Exploring Central Asia with a Nikon D7000

Exploring Central Asia with a Nikon D7000 by Jeremiah Gilbert (WebsiteFacebook500px):

I like to travel light, usually just one camera and two lenses (a wide angle and a moderate zoom). I travel with a Nikon D7000 as it, along with my Sigma 10-20mm lens, is noticeably smaller and lighter than my D600 equipped with a Nikkor 16-35mm lens. It would also be considerably cheaper to replace should it be lost or stolen. These go into my Think Tank Retrospective 5 bag, which is light enough to carry all day and doesn’t look like a camera bag.

It was this combination that I took with me to Central Asia last spring, beginning in Xi’an, China and ending up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. It was a month retracing the Silk Road, or at least one route of the Silk Road. Besides some French and German tourists, this is an area that sees few Westerners and the only region in my varied travels where I was asked to pose for photos with locals.

Traveling west of Xi’an, one is reminded of the vastness of China. It is a 22-hour train ride from Xi’an to Dunhuang, leaving at 11am and arriving at 9am the following morning. Dunhuang is known for its Mogao Grottoes, a system of 492 cave temples spanning 1000 years, and its Crescent Lake situated amidst rolling sand dunes. Being China, the sand dunes include ladders draped along them to make them easier to climb.

It’s another 9-hour train ride to Turpan, this one leaving from a frigid platform in the middle of the night from a remote station. Here is where China becomes less Asian and more Middle Eastern. Arabic starts to be heard far more than Mandarin and the people look more Central Asian than Han Chinese. Among many other sites, Turpan serves as a gateway to the ancient city of Jiaohe, located at the foot of the Flaming Mountain. In the 14th century, the city was damaged and abandoned due to warfare between Mongolian aristocrats and Uigurs.

Kashgar is the westernmost city in China, located near the border with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Here I shift into street photographer mode while attending their Sunday animal bazaar. Along with my wide angle, I travel with a medium telephoto lens, which I switched to for this experience (in this case, a Nikkor 18-105mm). There are rows and rows of trucks with animals, ranging from goats to camels, along with a back lane used to run horses. There are also makeshift eateries serving food and drink, as negotiations can be lengthy.

It’s a long drive from China to Kyrgyzstan along a 100km no-man’s land. After several Chinese checkpoints, the Kyrgyzstan checkpoint is quiet and the guards don’t seem to know what to do with the group I’m traveling with, so they line us up by nationality and have us sing our national anthems. This seems to please them and soon our passports are stamped and we’re officially in the country.

I spend my first night in Kyrgyzstan in a yurt beside the ruins of Tash Rabat, a well-preserved 15th century stone caravanserai. One comes to Kyrgyzstan for its natural treasures, not its ruins, so it is nice to be so close to one of the few there are to find. Another is Burana Tower, near the town of Tokmok. The tower, along with some grave markers, is about all that remains of the ancient city of Balasagun.

The city of Karakol began as a Russian military outpost founded in 1869. In the 1880s, Karakol's population surged with an influx of Dungans, Chinese Muslims fleeing warfare in China. As a result, one finds a Russian Orthodox Church only a few blocks from Dungan Mosque, decidedly Chinese in its architectural style.

Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital city, is an industrial break from the country’s overflowing natural beauty and retains a decided Soviet feel with its grand squares and monuments. This is in stark contrast with Uzbekistan, my next destination, which has been making a conscious attempt to remove all remnants of its Soviet past. The Cyrillic alphabet is all but gone and there’s hardly a hint of Soviet architecture in the capital city of Tashkent.

The architecture that is found in Uzbekistan is a wide-angle shooters dream. There is such intricacy to try to capture but it seems out of context if zoomed in on, and there are wonderful lines to work with. There is also the history of the land, from its association with Islam and Tamerlane to its ancient cities and trading routes. Markets can be found in every city, some dating back centuries.

After arriving in Tashkent for a night, I head to Khiva, an ancient walled oasis city famous for its unfinished blue minaret. Along with its unfinished minaret, one comes across Djuma Mosque, which retains 112 columns taken from ancient structures. One can also climb atop the city’s wall for panoramic views if they can find the right man behind the right door down the right turn to give their money to.

The region around Bukhara has been inhabited for at least five millennia, and the city has existed for at least half that time. Due to its location on the Silk Road, the city has long been a center of trade, scholarship, culture, and religion. Its Kalân Mosque, for instance, was completed in 1514 and is able to accommodate 12 thousand people. In Bukhara’s market area I buy a foldable knife that I’m not sure I’ll be able to get back into the US, but the seller has a warm personality and an inviting smile. Centuries of inherited practice, I’m sure.

Samarkand has carefully preserved the traditions of ancient crafts: embroidery, silk weaving, engraving on copper, ceramics, and painting on wood. It is also home to Guri Amir, the mausoleum of the Asian conqueror Tamerlane. Guir Amir served as the precursor and model for later great Mughal architecture tombs, including the Taj Mahal. One also comes across Shah-i-Zinda, a necropolis complex formed over nine (from 11th till 19th) centuries, which now includes more than twenty buildings.

My travels end back in Tashkent, whose Hotel Uzbekistan retains a modern Soviet style. Inside, when exchanging money, I am reminded by the woman behind the glass that I will not be able to exchange it back, so be sure to spend it. “I’m only in the country one more day,” I reply, as a means of explaining the small amount I had exchanged. “Good,” she replies, “be sure to spend it all.” Guess I’ll go explore some more markets.

03_Turpan_Jiaohe 28_Uzbekistan_Tashkent
25_Uzbekistan_Samarkand 24_Uzbekistan_Samarkand
19_Uzbekistan_Bukhara 17_Uzbekistan_Bukhara
15_Uzbekistan_Khiva 13_Kyrgyzstan_Bishkek

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  • Spy Black

    Interesting trip, I’m surprised he didn’t consider taking images during twilight or evening.

    • I didn’t travel with a tripod on this trip. That, and we had some very early starts the required an early end to many days, at least for me.

      • Spy Black

        Well, by “twilight” I meant the times between sunrise and sunset. Early morning sun generates interesting shadows as well.

        But whatever, nice work.

  • dosco

    Wow! Place and images are much more interesting than D7000…

  • Andrew

    This shows you want can be created with any photographic equipment. The ability to see the picture, frame the shot, and seize the moment cannot be taught. That is what makes photography such an individualistic art!

    • MonkeySpanner

      Well, the D7000 also really is pretty good equipment. Maybe not the latest and greatest, but still a really great camera.

      • The differences with the newer cameras are SO incremental and pretty much visible only at 100%…and NOBODY but you looks at them like that.

        • MonkeySpanner

          Definitely. In fact, most of the “art” images I see printed when I am out and about – is not super sharp. No one is getting too close and looking to make sure it is razor sharp. No one really cares. The overall ascetic is what people really care about. Is the color nice, is the framing pleasing, is the subject interesting. Those sorts of things are WAY more important.
          The only people who bite their fingernails over pixel level lens sharpness are nerds here on these forums. No one else really cares.

        • Zachary Larsen

          I still don’t have a compelling reason to upgrade my D90. I’m not a pro, but a decent amateur, and my D90 is still a heck of a vacation/travel camera.

          • The D90 is a really good camera. I switched to the D300s because the controls are laid out better, it’s an anvil in terms of durability and the autofocus is faster and more accurate. But the IQ is better with the D90. I’m paying the bills with this and need the advantages of the D300s more than the tiny bit of improved image quality.

  • j cortes

    The D7000 has always been a more than capable camera . It’s laughable to hear anyone say that they are surprised it was used to get great images. It’s all pretty much up to the photographer anyway. Equipment and gear are just a small part of the equation .

  • DarkHole

    ” and doesn’t look like a camera bag”….. I couldn’t stop laughing at this ignorance.
    Anyone who puts time into stealing cameras knows the brand, and knows exactly what their bags carry. When I went to Nepal last year, I was amazed at some of the people who knew a lot about camera gear, looking at them you wouldn’t have expected it!

    • I was thinking for theft, I just find most camera bags that look like camera bags ugly.

  • Yay D7k, the camera that got me “into” “photography”. This was the camera that brought low light out of the shadows and into the mainstream. I had a D50 previous to it and the difference in low light is way more than the difference between a D7k and say a D710. There was a huge step forward when this came out bigger than anything else since in my opinion.

    • MonkeySpanner

      Yup. IQ has not increased a lot in DX since the d7k. It is still very much a relevant camera. Especially for images destined for the web.

      • I just sold some 32″ X 40″ prints to a restaurant for their bar. I shot them on a D300s and they look amazing in there. The owners were blown away. DX is very relevant.

  • BernhardAS

    Many of the individual pictures are interesting and i like them as such. However if i scroll down the full series there seems to be a lot of repetition of the perspective and distribution of graphic elements. Two patterns stand out in my opinion. If you draw an imaginary line over the whole post starting with the main element in the first picture and scroll down. Nearly all main elements will be on this line. Pictures like the guy sitting next to the vase are a welcome exception. In my opinion more variation would be better.
    Just my two cents.

    • Nikon1isAwesome!

      Check out more crap D7K shots…..


      • BernhardAS

        I did not say “crap”?
        and the flicker link does also not bring up “crap”.
        However I agree my initial critique was a bit too mild mannered. I thought the Author was an amateur travelling.
        After visiting his website and discovering that he is a professional travel photographer and a college professor, I was quite disappointed with the basic quality of many pictures shown.

  • olmec

    I really appreciate content value of these photos, good job. However when have a look on quality meaning sharpness and colours
    its pour. I moved from D50 to D7000 and I am so disappointed with full
    day light photos. Obviously with high ISO D7k i way way better and it
    can shoot grate pictures but with standard day light it is not working. It often shoots with backfocus and colours are simply bland… I can see the same problems on these photos.

    For me D7k is crap but respect for Jeremy for taking best out of it

    • Ernesto Jr Robina

      Hi Olmec. Have you ever tried using different Picture Control? I am a D7000 owner too and I am surprised with what you are saying. Nikon DSLRs are set to neutral straight out of the box. If the colours you get from this look bland or flat to your taste, then you can play with other options such as ‘vivid’ if you want punchy colours. And you can also create your own picture control by playing with adjustment sliders for brightness, contrast, saturation, etc.

      Check this out:

    • MonkeySpanner

      What are you smoking? D7k is a great camera. If you can’t get good images out of that camera, then don’t bother spending a lot more – it won’t help.

    • Nikon1isAwesome!

      Here is some more D7K crap….


  • markus

    I am still using my D7000 all the time. A more than capable camera.
    Really awesome work Jeremy!

  • harvey

    Was this on a tour of some sort because this looks very interesting?

  • jimh

    Looking at these excellent photos reminds me why I think DX is the path (I also have a d7000). Every day we’re being pushed harder into FF – bigger and heavier, and oh so impressive, offering small improvements in IQ in limited circumstances. Meanwhile DX gets out there and gets the pictures.

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    • It was a month-long tour with G Adventures.

  • Michiel953

    If you take pictures like these DX is perfectly adequate.

  • Carleton Foxx

    Beautiful. Thanks for taking us there with your photos.

  • Better yet, carry a few more cards and shoot RAW.

  • Eric

    I don’t have experience with this, so if you’re not interested, I understand. I find the odd perspective of the wide angle photos distracting. I know it’s sort of cool artistically, but I’m wondering if putting those images through some kind of software to adjust the perspective back to “normal” might make some of the pictures more appealing. Definitely nice work, though!

    • I do correct some wide angle shots (when the perspective is too distracting). It’s a matter of taste, of course, and keeping in mind that correction will also crop the shot a little.

      • Ferdinand Bautista

        Hi Jeremy, thanks for the great picture. Can you share your d7000 picture settings here? I am also a D7000 users and i find ur photos sharp and crisp with balance contrast and color rendition.

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