In August 2017, Matt and Kel, two friends and photographers from Sydney, Australia went onto an incredible adventure and road trip through two of the "Stans": Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Although those two countries are not the most popular destination as it's not very known - yet - they are home to magnificent mountains and landscapes, warm local experiences and still hold something a bit mysterious for all the adventurers out there. 

Discover below the journey of Kel & Matt, their itinerary, their gear, adventures and misadventures as well as pictures. 

Cover photo: Bel Tam Yurt Camp - Camp situated on the sourthern shores of Issyk-Kul Lake. Photo: Matt Horspool.

Could you introduce yourself in a few words?

Kel: I’m Kel Morales, an amateur photographer originally from the Philippines. I moved to Sydney in the summer of 2012. I work as an IT professional in a government branch during weekdays and I like to explore and go on micro-adventures during the weekends

Matt: My name’s Matt Horspool, I am a 30-year-old photographer and special needs teacher from Sydney, Australia.

 Adventure Mode On - Matt Horspool on the left side and Kel Morales on the right side.

Adventure Mode On - Matt Horspool on the left side and Kel Morales on the right side.

Can you explain your adventure and how it came about?

Kel: I’ve been an Olympus camera user since 2015 and I initially saw a post regarding Olympus Vision Project. It was a competition to grant aspiring creatives to pursue their passion project. I didn’t really think about it at that time but after I attended the Sydney Travel Bootcamp, I got interested. I originally planned on submitting a proposal for a project documenting the religious festivals of the different islands in the Philippines. However, Matt told me that he also want to pitch an adventure project and I thought maybe to just submit one with him. We initially planned on doing India but I wanted to do something a little bit different. I don’t know how I stumbled upon it, but I just found myself looking at photos and articles about the Pamir Highway in Central Asia. It piqued my interest and Matt agreed that it’s a great place to explore. We decided to do our project pitch for Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan instead. After a couple of months, we learned that we got the photography grant and the rest is history! :)

Matt: I had caught wind of a competition that Olympus was running which provided a grant to assist aspiring photographers and videographers to complete a dream project. Initially, I had entered with another friend focused on a completely different style of project and thought I would love to also pitch an adventure with Kel who I had been shooting with regularly. We met in a local library to sit down and decide what it was we wanted to do. I had my heart set on India and as we were trawling the internet for ideas, Kel came across the Pamir Highway aka second highest highway in the world. We were sold.

 Orto-Tokoy Reserve - Large salt lake formed in the desert. Photo: Matt Horspool.

Orto-Tokoy Reserve - Large salt lake formed in the desert. Photo: Matt Horspool.

What was your itinerary and preparation?

Kel: Originally, our focus was only driving through the Pamir Highway. But after spending a lot of time researching, we found out that there were a lot more amazing and interesting places to see in the other parts of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. We decided to spend two weeks in Kyrgyzstan and another two in the Pamir Highway and Tajikistan.

Preparation wasn’t easy at all. These places are known to be some of the least explored regions in the world and unsurprisingly, information were pretty scarce. We spent a lot of time researching online and contacting people who have traveled there to get an idea of what we should expect. Apart from that, we spent almost every weekend to go out and practice shooting. I also had to prepare myself physically as I am not really fit and I knew that the trip would be physically demanding. Doing mountain hikes in high altitude and being on the road every single day - I had to prepare myself.

 Picture Perfect - Sunset silhouettes along the eastern shores of Song-Kul Lake. Photo: Matt Horspool.

Picture Perfect - Sunset silhouettes along the eastern shores of Song-Kul Lake. Photo: Matt Horspool.

Matt: Many many hours of trawling the internet for information, emailing people who had ridden the Pamir Highway and learning to use the camera gear which was foreign to me. Nearly 6 months worth of weekends and evenings after work spent preparing. Funny though, it only takes one thing like a broken car to throw hours of work out the window.

What gear were you using?

Kel: We took a lot of gear on the trip. From photography gear to camping gear, we brought everything we can.

