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Travel Blog – Bhutan

Paro Airport in the distance. Only one runway needed as there is usually a max of two flights per day!

 

The screaming headline aside, travel to Bhutan is very safe and is fairly straight forward provided that you are organized.  But as this blog is based on our travels in 2008, please check with the Bhutan Tourism Board for the latest guidelines as these might have changed.

At the time, we (i.e. all foreign travellers) were required to use a Bhutanese tour company to organize the itinerary and to spend a minimum of US$200 per person per day.  To ensure that foreign travellers comply with these rules, the Royal Bhutanese government devised a prepay system.  The net effect is that the tourism dollar stay inside the country and help drive the local economy.

The mechanism is simple: find a local travel company; agree on an itinerary with the travel company; get an invoice for the trip based on the agreed plans; wire money to the Royal Bhutanese National Bank in New York; upon receipt of the money, the Bhutan government issues a ‘visa clearance’ confirmation; tour company contacts Druk Airline (the sole airline with flying rights into Bhutan) with the visa clearance confirmation details; Druk Airline issues tickets; traveller gets an eticket and fly into the country; and finally, at the immigration counter, immigration team cross-checks the traveller’s details against a list of approved (read: prepaid) travellers.  Enter and enjoy!

Although connecting the dots before the start of the trip was cumbersome, once we entered Bhutan, the overall experience was carefree.  All of our costs were covered by the minimum spend of US$200 per person per day.  As such, our lodging, food, driver, 4×4 with fuel, and tour guide costs were already covered.  Furthermore, as we not were travelling with a group, we had the freedom to stop and go as we pleased. We were masters of our own schedule!

But the freedom of a private tour was a double-edged sword for us as we made a BIG MISTAKE with the inital itinerary.  As we had total freedom to devise the itinerary, we were originally overly ambitious.   Using the Lonely Planet book as our guide, we started planning one year in advance. Our imagination resulted in us going deep into Bhutan.  On paper, it looked do-able.  But, in reality, it wasn’t.  Whilst Bhutan is a small country, the mountain roads were somewhat patchy and do not always follow the shortest route.  Fortunately, a friend who visited Bhutan previously saw our itinerary and recommended that we scale it down, otherwise, we spend too much time inside a car.  Fortunately, we had enough time to work with the travel company to rearrange the itinerary.  But, the last minute change (i.e. 3 months before the trip) meant that all the good hotels were fully booked.  As such, we ended up with places that were definitely questionable (see appendix for details).  One place had a live electrical wire near the shower, and in another place, we had just a trickle of cold water for the shower.  Unfortunately, as we were subjected to a daily minimum spend, we didn’t “save” any money by staying in a lower quality hotel.  Any excess is kept by the government to reinvest in local tourism schemes.

Sufficiently scaled back, our new itinerary would take us only as far as Bumthang.  Over 14 days, we would hit the festivals along the Paro-Bumthang route. The updated route was: Paro to Haa Valley to Thimphu (the capital city) to Punakha to Wangdue to Bumthang.  From there, turn back to Punakha and then to Paro before flying to Bangkok for our connecting flight home.

But, before hitting the festival trails, we had to visit the famed Tiger’s Nest Monastary in Paro.  To not see it would have been deeply criminal.

The hike to Tiger’s Nest was not a difficult hike — but, it was a long hike up.  There was only 1 way up (hike) and 2 ways down (hike or mule).  The mules bring up supplies and they are only used to bring down injured tourists.  Our local guide mentioned that one hardcore endurance hiker once managed to do the hike up in 45 minutes.  But, for most people, 2-3 hours is the norm.  On the day we went up the path, it was muddy by the morning rain and as the mules shared the same path as us, the trail was ripped up by the hooves. Fortunately, we were prepared and had walking sticks with us.  These were useful to go up, but moreso for heading down as the path was steep and slippery from the mud (and mule dung)!

( CAVEAT to animal lovers:  mules are work animals in Bhutan.  They are not accustomed to being touched/petted.  As such, they will kick. )

Bhutan is such an incredible country that I think pictures will do this country far better justice than my words.  As such, I encourage you to view the picture diary which is available using the image link below.  For the remainder of this blog, I will instead concentrate on lasting memories of the country and on sharing some tips to anyone planning a trip to Bhutan.

Photo Diary of Bhutan

Fire Festival video– it is said that running underneath the burning arches will erase one’s sin (from the previous year). Nonetheless, some of these boys felt compelled to run under the arches multiple times!  (Note:  external link to Facebook)

 

MEMORIES of BHUTAN:

  • AMAZING festivals.  And what makes these festivals even more special is that these festivals are for the locals and not for the tourists.  We were there to witness the Bhutanese celebrate and enjoy THEIR festivals.  There were no “Disney” moments.
  • Rowdy and boisterous boys at the fire festival.
  • Big surprise of the trip:  India has a big military presence in Bhutan.  Presumably, this is to insure that Bhutan doesn’t get annexed by China (like Tibet).
  • Mushroom soup, mushroom soup, mushroom soup, mushroon soup!  Whilst perfectly edible and at first quite delicious, we had mushroom soup as a starter almost every night for 14 days.  It looked like the hotels and tourist restaurants follow the government’s advice on how to feed the Westerners to the letter!
  • “We have no more chicken” – waiter at a top restaurant in the capital city of Bhutan. But, chicken was featured in 2/3 of the menu!
  •  Bryan Adam’s “Summer of ’69” — song was very popular in 2008!
  • Animals everywhere — cows, yaks, dogs, monkeys, etc. on the streets and even the highways. Dogs sleeping in the middle of a busy road.  Bhutanese are Buddhists and therefore will avoid harming animals if possible.  As such, dogs have no fear of cars.
  • Non-stop canine opera nightly and constantly!  (I love, love, love dogs …. but, not on this trip!)

Punaka Dzong

 

TIPS:

  • start planning the itinerary early as the better hotels are quickly booked;
  • make your appointed travel company ‘work for you’ and get their feedback about timing, duration, distance, etc.;
  • flights to/from Bhutan are severely limited so in order to get the travel dates you want, pay for this trip as soon as you can to guarantee your seat (!);
  • have robust travel insurance as flights are often cancelled/delayed if there is fog or poor weather (Paro Airport is a ‘sights only’ airport — in other words, pilots can only land the planes if there is good visibility) and and give yourself enough time to make your connecting flight;
  • bring walking sticks (or 2) if you are visiting Tiger’s Nest;
  • bring ear plugs, otherwise, you will suffer from non-stop canine opera at night;
  • bring flashlights to see the ubiquitous drainage holes and broken cobblestones;
  • avoid food that have been sitting around too long — I foolishly ate some buffet food that didn’t look too good (should have trusted my instincts and overruled my stomach) and regretted this decision for several days thereafter!
  • If you like spicy food or want to try authentic Bhutanese food (i.e. not cooked to please the Western palate), then ask if it is possible to have the ‘driver’s food’.  This is typically more varied and delicious.
  • Sadly, the Wangdue Phodrang Dzong was completely destroyed by a fire in June 2012.  It was a major historic and religious site.  And, it was the place where we saw the Black Hat Monks dance (seeing it wipes away all sins!) as well as the colorful masked dancers.  As such, please consult with your tour operator if you are heading to Bhutan solely for the festivals.
  • have a flexible attitude — anything from landslides to ‘yak block’ can cause delays.

“Yak Block” … yaks stopping traffic!

Prayer flags in fog

  • Our tour company was Yu-Druk Tours based in Thimphu.  We selected this company based on the Lonely Planet’s recommendation — it is reputed to be large enough to handle overseas queries but is small enough that the owners pay personal attention to the itinerary.  Although we really liked our tour guide (Tshering) and driver (Pimba) and would recommend them unreservedly, we would not recommend Yu-Druk.  While there are no red-flags with them, we cannot help but be disappointed that they didn’t advise us at the outset that our original itinerary was overly ambitious. Furthermore, the goal of this trip was to see the local festivals, but, Yu-Druk head office got some of the festival dates wrong!  Fortunately, as we had our own car, driver and guide, we were able to make changes to our schedule and thus were able to shift the logistics around by ourselves.
  • If you can, try to get recommendations or client testimonials before selecting your tour operator.  However, if you can’t then don’t be alarmed —  according to The Lonely Planet:  “all operators in Bhutan are subject to government regulations that specify services, standards and rates.  You are quite safe no matter which company you choose, though the large companies do have more clout to obtain reservations in hotels and on Druk Air.”

