (Standard Chinese).
Besides the beautifully natural scene in Xinjiang, the purity and enthusiasm of the local people impressed Liu the most.
“People in Xinjiang are very warm-hearted. They are willing to use 100 percent of their resources and energy to help you.”
When Liu’s temporary driving license expired, one local businessman put aside what he was doing and helped him find an empty trailer to drive him and his car to a place where he could renew his license.
“I didn’t know this stranger, but his kind help, which he gave without asking for any reward, touched me a lot.”
Gaining a Following
Besides Tibet and Xinjiang, Liu has also travelled to many other places including North China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. He has shared these travels through various vlogs, documentaries and travel journals.
Seasons one and two of his documentary series Solo Road Trip Around China have become very popular online.
Many netizens both at home and abroad have given his videos high compliments for their content, background music and cinematography. The high quality of his work has much to do with the high requirements he has set for himself.
According to Liu, post-production for a 20-30 minute documentary usually takes him a month, that is to say, producing one minute of a documentary can take a day.
Liu said preparing his equipment is the most complicated phase for him.
“I will usually carry around about eight pieces of equipment in total, including two drones, cameras, several lenses, a tripod and several sports cameras.”
Although he has received a lot of admiration from netizens, Liu said he cares more about the people he has portrayed in his documentaries.
“Their feedback is very important to me. I want my videos to be real,” he said, emphasising that the videos he made are not just about catering to audiences but also focusing on expressing his own inner voice.
After going to so many places, travelling and documenting have become a part of his life, as well as a mission that drives him to share information with people about various topics.
While the COVID-19 Pandemic has disturbed Liu’s plans for 2020, he says that once the virus clears up he will continue his travels.
“I want to travel on the road and be myself,” he remarked.