[ This is a long and detailed account of my personal travel experience with this company. If you don’t have the time to read the blog in it’s entirety, then the headline is: Mongolia is a beautiful country and I would encourage people to visit. But please chose your travel/tour company wisely. Based on my experience, I would never travel with or use Blue Wolf Travel again. ]
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The following is based on my experience (*) using Blue Wolf Travel (www.bluewolftravel.com & www.mongol-altai.com) during my travels to Ulgii for the 2013 Golden Eagle Festival. Although Blue Wolf Travel (“BW”) is listed in The Lonely Planet guide for Mongolia, I wanted to do my own independent research before deciding on which travel agency to use. In particular, I wanted my tourist dollars to remain in Mongolia and thus I placed particular priority on local agents. Furthermore, I wanted an agency that had deep local connections because I wanted to do a homestay/gerstay with a local family. Finally, for maximum flexibility, I needed an agency that could provide my husband and I with a dedicated car, driver and guide-translator for the seven nights that we would be spending in the region. Hours of Google-searches revealed no red-flags about this company. In addition, I found out that BW sponsors the Sagsai Eagle Festival (a rival festival to the Ulgii event). On paper, it would appear that BW ticked all the boxes: it is locally based with great connections to the local Eagle Hunter community. In addition, my initial contact with the company was equally promising. The owner and manager (Canat) advised that BW has organized many photography tours before and that BW was perfectly placed to help us. With the above in mind, I felt reasonably confident that I could trust BW and thus began working with BW to organize the October 2013 trip. Everything that I’d discussed with Canat was summarized and confirmed in email. Sadly, words are wind with Blue Wolf.
Although all of my requirements were confirmed in writing as well as re-confirmed with Canat face-to-face at our initial ‘greet and meet’ at the BW office, very little of what was agreed (and paid for in full and in advance) was actually delivered. (For details on the specifics, see read the Appendix of this OP-ED.) As annoying, frustrating and disappointing as my experience with BW was, the real motivation for writing this OP-ED is to advise potential clients that under certain circumstances, I believe that travelling with BW can actually be quite dangerous. This opinion is based on what happened to a fellow traveller we met as we’d shared our horror stories about Blue Wolf Travel over coffee at the airport.
Our fellow traveller (“FT”) is an independent soul and likes to travel solo. In addition to attending the Ulgii Eagle Festival, she made arrangements with BW to spend a few days on horseback (accompanied by a guide-translator) to explore the mountainous regions of western Mongolia. Unfortunately, the person that BW assigned to her could neither translate nor guide. (We actually had this person as our guide-translator for the first 1.5 days. She is a very lovely young lady but she was absolutely useless as a translator. From what little that we could understand when speaking with her, it sounded like she worked in the local market and was roped in to fill this role at the last minute!) The alarming thing was that this young guide-translator (“YGT”) was not trained for mountain expeditions and yet was tasked to take FT to the base area in Tuvan Bogh for a multi-day exploration. After travelling some distance (by car) towards the overnight ger in the Tuvan Bogh and in face of declining daylight, falling snow and below-zero wind chill factor, FT became concerned about the overall situation and asked her driver to stop an approaching car travelling in the opposite direction to inquire about their current location and the remaining distance to the overnight ger. The guide in the other car advised FT that the base camp was already full to capacity and that there was simply no room for her (or for her support crew). But, as there was nowhere else to go and as it would be too dangerous to proceed forward (or return back to Ulgii) because it was getting dark and cold, the guide offered FT a place with her group. (Unfortunately, FT’s support team had to sleep in the car!!!). In short, a disaster was averted because of the kindness and hospitality of this group
The next day, YGT told the other guide that she was taking FT to a lake nestled in the mountain regions and offered to take the other guide’s group along as well. FT actually questioned this because she thought that this was doubtful as visibility was very poor. Nonetheless, YGT convinced the other guide that she knew the way and was going nonetheless. In short, YGT proceeded to get everyone lost! Later, she admitted to FT that she had never been to the lake except once before (but that was in the summer and in perfect conditions).
When FT returned to Ulgii, she spoke to Canat about YGT. Specifically, FT mentioned that YGT made very bad decisions on the trip which actually compromised FT’s safety. And that YGT is neither experienced enough nor matured enough and therefore should not have been entrusted to take any traveller up to Tuvan Bogh — especially in winter conditions. According to FT, Canat made some general excuses for YGT but, more importantly, he took no responsibility for this. In short, it seemed to FT that Canat thought that it was perfectly acceptable to send a single female traveller up a mountain in winter with a guide who could not speak English and who knew nothing about the history or culture of the area and who didn’t know what to do in an emergency!
