Early morning very early morning and the desert rolls before me, a vast sheet of blackness. Rubbing my eyes, I wait outside my tiny chalet for the arrival of Farad, my Bedouin guide. This will be our third day together exploring Wadi Rum. Eventually I spot a single headlight beam work its way along a distant, undefined desert path.
Each day Farad has appeared in an increasingly decrepit vehicle. Today is no exception. Pulling to a stop in front of me, it appears today’s explorations will not require a bonnet and there is definitely something special going on with the passenger door. However, this is not the most notable difference. Farad, with whom I parted company no more than eight hours ago, appears to have markedly different features and is considerably smaller and slimmer than I recall. He leans out of the space where a driver’s window should be and smiles broadly, entirely unconcerned by any anatomical alterations. Sleepily, I pull on the passenger door; am I still dreaming or has my memory become decidedly worse since arriving in Jordan?
The passenger door is not of a mind to relent without at least some resistance and a distressing crunching sound. Seating myself uncomfortably or rather on the uncomfortable seat. I peer at Farad. He appears remarkably pleased by the whole process. This is also new; in my short experience, Farad has demonstrated a proclivity for the taciturn. After a brief questioning silence, Farad announces he is in fact Faraj, Farad’s younger brother. The final surprise of this last-minute substitution is not the change of personnel but the relationship. Over the previous days I have been introduced to many Bedouins, all of whom, without exception, have been cousins of Farad.
Dawn breaks with a devastating lack of spectacle reveals an overcast day, however Faraj’s good nature and eagerness are contagious and help dispel my pessimism. It is not until the mid- morning that the haze and cloud start to lift, revealing the full beauty of desolate red sands and precipitous rock formations that rise like weather-beaten remnants of an ancient city on the lunar landscape. Frustratingly, the light is now flat and unappealing: I know they’re here somewhere, but I cannot find the elusive shots I want.
All morning Faraj has been demonstrating his ability to fall asleep the moment his assistance is no longer required. Having recently emerged from his preferred sleeping location beneath the car, he mentions lunch and goats repeatedly. Uncertain as to how these are related, I relent to this suggestion and decide to see where it takes me. It takes me a long way away. I find myself at a ramshackle Bedouin camp beneath a cliff. Here, sitting in the shade, we share a traditional Bedouin lunch with new friends, Bandar, Farad (aforementioned), Khaled and a hoard of buzzing flies. Bandar is quiet but jovial; Farad chain smokes, wearing a white thobe and cheap sunglasses; Khaled, only five or six years old, appears small and slightly wild.
Faraj’s unflagging vigour is unnecessarily rejuvenated to impossibly high levels by lunch, and he drives twice around the mountain, hotly pursuing a herd of goats. In mid circumnavigation it is decided that now would be a good time for me to experience the Saudi Arabian border: Ten minutes later and we are standing at the top of a cliff. Faraj is pointing at one of the many mountains rising from desert to infinity, behind which the Saudi border apparently lies. While I contemplate this, Faraj and Bandar, stand on the cliff edge and throw Khaled into the air, an experience which they all seem to be enjoying immensely.
We survey the desert rolling out before us. The sands relent, soft and warm with every footfall and it is clear that today there have been many visitors. An SUV pulls up and a group of ten tourists excitedly cascade from it before making the short climb to the dune summit. This is my last chance of taking any shots today. The litter of footprints, construction detritus from a half-built camp and the massing clouds combine to sap my confidence as sunset nears. I find undisturbed sand further along the dune and a composition I hope is interesting. Now it’s just a case of waiting. Waiting is a very important element of travel photography. If you’re not a fan of waiting for a series of annoying things to remove themselves from your frame or inject themselves at the crucial instant, then travel photography may not be for you. On this occasion a Ute rushes into frame at the exact and only moment the sun decides to show itself. Sometimes you just have to make it work.
Somewhere in the middle of Wadi Rum I sit cross-legged on a rug, in a distinctly unglamorous tent. I am exhausted but it’s not every day I get invited to a Bedouin meal. The construction is of four tarps; one end is open and should offer a spectacular view of Wadi Rum. In actuality, all I can see are the surprisingly whole, shiny, and comfortable-looking SUV’s belonging to friends and family of our host.
