I’m sure there are easier ways to get to Kyrgyzstan but my particular trip took me through four airports: Tunis, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Moscow, before I landed in Osh, one of the larger cities in the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan. The air was crisp, clear as the ringing of a small silver bell. Actually, maybe that was the ringing in my ears after way too many hours in planes over the last few days. Stepping off the plane onto the cold metal stairway, I could see the snowcapped mountains toward the south. The white topped mountains stood like proud sentinels, shoulder to shoulder, running east to west guarding the southern border of Kyrgyzstan. The next few days would see us slowly threading our way through these mountains as we gained elevation on our way south along the silk road and Tajikistan.
We were a team of four, here to do some research for a small NGO that was interested to start a project with Kyrgyz yak herders in the mountains bordered by China, Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The plan was to spend about a week up at higher elevation, but it would take us almost three days to get there, given the time it would take to acclimatize our bodies to the altitude.. On our first day we drove only about four hours to the small town of Gulcha and the next day to SaryTesh, which sits at an elevation of just over 3100 meters. We had a bit of time to enjoy the scenery given our slower pace on the way up into the mountains. After unpacking our things at the guest house in SaryTesh a few of us walked out across the valley. As we neared the river winding through the valley and took in the grandeur of this beautiful landscape it was easy to feel awfully small in the grand scheme of things. We were standing between two snow capped mountain ranges and the flat piece of ground between them must have been 15 kilometers wide. The terrain in this place drew my eyes into the scene and then they seemed to get lost in the depth that surrounded me.
The third day in country we headed up to the border with Tajikistan. The mountain range dividing the two countries is quite something: a wall of rock and ice as far as you can see going east to west, and our route was due south. Our route over the mountains was a cross between the road race at Pike’s Peak in Colorado and the cross country race in Baja, Mexico. Yes, we went a little slower, but I was glad we had a sure-footed 4x4 Landcruiser. By the end of day three we reached the small town of Murghab which would serve as our base of operations for our time in the mountains.
One of the challenges I encountered while on this trip was a difference in expectation regarding what we were doing. This was made more interesting in that the trip had one main purpose and it was not my photography or video. This was a research trip regarding business and NGO work in this region, and there was a lot of work that would go into getting the right information. My job was to document the region, the people, the terrain, the living conditions, and conditions that would be a factor in developing business here. As I had to do all of this while tagging along with the other three guys who were there for the “main” purpose of the trip, I knew I would have to take advantage of the time I had.
Sometimes I would excuse myself from whatever meeting the others were in so that I could move around outside and get more photos or video clips of the area. Often, if I could not politely get away, I would photograph what I saw. I didn’t necessary try to be sneaky about what I was doing, but I wanted to draw as little attention as possible. I knew the Sony alpha cameras (I was shooting with the a7rii and the a6500) have a “silent” mode so I tried it out. It was amazing! I was able to capture photos that I never could have made with a typical dslr with a noisy shutter slap. This was a game changer for me.
Often I would enter a room already knowing that I would be there for the duration of the meeting, so as I walked through the door I was reading the the room. Where was my light source, where was my main subject going to be, and where did I want to be to make the best use of the room and the light? All of these questions were going through my mind in the first three seconds after I entered. This allowed me to make some great images, even though I was confined to a few square feet on the floor. Knowing how to read a room, along with being prepared before walking into the room, is priceless in this environment. At these times I always had both cameras ready to go as I got out of the Land Cruiser, one body with the Canon 16-35, f2.8L lens and one with the Sony 85mm, f1.4 GMaster. This way I could always get a great portrait, or capture more of the scene the wide angle.
There were so many times I would have loved to stay in one perfect place and wait for the perfect light on such beautiful landscape… but to do so would mean I would be walking the 40k back to the village alone in the dark in freezing temperatures. Don’t get me wrong, I was able to make some incredible images while on this trip, but it required getting creative with my gear and with my time. It meant that after a long day while the others were drinking tea in a warm hut I was out looking for that “end of the day” amazing light; when they were still drinking their morning coffee or tea I was already up and out making some images. During those times I was on “my time” and I wasn’t distracted by other responsibilities.
Shooting and working up in the mountains with nomadic people was all I had hoped for. Everywhere I looked were vast expanses of breathtaking country. Yaks and goats dotted the valleys and I could just see the green starting to spread out from the small winding river in the middle of the valley. In a few weeks the rough ground would be bright green with grass, but at that time the herd was wandering around and enjoying the tiny new sprouts of green.
Tea… tea… and more tea… without fail at each yurt, humble adobe hut, or carpet covered living room, we were presented with tea. The tea always came with a smile and warm hospitality. I brought more than awesome images home with me from this trip. I brought home great memories of walking across breathtaking terrain, muffled conversations in a shepherd’s yurt, watching the stars gliding across the night sky while silhouetting the snow covered peaks, of celebrations with new friends, of boiled goat meat and vodka… Ah... yes, but those are stories for another day.