Earlier this year, I had a chance to travel and photograph my home country of Uzbekistan for three weeks, as part of a photography job for the State Committee of the Republic of Uzbekistan for Tourism Development (basically, the Ministry of Tourism). It was a surreal experience for me personally, because I had not seen my country for 17 years, and I had practically never seen anything other than my home town and the capital Tashkent. As a photographer, I have been fortunate to have visited so many countries, and yet there I was, looking like a tourist in the very country where I was born and raised…
Poi Kalon Mosque, Bukhara, Uzbekistan
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 6/1, f/11.0
Ever since the new president of Uzbekistan got elected, the country went through swift transformations. The borders were finally opened up after 25 years of isolation from the world. With visa-free entry for many developed countries and an online eVisa system for everyone else, tourists from all over the world have been flocking to see this unique country that very few know even exists.
My specific job was to drive through all the regions and create imagery for the ministry of tourism, so that they can use high-resolution versions of my photos to promote the country both internally and externally. So it was obviously a big responsibility, something I acknowledged and understood fully before accepting the job.
Hand-carved and painted wood fragments, Namangan, Uzbekistan
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 640, 1/500, f/5.6
The images presented in this article have been hand-picked from this trip. Without further ado, let’s get started!
Safety and Security
The first issue I have to get out of the way has to do with safety and security while visiting Uzbekistan. Since Central Asia is a very unfamiliar territory for many, there may be concerns with the overall stability of the region. With countries like Afghanistan bordering the country, one might wonder how safe it is to visit Uzbekistan.
One of the many hand-carved wooden doors in Uzbekistan
GFX 50S + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 800, 1/60, f/5.6
The US Department of State lists Uzbekistan as Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions, which is basically the lowest level of safety concern for a country. Gallup’s 2018 Global Law and Order Report listed Uzbekistan as #5 safest country to visit in the world, putting it above countries like Switzerland and Canada in safety. Uzbekistan is also rated as one of the safest countries to visit for solo female travelers, which says a lot. Feel free to do some research on your own, but I can guarantee you that you will end up with similar conclusions.
Ichan Kala, Khiva, Uzbekistan
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/6, f/8.0
Although Uzbekistan is a muslim-majority country, all religions and races are tolerated in the country. In fact, even today there are active churches and synagogues present in the country. There is no Sharia law, or anything even remotely close to it – religion has very little influence on state affairs and passed laws.
A Young Woman from Bukhara
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/450, f/2.5
On top of that, the government of Uzbekistan pays close attention to its borders and keeps security tight at all times. Government police and military personnel control the borders, while special tourist police force guards all important landmarks. The locals are very friendly and welcoming. In short, Uzbekistan is one of the safest countries to visit for tourism purposes.
The Andijan Reservoir is located on the border of neighboring Kyrgyzstan
GFX 50R + GF250mmF4 R LM OIS WR @ 250mm, ISO 100, 1/400, f/8.0
Tashkent – The Capital
When flying to Uzbekistan, you will most likely be landing in its capital, Tashkent. With a population of over 2 million, Tashkent is the biggest city in not only Uzbekistan, but also all of Central Asia. It is a large and very clean city, offering quite a bit to see and experience for a traveling photographer. The highlights of Tashkent include: food, museums, metro stations, parks and mosques. While many travelers skip Tashkent and go directly to historic cities like Bukhara and Samarkand, I would highly recommend to start the journey in the capital and explore it for a couple of days.
There are many places worth checking out in Tashkent, but below is my personal list of the highlights.
Amir Timur Museum
When visiting many of the historic landmarks in Uzbekistan, you will be hearing the name “Timur” or “Tamerlane” quite a bit. As one of the greatest conquerors and military commanders in history, Timur left a big legacy to the world, creating an empire that stretched from Europe all the way to India. If you don’t know much about Timur and Uzbekistan, this museum is a good starting point. The Amir Timur Museum is fairly small and you can explore it all in about an hour, depending on how quick you go.
From photographic standpoint, you might find the circular shape of the building, along with its massive wood-carved doors and columns to be interesting to photograph:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 64mm, ISO 100, 1/70, f/5.6
Inside the museum, you will find Islamic art, various illustrations, maps and artifacts from different regions of the country. In the center of the building, you will find a huge stand with a replica of Uthman’s Quran, one of the oldest surviving Qurans written in Kufic script.
X100F @ 23mm, ISO 3200, 1/20, f/5.6
Why a replica? Because the original is too valuable from the Islamic standpoint to be stored in a museum. After its journey to Russia and back (the Quran was finally returned to Uzbekistan in 1924), it has been securely kept in the library of the Khast Imam Complex.
The Khast Imam Complex
To see the original version of Uthman’s Quran, you should check out the Khast Imam Complex, another must—visit location in the capital. The complex itself is quite beautiful, and you will be able to photograph its spectacular architecture, blue tiles, turquoise domes and tall minarets:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 45.7mm, ISO 100, 1/170, f/8.0
The blue tiles and the Quranic texts can be found on a number of different buildings here:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 55.5mm, ISO 400, 1/80, f/8.0
You will find a few architectural monuments, including a madrasah (Islamic school), a mosque and a mausoleum:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 400, 1/120, f/8.0
As you walk around the property, you will find beautifully hand-carved wooden doors, with inscriptions in Arabic, such as this one:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 42.5mm, ISO 1600, 1/50, f/4.0
The property itself is quite beautiful and well-maintained:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 250, 1/60, f/8.0
And its brick walls provide a nice texture to photograph local kids, who come to the complex to play and fly their kites on windy days:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 64mm, ISO 100, 1/70, f/5.6
The complex is a great spot to photograph at sunset. Beautiful golden light illuminates the bricks and the tiles of the walls, providing good photographic opportunities:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 400, 1/400, f/5.6
The library where Uthman’s Quran is stored can get quite busy during the day, so make sure to check it out before sunset, since it closes fairly early.
