Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

In Da Nang and Hue

August 13, 2013 1 comment

This is third time I am going to visit Vietnam. I have been north and south before so it was time to pay visit to Central Vietnam. With 5 days to spare (including flights) there was not too much time but I was hoping to see some of Da Nang ans Hue. This was also the first trip I solely relied on small cameras, in my case Fuji X100S and Fuji X-E1 with 35mm Fujinon lens. I figured the Nikons are to heavy for street walkabouts and I left them at home.
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Annapurna Base Camp Trek

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

I landed in Kathmandu, Tribuhvan international airport on 21st December 2012 early afternoon. After getting through immigration and picking up the baggage I went through exit door looking for my friend Agasta who is awaiting me. Soon I spot him in the crowd. It was nice warm greeting after two years. We took the tiny taxi from airport and of we went to infamous Thamel district in central Kathmandu. Not much has changed since my last visit. City looks like war zone. Lots of dirt, rubble, dust, bad roads and traffic. I spent the night in Thorong Peak hotel, in the heart of Thamel but nicely tucked away from the main street. Agasta invited me to his place for dinner. His wife cooked my favourite sherpa stew and after dinner we had some Nepali whisky. Feeling like home. Life is good.

Flight to Pokhara next day is smooth. Windows on the plane are so dirty, that it is impossible to make any usable pictures. There is not much on on today, only short stroll in the city and along the shores of Phewa lake. Air is dusty and horizon covered in haze. I didn’t even get a glimpse of the mountains. Pokhara is the second biggest city in Nepal, although cleaner than Kathmandu, yet still suffering from dust, dirt, rubbish and regular electricity outages.

My body, still still functioning according Singaporean time, woke up pretty early. I quickly run to the lake to take some early morning shots. Then back to hotel for breakfast and after that I meet our porter Dawa. Next 60 minutes we spend driving in the smallest taxi in the world to Nayapol, the trekking starting point. Around 10:30 am the adventure continues on foot.

Passing several settlements, forest, hillsides. after few hours we had lunch at guest house of interesting name “Welcome to See you Hostel”. Also almost every guest house has word “welcome” split into two words, something like “well come” or even “well.come”. I found it funny 🙂 After lunch we climbed up long rigorous steps to a small village called Uleri where we stayed over night. I really liked the people living there. I felt a sense of community that holds together and works together towards common goal. Food was excellent, as always. A warm fireplace just added something on top of already nice experience. Agasta and Dawa had huge portion of “Dokeh” (I think that is how it is spelled). Dokeh is a traditional “mountain” food. Nepali people living in the mountain regions eat it often as it is rich on carbs and energy, thus well suited for the mountain life. Tt looks like chocolate cake (according to them) but to me it looked like …..ehm. You know what. I had a bite and just by itself it is fairly tasteless however they eat it with veggies, curry and some sauce (maybe dahl). I found the portion they got big enough for entire expedition but the managed to finish it all. Amazing….is this the secret to strength in mountains?

We wake up next morning bright and early. After quick breakfast and hot coffee we left the village and continued our ascent to Gorephani, which is the largest village on the route. Something like “Namche Bazar” of Annapurna region however not nearly as big. We walk mostly in Rhododendron forest. I encountered something similar in Tengboche (Everest region) however there were Rhododendron bushes as opposed to trees. At Gorephani we stayed in a big guest house with bunch of other groups. This village has an excellent view of Dhaulagiri (8,167m), the seventh highest peak in the world. I walked around a lot and tried take pictures from every possible location, not forgetting the interesting subjects in the village along the way. In the evening all people gathered in big dining where we sat by fireplace (lucky ones who managed to snap the place). I tried the Nepali Roxy (lical drink made from millet) for the first time. As it was the Christmas Eve, it was welcome addition to dinner. Nepali Roxy tastes like rice wine. Not very strong, not very tasty for European mouth but still good nevertheless. We didn’t stay up late, since early next morning we were about to hike up to Poon Hill, a traditional viewing point of Annapurna Himalayan range. If we are lucky and have visibility we can spot another eight thousand-er in the distance, Manaslu, at 8,156m the eight highest mountain in the world.

Next morning I wake up way too early. First, the sleep hasn’t been good. Gorephani is in 3210m and thinner air affects good sleep when not acclimatised to it. Second, I forgot to set my watch to Nepali time. Anyway, I crawled out of sleeping bag at 3am morning (as I determined later when I realised my mistake). Got dressed and headed out. I was surprised that I didn’t see people gathering but on the other side I really enjoyed quiet although freezing night. The sky was full of stars however the light pollution from guest house and other buildings around prevented the full on enjoyment or perhaps sight of Milky Way. I didn’t have headlamp with me so I opted to stay in lit areas or close to it and prevent broken ankle or leg. Eventually, the time has come and people started gathering for Poon Hill hike, which is another few hundred meters vertical distance from Gorephani. We climbed it pretty fast since it was very cold and the workout kept us warm. Around 7am the theatre performance began. The view was breathtaking. Yes it is a very touristy spot (similar to Mt Bromo sunrise spot) but still. Sight of Himalayan peaks lit by the first sun rays is something you don’t get to see every day. And as always I say, no sunset beats early morning light. It is just beyond comprehension how beautiful it was and I don’t think any photograph make justice to what was unfolding in front of us. Sadly, sunrise is a fast process and time has come to head down for breakfast and then start another leg of the trek.

Trek to Tadaphani was not eventful. We dropped to 2680m. Next 2-3 days we spend in similar altitude before we go up above 4000m to Annapurna Base Camp. This is very good way of trekking because by the time we reach the base camp, we will be well acclimatised. Going up to fast increases the chance of getting AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Tadaphani is a small village with good view of Annapurna South and Fish Tail given the good weather conditions.

Our target for another trek day was Chomrong (2170m). Although almost in same altitude as Tadaphani, it sits on completely different mountain rib. So it means get all the way down to valley and then climb it back again. I was surprised to find a German bakery in the village. Cinnamon roll was a welcome change to rather boring food routine. It was nearly frozen but tasted bloody good. After ice cold shower I warmed up by fire, drying clothes, brewing tea and drinking roxy. I was the only tourist guest there, all others that gathered around the fire were locals, guides and porters. I loved every bit of it, although I didn’t understand what they were talking about, Agasta here and there tried to translate the main point of discussion to me. Every time they mentioned roxy, the grin on our faces turned into broad smile and we happily had another sip.

I found myself walking in deep in the canyon that leads to Annapurna Base Camp the next day. As on many previous locations we walked down what we climbed the day before and then climbed it back again on yet another mountain rib. We made couple of stops to rest and replenish. About half way we learned that there might not be enough room in Himalayan guest house (where we intend to overnight) for everybody. To gain advantage over other people on the way I rushed ahead to reach the guest house first and book the room. I was literally running up the hill/stairs. To my surprise I did quite well, although out of the breath I was not that tired (my endurance is not the best in the world). I reached the “hotel”, booked the room and we were safe for the day. As the place was deep in the valley it got limited time of sunshine and it felt quite depressive. I was quite happy to leave the place and get on with rest of the trek. About half way to Machapuchare Base Camp (MBC) we left the tree line behind. Now it looked more “mountainish”. Following the river stream uphill (probably of glacial origin), crossing few side streams on the way we caught up with other group who’s lead guide had to go down due to his AMS (acute mountain sickness) symptoms. Upon reaching the Machapuchare Base Camp at noon, Agasta said “very fast walk”. I was quite pleased with myself. Everest trek two years prior was not so smooth for me, but that was of course in much higher altitudes and with no acclimatisation stops. Still I felt in a great shape. There was a discussion whether to continue to Annapurna Base Camp the same day. I voted for staying at MBC. We had time, this stop was planned so I didn’t see reason to rush up the mountain. The place was very nice, with rocks, grassy hillsides covered partially by snow and with good view of Fishtail. There was lot to see and photograph especially on very nice and sunny day we enjoyed. I was running around the camp, climbing the ridge above it and looked into huge glacial valley between the camp and Fishtail. The sheer size of mountains is just breathtaking. After the sun hides behind the mountains the temperature drops rapidly and soon it reaches zero before dropping even further. Weather also tends to change in matter of seconds. We are in Himalayas, it can be unpredictable. I remember the morning in Dingboche two years ago. We arrived in a scorching heat and by the time we had dinner we were freezing in the dining room. Next morning we woke up to a different landscape, covered in few inches of fresh snow, at the end of May.
I was photographing a sun just hiding behind one of the smaller peaks. In less than 30 seconds that peak was completely hidden behind thick fog and clouds which were rolling into valley at astonishing speed. Cold and freezing wind forced me to go in, warm up with cup of tea and fill my stomach with huge portion of dahl bat.

