Xinjiang China – Ghost City

In a few short weeks I will be heading back to Iceland for my summer workshops under the spectacular midnight sun. I will then travel north of the Arctic circle for three back-to-back expeditions to Svalbard and Greenland. In the meantime, I have been busy catching up on office paperwork and processing some of my recent photographs from Xinjiang in the remote north west of China. It has taken me several weeks to fully digest this fascinating trip and I do hope to make more posts and share more images over the coming weeks and months. As well as still images we also shot a lot of video footage during our trip and my friend Antony and I hope to piece this together into a short travelogue that will help us share our experience.

The Ghost City was one of the more spectacular locations for photography we visited during our time in Xinjiang and we photographed in this remarkable landscape for two days spending most of our time working at sunset and sunrise. This photograph was taken just after sunset on top of one of the many compressed sand outcroppings.

Xinjiang China : Debrief Report

In early May 2013 I lead an exploratory expedition into the Xinjiang Augur autonomous region in the extreme north west of China with my good friend Antony Watson. This is an extremely remote part of northern China that is home to the spectacular Tian Shan and Altay mountain ranges as well as the Flaming Mountains, Kanas Lake, Gobi Desert and more. This part of rural China is also home to the Silk Road and other historical locations of importance including the thousand caves of Buddha (two – three thousand year old caves). The province actually borders Russia, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Kurdistan, Mongolia, and India so there is a real cultural mix of minority people and a very heavy Arabic influence.If you have been following my blog you would have already read that I was quite excited at the prospect of venturing into this remote part of China. It is an area rarely visited by the outside world and it is only in recent years it has appeared on the map for Chinese tourists who travel mostly to Kanas and Heavenly Lake. Both of these locations are relatively easy to access and have significant tourist infrastructure in place. Some of the other locations we visited were deep in the desert and mountains and see little tourism of any kind. At one point during our travels we were only 60km from the Kazakhstan and Russian borders. It was an extraordinary and fascinating expedition with some truly spectacular landscapes.  It was however, not without some significant challenges including vast distances between locations, poor infrastructure and lack of basic hygiene. In addition, there are some very significant environmental issues that I became aware of during my time in this part of China and I hope to raise awareness for the appalling state of the environment in this and future posts.

Although we had planned our itinerary and shooting locations meticulously with the information we had available to us it became evident early on during our trip that it was going to be necessary to significantly alter our plans. Our wish to photograph the remote landscapes of the Gobi Desert and other landscape locations had been somewhat lost in translation with the various intermediaries (mostly due to the language barrier) who had helped us arrange this trip and since we had little idea of what to truly expect at each location we had to adapt and make the best of it.  We were extremely fortunate to have a very friendly and knowledgeable guide (who spoke English, Mandarin and the local Augur dialect) and driver who quickly understand that what we really wanted to photograph had been lost in translation. They were able to alter our itinerary on the fly to ensure we visited the best locations for landscape photography. I owe them both a debt of gratitude for their hard work and dedication in ensuring we maximized our time for photography in this part of China. It is worth noting at this point that this trip would have been absolutely impossible without an experienced local guide and driver. No one we encountered spoke any English in this part of China and we did not see another westerner from our arrival in Urumqi to our departure twelve days later.The net result of these itinerary changes was that we ended up driving just over five thousand kilometers in ten days including several days of ten plus hours in the car. If you have ever spent repeated ten-hour days in the back of a Toyota Land Cruiser you will understand just how challenging this quickly becomes. Compounding this issue was the generally poor state of the roads and the willingness of the local truck drivers to dice with death when passing and overtaking.  It is not an experience I am keen to repeat.

Our adventure began in the city of Urumqi in northwestern China. Urumqi is the largest town in this part of China and is reached via an approximate four-hour flight from either Beijing or Shanghai. Urumqi is perhaps best described by Australian standards as a third world city. Thick smog hangs over the city from dawn till dusk thanks to the myriad of coal-fired power plants that dot the countryside in this part of China. The city is heated during its freezing sub zero winters by burning coal in huge furnaces and as a result there is very significant industrial pollution. To put the pollution into some sort of perspective our guide advised us that the snow falls black during the winter months in Urumqi.