My photography kit consist of the following:

  • 2 x OMD EM1 MKII Body (with 9 BLH-1 Li-On batteries)
  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO
  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO
  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO
  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital 25mm F1.2 PRO
  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital 75mm F1.8
  • 1 x DJI Mavic Pro (with 4 batteries)
  • 1 x Olympus Tough TG5 (+ 2 extra batteries)
  • 1 x MC-14 M.Zuiko DIGITAL 1.4x Teleconverter
  • 1 x HLD-9 Power Battery Holder
  • 1 x CBG-12 Camera Backpack
  • 1 x RM-CB2 Cable Release
 Lone Horseman in Song-Kul. Photo: Kel Morales.

Lone Horseman in Song-Kul. Photo: Kel Morales.

Matt: For anyone who had accessed our website you would have seen we took over a lot of gear. So much so that my two bags were 29kg and 15kg respectively. It was a difficult trip to pack for as the locations would range from sub-zero temperatures through to 40+ degree heat and everything in between. My wallet has hated me, but I always buy top quality lightweight items, e.g. tents, mattresses, cooking gear etc. As long as you take care of it, they generally last for 10+ years or more, meaning you can take more, and save your back.

My photography kit consisted of too much to name. In a nutshell, it was as follows

2 x OMD EM1 MKII Body

  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital ED 300mm F4.0 IS PRO
  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital ED 40-150mm F2.8 PRO
  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital ED 12-100mm F4.0 IS PRO
  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital ED 7-14mm F2.8 PRO
  • 1 x M.Zuiko Digital 17mm F1.8
  • 1 x DJI Mavic Pro
  • 4 x MAvic Pro Battery
  • 1 x TG-Tracker Tough Series Camera
  • 1 x MC-14 M.Zuiko DIGITAL 1.4x Teleconverter
  • 1 x HLD-9 Power Battery Holder
  • 1 x FL-900R Electronic Flash
  • 1 x CBG-12 Camera Backpack
  • 1 x RM-CB2 Cable Release
  • 9 x BLH-1 Li-ion Rechargeable Battery
  • 2 x BCH-1 Rapid Lithium Ion Battery Charger

The list goes on and I recommend you check out our website “gear page” for the comprehensive list and photos

 Heaven On Earth - Turpar Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Kel Morales.

Heaven On Earth - Turpar Kul, Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Kel Morales.

What was your most memorable moment of the whole trip?

Kel: Ah, just thinking about the great moments that I’ve had during the trip makes me smile. :) I’ll choose one standout moment for each of the countries we’ve visited.

My most memorable moment in Kyrgyzstan was definitely when we visited a rural village in Kyrgyz Ata. We went there as part of an organised day tour by the tourism board in Osh, Kyrgyzstan. When we got to the village, there were quite a number of people and they were really kind. There was a group of elderly people dancing and they invited us to dance with them. It was so much fun! :) After that, I asked if I could take their photo and they were pretty happy for me to do so. I took their photo, printed it (I brought a portable photo printer), and gave it to them. They were so happy with it - the happiness on their faces was indescribable. It was such a great feeling realising that a simple act of giving a photo can bring so much happiness to people. As a thank you, they gave me a watermelon. Haha!

 Worth the Struggle - Morning in Ala Archa. Photo: Kel Morales. 

Worth the Struggle - Morning in Ala Archa. Photo: Kel Morales. 

In Pamir Highway/Tajikistan, my most memorable moment would be when I got invited by a local to their house and we just sat there exchanging stories while drinking tea. This happened when we arrived in Langar and I decided to explore the place. I was just walking on the street - feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed by everything - and a lady standing in front of their house with her kids saw me and asked if I was a traveller. I said yes and that started our conversation. She spoke very good english and I found out that she is an English teacher from Dushanbe. They were just in Langar for the holidays. We exchanged stories about travels and culture, and I’ve shown her some of photos and videos from home. It was such a normal conversation and situation but it’s really something that stuck with me. It was what I always wanted on this trip - getting to know people and understanding the way they live and their culture. :)

 Watching the sunset in Sulaiman Too in Osh Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Kel Morales.

Watching the sunset in Sulaiman Too in Osh Kyrgyzstan. Photo: Kel Morales.

Matt: I have so many and for different reasons, feelings or joy, sickness, frustration, and shock. I guess for both of us the most memorable moment would be when the car crash occurred but I will touch on that in the next question.

