on landscape The online magazine for landscape photographers

Desert Epiphany

An Appreciation of Harmony in the Landscape

Alister Benn

Alister and Juanli Sun run Available Light Images Ltd, which specialises in experiential learning using diverse environments to focus on the creativity and unique vision of their participants. When not running trips in Tibet, the Silk Road, SW China, Iceland, Spain and Scotland, the couple live quietly on the Isle of Skye. Facebook

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In the fading light of a bleak winter’s evening I stare from the plane window as we begin our decent into Ürümqi. Bogda Peak rises nearly 18000 feet up to meet us in the cold air and layers of lesser hills dusted in snow add captivating textures. This is my first sight of Xinjiang Province in western China and my wife Juanli can see the excitement in my eyes. Our somewhat spontaneous plan to journey through the deserts of China’s Silk Road for three weeks was only 4 days old, having been born on a New Year’s Day walk near our home on the west coast of Scotland.

Juanli deals with all our company’s logistics, and she is meticulous in her role. Subsequently, as we left the city by high-speed train the next morning I had virtually no idea of where we were going. I sat back in the enveloping comfort of a first class seat and smiled as the train pulled away at exactly 10:02, the scheduled departure time. I enjoy surrendering myself to the plans of my partner, I can relax and let my mind drift, dwelling on small thoughts, with occasional grand sparks of inspiration hitting the neurones. I tend to manage my expectations rather well, obsessively avoiding looking at the work of other photographer’s, beyond getting a general feel for what terrain I may expect. However, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t incredibly excited about the prospect of our journey through the desert. I’ve been fortunate to travel the world extensively, but massive sand dunes had somehow been avoided to date!

The train blasted across a flat, desolate plain; dry, dusty and desiccated by both extremes of heat and cold. With an 80C range of temperatures, the climate can be brutal. Outside it was a modest -17C, and that did cause a moment of anxiety as I knew we planned to camp in the desert. After a couple of hours, we arrived in ShanShan and met our driver for dinner that evening. He was a typical hard core adventurer; a heavy smoker, laconic smiles, yet friendly, quiet and thoughtful. He spoke no English, and after a few minutes of listening to them talking in Chinese, I let myself drift off into my watery beer to clear my head of jet lag and adrenaline. Rarely did Juanli bring me up to speed on their conversation, but she did startle me out of deep thought by telling me that as far as Hui knew, I was the first “foreigner” to make photographs in the area we would be travelling.

That got my attention!

Hui was in his mid 40’s and had spent his entire life in Xinjiang - this was his landscape, and his enthusiasm for it shone from his weathered face. He energetically told Juanli that it was the finest landscape in the world, a fierce pride in his voice. I find that degree of passion infectious and my sense of anticipation grew with each passing moment.



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  • tobers

    Looks like a super adventure. Love th dune pictures as well. Fascinating – thanks for sharing.

    • Alister Benn

      Thanks for that – it was indeed life-changing, not something I say every day!

  • Absolutely love your closing paragraph, Alister. Cheers, my friend!

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