In Northwest China’s Gobi Desert, autumn tints the landscape a flaming scarlet. The fields of red aren’t deciduous leaves blushing with the season. They’re chili peppers, spread out to dry under the hot desert sun following the late-summer harvest. Each September and October, farmers across the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which produces a fifth of China’s world-leading pepper harvest, let the harsh sun and 100-plus degree temperatures do the work that most American producers leave to industrial dehydrators.
The result is a red sea of chilies stretching to the horizon. From the ground, the mounds of glossy, fat peppers look like tempting seasoning for a future dinner. From above, the two hundred-plus ton harvest transforms the landscape, staining the khaki-colored desert like blood cells under a microscope.