The Museum of Victims of Repressions
The Museum of Victims of Repressions is a reminder of some of the sad history of political repressions that took place in Uzbekistan during the Soviet era. The main memorial site is interesting to see, although I personally did not find it all that appealing for photography:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 1600, 1/9, f/4.0
Still, the park is quite beautiful and serene. If you are going to come here, make sure to take a guide with you who can translate.
If you get hungry, right across from the museum you will find the popular TV tower, along with the famous “Osh Center”, where they make a traditional Uzbek dish called “Osh”:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 200, 1/900, f/2.0
Make sure to taste Osh in all the different regions of Uzbekistan, since it tastes different everywhere.
Ugam-Chatkal National Park
If you want to explore nature and photograph some of the most beautiful mountain regions of Uzbekistan, the Ugam-Chatkal National Park is the place to go. It is about a two hour drive from Tashkent to the entrance, but you have to hire a local driver with a 4×4 SUV who can drive you into the most beautiful areas of the park. Unfortunately, the park is not easy to get into, and you must show your passport to get a permit to enter the park.
On the way to Ugam-Chatkal, you will have a chance to stop and photograph the beautiful nature that surrounds the park:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/950, f/5.6
I was there in March and I had a chance to witness the blossoming of all the fruit trees along the way:
GFX 50R + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 100mm, ISO 100, 1/150, f/8.0
The park has many beautiful mountains, which have quite a bit of snow on them until late spring:
GFX 50R + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 145.3mm, ISO 100, 1/1250, f/8.0
In the heart of the park, very close to the border with Kazakhstan, you will find two beautiful, jade-colored lakes – the upper and the lower Urunghach lakes. These will require some hiking to get to, but are absolutely worth seeing:
FC2204 + 24-48mm f/2.8 @ 4.386mm, ISO 100, 1/1600, f/3.5
Take the time to explore the park and do some hiking, as there is plenty of stuff to see. There are a few other lakes in the park, but I did not have a chance to explore them during my visit.
The Tashkent Metro is one of the most beautiful underground subways in the world. Designed in the Soviet era and launched in 1977, it offers different themes at each station (and there are 29 of them). Take your time to explore the subway – I recommend getting off at each station to see what it has to offer. For many years, the Tashkent subway was closely monitored and no photography was allowed, since it was also built as a bomb shelter in case of a nuclear strike. Today, the subway is open to visit freely by anyone and photography / videography of any kind is allowed (yes, even when shooting with a tripod). Some of the stations were never changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, such as the “Cosmonauts” station:
Portrait of Yuriy Gagarin – the first man in space
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 3.5 sec, f/8.0
The wall art is truly spectacular in this station. You will find a number of portraits of famous cosmonauts, such as Yuriy Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova:
Portrait of Valentina Tereshkova – the first woman in space
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 3.5 sec, f/8.0
The station itself is beautifully decorated with colorful walls, columns and marble floors:
GFX 50S + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 4 sec, f/8.0
Don’t forget to experiment with slow shutter speeds:
GFX 50S + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 800, 1/3, f/8.0
The subway sometimes gets busy, but it never gets really crowded. If you practice some patience, you will be able to photograph stations with very few people.
The Alisher Navoi subway station takes its name from a great poet and writer from the 15th century, and offers beautiful wall art based on his works:
GFX 50S + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 2.1 sec, f/8.0
While the Pahtakor station offers beautiful mosaic art with blue, green, yellow and white colors:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 0.8 sec, f/5.6
The Independence Square station has stunning columns, glass chandeliers and ceiling art:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 1 sec, f/11.0
Like I said, take your time and explore each station. My recommendation is to run each line from end to end. Along the way, you will also be able to photograph the locals, who are very friendly and don’t mind having their picture taken!
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 44mm, ISO 100, 5 sec, f/8.0
Although the Ferghana Valley is most populated region in the country, it is also one of the most under-explored ones. The thing is, most tourists skip this region entirely, thinking that there is nothing to do there. While the Ferghana Valley might not offer as much diversity and historical sites as some other regions, it is still a culturally and religiously rich region. It is home to some of the kindest, warmest and most hospitable people I have ever met.
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/600, f/2.0
The Ferghana Valley is comprised of three regions: Ferghana, Andijan and Namangan. The valley is about a five hour drive from the capital. If you don’t feel like driving through the mountains to get there (although the drive is quite beautiful), the flight from Tashkent is quite easy and short. You can start in Ferghana, then explore Andijan, then make Namangan the final stop before heading back to Tashkent. That’s what we ended up doing, and it worked out quite well.
Copyright Patrick Kelley
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 39mm, ISO 2000, 1/3200, f/5.0
The Ferghana Valley is all about silk, trade, food and craftsmen. It also hosts the city of Kokand, which served as the capital of the Khanate of Kokand in 18th and 19th centuries.
Honaqoh Mosque in Margilan
The city of Ferghana by itself does not offer much to photograph, but some of the smaller towns are worth checking out. We stopped at the Honaqoh mosque in Margilan to photograph its beautiful architecture, hand-carved woodwork and blue tiles:
GFX 50R + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 150.5mm, ISO 800, 1/13, f/5.6
The gold doors were exquisite:
GFX 50R + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 153.2mm, ISO 200, 1/40, f/11.0
And the people were very welcoming. Many stopped to chat, introduce themselves and invite to their homes. When exploring the Ferghana region, make sure to taste the local somsa. They make it fresh in a clay oven every day:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/40, f/2.0
Yodgorlik Silk Factory in Margilan
If you want to see how silk products are made, make sure to visit the Yodgorlik Silk Factory in Margilan. They offer guided tours in multiple languages, and allow any kind of photography and videography. You will be able to see the whole process of silk production – from the moment the cocoons are extracted from mulberry trees and made into threads:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/200, f/2.8
To coloring of threads using natural plants and extracts:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/680, f/2.0
To making of the finished products using old-style wooden looms:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 1000, 1/550, f/2.0
While there, make sure to check out how silk carpets are hand-made. You will appreciate how much manual labor goes into making a single threaded silk carpet!