In short, my friend FT paid a premium (she had to carry the full costs of hiring the guide, car & driver) to enable her to have an authentic experience in western Mongolia. She had hoped to be able to converse with the locals, learn about their lives and culture, and share in the history of the beautiful country side. This was made impossible as the YGT could barely speak English — and when she did, she did it poorly (i.e. mistranslation resulting in embarrassment and chagrin).
My experience with BW suggest that what happened to our friend was not an isolated case. In my opinion, BW was as equally careless with our arrangements as they were with hers. The difference was that although we were greatly inconvenienced, our friend was actually put at risk. First, she was assigned someone who was untrained and inexperienced and both were placed in a high-risk situation. As such, there was a failure in duty-of-care by BW to both the traveller and to the guide. Second, BW failed to ensure that they both had a guaranteed place to shelter at night.
If you are travelling to Ulgii to see just the Eagle Festival and are quite content to stay at one of the BW gers set inside their industrial park behind the BW office, then you should be OK to use them. However, if you need something extra — i.e. have a private car, driver, translator-guide, gerstay, etc., then you do need to exercise caution. Even with the simplest arrangements, BW still managed to muck it up for us. For the full details on our issues, please see the Appendix below.
Given that BW is one of the largest travel operators in the region and the options are quite limited, you may find that you have little choice but to use them. If this is the case, then please see the below as I’ve outlined some tips/suggestions on how best to navigate BW.
The above aside, I hope that this OP-ED does not deter you from travelling to western Mongolia. Blue Wolf malarky aside, I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the country (please check out my travel blog about the Golden Eagle Festival and travel tips for Mongolia). And, I simply love my host family as they were truly wonderful. If anything, I encourage you to visit this region with it’s remarkable landscape, history and people. But, if you do visit, then please ensure that you have a good partner — don’t let a careless and amateur organisation ruin such a lovely experience.
Happy and safe travels!
(*) Notice: each person will need to make up his/her own informed decision about the merits of this OP-ED blog. As such, if the reader is researching any of the named party(ies) mentioned in this blog, then it is advisable that the reader continues his/her research to form a more robust finding. This blog is purely an OPINION which is based on a personal experience which may or may not be applicable to others.
+ + + + + Appendix: Specifics Issues Encountered + + + + +
The plan agreed with Blue Wolf Travel (“BW”) was that they would provide the logistics to enable us to do a private photography tour of the region. This entailed having a dedicated driver, car and English-speaking guide-translator with us the entire time. In addition, we would spend seven nights in a private ger with an Eagle Hunter and his family and that this would be a full board (i.e. all meals included). This was organized as a private tour so that we would have maximum flexibility. It was important to us to be able to catch sunrises and sunsets in places of outstanding natural beauty and for that, we needed a driver and guide who were willing to wake up before the crack of dawn. In addition, I wanted to have two full days dedicated to photographing the Eagle Hunters in a variety of settings (a total of eight hunters were booked to be our models for the two days). This was to be a private event as we didn’t want to other photographers getting in our frames or determine the direction of the photo sessions. All of this was agreed in email and the costs were paid for in advance and in full.
With the exception of Oct 5th and Oct 6th (during the Eagle Festival whereby BW had little logistical involvement), nothing really went according to plan!
- Sadly, our private photography tour was NOT a private photography tour! Tim, a photographer from the UK who was travelling independently, was evicted from his ger as it turned out that it was double-booked. As such, he lost a day getting bounced around from ger to ger to ger. BW finally sent him to our host family and he had to share a room with the family. Unfortunately, Tim didn’t have his own driver, car, translator-guide, or cook. Thus and by default, he joined our tour. Whilst we enjoyed Tim’s company, we’d paid a premium to travel independently. We could have saved a lot of money by joining a photography group but this was not what we wanted.
- We wanted to get “under the skin” of the place and have as close to an authentic experience as possible. As such, it was important that we have an English-speaking guide so that she/he could help us connect with the host family. Unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, our English-speaking translator wasn’t available until the middle of the second day. As such, BW assigned someone else in the interim period. Sadly, this temporary translator could barely speak English. And this made the first day and a half a very awkward and logistically challenging experience.
- Based on my experience and in my opinion, BW was highly disorganised. In total, we lost two days faffing around because BW could not connect the dots and handle simple arrangements.
- First, we lost 1/2 of Day One waiting for our driver. Although we paid for the full day, BW sent our driver off to run errands on BW’s behalf !!! Thus, we really didn’t set off to explore the region until well into the afternoon.
