Konyak tribal people – once fearsome warriors and head-hunters, now dying-out culture of Nagaland, northeast India. They are recognised by their facial and body tattoos, their age is seldom confirmed, but estimated from 80 to over 100 years. It is believed that in 10 or 15 years these Konyak head-hunters will be buried beneath Christian headstones in the mountain villages and since their history is not stored in any pleadings, the living memories of their unique cultural existence will disappear for ever.
Daily life in an illegal slum near an active railroad track – trains pass here on a regular basis dangerously close to the people and their shelters.
I spent my teenage years in communist Czechoslovakia, often lamenting on my bad fate, hoping for a better place of birth in my next life. Twenty-five years later, while roaming all the slums of Kolkata, I could not resist and texted my parents to thank them for my fortune. If I had a number to God, I would have sent him a copy too.
In the evening I continue to the largest ghost town in the world, Agdam – a symbol of suffering and hatred of two nations. All houses are in ruins, only one mosque was spared the fury. From the top of its minaret I stare at the horrifying consequences of the conflict, reminiscent of nuclear disaster. While cruising the dusty roads of the once vibrant city I cannot resist a mix of sadness, fear and despair. Before the war, fifty thousand people lived here – today, the town is all forsaken and only abandoned dogs cross my path here and there. After nightfall I notice glimmering light in one building. From its courtyard, hidden among sacks of fruit, three men observe me suspiciously. Ernest, Boris and Michael are processing their fertile harvests of pomegranates and, of course, drinking vodka. They do not hesitate too long to invite me in, and between many stakans (I told you that driving a car is not an excuse here, didn´t I?) they keep telling their stories.
On the way to the south I pass through several villages to be assured, again and again, about unbelievable hospitality of the locals. I am offered countless invitations to households, given more shashlik I can digest and more vodka I can metabolize. Raya and Volodya Gryginov, both in their seventies, invite me home for coffee and lunch as soon as I get out of the car in the village of Karmir Shuka. Fractured iron gate in front of their house is pierced with bullets from automatic weapons. Volodya shows me several places in his garden where the grenades fell. He tells me of his sons and daughter, all of whom fought in the nearby mountains; they were 17 years old then. “Next time you come here, enter without knocking, the door is never locked,” he sums up in one sentence the mentality of the villagers.
Villages are often riddled and rarely maintained; the remains are gradually overgrown by vegetation. Monuments along the roads are the only modern structures I can see. In the village of Togh a boy is waving at me to invite me for a lunch with his family – my second lunch in a few hours. To decline would have been extremely impolite so I enter the house, one of the few that has got a roof. Vera, the boy´s mom, had prepared lunch as if she expected me – shashlik, halva, baklava, cheese, jam and of course vodka – everything is of domestic production. Many people here are relying on themselves – it is far to a store and there is often little or no money to be spent. Through the window, Vera points to the ruins of a neighboring house; an Azerbaijan family used to live there. And they lived there in peace; as neighbors they celebrated, together they went to church or to the pub. But the war changed everything. All Azerbaijan villagers disappeared, leaving only ruined houses behind.
I continue to the north, along the Azeri border, passing through Askeran, Tigranakert, Martakert. Twenty years after the conflict the traces of war are visible everywhere: the overturned tank torsos, destroyed houses, military trenches and empty shells in the fields. I’m still within sight of the hot line. In the streets I see more uniformed than civilians. As soon as I step out of the car in Martakert to make a few images of shattered cultural center a uniformed soldier approaches me with a never-ending series of questions: “Why are you taking pictures?” “What for?” Why? When? What? Luckily he becomes interested in a little compass attached to my pants. I decide to give it to him as a little present to save the photos on my cards, swiftly get back in the car and leave.
Behind the village on the road I meet Stephen, an evident homeless. I offer him a lift, he pays back by telling stories. Stephen gives me the insight from the other side of the border. As an Armenian he lived in Azerbaijan, from where he was exiled during the war. He tells me how he fought for freedom of the Nagorno-Karabakh, had been wounded many times, but because he came from Azerbaijan, the government identified him as a potential terrorist. To this day, he did not get any apartment, nor pension; he lives in a retirement house and wanders around the village.