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 1250, 1/950, f/2.0
The factory is also a great place to take portraits of locals dressed in traditional silk clothes:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/750, f/2.0
Ceramic Masters of Rishtan
Ferghana is also home to some of the best ceramic masters in the world. We had a chance to visit several of them, but the one master that stood out with his work was Alisher Nazirov. I had the honor to photograph his apprentice, who showed what real work of “inspiration” looks like. Basically, it is a form of freestyling, where the artist comes up with design on the fly and draws it on the plate. There is no pre-drawing involved, so the whole process has to be extremely precise:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 200, 1/125, f/2.0
After the plate is fully decorated with patterns and colors, it goes into an oven, so that everything gets permanently baked into it. The process uses local clay and all natural dyes – this technology has been used to make ceramics for many generations.
Once the master arrived, it was a pleasure seeing him work on a wooden pottery wheel:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/550, f/2.0
Make sure to check out the ceramic masters of Rishtan – they are truly some of the best out there!
Doll Makers and Dressmakers of Andijan
When visiting Andijan, make sure to check out the Jami Madrasah area, right in front of the Andijan Regional Museum. Here, you will find all kinds of skilled craftsmen, including doll makers, hat makers, jewelers and dressmakers who design Andijan-style traditional clothing.
The miniature dolls are all hand-made, and would work really well as presents. They are quite inexpensive and you can choose from different styles, sizes and designs:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 3200, 1/280, f/2.0
As you walk through different rooms of the former madrasah, you will come across dressmakers who work on making traditional clothing for women:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 3200, 1/80, f/2.0
I asked these ladies to pose for me with some of the things they have made, and they were happy to demonstrate their work:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/320, f/2.0
As you can see, a lot of time and effort goes into making these dresses and hats. While you will not find many Uzbek women wearing such clothing on the streets, such beautifully crafted clothing can be seen on women in weddings and other special events.
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/500, f/2.0
While there, make sure to capture images of the madrasah itself, as it is quite beautiful, especially in the early morning or late evening light:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/150, f/8.0
I have photographed people all over the world. I don’t like getting into trouble with the locals, so I always make sure to ask before photographing them. I have been able to photograph many, but I have also had my share of denials (some of which were more like a blatant threat than denial). I did not know what to expect in Uzbekistan, but I knew that I definitely wanted to photograph the locals.
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/300, f/2.0
I have to say, photographing people in Uzbekistan was a very pleasant experience, especially in Ferghana Valley. Everyone was extremely friendly and did not mind my camera. Not a single person I asked to photograph denied my request, which was pretty incredible. In fact, in some cases, I was specifically asked to photograph – just having a large camera in my hands was enough to impress some of the locals, who were very curious.
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/850, f/2.0
Bringing a Fuji Instax printer and some film also turned out to be a huge hit. Since I was shooting with two Fujifilm camera bodies, printing photos instantly through these cameras without having to transfer anything to a computer worked out beautifully in the field!
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/340, f/2.0
The excitement of waiting for their photos to develop in front of their eyes was truly precious. In fact, I started running out of film in the middle of my trip. Thankfully, there was a Fuji retail store in Tashkent, so I was able to buy a few more cartridges.
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 160, 1/160, f/2.0
While photographing one of the remote villages of Namangan, I came across this man, who rode a very old Soviet-era transport bike:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 400, 1/1250, f/2.0
I loved his eyes, so I asked if I could photograph him up-close and he agreed:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 400, 1/800, f/2.8
This one turned out to be one of my most favorite portraits from Uzbekistan. So much depth in his piercing eyes! The light was beautiful and there is very little post-processing on this image – just basic white balance and slight exposure adjustments.
Blacksmiths of Andijan
While in Andijan, make sure to check out some of the local blacksmiths and their forging shops. These guys make beautiful, hand-made steel knives that are extremely sharp!
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 54.6mm, ISO 400, 1/300, f/8.0
I was fortunate to have a chance to photograph a 13th generation apprentice, who forged a beautiful knife and explained the whole process:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 6400, 1/750, f/2.8
He was happy to show off some of his work, which he learned how to make from his master, his father:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 200, 1/640, f/2.8
And here is the master himself, proudly looking at some of hist most beautiful and original work:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 200, 1/600, f/2.0
These blacksmiths have been making knives for many generations, and the knowledge has been proudly passed from father to son. The master showed us an album of his family heritage, along with a picture of his grandfather, who was also a master blacksmith:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 200, 1/420, f/2.8
On the pass from Tashkent to Ferghana Valley, you will be seeing the mountains of Namangan. These are pretty mountains that might be worth exploring. I did not have a chance to see much of them from Namangan’s side, but we did make it into a remote village from which I was able to launch my drone and see these mountains closer:
FC2204 + 24-48mm f/3.8 @ 8.6mm, ISO 100, 1/1250, f/3.8
Some of these mountains have roads that are accessible on a 4×4 vehicle. I did not get a chance to do that, and it appeared that it would not be particularly safe with all that snow up there. It is also worth noting that some of the mountain regions are on the border with Kyrgyzstan, and you want to be careful when exploring these locations by foot – you do not want to get in trouble with the authorities on either side.
