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Travel and Photographs by Burt Johnson and Evelyn Johnson

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Mehmet Özbalci Photo Tour - Guides

Wow...  Five countries (Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Georgia and Armenia) in six weeks. Mehmet Özbalci organized this tour through his company Fantastic Photo Tours, based in Istanbul, Turkey.  We used him in 2016 for a tour of Turkey, and liked his approach so much that we decided to use him again for these countries.

I thought we would end with a short blog post showing some of the people we traveled with.  The upper row are all images of Mehmet, the main guide, and the only guide with us for the entire trip.

Each country also had a separate guide who knew the local language and people. Middle-left two images are Lilit from Armenia.

Lower left, seen kicking his heels up on the Singing Sands Dune is Jamil, our guide in both Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, and probably our favorite country guide.

The lower-right quadrant of 4 images are of Gvantsa, our Georgia country guide, and a natural-born photo model.

Mehmet Özbalci Photo Tour - travelers

Here is a quick sampling of a few of the people we traveled with.  Each tour had eight travelers.  Two people (Eric and Marla, upper-left and lower-left) joined us for the entire six weeks.  After the two of us, that left four people on the "stan" portion of the tour, and four different people on the "Georgia/Armenia" portion.  Rich, Sue, Scott, Karin, Heidi, Matt and Didre are seen in the other images. We will always remember the times when Heidi, our Bahama mama (lower right), was detained at the border because no one had ever seen a Bahama passport, and all the times that locals wanted to be photographed with her.

There were several places along the way where there was "one best location for the photograph," and lineups like seen center happened at least half a dozen times.  Most of the time, we were more scattered out though, each getting our own personal images at any given stop.


Armenia 4 – Dilijan

Dilijan, Armenia 1 - smokey cavern

We continued our travels along the Silk Road, an ancient network of trading routes between China and the Mediterranean.  Enroute to our next hotel in Dilijan, we stopped at the Orbeliani Caravansary, a structure where caravans on this Silk Road used to stop for the night.   From the outside (upper left), it is rather unimpressive stone building, so we didn't really have very high expectations of achieving memorable photographs when entering.

Once we entered, we discovered that the sun was at just the right position (Mehmet usually worked things this way, without us realizing it until later) to show excellent shafts of light to illuminate the dim room.

Mehmet is a smoker, though he always made a point of only enjoying his vice during breaks, away from all the travelers.  He asked us if we wanted him to use his vice to add some character to the shafts of light (upper-middle and upper-right), and we all enthusiastically said yes.

The result was the main, bottom image above, which I rather think was well worth the stop.  Mehmet suggested the title for the upper-middle image should be "Working Hard," and who am I to object when he did just that?

Dilijan, Armenia 2 - craft village

After staying overnight in Dilijan, we spent some time the next morning wandering "Old Dilijan," a historic part of town preserved for people to sell their crafts to tourists.  Our favorite such craftsman was a wood carver (center), who created intricate ornaments, including those seen upper-left.

Dilijan, Armenia 3 - Stone Henge

One of our primary objectives in this region was to visit the "Armenian Stonehenge."  These are "vertical rock circles" estimated to have been created around 6000 BC, supposedly for astronomical observation, very similar to the more famous Stonehenge in England (built around 3000 BC, or 3000 years later than these in Armenia).  Our guide stated that such vertical stone circles exist on every continent in the world, except Antarctica, but this is the only one in Central Asia.

We also stopped to photograph a nice waterfall nearby (lower right two images).

Dilijan, Armenia 4 - Noraduz cemetery

The ancient Noraduz cemetery was another photo destination, with graves dating from 1000 years ago up until the present.  The oldest gravestones (left column plus upper-middle) are called "Kachkars" and were reputedly dressed as soldiers during the Middle Ages to fool approaching enemies into thinking there was a large army defending the city.

In the 20th century, images of the deceased were added (upper right shows a young woman who died at the age of 21). Others began to include elaborate large busts of the departed (right column, lower two images).  This is one of the more unique cemeteries, combining both old and new, and it was clear that most of the cemetery was neglected, with weeds waist high in many places (bottom center).

