Silk Road journey in photos | Richard I'Anson

Voted by Lonely Planet as the best region to visit in 2020, Central Asia's Silk Road is more accessible than ever before.⁣⁣ It also makes for an impressive photographic journey through the epicentre of Silk Road history.

Award-winning travel photographer and best-selling author of Lonely Planet's Guide to Travel Photography, Richard I'Anson, shares his destination highlights, the stunning images captured on his recent photography tour and the places he would return to in a heartbeat.

It has such a rich and varied history centred on places with the most exotic sounding names like Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva. It also feels like it’s still relatively undiscovered to mass tourism.

Woman playing traditional instrument, Bukhara, Uzbekistan |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i> Pilgrims with traveller at Shah-i-Zinda, avenue of mausoleums, Samarkand |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i> Observe intricate needlework in Bukhara |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>

From the architecture of Uzbekistan to the striking landscapes of Turkmenistan, each stop along the Central Asia Silk Road journey turned heads.

"Every city in Uzbekistan was centred around impressive buildings – mosques, medressas and minarets – great to photograph and to revisit at different times of the day," says Richard. "The Darvaza Gas Crater and Yangykala Canyon are two of the most dramatic and unusual landscapes I’ve seen. Combined with the fantastic camping experience we had at both places and being the only visitors there makes them a clear highlight."

Ulugbek Medressa, Registan, Samarkand |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i> Interior of the mosque in the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa, Samarkand, Uzbekistan |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i> Mir-i-Medressa, Bukhara, Uzbekistan |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>

We had plenty of local encounters and they were always friendly. The locals were very welcoming and importantly, for my group, happy to be photographed.

Uzbekistan's architectural sanctuary

The contrasting desert and mountain landscapes against far-reaching and extravagantly ornate buildings is spellbinding, and the sheer grandness of the structures will make you feel impossibly small.

Registan Square in Samarkand, in particular, is a remarkable maze of mosques, tombs, palaces, fortresses and medressas with distinctive azure roofed domes, majolica tiles, towering minarets, intricate mosaics and exotic bazaars. The people as well are friendly, engaging and don't mind taking a selfie or two.

A cultural highlight for Richard was visiting Shah-i-Zinda or the 'Tomb of the Living King' and its avenue of mausoleums.

"Architecturally the tombs are beautiful with intricate, colourful tilework, but the highlight for me and my group was that it is a place of pilgrimage, so it’s very active with local visitors paying their respects," says Richard. "The local visitors were very keen to interact with the group, take photos, selfies and talk."

Pilgrims at Shah-i-Zinda (Tomb of the Living King) Samarkand, Uzbekistan |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>Pilgrims at Shah-i-Zinda

A place he would return to capture again though? Samarkand. "I could always spend more time at the Registan," says Richard.

Facade of the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa at dusk, Samarkand, Uzbekistan |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>Facade of the Tilla-Kari (Gold-Covered) Medressa at dusk in Samarkand

First impressions of Turkmenistan

A country nestled between Uzbekistan and Iran, Turkmenistan, according to Richard, is one of the strangest places he's visited.

"Particularly Ashgabat, with its white marble building, outlandish public buildings and major roads with hardly any traffic. We even had to stop and have the cars washed before we entered the city or the driver’s risked being fined," he says.

Ashgabat, Turkmenistan |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>Night views of the city of Ashgabat

Richard, however, did experience some issues when photographing in Turkmenistan, but nothing that spoilt the experience.

"In Ashgabat certain government buildings were out of bounds, that’s not uncommon, but also, we were restricted in regional markets, which was more annoying and is very unusual," he explains. "We were even told we couldn’t photograph the impressive lobby of our hotel. They are still learning how to deal with tourists."

Camping by the Darvaza Gas Crater

A memorable experience, to say the least, is a visit to the Darvaza Gas Crater, also known as the 'Door to Hell'. Located north of Turkmenistan in the middle of the Karakym Desert, the crater is a vast, fiery pit that has been burning for around 47 years as a result of a collapsed natural gas pocket after a Soviet-era gas exploration. It's a truly spectacular sight and camping beside it makes for an unforgettable overnight stay.

Turkmenistan's Darvaza Gas Crater, also known as the 'Door to Hell', at sunset |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>Darvaza Gas Crater at sunset

"It was great," says Richard. "We ended up staying in fixed gers/yurts, which were large, clean and comfortable and located within a 5-minute walk of the crater making access to the crater for our evening and morning shoots easy."

Travellers taking in the striking scenery at the Darvaza Gas Crater |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>Travellers enjoy the striking crater scenery

Capturing the colourful shades of Yangykala Canyon

Heading east via the Balkan Mountains, Richard and his group journeyed to the magnificent Yangykala Canyons, defined by sheer cliffs of white, yellow, ochre, purple and red – the most beautiful colours unveiling themselves at sunset. The canyon's name is derived from the Turkem expression "yangi kala", meaning "fire fortresses" and is a dream location for photographers.

"As with all landscape photography you want to be shooting in the first and last hours of the day when the amazing colours of the canyon are brought out," says Richard. "I’d also recommend shooting before the sun comes up when the light is even, and you don’t have to deal with harsh shadows and shooting into the sun so many more of the rock formations can be included in compositions."

Turkmenistan's Yangykala Canyon at sunset |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>

"I’d love to revisit Yangykala Canyon, it is quite a remarkable place."

Camp at Yangykala Canyon, Turkmenistan |  <i>Richard I'Anson</i>Camp at Yangykala Canyon, Turkmenistan

Images courtesy of Richard I'Anson who led a special Silk Road photography tour.

Silk Road, Tashkent, Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Samarkand, Turkmenistan, Yangykala Canyon, Darvaza, Ashgabat, Turkmenbashi, Photography, Photography Tour, Richard I’Anson, Khiva, Registan Square

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