As he traveled, he casually studied photography. The more he shot, the better he wanted to get. So by 2013, he swapped his Sony for a Canon 6D. At first, he says, “I really had that imposter feeling, where I was afraid to pitch to publications I really wanted to be in, because I didn’t think my stuff was good enough.” Instead, he set his sights low, pitching to online blogs and magazines that paid between $20 and $50 a post: Matador Network, Nomadic Matt, Vagabundo, GoMad Nomad. It wasn’t enough to live on, but the extra cash helped supplement his travels and motivated him to keep shooting.
That changed in 2013, when he got a story about Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor published in WildJunket, one of the web’s most popular digital travel magazines. “Something about the presentation of it, and the fact that the brand was well known – that was something I was proud of,” Lioy says. “That was the one that gave me the confidence.” After that, he started aiming higher. He got his first pitch accepted to BBC Travel with the World Nomad Games, which in turn inspired him to pitch Lonely Planet. He’s since become a regular contributor to both the website and guidebooks, where he’s helped cover Kyrgyzstan, China, Eritrea, Texas and Tibet.
The Secret Is Always Access
When Lioy first entered Central Asia, he traveled slowly overland, taking time to engage with the local culture. There was just one problem: “To have conversations with average people was almost impossible to do if you didn’t speak Russian,” he says. “I saw Russian, really, as the key.”
Kyrgyzstan happened to nix its strict tourist visa requirements for Americans around this time, so he decided to head over to study the language. Once he arrived, he just decided to stay.
“Culturally, I find Kyrgyzstan a lot more open and interesting and friendly” than other Central Asian countries, he says. “Especially that kind of nomad mountain culture – I’d go hiking and pass these yurts with families picnicking, or on a horse, and almost every time they’d invite me in for some horse milk or something.”
In the small town of Arslanbob, for example, an annual walnut harvest draws locals to live in tents in the forest every September, climbing tall trees to shake the branches and picking fallen nuts off the ground. One father welcomed Lioy with meat dumplings and tea, detailing how, as a migrant worker the rest of the year, the walnut season allowed him to spend a whole month with his family.