On my way back to Armenia through a mountain Sotka pass I taste what it means off-road driving in Nagorno-Karabakh. Asphalt is torn at first, then none at all. Just holes, mud, rocks, and in higher altitudes the first snow of this year. In the mountain saddle I step out of the car to pay farewell to Nagorno-Karabakh. The evening haze envelops the “Black Garden” in a white veil and softens the contours of the landscape. It occurs to me in that moment that it metaphorically symbolizes the perception of Nagorno-Karabakh by the outside world: no matter how beautiful, still hazy, fuzzy, and illegible.
Photo gallery of Nagorno-Karabakh:
I have just returned from a magnificent trip throughout India! The country has so much to offer to anyone with open eyes: from the ecstasy of Holi festival to the grief of hardworking children in the mines of Dhanbad, from the imposing beauty of Taj Mahal to the disappearing tribal people of Konyak in Nagaland, from Kumbh Mela festival to the slums of Kolkata. Here are some quickly selected photographs – more to come along with stories – so stay tuned!
Click on the gallery below to see images in higher resolution (incl exif info)
Stealing coal is not effectively banned in India, neither is child labor. It both regrettably unites in the coal mines of Dhanbad!
Česká verze tady.
I am sitting atop a dune in the Rub Al-Khali desert. Sand as far as the eye can see. Only in the distance I note our little camp crouching in the desert – two cars, two tents and fire – the only sign of civilization for miles. The wind lifts the sand off dune ridges and the setting sun is dying it red-hot – as if flames of fire were leaping around me. After dark, the wind subsides and utter darkness and silence surround me. Through all my senses I am privileged to perceive the meaning of the words “Rub Al Khali” or “Empty Quarter”.
Text and photo (c) by Frantisek Staud/www.photostaud.com
This story was published in a Czech Geographical Magazine – Koktejl. Full royalty pament was sent to Medecins Sans Frontieres
I am in the middle of my voyage through the Sultanate of Oman, a country of Sinbad the Sailor and the Queen of Sheba, a country of breathtaking sceneries, volcanic mountains, chiseled canyons, secluded beaches and ……deserts. My journey begins in the capital, Muscat, and after several hours of comfortable asphalt road we turn the steering wheels towards the north, filling up the tanks of both 4×4 cars and ten reserve canisters to the brim and releasing some air out of the tires. Sand, in all imaginable forms, will be our home for the coming two weeks.
The infamous gateway to Rub al Khali on the border with Saudi Arabia is called “Umm Al Samis” (Mother of poisons). It is a hazardous area of loose sand, salt marsh and no signs of life. The tight-looking crust is very treacherous if it breaks under the wheels of a car. From a distance it looks like a freshly plowed field; if you set your foot on it, it crunches and reveals a snow-white salt under the layer of brown clay. Committed to its name, the Mother of poisons looks very unhospitable and Bedouins have avoided her for ages – so have tourists. Flat horizon all around me is disturbed by occasional projections of fata morgana; and one of them reflects the first contour of Empty Quarter.
With an area of 650,000 square kilometers, the Rub al Khali is the largest sand desert in the world. If you can imagine the whole of France covered with sand, you can imagine the dimensions of the Empty Quarter. “Not even Allah has been there,” Bedouins warned the oilman Thomas Barger, when searching for oil in the late 1940s. Dunes can reach heights of up to 300 meters and their slopes are decorated with symmetrical wrinkles – as if combed by a snowgroomer.
Driving here without experience would be a nightmare, but for our veteran drivers, Tom and Stephan, the steep sand-hills present no obstacle and our offroad whisks us surprisingly easily to any top. Driving across the dunes resembles an elevator ride: someone accidentally presses the buttons and I’m just waiting to see if my stomach is buoyed up or pushed in the opposite direction. It will take me a few days before I get used to this buzzing rollercoaster and will be able to take photographs and write notes. With increasing mileage the desert changes its texture and color – immense red dunes are replaced with wind-formed dunes of barchan type, which are traveling with the wind. My shoes had for long been left abandoned deep in the trunk of my car and I’m enjoying the barefoot luxury. The fine grains of sand, pleasingly chilling in the morning and nicely warm in in the evening, give me the most satisfying caress.
