It’s darker than dark. A solid beam of torchlight punches through the blackness ahead where giant, unseen towers of rock point up to a night sky crazed with billions of stars.
It’s cold, too. Two o’clock in the morning, late winter cold. Breaths of mountain air rasp in and out of lungs as the small group hauls gear higher up the side of the invisible canyon.
Lights are positioned. Tripods and cameras assembled.
One of the crew, Timur Akbashev, scrambles farther up, finding his way through the night to a perch where his head torch reveals an enormous slab of hillside bearing down upon him.
It could be deep space. The landscape resembles Mars and, under a moonless sky filled with constellations and shooting stars, the universe feels close enough to touch.
For a brief moment, no one moves. A digital camera shutter clicks open.
Kyrgyzstan revealed in beautiful landscape photos
And then boom! The whole sci-fi scene is captured – red martian terrain rearing up towards the star-drenched heavens, and an explorer made tiny by the power of the landscape.
Behind the lens, photographer Albert Dros checks the shot and declares himself satisfied by shouting out a single word that has become his catchphrase.
It’s a word Dros will repeat many more times during a week-long road trip through the central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, of which the night shoots in “Mars Canyon” are a highlight.
Small, remote and sparsely populated, Kyrgyzstan is a seemingly undiscovered world of breathtaking scenery that, thanks to recently relaxed visa rules, could easily be the next big thing in adventure travel.
Dros, a Dutch landscape photographer whose gorgeous images regularly crop up in the pages of National Geographic, first encountered the former Soviet nation’s wild magic in 2018 when visiting his Kyrgyz girlfriend’s family.
Like many people, he had to look it up on a map first, and then brush off concerns about his safety visiting a “stan.” Arriving in the capital Bishkek, he found a safe, welcoming country with diverse scenery that called out to his cameras.
“You have mountains like Europe, then on a two-hour drive you have something completely different,” he says. “Canyons and shapes that remind me of Utah and then, another two hours away, a beautiful valley that reminded me of the Himalayas.”
Vowing to come back, he hit Google Earth to plan his next trip, scouting unusual topography to explore either on foot, with his Sony A7RIII camera, or from overhead, using his DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone.
He zeroed in on an area of the Tien Shan mountains in eastern Kyrgyzstan that runs down to the southern shoreline of Issyk-Kul, a huge saline lake filled by melting snow from the country’s high altitude frontiers with China and Kazakhstan.
To help him out, Dros contacted Visit Karakol, a local tour company run by Timur Akbashev, who he met on his first trip. Akbashev, with young assistant Ibraim Almazbekov, brings the essential off-road vehicle to the road trip, plus a passion for exploring uncharted areas.
And so, in early 2019, with the sun shining and patches of winter snow still on the ground, Dros, Akbashev and Almazbekov set off from the city of Karakol – home to a small ski resort – and begin their odyssey westwards.
Waiting for perfection
Day one covers familiar ground for the Visit Karakol team, with stops at Broken Heart Rock, a well-known landmark and Skaza (Fairytale) Canyon, an extraordinary terrain of colorful weather-eroded rocks that, in one place, resembles the Great Wall of China.
Dros is in his element, stalking the landscape with camera in hand, then unleashing his drone to hunt and capture abstract overhead images.
Shots are meticulously planned. At one point Dros crouches for 10 minutes, waiting for the sun to move into position. Then he begins planning for nightfall, using a phone app to figure the best time to backdrop these amazing rocks with the Milky Way.
The night shoot means snatching a couple of hours sleep before returning, bleary-eyed and wrapped up against the cold, to carefully climb up the crumbling sides of a narrow ravine in darkness.
Even then it’s not simply a matter of pressing the shutter. Dros is a perfectionist, taking multiple versions of the same shot which he later combines into a layered image in Photoshop to ensure every detail is in focus and correctly exposed.
“I will try to do everything in one shot,” he says. “But if I can’t, I won’t hesitate to take multiple exposures and stack them. This is fine for me because I’m trying to show the landscape in the best way possible.”
After a few more hours of post-dawn shuteye, the team hits the road again, passing through Kaji-Say, a small town where the collapse of nearby Soviet-backed mining and uranium processing industries has clearly taken its toll.
Polite locals, some wearing traditional Kyrgyz felt hats, stroll over to say hello and ask what’s going down. The country’s ethnic mix is visible here, pale Russian faces occasionally appearing among the descendants of Turkic nomads.
In the afternoon, Akbashev swerves off the main road along a dry riverbed that serves as an unsignposted track into the mountains. Giant battlements of red terrain rise on either side.
It’s an incredible, hidden landscape that even Akbashev has only seen once before – testament to the sheer abundance of natural wonders Kyrgyzstan has to offer. After a pre-arranged photo shoot with a traditional eagle hunter, it’s time to scout for night shots.
When the team returns later to clinch the “epic” space explorer shot with Akbashev posing by the huge slab of rock, there’s excitement in the air as Dros realizes he’s found what he came to Kyrgyzstan for.
“What’s really cool about this is that I’m the first to go there and photograph it, so maybe I can give it a name myself … and when I put it on social media, people will recognize the place with its name,” he says later. “It’s like the modern version of planting a flag.”
In fact, it’s Akbashev’s 22-year-old assistant, Ibraim Almazbekov, who comes up with the idea of calling the red valley “Mars Canyon” and suggests naming the rock where his boss posed “The Iceberg.”
Dros conjures up his own name for a piece of Kyrgyzstan the next day when the team follows another dried-up riverbed snaking between cliffs of baked mud near the village of Ak Say.
Sending his drone up, he photographs a vast labyrinth of old water channels that stretch out in either direction, cutting the Earth into shapes that resemble droplets.
Dros calls it “The Canyon of Tears,” – another mind-blowing landscape that, if Kyrgyzstan ever hits the tourism mainstream, will one day be swarming with visitors. He jokes with Akbashev that they should build their own tollbooth at the entrance and start charging.
The new place names may, as Dros hopes, catch on via his considerable Instagram following, particularly as they weren’t previously called anything.
“Kyrgyz people aren’t bothered by names,” Akbashev shrugs. “There are so many places and mountains without any. Maybe under Soviet times they had names like Lenin Peak or Stalin Peak, but now, no.”
Back to The Iceberg
Over the next few days, the road trip visits more “epic” scenery spots, with highlights including the frozen, creaking waters of Orto-Tokoy reservoir and the more well-trodden highlands above the Boom Gorge, where sizzling power lines dangle from huge pylons.
Sometimes it’s just a roadside spot where horses graze against a backdrop of mountain storm clouds.
And in between, there are stops in comfortable small hotels and guesthouses, where hearty, delicious meals of dumplings and stews cooked by local families are accompanied by black tea, bread and homemade jams.
But Dros the perfectionist is drawn back to “The Iceberg.” Despite his epic night shot, he didn’t capture it with the Milky Way in the background and the oversight begins to gnaw at him. “What if someone else comes along and takes that shot?” he wonders.
So, another sleepless night sees the crew reassemble in the darkness beneath the slab, Dros choreographing lights and Akbashev scrambling back up to his perch. As the constellations slide into view, the Dutchman captures the moment.
And is he satisfied now?
Almost. On the drive back to the hotel, a pink glow begins to build in the rearview mirror as soft daylight breaks over the snowcapped mountains.
“Ahhh, I just had a thought,” he says ruefully. “I should’ve flown the drone to capture the sunrise. You can’t have everything.”