China Span + One Globe

Keren Su's Story

Keren Su’s average workday isn’t spent enclosed in an office cubicle. His daily schedule usually involves bartering with foreigners in their own language, traveling by exotic means of transport, and snapping pictures of gorgeous landscapes. Keren’s life is unlike any other; he has a very unique story that crosses two continents and many different worlds. Even as a very young child, Keren knew he wanted to be an adventurer. “I would stare at the mountainside…and try to guess what I would see if I looked beyond them. I was very curious. I knew that someday I would want to see beyond the mountains.” In the end, Keren got his wish—however, he first had to go through the trials and tribulations the Chinese government imposed upon him. 

As the Cultural Revolution began taking hold of China in 1966, a teenage Keren determinedly insisted on receiving a pass from Mao Zedong’s Red Guards in Hangzhou to go to Beijing. "Go home," the soldiers laughed at him. However, Keren’s persistence nature allowed him to keep nagging the soldiers. Eventually, they appeased his wish by telling Keren that he could go, but only if he traveled by foot and left that very night. To the surprise of the local government, Keren readily agreed. “I was very proud—I didn’t want to go to school, so I wanted to travel.” 

Travel he did. Keren and some of his friends headed towards Beijing, a city 700 miles away from his home with only a blanket, a notebook, and a lunchbox. Despite the near-desertion of his friends, Keren steadfastly continued on and convinced his friends to join him by changing their destination to Shanghai. However, they decided to take a shortcut and boarded the train to Shanghai. Through this adventure, Keren became addicted to freedom and adventure. His parents had always told him that “one must travel a thousand miles and read a thousand books before speaking with authority,” perhaps subconsciously beginning Keren’s fervor for excitement. “I traveled the thousand miles first,” Keren admits with a sheepish laugh. 

Two years later, however, his journeys were quickly cut short. His parents were sentenced to community service or jail because of their positions as teachers. Keren himself was sent to a labor camp in Harbin, a freezing city in Northeastern China. While in labor camp, Keren tried to keep up his love for adventure despite the harsh conditions of labor in the rice fields. He also developed an interest in art and especially photography. 

Ten years later in 1978, Keren was finally released from the ruthless labor camps. Realizing how much of his life had been taken away from him by the governments, he was determined to fulfill his education. Although aided by his friends and parents, it was mostly Keren’s own resolve and ingenuity that allowed him to pass the college entrance exams. He surpassed everyone’s expectations with this; most people wouldn’t have the luck, strength, or determination to do what Keren had done.

Three years later, he graduated and his love for travel was rekindled. Determined to make the most of what he expected would be a short period of freedom, Keren began his expeditions across China. He became the first to cross China—an expanse of nearly 3,000 miles and 57 days from Hangzhou in the east to Urumqi in the northwest—on a one-speed bike. His adventures were recorded in a newspaper, and he became a local hero.

From the same loyal friends that had been his companions during his first adventure to Shanghai, Keren received help in the form of food, supplies, and moral support. They also gave him the bike that would lead him to fame and two cameras that would lead him to his lifelong passion. While on the road, Keren earned his keep by doing what he did best—taking photographs and painting pictures. He sold his work to the locals he met along the way, and they often paid him back with food and shelter. He met an assortment of people, all of which helped him broaden his view on life, including bee keepers, cotton bluffers, and boat rowers. He sipped sweet wine with northern Shaanxi farmers, ate potatoes with Gansu peasants in a cave, and drank yak butter tea with Tibetans in a felt yurt on the Qinghai plateau. In addition to snapping photos and sketching pictures, he also recorded conversations, logged his thoughts, and crafted poems.

After finishing his grand adventure, Keren felt a great sense of achievement. “It was a great challenge both spiritually and physically,” he says with a grin. By now, most people would have enough excitement to last a lifetime. However, Keren still thirsted for more. While in Urumqi, the director of the Xinjiang Mountaineering Federation gave him a job offer. Two months after he accepted, dad left home with just a pile of books and a homemade guitar for the mountaineering company to be a guide. By 1982, he was one of China’s first mountain liaison officers. However, Keren still wasn’t ready to settle down. In 1985, Keren mounted a motorbike and drove for 14,880-miles and eight months around China. “You can’t see real people from a car,” he reminisces. During his quest, he visited all 56 of China’s ethnic minorities. He took photographs and recorded audio segments of the dialects for each ethnicity. Keren’s documentation reveals a rarely-seen side of the culture in his country.

In 1987, Keren wanted to embark on yet another expedition. However, the government prevented him once again. Accompanied by a friend of his, Keren came up with the idea of rafting down the Tarim River. Since a traditional rubber raft wouldn’t do the job—the treacherous waters of the Tarim were famed for their deadliness and iciness—he designed and constructed a raft of tractor-tire inner tubes roped together. The ropes acted as lifelines for Keren and his traveling companions if they ever fell in. By rafting down the river, Keren would both temporarily satisfy his need for adventure and gain considerable fame. He wasn’t interested in fame for the fame itself. “I knew I would be in the news for the rafting trip. If you are in the news, you have to be a good person. I would make a speech and say I love my motherland.” Indeed, when Keren finished his trip, he was a hero. The government was compelled to give him a passport and cleared him of all political prohibitions.

With his new passport and squeaky clean record, Keren departed for his next great adventure—America. Unlike what most people would have done, however, Keren continued traveling. In 1990, he reawakened his love for the mountains and became coordinator of the 1990 Peace Expedition to Mt. Everest. Including climbers from the United States, former Soviet Union, and China, it was the first international expedition to the famous mountain. Aside from the famous Everest, Keren has also climbed K2, the Pamir Plateau, and numerous other mountains.

Both his photography and artwork have been recognized and Keren has received many awards. His distinctive art, a mixture of traditional Chinese calligraphical style and his personal flair, has been featured in the Seattle’s Fry Art Museum, Twin Cranes Gallery, and Harrison Gallery. Keren is also an honored member of the Chinese Photography Association and the Silk Road Fine Art Academy. His story has been documented in many newspapers including the Washington Post and his photo books have been published internationally. His photos have been featured by prestigious magazines such as National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and Forbes; they have also been used by Microsoft Windows 7 desktop. His works are represented by world famous stock agencies like Getty Images and Corbis.

During a photography trip in 1997, Keren stumbled upon a lovely location in the rice terraces near Guilin in Guangxi Province of China. Eight years later, Li-An Lodge was fully functional and quickly garnered fame for its unique location, style, and tradition. Each room in the lodge has a distinct theme and nature, many of which are integral aspects of Chinese culture. Since its creation in 2005, Li-An Lodge has attracted the attention of TripAdvisor, part of Traveler’s Choice in 2010, Next Magazine, Prestige Magazine, and many others. Li-An Lodge continues its success today, with Keren still in charge of management. Keren is building another two lodges in the Li River area which are set to open very soon.

Keren currently lives in Redmond, Washington, although he spends more time abroad than he does in the U.S. He leads exclusive tours across the world, continues his passion for photography, presents slideshows and in his spare time, manages his wife and daughter. It looks like Keren’s dream has finally been fulfilled—he has seen far beyond the mountains of his home.