When a “petrol station” appears behind one of the dunes, I can hardly believe my eyes, but a sign on a wooden pole says so, with an empty canister lying in the sand. A twelve-year old Bedouin girl sells her souvenirs to passing tourists. Yet, I see neither petrol, nor tourists. We meet more Bedouins after a few kilometers, adults sitting in the shade of their tents and offering handmade hats, carpets, or sandals. Behind the tents, their children play baseball in the dust, with branches of the palm trees instead of bats. They react to my presence by throwing stones in my direction, which I attribute to their passion for the game and decide to withdraw.
Every evening before sunset, we look up a spot for camping, usually high in the dunes. If you could imagine France covered with sand, then the glittering vault of stars above the desert is simply beyond imagination! Every night I fall asleep by the fire and burning frankincense, gazing into the deep black sky, hesitating if it is Cassiopeia or the Pleiades, who put me to sleep tonight – in the best hotel in the world, the five-(billion)-star hotel “Under the Milky Way”. The night-wind sweeps sand into my sleeping bag, ears, eyes, nose and all other body openings – but I couldn´t care less.
“Rise early, for the hour after sunrise is borrowed from paradise,” an Arab proverb speaks, and here in the Rub Al Khali’s it´s doubly true. Therefore, every night my alarm clock wakes me up at 2 a.m. and, surrounded by sand and stars, I set out into the bowels of the dunes in search for nighttime photographs and the deafening silence. Silence, which we have voluntarily urged from our lives, and which we cannot listen to any more. The mirror and shutter of my camera cuts the night like a gunshot; I feel sorry to disturb the peace and harmony so I carefully consider each exposure. At least I have time to thank the desert for giving me the honor to stay in such a beautiful place, bigheartedly tolerated by scorpions, snakes and spiders.
We continue west along the border with Saudi Arabia, towards Yemen. Along the way we meet abandoned Bedouin shelters, regrettably filthy and full of plastic garbage. Like the rest of the country, the Bedouins have undergone an unprecedented transformation over the last few decades. The famous British explorer, Wilfred Thesiger, who traveled here in the middle of the last century and spent “the most beautiful years of my life” with Bedouins, would hardly recognize them. They drive pickups in the desert, with camels resting on the back of the car as if enjoying a family outing, they shop in the markets, wear jeans, carry plastic bags and communicate with mobile phones. The government has built several settlements for Bedouins all around Oman, each of them featuring hundreds of homes, a mosque, school, hospital and police station. Bedouins do not have to pay rent, only electricity and water. Still they prefer their traditional huts in the desert – barasti – built from palm trees. Barasti have one definite advantage for the nomads; they can be rolled up in no time, like a carpet, thrown on a pickup and driven a few miles away.
Scattered like cauliflowers, forgotten and long fossilized, thousands of geodes are peeping out of the salt plains between the dunes. Hollow spheroids crack under the weight of our cars and let me peek into their bowels; while the outside is uninvitingly gray, eroded by wind, sand and sun, inside I see glittering crystal of limestone, being formed over hundreds of thousands of years.
Several points of the dessert are crisscrossed by dried-up rivers, wadis, in the footsteps of ancient streams. One of the longest, wadi Dawkah, stretches hundreds of kilometers from Saudi Arabia to the Arabian Sea. The entire length is lined with mimosa trees that keep their chance to live only through their roots, searching for water as deep as several tens of meters. Semi-wild camels, as far as they can reach, nibble the green crowns of mimosas, making the trees look like heads with carefully trimmed afro-hairstyles. Completely different is the rocky Wadi Al Haugh, a paradise for geology teachers, witness of the immense volcanic activity and geological chaos. One does not need much imagination to see in every rock formation the face of the last of the Mohicans, or characters from fantasy stories. They all seem ready to run or take off – thousands of years waiting for a command.
Wilfred Thesiger once wisely said that no one leaves the Rub al Khali unchanged. After two weeks of wandering through the sands, the last dunes are disappearing behind the shimmering horizon and the wind has wiped out my footprints. On my cellular I see the first signal of a local operator. Dirty, dusty and boyishly happy I put on my shoes again and step into a luxury seaside hotel near Salalah. Lined with polished marble and scented with oriental fragrance, it opened just a few months ago. Still, I am afraid that its five stars will be infinitely too few for me tonight!
To see more photographs from the deserts of Oman in higher resolution, click on the photo-gallery below: