MindStorm Photography Blog and Gallery

Travel and Photographs by Burt Johnson and Evelyn Johnson

Georgia 4 – Akhaltsikhe

Akhaltsikhe, Georgia - tower town

We finished our tour of Georgia with a long travel day on the bus going from the far north (Mestia) to the far south of the country to reach Rabati castle, staying in the town of Akhaltsikhe (and no, I still cannot pronounce it even after staying there for a day...).  Lower-left is the view from our hotel room the previous evening in Mestia, a Unesco world-heritage site, when the towers are lit.  The other images are landscapes enroute to the castle with views of the Caucusus mountains.

Akhaltsikhe, Georgia - castle

Our main photographic target today was the castle of Rabati, originally built during the 13th century.  We arrived in the late afternoon, and then stayed to photograph into the "blue hour"  (the hour after sunset when the sky turns a deeper blue if weather cooperates), when the lights from the castle are lit up.

Akhaltsikhe, Georgia - town

We also stopped by a small village to capture a view of the castle and to stretch our legs during this very long travel day.  Our cameras caught some scenes of local daily life. Center image shows Mehmet (our tour leader) photographing and talking to a local farmer.  The lower group shows a couple of kids that were playing together, at first unknown that we were taking their photos, then with them hamming it up for the cameras and for our local guide.

Akhaltsikhe, Georgia - Rabati castle, overall sunset

Here is another view of Rabati castle, showing the overall complex just after sundown.

Georgia 3 – Mestia

Mestia, Georgia 2 - tower of love models

Our tour included a visit to Ushguli, a tower village, and a stop at Lover's Tower in the Mestia area in 4-wheel drive cars. Mehmet hired two models to dress in traditional clothing (above block) to pose, and to thus add color to our shots. I thought it was interesting to see our local guide to use her iPhone in selfie mode as a mirror for the model to check her hair (lower left), and for Mehmet (our tour guide) to prop himself in the crook of a tree for his own photos of the event (upper right).

Mestia, Georgia 3 - church

Georgia is very religious (Georgian Orthodox Christian being overwhelming majority) country, so it is not surprising that we keep finding beautiful churches to photograph.

Mestia, Georgia 4 - market

Of course, every town has its own market for the locals to purchase food and dry goods.  We often stop in these to get a look at a slice of life for the townspeople, and to capture images of them going about their daily lives.

There is a local home-made alcoholic beverage called cha-cha which is quite popular, and presented in reused water or CocaCola bottles.  We decided to buy a small bottom from the woman top-left, as she offered a sample. This stuff is 90 percent alcohol, and tasted like it was vintage last week...  After one night to imbibing part of the bottle and waking up to a headache, we left the remainder in the hotel room when we checked out...

Mestia, Georgia 5 - small town color

Most of these small villages and towns have many buildings that have fallen into disrepair with significant deferred maintenance.  Some may call them an eyesore while others call them charming. However, they make for fascinating photographic subjects.

Mestia, Georgia 6 - around town

Let's finish with some random images we took around Mestia in the Caucusas mountains.  Captive bee hives (upper right) dot the landscape, and are the source for honey in the markets, plus pollination for the numerous fruit trees in the area. Upper left was Ushguli, a village populated with dozens towers built 800 years ago to defend against frequent invaders. Upper middle was a view outside our hotel window. Bottom two were images of the local market, while lower-right shows our local guide again, with her love for daisies.

Georgia 2 – Kutasi

Kutasi, Georgia - guide kwanza

We spent our second night in Georgia in Kutasi.  Enroute, we made several stops for photography.  Our local Georgian guide, Gvantsa, liked daisies and picked them whenever we stopped.  Seen above, she has found another field of wild daisies, and is picking a bouquet for her seat on the bus. Throughout Georgia, we often pressed her into modeling service, as she turned out to be very photogenic.

Kutasi, Georgia - cathedral at night

That night we visited the 11th century Bagrati Cathedral, and stayed until the church was lit and the "blue hour" appeared in the sky. It was interesting to see a Georgian Orthodox monk bring out a tripod and photograph the scene right along side us (lower right). In addition to the tripod, we also observed him driving a new BMW, smoking cigarettes on a nearby hill, and chatting on his smart phone. We concluded that Georgian monks must be paid quite well.