Blacksmiths of Chust
Most of the knowledge of knife making in Uzbekistan comes from the blacksmiths of Chust, which is a city in the Namangan region. These are the original master blacksmiths, who taught everyone else in the region about this ancient craft. Chust has been known for its famous blades, including the famous Damascus blade. In fact, many believe that the knowledge of making the Damascus steel has been lost, but in reality, there are still some blacksmiths out there who have the knowledge to make it.
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 1600, 1/320, f/2.8
I had a chance to photograph one of Chust’s master blacksmiths, Umarov Hasan, who makes the best knives in Uzbekistan:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/640, f/2.5
He had a collection of truly spectacular knives, including some very rare Damascus steel blades that were once forged by his ancestors.
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/240, f/5.6
He was kind enough to gift us some knives. Although they looked like these were only good to be used as presents, these were so sharp, that our driver managed to cut his finger pretty deeply by just running it along the blade. He didn’t even realize he cut his finger until blood started flowing out of it!
Hatters and Bakers of Namangan
Along with master blacksmiths, you will also find many other types of craftsmen in Namangan, including tailors, jewelers and hatters. We had a chance to visit the most famous hatters, who hand-make the traditional Uzbek cap called “Doppa”:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/420, f/2.8
You will see this cap worn by many Uzbeks, especially by the elders:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/640, f/2.5
While in Namangan, make sure to check out the famous bakers, who make some of the best bread in Uzbekistan:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/500, f/5.6
Speaking of bread, did you know that the clay oven that is used in Indian cuisine originated from Uzbekistan? That’s right, it was brought by Babur when he conquered India. The word “Tandoor” is a Turkic word and carries the same meaning in both Indian and Uzbek languages.
By the way, when traveling in Uzbekistan, you might come across many places that sell white cheeseballs that go by the name “qurut”. These are typically made from either cow milk or goat milk (it is basically dry yogurt), and they are extremely salty! Many foreigners dislike the taste and sometimes even find it plain disgusting, but the locals love it and eat it all the time. Here is a lady selling qurut in a local market in Namangan:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/1250, f/2.0
The next chapters will take you through the big highlights: Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Click on the next page to continue.
The city of Samarkand is the crown jewel of Central Asia and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Founded in 8th century BC, it is one of the oldest cities in the world and contains many historical and archeological sites. Although I spent a few days in Samarkand, it was clearly not enough to see and photograph everything. There is so much to see – I only managed to hit the highlights.
The Registan Plaza
The image that is widely associated with Uzbekistan is that of the Registan Plaza, which has three stunningly beautiful Madrasahs facing each other: the Ulughbeg Madrasah, the Tilya-Qori Madrasah and the Sherdor Madrasah:
FC2204 + 24-48mm f/2.8 @ 4.386mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/2.8
The best time to photograph the plaza is at sunrise. Very few tourists and locals show up early, so it will be a good time to take pictures if you want to avoid people in your photos.
Each one of these Madrasahs are worth visiting and spending time in. Their courtyards are beautiful, while the inner workings represent some of the most beautiful Islamic art found in the world. As you walk in the main area, pay close attention to the stunning tiles and mosaics:
GFX 50R + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 200mm, ISO 400, 1/60, f/5.6
Some of these are absolutely worth spending the time to see up close:
GFX 50R + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 189.6mm, ISO 400, 1/60, f/5.6
Prepare to get your socks blown off when you walk inside. The gold-painted art is extravagant and breathtaking:
GFX 50R + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 100mm, ISO 3200, 1/25, f/5.6
Several times a week you will get to experience a night-time laser show in Registan. The building lights get turned off, then the projectors display beautiful videos, highlighting the history of Samarkand and the Silk Road. The show is definitely worth seeing, so make sure to check the show times.
X-H1 + XF10-24mmF4 R OIS @ 18.2mm, ISO 200, 1/170, f/5.6
Due to the popularity of the Registan plaza, it also occasionally hosts local theatrical performances. I was fortunate to experience a beautiful play featuring French actor Francois Shatto, who played the main role of Ulugbek.
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 2500, 1/500, f/2.0
After the play, I got to photograph some of the talented actors and actresses. I really love these two portraits of ladies dressed in royal clothing.
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 2500, 1/500, f/2.0
The lighting was a bit harsh to work with at night, but after shuffling the actors a little bit, I was able to get some nice portraits!
Gur Emir Mausoleum
The final resting place of Timur is in the Gur Emir Mausoleum (stands for “Tomb of the King”), which is my second most favorite location in Samarkand due to all the photographic opportunities it presents. The front entrance to the mausoleum is stunning, and you can photograph it both from a distance and up-close.
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 33.8mm, ISO 400, 1/20, f/8.0
Another beautiful angle is from its right side. Here, you can stand on higher elevation and use the following composition:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 5.3 seconds, f/8.0
I did not have much luck with weather while visiting Samarkand, but after coming to Gur Emir several times, I was fortunate to get a little bit of pink in the sky during the blue hour. Make sure to stick around after sunset, because the building gets beautifully illuminated.
The mausoleum partially collapsed on its right side a long time ago, but the inner burial chambers are fully preserved. And that’s where you will be going next.
As you enter the main burial chamber, you will see spectacular gold-plated inscriptions on the walls and the round dome:
GFX 50S + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 1 second, f/8.0
The center area contains the tombs of Amir Timur, his sons and grandsons, as well as his teacher.
Right behind Gur Emir, you will find the restored Aksaray Mausoleum, which in my opinion has the most beautiful interior. You will see why as soon as you enter the main chambers and look straight up:
GFX 50S + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 6 seconds, f/8.0
One of the best compositions here is what I call “The Dragon Face”:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 46.5mm, ISO 100, 5 seconds, f/8.0
Take your time and focus on all the details. Although it is a much smaller mausoleum compared to others, there are so many opportunities here!