Sleep was restless that night. I woke up couple of times finding myself gasping for air. I slowed down my breathing and took few deep breaths. At least on two occasions I was awaken by a distant rumbling which I learned later was sound of avalanche. And finally about 5am it was a dog barking. I felt for the poor bugger as he followed us all the way from Chomrong. At MBC the dog was quite sick. Yes, even dogs get mountain sickness. I dragged myself out of the sleeping bag and went outside to check on weather. I really wanted to shoot Milky Way and at this altitude I though the sky will be pretty clear. So it was but also the moon was extremely bright and it made lots of stars “disappear”.

I washed my face in icy water, packed the sleeping bag and got ready. Hour later people started to wake up. Quick coffee followed by breakfast and short after we were on our way to Annapurna Base Camp. As it turned out, it was not that far away. Well rested, we managed to cover the distance fast. Landscape was lit by beautiful morning sun and now I really felt I am in Himalayas. Soon the nearly 4km high face of Annapurna I emerged from horizon and I was looking at the most deadly mountain in the world. Although I couldn’t see the peak due to parallax, it was huge. Technically not the hardest mountain but it is very avalanche prone and frequent weather changes turned it into a beast in the course of history. Less than 150 people climbed the mountain, more than 50 died trying.

Base camp is a bunch of stone built buildings with simple rooms, dining and kitchen attached to each building. Its sitting at 4130m. Behind the camp is a huge ridge which is the edge of glacial valley starting at Annapurna’s footstep. Glacier is mostly covered by rock and dust and sits at the bottom of the valley, constantly on the move. Climbing the mountain means to rappel down into the valley, cross the glacier and start the climb on the other side. Already quite dangerous prospects as glaciers are known to be very unstable.

I wanted to take advantage of sunlight and climbed the ridge together with Agasta all the way to where grass stops growing. we stopped right at the foothill of Annapurna South. It was (according to Agasta) about another 200 vertical metres above base camp. We took couple of snapshots. As we sat there in the grass we heard sudden rumbling. Quickly turning around I spotted a bunch of rocks and ice sliding down the glacier on Annapurns South’s face. It happened just in a blink of a second. Enough to grab few (hopefully ok) shots. Just behind the base camp sits the memorial site for climbers. The biggest one belongs to Anatoli Boukreev, one of the best climbers of his time that was swept from the mountain by avalanche in 1997 and never seen again. It was quite humbling moment for me. I stood there few minutes in silence to pay my respects to a man who single handedly saved 3 lives during 1996 faithful season on Everest. Most leading climbers at the time it was described as almost in human effort and I think this man was a hero (no matter what Jon Krakauer and his likes say about him).

You do not understand what kind of person Anatoli really was. You are American, he was Russian. You’re a newcomer to the Eight-thousanders, he at this level was the best of all time. You are a normal mountaineer, he was a great athlete and an animal of survival. You have financial security, he has known true hunger .. I think you’re like one of those who, after reading a medical book, claims to teach one of the most skilled surgeons in the world how to be a doctor … if you really want to pass judgment on the decisions taken by Anatoli in 1996, remember this: No client of his expedition died.” – Simone Moro

I returned to the camp for lunch. I put my camera on the table and went to grab something from room when I heard already familiar rumbling and screaming from outside “avalanche, avalanche”. I rushed out, grabbed camera and pointed towards shown direction. It was Machapuchare with huge snow cloud forming on it’s slope. At that point my camera turned into “Kalashnikov”. The avalanche was quite major taking into account that we were at that point few miles from the mountain. The snow cloud felt big. I took a few shots and luckily they turned out quite good. Shortly after a helicopter landed in base camp bringing rich and lazy tourist for lunch/dinner. With USD $3000 for one hour of flight time it is rather hefty price to pay. Millions of photos later, that people took posing in front of helicopter, it finally lifted and disappeared in the distance.

Later afternoon I returned to a big flat area behind memorials and set up for photo I had in mind for a while. It was to promote foundation which I am supporting. Sun came down faster than I though and building the url from little stones was little more laborious than I initially thought. But I made it, although it is not a pretty picture it will serve the purpose. Later in the evening, around 10:30pm I ventured out again to take night shots. Moon was once again too bright, nearly could take hand held shot. I tried star trails but there was only few above Annapurna. So I turned back to face Machapuchare with much more stars in the sky however the overly bright moon would spoil the shot. I returned to my room by midnight since my fingers were frozen to the point I could not operate the camera any more.

After very short sleep, I was out of sleeping bag again at 4am. That’s a dedication 🙂 Set up for sunrise I was waiting for first rays to peek through the mountains. Whole sunrise theatre is quite short but it is spectacular. By the time it was nearly over other people in the camp managed to drag themselves out of the sleeping bags. At 8am the sun was already too high in the sky. It’s strength was amplified by snow reflecting the rays back. One could get snow blind without sunglasses. After quick breakfast I was ready to go down. We were about to cover a distance that took us 3 days on the way up. After about 8hrs of walking, climbing and descending we reached a village of Sinuwa, just across the valley from Chomrong. On the way it was slippery due to a layer of snow, the result of yesterday’s big avalanche. Today was the first day i was really tired. Distance we covered was big. I allowed myself to have a can of coke and also took a shower, first time in last 3 days.

Next day we stopped at Jhinudanda. We had some awesome relaxing time in hot springs, two small pools of hot water next to the river. As it was little crowded we left little earlier than we planned. That day it was New Year Eve. Surprisingly, everybody went to bed early. We wished Happy New Year to each other next morning as we were getting ready for another day of walking. After 8 or so hours we reached the village of Pothana, the last mountain village on the way. This is the place where I saw the most beautiful and colorful sunset on the trek so far. Last destination we were about to visit is  Serangko, a small village or rather group of hotels and guest houses on the hill just behind Pokhara. With excellent views of Himalayan range as well as whole city is popular destination for tourist who don’t have time or interest in trekking. It is also a place for ever popular paragliding. At the times there is no less than 20 para-gliders in the air at one time and all relatively close proximity to each other. Local people here are definitely different from mountain people. Place is not so clean as mountain villages as they are more oblivious to what condition their environment is. Views of the Himalayan peaks were negatively affected by dust andthick haze. Photographs came out with extremely compressed histogram and I will have to rely heavily on camera’s ability to capture as much information as possible given these conditions.

After descended to Pokhara  next morning, we officially finished the trek. I said goodbye to Dawa as he headed home to Kathmandu the same day. I shared room with Agasta since hotel was full. Next morning we boarded the bus to Kathmandu and of we went. It was supposed to take 7-8 hours. Approaching the 5hr mark I saw a table clearly saying that our destination is only 30km away, so I though we might do it below 6 horus. How wrong I was. There is a mountain range to cross before bus enters into Kathmandu valley. Road is extremely narrow, barely enough for two truck to pass next to each other without collision. And boy, there are hundreds of trucks stuck in the biggest mountain traffic jam I ever seen. In the next hour we barely covered 1km. At the times we came so close to the edge of the road that I really feared the worst. As we finally reached top of the hill with check point I though things will go faster. It took one more hour till we reached our destination not far from Thamel district. We opted to walk to the hotel and in less than 30 minutes we reached the Thorong Peak guest house. I finally got a hot shower and after evening at Agasta’s place over bowl for my favourite sherpa stew I finally set to rest. Next day I spent exploring Kathmandu’s sights. The end of the trip was here and it seemed to be so short. I wished I was back in the mountains but it was time to say goodbye to Agasta and Nepal. I really hope I’ll be back….sooner rather than later 🙂 Namaste.

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Kathmandu, the gateway to heaven

January 15, 2013 Leave a comment

Or is it? I would say yes and no. With the only international airport in the country, Kathmandu is the only destination for all international flights to Nepal and so all tourists visiting Nepal and the Himalayas have to go to Kathmandu. Most tourists get settled in the infamous Thamel area in the center of the city, with its narrow streets, markets, trekking shops, and the nearby Durbar Square.

Kathmandu is the capital and, with almost one million inhabitants, the only metropolitan city of Nepal. The city is the urban core of the Kathmandu Valley in the Himalayas… (Source: Wikipedia)

To get there, one must endure a taxi ride from the airport through a city I would describe as the capital of dust. Getting a cab at the airport is an experience in itself as cabbies fight amongst themselves to get the client. Often, as it happens in the nature, the strongest survives. Observing the streets from the cab, one wonders how a human can survive in so much dust. The occasional face protection offers very little help against it. The visibility of the whole Kathmandu Valley from viewing points is poor: barely half a mile due to a thick haze of dust. That is the case even in the morning when the air is supposed to be a little clearer. And I noticed this time (2012) that it was much dirtier than during my first visit in 2010.

