Alone And Small, Surrounded By The World

Lost in Gansu in HDR
We weren’t lost, but there were moments, out in the harsh glare of the Gobi that we felt it. In this part of Gansu nothing grows. The soil is a rough gravel–ten thousand miles of conglomerate and worn sandstone turning to dust, empty. More barren than any desert I’ve ever seen, except the Rub-al-Qali.

“Out here,” I wrote in my journal, “listening to sand whistle off the dunes one feels alone and small. Everything is so much bigger, in real time, than it is anywhere I’ve ever been.”

Like all good photos, this one was an accident. I was taking test shots of the mountains in the background. If you look closely you can see a jagged line, hanging on the horizon like low lying clouds in a luciferin haze. When I uploaded the photo later that evening it was this shot that caught my eye, and in the days to come I returned to it many times.

An epochal feeling pervades the scene, as the rough edge of the Kunlun Shan, that great rippling sheet of scraping rocks crumples into the Tarim Basin.  Uplift and subsidence before me as geology comes alive, the power of unfathomable forces in the silence of a cool April afternoon.

But more than that it has a feeling, and although all is still there is movement in the photo. Gao Xuan, our driver, runs fingers behind his neck, in consternation, looking backwards at the young Khazakh standing out in the middle of no where—what was he doing out there, dressed in a suit jacket, fifty miles from the nearest town and miles away from any water? Evocative of the entire day, from Dun Huang all the way to the Jade Gate, this curious meeting of Han Chinese, Kazakh and American not three miles from that great and ancient Eurasian entrepot, the Jade Gate. History repeating itself in an off-rhyme; Occident, Orient and Nomad. Modernity eye to eye with the past.

And the sign in the foreground? I have no idea what it says. Although in my imagination it says something like, “Welcome To The Last Outpost of the Great T’ang Empire.”

Alone and small, surrounded by the immensity of the world. There might be a word for that, but for now I will settle for a picture.

Nota bene: Other photos from Gansu and Xinjiang can be found here, here, here and here.

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