Did you know that Samarkand hosted one of the first observatories in the world that accurately measured the sun from the horizon, the altitude of stars and planets, as well as the exact measurement of time? Ulugbek’s measurements were so precise, that they serve as a reference point even today. The observatory was built in the 9th century, but sadly, it was later completely demolished. When visiting the observatory, you will only be able to see what is remaining of it, which is the trench with the lower section of the meridian arc:
GFX 50S + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 26/10, f/8.0
Next to the trench is a museum that explains everything you need to know about Ulugbek and his impressive observatory. It is absolutely worth checking out, as there is quite a lot of history here, as well as the models that depict what the observatory actually looked like. There is not much photographic opportunity here, but if you get a good guide, they will be able to learn a lot about the observatory, and the significance of Ulugbek’s discoveries.
The Shah-i-Zinda ensemble includes several mausoleums and other ritual buildings, mostly from 9th to 14th centuries. Some newer buildings were added in the 19th century to make a total of more than 20 different structures. It is a significant site for Muslim pilgrims, because it hosts the mausoleum of Kusam ibn Abbas, the cousin of the prophet Muhammad who came to Central Asia to preach Islam.
FC2204 + 24-48mm f/3.3 @ 5.94mm, ISO 100, 1/80, f/3.3
Take your time to explore this necropolis. Most of the buildings are open for visitation, and photography is allowed. As you walk into and between buildings, you will find stunning exterior tile and mosaic work:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 1/25, f/8.0
Inside each mausoleum building, you will find decorated walls and domes, some of which are covered with Islamic inscriptions and traditional mosaic art.
Bibi Khanym Mosque
Another site worth checking out is the Bibi Khanym Mosque, which is yet another architectural marvel of Samarkand. Bibi Khanym was built by Timur to commemorate his wife. Timur brought architects from Iran and India to build this impressive mosque, but the building was rushed and had structural problems that eventually led to major damages and the collapse of its domes. The building was partially restored during the Soviet era, but major reconstruction efforts are being carried out today. Unfortunately, the mosque was closed at the time of my visit and I could not photograph it.
One of the many residents of the ancient city of Samarkand
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/1600, f/2.8
The Mausoleum of Imam Bukhari
The tomb of one of the greatest Islamic scholars, Imam Bukhari, the author of the Sahih al-Bukhari, lies 25 kilometers from the city of Samarkand. It was completely restored in 1998, and is comprised of several buildings, including Imam Bukhari’s tomb, a mosque, a madrasah and a library. Many Muslim pilgrims from all over the world come to visit the mausoleum.
X-H1 + XF10-24mmF4 R OIS @ 24mm, ISO 200, 1/300, f/8.0
The tomb itself is a magnificent work of art, something you can enjoy and photograph from multiple angles.
X100F @ 23mm, ISO 200, 1/950, f/5.6
As you get closer, pay attention to all the interior and exterior tiles, mosaics and the marble – a lot of time and resources were spent into making it.
X-H1 + XF10-24mmF4 R OIS @ 10mm, ISO 200, 1/50, f/8.0
The buildings next to the tomb are equally stunning, with unique hand-carved wooden ceilings that have been painted in different styles and color themes:
X100F @ 23mm, ISO 200, 1/340, f/5.6
You can spend a lot of time and photograph plenty of details here, along with the calligraphy and all the shapes and textures:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/300, f/2.8
A brand new set of buildings has been recently erected in Imam Bukhari’s complex. When I visited the site, it was near the end of construction, so it is probably open for public now.
The city of Bukhara is another historical marvel of Uzbekistan. The whole center of the city is part of UNESCO’s World Heritage. Bukhara is more than 2,000 years old, and was considered to be one of the most important and prominent cities on the Silk Road. The city’s architecture and atmosphere are truly unique. Some people say that it provides a sense of authenticity that cannot be seen in other places, and I agree – it truly feels genuine and untouched by time.
Poi Kalon Mosque
The Poi Kalon Mosque, along with the Miri-Arab Madrasah are the two structures that have a very similar prominence as the Registan in Samarkand. The Poi Kalon Mosque is a spectacle on its own, and its 46 meter minaret is arguably the most beautiful one in the world. The minaret is lit up from the bottom to highlight its textures at night, so you should definitely make sure to see it at night!
Copyright Patrick Kelley
NIKON Z 7 + NIKKOR Z 24-70mm f/4 S @ 25.5mm, ISO 6400, 1/500, f/4.0
The mosque is particularly beautiful during the blue hour. I was lucky to see some color in the sky right after sunset, and with the golden lights illuminating the minaret, I ended up capturing one of my favorite shots from Bukhara:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 1.2 seconds, f/8.0
Dealing with the crowds was a bit tough, since it is a popular landmark. Luckily, I captured a few shots on my tripod without moving it, so I was able to combine multiple images and get rid of all the people from the final shot.