Although Kathmandu is at a relatively high altitude of approximately 1400m above the sea level, the heat can be scorching in summer months. Even in the winter, one is able to walk around sans a jacket or in short sleeves without getting cold. Other than the dust, the rubbish is the big problem: it is literally everywhere as it appears that the city has no communal garbage disposal or collection service in place. The people don’t seem to care as they throw cigarettes, paper, bottles etc around carelessly. And I have to mention the spitting as well. Everybody, including women, girls, and kids, spits in Kathmandu like it was the national sport. It happened to me several times where a guy just spat at my feet right before he offered me a rickshaw ride.

Especially in tourist areas, it is quite common that you will be offered marijuana or hashish or other kinds of drugs. Once, while waiting for my friend Agasta, I had three different sellers approach me in less than five minutes.

Kathmandu is very rich in historical and religious sites though. The main religions are Hinduism and Buddhism, and there are many temples, stupas, and shrines of all sizes scattered around the city. Buddhist sites are generally cleaner and better maintained. One of the biggest is Boudhanath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the whole of Nepal. The other one is Swayambhu, commonly called Monkey Temple. Swayambhu is both a Buddhist and Hindu religious site, and in cases of good visibility, it offers a great view of the whole city and a big part of the Kathmandu Valley. These two are the most visited sites by tourists, with exception of Durbar Square.

For a photographer, Kathmandu is a golden mine. Sometimes it is hard to decide where to point the camera. Things are happening and life is unfolding right in front of you. If you walk away from the tourist strip of Thamel, you can get better idea how the Nepali live in the city. And you don’t have to walk that far. People are generally kind. However at tourist spots, they’ve learned to appreciate the tourist dollar and might ask you for money in exchange for permission to take their pictures, especially the very poor or the beggars. One needs to use common sense and good judgement about when to ask for permission or to just snap a candid picture. Generally, people are fine with you taking pictures as long as you don’t push the camera right in their face. I would advise waking up early and visiting the streets between Durbar Square and the tourist strip of the Thamel district. It is a fairly short walk, but in return you experience the morning “rush” which is quite exciting and also inspiring for a photographer. Generally, mornings are better since many tourists opt to stay in bed rather than go out. Also, the air is  a tad cleaner. As the first morning sun rays hit the streets, the whole scene turns more lively, and with the slight golden hues, they are perfect for taking pictures. Soon though, the sun gets stronger, turning the streets into really contrasty subjects, which is hard for the camera sensors to handle. Also, it is a good idea to use a smaller camera. A big DSLR with a huge lens may scare some or trigger the “asking for money” process. A smaller camera allows one to be unnoticed as a photographer in many cases.

If you stay in Thamel, avoid taking any transportation to Durbar Square as it is within walking distance. I was offered a rickshaw ride there while I was standing just few blocks away. When taking a cab, negotiate the price. Taxi meters are non-existent. Avoid using motorbikes.The traffic may be dense, and the ”loudest horn’ rule applies everywhere. Here and there, you might spot traffic police basically doing nothing. The air is so polluted and dusty that after a motorbike ride you will be coughing out dust for days to come and your dust-caked hair turns into concrete. I had one motorbike ride myself and I suffered all the aforementioned consequences. At the end, I was happy it was over even though I was riding with my friend Agasta.

When you come to Kathmandu, your aim is probably to trek somewhere in Himalayas, most likely in the Everest or Annapurna region. There are plenty of fellows in Kathmandu claiming to be guides, and while they are mostly very kind and helpful and can take you to places, they may also show you “Everest” in the Annapurna region. A tourist who does not know their geography may get the misguided impression that they saw the top of the world (as I witnessed  in Poon Hill, Annapurna region). Always check if the guide has a valid guide licence. I will try to get a copy from my friend Agasta for you to see what it looks like.

There is an abundance of guest houses in Thamel and also around Boudhanat. As I only stayed in one (Thorong Peak Guesthouse), I cannot really say anything about the quality of others. Check the room first before paying. Also, beware of electricity problem in Kathmandu. There is no way you can get power during the day. It is usually turned on in the morning and the evening for couple of hours. The better guest houses run generators which give you an hour or two extra, but that is it.

Food is still relatively cheap in Kathmandu, and you can find all sorts, from Nepali to European or Asian. I recently discovered a few German bakeries along a trekking trail in the Chomrong, Annapurna region which were quite nice. I didn’t really eat street food due to its exposure to all that pollution. Restaurant food is fine though.

Kathmandu is an exciting city and it has lot to offer. On one hand, it is dirty, with bad roads and dust; on the other, it is rich in cultural, historical, and religious sites. If you go there, just accept it as it is and enjoy. Remember, it is most likely a culture very different from yours. Just embrace it and enjoy.

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Preparing for Annapurna base camp trek

December 13, 2012 4 comments

I am very excited about my second trip to Nepal. In 2010, I had the opportunity to visit the country for the first time, and I made it up to Kalapattar, just across the valley from Everest. This time, I’ve decided to visit the Annapurna base camp which is the second most popular destination after the Everest base camp. I am doing it off-season in winter, so I am hoping for less tourists and more snow. Let’s see how it comes together.

This circuit is considered one of the best treks in the world though road construction is threatening its reputation and its future as a classic trek. Yet no one disputes that the scenery is outstanding: 17 to 21 days long, this trek takes you through distinct regional scenery of rivers, flora, fauna and above all – mountains. (Source: Wikitravel)

I’ll be on the road for 15 days and mainly following the traditional trek route. I am quite happy that I will be joined by my friend and guide from 2010, Agasta. He is a great guy with extensive trekking experience and knowledge about the mountains and the people. He also speaks many of the dialects used by the people in the mountains. It would be possible to do this all by myself, but I don’t need to be a hero. Besides, altitude sickness can strike anybody, even a seasoned mountaineer, so it is good to have somebody around, especially one who speaks the local language.

As I am an avid photographer, cameras will be an essential part of my outfit. There are a few important things to note. On this trek, we will be going up to altitudes around 4300m above sea level. That is not the highest that regular treks go to, but it is high enough to test the physical fitness, especially of somebody like myself, who was born in low lands and spends all day sitting in the office. When it comes to gear, the most important consideration is weight. Everything you carry feels at least twice as heavy at 4000m as it would at sea level. The less gear you have, the more freedom you have to move around and “work” the scene.

On a trip like this, recharging batteries might be a problem. First, there is either no electricity up in the mountains, or it is provided by generators that are costly to run, thus you will be charged for recharging batteries. Another issue is the cold, which drains batteries much faster. As a solution, it is good to travel with 2-3 spare batteries (depending on how much you shoot). Always keep batteries warm; the best is to place them in pockets close to your body. Putting the batteries into your sleeping bag during the night is a good idea as it usually gets very cold.

Then there is an issue of image backup. Since I am not a professional photographer, the loss of images wouldn’t be so crucial to my business. However, if possible, it is always a good idea to have at least one copy of your images stored somewhere else besides the memory card. I usually take my laptop on every big trip I go on. I had a small netbook the last time I went to Himalayas. This time I am considering leaving it at home and taking only a whole bunch of memory cards with me. This way, I would save 1kg in weight and that can make a lot of difference.

As I do lots of landscape photography, and now that I own a D800, a tripod is essential. My “lightweight” tripod is about 4.5 kg and that is quite heavy to carry around. But that’s the price you pay for steady shots. I am definitely planning to take it with me.

I have to note that I will use a porter for my main bag so I can run around with my cameras. If one wants to make the most of photographic opportunities along the way, this is the best, although not the cheapest, option. Last but not least, I have to mention clothing. If you are wondering how it relates to photography, I say it does in some way. Some of the best pictures are taken in not-so-good weather. If my warm clothing allows me to stay outside longer while I wait for that perfect light, then I would consider it as essential gear to have.

So now, let’s see what I am actually taking with me:

  • Nikon D800
  • 14-24mm 2.8 wide angle zoom
  • 24-70mm 2.8 all purpose zoom
  • 2 extra spare batteries
  • remote shutter release
  • Manfrotto tripod
  • Lee filters 0.6 ND Pro glass and 0.3 ND grad
  • so far I have 100GB worth of CF cards
  • Fuji X-E1 with 35mm Fujinon lens as a backup camera
  • small items like lens cleaning kit, torch light etc.

This may seem a lot for some and too little for others. I’ve decided to leave my 80-200mm zoom at home. And I will probably leave my Macbook Air at home too. I am little undecided on that one. Honestly, I would not feel comfortable without having my images backed up.

Well that’s it for now. I will definitely let you know how it goes. I am very excited about this trip and literally counting the days till departure. I’ll talk to you all again after the trip.

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Myanmar, The Golden Land

October 30, 2012 3 comments

I was sitting on the plane to Yangon, excited about upcoming adventure in Myanmar. As plane approached the land, I was anxiously looking out of the window looking at flat land with lots of green paddies, very few roads or signs of industrial development. Then first buildings of Yangon emerged from behind clouds as plane entered the final stage of approach. Few more minutes and plane has touched down. It is October 19th 2012 15:00, Friday afternoon local time.

Burma, also known as Myanmar is a sovereign state in Southeast Asia. It is bordered by India, Bangladesh, China, Laos and Thailand. One-third of Burma’s total perimeter of 1,930 kilometres (1,200 mi) forms an uninterrupted coastline along the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. At 676,578 km2 (261,227 sq mi), it is the 40th largest country in the world and the second largest country in Southeast Asia. Burma is also the 24th most populous country in the world with over 60.28 million people. (source: Wikipedia)

Immigration procedure went fast and smooth, literally from getting off plane till leaving airport it was less than 20 minutes. It is good idea to change US Dollars to local Kyats on airport. As it turned out, the best conversion rate is available on airport. One thing that is important to note, only nice clean and unmarked USD bank notes are accepted throughout the country.

Burmese woman with tanaka

Burmese woman with tanaka

I had first glance of the surrounding during 30 minutes taxi drive to the hotel. First thing that strikes me, is the complete lack of bicycles and m motorbikes on the road which is something unheard of in South-East Asia. As I learn later, this is true only for Yangon, not the rest of the country and only government officials are allowed to use motorbike in the city area. Another interesting thing is, that cars drive on right side of the road here, however driver seat is on right side too. So it feels like driving English car in lets say USA or Europe.

Most of the buildings are quite run down which gives the place  a kind of magic charm of the past but streets are fairly clean. Men wear traditional Burmese longyi, which is a sheet of cloth widely worn in Myanmar. Females are mostly dressed in the htamein, one of the traditional dresses of Burmese women. It is very simple, yet it looks nice and girls, similar to Vietnamese, look way more feminine than in other countries. Most of the people, especially women, children and youth have thanaka on the faces.  Lots of the people, but mostly men chew betel. Betel nut is ubiquitous in Myanmar. Many people chew betel incessantly, despite half-hearted government attempts to curb the practice, or at least to stop the spitting associated with chewing. The streets are covered with big red blotches because, when locals finish chewing their quids, they hawk red gobs and streams of juice onto the roads and walkways, permanently staining the concrete.

Thanaka is a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. It is a distinctive feature of Myanmar (formerly Burma) seen commonly applied to the face and sometimes the arms of women and girls and to a lesser extent men and boys. The use of thanaka has also spread to neighboring countries including Thailand. (source: Wikipedia)

I caught up with a friend Nyi Joe. He was kind enough to buy bus tickets to Bagan since it was scheduled for next morning. After a dinner and short grocery shopping I am back to hotel for early start tomorrow morning. First impressions are very positive. People are very kind and smiling. Apart from place where we had dinner I didn’t see any tourists. It feels great.


Boy with his horse

Boy with his horse in Bagan

Bus ride to Bagan was long. There is a long debate about whether to use bus or local airline supported by government. Facts are that bus is much cheaper but entire day is lost. Distances are big, roads are not up to western standards and trip can have many unplanned breaks as I learned later. You have to make the call. I opted for bus  as I was also on the budget. The bus turned out to be faulty. The engine was overheating and it had to be cooled down with water from rivers, lakes or puddles about every 20-30km. Eventually after few phone calls they managed to send another bus. But it was little too late to make up for lost time. Bus arrived to Bagan in complete darkness, even though it was only 7pm. To clarify things, the bus arrives to the biggest village called Nyaung U ina Bagan area. This is where most of the restaurants, hotels and guest houses are. There is also Old Bagan and New Bagan. All these are about 5km apart from each other so it is easy to cover that distance on bicycle, horse carriage, taxi or even on foot.

Weather in Bagan is hot. It feels like being closed in the oven right from early morning. There is not a single cloud on the sky. Day starts with short stroll to the local market which is actually quite big. It is definitely not designed for tall guys like myself. It rather feels like walking in the cave with all the stalls are cramped together with fabric sheet cover on the top. I have to bend a lot to be able to walk underneath. Looks like any other market in Asia which means it is interesting to me. Until I cross to the “souvenir section”. Mistake. It is too late to escape now. Vultures spot the prey and they are right on me. I somehow managed to stay of their interest but friend that was with me had no such a luck. We are pulled to the right, to the left….”come to my shop, looking is free”. I thought I am used to this from other Asian countries but I never thought how aggressive it can get. I though the local ladies just pushed the whole thing to the new level.

Budhist monk from bagan

Budhist monk from bagan

It’s time to explore the surroundings and temples. That is ultimately the reason to visit Bagan. Probably the best way to do it is to rent a bicycle. What can I say, only blind can miss temples of Bagan. There is hundreds of them. The first one on the list is the biggest biggest one in Nyaung U, the Swezigon Paya. Not knowing the direction I came to pagoda from “back door”. No problem for local ladies to spot me though. I was waved at to come in. No problem, they will look after shoes (not allowed in pagodas) and bicycles “for free”. Of course there is nothing for free. I knew what I will have to go through once I come out. There was no other way though and I have to chew this through.

Nuns collecting alms

Every morning nuns and monks come out to the streets to collect alms

The main pagoda is beautiful, painted in gold which nicely contrasting with blue sky. Young monk novices as well as old ones are walking around accepting morning offerings. The pagoda is relatively quiet at this relatively early hour. It still has the magic charm but it was soon to be filled by more tourists. On the way out, exactly as I expected, I was welcomed by “our” ladies offering me a little chair to rest. It was conveniently turned towards all the souvenirs. I knew I have to buy something. Bargaining is not my nature and I don’t really enjoy it and I decided to go through this as quickly as possible. Picking a little decorated bamboo box I was ready to pay and leave, but the kept filling it with bunch of other souvenirs. They just couldn’t get that I want only the box. After I finally managed to escape I continued riding bike towards Old Bagan. I visited few temples on the way but sun was baking really hard and I decided to pick only the major pagodas, stupas or temples. As there are literally hundreds of them it is simply not possible to visit them all. My bicycle was too small for me and after I first time used the rear brake it stayed half locked so I had extra resistance to fight with. Just as sunset was approaching it was time to look for a spot to take good sunset pictures that Bagan is famous for. The place I found wasn’t a great one but sunset was approaching fast so I decided to stay. After it was over there was still 4-5 km bike ride back to the hotel. That last leg was though, hot sun and half broken bike sucked out the rest of the energy from me and I was back to the hotel completely wasted. Generally it is not smart to go out during middle of the day. Sun is just too strong and from photographic point of view even the beautiful temples of Bagan look flat and uninteresting in harsh light.

Swezigon pagoda

Swezigon pagoda is the biggest golden pagoda in Bagan area

The next day I moved to another hotel. I dropped a class but saved half of the price from previous one too. Short morning stroll to the river was refreshing and I had good time and chat with local family while sipping the coke and looking at surroundings. There were lots of scenes to photograph. Nuns in pink clothing going out to collect the offerings, women bathing in the river, horse carriages and generally family life to be observed right on the street. Afternoon I stumbled upon pagoda where I could climb up and have pretty good view over the Bagan temple area. I thought it is quite good spot for sunset viewing. I met a local painter Aung Aung who showed me around. Since I still had some time I went on exploring some other places but later on I returned and claimed my spot up in the pagoda. Few other tourists gathered there too but it was not crowded so the whole experience was pleasant. I didn’t have my tripod nor ND filters so I was heavily relying on the dynamic range my camera can produce. As it turned out later it was rather impressive (I mean dynamic range of the file).

Kids from Bagan

Kids from Bagan are very camera friendly

If you visit Bagan you will be constantly being offered a horse carriage which takes you to places of interests as locals know quite well what most of the tourists want to see. I politely kept refusing them. I really do not like bicycle as form of transportation but in this case I opted for it as it gives me the freedom to go where I want and for how long I want. Bugging the driver to stop here and there all the time seemed to me pointless. Also there is lot to discover just by walking on the streets. And I encourage everybody to do that. It is good idea to turn into some smaller side streets where there is more likely to find some good photographic opportunities as well as get more immersed into local lifestyle. And there is more chance to interact with people this way. Tourism industry is still very young in Myanmar however people quickly learned the value of tourist dollar. Occasionally you will be asked for “donations” or “money present”, also little change for exchange for photographs. This happens across Asia and I assume other parts of the world. The moral story is up to you to judge but it is generally not a good idea to give money or candies to children. Easy income in form of money can keep them out  of school. With no dental care in place the sweets can do a lot of harm in long term. If so it is good idea to give them different presents and they are appreciated like hair clips for girls, balloons, pens and notebooks. On this morning I discovered a pagoda that looked like dupplicate of the one from previous day. It had almost exactly same shape and floor plan as well as access to the top. In fact there was a local boy who joined me and led me to it. I met a monk there trying to talk to me in broken english. He said something like he foreseen that me and my friend will come and visit the pagoda and such. It sounded quite funny. He smiled from ear to ear showing his teeth in horrible condition, probably from chewing betel

Maung Maung Suu

Maung Maung Suu, the face of my trip in Myanmar

I have to mention the hotel Eden where I stayed and lovely Mr Maung Maung Suu. I really have to give a lot of credit to this uncle. He runs the hotel, always smiles and he is an extremely kind and helpful person. Anybody who visits Bagan or rather Nyaung U and are after budget accommodation, I can recommend Eden hotel. I will miss mr Maung, but it is time to move to the next stage of the trip.

Inle lake

The bus ride to Inle took about 8 hrs. This time there were no unexpected breaks although on one occasion they had to cool the engine down with a hose. This happened during regular break though. There were 4 young monk novices on the bus. They were definitely not used to it. Two of them got sick and I felt for the fellows. It was quite though ride when crossing the mountain range between Inle and Bagan area. Bus climbed quite high and road was winding with hundreds of sharp turns. Not easy even on seasoned traveler’s stomach as bus’ suspension was quite soft and it felt like being on the ship during the storm.

Bus reached Nyaung Swe village near Inle lake still in daylight. I checked into the hotel and went for first exploration. I noticed already from bus this area was definitely more “modernized” also with signs of industrial development on the way. Along with development came dirt and trash on the streets. As Bagan was quite clean, Inle is not so clean….there is lots of rubbish on the streets and it is very noisy as well. There is Festival of Lights going on so there are many markets and big crowds around. Youth is not dressed in longhyi any more as they wear jeans, have fancy hairstyles and they play “macho game”. Actually my first impression of the place is not the best and all of the sudden I miss the peacefulness of Bagan and mr Maung’s smile.

Fishermen village on Inle lake

Fishermen village on Inle lake

It is much cooler here during the night. Lake is about in 850m altitude and I feel it. Especially during breakfast on the hotel’s roof it was quite chilli until first sun rays started to peek out from behind mountains. Whole lake area is surrounded by mountains which keep out all the clouds. Sky above lake is crystal clear. as there is no plan about what to do I stroll down to jetty and hire a boat. I learn there will be a Buddhist “boat”procession on the lake later and I didn’t want to miss it. As I said that nights are cooler, the sun is as strong during the day as in Bagan. Even more so as sun rays reflect on the water surface giving them more strength.

Boats for hire are small narrow motorized sampans. They are very common here in various sizes. The ones for transporting tourist have 4 to 5 chairs with soft cushions and umbrellas to protect against the sun. Too much luxury I thought. It cost about 18000 kyats for a day and you get to see the life on the lake, visit fishermen villages and other places of interest. Inle lake is famous for Intha people living around and from the lake. Their distinct rowing style with using a leg made them famous but in the age of motorised transportation is nearly instinct. I got a feeling it is kept alive only as a tourist attraction.There are few other interesting places on the lake to visit. Firs to all the big market where you can see the locals selling and buying various goods. There is a weaving workshop where clothes are made from fabric which is waved from threads they produce from lotus flowers. Next one is the cigar making workshop. All these places give you a good insight into local way of life. Even though it is getting quite a tourist attraction, it is still worthwhile to visit. There are also few bigger villages on the lake with restaurants that mostly cater for tourists. These villages are like small city with waterways and smaller sidewise canals. Most of the buildings and huts built on poles. There is very little and most of the places are actually floating islands made of lake vegetation. Also the shores of the lake are not distinct. It rather turns into something like swamp or rice field and then it gradually blends into firm soil.

Fisherman from Inle lake

Fisherman from Inle lake in Myanmar perform traditional fishing technique

Today is the last day of Paya Pwe, The Festival of lights. Boats with tourists and locals are lining up to observe the procession of dragon boats and big golden bark. As local police patrol makes the way I spot the dragon boats slowly approaching. Each of the boats has different colour and decoration as well as differently dressed rowers. I assume, each boat represents a village on or near the lake. Big golden bark comes last and it is followed by army of curious onlookers.

There are few places around Nyaung Swe to visit. There is hot spring nearby where you can relax although with hundreds of people trying to get in 3 tiny pools I skipped. Also the prices seemed to raise a lot compared to 2011 (source Lonely Planet) in some places by 100%. This is true also for hotels food and other services. There is winery nearby and Inle resort which you can get inside and have a look on the lake from pier. It looked deserted (no wonder for that price tag). Built for wealthy tourist it was absolutely uninspiring for me though. Personally I prefer to explore villages or go on lake again. Late afternoon boat trip can be nice especially with possibility to stay on lake and watch the sunset from boat. Visiting a fishermen village is a nice experience. As boat slows down and engine runs more quietly you can enjoy the tranquillity of the place. Water is calm almost like mirror only disturbed occasionally by people paddling little sampans. Huts are neatly organised into rows and “streets”. It is quiet, clean like from other world. Occasionally we are greeted by kids who are waving at passing boats.

First time since I landed in Myanmar I saw clouds rolling in and storm was brewing. Temperature dropped significantly, clear skies disappeared behind cloud cover and soon wind turned the smooth lake surface into choppy seas. As it got darker it looked the storm is eminent. All boats, with locals as well as tourists rushed to the jetty or home. Storm somehow avoided Nyaung Swe.  People, mostly youth prepared for big concert right next to our hotel to officially close the festive season.

Motorised sampan heading to Inle lake

Motorised sampan heading to Inle lake just as storm is brewing

Early morning boat ride is the best to see fishermen. This time they were real ones too but they style of fishing seemed to be different to those who performed the traditional way of fishing. Times are changing everywhere and Myanmar is not an exception. The “leg” paddling is still present though but motorised transportation is the future. Hope this tradition will not go instinct completely.

Back to Yangon

The overnight bus to Yangon leaves at 5:00pm from junction about 30 min drive from Nyang Swe. As the time of departure came closer the skies got dark once more and this time there was a downpour. I got little wet and first time since I arrived I felt little cold. Bus to Yangon was a little late but eventually it arrived about 20 min late which I thought is not that bad. It is generally very cold in overnight bus. It felt like being closed in fridge. I am sure aircon inside bus ran on 200% capacity. As in previous bus trips, the continuous stream of local cheesy love songs with volume bumped up all the way was the main “in-flight” entertainment. With couple of break on the way the bus reached Yangon pretty much on time. It seems that generally buses have regular problems with overheating. Once again major stops they cooled down the engine with water.

Burmese women lighting sticks

Burmese women lighting sticks at Swedagon pagoda before her prayers

It is a good idea to book a hotel in Yangon ahead. Most hotels a re expensive and cheap ones fill up quick. I had no booking and I relied on luck. I was about to fly off just after midnight but spending another 20 hours in Yangon with big backpack and without shower was not a good idea. I put my bet on YMCA but they were full. Weather is very hot even more so when caring heavy luggage. It seemed really hard to find a hotel or guest house. I nearly accepted the reality of next 20 hours sweaty and tired when I noticed a guy that I saw on one of buses to Yangon. Thanks to him I got directions to  Mahabandoola Guest House near Sule Pagoda. As mentioned on Lonely Planet with warning to be used only as last resort. This was the last resort so I got a very shabby basic run down room for $10. Still I thought it is God sent. Refreshed and showered I dropped  to Bokyok market to change some USD to Kyats as I run of money. Unfortunately it was early morning so everything was closed. Finally I managed to change some at Central Hotel but it was for very bad rate. I was desperate, and hungry so I changed 20 USD and went back to guest house to get some sleep.

Novice monk at Swedagon pagoda

Novice monk at Swedagon pagoda in Yangon watching sunset

A must visit spot in Yangon is famous Shwedagon Pagoda. It is Sunday so it is no surprise it is full of tourists and locals alike. Admission fee is $5 for foreigners it is well worth it. This pagoda is huge, 99m high and simply stunning. Especially late afternoon as sun gets lower in the sky and gets dark the golden shape nicely stands out against dark blue sky. Later it gets lit up and it is nicely glowing in golden orange colours.

Swedagon pagoda

Swedagon pagoda after sunset

The time of departure is getting closer and holiday is nearly at its end. Surprisingly I didn’t have to pay departure fee which was mentioned in Local planet.  Waiting for the plane I realised how little I saw from Myanmar and there is so much more to see and discover. But I go home with great deal of experience and hope to get back to Myanmar again. Shortly after midnight I boarded the plane and as it took of I observed lights of Yangon, the biggest city in Golden Land, disappearing in the dark.

Categories: Travel Tags: , ,

On the road with Nikon D800 Part 2

August 22, 2012 1 comment

I had the Nikon D800 with me on two trips now. Except Indonesia I took it for short weekend getaway to Vietnam where I photographed scenes in Mekong Delta. It is still not enough to get fully familiar with all the quirks  however there are definitely things that I can say about this camera. I am not experienced reviewer and I am not attempting to do a full review (Full review at I purely describe my experience shooting with D800 for couple of days.

Is Nikon D800 really for me?

There are many discussions about Nikon D800 in terms of what kind of photographer is the camera for. I have to say honestly I didn’t really need D800. My good old D700 was just fine for everything I was shooting. I am not professional and I don’t do large prints. My photos go mostly on the web and occasionally I do a print or a book as a present for which the D700 resolution is more than good enough. However D800 is a new toy and try to explain a child that he doesn’t need a new toy when the old one is still good and usable. That is the my case, I just wanted it, so I got it 🙂 I usually shoot travel, documentary, landscapes and fine art style photography. This doesn’t require a machine gun ala D4 (I have tried it and it is like Kalashnikov) or Canon 1 DX. 4fps is plenty for me and I think for 36Mpix (cca 75MB filesize) is lighting fast. I never shot on the burst mode on the trip anyway. If I need faster I have my D700 as backup. As far as resolution and file size concerned, this can be really an issue in certain cases. memory cards and hard drives will fill up much faster. On a trip to more remote locations without access to electricity and computer there is a danger of running out of memory space rather quickly. Also storage at home suddenly feels little small. I think this camera requires a change of shooting style and much harsher selection process when editing and sorting the images. Camera certainly forces you to slow down and think before shooting. When shooting on continuous drive it is necessary to keep in mind that buffer fills up rather quickly.

I ventured into do time lapse photography with Nikon D700. I shot in RAW to give myself enough latitude when adjust the final sequence to my liking. With Nikon D800 it is much harder to do. Even big memory card can fill up quickly (unless you shoot JPEG). I have never tried to change memory card while doing time lapse shoot. Unfortunately when you shoot RAW with Nikon, there is no option to choose smaller image resolution as Canon offers. Only possible choice I see is to use DX crop mode but in that case our pretty expensive wide angle lenses just get multiplied by 1.5 crop factor.

I really want to get into DSLR video. This is my first DSLR with video capability so I consider it as one of the reasons I bough the camera. I cannot really comment on video mode at this point since I never done any and to this point my experience with DSLR video equals to zero.

Nikon D800 as a travel camera

It is heavy. When you hold it first time and you thing otherwise, I tell you. It is heavy …. for traveling.I’ve done two trips now and I know. The thing is, with this resolution you need the best lenses that are out there to brig the maximum from it. Best lenses usually pack lots of glass and glass is heavy too. Put a body and let’s say 24-70 and 70-200 zooms into your bag and try to walk around for hours. It is not fun and I bet you shoulders start hurting after a while. Add a tripod to it if you happened to shoot landscapes and you are done. For somebody who goes for expedition, organised trip etc. there is a chance that camera is going to be transported from place to place by a vehicle or porter. For solo traveler it is a shoulder or back. I am quite a big guy myself, yet I felt tired carrying it around. I don’t think it is ideal travel camera (unless it is for assignment when hight quality is a must).

Learning curve

My previous camera was Nikon D700. Switching to Nikon D800 was pretty easy. With some exceptions the buttons and menus are the same so even with no previous shooting experience I felt pretty much home soon enough. Camera is little lighter than D700 and little rounder but from usability point of view this has no effect whatsoever. You hold it and you know/feel it is a Nikon. There is nothing really that bugs me on the camera. Only thing I would change (it is just a personal preference) is a multi selector in favour of jog dial on Canon cameras. I feel I can cycle through menu or photos much faster using a dial than clicking on multi selector.

Focusing issue and green color cast

There are many reports and articles all over the internet about focusing issue and greenish colour cast on back display. As far as focusing goes, I took my body to Nikon service centre soon after purchase to get it checked and everything was as it should be. I guess my particular body was not from that faulty batch. With green colour cast it is a different story. I was travelling with friend of mine who had a Canon camera and I have to say yes the colours seem to bee shifted slightly to the cooler/greenish side. By the same token I can say Canon colours were much warmer and more saturated however I do not necessarily feel they represented the reality better. They just looked warmer and maybe little more pleasing to eye. As I shoot solely RAW, I am not too much concerned about this issue and I guess it will be addressed (if it is not already) by a firmware update.

In bad weather and environment

One of the reasons why we pay more for camera in this class is their ability to withstand various and not always favourable weather conditions and environments. I was not able to test it in wet environment but if it is same as D700 I have nothing to fear. However during Semeru climb the camera went through lots of bashing. If anyone visited Semeru or Bromo volcanoes in Indonesia, they can confirm that those two places are the very definition of dust. And boy, the camera got fair amount of time in that environment. After a few hours my camera didn’t look anything like a brand new one but it still operated perfectly. Dust sealing worked pretty well. After returning home I didn’t find any dust inside in the mirror area, neither I had dust spots on the sensor.

Resolution and consequences

36 Mpix is amazing but at the same time scary. D700’s 12 Mpix are much more forgiving. With Nikon D800 the focusing and shooting technique has to be top notch. I had a look at some files from my trip and I have to confirm this. This is also a reminder for me to really work on my technique. In most cases I tried to follow the basic rules of “sharp photography”. I used tripod whenever it was possible. I used fast shutter speed, high enough ISO to achieve sharp results. I have fairly good lenses. However I still felt my images are not sharp enough. At least those I shot hand held.  I do not blame the camera, I know it is me who have to make an improvement. 36Mpix is UNFORGIVING. However if the photo comes out sharp, it is amazing to look at.

Dynamic range and noise

Now dynamic range is where Nikon D800 really shines. Especially in shadows. I have never had so much detail there before. Even with very contrasty scenes, after checking my histogram I still had no pure black pixels. On the highlight side I think it is not as much improvement but overall this is beside the sensor resolution, this is the most impressive feature.

Battery life

As the trip was physically quite though and I wasn’t shooting as much as on my other trips I cannot really judge how good the battery life is. I had two with me and I didn’t even use one full charge. I took about 350 photographs and looked on the back screen frequently. Also batteries were exposed to cold environment (sub-zero during night) which should shorten their usage time but mine did just fine. so this is pretty much as much as I can say about it.


This is pretty much what I have to say about Nikon D800 at this point. It is still fairly new addition to my gear and as time goes by I probably find more things that is worth to discuss. Certainly one trip and 300+ photographs are not enough to get under the skin of this fine piece of equipment. So far it certainly didn’t disappoint. Could I be without it? Absolutely yes. And would be probably much smarter to use that money better and visit some places in the world I always wanted to visit. But hey… I am happy kid with new toy. Hopefully, if time allows me I will follow up with part 3 with some image samples. If not , there will be certainly additions in gallery either here on or my 500px account.

Categories: Photography, Travel Tags: ,

At Gunung Bromo, East Java, Indonesia

August 22, 2012 Leave a comment

This article is the second part of my Indonesian trip coverage. In first part I visited and climbed  Gunung Semeru. Since I was in the area, I decided to pay the visit to Bromo as well (Bromo and Semeru are not that far apart). I have been there once in 2009 and I can say it is very nice and photogenic area. It is far more “touristy” as it is easily  accessible by car. There has been an eruption in 2010 and I was quite curious how the place looks like now.

The day after we returned from Semeru, we soon got ready to leave for Bromo. After quick breakfast we jumped into 4WD Toyota and made our way to Tengger Caldera, which is part of Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park.

Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park is located in East Java, Indonesia, to the east of Malang and to the south-east of Surabaya, the capital of East Java. It is the only conservation area in Indonesia that has a sand sea, the Tengger Sand Sea, across which is the caldera of an ancient volcano Tengger, from which four new volcanic cones have emerged. This unique feature covers a total area of 5,250 hectares at an altitude of about 2,100 m. Source: Wikipedia

Crater of Gunung Bromo before 2010 eruption

Gunung Bromo in 2009 eruption. Crater has no lake and big hole that appeared after 2010 eruption.

Soon after leaving Ranupani village we saw the ridge of Tengger Caldera. Car slowly made it’s way down to the bottom of it which is completely flat, partially covered with grass and areas around Bromo with sand and volcanic ash and dust. It took 20 minutes to drive across this giant crater. I soon realised that Bromo feels different. It looks lot more sandy and less rocky. At 10:30am  Sun already high in the sky showing it’s strength. Most of the tourist and local horsemen already left. (Bromo is usually climbed right after sunrise ). It was pretty windy so it really felt like Sea of Sand.