From Urumqi we drove for several hours to Heavenly Lake in the Tian Shan Mountains. This was an interesting location and a nice counterpoint to Urumqi and we photographed the spectacular mountains, Heavenly Lake and Golden Eagles that soared over the trees and mountains on thermal currents. We also visited some local Kazak people, had a traditional lunch of Nan bread and Kebabs and visited their Yurts. Although there is significant tourist infrastructure the area is still relatively unspoiled by Chinese standards and the air at this altitude relatively clean. As is the Chinese way it is not possible to drive into the park and you have to park at the bottom and take a shuttle bus. We arrived prior to sunrise however and had received special permission to take our four-wheel drive to the top and so were thankfully able to avoid the tourist bus trap. One of the key benefits of travelling with a local guide.
From Heavenly Lake we travelled to a remote area in the Gobi Desert known as the Ghost City. This was a wonderful location for landscape photography in what is locally known as the Yardang landscape. A landscape comprised of unusual compressed earth formations and outcroppings that have been eroded by the wind over many hundreds of years. The area is so named for the eerie and unusual sounds the wind makes as it whips around the desert formations at night. We photographed in this location at both sunset and sunrise and could have easily spent several days exploring the area. Ghost city turned out to be one of the real highlights of the trip with a truly spectacular lunar like landscape. It is one of the locations I would be keen to revisit should I find myself in this part of China again.

After we had finished at the Ghost City we travelled to a location the Chinese call the Rainbow Beach. The beach is hilariously signposted as ‘The Best Beach in the World’ and is located near Burjin. This was a challenging location to photograph due to the tourist infrastructure. Rainbow beach is not a beach in the true sense of the word. Rather, it is a series of highly unusual and colorful landscape formations along the edge of a large river. It was geologically an interesting location and as it was in our travel path was worth an afternoon stop.We then spent the next two days at the remote village of Hemu and Kanas Lake. Kanas Lake is fed from the Kanas glacier and is located high in the Altay mountain range near the Russian and Kazakhstan borders. We had a very heated argument with Chinese authorities in Kanas Lake as this location is geared toward Chinese tourists and driving ones own vehicle into the park is not permitted. Instead you are required to park at the entrance and catch a shuttle bus into the park. After a long and heated argument we were forced to find an official and seek special permission to take our four-wheel drive to the top. We were able to obtain written permission, but even so the officials at the checkpoint did not want to let us in. It took some very animated words from our driver and guide to finally convince them to allow us access. Kanas Lake itself is a very pretty location that is nestled high in the mountains. The area sees very significant internal tourism from China and there are numerous hotels to choose from inside the park. There appears to be little regard for environmental planning as none of the infrastructure is what I would deem environmentally conscious or friendly and all of it is geared toward managing bus loads of tourists. We visited this location during the off-season and still witnessed in excess of fifty large coaches in the main car park.