As you enter the mosque, you will be amazed by all the columns and arches that are present here:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 3200, 1/80, f/8.0
The courtyard of the mosque is equally as impressive, with its beautiful blue tiles and mosaics that shine during the golden hour. Bukhara received a lot of rain right before we arrived, and it flooded some of the areas of the city, including the Poi Kalon mosque. I was able to use puddles of water in my foreground to photograph the visitors:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 1/200, f/8.0
And when flying my drone, I was able to capture some unique shots, with the pool reflecting the courtyard:
FC2204 + 24-48mm f/3.1 @ 5.22mm, ISO 100, 1/2500, f/4.1
I was also fortunate to receive a special permit to climb the minaret, which allowed me to capture unique images of the mosque, as well as its surroundings at sunrise:
GFX 50R + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 1/10, f/8.0
While up on the roof, I was also able to fly my drone and capture the mosque from its rear:
FC2204 + 24-48mm f/3.2 @ 5.57mm, ISO 100, 1/30, f/3.2
Although lugging heavy gear up 46 meters was not fun (and I did it several times), it provided for unique opportunities to photograph Bukhara. One of my favorite shots from the minaret was capturing the Miri-Arab Madrasah across the street using a wide-angle lens. Stitching this panorama was quite painful, because I had a lot of distortion to deal with in Photoshop. After using the Adaptive Wide Angle tool in Photoshop, I was able to straighten the horizon, as well as the Madrasah in the foreground:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 1/250, f/8.0
While up there, I was also able to photograph other historical buildings nearby:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 1/7, f/8.0
The whole area surrounding the mosque and the madrasah is stunning, even if you only shoot from the ground level. Here is the view of the same building as the one in the foreground above, with the mosque right behind me:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 36.2mm, ISO 160, 1/200, f/8.0
While there, don’t forget to check out the stunning hand-made wooden doors of the mosque:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 36.9mm, ISO 3200, 1/110, f/5.6
Right across the mosque is the Miri-Arab Madrasah. Built in the 16th century, the Miri-Arab Madrasah is a striking beauty, thanks to its two large blue domes and its uniquely designed front view. Surprisingly, this madrasah is still an acting religious institution, and it is known to be one of the only religious schools that was allowed to function in Soviet Union.
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 1/340, f/5.6
Since it is an active religious school, access to the madrasah is closed for tourists, so you can only photograph it from the front. While the building is a beauty to photograph on its own, I would recommend to use an ultra-wide angle lens in order to step back and frame the madrasah using the front part of the mosque:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 400, 1/50, f/6.4
In addition, you can get closer and photograph the details of the madrasah in vertical orientation, which can work out great if you can use a person for scale:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 1000, 1/40, f/5.6
Lastly, take your time, go slow and observe the surroundings – you might get all kinds of unique opportunities here. I was fortunate to witness a local couple dressed in traditional Bukharian clothes, who were probably doing a photo shoot for their wedding:
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 250, 1/200, f/2.8
Chor Minor stands for “four minarets” when translated from Persian. It was built in 19th century as part of a madrasah, which was sadly destroyed, so this is all that’s left from it.
GFX 50R + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 1/100, f/8.0
It is a strikingly beautiful building that is well-known in Bukhara, so it is definitely worth the visit. Unfortunately, the government granted permission for people to build houses around it, and one of the locals built an ugly red house to the left of it, which is very sad. Still, you can take a vertical shot and exclude the house in your frame, or simply move to the left of it and photograph from a side angle, as seen in the image above.
Chor Minor is located in a very nice and peaceful neighborhood, and the locals always welcome tourists with hot tea and refreshments.
One of the most impressive buildings in Uzbekistan is the Samanid Mausoleum. Built in the 10th century and located right outside the historic center, it is one of the oldest surviving structures in Uzbekistan, and it is considered to be the oldest funerary building in Central Asia.
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 45.7mm, ISO 250, 1/200, f/8.0
Take your time and photograph the building from the outside, as well as the inside (it is open for visitation during the day).
The Chor-Bakr necropolis is another must-visit site outside the city center in Bukhara. It is historically significant for Muslim pilgrims, because it was built over the burial place of Abu-Bakr Sayyid, one of the four of Abu-Bakr’s descendants of prophet Muhammad.
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 100, 1/320, f/8.0
It is a very peaceful place and there are quite a few tombs here, scattered all over the relatively large territory of the necropolis. I recommend to take your time and explore the site – there are plenty of photographic opportunities here.
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 250, 1/200, f/11.0
Some of the tombs have beautiful turquoise tiles that are partially destroyed:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 49mm, ISO 640, 1/200, f/11.0
You can find all kinds of interesting compositions here, with growing trees and plants in the foreground:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 320, 1/200, f/11.0
Finally, you can pay a very small fee to explore the rooftop of the mosque, which has beautifully-decorated domes:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 41.8mm, ISO 125, 1/200, f/8.0
The Old City
Finally, make sure to walk the alleys of the old city and explore it by foot. Bukhara has so much to see and experience, that there is no way I can add it all on a single page here. With so many mosques, madrasahs, markets and other historic buildings, I would recommend to spend a minimum of three days in Bukhara alone.
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 160, 1/200, f/2.0
I personally had a ton of fun walking the streets and taking pictures of random details, as well as of the people.
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 250, 1/200, f/2.0
And as you walk the alleys, always pay attention to the woodwork, which is quite unique in its own way.
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/200, f/4.0
Like I said, there is lot to see and experience in Bukhara…
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 160, 1/200, f/5.6
When compared to Samarkand and Bukhara, Khiva has a tiny territory that is easy to walk through, especially if you stay anywhere within, or close to Itchan Kala – the main attraction of Khiva. Despite the small footprint, Khiva has a lot of photographic potential that is well worth exploring. There are so many different sites to see within Itchan Kala:
- Juma Mosque
- Muhammad Amin Madrasah
- Kalta Minor Minaret
- Pahlavon Mahmud Mausoleum
- Stone Palace
- Islam Hoja Complex
- Outer and Inner City Walls
- Different Gates
- Alla Kuki Khan Madrasah
FC2204 + 24-48mm f/3 @ 5.11mm, ISO 100, 1/80, f/3.0
In addition to these, there are numerous markets, shops, restaurants and hotels that are remarkable in their own ways, and definitely worth seeing.