Kutasi, Georgia - church

Earlier in the day, we had stopped at Uplistsikhe, also known as "God's Castle." This monastic cave settlement is carved out of the rock, and reminded us much of the cave homes in Cappadocia, Turkey.

Kutasi, Georgia - urban decay

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and Georgia declared independence, along with all the other satellite countries.  During their retreat, the Soviet army took whatever they could, and destroyed much of what they could not carry.  Along the road to Kutasi were scores of dilapidated factories and mines, remnants of that period.

We stopped by one sand cleaning factory (above block), which had been made inoperable in that retreat.  It made for an interesting documentation in urban decay, which is significant historically.  There was also an abandoned railway car near the factory that provided some of the most colorful images (center and lower-right).

Kutasi, Georgia - overview

There was also a stop at the confluence of the Aragvi and Kura rivers, with the old city of Miskheta in the background (upper-second). Then a view of Katskhi Pillar, a single 120 foot tall towering pillar of rock with a small cell for a single monk at the top (center). Other images above were from other smaller churches we visited, with the lower-right being a photograph of Karin from our group, whose sunglasses show Evelyn and Marla reflected in them.

Georgia 1 – Tbilisi

Tbliski, Georgia - cathedral

We have complete the Silk Road tour (aka "-Stan countries"), and have now entered Georgia with Mehmet Özbalci. One of our stops on this first day was at the Metekhi Georgian Orthodox church. A wedding was being photographed while we were there, and the groom's men were willing to pose for us in front of the church (center image).

Tbliski, Georgia - freedom bridge

We got up around 4 AM, well before dawn the second day, to photograph the Freedom Bridge (center plus upper-left) before the sun rose, and before the bridge became crowded with people.  We also wandered around town and caught some other random images, including the aerial view from the castle. The Mercure Hotel is our absolute favorite to date, with views of the castle and high speed internet – it was the lap of luxury, and we were tempted to just stay there and have Mehmet pick us up on the way out!

Tbliski, Georgia - wine tasting

On a day when the two of us were alone, we wandered down the street near the hotel, and were introduced to a wine tasting store (by Karin) advertising free visits to a 17th century wine cellar (middle).  The owner pointed out a tiny tunnel where Stalin used to hide when he was being hunted by the military, before his rise to power.  One can only wonder how history might have changed if the military had found him...

Tbliski, Georgia - town

Tbilisi is a colorful town, full of rundown apartments, but also with both reconstruction and new construction.  There is a type of string candy sold in numerous shops (center bottom) that consists of various nuts or fruits on a string, then dipped into boiling honey & starch.

Tbliski, Georgia - churches

We walked into several Georgian Orthodox churches.  Some were not much more than simple dark caves, while others were elaborate cathedrals, like the one shown above.

Tbliski, Georgia - market

We also visited Dezerter Bazaar, another market in town, so we will end Tbilisi with another block of the faces of the people that welcomed us to their city.

Kazakhstan 3 – Kaiyndy Lake

One of our destinations today was Kaiyndy lakes national park, a lake created as the result of an earthquake induced landslide blocking the river, in the Kolsai Lake National Park. The trees in the region were flooded and died.  However, the water is so cold that the trees did not deteriorate, and instead remain standing, making an almost abstract scene.

The scene is breath-taking, however many tourists have taken the identical shot. Adding a little in-camera vertical movement while the shutter was open gave something closer to what my mind's eye was seeing.

Kazakhstan - observatory

At the highest point in the steppes, we came across the Assy-Turgen observatory, named after the Assy plateau and the Turgen gorge leading up to this peak. The observatory is in current operation, and we were prevented from passing the razor wire boundary.  Though the observatories themselves are standard construction and look well maintained, the administration was clearly Soviet construction and bore signs of urban decay (lower right).  If we had been allowed inside, we could have gotten more details and see an operating telescope...

Kazakhstan - high alpine yurt lunch

In past years, the area around the observatory would be filled with yurts from animal herders (sheep, cattle and horses) arriving for their summer pasture.  This was a very long Winter though, and it is still too cold for the animals at night.  As such, there was only a lone yurt, with Clara, a woman entrepreneur, who had agreed to feed our band of hungry photographers (lower center) and our drivers, Arthur, Constantin, and Dimitri.