My greatest positive moment of the entire trip would have to have been when we arrived at the tiny isolated yurt camp at Sary Gorum. The place was nothing short of stunning. Nestled deep in the valleys of Tajikistan, surrounded by rolling green hills and towering snow-capped peaks, an area 5 star resorts would die for. There were around 4 - 5 yurts that formed the small community of shepherds who grazed their goats, yaks, and horses in the vast fields. The light was near perfect for an epic sunset, the composition was nothing short of breathtaking and there was so much to photograph. However our kind and generous hosts had other plans for us. We were invited to partake in a ‘social’ game of volleyball. Which suited me fine as I love the game. Kel, however, was a little more apprehensive. The game started and gradually we ended up competing with around 20 men, women, and teenagers, laughing, yelling and having the time of our lives. Of course, the moment wouldn't have been complete without the stunning sunset that shrouded the valley. I stopped at one stage and wondered how the hell I got here and asked if this was even real?

 Skazka Stars - Sun flare over Skazka Canyon aka Fairytale Canyon. Photo: Matt Horspool.

Skazka Stars - Sun flare over Skazka Canyon aka Fairytale Canyon. Photo: Matt Horspool.

What was the worst moment you’ve experienced?

Kel: I experienced my worst moment third day into the trip. We did a trek in Ala Archa National Park and it was supposed to be an easy 4hours hike - but I can’t believe how wrong I was. I did a lot of hikes and walks back in Sydney so I was pretty confident in doing the hike. Not even one fourth of the way, I was already struggling. We were supposed to go to a base camp but we had to reassess because I was just so out of it. My mind wanted to finish the hike but my body just cannot do it. It was the worst feeling. I was devastated. I felt really broken and I started questioning if I am able to actually do the trip. And to add salt to the wound, I also lost my drone and one of our radios. It felt like the universe was against me.

Coming on this trip, I knew it would be physically demanding and a lot of things can go wrong - I just didn’t know that I would experience all of it all at the same time. Thankfully, I managed to persevere and finish the trip without any more big hiccups!
 

 Serene Song-Kul Sunset. Photo: Kel Morales.

Serene Song-Kul Sunset. Photo: Kel Morales.

Matt: Basically, we were driving along a winding dirt road a few hundred metres above a river. The road went on for hours and weaved in and out of sketchy areas. As I was coming around a small left-hand bend I noticed in my side mirror, a car speeding towards me. The car took me on the inside, lost control and flipped off the road, rolled about 4 times down a waterfall and crashed into a river. It was the first time I had heard Kel swear and everything happened in slow motion. I ran down to the car to pull the guy out whilst Kel ran off to find phone signal. There are some pretty crazy videos that documented the whole experience and you will have to wait until they are released on our blog to see.

Another terrible moment I guess would be when I was sick at the end of the trip. No idea what it was but it crippled me. I always seem to get sick at the end of an overseas trip!

 Bird of Prey - An eagle that lives with a local Kyrgyz trainer. Photo: Matt Horspool.

Bird of Prey - An eagle that lives with a local Kyrgyz trainer. Photo: Matt Horspool.

Did you encounter any challenges to pursue your adventure?

Kel: Nah, I didn’t encounter any challenges. Haha! Kidding. I definitely had a lot of challenges on the trip, it was crazy. Language barrier, the physicality of the trip and focus are the top ones I can think of.

I haven’t travelled to another country before except for Australia and the Philippine so everything was really new to me. It was a bit of a culture shock. The language barrier was definitely a big challenge. Every region had their own language so it was pretty tough and miscommunications and misunderstandings always happen.

As for physicality, as I’ve mentioned earlier - the trip was physically demanding since we were almost always on the road and we don’t really have much time to stop and relax. It felt like I was always tired and add the fact that you have to go out to explore and shoot, it just takes a toll on your body and your mind.

This leads me to the other main challenge for me - focus. Being tired all the time, I just can’t focus on what I need to do. Also, being a new traveller and experiencing a lot of new things for the first time, I just get excited all the time and lose focus on what I need to do. There were a lot of times that I just wanted to sit down and talk to people - which is a good thing since I am able to have a natural travel experience but also bad since I was on the trip to also take photos and videos, and I wasn’t able to focus on that.

