If you ever have a chance to visit Dunhuang—an oasis city in northwestern China—don’t think twice. Just go. This place is mind-blowing, and it also happens to be where the F in my book, The Alphabet from Space, is located.
One of the main reasons we went was to explore the incredible trove of ancient Buddhist art in Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves, or Thousand Buddha Grottoes. Over the centuries, hundreds of shrines were carved into a sandstone ridge in a remote part of the desert and decorated with Buddhist murals and sculptures. My wife, an abstract painter, has wanted to visit the caves for years because they are a major influence on her work.
But the caves and the art were just the beginning. For somebody like me who writes about Earth science as my day job and studied geology as an undergraduate, Dunhuang’s astounding megadunes were also a highlight. Imagine jogging up a massive pyramid-shaped pile of sand that was completely devoid of vegetation and watching the wind whip a stream of seemingly liquid sand up and over a perfect v-shaped ridge, and then watching that sand cascade down the other side like a waterfall.
Imagine peering down on a crescent-shaped lake flanked by a burst of green amidst a barren valley of sand. Then, suddenly, dozens of two-humped Bactrian camels (which are quite rare) leisurely wander into view. For somebody like me, who grew up in the relatively lush and green landscape of western Massachusetts, the entire experience was surreal. Dunghuang’s arid terrain was as exotic and otherworldly as any I can imagine. I felt like I was on Tatooine.
Climbing up one of these dunes to watch the sun set was something I will never forget. From the top, Katherine (my wife) and Calvin (my son) ogled the view, posed for pictures, and had a quite a time sliding and tumbling down the steep side of the dunes. It took Calvin some time to realize that the dune was far better for sliding than any of the plastic slides he has encountered at playgrounds so far. But once he did, he was off to the races, and there was no slowing him down. He was soon zipping down the slope with the abandon of a fearless Olympic luger.
In the Landsat 8 satellite image above, I have labeled the location of the dune we were on. Crescent Lake appears as just a tiny black smudge to the west of that dune, but I still love the broad perspective that this image offers. It helps you see how close the dunes are to the city (the gray-purple area in the upper right of the image). The broad perspective also makes it easier to imagine the movement of the entire dune field, which is being pushed eastward by winds blowing in from the northwest. (If you are interested in seeing our dune and Crescent Lake in more detail, check the area out on Google maps, which has more detailed imagery.) Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the solar farm that makes up the F from the summit of the dune. I was quite tempted to hire one of the paragliders or helicopters that were available to rent to get a proper view of the solar farm, but I restrained myself and we ended up opting for a camel ride (a more affordable and safer form of transportation) instead.
While I posing for photos with the book at the top of the dune, it occurred to me that it would be fantastic if I could somehow travel to each location featured in the book and take photos from the ground. The A, I could definitely pull off—the Susquehanna Water Gaps are just a few hundred miles from my home in Washington, DC. The P (a dried oxbow on the Colorado River) and the R (a sharp bend in the San Juan River in Utah) also seem manageable. But there are also some pretty far-flung destinations in the mix as well: Antarctica (the I), Zambia (the M), and Greenland (the H and K).
I do love to travel, but I could really use your help if I am ever to pull this off. If you happen to live in any of the places highlighted in the book or know you will be traveling to one of them, and you would be willing to pose with that page of the book out in front of, say, the salt ponds in Namibia (the L), Mount Herbert (the O), the farmland in Paraguay (the T), I would be eternally grateful. In fact, I would be so grateful that I would happily send you a signed copy of the book and a labeled Landsat satellite image of your house (or some other location of your choice).
To get you started, I have listed the latitude and longitude for the locations of all 26 letters below. Note that a few of them (the I, G, W, and X) are locations over water, so you might need access to either a boat or plane for those. If you think you can get photos from one (or more) of these places, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet me at @avoiland, and we can work out the details about how to get you the book and the personalized satellite image. Note: you don’t need to get photos of the exact feature that makes up the letter, any part of the scene would be fine. Thank you in advance and happy travels!
A: 40.546532, -76.973717 (Buffalo Township, Pennsylvania, USA)
B: 34.927929, 53.364791 (Semnan, Iran)
C: https://goo.gl/maps/JCifvvEaE4n (Fars, Iran)
D: 70.758290, -51.787311 (Uummanaq Fjord, Greenland)
E: 62.644470, -163.569429 (Nanvaranak Lake, Alaska, United States)
F: 40.105704, 94.479371 (Dunhuang, China)
G: 50.937317, -178.123706 (North Pacific Ocean)
H: 63.777167, -41.552391 (Sermersooq, Greenland)
I: -68.633333,70.583333 (McKenzie Bay, Antarctica)
J: -12.834317, 143.847137 (Bligh Reef, Australia)
K: 66.635645, -36.638346 (Sermersooq, Greenland)
L: -23.026402, 14.448990 (Erongo, Namibia)
M: -11.183523, 29.991393 (Chilibu Island, Zambia)
N: 41.436924, -82.368553 (Lake Erie)
O: 52.750229, -170.117121 (Herbert Island, Alaska, USA)
P: 37.300058, -110.797563 (San Juan County, Utah, USA)
Q: 51.384408, -68.698931 (René-Levasseur Island, Canada)
R: 37.218331, -109.745688 (San Juan County, Utah, USA)
S: -17.277327, 78.181193 (Indian Ocean)
T: -23.639351, -59.757941 (Presidente Hayes Department, Paraguay)
U: 51.484631, -0.014287 (Thames River, London, United Kingdom)
V: 40.030718, 78.209610 (Artux, Xinjiang, China)
W: -44.020983, 173.508044 (South Pacific, Near New Zealand)
X: 28.736667,-88.386944 (Gulf of Mexico)
Y: 37.762502, 119.157620 (Yellow River Delta, China)
Z: 28.882155, -9.665079 (Guelmim, Morocco)