China – Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

Late last year I posted on my blog that after months of research I was going to head to the remote and sparsely populated  Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China for a recognisance expedition. Xinjiang is located in the extreme north west of China and borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and covers an area over 1.6 million square kilometres. This trip is in essence an investigation expedition that I am hoping will lead to a future workshop into this very remote and rarely visited  (and even less rarely photographed) part of North Western China.

I had been researching a possible trip to this remote region of China for well over a year and had hit quite a lot of snags (not the least of which was the language barrier) and more than a few roadblocks that had almost forced me to give up. Local infrastructure is very light in this remote province and the logistics are incredibly difficult to arrange to ensure the best photographic opportunities. Information about these areas from a photographer’s perspective is very thin and in many cases simply unavailable. After much discussion and planning my friend and co-photograher Antony Watson and I have been able to put together a thirteen day / twelve night itinerary that takes us into some of the most remote and spectacular parts of provincial China; many of which have rarely if ever been photographed by a dedicated photography expedition. Indeed, some of the areas we will visit in the Gobi desert have likely never been photographed.

We will be leaving for Shanghai at crack of dawn tomorrow morning where we will catch a connecting flight to Ürümqi; which is the capital city of Xinjiang. Ürümqi whose name means beautiful pasture in the Mongolian language is the largest city in the western most region of China and is the starting point for this investigative expedition.

Just some of the places we will be visiting during this thirteen-day trip include the Tian Shan mountain ranges; which span some 2,800 kilometers and offer amazing snow capped mountain vistas with much of the lower mountains covered with green pines and cypress. Crystal clear lakes reflect the mountains early in the morning and should make for outstanding photography. We will visit the Wuerhe Ghost City where centuries of howling winds have eroded and weathered the multi-faceted rock formations into eerie and unusual shapes that are known for creating ghostly light at sunset. There are thousands of gorges and crisscross gullies winding through the multitude of colored rock formations. This scarcely visited area provides a unique opportunity to photograph the amazing rock formations and we plan to shoot here at both sunrise and sunset when the light will be at its best. We will also head into and photograph the mighty Gobi desert. The Gobi desert spans half a million square miles and is the fifth largest desert in the world. It is most notable for being part of the Mongol Empire and the Silk Road. Primarily consisting of exposed bare rock formations (rather than sand like most deserts) the Gobi desert should provide literally limitless opportunities for landscape and wilderness photography. We will travel to Hemu and photograph the birch tree forests, the Hemu river and the Hemu grasslands. Special access has been arranged for us to visit a small remote village populated by scattered wooden framed houses built by the Tuva Mongols; believed to be descendants of the troops of Genghis Khan. Whilst in the grasslands we hope to encounter the rare red deer as well as other wildlife.

When we have finished in Hemu we will travel to Kanasi whose name means ‘rich and mysterious beauty’ in Mongolian. This area promises to be one of the most alluring parts of Northern Xinjiang. We will visit the Kanasi Nature Reserve, which is home to Kanas Lake.  The lake fills from the Kanasi river which originates from the Kanasi glacier in the Altay Mountains. Kanasi lake is 4500 feet above sea level and covers an area of 28 square miles so the opportunities for photography should be limitless. The lake is perhaps best known for its amazing turquoise color in spring and autumn. We will spend a couple of days in this area before we head to Burqin along the Ergsi River and then Karamay. We hope to see and photograph wild horses along the way as well as the spectacular natural landscape.

Finally we will photograph The Devil City which encompasses hills and valleys and is perhaps best known for its yardang landscape.  The term “yardangs” comes from the Uygur language, meaning “steep hill”, and now it refers to a landform of wind-eroded hollows, mounds and unusual formations. The name ‘The Devil City’ comes from the eerie and strange sound the wind makes in spring and autumn as it whistles through the rock formations. From here we will head back to Ürümqi and catch a flight to Beijing before returning home.

If all goes well the trip and itinerary we are taking will form the basis for a future workshop to this remote provincial region of China. In the meantime, this exploratory trip promises to be quite the adventure and will prove a nice counter point to the time I just spent in Iceland in winter . Internet access is more or less unknown in many of the areas where we will be photographing; but we do hope to post some dispatches from the field whenever possible.

I have packed lighter (See Footnote) than usual for this trip and my equipment includes:

Gura Gear Bataflae 32L Camera Bag – containing:

  • Canon EOS1 DX Camera
  • Canon EOS 1DS MK3 Camera (back-Up)
  • Canon 17mm F4L TSE
  • Canon 24mm F3.5L TSE
  • Canon 24-70mm F2.8L MK II
  • Canon 70-200mm F2.8L IS
  • Canon 1.4 TC
  • Canon 2.0TC
  • Canon Macro Extension Tube
  • 2 x Spare Camera Batteries
  • Really Right Stuff TVC24L Carbon Fibre Tripod with RRS BH-55 Ball-Head
  • An Assortment of LEE Filters for the above lenses including Graduated ND filters and the LEE 10 Stop ND Filter

I decided after much agonising to leave my Canon 300mm F2.8L IS lens at home. Although I dearly love this lens for both wildlife and landscape it is a heavy beast to travel with and as this trip is almost entirely about the landscape I have decided to save my back and leave it at home. I recently had my 70-200mm F2.8L IS calibrated and am very happy with its performance with the new Mark 3 Teleconverters should I need the extra reach.

-Footnote: I recently tested and purchased Canon’s new 24-70 F2.8L MK2 and found its image quality to be superior to the 24mm F1.4L MK2, 35mm F1.4L and 50mm F1.2L at every single F-Stop. The new 24-70mm F2.8L is simply sharper and resolves better in the corners than any of these prime lenses from Canon. This is truly phenomenal performance and fully justifies the cost of this lens. Although the 24-70mm F2.8L MK2 does have more distortion than the prime equivalents at a given focal length it is so easily corrected in post production and the increased resolution so noticeable that it is well worth the expense. The bonus of this lens is that I can now carry just one lens instead of three and get superior resolution.  If you have not tried the new 24-70 F2.8L Mk2 you and you shoot in this focal range then you owe it to yourself to try one. It will be my main lens for shooting in not only China, but also on both my Arctic and Antarctic expeditions later this year.

P.S – If you are wondering why there isn’t a Phase One IQ180 on the above list. The camera, digital back and lenses I was hoping to take with me just hasn’t arrived in time. Such is life.

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