No Room For Ego - Teamwork In Remote China

No Room For Ego - Teamwork In Remote China

We had just finished production of a ski film in remote northwest China, an area flanked on three sides by the borders of Russia, Kazakhstan and Mongolia. We had barely sat down at a film crew dinner, including my co-producer Erik Nachtrieb when our Chinese client, Li, entered the dining room. He looked troubled, unsure of who to look at, me or Erik.


“The government leaders want to have dinner with you tonight Erik.”

“Just me?” asked Erik. 

“Yes, I’m sorry, they just want to meet you.”

“What about Viv? We both run this company” Erik looked at me. 

“I know I told them”.

Erik stared at him. His weight and height double that of Li, helped deliver his point. But not tonight.

“It’s this special meal for men …” Li explained.

“I won’t go unless Viv comes” Erik exclaimed.

“I understand, I will tell them you can’t come.”

“So it’s me or nothing?” Erik fired back.

“Yes, I’m sorry.”

What happened earlier:

For five days we had worked as a team to pull of a difficult shoot. Erik and I were managing a Chinese film crew who were ill-equipped for winter conditions. Some had duct-taped their pants to their shoes in an attempt at gaiters. 

The film we were making was an initiative by the regional government to increase awareness of this area as a holiday destination. We were staying in Hemu Village, a 10,000-year-old settlement with farmhouses and cattle corrals dotted around its periphery. There was a sense of having stepped back in time...


During pre-production, the locals were convinced their horses could carry cameramen to the top of the mountain. Erik, although a direct descendant of Colorado settlers, concluded that perhaps Chinese horses were different. Erik went so far as to ride out of the village with the locals and only then, when they were faced with the looming peak, did they realise what he meant by “top of the mountain”. 

“You want to go up there?”

“Yes! Where did you think the top of the mountain was?” Erik replied. 

They pointed to a low foothill, puzzled. “Why would you go up THERE?”

“To ski!” Erik smiled.


“Oh… no our horses can’t go up there.”

We later learned, that although these people maintained an ancient ski culture dating back ten thousand years, they skied to hunt. Skiing with a purpose, in the most practical form. If the animals don’t go to the top of the mountain, then why should they? The concept of hiking up a mountain purely for the sake of going back down it was simply pointless in their eyes. 

Meanwhile, behind the scenes I was working hard with an American Airborne Colonel, JD, to convince our snowmobile drivers that their machines could indeed go up hills as they were designed to do. Me, a small white girl with no knowledge of Chinese, trying to convince a large Kazakh off his snowmobile to have JD show him how to use the machine. After two hours of Chinese hierarchy was navigated, I finally got JD onto a snowmobile. The result, as you can imagine, was satisfying for me, but an ego blow for the Kazakh who believed he knew better.

By the end of the week, however, the snowmobile boss asked me if JD would teach his men how to drive better. We had successfully found enough ski runs to make a film and we learned how to drink Baijiu, a liquid easily confused with gasoline. 


Now, after a successful week I found the credit was falling on the shoulders of my male business partner. 

Erik wasn’t going to back down.

“Erik, go without me.” I said.

The conversation jerked back and forth between Erik and Li, who was clearly stuck between pleasing us and obeying the government. But the fact was we were in a tightly controlled military region of China, here by invitation from the government. Erik left with my OK and I remained with the team.

As Erik is not one to let a matter rest. After the men’s meal he insisted the government meet his business partner. 

Around midnight, as I was getting ready for bed, Li showed up breathless at my door. 

“Can you come now? To the bar, Erik wants you to meet the government.”

“What, now?”

“Yes now!”

With JD in tow, we went to meet them. What ensued was a lot of drinking (with JD breaking the local sculling record) and the ‘men’s meeting’ left saying they were very pleased to have met me. 

One could argue I’ve left a message that says that a women’s problems can only be solved with a man’s influence, but that night, in the face of an old culture, we were a team. As men and women are designed to be.


Photos courtesy Vivienne Smith

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