Dilijan, Armenia - Haghpat church

We stopped at a lot of churches during this tour, and today was the Haghpat monastery. As with most of the monasteries in this region, this is an ancient stone structure, with a very plain interior, but is still actively used by the local residents for worship.

Dilijan, Armenia 5 - market

Traveling across Armenia required long days in the bus, which were broken up by rest stops where we could stretch both our legs and our cameras.  One such stop was at a market, with butcher shops lined across the street, shown above.

Dilijan, Armenia 6 - Armenian signs

Throughout Armenia, we noticed that the signs are almost a work of art, and often do not look like any recognizable text at all.

The Armenian alphabet consists of 39 letters, and was first created in 405 AD.  Prior to that, the Greek alphabet was used in churches, but the Armenian language had never been written down.  For whatever strange reason, Mesrop Mashtots felt a completely new alphabet was needed when he proceeded to first write down the Armenian language.  The world has been stuck with yet-another-alphabet to confuse communication ever since...

Istanbul, Turkey - Blue Mosque under Moon

The photo tour is now over, after 6 weeks traversing 5 countries.  Enroute to our next destination of Portugal, we landed in Istanbul with a 13 hour layover.  Mehmet (our guide for this adventure) generously invited us to his home, introduced us to his family (dietician wife, college age son studying network security, and twin daughters about to enter High School), and fed us a wonderful Turkish home-cooked dinner.

The image above was taken of the Blue Mosque from our Istanbul hotel window, shortly before collapsing into bed.

We will just finish with a couple minutes sampling of some of the music we encountered while touring Armenia: 

Armenian Music from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.


Armenia 3 – Goris

Yerevan , Armenia - Mt Ararat and Geghard Monastery

Enroute to Goris, we got one last view of Mt Ararat behind the Church of Khor Virap, before it disappeared entirely behind a veil of clouds.  As we approached this scene, there was heavy cloud cover overhead, and the monastery was obscured in dark shade.  Watching the clouds, we saw the possibility of better light coming soon.  Sure enough, after waiting about half an hour, the sun reached a hole in the clouds, and the monastery shone through in the scene above.

Goris, Armenia - storks

We made a stop in a small village today, to break up the long drive. I am not sure of the actual name of this town, but it was referred to as "Stork City," because of the large number of stork nests, at the top of most power poles (center).  Every nest had one stork protecting two chicks (upper left), while the other parent flew off (lower-left and upper-right) to find food.

Goris, Armenia - dance

We stopped for lunch in another small village, and happened upon a rehearsal at a youth dance school. Our guide asked for permission for us to photograph this.  We wandered around town for a short time after the rehearsal, and encountered a few residents in their daily village life.

Goris, Armenia - sheep and Tatev monastery

We frequently came across long lines of newly shorn sheep being herded from their Winter pastures to their Summer feeding grounds. These usually included a cowboy near the front, plus another in the rear, with a few dogs to bring any stray sheep back into line.

We made a brief stop at the Tatev monastery (right column), built on a high cliff to help its defense during the Middle Ages.

Goris, Armenia - Tatev monastery

Our last stop of this day was at a small monastery in Tatev.  We spent time capturing images from above, then stopped inside the monastery for a visit with the monk. It is run by a single monk (center right), and is actively used for prayer (center and lower-left). The monk blessed our group with a small prayer. Lilit, our Armenian guide, allowed us to photograph her while she prayed here (lower right) as well as shielded us from the building under restoration.


Armenia 2 – Yerevan, Part 2

Yerevan , Armenia - mustache

We visited the Garni temple, built in the 1st century AD, where we found a pleasant surprise, as our guide knew an employee who had not trimmed the ends of his mustache for 40 years.  He was completely willing to pose for us, and only asked to use his camera phone to shoot the LCD image of our cameras, since he does not have any email to receive full copies of our results.