 

Appendix:


Timeline and details of places travelled (thus far) . . .

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2017:

  • Paris, Milan, Lake Cuomo and Venice

2016:

  • September: Madrid
  • December: New York

2015:

  • Jan/Feb: USA – Boston and Maine
  • March: Spain – Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada and Cordoba

2014:  

  • Feb: London
  • June/July: London, Yorkshire and Scotland

2013:

  • April: Tokyo and Kyoto
  • June: Indonesia
  • October: Mongolia
  • December: London, Yorkshire and Scotland

2012:

  • April:  Istanbul
  • August: Guizhou Province, China
  • Dec: New York City and Washington, DC

2011:

  • January: Burma
  • April: Sri Lanka
  • August: Sri Lanka

2010:

  • August: Kashgar, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
  • December:  Australia

2009:

  • March: Beijing, China
  • May: South Vietnam
  • November:  Northern India

2008:

  • April: Thailand
  • October: Bhutan

2007:

  • November: Cambodia

 

Prior travels include:  Europe and North America.  Bruce has been to Africa, but sadly not Tram.   Neither has not been to South America (yet!).

Bucket List includes: Skeleton Coast, Namibia; Patagonia; horse riding thru the Andes and Tajikistan; the ice hotel to see the Northern Lights; New Orleans for Mardi Gras; and Kashmir.


Equipment Details

Bruce photographs with a Nikon D700.

Tram photographs with:

  • Primary: Nikon D700 (converted as an infra-red camera) & a most beloved iPhone (especially with Hipstamatic)!
  • Secondary:  Nikon D300s
  • Tertiary: Nikon D70s (converted as an infra-red camera)

To be completely truthful, we are agnostic about cameras.  The reason why we use Nikon is because my uncle also uses Nikon.  I highly respect him — so, if it is good enough for him, then it is good enough for us!  Hence, we bought the D70s and it’s been Nikon ever since . . .  .  (Tram)


Favourite images recently added to the Photo Library

Mongolian Eagle Hunter

Mongolian Eagle Hunter

 

 


Experiences ….

Sadly during one of our relocations, a chunk of the collection was lost !!!  So, to preserve what remained, I’m posting what is left of my collection online. . . . and then continued to do so!  

2020:

Attempt #1: friends from Oz in town so we gave the txs to our neighbours.  Attempt #2: a nasty cough meant that we gave our txs to N&W —  will there be an attempt #3 ? …

2019:

Jonny Greenwood at The Royal Albert Hall – BBC prom.

2018:

The last leg of their North American tour …..

A transfer from Broadway

we were quite divided: Thumbs Up from me but Thumbs Down from Bruce!

  

2017:

I must have been the ONLY person there who has never heard of him or know a single one of his song …. nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed the concert!

Must confess … I was a little star-struck in the presence of musical genius Jonny Greenwood playing at the Southbank with JUNUN.

Last Day — very crowded — but well worth the visit!

Another Royal Court triumph. Happy that it got some West End exposure — well deserved!

A real privilege to see F Murray Abraham on stage!

Interesting approach to wardrobe and set changes …. and brave to present a heavy topic across three parallel timelines!

… there isn’t enough gin in the world to make this terrible production enjoyable!  Shocking as ’12th Night’ was amazingly wonderful.

… the most enjoyable Shakespeare I’ve seen on stage thus far!  It was a midnight-matinee and well worth the effort!

acting fine but staging & interpretation were literal and unimaginative. Disappointing.

Excellent technical staging to be marvelled.  Difficult topic that was well presented.

On the day decision to see play … good call!

… not much of musical person myself, but, I (and mummy-in-law) truly did enjoy this. Technical staging is to be congratulated.

2016:

Enjoyed this so much but I brough txs to see this again at NT in Feb 2018!   The only time I’ve seen a play twice is with ‘The Pillowman‘.  Again another NT production — first was the mind-blowingly good production (with Jim Broadbent and David Tennant) in 2003 and then again on Broadway (different cast) in 2005.

very clever and accomplished technical staging with Mark Strong.

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Have to confess … (surprisingly) I did  NOT  enjoy this ….

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well designed stage set enabled a large platform to have an intimate feel for this cohesive and well performed drama.

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Donmar did it again — one of the best drama of the year! Simply superb! With Stephen Dillane and Gina McKee.

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Winter may be coming … but not Rob Madden! Understudy took over but sadly there was no chemistry between the two leads. Disappointing.

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such a shame that Vanessa Redgrave had such a trivial role …

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(Sadly, could not attend this production and therefore had to give my tickets away to a friend.  Thankfully, she’s a big Jon Snow fan!!!)

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Ralph Fiennes … again!

2015:

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Somehow I managed to snag the hottest tickets in town!!!

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2014:

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London stage in a Hong Kong cinema! Thank you NTLive!!!

Corlianus

via NTLive

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2013:

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tickets

2012

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2011

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com Hong Kong.  (An excellent production!)

HKArt2011 (Hong Kong)

2010:

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com (London)

HKArt2010 (Hong Kong)

2009:

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Derek Jacobi  (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com  sadly, this was a horrible and disappointing production (Hong Kong)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com (Hong Kong)

2008:

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Ralph Fiennes and Clare Higgins

2007:

TheSeagull with Kristin Scott Thomas, Mackenzie Crook, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Carey Mulligan (London)

IQ2 Afgan debate2

IQ2 democracy debate2

2006:

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (London)

VoyageAroundMyFather pamphlet with Derek Jacobi and Natasha Little (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Ian McKellan (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Jeremy Irons (London)

2005:

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Eve Best, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian Glen (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.comwith Kathleen Turner and Bill Irwin (NYC)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Helen McCrory, Sienna Miller, Dominic West (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Jeff Goldblum and Zeljko Ivanek (NYC)

JCesearLondonp2 Julius Caesar – with Ralph Fiennes (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Jim Broadbent and Rachael Stirling (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Ben Daniels and Michelle Fairley (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com Saw this with Donald and Christine (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Clare Higgins (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Michael Gambon, David Bradley, Matthew MacFadyen and Michelle Dockery (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.comfrom the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly (NYC)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Jonny Lee Miller, Aidan Gillen and David Threlfall (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Denzel Washington (NYC)

PillaroftheCommunity p2 with Damian Lewis (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Harriet Walter, Janet McTeer and James Fleet (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Saffron Burrow and Christopher Eccleston (London)

Hecuba 2 with Vanessa Redgrave (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Ewan McGregor.  Saw this with friends Al and Kate (London)

DeathofaSalesman with Brian Dennehy and Clare Higgins (London)

AsYouDesireMe with Kristin Scott Thomas and Bob Hoskins (London)

TheHouseofBernarda Alba with Penelope Wilton (London)

DonCarlos … and, one of my favourite production (definitely an all time Top 5) with Derek Jacobi (London).

GodofHell Donmar Warehouse production (London)

AFewGoodMen with Rob Lowe and John Barrowman (London)

IQ2 ebate 911 (debate – London)

TwoThousandYears (London)

RAThree Emperors (London)

Harvest, The Royal Court Theatre (London)

MISSING: My Name is Rachel Corrie, The Royal Court Theatre (London)

2004:

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Ben Whishaw, Rory Kinnear, Imogen Stubbs (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Edie Falco and Brenda Blethyn (NYC)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Nathan Lane and Lee Evans (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Jeremy Irons, Hugh Dancy (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com saw this with friends Justin and Gabriella, London

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Richard Griffiths, Frances De La Tour, James Corden and Dominic Cooper (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Jonathan Pryce and Eddie Redmayne (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Saffron Burrows and Nigel Lindsay (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Diana Rigg and Victoria Hamilton (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Holly Hunter (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Jennifer Ehle and Kevin Spacey (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.comwith Aaron Eckhart and Julia Stiles (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Michael Gambon, Lee Evans (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Roger Allam and Conleth Hill (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Judi Dench (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com Saw this with Paul, Penny, Harriet, Steve, Jill, etc. as a family XMAS outing.

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com (London)

The Sweetest Swing in Baseball (with Gillian Anderson), The Royal Court, London

MissingThe Permanent Way (by David Hare), National Theatre, London

MissingStuff Happens (by David Hare), National Theatre, London

2003:

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Ian McKellen and Frances De La Tour (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Ralph Fiennes (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com A truly remarkable production!  With Adrian Lester. (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Joseph Fiennes, John Barrowman and Olivia Williams (L0ndon)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Jim Broadbent and David Tennant (London).  This was so mesmerisingly brilliant that when The Pillowman moved to Broadway in 2005, I had to see this play again!

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Prunella Scales, Rupert Graves and Samantha Bond (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Simon Callow and Ann Mitchell (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Kristin Scott Thomas and Eric Sykes (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Derek Jacobi (London).  Saw this with John and Rachel.

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Tom Hardy, Jonny Lee Miller and Jane Asher (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with John Hannah and Sinead Cusack (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Patrick Stewart (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Kenneth Branagh (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Natasha Richardson (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Anthony Sher (London)

AReckoning with Jonathan Pryce (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Zoe Wanamaker, Alex Jennings, Margaret Tyzack (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Damian Lewis, Helen McCrory, Indira Varma (London)

Hitchcock Blonde  The Royal Court, London

Journey’s End, Comedy Theatre, London. (According to Bruce, I sat next to the actor who played Dr. Who in the 70s!)

MissingMy Brilliant Divorce (with Dawn French), Apollo Theathre, London

Missing: The Price (by Arthur Miller), Apollo Theatre, London

MissingAuntie and Me, Wyndhams Theatre, London

2002:

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Gillian Anderson and Roger Allam (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Woody Harrelson and Kyle MacLachlan (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Sean Bean and Samantha Bond (London)

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com with Judi Dench and Maggie Smith (London)

1997:

from the private collection of www.le-mckernan.com

Prior:

Sunset Blvd (with Glenn Close), Broadway

Les Miserables, Broadway

Phantom of the Opera, Broadway and London

Miss Saigon (with Jonathan Pryce), Broadway


Travel Musings . . .

Ramen noodles in Tokyo

Ramen noodles in Tokyo

For when we are old, grey and forgetful . . .

 

“Don’t worry — if we crash, then we will crash slowly”  – Siem Reap taxi driver when he sees us concerned that the back seats are missing seat belts (Cambodia, 2007)

“Good brakes, good horns, lots of patience … and lots of good luck!” .  .  .  our driver’s motto (India, 2009)

Bryan Adams, mushroom soup, killing spiders by throwing shoes at the wall, news of the US Congress not passing TARP and the resulting financial meltdown, little kids in the internet cafe writing to their Western ‘pen pals’ on Facebook  (Bhutan, 2008)

Having dinner in Istanbul and then suddenly realising that our flight to Hong Kong was that evening (in 3 hours time!) rather than the next evening!  (Istanbul, 2012)

Seriously 1970s peroxided-blondes as air stewardess in the Air Uzbekistan business class lounge (Tashkent airport, 2010)

Black pepper crabs and crab curry on the beach at Same, Same But Different Restaurant (Thailand, 2008)

Bovine disrespect — Bruce getting pushed around while photographing streetlife and the pushers were the cows roaming the streets!

Clockwork cicadas by our beach resort — they were so loud that at first we thought they were alarms from nearby villas.  (Thailand, 2008)

Non-stop nightly canine operas and sleeping dogs in the middle of the street in the middle of the day (Bhutan, 2008)

Saigon taxi driver trying (but failed) to scam us — airport toll was only 10,000 dongs but he tried to pass it off as 100,000!  When I questioned the amount, he gave me a receipt but the receipt had the wrong date on it.  Furthermore, driver refused to pull up to the hotel drive (thus the hotel staff could not intervene and assist in settling the dispute).

The Amanusa beach all to ourselves with bar service and WiFi (Indonesia, 2013)

Crooked museum staff tried to get Westerners to pay (in cash) a dollar each for picture-taking-fee in the museum courtyard (Cambodia, 2007)

Monklets with toy machine guns at the festivals (Bhutan, 2008)

The BEST massage ever at the Oberoi Hotel (Agra, Indi, 2009)

The AMAN cocktail – 42 Below Manuka Honey Vodka, guava & peach juice and fresh mint – the best cocktail ever!  (Beijing, 2009)

A Chin shaman from a nearby village insistent on selling a necklace that has been in his family for 10 generations in order to buy rice for the village after their entire rice harvest was destroyed by a plague of rats. (Burma, 2011)

Tracking our route with a GPS device and old Soviet maps. (Mongolia, 2013)

Eating our way thru Washington, DC with MyHanh and Chris (Dec 2012) and New York City with Roz and Steve (Dec 2012)

 

 

 

 


Top Portraits by Bruce (as selected by Tram) . . .

The below are Tram’s selection of Bruce’s best portrait photographs.

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August 2011 – Sri Lanka

My absolute favourite portrait taken by Bruce is from the Esala Perahera festival in Sri Lanka.  The evening street festival was exceedingly difficult to photograph — it was dark and crowded and we were immobile.  Furthermore, the light condition changed rapidly as the festival was lit by fire (with the torch bearers moving along with the parade route).  And from the mass of movement, heat, smoke and human bodies, Bruce managed to capture a lone dancer partially lit by a nearby flame.  The result suggested a moment of calm, tranquility and intimacy; the reality was it was a noisy, energetic and dynamic in a sea of music and dances.

Bruce’s other top portraits are:

B portrait set1

L to R: Burma, India and Uzbekistan

B portrait set 2

L to R: Guizhou China, Burma, Burma, Guizhou China.

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Burma

 

 

 


Tram’s TOP 20 images . . . .

This post actually started out as a simple (and private) exercise to pick out my absolute favourites and then to try to understand what it is exactly that I liked about them.  The ultimate goal is to understand what makes a great photo and more importantly, what can I learn from my past images.  I fully admit that many of the images I’ve selected have myriad technical flaws — but, this is a personal compilation and is therefore completely subjective.  As this project has grown, I’ve added technical details (where needed) as well as the backstory to enliven the images.  In addition to this, I’ve compiled a list of my favourite images that Bruce has taken …  whether he’ll do his own TOP 20 list is depends on how much time he has …

(For my favourite RugbySevens images, please review this link.)

Tram’s pick of her TOP 20 images:

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Favourite Image – Oct 2009 – India

Nowadays I almost always photograph with either my converted infrared cameras or with my iPhones (predominately using the Hipstamatic app). My unconverted (or, normal) camera is usually left inside my camera bag and I tend to use this as a backup camera (if I remember to pack it).  As such, it is therefore   deeply   ironic that my all-time favourite image was taken with a “normal” SLR camera.

This is a special image that still resonates because it was this image that gave me the confidence to photograph more.  I owe a debt of gratitude: to my uncle Chris for inspiring me to pick up this hobby; to Bruce because we are sooooooo competitive and thus I’m always trying to take better photographs than him; to photographer Nevada Wier for convincing me that I should be shooting in RAW format instead of JPEGS (thankfully this was captured in RAW!!!!); and, to this mystery lady who really got me thinking that I could take decent images!

 

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April 2012 – Hong Kong – infrared

(2) I went to Cheung Chau island to photograph the annual Bun Festival.  Unbeknownst to me, the municipality sponsored an opera to coincide with the festival.  As I had hours to kill before the start of the festival, I used all of my American charm to curry favour backstage access.  The performers and stage hands were wonderful!  Although I was most definitely in the way (the backstage area was TINY!), they indulged me with their generosity and I was there for about an hour.

This image is particularly special as I was using my new D700 camera for the first time since it’s conversion to infra-red.  Because the camera’s sensor still thinks it is capturing normal light (and infra is a different wave length), autofocus did NOT work.  As such, I had to use LiveView to manually focus and LV is infinitely slower and very cumbersome.  Furthermore, the lightening backstage was poor and came from harsh fluorescent bulbs.  Needless to say, I was cursing at myself for ‘vandalising’ my new D700.  But something just clicked and inexplicably I managed to get this amazing image.  I simply love the way infrared captured this performer’s hands and how the light gives the makeup a mask-like appearance!

 

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(3) A lucky shot!  What more can I saw other than I was at the right place and at the right time.  (And thank goodness the light in the arena was good — otherwise, the infrared camera would have it’s focus in a real twist!)  This image encapsulates serendipity!  And sometimes, that is what a photographer needs in his/her camera bag.

 

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January 2011 – Burma

(4) I love, love, love this monklet!  I was on a photography tour with Nevada Wier and we gatecrashed into a study hall at a monastery in Yangoon.  The senior monk permitted us to photograph the monklets practicing their chants.  They were all wonderfully photogenic (and patient with us!).  But this monklet was a standout for me.  I love the fact that he has an ink tattoo on his legs and that the red robe did not rob him of his boyish antics.  This was an unstaged photo opportunity which meant that I had to work in a ‘real’ environment.  The room was actually too dark for my normal day lens and I didn’t want to use flash as it would completely ruin the atmosphere (as well as piss off the other photographers).  Thankfully, prior to this trip, Bruce convinced me to buy a 50mm lens which made a world of difference!  I was able to crack open the aperture and take advantage of the late afternoon light coming in from a tiny window.   (Thank you Brucey!!!)

 

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April 2012 – Istanbul – infrared

(5) When I photographed the Haghia Sophia from afar, I didn’t realised how well the infrared camera would bring out the landscape in the background or how well it would render the Bosphorus. As such, the infrared light gave it a distinctive and other-worldly effect (almost something from ‘Game of Thrones’).  In effect, it gave an much beloved (and much photographed) iconic building a unique twist.

 

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May 2013

(6) Backstage at the opera at the Cheung Chau Bun Festival (again).  After the success of the previous year, I returned in 2013 as I wanted to photograph the performers again — but this time with my iPhone (Hipstamatic – lens: Tinto 1884; fils: C-Type Plate; no flash).  I’d focused on the face and the Hipstamatic application did the rest.  I just loved the way Hipstamatic blurred everything other than the focal point. As a result, this gave the performer an immediate virtual spotlight!

 

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March 2012 – Hong Kong – infrared

(7) This was an once-in-a-lifetime image for me …. and I almost missed the opportunity.  I was due to meet up with Bruce and a friend at a bar for evening cocktails and I almost didn’t take my camera along.  Although a D70s isn’t huge, it is rather clunky to carry for an evening event.  But something told me to take the camera with me.  So, in addition to having a healthy dosage of serendipity in my camera bag, I also have to thank the photography gods for giving me good intuition!

 

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(8) I just love the way infra-red captured the texture of the fur coat as well as the horse mane.  This gives the image a depth and a uniqueness.  But this image has a special story attached to it.  As a digital photographer, it is easy to become numb during the image-processing phase (especially when there are hundreds of images to scope).  As such, it is very easy to overlook an image.  This particular image was one that was bypassed.  Many months after the initial processing, I’d reviewed some other images and noticed this one.  As I developed the image, it occurred to me how special and beautiful it us.  As such, this image serves as a cautionary tale.

 

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(9) “Will he? Won’t he?” . . .   I love the way this image tells a story at a precise moment in time.   Of the thousand of images I’d taken that day, this is still my clear favourite because in one image, I see:  hope, fear, aggression, and possible salvation.

 

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April 2011 – Sri Lanka – infrared

(10) This image is a standout for me for two reasons.  First, I love the texture of the elephants’ skins and the way the light bounces off the wet patches on the skin.  Second, I love the composition — especially in the way the two adult elephants are in profile, adjacent to each other and perfectly aligned to form a visual trickery.  Specifically, the two elephants appear to merge together and as a result, a frontal view of a “face” appears.

 

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July 2012 – Guizhou, China – infrared

(11) I just love the way my infrared camera captures light — especially when the subject is backlit. In addition, I love the various textures captured in this image.  As a result, this becomes a richly layered image for me.

 

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August 2011 – Sri Lanka – infrared

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(12) This image (uncertain if it is better in portrait or landscape mode) is a ‘love-it-or-hate-it image’ because there are many technical flaws.  Personally, I love it.  Perhaps it is because I know that this was a technically challenging event to photograph and as such, to get an image like this one is personally rewarding.

The Esala Perahera festival in Sri Lanka was an evening festival.  Moreover, it was a crowded event and as spectators, Bruce and I were confined to our seats (five rows back from the street and with people all around us).  As such, we had to photograph where we were planted — we could not move, shoot high or shoot low. An extra challenge I had was that I was photographing with my D70s and it was recently converted to infrared.  In insufficient light, an infrared camera would clonk out as it could not focus properly.  In addition, my D70s was a starter camera and as such I could not crank up the ISO without getting a lot of background noises. Thankfully, we were there for three days and had three opportunities to photograph the festival.

I love the way the infrared camera captured the heat haze.  In addition, I love the way the mahout is enveloped in heat, fire and light.  The setting is almost demonic and hellish.  It is surreal.  It is eye-catching.  Love it or hate it, it’s the kind of image that if you saw it in a magazine, you would stop to ponder it for a few seconds — this is a hallmark of the kind of photograph that I want to take!

 

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August 2011 – Sri Lanka – infrared

(13) I know it’s cheating to count a set of three images as one image, but these three images form the basis of my ‘Sri Lankan Victorian Ghosts’ portfolio and now serve as the foundation for my experimental infrared images.  They are on my list of top images because they are hugely important and very influential in my development as a photographer.  The absolute truth is that these were mistakes — and I actually came _very_ close to deleting them.  But, once again I owe a debt of gratitude to Nevada Wier who gave me very sage advice: don’t delete an image straight from your camera; always view the image on a proper screen first before deciding that the image is truly unsalvageable.  (Thank you x100 Nevada!)  The morning after the Esala Perahera festival, I’d reviewed my images and I was quite struck by the elderly lady sitting on the street (middle photo in the set).  There was an etherial and ghostly beauty and I was captivated.

As previously mentioned, the above images were ‘mistakes’ in that the effects were unintentional.  Due to the poor lighting of the street festival, I had to crank up the ISO, reduce the shutter speed and play around with the aperture.  In addition, I could not use a tripod and therefore my images were subjected to camera shake.  Nonetheless, I love the outcome.  Nowadays, after I have taken my ‘insurance shot’ (another great tip from Nevada), I now try to play around and replicate what I’d accidentally did in Sri Lanka . . .

 

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Oct 2009 – India (image sharpened in PS)

(14) While I love this image because it is beautiful (the image speaks for itself), this image is on the list because it played a huge role my development.  First, it gave me confidence that I could translate what I see into something photogenic.  Second, it seriously broke my heart.

When this photograph was taken, I was very much a novice with my camera’s functions.  As a result, I relied heavily on it’s preset modes (i.e. auto, landscape, portraits, night images, etc.).  At the time, I told myself that (unlike geeky Bruce) I really didn’t need to master shutter speed, depth of field, etc. because I had a smart camera (Nikon D70s) and thus as long as I had the correct setting, I would be all right.  WRONG!   I think I was photographing this in either landscape or portrait mode.  Regardless, the shutter speed was 1/60 second and as such, the woman’s face was too soft.  (Image has since been sharpened in Photoshop.)  I’d cursed myself repeatedly for being so foolish and as a direct result of this image, I forced myself to learn how to use my camera and more about photography.

 

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Aug 2012 – Guizhou – infrared

(15) In this image, the model was getting quite bored.  For the past 10 minutes, she was “working the cameras” for the roomful of photographers.  At first, she was thrilled to be the center of attention.  But, as the click-click-click became monotonous, she started to become disinterested and lost her focus.  And from this came an unguarded moment which resulted in this beautiful portrait.

 

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October 2013 – iPhone

(16) I am particularly fond of this image because it is unstaged and spontaneous.  Bruce and I were hosted by Manaa and his family for seven nights in western Mongolia.  Our host was a champion Eagle Hunter and therefore was very comfortable (and proud) to be photographed.  After a meal, he gazed out of the window.  I had my iPhone next to me and I immediately took a few snaps using Hipstamatic (lens: Tinto 1884; fils: C-Type Plate; no flash) to capture the moment. Of the many, many, many images that I’ve taken on Manaa over the week, this is my clear favourite because it showed him in his true light — dignified and serene!

 

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(17) ‘Go Girl!  Go!’  My heart still skips a beat when I see this image as it is very simple and yet very empowering!

 

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Feb 2013 – Hong Kong – iPhone

(18) I love my iPhone because it is perfect for a quick snap.  In particular, I love the way Hipstamatic (Tinto 1884 lens and D-Type film) gave this image a vintage feel.  As such, Hipstamatic transformed a interesting picture (with the odd juxtaposition of old and new) into something more cohesive.  In other words, the vintage effect reinforces the narrative and thus reinforces the odd juxtaposition.

 

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August 2012 – Guizhou, China – infrared

(19)  This image would never quality as ‘postcard pretty’ — and this is why I love this photograph.  It is unconventional and it is a realistic capture of everyday life in the markets somewhere (anywhere) in China.  I particularly like the flow in the image — ie the eyes are taken from right to left — and that the image is richly layered.

 

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October 2013 – Mongolia – infrared

(20) I love the intimacy and sense of serenity captured in this moment with the Eagle Hunter.  The extra zing in this image comes when one contrasts the hunter’s softness with the sharpness, strength and power coming from the eagle.

 

.   .   .   and other favourite images that didn’t quite make it onto the Top 20 list, but are still special (to me) nonetheless  . . .

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(21) Although there are many technically stronger images of this horse wrestling match in the Kyrgyzstan album and although this image is compositionally weak, I prefer this image above the others because for some inexplicable reasons, I connect with this image more.  Perhaps it is the expression on the face … Or, it is because there is a fluidity in his movement (ie the rider leans back and away from the ‘horse head punch’) that appeals. Regardless, this image challenges me because I can’t quite explain why I like it so much.

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Bruce has often said that he’d envied my American “unembarrassability” as this enabled me to ask complete strangers for their permission to photograph them and/or, to get really up-close to the subject (rather than rely on zoom lenses).  As such, he said that this characteristic makes me a stronger portrait photographer.  While I appreciate his compliments, his portraits aren’t too bad either   :>)  …   In fact, some of his are actually amazing  – to see Bruce’s best portraits, please click here.

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Oct 2013 – Mongolia – infrared

This image didn’t make onto the Top20 list because it was instinctively captured as a Mongolian horseman flew past me.  The backstory behind this image was that I have just taken my “insurance shots” of the Mongolian riders playing their horse games.  As such, I decided to be artsy-fartsy instead and experimented with shutter speeds.  In addition, I tried to do a few panning shots as the horsemen raced by.  During a lull, I was speaking to Bruce and in the distance I saw a horseman racing towards my direction.  Without thought, I immediately grabbed my camera and started to take shots.  Sadly, the shutter speed was 1/30 second so of the four images I managed to snap, all but one were streaks of blurred blah. But in a sea of blah, this stunning image emerged.

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April 2013 – Tokyo

This isn’t a complex image; in fact, it is nothing more than a bowl with what was left from THE BEST RAMEN NOODLES I’ve ever had (street vendor on the main street adjacent to the Tokyo Fish Market).  Nonetheless, I love the simplicity, symmetry, colours and patterns in this image (iPhone-Hipstamatic: Tinto 1994 lens and Blanko film).

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June 2013 – Indonesia

 ((  kindly note that this list is currently “work in progress”  ))

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2012 – Hong Kong – infrared

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Augt 2012 – Guizhou – infrared

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April 2012 – Istanbul – infrared

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Oct 2009 – India

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Jan 2012 – Hong Kong – infrared

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June 2013 – Indonesia

 

 


Buzkashi – Mongolian Horse Games

 

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Travel Blog — Mongolia

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Oh, bugger‘ was my first thought as I went flying thru the air.  ‘Ouch‘ was my second thought as I landed on the painted rocks which served to demarcate the boundary separating the spectators and the players.  Buzkashi is a horsegame typically compared to polo — but the former is played with a ball whereas the latter is played with a headless goat carcass.  The other difference is that polo is typically considered a gentleman’s game whereas buzhashi is a seriously rowdy, highly competitive and very fierce spectacle.  Nonetheless, I thought I was relatively safe as I was seated in a place of honour.  I was on the front bench alongside some senior and distinguished Eagle Hunters.  Surely these boys won’t want to run over their grandfathers, or so I thought …  Not so as these boys take buzhashi very seriously and the locals know this.  So, as a wall of four galloping horses headed towards the benches, the ‘grandfathers’ were swift and nimble and avoided the horses.  I, on the other hand, went flying thru the air as the horses (and riders) ignored the painted rocks.

As I dusted myself off, my third thought was on whether or not I’d managed to get ‘that perfect shot’ of the thundering horses coming towards me.  But, before I could check the images from my camera, I noticed that I was suddenly surrounded by the locals.  “OK?  OK?” they all asked with their eyes and kind gestures.  “I’m OK.”  I smiled and gave them the ‘thumbs up’ and tried to assured them that all was fine but they still seemed genuinely concerned.  “OK?  OK?  Sit, sit.”  And then, more people came up to check that I was unhurt.  It was then that I realised that there was some secret or unspoken code of hospitality at stake.  The locals were appalled that a visitor was potentially injured.  I tried to assuage their concerns by resuming normalcy and taking more photos of the game.  (Note:  nothing stops buzhashi.) But the crowds remained.  And then the penny dropped — the locals were now forming a human shield around me against future harm.

I was so charmed by their generosity that the game no longer became important to me.  Instead, I started to take photographs on my iPhone of the kids protecting me.   I used the Hipstamatic application on the phone to create interesting images and the kids were thrilled to see their portraits.  And, before I knew it, the game finished.  In the end, I didn’t get that ‘perfect’ shot. Nonetheless, I had something better — I had the warmest memory of the kindness and concerns shown by ordinary Mongolians towards me during the game.  It was an endearing and unforgettable moment.

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The bitter and biting cold was another unforgettable memory of Mongolia.  We did our research beforehand and packed for all seasons.  During the day and under the blazing sun, it was warm and bright (sunblock and hat mandatory).  But, on a clear and star-filled night, it was brutally cold.  On the first night, I had my woollen stockings plus two layers of thermals whilst tucked inside an Arctic sleeping bag and under a thick wool blanket (loaned to us by the family we were staying with).  During the autumn and winter, the family moved into their mud-brick winter house; during the summer, they use their ger (a Mongolian yurt) as they move their herds to summer pasture.  We were sleeping in their summer ger — and it provided little warmth.  Every night, the host lit a dung fire in the ger’s central stove, but, the dung fire burned too quickly.  Within 30 minutes, the ger was cold again as the biting winds found every holes and gaps in the thin walls.  On the second night, I added more thermals but I still found it uncomfortably and incredibly cold.  It was so cold that it was difficult to fall asleep.  In fact, it was so cold that the decision to remain inside the sleeping bag and shiver/suffer the cold (and pray that I’ll eventually fall asleep) was better than to unzip the bag and expose myself to even more horrible coldness in order to put on more layers.  Each night thereafter I added more layers until I looked like the Michelin man.  It was only on the seventh and final night in the ger that I finally had a warm and comfortable sleep — at that point, I had:  1 woollen stocking, three pairs of wool/cotton socks, three thermal pants, three thermal shirts plus a double-thickness cotton shirt plus 1 cotton rugby shirt whilst tucked inside a sleeping bag under a wool blanket and a sheepskin coat (also on loan from the family) used as another blanket.  And this was in early October!  I cannot imagine the cold during the deepest and darkest winter.

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‘the leaky ger’  —  see video tour (external link to YouTube)

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‘the leaky ger’ at night

Manaa, our host, is a champion eagle hunter with a beautiful wife and 11 grown children. Most of his fledglings have either moved to the village and/or are boarded at school.  Even so, the house is rarely quiet.  Mongolian hospitality is a never-ending pot of milk tea and a continual stream of neighbours and visitors.  During the weekend, the school kids return and the house teems with life.  In addition to the kids, the house is home to two golden eagles.  The elder eagle has been in Manaa’s care for 5 years and is quite docile.  The other bird is newly acquired and still very wild.  As such, it is kept in the kitchen so that it would acclimatise to the sounds, smell and sight of humans.

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our host with his trained eagle

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a wild eagle in the kitchen

The eagle hunters only use female birds as they are significantly larger than male birds.  Furthermore, they only use eagles that have already been trained to hunt by their mother.  The hunters then train the birds to hunt for them.  The first step is to teach the young eagle (typically at age 1) to accept food (a poor bunny in this case) from the eagle hunter.   Once the bird accepts the eagle hunter as it’s ‘master’, then the eagle is taken outside and tethered to a rope and taught to catch a lure and then fly back to it’s master.  We were told (via our translator) that Manaa has trained 6 eagles successfully in his career and that it would take approximately 20 days to train a smart eagle.  Once an eagle is trained and successfully captures an animal, the eagle hunter would reward it by giving it the warm liver of fox/rabbit/marmot.  A good hunting eagle is typically kept for ten years before it is released back into the wild so that it could breed.  At the start of the breeding season on the eagle’s 11th year, it is taken to the top of the highest nearby peak and released.  We were told that it is extremely rare for a released bird to return back to it’s master’s home.  But if it does return, then it is taken further afield and released again.

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We were in western Mongolia specifically to see the two-days Golden Eagle Festival.  This is a public-private enterprise between the local government and a tour group (Nomadic Expedition) to showcase and to preserve a local tradition as well as give an economic injection into a sleepy part of Mongolia.  We wanted our tourist dollar to stay in Mongolia and therefore opted to travel independently.  We used a local agent (Blue Wolf Travels LTD — which we would NOT recommend) to book our private gerstay, our translator/guide, and our driver.  The plan was to arrive before the crowd and spend two days exploring the region first.  Then, we would attend the festival followed by two days of horse riding & hunting with the eagle hunters.  And our seventh and last day in western Mongolia would be a rest day.  Very little went according to plan because Blue Wolf was hugely disorganised.  In fact, the only days that went perfectly were days that Blue Wolf was not involved in the logistics.  (I would recommend avoiding Blue Wolf — please see the specifics in my review of the company.)

Blue Wolf malarky aside, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting western Mongolia.  We loved staying with Manaa and his family.  We ate with the family and shared their communal plates.  Like the locals, we dropped into other people’s houses to say hello and were supplied with endless milk tea (full fat and salty).  The evening entertainment was based on songs and storytelling.  Despite their hard lives, Manaa and the others know how to live to the fullest.  On the last night of the Eagle Festival, Manaa and his neighbours celebrated the local village’s festival successes until 5:30 AM.  The celebration only ended because it clashed with the start of his morning chores. His animals needed care so he exited from the party and took the birds out for their morning exercise and then he tended to the cows, yaks, horses and goats.

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Manaa’s sons kill a goat for dinner

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a typical dinner scene: mutton and potatoes in the communal plate (center of the table), endless cups of tea, and Mongolian vodka.

Travel to western Mongolia required a robust constitution.  Prior to our arrival, I’d spend weeks trying to hunt down the elusive typhoid vaccine.  The global manufacture’s recall resulted in a very tight supply and I was told by numerous medical centres and hospitals in Hong Kong that the vaccine could not be purchased in HK for love or money.  Many false leads later but thanks to a tip from the HK government, I found a Christian medical clinic that had the vaccine in stock.  And, it was needed!

In western Mongolia, one did one’s ablutions in the open fields.  In addition, the primary source of fuel for cooking was animal dung.  And, whilst there was a washing basin the kitchen, the water was from a nearby well.  Furthermore, the cook (from Blue Wolf) didn’t always wash her hands after filling the stove with the quick-burning dried dung.  And so we were incredibly grateful that we were fully vaccinated up for all types of bugs and ailments before we arrived.

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What we didn’t anticipated were the bruised elbows and sore back from bouncing along the rocky steppe and dirt paths.  There is ‘off roading’ and then there is ‘Mongolian off roading’.  We crossed boulders-ridden riverbeds, climbed steep mountain sides, and tracked across stoney and sandy desert paths in an old Soviet jeep.   Coming from a super-condensced city, it was a joy to be able to stretch one’s eyes towards the horizon.  But, the joy was quickly replaced when we realised that getting from point A to point B required hours of travel.

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See video — note: this is an external link to YouTube

Mongolia was truly and dramatically vast.  Thankfully, Bruce downloaded some old Soviet maps and overlayed these maps onto Goggle Earth and he uploaded these files onto his GPS device. Thus, we were able to see our progress in real-time in Mongolia.  Once we were travelling some distance to see a stone monolith.  A quarter of the way there, the driver stopped the car (twice) to inspect something.  At this point, we checked Bruce’s GPS device and realised that we were in the middle of absolutely nowhere.  Furthermore, we were in the Mongolian desert and had no spare water (and no spare blankets in case we got stuck there at night). And, we were so remote that there was no mobile phone reception.  And to make matters worse, due to a Blue Wolf screw-up, we had a change in the itinerary which meant that no one knew our true destination.  So, if the car broke down in the middle of Nowhere Mongolia, we would truly be 100% buggered.  At this point, Bruce made the right decision and cancelled our outing to see the stone monolith.

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Unfortunately, this curtailed roadtrip was not an isolated incident as the local agent was completely ‘canat’ (a newly invented adjective!).  Thankfully, we had a very good driver and translator/guide which helped mitigate our losses.  But despite losing time going to the wrong places, etc. we could not stop enjoying the endless natural beauty and stunning landscapes.

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The absolute highlight of the trip was the Golden Eagle Festival.  At approximately 10 AM, it started off with a parade of the Eagle Hunters (my guestimate was that approximately 30 Eagle Hunters participated in the 2013 festival).   The first two hours of the festival was vicious — every Westerner (and his dog) had multiple cameras, smartphones, video cameras, binoculars, etc.  And so before the official eagle competition started, the photographers (myself included) jostled and competed amongst ourselves for ‘the photo opportunity’.  It was an ‘Eagle Hunter paparazzi’ on an epic scale.  Thankfully, the photo mania calmed once everyone realised that the festival spanned two days, there was plenty of space to spread out, and by stepping on top of each other, no one was going to get a good photograph.

Day 1 was to test the eagle’s response to it’s master’s voice.  One by one, the eagle hunters called out to their eagles.  The eagles were released from a high peak and they were timed.  The quickest one to perch onto it’s master’s arm was the winner. On Day 2, the test was on the eagle’s ability to catch a moving bait (dead fox/rabbit dragged behind a horse).  Again, the eagles were timed and judged on speed and effectiveness on landing the bait. The eagle competition ended by midday on Day 2.  That afternoon was an opportunity for the local boys to demonstrate their horse riding skills as well as compete against neighbouring villages in robust games of buzhashi.

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Bizarrely, some of the eagles determined that photographers were more desirable than the dead foxes/rabbits. Two photographers were “attacked” — and one was actually hunted by the eagles twice! (Bad eagle karma?)  Thankfully, neither the photographers nor the birds were injured.

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photographer used his tripod to defend himself from an eagle

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the bait …

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the horseman luring the eagle with the rabbit bait

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picking up a small parcel on the ground whilst on a moving horse

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show-off !

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Ouch! Player is knocked off this horse during a game of buzhashi

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Despite the bitter cold at night, the harsh travelling condition and the many frustrations and disappointment with our local travel agent, we thoroughly enjoyed visiting Mongolia and would highly recommend the Golden Eagle Festival in Olgii/Ulgii.  If possible, we would recommend avoiding the the tourist gers and hotels.  The best way to get “under the skin” of a place is to do a homestay or a gerstay with a local family.  Our recommendations are posted below.

If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me at feedback@le-mckernan.com.   Happy travels!

BTW — the first image below is the image I’d managed to take before getting knocked over.  The second image shows one of my “human shields” trying to get my attention to warn me about the approaching horses.  It still tickles me pink when I reflect on the kindness and care of the locals!

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For additional photographs, please check out this link.

 

Travel Tips: 

For anyone interested in travelling to Western Mongolia, our suggestions are:

  • Pack well and pack wisely.  Mongolia certainly has the extremes in temperature and in condition.  And, don’t assume that your host will have sufficient supplies.
  • If possible, pack light — especially if you are flying into western Mongolia.  Aero Mongolia is fastidious about charging extra for excessive baggage weight (including carry-ons)!  This is a cash cow for them and they will ( rightly ) milk it for all that they can.  As a workaround:
    • You could stuff your coat pockets with your heavy carry-on items when you check in (they don’t make you weigh-in your coat). Once you have your boarding pass, you can then put the heavy stuff from your coat pocket back into your carry-on bag.
    • Some people are posting their sleeping bags, etc. to/from Mongolia via DHL, FedEx, etc. to avoid paying the stiff excessive baggage fee.
  • Mongolia is becoming an ever popular travel destination and we know firsthand of two incidents in which people were ‘bumped’ from their gers due to double-booking.  During the eagle festival, demand easily outstrips supply. This is where you need to work closely with your local agent and confirm (and then double/triple confirm) the arrangements.
  • Work only with reputable agents or one that comes recommended.  We met another traveller who booked her arrangements by email with a local agent and only had his mobile number as a contact.  When he failed to pick up her messages, she had no other way to get in touch with him.  She then had to book herself into a dinky hotel at an exorbitant rate.
  • The Lonely Planet publishes a comprehensive ‘what to pack’ list.  In addition to their list, I would also suggest:
    • Lots of baby wipes or deodorant paper.  Unless you are staying in a hotel or in a tourist ger, bathing (especially in the colder months) would be difficult.
    • For the sake of a comfortable bottom, bring along the toilet paper that you normally use at home.
    • For the ladies, I cannot recommend enough either http://www.freshette.com or GoGirl.  You can typically find these in any camping or outdoorsy shops.
    • Plastic bags!  I know that they are environmentally evil, but, a few spare plastic bags are a godsend under the right circumstances such as: to serve as a garbage bag, a puke bag (it happens!) or  just to separate the clean from the not-so-clean clothes, etc. (If you are staying in a rural area, then bring your garbage into town at the end of your trip and dispose of this responsibly.)
    • Pain medication (for sore backs), hand/feet warmers (the type skiers put inside their gloves and shoes), and a few extra pairs of socks.
    • If you are doing a homestay/gerstay, then small gifts of hospitality will give you a lot of mileage.  For example, my jars of honey and packets of dried mangoes were very, very well received. I also knew (from past travels in Central Asia) that sharing cakes with the family would be a big win so I brought along a Dutch loaf cake (made with dried fruits, nuts and spices).  This was quickly devoured by all.
    • A Polaroid-type camera.  Ours was a SERIOUSLY (!)  MEGA-HUGE hit.  It really helps build rapport.  And you’ll have a friend for life if you give them a Polaroid portrait.  But if you bring this type of camera, then you need to ensure that you pack 1.5x more cartridges than you think you would need.  Also, pack these in your carry-on in an easily accessible place.  At the security checks at the airport, do not let them X-RAY the film.  The guards will tell you that the X-RAYS are safe — don’t believe them!  These should be hand-searched.
  • Almost every ger (even the most remote ones) now have solar panels.  In theory, you can recharge your batteries when in deepest Mongolia.  However, please be mindful that you shouldn’t hog all the electricity — the host needs to charge his batteries as well for evening light.
  • I hate to bring this up … but, you will be seen as an incredibly wealthy foreigner when you visit Mongolia.  And news of your presence will spread around the area and the temptation to pilfer from wealthy foreigners may be too strong to resist.  As such, always, always lock your stuff in your bags.  At day as well as at night.  It breaks my heart to write this (because our host family was so lovely and kind to us) but, one night at around 4:20AM, someone came into our private ger (we forgot to set the door latch) and was about to go thru our bags.  I thought it was Bruce so I’d asked him if everything was OK and the figure looked up, pointed his torch/flashlight at me and then left the ger very quickly.
  • Traffic in Ulaanbaatar (aka UB) was unspeakable!  As such, bring comfortable walking shoes.  On our first day there, we walked 12 kilometres.  The second day, it was 17 kilometres. Walking was the simply the best way for us to explore the city.  In addition and more importantly, give yourself PLENTY of time to get to the airport.  I’ve _never_ missed a flight in my entire life because I am always careful about giving myself sufficient time to travel there.  That said, traffic in UB gave me the fright that we might miss our flight.  It wasn’t simply the volume of cars on the road.  The issue is that the drivers in UB ignored traffic rules and were incredibly selfish.  The drivers there were perfectly happy to create gridlock for others if it meant that they could cut queues. Heading towards the airport, we were on a dual carriageway with one lane for each direction.  Despite the fact that the road could only accommodate two lanes, the drivers on “our” side of the road were perfectly happy to create three passing lanes — a passing lane, a passing lane of the passing lane, and a passing lane on the hard shoulder!  And this happened whilst there was construction happening in real-time on the road we were travelling on.  No one showed anyone any consideration and as such, the road literally grounded to a halt.  Unbelievable gridlock!!!

 

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For more information why I would NOT recommend Blue Wolf Travel, please see my opinion piece of this agency.

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People of Mongolia

Mongolia

Champion eagle hunter at rest at home …

 

 


Eagle Festival

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Eagle attempting to perch on his trainer’s arm before he is ready . . .

 

 

 


More images from Mongolia . . .

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Bruce’s TOP 20 images . . .

Bruce’s TOP 20 images as selected by Tram (because Bruce is just tooooooo busy) . . . .

Please note that this based on personal taste and is therefore completely subjective.

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(1) Mongolia, Oct 2013

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(2) Sri Lanka, August 2011

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(3 & 4) Bhutan, Oct 2008

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(5 & 6) Kyrgyzstan

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(7) Sri Lanka, August 2011

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(8) Burma, January 2011

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(9) Mongolia, Oct 2013

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(10) Burma, January 2011; (11) India, Oct 2009; (12) Uzbekistan, August 2010

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(13 ) Burma, January 2011

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(14) Burma, January 2011

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(15) India, Oct 2009

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(16) India, Oct 2009

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(17) Burma, January 2011

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(18) Guizhou, China – August 2012

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(19 ) Burma, January 2011

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(20 ) Indonesia, July 2013

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Bruce and I have different taste.  So, if Bruce was to compile his own TOP 20 images, I know that he would have these on the top of his list . . . .

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Sri Lanka, August 2011

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Sri Lanka, August 2011

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Sri Lanka, August 2011

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Burma, January 2011

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India, Oct 2009

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Guizhou, China – August 2012

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Burma, January 2011

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Burma, January 2011


Travel Blog – Indonesia

Indonesia

My sister’s work colleague (Toro) has a saying about Japanese temples:  if there are no school kids around, then it’s not a real temple.  Well, what is true in Japan is also true in Indonesia.

Kids:  We are working on a school project and have a few questions for you.  May we have  few minutes of your time?  

Bruce:  Of course.

Kids: Where are you from? …  How long are you staying in Indonesia?  Do you like Indonesia? Do you like the food?  What do you think of the people?  How is our English?  And, can we take a picture with you? 

If you’re Asian like I am, then the above only happened several times.  However, if you are tall, blonde and have blue eyes (like Bruce) then imagine the above multipled by 50.  Welcome to the world of ‘tourist hunters’.  Thankfully, instead of pickpockets and thieves, the hunters were the flocks of school kids on assignment to practice their English with foreigners.  And, _everyone_ wanted to practice their English with Bruce!  And given that we were such an ‘odd couple’, we really stood out amongst the crowd and immediately drew the attention of the school kids like bears to honey.

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It was interesting to watch the school kids operate around the temple grounds.  They mostly traveled in packs and the most audacious in the group would shout out ‘hello’.  If you hello back, then you’re automatically hooked.  And, usually only one or two in the group would do the talking (which defeated the purpose of getting all the kids to practice their English).  So, my strategy was to ask each kid for their name and age and once the rapport was established, the conversation became more dynamic.  As enjoyable as it was to interact with the school kids, we started to attract a crowd.  So, it soon became a never-ending queue of school kids wanting to practice English with us.   Hence, we spent more time being interviewed then actually visiting the temples!  In the end, we spotted another group of Westerns and started to tail them.  This served to load-balance the interview queue and ultimately, we managed to engineer a few brief moments to ourselves while on the temple grounds.

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Prambanan temple complex

And temples we did visit!   Temples to culture.  Temples to religion.  And temples to the beaches.  We’d organised our holiday into three phases: first, five days in Ubud to absorb the Balinese culture; then, four days in central Java to visit Borobudur — the largest Buddhist temple in the world; and finally, two days in Bali to soak up the beach.  Because each phase was so different from each other, we felt that we had three distinctive vacations back-to-back.  It was such a wonderful way to explore and enjoy Indonesia!

Ubud:

According to the locals, Ubud during peak season is insane with the tiny town inundated with tourists.  Fortunately, we arrived just a few weeks shy from the start of the peak season so we had the best temperature but without the traffic madness.  And, it meant that we had no difficulties getting dinner reservations at the recommended restaurants.  There were two Balinese dishes that we were absolutely determined to try — bebek betutu (slow roasted, leaf-wrapped duck) at The Dirty Duck and babi guling (suckling pig on a spit) at Ibu Oka.  The former required 24-hours advance notice because the duck is slow-cooked.  The latter does not, but, it required getting to the restaurant early because the babi guling often sell out quickly.

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As tourists, we were spoiled for choice in terms of evening performance — every night around the Ubud palace, there were traditional Balinese dances at various venues.  The performances in front of the ‘lotus pond temple’ was one of the better ones.  At night, the area was lit up with candles and the temple served as the backdrop. In the vicinity were restaurants with views of the stage and thus it was possible (usually with advance reservation) to have dinner whilst watching the performances. (No surprises — the food was distinctively mediocre as the restaurants relied solely on passing tourist trade.)

Ubud, Indonesia

But the most memorable performance we found was actually well off the tourist path.  We came upon Kecak – the Monkey Chant Dance — quite by chance as it was not on the hotel’s radar of cultural things to do/see.  Instead, we found this performance as a result of checking the local papers. (Travel tip:  always read the local papers and ask the locals.  Don’t depend solely on the hotel staff.)  We had no idea what to expect as we went to the performance on a hunch. And, it was well worth the effort — it was stunning, captivating and engaging.

Ubud, Indonesia

Kecak is based on the Hindu epic Ramayana and is told as a dance. It is not accompanied by any musical instruments. Instead, a chorus of approximately seventy men imitate the sounds of musical instruments, tell the story, and provide sound effects.

Another fond memory from Ubud was the fantastic Bird and Reptile Park.  We typically don’t visit zoos when we travel, but, we had a spare afternoon. Perhaps we enjoyed it because we had low(ish) expectations.  Regardless, the park was well designed (with a walk-thru aviary) and it had wide variety of healthy birds (plus one Komodo dragon).  One in particular caught me attention and it was very patient with me as I’d clicked-clicked-clicked away with my Nikon.

Indonesia

Although Ubud is famous for it’s art galleries, we avoided hitting the galleries and shops as we were more interested in going off-the-beaten track.  As such, we hired a car and driver and drove around the vicinity checking out the local temples.  En route to a temple, we saw a group of women harvesting rice and we immediately pulled over.  They were so amused and perplexed that we wanted to photograph them working.  In fact, the ladies giggled solidly throughout the entire impromptu photo session.

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Borobudur: 

On paper, getting to Borobudur from Bali is a simple one-hour flight away.  In reality, it took almost a full day in transit (mostly due to the crazy road traffic).  Thankfully, we allowed ourselves extra time and thus didn’t stress out when we crawled along the main road connecting Yogyakarta to Borobudur.  It was particularly entertaining to see the local Javanese turn a two-lane street into a four-lane road.  At one point, an ambulance with sirens on came blazing by and made space thru the traffic jam.  And although we were not surprised to see a few cars ‘cheat’ and follow the ambulance, we were not expecting to see an entire (new) lane follow the ambulance.  In the end, the new ‘ambulance chase’ lane stretched for about 1/2 mile long until the traffic on the opposite lane finally forced the ambulance chasers back onto their own lane.  Our driver was completely non-plussed as this was everyday normal for him!

Although Borobudur is mana for temple fans and could rival the likes of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, Borobudur has less development.  As far as we could see, the amenities in the area was very limited and thus we had to rely on our hotel for all meals and for travel logistics.  Luckily, our hotel looked after us exceptionally well and we managed to explore Borobudur several times — at sunrise, at midday, and at dusk.  In addition, we hired a car and driver to take us to the Prambanan temple complex and to the smaller (and less crowded) temples in the vicinity.

Borobudur

Borobudur

Indonesia

 

Bali: 

Even though neither Bruce nor I are sun worshippers and beach goers, we organized a two night stay in Bali to ease ourselves to the end of our holiday in Indonesia.  Not content to just sit on the beach (although we definitely had to do it once and it was great — the hotel had a private beach and the beach huts had WiFi !!!!), we organized outings as well as a souffle cooking course with the Executive Chef.  It was a fabulous way to unwind and to prepare ourselves to say goodbye to Indonesia!

Bali, Indonesia

 


Displays

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This is a collection of stunning window displays and artwork from ‘the motherships’ (i.e. my favourite stores).


The ‘other’ Hong Kong

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Protests – UmbrellaRevolution & OccupyWallStreet

2014 Democracy Protest – aka “the Umbrella Revolution”:

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Occupy Wall Street – Hong Kong style:

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HK Art Fair / HK Basel

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The best thing about the HK Art Fair is that most gallery owners do allow you to get REAL CLOSE with their Picassos, Reniors, Matisses, etc. and to photograph the masterpieces from a wide variety of angles so that you can create your own art with the classics.  I don’t know of a single museum that would allow anyone such intimate access to their art!

My Favourites from 2014:

My Favourites from 2013: 

My Favourites from 2012: 

 

Now seriously  . . .  is this _REALLY_ art?  

 


Published Works

eBook:

Reuters.com

 

Guardian.co.uk 

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Telegraph.co.uk

 


Top RugbySevens Images . . .

A selection of my favourite images are below.  (To see the larger collection, please click on this link.)

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Juniors


Travel Video – Page 4

Gentle reminder: neither Bruce nor I are professional videographers and therefore we can honestly attest that our travel videos are most definitely “on the rubbish side“. Nonetheless, we’ve decided to post these online if only to enrich the backstories to our travel.

  • Destinations A – I : page 1 
  • Destinations I – L : page 2
  • Destination M (Mongolia) : page 3 

 

(Recommended) Spain‘s Santa Semana festival:

 

 

 

 

(Recommended) Sri Lanka‘s Esala Perahera festival:

 

 

 

 

 

Tajikistan:  the ancient sites of Penjikent

 

Uzbekistan:  Samarkand at sunrise … and without the hordes of tourists!

 

Uzbekistan:  Samarkand

 

 


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