Published in Line Up magazine, April / May 2005
Ever since Marco Polo visited China 700 years ago he has inspired millions of globetrotters to follow in his footsteps. One such person is Michael Yamashita, who has arguably one of the most enviable jobs in the world, photographer for the National Geographic magazine.

Pick up any copy of Geographic and chances are Mike's photos will be inside. In 2000 Mike photographed the entire length of Marco's journey through the Middle Kingdom, using only the young Italian's original book as his guide. Now he was back, this time with a National Geographic film crew. Their mission: To discover whether Marco Polo actually did visit China, or was he just a great storyteller? That's where I come in.

I am a location sound recordist, specializing in natural history and science documentaries. I have been based in Hong Kong for ten years, and most of my work is for UK production companies, primarily those based in Bristol. In the past, I have been hugged by a 150 kg orangutan, filmed an African Rock Python in an aardvark burrow, and dived with great white sharks. 2003 saw me exploring the jungles of Panama, diving with dinosaurs in New Zealand, and "going live" from the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

So Little Time, So Much To See

When Michael photographed the story for Geographic, he had over a year to do so. We only had five weeks. Therefore it was essential to have an experienced crew familiar with the territory. Our team of cameraman, camera assistant, sound recordist, and fixer had been chosen by the director because of our previous filming experience in China. This means we actually enjoy spine-shattering bus rides along perilous mountain passes, sleeping in no-star hotels and eating anything with four legs that's not the table. Vegetarians need not apply.

The 3-part documentary was to be shot on an S16mm Arri SR3, with the camera equipment hired from respected Beijing rental house Cinerent. China is gaining a reputation for good camera kit hire, and several companies are now stocking Digi-Beta and HD as standard. Sound equipment has always been a bit of a question mark though, so I always bring my own kit. This consists of three Pelicases packed with 2 Portadat PDR1000's, SQN 4s IV mixer, Sennheisers MKH 416 & 70, Pearl MS8 stereo mic, Lectrosonics diversity wireless mics, Motorola GP 300 walkie-talkies, plus the usual array of Sanken COS-11s and Tram TR50s, Electrovoice RE50 (for impromptu commentaries), Hawkwoods NP1s and a back-up Sony DAT TCD-D8 Walkman.

Before we could even think about filming, there was the issue of how to actually get my gear into the country. Although China is technically a carnet country, most Mainland customs officers are rather bemused by the multi-coloured document and won't want anything to do with it. There is no right or wrong way to enter China with film equipment, because every port seems to have different rules. In my experience the easiest way of temporarily importing TV gear is to send an equipment list to your local Chinese representative, who will then act as your sponsor whilst in the PRC. This will keep the People's Republic of China Customs Department happy, and will hopefully alleviate the need to secure a bond based on the value of the gear. However, the local rep must meet you at the airport, otherwise you could find yourself negotiating over what the customs department keeps as a souvenir, and what you get to use for recording (as I found out the hard way once). All this to look forward to, and you haven't even left the airport yet.

After fifteen years of filming in more than forty countries, I have come to appreciate the importance of hiring good local production support. Being a coordinator myself for crews visiting Hong Kong, it comes down to a combination of versatility, good nature and knowing when to keep quiet. Thankfully, I have come to know a number of extremely talented production coordinators in China, who make our lives a breeze when it comes to permits and bureaucracy. In this instance we had a veteran of National Geographic shoots, Matthew Hu, whose company Wild China had worked with Mike Yamashita during his photo assignment three years before. Matthew speaks fluent English and Putonghua (Mandarin Chinese), and understands Western filming procedures. He also made a damn good clapperboard operator. After meeting me at Beijing airport Matthew effortlessly arranged for my gear to be cleared through customs.

When I started in this crazy business, my Sound Supervisor summed up documentary filmmaking as "a series of problem-solving exercises". Not much has changed in all that time. I've done more than 30 projects in China, and none of them has been particularly easy. But then, we wouldn't do this job if it was easy, would we?

Anyone fancy a Chinese?

After a night in Beijing, enjoying possibly the spiciest Sichuan meal I have ever had the misfortune of eating (my tongue was in a splint after that meal - thank goodness for Tsing Tao beer), we left the capital for Inner Mongolia. This involved a ten hour drive, with numerous roadside stops for GVs, and at one point took us actually through the Great Wall of China. Inner Mongolia is home to Shangdu, (Xanadu), Kublai Khan's official palace.

The young Marco became good friends with the Mongol leader, and helped introduce Christianity to the East. Not much remains of the palace today, except the profile of the city walls. However, rummage amongst the weeds and you can still find pieces of Yuan dynasty pottery. Mongolia is also the place to film horses - wild horses, tamed by even wilder Mongols. These nomadic folk roam the vast open plains in search of suitable pasture. The landscape is akin to The Netherlands, i.e. relatively flat but with fewer windmills and more yurts.

Michael wanted to capture the experience of horses being corralled at high speed by the farmers, so rode pillion on a motorbike. In order to capture Mike's commentary, I wired him up with a Lectrosonics UM200 transmitter pack (block 22, 563.2 - 588.7 MHz), choosing a Tram TR50 to compliment his gruff New Yorker accent. I was a bit worried how the transmitter would cope with the interference from the motorbike's engine, (how many of you have experienced that wonderful static sound before?), but thankfully the only clicking sounds were from Michael's camera shutter.

This became the standard set up for the rest of the shoot; Mike wearing the radio mic, and me using my Pearl MS8 stereo mic to sweeten his voice as well booming anyone he met on his travels.

Coffee and Communism

From Mongolia it was back to Beijing, and the Forbidden City. Can you believe we hired the entire place to film for an afternoon? It was rather eerie strolling about without another soul in sight and the only sound coming from the swifts twittering above is in the palace eaves. It reminded me how incredibly privileged we are to work in this industry. I was, however, mortified to discover globalization had penetrated the heart of Communism. The Forbidden City has a Starbucks!

Journey To The West

Leaving the capital behind, our adventure really began in earnest, as we flew 2000 km west to the Xinjiang Uigur Autonomous Region. This is an area the size of Western Europe, but with only thirteen million inhabitants. The diversity in nationalities found here more than makes up for the low population density though. It was here that Marco entered China from modern day Afghanistan, following the old Silk Road from Kashgar to Hotan, a route already well-worn by Kazak, Kirgyz, Tajik, and other Central Asian merchants. Some parts are so un-Chinese, you would be mistaken for thinking you were in Turkey. This is mainly due to the Moslem Uigur community, who make up the majority of the inhabitants. Since 9/11, the Chinese government has ensured that this peaceful corner of the country remains under tight control, meaning that any remains of non-Chinese culture are being slowly but surely reformed and eradicated. I personally witnessed the destruction of the old Moslem quarter in Kashgar, watching bulldozers demolish the wonderful minarets and arches of Arabic architecture. Thankfully though the food has yet to be replaced. Mealtimes never disappointed, with us enjoying roast lamb kebabs, naan breads and the sweetest watermelon I have ever tasted. For many of you, I am sure that the prospect of having kebabs every night would be a dream come true, but after a week my jaw ached, and I was ready for the mother of all flossing sessions.

Marco recalls seeing silk-weaving, knife-making and huge colourful markets in this part of the world. 700 years hasn't changed the country a bit, it's all still there. The bazaars were positively medieval, selling everything from livestock to fruit, spices to swords. As much as possible the director Jonathan Finnigan wanted to let Michael roam free through the sea of people, chatting about whatever he saw. Therefore, keeping track of him in a busy market was going to be quite a challenge, especially over a 50 or 60 metre distances. Since Jonathan was watching the action on a clamshell DV recorder, I sent a programme feed to it from my SQN 4s, using one of my older but equally reliable Lectrosonics VHF units. Through headphones Jonathan was then able to keep track of what Michael was saying, and via Motorola GP300 walkie-talkies he and the AP could relay Michael visual cues off-camera. I positioned myself off to one side of the 300mm frame, so that I stood at least a fighting chance of getting clean audio from Michael's transmitter. I'm happy to report though that despite the huge throng of people and animals, I never once heard the Lectrosonics break up.

Since we weren't using time-code to sync-up, we had to rely on the tried and tested system of boards and end-board mic taps for identifying takes. I try to keep mic taps down to a minimum (must keep the post-production folk happy), but inevitably when you're in a conspicuous environment like a market, a clapperboard is going to draw attention. Everyone has his or her own method of identing and my own is to bonk the boom once and then stick up the relevant number of fingers for that take. This works well up to take 5, after which it becomes a bit messy (unless you have more than 5 fingers on one hand). Luckily we rarely needed to do more than one or two takes.

From a sound recordist's perspective the market was an absolute dream. So whenever the camera crew was off doing GVs, I wandered about gathering MS wildtracks. The air was thick with Turkic dialects. I must have recorded almost an entire roll of atmospheres, ranging from muezzin calls to donkeys braying, ovens bellowing huge flames to stall-holders haggling (well, you've got to haggle, haven't you?)

Heading out of these oasis towns and into the desolate Taklimakan desert (meaning "He who goes in, never comes out") we drove up into the heavenly Pamir Mountains, meeting every conceivable ethnic minority en route. The director wanted some nice long lens (600mm) traveling shots of our crew bus (i.e. the "picture" bus), hovering above the shimmering heat-haze on the road. Time to hand out the walkie-talkies again, giving one to the driver and one to Matthew. Obviously the cameraman would see the bus before I would hear it, so I held my MKH70 in full Rycote and windjammer about an inch off the ground to get as much suck out it as possible. This created a pretty effective PZM, although you do tend to lose most of the higher frequency range. But for FX it's more than adequate.

On the banks of Lake Karakul we came across an entire family of Kirgyz carpet-weavers. Adorned in their vivid red costumes, against a stunning backdrop of lake and snow-capped mountains, it was a cinematographer's dream. Viewers are going to think we set this shot up, but as Michael aptly put it, "Photographers are paid to be lucky".

From Xinjiang we flew to the oasis town of Dunhuang, in Gansu province. This is home to the world's largest sand dunes, towering over 300m tall. The thought of exposing my beloved DAT recorder to flying sand particles was not an option. Moreover, lugging the gear up steep slopes of loose sand was also something to be considered. I have a large foam-lined backpack, which has accompanied me through rainforests, up mountains and across deserts. It keeps the gear dry and dust free, and also saves my back from extra strain. Carrying the sound kit up the dunes was a piece of cake thanks to that, much to the frustration of the camera department who were huffing and puffing behind with their 16mm gear.

Marco mentions hearing the sand dunes singing. Try as I might to hear this wind-generated phenomena, the only thing I managed to record was the roar of quad bikes hurtling over nearby crests. I even buried a radio mic inside a piece of plastic pipe, and covered it with an inch of sand, but unfortunately the wind just wasn't howling enough to get a good recording.

Wall? What Wall?

Gansu also marks the most Western end of the Chinese wall. A very different structure to the one you see around Beijing. No grand structure here, just a tamped earth hump ending at Jiaoyuguan, with an impressive fort. This was the final defence of the Ming Empire against the unknown terrors of the West. One of the main arguments against Marco ever visiting China is that he never mentions the wall. But when you see how insignificant it is here, can you blame him for ignoring it?

Wedding Film Crew For Hire

And then, just when we thought we couldn't possibly get any luckier, we hit the jackpot. Wandering through a dusty town we discovered a Kazak wedding. Naturally, the bride and groom wanted us to join in and we became the official wedding film crew! However, this has to be the only wedding I've been to where the main course - mutton, was prepared before my very eyes. Seven sheep were brought out and before you could say "shish kebab", each one's throat was cut right in front of us. I can still hear the gurgles of a lamb gasping its last breaths even now. And of course being the professional I am, I got it on tape.

We were also treated to an impromptu singing session by the groom, who played a mean lute as well. I fitted a COS 11 inside the sound hole, wrapping it first in some of that latex sponge the make-up department uses (the regular Sanken rubber mount wasn't shock-absorbing enough). This would give me good close-up plucking sounds, but without any unnecessary handling noise. Once again, I used the superb Lectrosonics UM200 wireless mic system. It has such good limiters, I have never had to worry about distortion or compression. I've used them for quite some time now, most recently on the BBC's latest Walking With Dinosaurs series, hosted by dino-hunter Nigel Marven. I know you'll think I have shares in the company when I say this, but the sound quality is so clean and solid it really is like having a cabled mic. What's more they run on 9V batteries, which even in China are not a problem to find. For the groom's singing, I used my Pearl MS8 stereo mic overhead, which not only gave me wonderfully warm vocal tones, but also sweetened the lute's sound too. We recorded the session in a quiet little courtyard, and the natural reverberation of the stone walls contributed just the right amount of echo.

Zhou Zhuang, Jiangsu Marco's final port of call was Suzhou, near Shanghai, but we decided to go there first, before our own last leg in Yunnan. The lushness and fertility of Jiangsu province contrasted radically with the arid wilderness of Gansu. The whole place is built on a network of waterways, giving it the deserved name "Venice of the East". Weaving along the narrow canals, under moon bridges, and willow trees in the dawn shadows rates as one of the highlights of this trip. I also recorded possibly my favourite wildtrack of the whole shoot - our boat lady singing a most hauntingly beautiful ballad. This combined with the boat's tiller lapping the water, plus birds singing in the willows should make for a magical sequence.

And then finally, 4 weeks after leaving Beijing, we arrived in the Yunnanese city of Dali. Here you can still find old ladies with tiny bound feet and minorities feasting on raw pig. I tried some and no, it doesn't taste like chicken.

The Real Truth About Marco

So did Marco Polo go to China? The descriptions he gave of some places are so accurate, it's hard to believe he made it all up. What I will say is he must have been a right Casanova. Several times he mentions visiting villages where the men would leave their women to "entertain" visitors for days at a time. No wonder he stayed in China for 17 years. What single 20-year old male wouldn't want to?

The trip was on the whole extremely successful, however I'd be lying if I said we didn't have our fair share of problems. One of the constant issues we had to contend with was the Public Security Bureau or Secret Police following us. The day we were due to leave Xinjiang for Gansu, our local fixer casually mentioned that we were forbidden to go to Gansu. No reason, just that he'd received word from his boss that we couldn't go. That didn't stop us, and on arrival at Dunhuang airport we soon spotted a black 4WD without plates. We carried on our filming undeterred, and once whilst we stopped for a bite to eat, I noticed the same black car parked about 100 metres down the road. I walked back towards the car, managing to get about half way before the engine roared into life. The car sped past us a high speed with all our crew waving and smiling as it drove by. There's never a dull moment when filming in China.

I have always been fascinated by China, ever since arriving there by Trans-Siberian railway ten years ago. And this year is already looking like being another bumper year for filming there. As Marco said to his family on his deathbed, "I have only told you half of what I saw", and I for one am keen to see as much as possible. Marco Polo has always been the inspiration behind my passion for travel, and will always remind me that no matter how long you stay in a place, there's always something new to see, or in my case, hear.