From Everest to the deserts, why am I always on the road? – 马尧:上珠峰,下三沙,为什么我一直在路上 – English

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Since he was four, Ma Xiao started to go to Mongolia with his father to observe birds. He’s turning 27 this year, and already stayed in Tibet for three months, photographing the streetscape of the Yunnan-Tibet border – and also went to China’s Southernmost city, Sansha, to photographs the streets of the Paracels islands. Finally, he’s been to the Three Gorges Dam area, collective street photographs from along the river. He’s constantly shuttling from one of the country to the other, always on the road.

Text: Li Zixin

The skeleton of a small flying drone is lying on a huge desk, all around it are scattered broken black parts. A few days ago, Ma Yao flew it with a Sony camera strapped on its back, using this to take aerial views. But in the end, as the drone rose 50 meters up in the air, he lost control, and the machine wrecked itself on the ground. But soon, the department agreed to give him a new one.

Ma Yao is 27 years old this year. Two years ago, he joined the Tencent streetscape project, 负责其中的口碑项目,用他的话说,是在部门里“拉仇恨”的工作。He has worked in Tibet for three months, photographing the streetscape of the Yunnan-Tibet border – and also went to China’s Southernmost city, Sansha, to photographs the streets of the Paracels islands. Finally, he’s been to the Three Gorges Dam area, collective street photographs from along the river.

He used a panoramic shot to take images of these places, then recomposing them into a complete panorama, allowing viewers to get an immersive experience on their computer. At the same time, he was able to build a historical record of these places which are changing everyday.

Ma Yao did not study geography or surveying at university, he graduated in 2009 from the Sichuan University Department of journalism. From from childhood, he gained an understanding of the field by sharing the rich experience of his father, who worked as a professor with the Chinese Geographical Research Institute on Ecology. From the age of 4, he went with his father all over Xinjiang to observe migratory birds. And doing university, he went on a number of trips to Tibet, alone or with his classmates.

In his family, many people do biological research, but Ma Yao didn’t do well at his college entrance exam, and wasn’t able to go to Beijing. He decided to study journalism at Sichuan University, and there, fell in love with photography. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After graduation, he moved to Beijing to join the ‘China National Geographic’ magazine, and there, he had many opportunities to travel all around the country.

His passion for photography and geography eventually converged on the ‘Street view’ project. Since May 25 2007, when Google launched its ‘Street View’ program, the application has already expanded its program to more than 40 countries and 3000 cities. But in China, it only covered the Chengdu great panda breeding research centre. Tencent’s SOSO map launched a Street View project in 2011. Later, in August 2013, Baidu joined the game and launched its own Street View.

Ma Yao’s prents gave him this name in the hope that he would be ‘brave and fierce’. He himself believes he’s a brave person, with the courage to try something different. For that reason, from a snake bite as a child, almost drowning in the Xinjiang Bositen Lake while watching swans, to a car crash in Tibet, 20 km from the nearest rescue…These near-death experiences have taught him to value the moment, and wrap a bracelet of Tibetan beads around his wrist.

China30s: tell us about your experience growing up.

Maxiao: I am from Urumqi, My father is called Ma Ming, and he’s a professor at the Xinjiang Academy of Sciences, in the department of Ecology and Geography. Ma Ming mainly work on animal protection, studying birds collective life and animal ecology. I grew up around research centres: I went with my father to do research every winter holiday. The first time, I was four years old, my father and I went to Bayin Buluke to watch the swans. I raised many animals: eagle, owl, fox, etc. One of the things I did was help clean up the eagle droppings. They don’t do often, but it’s very corrosive, and comes out in a spray. I’ve been sprayed by eagles way too many times.

The famous Scientist, Peng Jiamu brought back the first specimens of wild camels in China, and put them right in my father’s work place. I have played with that camel since when I was a child. At that time, professor Peng Jiamu disappeared at Lop Nur river. My neighbours were usually old scientist. They often gave me fossils. That’s the kind of environment I lived in.

China30s: After graduating, how did you get the opportunity to join “China National Geographic”?

MaXiao: When I was at University, I often played out of the city. On the second year of university, my friends and I went to Tibet. So I have quite a large experience with working in the wilderness.

After completing university, I wanted to continue my studies in the US, but my girlfriend was admitted in a graduate school in Beijing, and I was lucky enough to get a job with the China National Geographic, so I followed. At the time, all I got was a role in the advertising section of ‘China National Geographic’, in the business section, because it was too hard to get into the newsroom.