 Almost Freedom - Three horses are shepherded along a grassy stretch of grass. Their feet are tied so they cannot run too far. Photo: Matt Horspool

Almost Freedom - Three horses are shepherded along a grassy stretch of grass. Their feet are tied so they cannot run too far. Photo: Matt Horspool

Matt: For me there were two difficulties in our trip. The first being the obvious language barrier. We found that many of the young people in both countries could speak basic English which was helpful however when it came to reading signs, menus and other written text. We had to rely on Google Translate. It was quite a difficult trip to plan for as there were 4 or more languages that were spoken across the two countries. Impossible to learn prior to our departure.

The second challenge I found was how tiredness. In the early stages of our trip whilst I was driving, I found it difficult to concentrate for consecutive 8-10 hour days on some of the most sketchy roads in the world then unpack and venture out to shoot creative photos. It just wasn’t happening. Definitely glad that we ditched the car once it broke down and hired a driver.

 Our Drivers Family in Tajikistan. Photo: Kel Morales.

Our Drivers Family in Tajikistan. Photo: Kel Morales.

Did you meet up with some locals in both countries and can you tell me a bit about it?

Kel: Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are countries that have amazing landscapes. But truthfully, it’s  the people from these countries that really made the trip special for me. I’ve already mentioned above that the most memorable moments that I’ve had from the trip were interacting with the locals. All of the people we met were kind and hospitable and they made our trip amazing.  From people of the Kyrgyzstan community based tourism boards who helped us a lot while we were on the road in Kyrgyzstan, to the family in Song-Kul yurt camp who made us feel really welcomed. From the villagers in Kyrgyz Ata who’ve shown us the Kyrgyz horse games to the nomadic shepherds in Sary Gorum who let us play volleyball with them. And from our drivers along the Pamir Highway who really took care of us and made sure we had the best time along the road, to the people in the Green Square Bazaar in Dushanbe that was so keen to have their photos taken. There were just countless great moments that I’ve shared with them.

Matt: We interacted with so many locals it is impossible to name them all. Each with their own unique stories. All the families that we stayed with were lovely, welcoming and extremely hospitable towards us. They really made us feel like we were a part of the family. I had the opportunity to teach 2 sisters English at a local yurt camp at Song-Kul which was cool. They were both really keen to learn new words and phrases that would help them interact with guests that stayed with them. They now follow us on Instagram which is cool! Will be sending them some more pictures once the blog post goes live.

 The Road to Kazerman - The incredible road which snakes its way across these stunning mountain ranges. Photo: Matt Horspool.

The Road to Kazerman - The incredible road which snakes its way across these stunning mountain ranges. Photo: Matt Horspool.

Did you prefer Tajikistan or Kyrgyzstan in the end?

Kel: This is a tough question. Each country has its own charm. I would say that I’d be keen to explore Kyrgyzstan more. I feel that there’s a lot more to explore and discover, and also - the people won me over. :)

Matt: I enjoyed both countries for their different landscapes and cultures. However I think I’d like to go back to Kyrgyzstan and explore the mountains further.

 The Kyrgyz Eagle Hunter. Photo: Kel Morales. 

The Kyrgyz Eagle Hunter. Photo: Kel Morales. 

What’s your next adventure?

Kel: Nothing major planned for now, possibly some small ones around Australia. I was thinking of travelling for a couple of weeks in South East Asia next year. I would probably shift my focus more on exploring and discovering the cultures of these countries on my next travels rather than doing an adventure. :)

Matt: I have a few projects in the works. If all works out I should be heading to India at the start of next year with a side trip to South East Asia again followed by a return to Italy later in the year.

If you'd like to read more about Matt and Kel's adventure, head over to their website The Stan Collective. And if you'd like to see more of their images, follow them on Instagram: @etchd for Matt and @kemikulz for Kel. 

Have you been to any of those countries? Let me know in the comments below! 

 

 Bel Tam Yurt Camp - Camp situated on the sourthern shores of Issyk-Kul Lake. Photo: Matt Horspool.

Bel Tam Yurt Camp - Camp situated on the sourthern shores of Issyk-Kul Lake. Photo: Matt Horspool.

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