SITTING STILL IS difficult for Matthieu Paley. The Hong Kong-based French photographer has an energy level most only reach after a few shots of espresso. But this hyperactivity - wanderlust combined with a curiosity for cultures - has fuelled his travels to some of the most isolated regions of the world: from the vast velvety plains of Mongolia to photograph the golden eagle, to the mountainous countries of Central Asia that most of us struggle to pronounce, let alone visit. 'What's amazing about these mountain regions is they are harsh and selective by nature. It kicks out the crap and keeps the good, hard-working people - whatever their background,' Paley, 35, says. And it's in these high-altitude environs, free of modern-day distractions, where Paley finds peace and inspiration - with the help of a cup of tea. And some dung. Yak dung to be precise. 'Some people meditate, sit in a cave for days. My meditation is waking up in a tent at 4,000 metres, making a nice brew on the dung fire, loading the donkey and walking 10 hours in a wide space. It cleans the hard drive.' And that hard drive has absorbed a lot, experiences downloaded from time in the 'knot of civilisation': northern Pakistan, western China, Afghanistan. It was in these parts that Paley first made contact with the Kyrgyz community in the Little Pamir mountains, a far-flung part of Afghanistan bordering China, Tajikistan and Pakistan. After the 1979 Russian invasion of Afghanistan, 1,200 Kyrgyzs found refuge in Turkey, dividing loved ones and families. Paley and his German wife Mareile - a graphic designer and writer who has accompanied him on many trips - had an idea: they would re-open communication lines by hand delivering letters written by the exiled Kyrgyz in Turkey to their Kyrgyz relatives in Afghanistan. Some had not been in contact for 25 years. In the summer of 2005 the intrepid mailmen, and their donkey, started the 300km delivery service from Pakistan, walking the entire trip. But their project almost didn't happen when, on day two, the donkey - loaded with cameras, food, passports and the mail - fell about 200 metres. 'I was pushing the donkey and Mareile was pulling but he slipped and rolled down a cliff. It was traumatic but, amazingly, after a few minutes, he got up and we continued. The only real damage was about US$5,000 in smashed lenses.' From that journey was born Letters to the Pamir, a lecture presented at the Asia Society in Hong Kong and last year's Vancouver Film Festival as well as French mountain festivals. Their teamwork also extends to other projects for development organisations such as the Aga Khan Foundation, World Conservation Union, and FOCUS Humanitarian Assistance in Pakistan. Add a number of books into the pot, including a cookbook on northern Pakistan cuisine, as well as exhibits at galleries in New York, France, Germany ('but not yet in Hong Kong') and a picture of a life less ordinary starts to emerge. Born in Normandy, Paley found inspiration in the words and images of 'old school' photographers, some now in their 70s who he has since befriended. Photos from his parents' journeys to Afghanistan, Iran and Indonesia in the 1970s also fed his passion. But when he told his parents that he wanted to pursue photography, he was met with stoic silence. 'The phone line went quiet ... they were pretty shocked. I'd just completed a four-year degree in international trade and was finishing off an internship in Jakarta, so my parents were wondering exactly how photography would fit into that picture. I think mum only started accepting it when I was published in Geo ... then she could tell her friends. They've been supportive ever since.' At 23 he moved to New York and completed a photography degree at Parsons School of Design. Restless in the city, he and Mareile first trekked for three months through western Mongolia before moving to northern Pakistan in 1999 where, for the next three years, he roamed the country, and its neighbours, providing images for Geo, National Geographic Adventure, Newsweek, Time, and Vanity Fair. Paley, who speaks German ('for the wifey'), English, Urdu and Wakhi - a language spoken by only 50,000 people - has little tolerence for people with myopic views of other cultures. 'I like to expose grey areas, show that nothing is black or white, good or bad - that in every nation there are good and bad people. Sounds silly, but most people put whole nations into one category. It drives me nuts.' While assignments have taken him to the Polynesian island of Tuvalu to see the impact climate change has had on the sinking island, and to Manila to capture the underground gambling scene, it is the mountains of Central Asia that have had the strongest pull. 'Stick your finger in that region and your arm and body will get swallowed.' His website ( www.paleyphoto.com ) is a visual feast of life in remote lands: images of ruddy-cheeked Mongolian children, the Hunza people of northern Pakistan and heart-wrenching pictures like the tormented Kyrgyz woman going through opium withdrawal, and a shot of a 10-day-old malnourished girl, who later died because her mother, suffering from mastitis, was unable to feed her. 'This is hard sometimes, feeling powerless. We live in a visual world and images are my little tools to hopefully get people and organisations to do something.' In contrast to barren mountains and snow-blanketed plains are scenes from the world's biggest Sufi festival in Pakistan where for three days more than a million Sufi devotees take part in an around-the-clock orgy of colour and dance, twirling themselves into trance-like states amid swirls of laughter in a haze of hashish. For this intrepid freelancer, Hong Kong's an ideal base, and Shek O his village of choice, allowing him to indulge in other passions such as surfing and climbing. But you won't spot him on the beach this summer. The couple, along with their two-year-old son Iluka, will be travelling around Tajikistan. 'We'll be based in the Pamir mountains for about three months. Iluka has almost got his tongue around Ta-ji-ki-staaaan ... almost.'