Without a doubt, some of the best music performers in Uzbekistan are located in the Xorazm region of Uzbekistan (where Khiva is). When visiting Itchan Kala, make sure to see these performers – they are so artistic and full of energy!
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 400, 1/2700, f/2.0
During my visit to Khiva, there was some sort of a music festival taking place, and performers were everywhere!
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 400, 1/1800, f/2.0
The traditional music, beautiful costumes, enchanting voices and various dance performances transformed the whole atmosphere of Khiva to one magical place. It felt like I went back in time a few hundred years. It was simply an unforgettable experience!
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 37.6mm, ISO 400, 1/600, f/5.6
The beautiful yellow light reflecting off centuries-old walls of the castle provided amazing opportunities for portraits of these performers.
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 400, 1/2500, f/2.0
Thanks to a theatrical performance that was taking place nearby, I was also able to capture the portraits of actors and actresses, who looked remarkable in their traditional clothes. Here is a portrait of a royal guard, who I posed against a tiled blue wall:
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 400, 1/340, f/2.0
And here is a portrait of a dancer, dressed in stunning red silk clothes:
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/2400, f/2.0
She was happy to pose for a few pictures I had in mind, including the one below:
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/600, f/5.6
For the next shot, I asked her to look towards the sun in order to illuminate the face, and use her right hand to hold the dress, which made her look more elegant. The wall worked out well as negative space, while the spiky part of the castle walls beneath created an interesting foreground:
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/420, f/5.6
I noticed that the city walls had all these pretty lines and shapes that I could use as part of my composition. For the last set, I placed the dancer in the middle of my frame to create the following image:
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/150, f/5.6
While photographing in this location, I also came across a young lady dressed in pretty clothes (who turned out to be a local guide) and asked her to pose for me:
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/750, f/2.8
These guys were pretty psyched up about their portraits, so I happily printed out a few of their shots for them. My last portrait of the day was of another royal guard, who wore a nicely decorated blue cloak (called “to’n” in Uzbek language):
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 200, 1/150, f/2.8
Buildings and Structures of Itchan Kala
After wrapping up the photo shoot and eating a very filling dinner, I decided to explore Itchan Kala at night. The moon happened to be in its crescent phase that day, so I started looking for a composition within the city walls to incorporate it in my shot. Here is the end result:
GFX 50S + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 200mm, ISO 100, 10 seconds, f/8.0
I used the Fujinon GF 100-200mm f/5.6 lens at 200mm in order to make the moon appear larger. Since the minaret and the walls were very close, I ended up taking two separate images – one focused on the minaret, and one focused on the moon. I then brought both images into Photoshop and stacked them. The blue hour worked out well for this shot, allowing me to bring out the whole moon.
The following morning showed potential clouds in the forecast, so I decided to wake up early and capture some images of the Islam Hoja Complex, and its beautiful minaret:
GFX 50R + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 1.3 seconds, f/11.0
The minaret is open for public and you can climb all the way to the top. Although it is a great experience to climb it, I did not find any good photo opportunities looking down from it.
Speaking of minarets, the Kalta Minor minaret of Khiva is another exquisite work of architecture that you cannot miss:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 400, 1/150, f/8.0
The clouds were quite beautiful that day, so I decided to take a walk and photograph other surrounding buildings and structures:
GFX 50R + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 1/60, f/8.0
And the mid-afternoon light worked out well for photographing various doors, steps and brick walls:
GFX 50R + GF23mmF4 R LM WR @ 23mm, ISO 100, 1/150, f/8.0
Woodworkers and Local Markets
As you walk through Khiva, you will be seeing plenty of local shops, markets and small bazaars. Although most people here are resellers, some shops are very authentic, offering excellent photographic opportunities to see the local artisans at work. As I was walking through one of the alleys, I came across a woodworking shop that made wooden stands for books:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/480, f/2.0
I saw a young apprentice doing some work, so I decided to snap a few shots of him:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/320, f/2.0
Higher up the alley, there was another woodworking shop, which had very impressive items on display. The master himself was doing some work here. I asked if I could take some shots of him working, and he happily agreed:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/210, f/2.8
I was fascinated by all the tools he was using for woodworking, so I photographed them too:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 320, 1/160, f/6.4
Lastly, I asked the man to show me the tools in the hands of the master:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 320, 1/160, f/5.6
As you walk through all the shops and product stands, pay attention to the details – I was able to find quite a few opportunities to capture beautiful products, lines and textures:
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/350, f/2.8
Did you know that Uzbekistan is comprised of 12 different regions and one autonomous republic called “Karakalpakistan”? That’s right, it is a country within a country! Prior to this trip, I knew very little about this remote republic, other than the fact that it suffered a lot from the drying of the Aral Sea.
The story of the Aral Sea is a true tragedy, and one of the worst environmental disasters the world has ever seen. Due to the diversion of the two rivers by the Soviets (Amudarya and Sirdarya, which used to flow into the Aral Sea) for irrigation purposes since 1960s, the Aral Sea dried up pretty quickly – by 1997, it was only 10% of its original size. Uzbekistan became a land of agriculture, focusing primarily on cotton exports, at the expense of its water resources.
Karakalpak kids playing in Muynak’s ship graveyard
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/1250, f/2.2
The worst part of the drying up of the Aral Sea, is that it had an enormous impact on the Karakalpak people, as well as the residents of nearby regions and countries. Child mortality rate became among the highest in the world, and the region has been suffering from occasional dust storms that pick up dangerous salt, minerals and other deposits into the air, poisoning people and animals.
Despite their daily struggles and severe shortages of water, the people of Karakalpakistan have continued to inhabit these lands. They love the desert and their homeland, and see no future for themselves elsewhere. I only had a couple of days to spend in Karakalpakistan, but to be honest, I wish I stayed there for longer, because it was one of the most remarkable places I have ever been to.
