Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Trip Report: Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia

Quite frankly, there are some parts of the world one never expects to see, no matter how well traveled you may be. Although I'd heard of Uzbekistan, and perhaps the smaller country, Kyrgyzstan, as well, I know I couldn't have located either country on a world map. Both countries are located in the far south of what was formerly the Soviet Union, with a very small area of Uzbekistan bordering Afghanistan and eastern Kyrgyzstan abutting western China. Fortunately for me, one of our friends and course participants, Ilya Raskin, was involved with a botanical project in Central Asia in conjunction with Rutgers University, and he invited me to speak on biodiversity to scientists in both countries. I eagerly accepted, and thus began my adventure to Central Asia.


Left to right, top to bottom: Fish and grapes, roadside stand in Kygryzstan; Soldiers in Tashkent;
Yurt or hut in Kygryzstan and woman at market; Harry Potter reaches Tashkent, Uzbek.

The 'Moslem countries with 'stan' in their name have certainly made news. Pakistan and Afghanistan are familiar to everyone, but the others -Turkmenistan, Tajkistan, Kazakhstan -- are black holes in the world map for most people. Admittedly, I had some degree of concern traveling to this part of the world, as I wondered what the sentiment of the locals would be toward Americans, and if the conditions would be safe. Worries, it turned out, that were absolutely groundless.

I presented three lectures in these two countries, and at the last, at a University in Tashkent, I was asked what my impressions were after visiting this area for the first time. My answer was that I was genuinely impressed by the friendliness of the people, by their hospitality and their warmth. Although I normally don't photograph people I enjoy doing so when I have the opportunity, and both of these countries were target-rich and photo-friendly environments. Most of my shooting in the two weeks traveling involved cultural and human subjects, and it was great fun.



Left to right: Khasan Buriev playing chest; Jamin Akimaliev and me after
the presentation in Kygyrzstan.


Left: A 'good luck' sign at the entrance to the Uzbek airport. Is this saying anything about the conditions of the airlines or the safety?

Living conditions were great, although in some ways at times I felt as if I was on a central Asian version of the TV show 'Fear Factor,' for the food was at times quite different from what I was accustomed. At one outing in Kyrgyzstan I was presented, as the guest of honor, with a lamb's head on a platter and was informed that as the special guest I'd be given the left eyeball to eat. 'Only the left eyeball. That's special,' one of my host's remarked. I envisioned popping the cooked eyeball, feeling a squirt of vitreous fluid as I bit down ... you get the idea, but as it turned out the eyeball isn't eaten, only the fatty, muscular tissue around and behind the eyesocket which was, believe it or not, quite acceptable. Now the lamb's ear, eaten at the same time, well that isn't something I'd order out. Fermented horse milk, horse meat, tongues, testes, you name it, I had a varied fare, but all of it tasted fine or was truly delicious and I certainly didn't lose weight on the trip!

Central Asia is, in fact, the breadbasket for the world, and many of our crops and grains developed somewhere in these regions. Watermelons and a watermelon-shaped white melon that tasted like the richest, most delicious, almost meaty melon I've ever had, were the best I've sampled anywhere. Tomatoes and strawberries seemed to be an entirely different fruit compared to their US counterparts, and lamb -- I'm talking about the 'normal' parts now -- was the best I've ever had. Lamb is common in many parts of the world and I'm always amazed when I see someone order lamb at a US restaurant, for my experiences in Argentina, the Falklands, India, Chile, and Kenya had not made me a fan. However, within a short time I was ordering lamb at the Uzbek restaurants -- it was the best, and I now may be tempted to try US lamb.

Meals and entertainment - Igor stirring the lamb; Jamin playing a traditional instrument; and a Chilkut meal.

Food, in many ways, was a celebration, for we were honored guests, and the meals were served and eaten in a relaxed manner we don't see at home. It was common to have a communal dish where people simply reached in with a hand or fork or knife for the next portion. Bread, outstanding rich bread, was pulled apart by hand and passed about. At one lunch early on in the trip, at a remote park in eastern Uzbekistan, I was passed a cup for tea. Inside, the cup was ringed with residue, but with my thumb I swiped it clean, presented my cup, and drank. Throughout the trip I didn't get sick, and no one of our group of five did either. I call attention to this not to point out a lack of sanitation here, which was not the case at all, but to contrast the much more laid back and relaxed sense of eating, as opposed to the almost neurotic sense of cleanliness and aversion to 'eating after one another' that westerners so often have.

