Tag Archives: YouTube

Making Travel TV on the Internet

If you’d stopped me on the day I graduated university and asked me what I’d be doing in five years, I never would have predicted that I’d run a YouTube travel show with my brother – not to mention one that was popular in Finland. But a lot has changed since 2008.

When I was an undergraduate, YouTube was in its infancy. It was founded when I was a freshman in 2005, and purchased by Google a year later. Back then it was still about cat videos and fail compilations, and to this day that remains its image in many peoples’ minds. But the internet evolves quickly, and YouTube changed completely while I wasn’t looking.

After graduation I moved to rural India to work in micro-finance, an experience that spurred me to start sharing my experiences through creative writing. I started blogging and traveling through South East Asia, a hobby that quickly turned into a potential career.

By the time Alex and I crossed paths in 2012, YouTube had matured as much as we had. I was a published travel author with two guidebooks under my belt, and Alex was emerging as a filmmaker with a natural gift for being on camera. For the first time in our lives, we realized that our differences could be strengths if combined and we decided to team up and develop a travel T.V. show for our generation.

When we uploaded our first videos to YouTube that autumn, we still viewed the platform as a means to an end – a place to post our video resume as we tried to break into traditional television. We wrote a proposal for a show and pitching it to production companies. A few Hollywood producers liked the idea, but told us that we had no chemistry on camera.

We decided to put all our efforts into developing our craft as filmmakers and story-tellers, and committed to posting a video a week to our YouTube channel. Things moved quickly, and six months later we entered and won a contest called the Biggest, Baddest Bucket List, which sent us around the world for the rest of 2013 making a 50 video web-series.

The experience changed our lives in many ways, but above all it taught us that YouTube was an end in itself.  Not only was it possible to make a travel show on YouTube instead of TV, it was preferable.

For instance, take our recent popularity in Finland.  It started last year when we took a two-week trip through Finland to make videos on Lapland, Helsinki and a bizarre Finnish competition called the Wife Carrying World Championships. We needed wives to compete, so we made a YouTube video proposing to the women of Finland, and tweeted it to one of Finland’s biggest YouTubers, Miisa.

Although Miisa couldn’t be our wife-for-the-day, she did share our videos with her audience. Suddenly, our videos on Finland started getting thousands of views and our subscribers jumped by 50% in less than a week. Our audience in Finland grew so quickly that it became our 2nd largest audience behind the USA. We’d heard of people getting famous in Japan… but Finland?

It has been a strange turn of events, one we never could have predicted. But we’ve embraced our new audience and found a new reason to keep coming back North. This winter, we came for the Nordic Bloggers’ Experience, but in summer we hope to explore more of the Nordic countries, knowing that our audience will be largely local.

This is the new world of making a travel show on YouTube. In the past, a TV show could make an episode about Helsinki that would never air in Finland. Now, most people watching our episodes are Finnish – and as quickly as they praise our efforts, they also correct our factual errors and mispronunciation!

YouTube is great because it’s an interactive platform that allows us to speak directly with our viewers – and them to speak back to us. No longer do the filmmakers have the final say on a subject. That is decided in the comment section. And for those of us who want to understand the world by hearing different perspectives, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tibet – First Impressions (Lhasa, Tibet)

The most memorable aspect of Tibet is the sky.  The sky in Tibet is as blue and capacious as an ocean.  When I arrived in Tibet I felt as if I had landed on another planet, a magical land of brown hills hanging upside-down over the calmest of seas.

I say the sky is simply ‘blue’ because the sky embodies every hue within the color blue.  It spans from the darkest blue of the deepest ocean to a blue so light it looks as if the winds have blown all the color clear over the Himalayas into and into Nepal, leaving the mountains alone and naked in the empty sky.

It is, of course, the same sky that smiles down upon Paris, New York or Tokyo, but in Tibet it’s different.  You are so close to the sky, the sun and the nothingness of outer space that you develop a special relationship with the sky.  You see it free of the pollution which blankets it elsewhere in the world; you see it unblemished in its purest form.  After a week in Tibet, you feel as if you somehow know the sky better.