A jug of water sits on the sand, each guest upturning it to wash his hands before discarding his shoes and taking a place on the rug. A television is playing in one corner of the tent; a small fire flickers close by and around this are situated rugs and guests. An ornate but tarnished silver kettle sits in the fire and regularly provides sweet Bedouin tea; sage and sugar. The fire and the TV gain prominence as the cloudy desert sky slowly fades to black. There is a notable lack of women, I suspect they are the source of the cooking sounds emanating from the adjoining tent. Conversation flows, in Arabic. I understand nothing but I know the tea is sweet and delicious and the fire and atmosphere, intoxicating. A tall, good-natured youth whose English is particularly good, regularly breaks from Arabic to talk to me about King Hussein and tease me about my name ‘Lawrence’ of Arabia. I am starving and it’s a further two hours before a group of women appear from the desert darkness to place a huge bowl on the sand. It’s so dark it’s hard to identify exactly what’s in the bowl but there is definitely an animal’s head protruding from the middle. Cross-legged on the sand, we encircle the food. The technique is to pick the meat from the bone and roll the moist rice into an edible glob. Simple enough but if you’re very tired and unpractised at eating with only your right hand it’s tricky and I struggle.
Eventually, sated and happy, the guests squat and wash the meal residue from their hands before driving into the night. As we drive away the cool desert air on our faces is reviving. I have no idea how Faraj knows where the road is or even the direction he is going. The headlight picks out small shrubs and tumbleweed rushing towards us at great speed. I mention our current rate of progress to Faraj, endeavouring to make it sound like an enquiry rather than anxiety. Faraj grins broadly and depresses the accelerator… I close my eyes.
Sometimes you have to adapt to the conditions. On my final day in Wadi Rum I was excited to revisit locations of shots previously lined up. The great weather I envisaged was forecast. What could go wrong? All seemed calm before dawn but during the night wind had whipped sand into the atmosphere and as daylight grew stronger, it was apparent that visibility was minimal. The outlines of mountains and rock formations were discernible, but the contrast of red sand and blue sky was definitely no longer an option. My prepared shots gone, I reassessed and decided to play with depth of field, using the outlines of the mountains as a background. Hopefully with great results!
For some miles now I have been trying to think of a witty way to sum up Kyrgyzstan. I have been doing this for two reasons:
1: It’s the sort of thing I enjoy doing.
2: I would very much prefer not to think about the current car journey across Kyrgyzstan.
It’s not so much the journey as the level of driving expertise. My guide and driver, Erkin, is a good driver and we are in a largish robust vehicle. Unfortunately we are not the only road users in Kyrgyzstan. It has become apparent that all Kyrgyz drivers hold the strong belief that the road was designed and built solely for their purposes. All other drivers are an impediment to reaching their destination which are to be overcome and overtaken. This belief appears to supersedes Kyrgyz survival instinct.
I had knowledge of this phenomena before embarking on this trip, I have driven across Kyrgyzstan once before. I knew driving would be necessary but I had promised myself that the one thing we would not do is drive at night. We have been driving for 6 hours and I would be optimistic if I said it was dusk. For some time Erkin has been assuring me we are not far from our destination, Arslanbob. According to my phone map this would depend on your interpretation of ‘not far’. If by ‘not far’ you mean 2 -3 hours away then he is bang on.
Erkin is a large bald man whose top lip is reminiscent of a line drawing of a bird. He has slightly droopy eyes that hide behind small, square spectacles, the combination of which conveys an air of intelligence. This is accurate because he is very intelligent, being a lawyer as well as a tour guide. Erkin has a deep hatred of dust, which is unfortunate because Kyrgyzstan is one of the worlds dustiest countries. He is as rigorous in his pursuit of a dustless environment as he is a clean table. Should any morsel of food look to be table bound, his hand instantly appears to intercept or mop up the offending sustenance. Erkin speaks good English. As far as I can tell this is principally so he can enjoy the delights of his favourite TV programme Top Gear. During our journey together we have fallen into a comfortable routine. If someone has the audacity to overtake us an almost imperceptible alteration in Erkin’s features occurs, followed by the utterance “Schumacher” at which I tut approvingly. Should we see a Range Rover, his countenance will visibly brighten. We both know he is about to say “Chelsea tractor” so we can laugh knowingly. When Erkin has had enough of speaking English, doesn’t understand or is no longer listening, he has a trick; he simply repeats the last two words of every sentence I say. He likes to include an affirmation. I have tested this by talking to him about photography, a subject of which he knows little, whilst he was looking in a different direction….”Yes, polarising filter.”