Hemu is a location rarely visited by westerners and we may well have been the first westerners to overnight in this remote village. We were certainly the first westerners many of the locals had ever seen and according to our guide the first foreigners he has ever taken into Hemu. It was an interesting experience, but photographically was a bit of a disappointment.  We had planned our trip with the idea of photographing the landscape in this region; which although pretty was not photographically all that interesting. However, due to the large cultural mix of minority people there are excellent opportunities for people and street photography in this remote village.From Kanas we travelled to Fuyn and Turpan stopping along the way to photograph the barren landscape; which in small part reminded me of some areas of Iceland. From Turpan we travelled to a location known as the Rainbow City. This was a fantastic location for landscape photography that is well off the tourist path in the Gobi desert. The area is comprised of multi-colored earth mounds and canyons that are rich in iron and rhyolite. Unfortunately, we had only limited time at this location and due to the long distances we had to travel we missed the soft light of sunrise. Nevertheless it was a wonderful location that rates as one of the best we visited for landscape. It is an area I would like to revisit during the small hours to photograph with soft, but dramatic cloud and light.We also visited the Flaming Mountains and the thousand caves of Buddha. Both of these areas offer outstanding landscape opportunities but are quite challenging photographically. This region is extremely dry and we constantly battled dust in our cameras and lenses. The Thousand Caves are a major tourist attraction and the infrastructure is therefore geared toward tourism. We found it better to head into the back roads and seek out more remote landscapes. Our guide was able to steer us toward a back canyon that proved fabulous for photography.From the Flaming Mountains and Shanshan we drove to Kucha and the Holy Grand Canyon in the Tian Shan Mountains and Gobi Desert. This was another extraordinary location for landscape photography that rarely sees foreigners. We were greeted by local Kazak people on our arrival that had never before seen westerners. Their amazement at our arrival was an experience I will not quickly forget. The canyon itself is enormous and it is somewhat difficult to capture the scale and grandeur in a single photograph. I found this photograph that included the human element best captures the scale of the canyon. We spent several hours exploring and photographing in this location and I would rate it as a must visit for anyone travelling in this part of China.

We spent our last evening photographing at the edge of the Tian Shan Mountains where there are highly unusual pancake like formations of compressed sand that have been eroded and shaped by the wind. The landscape in this area is unique in my experience and very surreal. Although we were not blessed with great light at sunset it was nevertheless a wonderful experience. During our time in China we experienced some very extreme variations in weather including searing heat, a rare desert thunder and rainstorm, a hailstorm, sand storm and freezing cold and snowfall in the mountains.Overall, this was a fascinating journey into this part of rural China that came with some very significant challenges. The infrastructure in many locations is extremely poor by western standards and the distances between the best locations for landscape photography are vast necessitating many thousands of kilometers of travel. Some of this travel could likely have been avoided if we had better information about the locations we wanted to visit. Should we return we will certainly be able to reduce the distances travelled on a daily basis; however anyone travelling into this region for photography should be prepared to spend significant time in the car.

The hotels that are available to foreigners in this part of China are generally of a very poor quality by western standards. Whilst they are locally rated as three star (or even four star) several had no hot running water and were both smelly and dirty. Our accommodation in Hemu for example was really nothing more than a wooden shack.

By western standards the hygiene levels are extremely poor across this part of rural China. Food is generally prepared openly in the street where lamb and fish are seen hanging in the sun. In areas where there is seating food is prepared in back room kitchens that are best-left unseen. Tables and chairs are filthy and plates and cups need to be wiped down and sterilized before use. I admit to saying a few Hail Mary’s before many of the meals we consumed. Although both Antony and I were meticulous with sanitary hand wash for the duration of this trip (even wiping down chopsticks, cups and bowls) and did not drink the water we both still ended up with badly upset stomachs on two occasions during our time in China. In fact, it has taken both of us more than a week to fully recover.

The predominant food on offer in this part of China is lamb kebabs, Nan bread, a sort of rice Pilaf and a local noodle dish which comprises of thick noodle either boiled or fried with a mix of capsicum, onion, tomato and then loaded with Chile. There is little in the way of western food available and anyone travelling into this region would be well advised to pack ample supplies of protein and energy bars.

Many of the locations we visited were truly spectacular in terms of landscape. China quite literally has some of the most amazing desert and mountains I have ever had the pleasure to photograph. Unfortunately, China and the Chinese people are treating its landscape as a giant rubbish dump. Even in the most remote of locations it is impossible to get away from discarded and smashed beer bottles, old plastic drink bottles and infinite torn and semi degraded plastic bags caught in barbed wire fences. There is zero respect and utter contempt for the environment. China’s countryside is in serious need of a clean up program much like the highly successful one Australia ran during the 1980’s (clean up Australia). However a clean up program is not enough and an education program needs to follow to teach the people to respect nature and the environment. The sort of change required is generational and the time to start is now.