- Second, during the initial meet-n-greet meeting with Canat, we agreed on an itinerary for what remained of Day 1 and Day 2. Since our first (temporary) translator didn’t speak English, Canat agreed to convey the plans to both the driver and the guide-translator so that they would know where to take us. I want to say that something got lost in translation, but how is that possible if Canat and the both the driver & guide speak the same language? I can only infer that the problems that followed were due to bad communication or incompetence. On Day 2, we were supposed to catch the sunrise over a lake in one of the national parks. But neither the driver nor the guide knew of this! So, we missed our sunrise photo opportunity. When we asked the translator to call BW and speak to Canat, she didn’t comprehend the request. “What is canat?” “Canat?”. Finally, she clicked that Canat was the manager of BW. So, she called the office and someone from the office told her that we wanted to see a lake. So, her solution was to take us to the lake 500m from our ger. It was a pleasant but non-descriptive lake. Like Day 1, the morning of Day 2 was wasted.
- Third, the afternoon of Day 2 was a washout as well. Canat had agreed to meet up with us that afternoon to take us to see some amazing petroglyphs in the region. He was a no-show. Our new translator-guide (someone who could actually speak English!) arrived whilst we waited for Canat and she suggested that we see a stone monolith nearby instead. We were keen to salvage what remained of that day so we agreed. Unbeknownst to us, Canat called the driver and told him to take us to the lake that we were supposed to go in the morning. The driver therefore ignored the instructions from the translator-guide and drove towards the lake instead; the lake was 90 kilometres away. We were halfway towards the lake when we discovered this. So, we requested a change in direction because we knew the lighting would be poor by the time we reached the lake. But to get to the monolith required backtracking as well as going thru a deserted valley. Twice during the journey, the driver had to stop and check the car. This wasn’t very reassuring. When we realized that we had no spare water, no spare blankets, no mobile phone reception and more importantly, no one from the office knew that we were heading to the monolith instead of the lake, we became concerned about getting stranded in the middle of absolutely nowhere. As such, we had to err on the side of safety and cancel the trip to the monolith and headed back to base.
- Fourth, Day 7 was originally planned as a rest-day. But since Day2 was a complete washout, we decided to re-try visiting the lake in the morning and then go check out the petroglyphs with Canat in the afternoon. There were many petroglyphs in the area but Canat offered to take us to see the best ones. We should not have been surprised when Canat decided to pull another no-show. Our guide tried her best to remedy the situation by getting directions from the office on where the petroglyphs were. But, the directions were vague and thus, our guide had to ask random strangers along the way. In the end, we saw a few petroglyphs but these were the ones we managed to stumble across and they were not particularly interesting (i.e. not ones that can be photographed as these were just scratches on rocks).
- Fifth, we booked eight Eagle Hunters for our private photo sessions. But, BW only managed to secure seven. Even though BW had months to plan for this, it appeared that the Eagle Hunters were organized only at the last minute. In addition, in my many emails with Canat prior to the trip, I was clear that I wanted to book the hunters for the full day as I wanted to capture them in a variety of settings. It was only at the initial meet-n-greet meeting that Canat advised me that the hunters were available to us for only a few hours each day. As such, we had to rethink our plans about when/where to do the photography sessions.
- Sixth, he changed prices suddenly. I was given a quote of USD 20 for each eagle hunter (to be our model for the day) which I agreed to. Then, the prices later increased because he ‘forgot‘ to include the price for the horses (at an additional USD 15 per horse). Upon reflection, I’m surprised that Canat didn’t charge me extra for the eagles! This increase was absurd and unjustified because the Eagle Hunters always hunt with horses and these hunters would be riding their own horses! But, as this price increase came in rather close to the departure date and I didn’t want to jeopardise the plans, I consented to the new price.
- Finally, we arranged for full-board (i.e. all meals included) during the seven nights we spent with the family. BW provided a cook — but, this cook was there for only 5 nights. When the cook left early, we were told to not worry because she prepared food for us. Words are wind with BW because on Day 7, we had no breakfast and our lunch (during the road trip to the lake-petroglyphs) was 1 small bag of potato chips each.
In summary, I would NOT recommend using Blue Wolf Travel. But as the choices are limited, you may find that BW is unavoidable. If you do have to use BW as your travel organizer, then below are my suggestions:
- Confirm everything in email. This way, it would be easier for you to press for a refund if you need to dispute the services rendered (or not rendered).
- Insist on a face-to-face meeting with the Office Manager when you arrive into Ulgii. Have your translator and driver present so that they are aware of the what’s been agreed and what’s on the actual itinerary. This should help mitigate crossed wires.