Music Performers in Muynak, Karakalpakistan
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/900, f/2.0
Nukus Museum of Art
The Nukus Museum of Art, also known as the “Savitsky Museum”, should be on the top of your list of places to visit in Karakalpakistan. And for a good reason – there is so much to see here!
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 32mm, ISO 160, 1/420, f/8.0
Due to my shortage of time and a very long upcoming trip to the Aral Sea, I only had a chance to spend about an hour in the Savitsky museum, which was clearly not enough. This museum contains many rare pieces of art from different regions of Karakalpakistan and Khorezm, as well as fine art from other regions of Uzbekistan. In addition, it is known to host the second largest collection of Russian avant-garde in the world after the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.
Although photography is allowed in the museum, most items are lit poorly, making it a challenge to shoot. After taking a few images of some interesting items, I decided to put my camera away and just enjoy the museum and what it had to offer – and I have no regrets!
Ship Graveyard in Muynak
The ship graveyard located in the small town of Muynak used to be one of the top highlights of Karakalpakistan. It was an eerie place that offered great photographic opportunities, showing the consequences of the Aral Sea disaster. Unfortunately, the local government decided to move the ships into a smaller area and build a concrete platform around the ships to make it easier for tourists to walk on, which completely destroyed its essence! I heard a lot about the ship graveyard prior to my trip to Muynak, but after coming here to seeing what it got turned into, I got very disappointed. I let the authorities know that it was a very bad decision on their part to build this concrete platform – I hope they listen and get rid of it, returning the ship graveyard to its prior state.
The only photographable area of the ship graveyard is currently to its right – there is a single ship that stands on its own:
GFX 50S + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 40.3mm, ISO 100, 1/180, f/8.0
Sadly, the locals have been vandalizing these ships for a long time now, writing their names, breaking off pieces and climbing them. At this pace, there won’t be much left of this ship graveyard in the next few years…
GFX 50R + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 100, 1/1700, f/2.0
The Aral Sea
Visiting the Aral Sea, or what’s left of it, was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. It is hard to grasp the magnitude of the tragedy until you physically travel to the most remote parts of Karakalpakistan and see the Aral Sea yourself. Getting there is not easy – you have to hire a local driver who knows how to navigate his way through the non-existent roads. Many have attempted to drive to the Aral Sea themselves, and in many cases the outcomes were tragic – people have been lost, died of starvation, dehydration and other causes. This area is so vast and empty…the phrase “in the middle of nowhere” truly applies to this part of the world. Forget about cell coverage. Forget about roads, or any kind of infrastructure. You could drive for hundreds of miles without seeing a single soul.
To be honest, driving in these lands was genuinely scary. I was trying not to think about our car breaking down, or us running out of gas, getting stuck in a storm, or any other random things that could have happened. Thankfully, we had a professional driver with a very reliable SUV and a solid track record, and he really knew how to navigate the desert. After all the crazy driving (the bumpiest ride I have ever experienced!), we finally arrived to the northwestern part of Karakalpakistan, right next to the Aral Sea.
GFX 50S + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 135.3mm, ISO 100, 1/480, f/8.0
As expected from the desert in the early spring, it was very cold at night. We slept in a comfortable yurt that had heating and all the required amenities, which was nice. The following morning, our driver took us to the region further to the north, that supposedly had all these natural canyons and ravines. It was exciting to hear about this, as I imagined the photographic opportunities that awaited us. After we arrived to the location, it was still dark, but bright enough for me to start scouting the location. I hiked for about 15 minutes and found the following composition:
GFX 50S + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 100mm, ISO 100, 1.3 seconds, f/16.0
The rock formations were unique and beautiful. But what really surprised me was all the amazing colors that were present on the ground: yellow, green, brown, red, magenta…it was something out of this world! I settled on this composition, because it showed the vast area and its rock formations, as well as part of the Aral Sea that can be still seen in the distance – a true representation of the tragedy.
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 33.8mm, ISO 100, 1/30, f/8.0
As the sun came up, I picked up the second camera body and started hiking more, trying to find other compositions:
GFX 50S + GF100-200mmF5.6 R LM OIS WR @ 126mm, ISO 800, 1/1250, f/5.6
My most favorite composition that morning was the following:
GFX 50R + GF32-64mmF4 R LM WR @ 59.6mm, ISO 200, 1/80, f/8.0
I really like how the foreground formations got illuminated by the morning light, creating a nice diagonal composition…
Photographing Karakalpak People
The Karakalpak people were very welcoming and kind in every region of Karakalpakistan. Every time I wanted to take their pictures, they did not mind at all, happily posing for me. They were especially excited to hear about the project I was working on, hoping that their voices will be heard, and their tragedy will be seen.
When we returned back to Nukus, I requested our tourism representative to provide some help in organizing a photo shoot with the locals, dressed in traditional clothes. Thankfully, there were able to quickly organize a photo shoot with some performers, who happened to return from a small music festival in Muynak. The hotel where we were staying at had a very nice courtyard with a yurt, which I used as my background for the portraits:
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/160, f/2.0
I wanted to photograph the musicians individually up close and personal as well, so I had them pose for me in their beautiful outfits:
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 800, 1/350, f/2.0
This last portrait is of an award-winning performer from Nukus, who sang a traditional Karakalpak song for us, which was simply incredible.
GFX 50S + GF110mmF2 R LM WR @ 110mm, ISO 1600, 1/170, f/2.0
I hope you’ve enjoyed this photo essay from Uzbekistan! If you have any questions or feedback, please let me know in the comments page of this article.
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