Kazakhstan - yurt raising

We then went to Saty village, to watch a yurt being raised.  At first I thought it was a tacky version updated to make it easier to assemble.  We later found though, that modern yurts, as used by animal herders in this region, do indeed include a wooden door with hinges, with the sides made from garden accordion fencing.  The modern Kazakh have updated the production of their mobile homes to make use of modern alternatives.

After the yurt was raised, the family engaged in a traditional picnic, thanking their gods and asking for a bountiful season.

Kazakhstan - Kolsoi lake trees realistic

For those wishing to know what the Kolsai Lake trees really looked like, here is an addendum to satisfy curiosity...

Kazakhstan 2 – Singing Dunes

While driving to our Kazakhstan destination the next day, we saw a herd of horses standing in a pond not far from the road.  As is common with this tour, that meant stopping the bus, and getting out for half an hour of photography.  The horses did indeed present wonderful images to capture (bottom). However, we were intrigued by the cowboys controlling this herd riding their dirt motorcycles (in lieu of horseback) to round them up (top).

Another roadside cemetery gave us a chance to stretch our legs and further explore.

Kazakhstan - singing dunes

Our main target for today was the Altyn-Emel National Park known for their famed Singing Dunes. The sand dunes get their name from the way their particles rub against each other and make a sound, when the wind is blowing hard, or a person's footfall creates a mini-landslide.

Jamil, our local guide in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, loved to have fun, and started jumping for joy (and our cameras) on the dunes (left-center and bottom). Many small lizards were creating intricate trails in the sand (right-center and bottom), so Evelyn decided to capture them too (upper-right).

Kazakhstan - charyn canyon

Another major destination along our tour was Charyn Canyon. This is a colorful, multi-layered deep ravine canyon in Kazakhstan, looking like a smaller scale Grand Canyon in Arizona. The road to reach this canyon is steep and poorly maintained, to the point that only four-wheel drives are allowed (and for very good reason!).

Kazakhstan - charyn canyon animals

Throughout the canyon are natural rock formations that give the impressions of various animals in a petrified zoo.  The frog and toad in upper-right is pretty obvious.  The owl in upper left also stands out pretty quickly.  Which others can you spot in the block above?

We had a chance to stretch our imagination with seeing "animals in the sky," like the flying dragon (middle-left)...

Kazakhstan 1 – Almaty

Almaty, Kazakhstan - quaint church with tree frame

We have now left Kyrgyzstan and entered into Kazakhstan.  Within the group, we refer to the three countries we have visited as "the Stans," because the separate names are so long and tongue twisting to say.

We stopped at a photogenic church by a small lake for a reflection shot. The weather cooperated, with almost no wind, resulting in a mirror-smooth lake surface, and just enough clouds to give the sky some interesting texture.

Almaty, Kazakhstan - cemetery stars

On our first night in Kazakhstan, a small group drove to a local graveyard late at night to photograph the stars.  I was testing the new "Pure Night star filter" that is designed to eliminate any city lights on the horizon, as well as deepen the color of the sky and increase star contrast.  The images above have only very basic contrast and leveling edits, and look much better than the same images without the filters, so I am impressed on my first test.

Almaty, Kazakhstan - village

The next day we drove to a "village" for lunch where the locals dress in traditional costume, and entertain guests in the traditional ways of Kazakhstan.  We saw them making wool thread (center-left and center-second), watched them have a meal together (lower-left) in a staged setting that nevertheless looked authentic to our cameras. After lunch, we watched the matron of the family make a fried bread similar to a donut that is popular in the region (lower-right).

Almaty, Kazakhstan - villiage horses

After lunch, the family entertained us with their horseback prowess. They started with "Atpen audyryspak", which is basically arm wrestling on horseback, with the object being to pull the other person from his horse (upper-right and center-right). The winner then rears his horse in celebration (center). There were then numerous passes by us with various horseback circus stunts (lower-right plus video at end of this post).

Almaty, Kazakhstan - market

A visit to the Green Bazaar gave us more opportunities to capture vendors and their wares.