Bromo is very easy to climb. The elevation difference from start point to the edge of crater is not big at all. Cars usually bring tourists right to the mountain. First part is quite flat ascent and later there are stairs built on steeper part for easier access. Local horseman offer you horse transport right to the stairs. I think it is interesting only for ladies who forgot where they are and didn’t bring proper foot wear. On the way up I noticed how damaged the stairs were. The result of recent explosion. Once I looked inside the crater I noticed a big hole with turquoise mini lake in it.  Whole crater was very dusty like the outside part. and there was no steam coming out of the crater as last time. Well, this place will never look same like before. I didn’t spend there too much time and soon I made my way down. My knee still hurts after Semeru descent and I thought it is better to check in to the hotel, have little rest and then come out for sunset.

About 4pm I was out again scouting for a good location to shoot sunset. Bromo is famous mostly for sunrise and I had no idea how the light will play on sunset. But I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. Besides it felt great to be alone away from people. Surroundings were nice and quiet only interrupted occasionaly by sound of Jeep or motorbike. I have found my location and set up for the shoot. Sunset happened very fast. I almost didn’t notice, that is how fast it was. Unfortunately it was not so dramatic as I expected. Sky was completely clear, no dramatic clouds and angle of the setting sun was not ideal from position where I was. I still made few shots and then returned back to hotel with plan to come out after the dark and photograph Milky Way one more time. Unfortunately skies were not favourable for this kind of shot. I decided to have rest and sleep since tomorrow we are off early morning for sunrise.

Crater of Gunung Bromo after 2010 eruption

Crater of Gunung Bromo after 2010 eruption looks more dusty and there is small turquoise at the bottom.

From experience I know that sunrise lookout is a crowded  place. Literally hundreds of Jeeps made their way from all hotels around the area to the lookout point. We started of at 4am morning, which I felt, is quite late to secure a good spot. After about 40 minutes long bumpy ride on the worst road in the world our Jeep climbed up to 2700m altitude and we quickly rushed to the spot. At first sight it looked full but then I managed to find empty spot on the right side to the main area. Unfortunately sun comes out on the other side but by the time I realised this it was probably too late to change my location. I decided to stay and started to set up for the shoot. Standard checklist, tripod, camera on manual, focus to infinity, low ISO, aperture around F8 to minimise diffraction, remote shutter release, mirror lock-up. al checked and double checked. Now only wait till I actually can see something.

There were lots of flashes firing all around. It is quite annoying since it can introduce unwanted light spillage into your photograph. Nothing one can do…sigh. I started to take shots. I have tried different zoom levels and framing. I also played with bracketing with HDR image in mind. Once again, there were no low lying clouds which took away a lot from usual drama. Bromo is very photogenic and most of the photographs are nice, they have only one problem. They look all the same. Same spot, same vantage point. I wish I had more time to scout the area more for better location and with less people around. At the time of writing this article I am sure I would do much better if I just stayed at the same spot I took my sunset pictures. I didn’t see many pictures from that vantage point if any at all.

Horseman from Bromo

Horseman leading his horse on the slopes of Mount Bromo

After having intimate encounter with bumpy road again, we had our breakfast and were ready to leave Bromo for Surabaya. There were couple of locals sitting around just across the road from hotel. Some resting, some selling coffee, food or souvenirs. I sat there for about 40 minutes trying to capture some shots. Light conditions rendered photographs very contrasty at that time. Still, I was amazed that camera was able to retain so much detail in shadows. It was not so good in sharpness. I am generally quite “wobbly” and I need to work on my hand-held shooting technique a lot.

Drive back to Surabaya felt quite long. Especially the middle part when we were caught in a traffic. actually we were involved in little accident when our driver went hard on breaks to avoid crash into car ahead of us. We had enough distance from them so we stopped safely but then we felt light bump. Quick look at the back mirror and we saw a motorbike with driver and female passenger on the ground. They obviously didn’t keep enough distance and  were not able to stop. Luckily nobody was seriously hurt that it would need a medical attention. It is kind of miracle that on crazy Indonesian roads nothing more serious happened.

Sunrise at Gunung Bromo

Sunrise at Gunung Bromo captured from “official” lookout at the rim of Tenger caldera.

After arriving to Surabaya we checked in the same hostel as first night. we had dinner at KFC (booooooo) and then just rest till next morning. Unfortunately we didn’t get too much sleep since there was some sort of argument between owner and I think one of the guests. It was dragging since 1am till 3:30 am. That was time we had to wake up anyway. Soon taxi was ready and we were on our way to airport.

There was a lot packed into these 5 days. Especially the first part, climbing Semeru was though. High altitude, long distance trekking with fairly heavy bags, extreme temperatures, lack of sleep and also slight fever took it’s toll. I have to say I was never so tired in my life, not even after getting up to Kalapattar in Himalayas (5545m). But I am glad I did this. Only regret I have is that due to physical exhaustion I was not able to take as many photographs as I wanted, especially to put my camera into a good test but this is how it was. And boy it was fun. I can recommend it to anybody who is not afraid to do some serious workout. Besides it is the best way how to loose weight … so I did, 3kg in 5 day. That is not bad 🙂

[tb_google_map address=”Bromo, indonesia” width=”100%” height=”300px” zoom=”12″ maptype=”satellite”]


Part 1: Climbing Gunung Semeru, East Java, Indonesia

Categories: Travel Tags: ,

Climbing Gunung Semeru, East Java, Indonesia

August 16, 2012 2 comments

I don’t know why, but I have weakness for volcanoes. There are plenty of them in Indonesia (in fact about 130 active). I just had to pick one. So I did. Gunung Semeru is the one I picked as my destination. It is one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia and it is also the highest point of Java at 3645m.

All the planning happened quite swiftly. Trek was booked with local indonesian travel agency, fairly cheap flight from Singapore to Surabaya with China Airlines. I opted for travel agency rather than independent travel due to lack of time. Itinerary had to fit into 5 days sharp. And there was lot to do. My aim was to climb Semeru and on the way back pay the second visit to Gudung Bromo with its famous sunrise. I was also curious how much it had changed after eruption in 2010. This time I didn’t travel alone. My buddy Dan was about to join me on this adventure.

Semeru, or Mount Semeru (Indonesian: Gunung Semeru), is a volcano located in East Java, Indonesia. It is the highest mountain on the island of Java. The stratovolcano is also known as Mahameru, meaning ‘The Great Mountain. The name derived from Hindu-Buddhist mythical mountain of Meru or Sumeru, the abode of gods. Source: Wikipedia

Milky Way shot at Kalimati, just below Gunung Semeru

Milky Way shot at Kalimati, just below Gunung Semeru

We spent first night in Surabaya in Da Riffi hostel just 3 km from Juanda Airport. Facilities and rooms are fairly basic but it was only for one night and for SGD $10 including breakfast it is a steal. Next day we were picked up by our guide and drove about 4-5 hours to Ranupani village, the starting point of our trek. On the way we stopped for mandatory health check which consisted of measuring height, weight, blood pressure and answering question about respiratory problems. While waiting for doctor we encountered fully naked woman walking on the streets which I found quite odd in any country but even more in conservative Indonesia. I guess she must have had some mental illness, I have no other explanation for that.

Anyway, that was a small intermezzo. We checked in to a home stay in Ranupani village. Again it was very basic but home family was extremely kind to us. Soon we discovered that main problem will be heat or cold for that matter. Village itself was in about 2000m above sea level and temperature in that altitude during night is quite low. Not to mention there was no heating in the house. That’s why hot tea for dinner was very welcome. Also shower, even hot, had very weak pressure but it was better than nothing. Preparing for the sleep meant put on few layers of clothing and covering ourselves with very thin blanket. Somehow it reminded me of my mandatory military service back home and cold winter nights in the barracks. And boy night was cold. I had very little sleep and when I managed to fall asleep I was woken up by early morning prayers. Dan did much better in this department and didn’t seemed to be bothered by anything.

I couldn’t wait for the breakfast and especially for hot tea which we really learned to appreciate. After that we packed our gear and of we went for 18km trek to the base camp. First part from Ranupani to Ranu Kumbolo we walked mostly in the forrest with occasional opening with view of the scenery. We saw the Semeru almost entire way puffing steam and gas regularly every 20-30 minutes. At Ranu Kumbolo, a half way stop, we had little longer break and lunch. After that we started to cut down the next 9km of walk all the way to Kalimati, our base camp, which was located just below the volcano. Terrain was not terribly difficult at this stage but heat and weight of luggage definitely sucked out lots of juice from me. Oddly enough, even though days are extremely hot with temperatures around 30 degrees Celsius, the nights are freezing cold with temperature dropping down all the way to zero or even lower. We were about to learn that on our own skin. In Kalimati, our base camp, guides and porters set up the tents and prepared the dinner. Sun set fairly quickly and at 6pm it was already dark. Sky was absolutely clear and soon we could see the Milky Way as clear as you possibly can without telescope. We managed to make some photographs but then we decided to have an early rest since tomorrow was a summit day, though climb starting at 2am.

Early rest was a good idea but it proved pretty hard to fall asleep. I was in a tent, had several layers of clothing but no sleeping bag. In 2700m altitude with night temperatures around freezing point it is not a good idea. Somehow there was an misunderstanding in communication with travel agency, however I remember specifically asking about sleeping bags. Nevertheless, this was the current situation and we had to cope wit it. Dan curled into a mat he was supposed to sleep on. I did pushups all night long to keep myself somewhat warm and thus I didn’t get much sleep. Unexpected exercise lasted till about 1am when I decided this makes no sense and I went for a little walk. Grass chunks were crispy covered with morning frost. Some porters were still awake engaged in conversation while some tried to sleep …. bare feet. Resilient people…but I think it is still crazy. I was walking around, jumping, squating, doing whatever I could to keep warm. Finaly one of the guides waved at me to join them by the fire. I cannot really describe how good it felt. Heat from fire and cup of coffee was all I needed. Sitting there starring into flames for another half an hour I tried to mentally prepare myself for what was coming. 30 minutes passed fast and it was time to get ready. I packed my camera and tripod and left everything else in the camp. Before we moved on our guide said a little prayer and we were on our way right after that.

Usually the climb from base camp consist from two stages. Reach the tree line, overnight there and then next day summit attack. We were about to do it in one go. That is altitude difference of nearly 1000m. It was very early morning with bright moonlight however we needed headlamps or torches to proceed. Soon after we started our ascent the cold just disappeared. Path lead almost straight up, only bending when avoiding trees. With quite steep slope it was soon clear this is not going to be that easy. After about two hours we reached the tree line. Sky was still very clear with thousands of stars, however Milky Way was not as visible as previous night. After little rest we caught up with breath and started our summit attack. This is where it got really though. For some reason I thought it is going to be rocky surface we will be climbing on but the mountain side was covered with thick layer of volcanic ash, dust and small loose rocks. This was the very definition of dusty environment. From this point the progress was very slow. Three steps ahead and then slide back two. Feet just had no grip on surface. There was occasional small rock or hardened ash that we could hold on to but that was it. It was to be like this all the way to the summit. We climbed in straight line on about 45 degrees slope. At first I was making so little progress that I thought I will never make it to the top. But after a while, using certain techniques I was able to move slowly up. I guess my weight didn’t help it too much either and I was still sliding downhill considerably. Essentially I had to kick my feet into the dust, find more less harder ground and then put my weight on it. Keep repeating this and you make a progress but it was not always easy to follow this technique. Air was full of dust and I had it everywhere. Air was also considerably thinner in this altitude. Dan did much better than me and he reached the summit about 10-20 minutes ahead of me. Eventually I made my last push too and reached the summit shortly after sunrise. We stood on the highest point of Java.

Gunung Semeru volcano

Semeru, the highest point on Java and one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia.

View was fascinating however it was very windy and also pretty cold there. After observing regular gas/steam eruption from a crater just bellow the summit and few photos, we were ready to get down. 45 minutes to an hour on the summit is good enough. We began our descent and this time  we really appreciated the dusty-ashy surface. Going down up to the tree line was kind of fun. It felt similar to skiing in fresh snow. It took more than two hours to climb up this section as opposed to coming down in less than 30 minutes. The forest section with dusty but hard surface  was a tougher cookie and this was typical descent with lots of strain on tights and knees. About mid way down I felt strong pain in my right knee and was unable to bend it fully and hold my weight on it. Dan didn’t do too well either. He got a stomach problem of some sort and his face was turning greenish. Also sun was showing it’s strength and it was getting really hot. It took quite lot of effort to get down to the base camp. I was dead tired and crawled straight to my tent. Somehow managed to get half of my body in, while feet were still sticking out and I just lied there for about 20 minutes completely motionless.

This was not the end of the hardship. We were about to get back to Ranupani village, our original starting point, which was about 18 km walk away. Not fun. Temperatures were well above 30 degrees Celsius and this time I had to carry my big backpack as well as camera bag.  Soon after breakfast we were on our way back. Usually the return trip feels much shorter and faster, but not this one. Our first milestone was Ranu Kumbolo  with it’s lake but it felt like somebody pushed it further away over the night. I felt we never going to reach the end of this leg. Eventually we made it and we had short 30 minute break before tackling the remaining section. I have to thank Dan, who took over my camera bag at this point. Big backpack alone was bloody heavy and my knee pain just got worse. I couldn’t keep the leg straight on uneven surface and bending it meant sharp pain every time I stepped on it or accidentally kicked something on the path. At first I felt it only when I was going downhill but now the pain was almost constant, no matter the terrain profile. This was the point when it was more matter of mental strength rather than physical. Progress was slow but eventually we reached the village, both completely exhausted, dusty, dirty, sweaty with feet in pieces. Nice shower, first in 2 days in dust, felt great 🙂 We stayed with the same lovely host family as before. They are very nice people. All of them Muslims but I noticed a Christian cross above one of the doors. There was also a Hindi temple in the village. Our guide was of Christian faith himself. This village was great example of religious tolerance and that is what this world needs. They all live here in harmony and peace and they are proof it is possible.

[tb_google_map address=”Semeru, indonesia” width=”100%” height=”300px” zoom=”12″ maptype=”satellite”]


This was the end of first part of the trip. Tomorrow we are off to Tengerr Caldera to visit the Gudung Bromo. It will be  my second time there and I am looking forward to revisit this magical place. As a conclusion to Semeru trek, it was one of the toughest things I ever done but I am glad I did it. It was a good test of resilience, physical and mental strength. Only downside was that I didn’t take as many photographs as I would like to mainly because of physical exhaustion.

Categories: Photography, Travel Tags: ,

On the road with Nikon D800 Part 1

August 7, 2012 1 comment

Nikon D800 with me in Indonesia and Vietnam

Some photographers say one should never go on assignment with a brand new camera without knowing it inside out in order to guarantee the outcome. Well, I am not professional photographer so I don’t have to worry about that much. However I am going to take Nikon D800 as my only camera for my 5 day trip to Indonesia. I didn’t take too many photos with it just yet. I briefly skimmed through manual, menus, controls but that is pretty much it.

First I thought I take my good old D700 with me but after holding my loaded camera bag I opted for one camera only, the D800.  I thought that controls on both cameras are nearly identical apart from few differences so it shouldn’t be a problem to pick it up easily.  I remember  taking D700 to Thailand few years ago without actually owning a Nikon camera before (well I had Fuji S3 Pro which is Nikon body based camera) and I had no problem to use the camera at all. Another reason for having two bodies was that I don’t have to swap lenses often and prevent the sensor to get dusty. However after giving it some thoughts I decided to leave D700 home.

To give you some idea what kind of environment I am going to use it as I mentioned I am going to Indonesia for 5 days. Ultimate goal is to climb the Mt Semeru, one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia and also highest point on Java. Once in the area I also decided to pay a second visit to Mt Bromo. Environment I will be using the camera in ranges from hot and humid lowlands to much colder and also dustier places in Semeru and Bromo areas.

What is in my camera bag

  • Nikon D800 body
  • Nikkor 24-70mm 2.8
  • Nikkor 80-200mm 2.8
  • Nikkor 50mm 1.4
  • remote shutter release
  • spare batteries
  • ND and graduated ND Lee filters
  • IR filter
  • about 60GB worth CF cards
  • Macbook Air with Lightroom 4
  • medium sized Manfrotto tripod

Seems a lot huh? (This proved to be overkill for this particular trip) In fact my main backpack is lighter than camera bad. Well it always is 🙂 With huge size of D800 files there is never enough room on your CF cards so I decided to bring the computer and download the images on the go. It would be also good feedback to check upon images and see how sharp they are or if I need to brush up on my shooting technique (I am sure I will have to). There will be no attempt to do any image editing on Macbook Air. I do run Lightoom but the screen size and colours may not give the justice to files. What I can do is to see the overall image quality, do some basic sorting, key wording etc. In a perfect world I should have all the photographs backed up at least one more place but again, this is not a commercial shoot so I AM HOPING that nothing bad happens. I will also to try slow down a tad when taking photos and think first before pressing the shutter. My previous approach of taking thousands of shots and then pick one lucky sharp and well enough framed will not work with Nikon D800. So good luck to me.

I am not going to pixel peep the files, nor compare it to any other camera maybe with exception of D700 since I am familiar with it.  I am more curious about general handling, file management, performance in the field, answer the question about did I really need this camera? Well I can say I definitely did not….but I wanted it anyways. So folks, stay tuned. More to come….

Categories: Photography, Travel Tags: ,

Snaps from Cambodia

August 15, 2010 Leave a comment

I spent a long weekend in Phnom Penh, capital of Cambodia. I have visited some places in and out of the city. Here are some photographs. Hope you enjoy.
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Categories: Photography, Travel