The journey began well with an atmosphere of only mild irritability as my photography slightly delayed our departure from Sary Tash. We weaved our way from the fecund mountain valley to the summit of the Taldyk Pass. Erkin has a selection of CD’s to correspond to the nationalities of his clients. The English CD is happily bumbling away, it is slightly and only very slightly, preferable to the Dutch folk music disc to which I have also been treated. My ears pop as we begin our descent, unfortunately bringing extra clarity to the tones of Craig David. It is the start of a beautiful leg of our journey. We traverse jagged, brown, lunar landscape, into beautiful lush, long-grass, green valleys; passed men resting against their pitchforks as they pause from the tireless job of piling the harvested grass high on the flat roofs of low-lying stone buildings. Nomads are deconstructing their yurt’s (bosi’s) and waiting for vehicles to take them to the lowlands before the winter’s snow. We pass into the red earthed mountain slopes, creeks and canyons of Kichie Karakol. The weather turns: thunder and rains accompany us. The road is tarmacked and of good quality, which also makes it an ideal route for shepherds and cowboys driving their herds, I assume, to market. The road is blocked with increasing frequency; we are forced to dodge through sheep, cows and horses. Kyrgyz drivers object to altering their speed for these obstacles, a herd of horses we swerve through takes fright and for a moment we are one galloping along the centre of the road, manes flowing. A cattle jam of four different herds brings us to a halt, a wall of cattle extends before us. Eventually the road widens, speed increases and the opportunities for death really begin. The remnant of accidents on the road side, unwritten stories of another day’s horror. We pass a car twisted and dragged to the other side of the road, but intact enough to convey hope of survival; a little later we see a crumpled, truncated Lada in the middle of the road which causes a mild reduction in speed. A man stands next to the vehicle, surveying it, before pulling lazily at a piece of upholstery. He is clearly not the driver or the passenger, they are no longer pulling at anything.
Our journey continues beneath undulating waves of clouds (undulatus) into the warm evening light. Blue and Elton John carry us into the sunset. We stop in a lay-by where Erkin cleans the windscreen; the impact and subsequent explosion of thousands of insects has substantially reduced our field of view. Now the light is failing, and as previously mentioned, the phone map is telling me we are still 2 to 3 hours from our destination. Erkin is driving with increased velocity and I can tell, despite his denials, that Erkin is very tired.
Finally, in what is now very definitely darkness, we reach the turning to Arslanbob. The phone map informs me we are still over an hour away but it is now just one sort-of straight (very curvy) road to our destination. Erkin is driving with rejuvenated vigour, peering with intensity into the darkness ahead.
SILENCE…a shattering second of silence as Erkin swerves and veers the car to a halt on the grassy verge. It is the silence that inhabits the immediate aftermath of a sudden, massive inexplicable SMASHING sound. I look around desperately trying to make sense of what has happened: We don’t appear to have hit anything, indeed there appears to have been nothing to hit and the car seems to be without technical fault. My neck is covered in something, I reach to feel whatever it is and find a trickle of blood.
Standing together on the roadside, Erkin and I are able to glean a clearer picture. The passenger rear-side window once contained a smooth, slightly tinted, full pane of glass. Now it contains a jaggedy less complete pane of glass that will be far less effective against the elements. Peering through the newly made opening reveals black leather upholstery bejewelled with thousands of tiny glass diamonds – sitting at their centre is a neatly placed stone. The stone is about the size of a flattened lemon and we quickly deduce it could only have arrived there by nefarious means. Later we discover that the local population has, after a bout of particularly successful vodka consumption, a penchant for relieving their boredom with a catapult and stone, at these moments, the appearance of an auto vehicle is greatly appreciated.
Erkin brushes the shards of glass as best he can from my back and hair and we continue our journey. He stares into the gloom ahead of us, cursing under his breath in Russian. I sit in the passenger seat, even more nervously than before. It is sometime before I fall back into my thoughts.
When shooting I find it preferable to stay alive, and if at all possible, unscathed. I knew the importance and the danger of driving and had been advised on many occasions to avoid doing so if possible. The long hours, altitude and physicality of being on a shoot of this nature for a couple of weeks were bound to intensify the chances of me making a mistake. I spent a lot of time trying to find a company that would provide a driver who could also guide and translate. Initially there was a lot of resistance to this as it was/is perceived as a two person job. Eventually I managed to find a company who would consider this proposal, they took some persuading, but my efforts, and Erkin, proved invaluable.
Technical: Canon 1DS III, Canon 70-200mm, ISO 200, f8, 320th, Gitzo tripod, Manfrotto 405, Lowepro Vetex 300 AW