Almaty, Kazakhstan - quaint church

Ending with another image from the church reflected in the lake.  This is more of a traditional image, without the tree acting as a frame.

Kazakhstan Dance from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.

While lunch was being prepared, one of the village women began to dance. Before long, both Eric Lindberg and Marla Breitman joined in, making a moment that was just screaming to be captured on video!

Kazakhstan Horsemanship from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.

And we finish with a short video showing the horseback arm wrestling, plus some of the horseback stunts that followed.

Kyrgyzstan 3 – Eagle Hunters and Headless Goats

Kyrgyzstan - eagle hunters

Our last evening in Kyrgyzstan was spent watching two local traditions that are unique to this part of the world.  First up was a form of falconry with three nomad eagle hunters.

Though often associated with Mongolia, this form of hunting with the golden eagle on horseback actually originated here. In addition to posing for the camera, as seen above, they let the eagles loose to hunt (not shown).  First the eagle attacked a dead fox dragged behind a horse.

They then let the eagles loose to capture a live rabbit released in front of us. The rabbit had its lucky foot though, and lived to see another day -- as a pair of hawks attacked the eagles and chased them away from the hunting field...!

To the Kyrgyz, horsemanship is a much-prized skill. Therefore, it is not surprising that among the most popular sports are games on horseback – one is wrestling on horseback for a goat’s carcass.  Two teams with equal number of horsemen each attempt to carry a headless goat (yes, you read that right...) to the goal. The regular playing field is 300 meters long by 150 meters wide. In the center of the playing field is a carcass of a goat, weighing on an average of 30-40 kilograms. Each game is 15 minutes long, and the objective of the game is to seize the goat’s carcass and deliver it into the goal post of the opposing team. The players are allowed to pick up the carcass, wrestle it from their rivals, and fling the carcass over to their team mates.

There are only a few rules to the game -- all players must stay on their horse, the player with the goat must not use anything other than his body and horse to hold the goat, one cannot grab the bridle of the opponent's horse, one cannot rear their horse, ram another horse at high speed, nor take the reins off the opponent's horse.  Everything else is legal.

The video below gives a brief sense of the roughness of the game (rugby on a horse), as played that day. The man in the white shirt is the referee, who makes sure the (very limited) rules are followed.

Headless Goat Horse Games from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.


Kyrgyzstan 2 – Issyk Kul

Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan - animal market

Our final days in Kyrgyzstan were long ones spent in Issyk Kul. In the early morning, we visited a chaotic animal market that is open only on Sundays.  It was very similar to those we have visited in Ecuador, though sheep were the predominant animal, and there were no pigs at all (being an Islamic country, pork is less common).  There were also sections of cattle (not shown), horses (lower right) and chickens, but sheep took center stage for us.

Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan - music

As the sun began to set, Mehmet arranged for a private concert by a family of three musicians along the shoreline, seen above. Stone-face at the start, the family members started to loosen up as they played and got into the swing of the music.

Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan - felt manufacture

Enroute to a felt-making enterprise, we saw a cowboy working with his cattle in a flooded field.  We pulled over to take some photographs, and he galloped over to us in a swamp, waving at us and having a grand time.

The felt was made in three small rooms.  One was used to separate the wool and create loose felt pads (not shown).  The second was used to produce a rough pattern, then dry the felt.  Originally the drying was done by manually kicking the rolled up felt for three to four hours (middle left), but the family then created a machine (middle second) that reproduces the kicking mechanics -- and is rather loud while doing so...  The last room is where the finishing touches are added, and the final product is displayed.

These felt rolls are widely used to make yurts to add strength, warmth and decoration.  Mehmet (our tour guide) bought one (middle right) as a rug for his home.

Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan - sheep herder

As we were driving up to the alpine lakes (center) for reflection shots of the snow covered mountains, we stopped several times for herds of sheep traveling along the same road to their pastures (top row). We stopped at a small home with an outhouse (bottom left) to eat a picnic lunch we had brought along with us. The roads along this stretch were in truly awful shape, but there were signs that the government was trying to improve them (bottom second).  There was even a small bank of yaks in one field (bottom right).

Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan - yurt lunch

We made occasional stops along the road -- to take in beautiful landscapes and to ease our abused bones from the rough bus ride.  At one stop, we saw an isolated yurt in the meadow (middle) and walked across the river to get a better look.  A woman came down from the mountain, saying something totally unintelligible to any of us.

Our local guide translated and informed us that it was customary for the host to share with their guests, and the woman from the yurt offered to share a pail of liquid (upper right).  This was their horse milk liquor that they offer visitors. She invited us inside (lower right) and we spent the next 20 minutes or so as her guests.

Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan - cemetery

In this part of the world, Muslims prefer that their cemeteries be located near major roads, whereas other religious groups prefer being located on the mountains. As such, we saw a dozen or more each day we drove cross country. Every so often one would look interesting and be in the right light, and we would spend half an hour roaming and photographing the cemetery, while stretching our legs. With photo tours, one cannot predict opportune Kodak moments, but our guide has been great with finding these serendipitous spots.

Issyk Kul, Kyrgyzstan - park

With a little time to kill before catching our next flight, we wandered around a commemorative for soldiers who died in WWII, and an old city park.  We have all gotten in the habit of searching out reflections in isolated pools of rain water. Upper-left shows Eric, from our group, laying on the ground to get an image similar to top-second above. Evelyn befriended a couple and got them to pose for her (center). The old public park was lined with a large number of statues.

Below is a short video from the sunset musicians shown above, to let you hear what their traditional two-string instrument sounds like.

Kyrgyzstan Musician from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.


Kyrgyzstan 1 – Bishkek

Biskek, Kyrgyzstan - cemetery

We are now in Kyrgyzstan, after completing our tour of Uzbekistan.  There have been several cemeteries along the road, but one we stopped at today was particularly special. Looking at it from the top of a hill, it appears to be a small city (center above).  It is standard for grave sites to have photographs of the deceased on the headstones of those who died since the early 20th century (center two images on bottom row). The wealthy also often create elaborate crypts for the departed (top row).

Biskek, Kyrgyzstan - milking horse

Next stop was visiting a yurt with nomads in traditional clothing (upper row), then on to a horse farm where they milk the horses to prepare kymyz, a traditional fermented drink (center image plus lower right). While we were waiting for others in our group, we watched a man doing a crossword puzzle while his grandson watched (lower left).  When Evelyn tried to take the boy's photograph, he was very serious. I therefore thumbed my nose at him, which got him to laugh.  He tried to mimic the expression, but put his thumb in his ear instead (center bottom), until his grandfather laughed and moved his thumb to his nose to properly perform the nyah-nyah gesture...

Biskek, Kyrgyzstan - rust

Next to the grandfather was an old rusted shed.  We couldn't resist taking some detail photos of the blue paint and rust, which have such an interesting abstract quality to them.

Biskek, Kyrgyzstan - fabric and building

We next visited a small workshop that makes traditional textiles, many of which are used for special costumes for dancers and special events. The owner drove 4 hours from the coast where she had a workshop just to greet us and show us her place, where she provides jobs for local talented women. Returning to town, we had some time to kill before catching the plane, so wandered around a large government building (bottom row).

Biskek, Kyrgyzstan - market produce

Last stop in town was the Osh Bazaar, a local indoor market selling every kind of food consumed here, spices to prepare them, as well as shoes, clothing and other dry goods.

Biskek, Kyrgyzstan - people

Biskek, Kyrgyzstan - people active

Of course, markets are one of our favorite places for capturing interesting people photos.  Business was pretty slow here on a Tuesday afternoon, so there were more images of vendors interacting with us than with customers.  Top-left in lower block shows Denise, from our photo tour group, explaining to a vendor what kind of dried fruit she was looking for. For the most part, the vendors spoke to us in Russian. However the axe man (butcher upper right in lower block) put his arms around me and spoke in English saying "Kyrgyzstan.. and America...friends".

Kyrgyzstan signs

As with Uzbekistan, the local signs are intriguing to look at.  Here there were much fewer with any English, though tourist spots did tend to have three languages (lower right).  Many had images, making it relatively easy to figure out the meaning, but others just left you wondering, if you are not fluent in Kyrgyz (upper left and middle).

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