When the pandemic clipped her wings, Alexandra Karadzhova decided that, despite everything, she had to escape. It wasn't as much a desire to travel - a knee jerk response to closed borders and lost holiday opportunities - as an urgent need for creative fulfilment and a fresh perspective.
Karadhova, who first caught the attention of SUITCASE editors in early 2021 when she won a scholarship to Corona's Female Creator Fund, was seeking a way to document a totally different environment and culture. "I just wanted my mind to be fresh," she says, simply.
The answer lay in successfully pitching herself as a documentary filmmaker to a Kyrgyz travel company with access to some of the Central Asian country's most spectacular landscapes and remote communities. Leaving the fatiguing news cycle and social media scroll hole behind, Karadzhova travelled from her Bulgarian hometown of Plovdiv to Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, before heading off on a road trip that, she tells us, was liberating in unexpected and eye-opening ways.
Meet our cover photographer, documentary filmmaker Alexandra Karadzhova
What was it like to be shooting off-grid in Kyrgyzstan?
Arriving at the airport at Bishkek, my initial thought was that I had travelled back in time, even if only to 30 years ago. Kyrgyzstan was once communist, and the buildings took me back to the vestiges of Soviet influence that I saw growing up in Bulgaria. Once outside the capital, however, a different landscape emerged - or rather, many, ranging from mountains thousands of metres high, to deep canyons, bright green fields and enormous lakes. With few roads and very patchy mobile phone signal, I started to feel time passing differently, after waking each morning from nights filled with vivid dreams.
How did you communicate with locals without a common language?
At a small yurt camp near Song Köl lake, high up in Naryn Province, I spent time with a local family that lives in a hard-to-reach village nearby. They put up the yurts every year in May and stay there until October. Although I don't speak any Kyrgyz and was trying to learn some Russian along the way, interacting with these people wasn't hard, because it came from the heart. They cooked for us, piling the dining table with food and finding it funny that we wanted to film the process. After dinner, night rolled in and I quietly watched the starry sky, reflecting on the fact that, when 5am came, I'd have to say goodbye to this family, and others, and would probably never see them again.
How did you meet Ruslan, the eagle hunter on our cover?
The drives across the Kyrgyz landscape are so long and so otherworldly, it's hard to imagine how the caravans of the Silk Road that once ran through this country could ever have made the journey. At the end of a day that felt like we'd been travelling across Mars, I met Ruslan, one of the few eagle hunters left in Kyrgyzstan. Showing off his treasured bird, which he had named Karabarchin, Ruslan explained how the eagles are caught when still in the nest, then trained for six months, ready to be active hunters for the next 15 years. After that, they're released into the wild again, where they can reach up to 60 years of age.
Who else did you meet along your journey?
Towards the end of our journey, we travelled to Sary-Jaz, a region on the Chinese border. At more than 4,000 metres above sea level, it was cold, windy and dark. The rain slowly turned into snow and our original plan to sleep in tents disappeared into the thin air. When we saw a lonely shepherd's house, we sought shelter. Mayrambeck was the name of the 27-year-old man who let us in, with a big smile on his face. Inside, it was warm and cosy. Time drifted by as we waited for the dawn and its beautiful views - peace and stillness in the air.