While I worked there, I designed a few projects for off-road 4×4 cars, so I was often outside. I spent two months in the region of Ali, in Tibet, and routinely went to Xinjiang, Qinghai and Inner Mongolia. Basically, I’ve been all over the sparsely populated places of China.

Later on, I got tired of these commercial activities – and wanted to work on more genuine projects. So I left ‘China National Geographic’, and I joined Tencent Stree View. Based on my past experience, I was made responsible for the brand management and operational expansion of the Tencent Streetview Project

China 30’s: Were you doing the Yunnan-Tibet highway project when you just joined Tencent?

Ma Xiao: Actually I joined the Tencent for this project’s commissioner job. When the department interviewed me, they asked me to hand in a plan for detecting roads of Tibet. After I handed in that plan, they said that there was no one in their department who could make this kind of plan at that time. So I was hired at Tencent.

From August to October in year 2012, with two colleagues of mine, I started a journey on the Yunnan-Tibet highway. We started from Shangri-La, Yunnan; went North through the Yunnan-Tibet highway g214. And then we changed directions to the Mangkang when we crossed highway g214 and g318. We passed by Zuogong, Basu, Bomi, Linzhi, RIkaze, Lazi, Dingri etc. more than ten different cities and went all the way to the west of China. We brought the only one panoramic camera in our department at that time, which is the essential equipment for our work. We hired a local Tibetan driver who worked for us and stayed there for three months. We went to the Everest Base Camp and the Lamulacuo, 5300 meters high, the highest place for street view shooting. I went to Tibet several times, and I’m, okay with altitude sickness but my colleagues felt very uncomfortable, when they stayed over 4500 meters, their faces were white as a sheet.

China 30’s: Do you have any unforgettable experiences?

Ma Xiao: When we were on the way to the Everest Base Camp, the road condition was very bad, our car camera almost broke, there was only one screw left before the camera fell off. We were still 6.9km away from the Everest Base Camp. The street view data of Everest Base Camp is like a rush. We had driven that far, we had to carry the camera and walked the last 6.9km by ourselves. We had to carry a 15 kg camera and other equipment, walk and take photographs at an altitude of 5200 meters. Luckily, we met a motorcycle which ransported water for Everest Base Camp, the driver gave me a ride and that’s how we finished the last 6.9km. You know, everyone can still find the shadow of the motorcycle when they look at the Everest Base Camp on the Tencent Map. At the broken road in Tibet, the shaking of the car interfered with the GPS so that we couldn’t match the street view with the map. To complete the working routes and complete the street view, we went back to the places that couldn’t match and took photos again. That’s also the reason why we covered 9000km on a 4000km long highway.

China 30’s: What other difficulties did you have?

Ma Xiao: Workers and machines all had to conquer altitude sickness. Batteries couldn’t work well at the low temperatures, so we needed to prepare well. Once we were in Dingri, Tibet, there was no air conditioner, outside and inside of the house, it was about minus 10 degrees Celsius. We didn’t wear enough clothes; we felt cold and shivered all the time. To keep warm and stayed alive, we drank a lot butter tea and slept under three quilts at night. And we found that the water that we put beside the bed was freezing.

There were also many political difficulties, that was really hard at that time. Our camera on the top of the car is about 3 meters, so every checkpoint would stop us. When we were at Lingzhi, we were asked by the traffic police to get down, and it was really inconvenient. When we came back from the Everest Base Camp, we also stopped by the police. We had to give them cigarettes and let them look at the photos that we took. We gave them Q coins, and many other things for Tencent games. It’s so lucky that all of them played QQ.

China 30’s: Where there any repercussions of you shooting the street market that time?

Ma Xiao: After we made it, for a lot of reason, it didn’t get published until February 2013. It was examined and approved during publication. Both the NASG (National Administration of Surveying, Mapping and Geoinformation of China) and the army must examine our work before we publish. They cut the parts that they think are sensitive. For that reason, some Continuous roads can be broken off. Actually, we are the first group in the world who shot the road to the Everest Base Camp. Unfortunately, for several reasons, we published later than expected. Just several days before we published, the video of the road sight from he southern slope of Mount Everest base camp in Nepal shot by Google was published, and caused great repercussions. But we hadn’t even start advertising at that time, and it’s really pity. Now we have a dedicated team for that.

China 30’s: How did the Sansha Program start? The official website has already published a vertical version of the Chinese map that shows information on many islands in the South China Sea, more clearly presented to the public. But as for information of the islands, most people don’t know because they never been there before. And we believe the must be interested in these islands.

