Bashang Grassland in winter
I do not know what hit me, but instead of going some place warm during the Chinese New Year holiday in 2008, I decided to spend several days photographing in Bashang Grassland. Located in Southern Inner Mongolia and Northern Hebei, Bashang Grassland is one of the major photographic destinations in China. Although I photographed there before in autumn, photographing there in winter is an entirely different undertaking—not so much so because of the different appearances, but simply because it is freaking cold. I do not want to make extravagant claims but it at least was -20° all right. I suppose the drive behind going there was the periodical necessity to test the limits, shake off the slowly yet persistently encroaching lethargy of the day–to–day reality, and shake up the idle comfort of well–established grooves.
It was my first time photographing for extended periods of time (two to four hours at a time) in such adverse conditions, and I have to say it was more challenging than I expected. Whereas -20° might not sound that bad, the issue is that once you are in the field you have to carry on no matter what—you cannot drop by a café for a hot cup of coffee if you feel cold, and you cannot catch a taxi to go back home if you feel tired. Most importantly, though, you know exactly why you are there and you have to do it.
Wind is your worst enemy and your best friend. It pushes the cold further into the realm of intolerability and stings. At the same time, it is the very same wind that brings about subtle colours, distant vagueness and beautiful atmospheric phenomenon.
Snow is a blessing and a curse, too. It is one of the main reasons why you are there in the first place; Bashang, however, is a very spacious place, and snow restricts movement and makes finding interesting perspectives and satisfactory compositions even more strenuous.
Snow (and us stuck in it)
The low temperature puts all your equipment to test. Batteries die in no time if you keep your camera or meter out in the open, camera operation noticeably slows down, and tripod heads of questionable quality become unusable.
The harsh conditions push you to the edge of what you can do and tolerate physically, too. There was one time where I knew perfectly well that I had to use a graduated ND filter, but I could not manage it because my fingers went numb before I could set it all up (you can not do it wearing thick gloves and thin gloves simply do not last long enough). And the disturbing part about your fingers going numb (apart from the fact that it hurts, of course) is that it is not possible to know where the line between them being temporarily numb and freezing them off is. I happened to freeze off a couple of fingertips, one photographer froze off his ears and another companion froze off the tip of his nose (which he, apparently, put against the LCD of his DSLR for longer than he should have). In the end none of it was disastrous but, again, you do not know where the line is, how far behind it you have gone, and where the point of no return lies.
It is quite unexpected, then, that despite the intense and never ending challenges you unintentionally tend to look for and photograph subtlety, thoughtfulness and longing. But wait... have not I seen that somewhere... delicacy, contemplation and craving amidst a relentless and driving force? Why is it that I hear Charles Mingus' "The Black Saint and The Sinner Lady" playing?