On top of the seemingly limitless rubbish there is very significant industrial pollution and smog even in the remote desert areas. Countless coal-fired power plants belch pollution into the atmosphere twenty-four hours a day. There is a thick and pervasive atmospheric haze that hangs over the landscape that significantly reduces visibility and makes photography somewhat problematic.

Although there are several large wind farms in this part of China the reality is that they are dwarfed by the countless coal power plants – many more of which are still being constructed. A never-ending stream of overloaded coal trucks can be seen coming and going along the highways to feed the voracious power plants that scar the landscape.

Remote China is a difficult country to navigate for foreigners. During our time in in this province we were stopped at roadside checkpoints where our passports were checked by machine gun totting police and were photographed countless times by roadside security cameras. Each hotel we stayed in scanned our passports and alerted the local police of our arrival. Many of the hotels attempted to keep our passports to verify our identity and some heated discussion ensued (via our guide) when we refused to allow them to hold onto them. It was a very strong counterpoint experience to travelling in western society and an interesting insight into the Chinese communist culture.

My feelings are somewhat mixed at this point about the possibility of returning to China in the future. On the one hand it is home to some incredible landscapes that are nothing short of extraordinary. On the other there is a lack of respect and contempt for the environment that is truly appalling. China is a country that is destroying its environment at an incredibly alarming rate and it makes me sad for my children and subsequent generations if the state of China’s environment is an insight into the future of our world.

Footnote: I chose not to photograph the pollution and rampant environmental destruction in China. I simply found it too upsetting and distressing. I chose instead to focus on those natural landscapes that I found truly extraordinary. It is important to point out that even in these remote landscapes I frequently had to remove broken and discarded bottles and other rubbish from my photographs in order to exclude the hand of man.

Xinjiang China: The Ghost City

In early May 2013 I lead an exploratory expedition into the Xinjiang Augur autonomous region in the extreme north west of China with my good friend Antony Watson (we returned home only a few days ago). This is an extremely remote part of northern China that is home to the spectacular Tian Shan and Altay mountain ranges as well as the Flaming Mountains, Kanas Lake, Gobi Desert and more. This part of rural China is also home to the silk road and other historical locations of importance including the thousand caves of Buddha (two – three thousand year old caves). The province actually borders Russia, Kazakstan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, Kurdistan, Mongolia, and India so there is a real cultural mix of minority people and a very heavy Arabic influence.  At one point during our travels we were only 60km from the Kazakstan and Russian borders. Many of the locations we visited were hundreds of kilometres from built up infrastructure and were well off the beaten tourist path. This remote region of China is rarely visited by the outside world and on several occasions we were greeted by local Kazak people who had never before seen westerners in their lives. It was an extraordinary and fascinating expedition with some truly spectacular landscapes. I am still very much collecting my thoughts about this trip and will have a lot more to say about the landscapes, the people and our experiences over the coming weeks including in a more complete debrief report. In the meantime, (and to start the ball rolling) I just wanted to share one of the photographs I made at sunrise during the trip in an area known as the Ghost City in the Gobi desert. This was a wonderful location for photography in what is locally known as the Yardang landscape. A landscape comprised of unusual compressed earth formations and outcroppings that have been eroded by the wind over many hundreds of years. The area is so named for the eerie and unusual sounds the wind makes as it whips around the desert formations at night. It was just one of the remarkable locations we visited during our time in this remote part of China.

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.

Whats in Josh’s Gura Gear Bataflae 32L?

In part two of the new Gura Gear Bataflae series of videos we have a look at just what I pack in my camera bag for both international travel and local landscape photography. Depending on where I am travelling and what I am shooting I occasionally swap lenses in and out of this collection. As you will see, you can fit quite a bit of gear in a  Bataflae 32L! I actually discovered another tele-converter in the bag on top of all the other equipment when I was repacking the bag after we finished filming. Just click on the image to watch the video via You Tube. I hope you enjoy. You can order the Gura Gear Bataflae cameras bags directly from Gura Gear.