While travelling around the world, photographer Chen Yuxiao learnt of Om Shandong (or Om Cave), a small experimental community for travellers on the outskirts of Dali, China. An Italian friend had suggested they visit Petr, a Russian musician she’d met previously — first after a trip to India and at a trance party in Chongqing — at his home.
She remembers that first visit in 2016 vividly. It was late winter, sunny and windless, and they had travelled by motorbike across country roads to his traditional Bai house (traditionally a multi-dwelling complex organised around a courtyard) at the foot of Cangshan mountains.
Petr received them with hot tea and an invitation to use his sauna, a small wooden structure with a fireplace built into it to keep the room warm. Afterwards, Chen soaked in a cold pool lined with pebbles. Nearby, some residents were reading while others prepared lunch. The neighbour’s young daughter sang softly in the yard, her voice clear and penetrating. As she soaked in the pool, Chen felt as if her body had taken flight and transcended another world.
“I had been travelling for too long, always moving, and suddenly there was this beautiful place close to nature; and Petr had this energy. I felt very close to the place and people here,” says Chen. Her intuition told her that she needed to stay on at Om Shandong.
That evening, Petr and his friends set off sky lanterns and made their wishes for the new year.
Burnt out from the intense, high-stress lifestyle of fashion photography production, Guangzhou-born Chen had spent the previous five years travelling through Thailand, Myanmar, India, Nepal, Spain, France, Iran, Turkey and Egypt in search of adventure and also spirituality.
A regular stop on her travels was the ancient city of Dali, located in China’s south-western Yunnan province. With its rugged mountains, picturesque landscapes and laid-back atmosphere, the province is a magnet for artists, novelists, intellectuals and non-conformists looking to escape the pressures of China’s megacities. It was a place where Chen found solace.
But even staying at Om Shandong — located just 10km away from Dali’s old town and surrounded by rice fields and pine forests — Chen felt restless and continued with her travels, spending a month in an Indonesian jungle as part of a Rainbow Family Gathering (people who camp at remote forests around the world with a shared ideology of peace and love) and at an art community in Bali.
Then one evening, while sitting in the house watching fireflies flit through the forest, she felt a sudden stirring to find a stable place to settle down and ground herself spiritually. In 2017, she decided to stay on in Dali.
The community had been founded by Petr, who used his savings from busking to rent and restore a century-old Bai house with the help of friends. The intent was to create a place that would bring self-growth and enlightenment to the people who stayed there. It was named Om Shandong, based on the belief that Om is the primordial sound of creation and how caves had historically been sacred spaces.
Through word of mouth, the place soon attracted an eclectic mix of musicians, artists and traveller friends from as far away as Argentina and Switzerland, who were drawn to the creative atmosphere. Some stayed a few days while others stayed for years, like Chen.
“For me, Om Shandong is a place filled with dreams and self-knowledge, but also a home, very free and loving,” Chen tells me over a WeChat call, taking the occasional sip of wine or a drag from her cigarette.
Compared to the city, where people were consumed by material pursuits, Chen saw Om Shandong as a return to a simpler way of life.
There was always work to do about the house, from cleaning to preparing meals, cutting firewood and fixing the leaky roof during the rainy season. The residents shared the housework and were encouraged to bring their creativity and ideas to the group.
Chen settled into a rhythm of photographing everyday life, with her photos bearing witness to the passing of the seasons.
In the slow winters, she’d spend almost every day at her neighbours’ house, sitting in their yard, looking at flowers or drinking their homemade wine. Her neighbours were a young couple who grew plants and herbs used for Chinese incense and plant puree. She was struck by their quiet, peaceful nature and sense of contentment.
“For a 20-year-old guy, he seemed to be doing an old guy’s job. They didn’t really need a social life or things from the outside. I was very curious about how they could be so young and so clear about what they want,” she muses.
Springtime was a lively month, filled with weddings, birthdays, improvised dancing and children’s theatre workshops, and a juggling festival. In the early mornings, Chen found joy in heading down to Dali’s old town to buy fresh produce from the local market. In summer, they hiked to the waterfalls in the valley, clambering between rocks before jumping into the icy cold mountain water.
Autumn signalled harvest season. One time, Chen did a photoshoot in the golden fields for her friend, an independent Chinese fashion designer who used only natural materials and sewed clothes by hand.
The residents at Om were friendly, warm and kind, she says. They held regular sauna parties, played music, did yoga, meditation and qigong. During one spring equinox ceremony, Petr did an experimental performance on shamanic rituals, combining theatre, music and projection to express reverence for the sun and moon.
They had “talking circles” to iron out conflicts and make group decisions, while offering a place for introspection.
“Here, we keep every individual equal. It is different from the way the Chinese government behaves or what the government wants the people to do,” she says. “It is precious to have a place like this in China. I don’t know how long this place will last, so I felt it was important to document the place while it exists.”
The rapid development of modern apartment blocks have fast eradicated Chinese concepts of neighbours and the community, but places like Om Shandong show what it’s like to rebuild that sense of community, grassroots-style.
After Om Shandong gained some media attention, curious city folks flocked in. Chen recalls driving in the village one day and encountering a young man who appeared lost. He had seen a video about Om and had flown in from Shenzhen with the attention of staying with the community. “He was just very sincere, so we invited him to have a cup of tea and let him stay for two days,” she recalls with a laugh.
Another friend from Kunming, who was suffering from depression due to work pressures, also visited regularly. “Somehow, he fell in love with Om Shandong and all of us. I guess he found here something he missed in the city,” she explains.
Though Chen has since moved out, Om Shandong remains a place close to her heart. Her biggest takeaway, as she tells me, was this: “A person who knows himself clearly, understands what he needs and the direction he pursues, can achieve inner balance even if he does not follow the trajectory of mainstream society.”
The 33-year-old is now working on a photography project called Surfers’ Notes, about the younger Chinese generation who choose surfing — a relatively new sport in the country — as a way of life.
Late last year, she and her Israeli boyfriend, whom she met at Om, spent four months chasing waves, travelling along the coast of Shenzhen’s Xichong Beach before making their way to Hainan Island.
Drawing parallels between the surfers and Om Shandong residents, she says: “At Om, we spent hours talking about every single thing, but the surfers are very simple. They just talk about how the surf is. They live in the moment. It was interesting to me, how people in both communities are very cool and free, but different too.”
Chen says she has met many young Chinese female travellers like herself, who grew up and worked in the big cities, had rich travel experiences and sought out alternative ways of living and thinking. Perhaps it’s indicative of a growing wave of young Chinese who break away from the mould of conventional success to carve out their own path.
“I can’t speak for all the young generation in China, but for me, I don’t really care about what society thinks. I’m comfortable with where I am, I try to make a good living for myself and lead a more honest and sincere life, with good intentions” she says.
Though the pandemic has halted global travel, Chen is sanguine. At the moment, she is focused on her Surfers’ Notes exhibition in Shanghai this summer.
Later, watching a video post of Chen cruising on a longboard, carefree and laughing as she waves her arms up and down like a bird, I recall her parting words: “To me, it is about living life without any limitations, expectations, and I can experience the unknown. That, for me, is adventure.”