- Based on my experience, Canat does not like dealing with client’s problems. Every time we try to meet with him, he suddenly becomes ‘unavailable’. Three times we booked a meeting with Canat (via his office staff) and yet each time he is called away to a meeting in another village and this village had no mobile phone reception. I know this to be a cover story because it does not add up. The first time when he failed to show up for a meeting (not related to the petroglyphs outing), his office told me that he had an important meeting with the Eagle Festival organizers. This is dubious to me because the day prior at the meet-n-greet, Canat told me himself that he’s not involved in the Ulgii Eagle Festival at all as this is organized by the government and some other tour operator (Nomadic Expeditions). The second time he failed to show up to a pre-arranged meeting, his office was unable to reach him and didn’t know his schedule and therefore could not advise when he was due back. I then made arrangements to meet with Canat on the morning of my flight out of Ulgii. When I arrived, I was told that he was unavailable as he was still asleep (his house is next door to the BW office). When I’d advised them that I was willing to wait for him (this was a bluff as I actually had a flight to catch), the cover story suddenly changed. The office suddenly remembered that Canat was now actually in another village in a meeting but that he would instead come and meet me at the airport. Needless to say, he was a no-show at the airport. From what I could gather from other travellers who also had problems with BW, the best way to catch Canat is to ambush him in his office. I made the fatal mistake of trying to arrange a meeting with him.
- Hold BW accountable. I am. I’m in the process of getting a partial refund from them. Although I have secured an agreement for a refund amount, words are wind with BW …. Time will tell.
- UPDATE OCT 26th: despite the fact that I’ve secured an agreement on the refund amount, Blue Wolf Travels is now _ignoring_ my emails requesting status updates on the $ transfer. No surprises, then! It appears that this is classic BW again — ignore your customers and hope that they will give up and fly away!
- UPDATE NOV 1st: BW has sent the money to me via Western Union. Although they have my full address, they’ve somehow managed to send the money to Singapore instead of Hong Kong! As such, money is currently NOT collectable! (Did I not say that BW is disorganised and uncoordinated?)
- UPDATE NOV 5th: Refund has arrived. But sadly, I got a terrible foreign exchange rate from Western Union so I didn’t get the amount expected. But, happily, the refund issue is now considered closed.
BTW — it looks like I’m not alone in my disappointment and frustration with BW.
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.
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!)
- 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.
- 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.”
- Hotel standards varied greatly and as such the ones that we liked were: Janka Resort (Para) and YT Hotel (in Lobesa – near Punakha/Wangdue). The one that had the electrical wires near the shower was Damchenlodge (Punakha).
- Our other travel blogs are available at: http://www.le-mckernan.com/?page_id=2012
- The full url for the online article “Now Might Be Time for the Brace Position! The Himalayan Airport So Dangerous ….” is at: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2079836/The-Himalayan-airport-dangerous-pilots-qualified-land-there.html
- Paris, Milan, Lake Cuomo and Venice
- September: Madrid
- December: New York
- Jan/Feb: USA – Boston and Maine
- March: Spain – Barcelona, Sevilla, Granada and Cordoba
- Feb: London
- June/July: London, Yorkshire and Scotland
- April: Tokyo and Kyoto
- June: Indonesia
- October: Mongolia
- December: London, Yorkshire and Scotland
- April: Istanbul
- August: Guizhou Province, China
- Dec: New York City and Washington, DC
- January: Burma
- April: Sri Lanka
- August: Sri Lanka
- August: Kashgar, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan
- December: Australia
- March: Beijing, China
- May: South Vietnam
- November: Northern India
- April: Thailand
- October: Bhutan
- 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.
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)
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!
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 ? …
Jonny Greenwood at The Royal Albert Hall – BBC prom.
The last leg of their North American tour …..
Harvest, The Royal Court Theatre (London)
MISSING: My Name is Rachel Corrie, The Royal Court Theatre (London)
The Sweetest Swing in Baseball (with Gillian Anderson), The Royal Court, London
Missing: The Permanent Way (by David Hare), National Theatre, London
Missing: Stuff Happens (by David Hare), National Theatre, London
Journey’s End, Comedy Theatre, London. (According to Bruce, I sat next to the actor who played Dr. Who in the 70s!)
Missing: My Brilliant Divorce (with Dawn French), Apollo Theathre, London
Missing: The Price (by Arthur Miller), Apollo Theatre, London
Missing: Auntie and Me, Wyndhams Theatre, London
Sunset Blvd (with Glenn Close), Broadway
Les Miserables, Broadway
Phantom of the Opera, Broadway and London
Miss Saigon (with Jonathan Pryce), Broadway
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)
The below are Tram’s selection of Bruce’s best portrait photographs.
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:
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 …
Tram’s pick of her TOP 20 images:
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!
(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!
(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.
(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!!!)
(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.
(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!
(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!
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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!
(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 . . .
(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.
(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.
(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!
(17) ‘Go Girl! Go!’ My heart still skips a beat when I see this image as it is very simple and yet very empowering!
(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.
(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.
(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 . . .
(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.
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.
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.
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).
(( kindly note that this list is currently “work in progress” ))
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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!
For additional photographs, please check out this link.
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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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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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 . . . .
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This is a collection of stunning window displays and artwork from ‘the motherships’ (i.e. my favourite stores).
2014 Democracy Protest – aka “the Umbrella Revolution”:
Occupy Wall Street – