To me, travel is about cultural exchange — making the most of an opportunity to expand my worldview through first-hand experience with people different to me. It is exciting, novel, and often uncomfortable by its very nature; that is what makes it valuable. Those who portray foreign places have the opportunity to teach people who might not be able to travel what life is like there.
So I was excited to see former Burton, now Nitro snowboarder and Chinese national Wang Lei release a video a week ago about snowboarding in the Xinjiang province of northwestern China. According to the release, it is the “first Chinese backcountry and freeride snowboarding footage presented to a larger audience, captured at the very birth place of riding mountains in Asia: Altay and Kanas.” Finally, what I’ve been waiting for: a film about snowboarding that incorporates a deep cultural exchange, hosted by the perfect interpreter, a Chinese pro snowboarder.
Alas, I was disappointed. It’s an attempt, yes, and there are a few shots that give the viewer a sense that Xinjiang is not Summit County. But overall a huge opportunity was missed.
No, I didn’t need Lei and his team to convey the domestic upheaval happening in Xinjiang. How the Chinese government has been reacting forcefully to an uptick in sectarian violence in the region. Or that the Uighurs, a Muslim minority ethnic group, has been behind some jihadist attacks in the province of Xinjiang. And it wasn’t even necessary that a year ago a group of eight perpetrators armed with knives attacked a train station in Kunming, killing 29 civilians and injuring another 143. These narratives were understandably omitted.
However, I did need them to show more than a Best Western-style hotel, a frozen lake, and a few locals in traditional dress on traditional skis. In the SUV one of the riders noticed an unusual drink bottle, and the team stopped in for a briefly-depicted meal of presumably-regional cuisine in the Hemukanasixiang Village, but for the most part, chances to portray Xinjiang culture fell flat.
It might be naive and optimistic of me to think that a snowboarding video would be of anything other than shredding fat pow. But I sense an opportunity here. More so, I sense a responsibility — why would a video about Xinjiang be relevant if it had nothing to do with the cultural fabric of the setting? I want it all: snowboarding in new and exotic mountains, but also a real and intentional glimpse into the story behind the place. “A Wild West Adventure” almost showed facets of contemporary China, but instead opted to focus on the very narrow slice, albeit a beautiful one, of locals skiing using their own style of equipment. It felt cheap, almost insensitive, to portray the immense and complex 2015 China in such a quaint and provincial manner.
Acknowledgement must be made — in China, free speech is not a strong value. Perhaps Lei felt like he couldn’t show the depth of the story, for fear of provoking Chinese officials. And there may be more to the story. I hope there is.
I dig the idea behind the film. However, as a Westerner habituated to a freedom of expression, I feel that an opportunity has been missed, an opportunity to create a new subgenre of snow porn, one that doesn’t just trample over local cultures to get to the beautiful mountains that were their crucible, one where the journey to the mountains is as important as the line itself.