Capturing Central Asia’s rugged, stark beauty

By Alex Sherr

Originally published by CNN, 4th March 2018

We were sweaty, hungry and covered in dust as we left the Bartang Valley on another bluebird day in the Pamir Mountains.

After a spectacular, but exhausting, two-day hike under the blazing August sun, it was a relief to finally settle in under the shade of the van for the ride back to Khorugh, capital of Tajikistan’s Gorno-Badakhshan region.

Unfortunately, the van’s air conditioning didn’t work, and the hot breeze coming through the window was doing little to cool us off.

A bumpy 90-minute drive later, we were nearing our destination, and began to recognize the small Afghan villages that lay across the Panj River.

The Panj forms a natural border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan in this part of the country, and is usually quite muddy and fast-running due to the amount of glacial melt it gets.

But at one particular point along the drive, we noticed a small island in the middle of the river, which was forcing the rushing current to one side, leaving a calm, crystal-clear turquoise lagoon on the other.

A two-hour drive from Khorugh, the Bartang Valley offers some incredible hiking.

Seeing a group of young kids swimming, my friend and I nodded at each other, already having decided on the perfect post-lunch activity.

We stood utterly awestruck on the river bank, a mere stone’s throw from Afghanistan, admiring the massive 5,000-meter mountains on either side of the valley. A farmer stood among his cows on the mid-river island, watching over them as they lazily grazed on virgin grass; smoke rose from the chimneys of traditional Afghan mud houses in the background.

The tranquility of the scene was suddenly broken by a piercing howl and large splash, as a Tajik boy sprung headfirst into the water beside me.

Snapping back to reality, I realized it was my turn to jump.

I lined myself up on the smooth stone diving rock the locals had carefully set up, and — “CANNONBALL!” I shouted, as I ran forward.

The water was as cool and refreshing as it looked, and I broke the surface to the sound of laughter and applause.

Four or five other young boys followed me in in quick succession, while a few others pushed off from the shore in rubber inner-tubes.

My friend artfully demonstrated “The Can-Opener” jump while I soaked up the surroundings, both literally and figuratively.

Tajikistan had exceeded my wildest expectations once again.

This was one of many special moments from my two recent trips to Central Asia, where I photographed scenes of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan’s stunning natural beauty, rich culture and ancient histories.

A destination for all seasons

Every season has something different to offer in Kyrgyzstan.

The high peaks of the east provide fantastic skiing in winter, while incredible colors await those who head to Ala Archa National Park, outside of Bishkek, in the fall.

Fields of beautiful wild flowers dot the countryside in spring, and summer offers incredible hiking in lush mountain valleys.

The Dushanbe-Khorugh flight is a must — if you can manage to book a ticket.

Not to be missed is Lake Issyk-Kul, the second largest saline lake in the world, after the Caspian Sea. It’s surrounded by white sand beaches, the snowcapped peaks of the Tian Shan range looming in the distance.

Trekking in Tajikistan is also sublime, with the summer months offering perfect hiking and camping conditions.

Unrivaled hospitality

It’s not only the mountains, glacial lakes and lush valleys that make these destinations worth visiting, but also the daily interactions with locals.

Central Asian hospitality is nothing short of remarkable.

Regardless of whether or not I was staying with a friend, in a guesthouse, or in a local family’s home, I was always treated like a brother, son or uncle.

Though Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are both small, landlocked, Muslim-majority countries that share a border, the differences between these former Soviet republics are stark.

A traditional home in Buston, Tajikistan.

Tajik people closely identify with Persians in Iran in terms of culture and language, and historically remained settled in one place.

Kyrgyz people on the other hand were (and some still are) nomadic, sharing some cultural and linguistic traits with other ethnic Turkic groups such as the Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbek peoples.

Kyrgyzstan is lush and green during the summer, with rolling hills and some tall peaks in the more mountainous regions of the country.

Comparatively, Tajikistan is 93% mountainous, with over 50% of its territory sitting at altitudes over 3,000 meters above sea level.

The landscape is drier and the mountains are much rockier than in Kyrgyzstan, but glacial melt has created incredible rivers and valleys.

More on these beautiful countries in the gallery below.


Getting there

Capitals Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) and Dushanbe (Tajikistan) are serviced by flights from Moscow, Istanbul, Dubai, Almaty and Urumqi. A few budget airlines also fly to these capitals, such as Pegasus Airlines (Istanbul), FlyDubai (Dubai), and S7 (Moscow).

Within Kyrgyzstan, there are a handful of low-cost air-operators all fighting for your business, making domestic flights within the country relatively inexpensive ($25 from Bishkek to Osh, in the south of the country, usually a 12+ hour drive).

There are a handful of airports, but Bishkek to Osh is the only route with daily service. Tickets are easily purchased in cash at the airport, or at a local “aviakassa” (air-ticket cash desk) in the cities.

In Tajikistan, flying is a bit more expensive as there are only two major carriers that operate most of the flights, Somoni Air and Tajik Air. They fly two main routes domestically: Dushanbe-Khujand and Dushanbe-Khorugh.

The Dushanbe-Khorugh route is a must-fly (if you’re not afraid of small planes), as it’s one of the most beautiful air routes in the world.

Caravanistan — an invaluable resource for traveling anywhere in Central Asia — has a full rundown on how to purchase tickets.

There’s also a rail link connecting Bishkek and Moscow, and Dushanbe with Moscow, but the train service is not as frequent as flights in and out of the countries, and quite slow.

Shared taxis are preferable to buses.

Shared taxis are usually preferable to buses (called “marshrutkas” in Russian), as the cars go faster and make fewer stops.

They’re a bit more expensive than the buses, but not unreasonable. Taxis may cost $10 for a few hours’ ride whereas buses may cost as little as a dollar or two.

Shared taxis are used throughout Central Asia for almost every leg of point-to-point travel. Drivers usually gather by city bus stations.


Ala Archa National Park: Ala Archa National Park, in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan, has one marked trail. Upon completing the full five- or six-hour hike through all its sections, travelers arrive at Ratzek Hut and are rewarded with stunning views of the surrounding peaks, most of which are over 4,000 meters high.


Keep going: From Ratzek Hut, you can climb another 90 minutes to reach this glacial lake.


Base camp: Lying at 3,200 meters, Ratzek Hut is a popular base camp among hikers. “During our hike, we saw a guy who had just come down from doing a few ski runs on the glacier,” says photographer Sherr.


Eagle hunters: Many eagle hunters still live in Bokonbayevo — a three-hour drive from the Kyrgyzstani capital, Bishkek. Hunters have a deep sense of respect, trust and affection for their birds.


Star eagle hunter: After 15 years, eagle hunters in Bokonbayevo release their birds back into the wild. Ishanbek, pictured, is one of Kyrgyzstan’s best-known eagle hunters.


Karakol, Kyrgyzstan: Kyrgyzstan’s high peaks offer fantastic skiing in winter. At 3,040 meters, Karakol Ski Base is the highest ski resort in Central Asia.


Lenin Peak: Lenin Peak (7,134 meters) looms large in the background on the road heading to the National Horse and Yak Games Festival outside of Sary-Mogol, in southern Kyrgyzstan.


The National Horse and Yak Games Festival: The annual National Horse and Yak Games Festival showcases Kyrgyzstan’s traditional nomadic lifestyle. Two foreign participants have a try at yak-wrestling. The objective is to wrestle opponents off their yak without falling off.


Local spectators: A local family takes a walk in the hills before the games begin. Many tourists visit the National Horse and Yak Games Festival, joining the hundreds of local spectators and vendors.


Vehicle of choice: A family relaxes under the shade of their UAZ Bukhanka — a Soviet-produced 4×4 van. Ideal for navigating the rough terrain, it’s the vehicle of choice in the region.


Rainbow-colored landscape: Guests weathered a quick but fierce hailstorm in yurts on festival grounds, getting to know each other over a few beers. After the hailstorm subsided, revelers emerged from the tents to this scene. The mountains were an absolutely electric array of colors, almost as bright and crisp as the colors of the simultaneous double rainbows, says Sherr.


Duped: A fierce look from a golden eagle that had just landed on its prey — in this case, a “training fox.” A long rope is attached to the skin of a fox and dragged along the ground by the trainer, giving the appearance of moving prey.


Glacial lakes: From Bartang, it’s an easy and safe trail up to the village of Jisev, an area only accessible by narrow footpath through the mountains. The trail passes several glacial lakes.


Jisev, Tajikistan: Village life is humble. Locals don’t often eat much meat, as they don’t have refrigeration. The buildings are largely constructed of traditional materials, such as mud and wood, and all outside goods are brought up to the village by donkeys. Yet the inside of the buildings are exceedingly comfortable and furnished with many rugs, pillows, decorative wall coverings and/or colorful paint.


Local life: This boy and his father were going down to the riverbed at the bottom of the valley to collect bags of sand, which would later be used to build a new house.


Stunning views: A trip across Central Asia includes long but spectacularly beautiful road trips. The views make up for the less enjoyable aspects of the journey — including bumpy roads and dust. The M41 highway follows the Panj River (the natural border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan) for hundreds of kilometers.