Ma Xiao: We contacted the South Sea Fleet of the People’s Liberation Army through the Tencent Public Welfare Foundation, and they provided help for the collection. At the beginning, I was little bit greedy,and submitted a list including names of more than twenty islands. However, the fleets only allowed us go to the Yongxing Island where Sansha municipal government is. We went there by taking the tender of Yongxing Island which name is “ No.3 Yongxing”. We left from Haikou in the afternoon, and reached the island in the morning of the second day. And we went there with a calligrapher from Guangdong Province Cultural Unit.

In fact, Sansha city has just one street – and the street only has one restaurant, two supermarkets, one bank, one post office, one insurance company, and the city government. All the other places are under military control, and you can’t approach them without a military pass. So we were luckier than the calligraphers: they could only stay for one day, whereas we were able to stay for ten, and visited seven or eight islands.

We went there in June, it was really hot. We got seriously sunburnt – eruptions, skin peeling. It was too hot to wear long sleeves. During the day, you couldn’t see anybody on the street. To go to other islands, you would need to find fishermen to take you. For every island we went to, you needed a special permit. The army would send a soldier to accompany us.

China30s: What is life like on the island?

Yao Mao: Everyone on the island is a fisherman. During the day, they stay in their room to rest, or just kill time – and get out in the early morning and evening to fish. They generally stay there for three to six months. The children go to school on the mainland, and there’s very few women around. We did the WeChat shake there, and couldn’t reach out to out mainland friends.

China30s: Is it easy to get internet to work there?

Yao Ma: There was 3G internet on Yong Xing Island, but only the post office had a broadband connection. To transfer our data back to the home base, we had to use their internet. We gave the post office clerk a box of soft drinks and he let us in. He was very picky about the drinks, saying that he preferred TongYi iced tea to KangShiFu iced tea. The guy only worked once a week and spent most of his time playing Mahjong on the internet. His life was quiet and yet difficult.

Before we left the island, the SanSha Military sent an officer to check our pictures for confidential information. If our pictures showed any part of any secret military structures, they would make us delete them. We typically took over 30 pictures of any given place to make a panorama, and if they deleted just one we would lose the whole thing. They checked the pictures for more than six hours.

China30s: After these two projects, did your team get better at the job?

Yao Ma: We have done very careful work. When I just came to the team, we were still using handheld cameras to take the pictures and there were many errors in the landscape when we tried to put the more than 30 pictures together to form a panorama. Later we studied foreign photographers’ panorama techniques and now I can take the panorama myself with a tripod and even eliminate my shadow from the picture. We are constantly improving.

As of now our department has handled more than 100TB of data, enough to fill 3200 32GB model Apple iPhones; the total street view data exceeds 2 PB, which is equivalent to 1048576 2GB movies; we have taken more than 20 billion pictures which, if printed as 6-inch photos and lined up head to tai,l could go around the equator 75 times.

Sandwich: What other values and uses might there be for the street view technology?

Yao Ma: China has many still unprotected ancient structures and artifacts. We just did a project on the Great Wall of China. Many of the places we chose were unprotected parts of the wall. Those places are all very beautiful but many of them have been damaged greatly in the last half-century. We are making a timeline for the street view there in order to record the changes that are happening to the wall.

In the last few years, there have been big fires in the ancient city of DuKeZong and LiJiang both in YunNan province. It was very sad to hear that many ancient structures were destroyed in the fire. If we make panoramas of the places beforehand, we can aid the reconstruction of the buildings. Tsinghua University and the LiJiang government have asked us to provide data to aid the reconstruction.

I think that street view is a good way to record the view of a city as a whole. Street view is a suitable recording method as it records q 360 degree view of a city. With the rapid development of cities today, recording the view of a city has important social and historical meaning. If you think of it from the perspective of our changing country and civilization, street view has even more potential value.

Our newest project is currently the Sanxia dam on the Yangtse River. It would be great if we were able to do this before the dam was built, but sadly there was not such technology at the time. I also want to cover the ancient city of Loulan.

China30s: If you have children, will you raise them like your father did yourself and take them to the wilderness to experience different types of life?

Yao Ma: I can only try my best. It is very hard for us people from all around China to try to survive in Beijing. It will even be hard to enroll my kid in school here. I don’t have much plans for the future.

Last year I got very sick and one of my ears went deaf. After experiencing that, I feel that I need to cherish the present.

If I did Biology like my father, I don’t think I would have the opportunities I have today. In the street view job, I think I still have a great future.

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Source : China 30s

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