In the mountains of the Black Garden (II)

Second part of a travelogue from Nagorno-Karabakh by Frantisek Staud
Text and photographs © by the author.
For the first part, click here.


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.


People of Nagorno-Karabakh

Shaken, but not broken – people of Nagorno-Karabakh

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.

Agdam, the largest ghost town in the world, Nagorno-Karabakh

Agdam, the largest ghost town in the world, Nagorno-Karabakh

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.

People of Nagorno-Karabakh

People of Nagorno-Karabakh

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.

People of Nagorno-Karabakh

People of Nagorno-Karabakh

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:

Sudan

Lion temple of Musawwarat es-Sufra under circling sky, Sudan

Lion temple of Musawwarat es-Sufra under circling sky, Sudan

I have recently returned from another “trip of my life” – this time Sudan. What a ride! Three weeks of adrenaline-filled delight, more than a few sleepless nights (Sudan is predisposed for nighttime photography), thousands of miles on my odometer, thousands of photographs on my hard-drives and, most importantly, countless beautiful people in my memory forever!!!

Village bakery, Sudan

Village bakery, Sudan

Thank you people of raidantravel.com for helping me out with my dream come true! Especially Ahmed, for his big heart, and Ghazi, for being such a great driver, guide, chef, person and friend. Without you, my journey  would have been half as succesful!

Shadows on the wall, Sudan

Shadows on the wall, Sudan

These are some quickly picked images I managed to process – stay tuned for more!

Venice Carnival

Legs and blue veil, Venice carnival, Italy

Beauty in blue, Venice carnival, Italy

The famous Venice Carnival is coming soon, so I thought I might feed you some inspiration for your travel photography. The below images were taken in 2004 – in the old days of analog cameras and film rolls. Back then, I was heavily using my trusty, all-manual, Nikon FM2n and Fuji Velvia films – so do not expect any EXIF data this time 🙂

Beauty in pink Woman dressed in ornamental carnival costume, Venice, Italy

Beauty in pink, Venice, Italy

And do not forget to keep your eyes open! It is not only about people wearing masks; there is much more to see and photograph in the beautiful city of Venice and neighboring islands!

If you plan to visit the festival in 2016, here is some travel information on telegraph.co.uk.

 

Photography in Southern Africa

south-africa-kruger-park-001

Leopard (Panthera pardus) hiding in the bush of Pafuri, Kruger National Park, South Africa

During a four-week trip throughout South Africa, Swaziland and Zambia, I was lucky to photograph the wildlife of six National Parks. A great part of the trip was bigheartedly sponsored by Wilderness Safaris who were generous enough to host me in their Kalamu, Lunga, Pafuri, Shumba, and Toka Leya lodges. Thanks to their well-trained, knowledgeable, experienced and patient guides, I was privileged to photograph a variety of African wildlife up close and personal. Actually, too close, sometimes 🙂

south-africa-kruger-park-020

Close up portrait of African elephant (Loxodonta africana), Kruger National Park, South Africa

This expedition included altogether 16 plane/helicopter takeoffs (and fortunately as many happy landings 🙂 – aerial photography was, therefore, an inevitable part of my daily routine. Helicopter flights over the Victoria Falls and the plains of northern part of the Kafue National Park (Zambia) were especially rewarding.

Aerial photograph of Victoria Falls, Zambia

Aerial view of the Victoria Falls, Zambia

Contrary to my other journeys, people photography was not a priority during this trip; however, I managed to bag a few pictures of Zambian children in the local villages.

 

In this carousel slideshow,  I am leaving all the exif data here for you – so that you can learn some details.

 

Swaziland

The Kingdom of Swaziland is a landlocked country bordered by South Africa and Mozambique. It features several National Parks and Game Reserves – heaven for the wildlife photographer. I was privileged to visit Hlane National Park and Mkaya Game Reserve.

Lions of Hlane National Park, Swaziland

Lioness with two cubs (Panthera leo), Hlane Royal National Park, Swaziland

Hlane means “wilderness” in Swati and Hlane Royal National Park is Swaziland’s largest protected area. With 30 000 hectares of Swazi bushveld, Hlane is home to an abundant and diverse wildlife. Together with Mkhaya Game Reserve, these are the best places in Africa for tracking and photographing elephant and rhino on foot.

Namibia

Namibia was one of my first photo assignments. I travelled the obvious photo locations such as Sossusvlei or Etosha National Park, but also visited off-the beaten track areas such as Bushmanland. The highlight of the journey was renting a Cessna (without doors) and taking photographs of the Namib Desert at sunset from above.

It was back in the era of analog cameras and Fuji films. All these pictures were taken by my bellowed Nikon FM2 camera and Nikkor prime lenses. I carried two plastic bags of films – Fuji Velvia 50 and Fuji Provia 100 – about 120 rolls altogether. And then I spent days and days, actually nights and nights, of scanning.