And no city in the world knows this sky better than Lhasa.  Lhasa is the capital of Tibet, and if it were still a free country it would be the highest capital in the world.   Lhasa was the starting point of my eight-day journey across Tibet to the foot of Mount Everest and back, and I spent three days there exploring the city and adjusting to the altitude.

I first saw Tibet as my plane glided over the brown, dry Tibetan Plateau, over green pastures of grazing sheep, as the ground rose closer and closer to the plane until our wheels hit the tarmac.  A wave of smiles swept across the plane – Hello, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Tibet. 

Tibet surprised me in many ways, initially by its terrain.  I thought Lhasa would be a snowy, inaccessible village perched atop a cliff, reachable only by parachute, but it actually lies within fertile valley bordered by barren hills.

But I was more surprised by the overwhelming presence of the Chinese military.  I knew that China occupied Tibet, but I did not understand precisely what that entailed.  The airport was camouflaged, the runway was packed with fighter jets and helicopters, and the perimeter was enclosed by barbed wire fences and guarded by soldiers and jeeps.  I departed the plane, collected by bag, and waited for my fellow tour-mates.

First came Kevin, a farmer from New Zealand who had recently sold his farm and took off traveling through Central, South and East Asia.  He was followed by Tripp from Cologne, who had just finished teaching German in Hanoi for three years.  And lastly, Mitori, a quiet smiling 26-year old Japanese girl who sold “magic crystals” at a mall in Tokyo.  For better or for worse, the four of us planned to travel to Everest and back.

Once we were all assembled we walked out to meet our driver and guide, who, according to new Chinese regulations, was required to accompany us for every moment of our journey to prevent us from getting too familiar with the Tibetans.

The Chinese wanted us to have an insulated, picture-snapping experience and nothing more.  A politically-minded 23 year old backpacker with a head full of questions and a pen full of words was the last thing they wanted.  Too bad.  I was coming, and I was curious.

I expected our guide to be a nosy party hack who would lecture us on the “peaceful liberation” of Tibet and follow us to the bathroom to ensure we weren’t discussing “freedom” and “democracy” at the urinals.

Instead I was pleasantly surprised to find a smiling Tibetan wearing sunglasses and exuding a mellow, hippy vibe.  Our guide turned out to be an indispensable source of information and our only legal contact with the Tibetan people.  Over the next week he showed me many aspects of the Chinese occupation and shared with me the perspective of a Tibetan living under Chinese military rule.  He risked imprisonment by talking politics with us, so I will change his name.  Let’s call him Ferguson.

Ferguson took us to the 4×4 Land Cruiser that would take us to Everest and we headed off for Lhasa.  Lhasa was 45 minutes down a heavily guarded two-lane highway.  Every 200 meters we passed small groups of soldiers standing back to back with automatic rifles their hands.  A convoy of military trucks passed the other direction, escorted by a half dozen police cars who’s flashing sirens cried wolf across the peaceful valley on the roof of the world.

I remarked that the military buildup seemed excessive, that I saw no threat warranting such a large deployment of soldiers.  Ferguson told me that the Chinese were particularly nervous at the moment because of the race riots in neighboring Xinjiang that had so far left 150 Uighurs and a number of Han Chinese dead.  I had been in a Muslim restaurant only a few days before and I had seen the police check the papers of all the workers, question them for 30 minutes, then take their pictures and go off into the night, leaving humiliation and resentment in their wake.  Beijing had blocked the Facebook after noting how it helped organize anti-government protests against Iran’s recent disputed election.

YouTube was blocked last year after the Dalai Lama began broadcasting messages to Tibetans from his exile in India.  In March 2008, as all the world’s eyes were on China in the lead-up to the Olympics, the Tibetans took to the streets to protest their occupation.  The Chinese responded swiftly and, some say,  brutally.

Ferguson said that they were forced to stay inside, that soldiers at anyone who put their head out their window, that they beat innocent people mercilessly and killed 3,000 Tibetans.  The Dalai Lama says 400 people died.  The Chinese contend that 22 Chinese and one Tibetan died, and they were innocent Chinese shopkeepers killed by an angry mob.

Finding The Truth was going to be difficult.  The Chinese were only going to tell me the Party Line and Ferguson seemed inclined to exaggerate his stories a bit.  I decided to take all opinions with a grain of salt, both Chinese and Tibetan.