To illustrate, we 'crashed' an enormous wedding party in Samarkand, Uzbek., where our host had been invited and had brought us along. Word must have preceeded us because a table was prepared and everyone greeted us with warm smiles, nods, and handshakes as we entered the huge hall. After settling in and grabbing a few bites the photo opportunities proved too much and Ilya and I began roaming about snapping photos. I mounted a set of stairs to get an overview of the hall, but unfortunately my vantage was the entranceway for a large side room where the overflow guests were seated. A man appeared and beckoned me inside to see the room and take some pictures there. Everyone inside -- a hundred or more people, turned to watch, then waved or beckoned me over to take their pictures. I started doing so, but quickly discovered that a photograph would cost me ... with a drink. After taking a photograph of a group, those included insisted that I proposed a toast -- a mere heads up gesture sufficed -- and down the shot. I did so, and was given a Mountain Dew-looking drink to chase down the shot. The Mountain Dew was someone else's drink, of course, which I had to tap into again after I had another shot and needed my 'chaser.' No worries about drinking after me, nor me after him ... a pretty neat testament to humanity I thought.

However, things were about to get rough. The next table beckoned me over and I took another photo. Another shot followed, and while I was pleased to impress them that I could indeed down a Vodka shot with one quick pull, I knew this was about to get out of hand. The next table waved me over, but I smiled, shook my hands, pantomined taking another shot and pointed at my camera, and said in English, 'No way, I gotta get out of here!' Although no one probably understood my words they understood my intent and laughed, while I scooted back out into the main hall. Otherwise, my friends and I might still be knocking back shots!

This friendliness was exhibited everywhere. Of the hundreds of people photos I made, I'd estimate that less than a half-dozen times did someone decline my request for a photograph. More often, people were jumping IN FRONT of the camera, or calling us over so that they could have their picture taken. With digital this was great because we could show them the results on the screen, but many didn't even need that reward. Having their picture taken was enough.

While both countries are 'technically' Moslem, neither had a particularly Islamic sense about them. Uzbekistan, especially the southern city of Samarkand, has more mosques than does Kyrgyzstan, but the general feeling I had while traveling the streets was I could just as easily been anywhere in central Europe or, in many cases, in downtown Paris or Rome. I rarely saw women dressed in what some might consider a stereotypical Islamic fashion -- in fact, the only time I can remember seeing a woman fully covered was at one Mosque where Islamic studies were the focus. After that, the next woman I saw dressed in traditional garb was at the US immigration line back in New York! Realistically, a visitor to either country should be as concerned about the predominant religion, Islam, as an ethnic Uzbek should be worried about the dominant religion for the state of New York or Florida. It's not an issue in the States, and it certainly wasn't a cause of concern for Uzbek or Kyrg

Left to right: Women studying in a mosque; Ruins in Samarkand; sharing a melon meal with new friends; attempting to shoot
a ceiling inside a mosque.

The markets of central Asia are incredible. Filled with people, shopping or selling everything from clothing to food, the markets offered a variety of lighting conditions and a plethora of colors. I used a 580EZ flalsh often set for fill-flash, and I frequently set the flash so that the built-in diffusion screen and bounce card directed a softer light. In retrospect, I should have carried an omnibounce or Reflectasol flash bouncer for better flash efficiency, but the rig I used worked, and it was simple to carry. Much of the time I used a 28-300 zoom, although toward the end of the trip I often carried two cameras, one mounted with a 2.8 17-35, and the other with a 2.8 70-200, so that I could more accurately focus in dim light. Since I was shooting fast, and shooting candids most often and in crowded conditions, I couldn't use a tripod. In fact, I only used the small Mountaineer carbon-fiber tripod and AcraTech ballhead twice on the trip, for photographing spiders and dragonflies on the third day. Image-Stabilization certainly helped, as did the ability to raise the ISO as needed for the lighting. I only had a few images that were blurred toss-outs.

Market scenes and people
Top row:
Man selling, or showing off, his duck - we couldn't figure out exactly what;
vendor with spices and dried fruits; traditional medicin vendor with live snake.

Bottom row:
A very pretty melon vendor reading; rug maker in Samarkand;
melon vendor with gold-capped teeth, a mark of beauty and wealth.


In Tashkent I visited an artist colony, a series of small shops that surrounded an ancient courtyard, where artesans of wood, metal, and painting worked daily. The craftsmanship was unequalled -- bookstands, originally made for the Koran, were carved from a single block of wood but unfolded into an X shape that could be adjusted into as many as eight positions, depending upon the size and weight of the book in use.When I returned home and showed one of these to Mary it took us five minutes or so just to change the shape one time, and I don't think we ever mastered the eight options. Consider then, how in the world do you carve something like that with a single, contiguous piece of wood? Photos at the shop were especially intriguing as I could get in close, bounce a flash, and use a wide zoom to catch both the artist and the environment. Still, the images don't do the location or the artists' justice, as the intricacies of their work was simply too fine, and too incredible, to depict.




Statue of Timor; the Ulugubek observatory; a model of a Samarkand Mosque in Tashkent's museum.

This same sense of fine art is evidenced in their ancient Mosques. Much of Uzbekistan was leveled by Genghis Khan in the early Middle Ages, but was rebuilt in superlative fashion by the country's national hero, Amir Timor, who united the country and ended up conquering much of the Middle East, from Turkey to southern Russia almost one thousand years ago. Timor and his descendents built numerous mosques, and many of these, neglected now for centuries, are being refurbished to their original grandeur. They were spectacular. One of Timor's descendents, Ulugubek, invented the navigational tool, the sextant, and he also built an incredible observatory that I couldn't quite figure out. At its base a long sweeping tunnel of at least 100 feet curves underground in a shape suggestive of the sextant, and in some way, I'm sure, this was used as a celestial guide. Awesome engineering, even if I couldn't understand exactly how it worked.

Of course, I'm most interested in natural history, and my first few days in the country were spent in a national park not open to the public. Here, in Chitkal, we rode up into the high country for two days almost to timberline, to get a feel for the land and perhaps, remotely, to see some sign of the snow leopards that may be found here. It's very hot in early August in much of Uzbekistan, and any mammals that would be about would most likely do so after dark. I did see a Eurasian badger, and one in our group spotted a deer, but otherwise mammal life was scarce. I only saw a few species of birds, and the scarcity of bird life was odd, especially considering the absolute abundance of insect life. I was puzzled, too, by the complete absense of reptiles, for many of the areas looked remarkably like Zion National Park, Utah, where at this season and elevation I'd have seen dozens of lizards. Ubekistan's reptile life is actually quite diverse, with around 140 different species ranging from agamas and monitors to cobras and adders, but I saw nothing.

I asked everyone in the park whether or not they'd ever seen a snow leopard. One of the scientists who works there, Alexander Esipov, had indeed seen three or four, with one only a few meters away. He's a marmot researcher and I'd suspect in the high country where marmots live, it'd be possible to find a snow leopard hunting marmots, much as an African leopard hunts hyraxes. Winter is best, I was told, but in winter the area we traveled would be snow-covered and difficult or dangerous to travel by the horses that had brought us up into the high country. On our second day we rode for almost seven hours of an eight-hour field day. I'm lucky to ride a horse every other year, and while I think I'm competent, our rides here were probably as challenging as one will ever have on a horse. We rode up steep hillsides, down sharp inclines, and across cliff edges that would surely tax the steadiness of anyone with acrophobia. On our first day, our ride concluded long after sunset and we rode down the mountain in what, to us, was complete darkness. The horses, with 'four wheel drive,' did fine, occasionally slipping, but never really losing their feet, but we had to take their competence on faith, for we couldn't see a thing. In the light of the next day we ascended the mountain via the route the horses descended in darkness, and the magnitude of their accomplishment (or the insanity of our ride) was readily apparent.

Chilkut, where we did our riding, is a bowl-shaped park, with the park's boundaries defined by the highest elevation of the park's ridges. Lammergiere, or bearded vultures, glide the high country, but I missed this, one of the world's largest vultures and one I had hoped to see. Asiatic white-headed vultures, greater kestrils, and one larger falcon, a few doves, a jay-like bird, raven, and many European rollers were the only birds I saw, although I was frustrated by the treefrog-like toots of the little owl, an elf owl-sized bird, that called incestantly from multiple locations at our headquarters. I spent a lot of time searching, but the owl, barely larger than a sparrow, was impossible to see.

In many ways Chilkut reminded me of the high country of Montana or Yellowstone, with pines replaced by juniper trees and, high in the distance, the treeless scree at timberline. Ibex, deer, wild boar, and, of course, snow leopards live in this high country and while I rode, I day-dreamed over what might be required to actually see or photograph this extremely well-camouflaged cat. I'm sure it could be done here, but it would take some time, and the biggest obstacle is that there are no roads for access -- everything is moved by foot or horseback.

Falconer with pheasant; falconer with golden eagle; turkey with European buzzard and pheasant.

The most exciting 'wildlife' shooting occured in Kyrgyzstan, where we traveled up a long valley surrounded by extremely rugged mountains. The location, near Lake Issik Kul -- a nearly two hundred mile-long lake that is bordered by snow-covered mountains that rise as high as 21,000 feet, was incredibly rugged, and is the home of traditional falconers. The area attracts tourists, and we no sooner arrived than falconers on horseback appeared, with European buzzards (analagous to our redtail hawks or, more properly, rough-legged hawks in appearance) and one golden eagle. The buzzards were incredibly tame, and although treated with respect they were handled in a cavalier fashion I'd never seen with an American falconer, who generally handles their birds with the utmost tenderness. These birds were treated like pet cats or dogs, and seemed to thrive. One falconer carried a buzzard on one shoulder and a ring-necked pheasant on the other, and both coexisted and were handled -- including placing both birds on our heads, with complete sangfroid. I've only 'worked with' pheasants one other time, and then, in the US, the birds were nervous and flighty. This pheasant was completely calm, and I had to wonder if it was handled since the day it hatched to account for this temperament.

Bordering western China, Kyrgyzstan's people were forged by mountains and horses. The entire settled area of the country is one long valley, shared in part by Kazakhstan, that forms virtually the only arable land. The rest is mountains, rugged, steep mountains that during the Soviet era were serviced by roads and trucks that transported shepherds and their herds to high summer pastures. Now, with the breakup of that Union, the high country is neglected while the lower slopes are over-grazed. Kyrgyzstan, like most of Central Asia, is a convoluted land of ridges and mountains, all by-products of the same geologic forces that formed the Himalayas when the Indian subcontinent pushed its way into the Asian landmasses eons ago.

Regardless of its faults, the Soviet Union had some beneficial aspects to these central Asian countries, providing an infrastructure and a market for goods that is declining today. Wool and other sheep products and cotton are two important industries in both countries, and in the past the Union bought these goods as a means to support one of their own states. Now, without the loyalty of the Union, countries buy goods at the most competitive prices, and these former satelite countries suffer. On the dark side, I saw several enormous factories going to ruin. One of these was built in the remote countryside near Chilkut, and this, a huge, block-like edifice, stood out starkly against the dry, desert-like countryside like the obelisk from 2001 A Space Odyssey. It was a depressing-looking structure without a purpose or use in the Uzbekistan of today, one of several that I saw in both countries.

I missed few shooting opportunities, but one that I passed on because of the lateness of the day and the time still required for travel was a haunting vista of the rugged rows of ridges in Kyrgyzstan on our last day in that country as we traveled back to the capital of Bishkek. The scene was reminiscent of the more familiar views one has seen of the Smokies of Tennessee, with black-blue ridge after ridge receeding into the distance, fading gray-blue before finally disappearing in the haze. It was not only a beautiful scene, but the ridges were also extremely evocative, because I knew few westerners, and certainly very few Americans, have ever walked those mountains. I was told there were villages scattered throughout that backcountry, and many might only be accessible by foot or horse. It was snow leopard country to be sure, and that fact, and the beauty of the ridges in the late, golden light were haunting. I hope to see that country again, and much more thoroughly.

Left: Our group at the start, in Chilkut. I must express my thanks and appreciation to the scientists, faculty, and students that attended the three lectures I delivered, entitled 'Celebrating Biodiversity,' where the message I tried to convey was the importance both of habitat and of the local people in boistering and promoting ecotourism, and how this ecotourism in its various forms could provide an economic incentive to protect habitat and, consequently, preserve biodiversity. I must thank those from the Samarqand State University and the Tashkent State Agrarian University, both in Uzbekistan, and the National Academy of Science of Kyrgyzstan for their attendance, interest, and wonderful questions. Special thanks goes to David Zuarov, PhD, the project manager who coordinated so much of this program; as well as Mary Ann Lila, PhD; Khasan Buriev, PhD, head of the Ubez program; Marietta Eliseyeva, PhD; Igor Belolipov, PhD; Buston Islamov; who assisted me in many ways throughout my stay in Uzbekistan and in Samarkand, Ubez., and Jamin Akimaliev, PhD, who was such a gracious host and guide for our trip to Kyrgyzstan.

Most importantly I must again thank Ilya Raskin, PhD, and Rutgers University for this opportunity. It was fantastic, spectacular, and extremely informative, and I hope to get another opportunity to further explore this region in the near future

A traditional Uzbekistan ceremonial outfit and
the friendly retailers who had me model.

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