Yerevan , Armenia - cathedral

The Garni temple is still used for worship (center), though tourists (right-center) now outnumber true believers.  Lilit (our local Armenian guide) often posed for our cameras too (lower left).

Yerevan , Armenia - children

While walking out of one church, we met the man shown middle-left.  He is 92 years old, and a veteran of WWII with 124 medals.

We ate lunch at a small charity that works with underprivileged children, teaching them art and cooking skills. All proceeds from the sale of art were used to support the charity.

Yerevan , Armenia - blue hour

We photographed the "blue hour" one evening at St. Gregory's, the largest Armenian Orthodox church (center and top row).  Earlier, as we were driving, we had a view of Mt Ararat again with the vineyards in the foreground – our last view when it was not covered in clouds. Lilit posed for us again in that field (lower right).

Yerevan , Armenia - duduk player

At one church, Mehmet arranged for us to hear a duduk being played. This is a traditional Armenian wind instrument, that usually plays slow, soulful music. A future post will include a video of Armenian music, which will include a section from this player.

 

Yerevan , Armenia - singing fountain

About two blocks from our hotel was the "singing fountains" – a nightly water fountain show set to music.  If you have been to Las Vegas, think in terms of the Bellagio nightly show and you will have a good idea of the atmosphere.  Or watch the video below to get a short introduction to what it was like to be there.

Singing Fountain in Yerevan, Armenia from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.


Armenia 1 – Yerevan, Part 1

Yerevan , Armenia - mt ararat

The last country of our photographic tour with Mehmet Özbalci is Armenia, where we started with three days in the capital city of Yerevan.  It felt like luxury being able to stay in one (excellent!) hotel for 3 nights, and Yerevan proved to have plenty to keep our interest – and our cameras, happy.

One of our main targets was to photograph Mt. Ararat, the highest local mountain peak, where Noah is said to have landed his ark after the mythical flood.  We visited the ruins of the Zvartnos temple, built in the 7th century, showing us an unusually clear view of the mountain top (above block).

Yerevan , Armenia - mt ararat at dawn

Mt. Ararat is special enough to warrant more than a single view, so we also climbed the 500 steps up Cascade, to see the mountain at sunrise.  It was very unusual to see the mountain with no clouds around it this morning.  Indeed, other than this morning, and the afternoon in the first block, every time we looked towards the mountain, it was hidden in clouds.  Clearly Mehmet has the ears of the gods, and made sure we had perfect conditions for our photography!

Yerevan , Armenia - train

When driving in the countryside, we stopped at this old railroad car that has been repurposed into a bridge across this small river.  As with many things in rural Armenia, it is in disrepair, which only adds to the photographic possibilities.

Yerevan , Armenia - bread and cemetary

At one stop, we were able to see women making lavash bread (center and upper row). See the video at the bottom of this post to get a better feel for the work these women do all day long long, to produce the delicious bread we ate at each meal. The paper-thin bread is placed flat on what appears to be an ironing board, then slapped onto the side of the wood charcoal oven where it sticks, and is baked a couple minutes before being removed.

We also visited another cemetery. Each of these is unique in their own way, and all are different from what we are accustomed to in the West.  The lower-right gravestone shows three unrelated men, all of whom died in the same year.  Given that they are in the same gravesite, it is assumed they died together.  Given the image of the flaming bomber on the right, it is assumed they died when shot down in a war incident.  Since Armenia was not at war in 1976 when they died, it is surmised they died in some Soviet conflict elsewhere in the world. None of that was detailed on the tombstone though.

Yerevan , Armenia - symphony of stones

One canyon we passed was lined with basalt crystals, forming what the locals call the "symphony of stones." Many of the hexagonal crystals lined up in a way reminiscent of drums of different depths and tones (or the pipes played by the Blue Man Group).  Others line up looking like the keys on a piano.

Tomorrow, we will continue with the rest of our experiences in Yerevan.

Breadmaking in Armenia from Burt Johnson on Vimeo.


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...


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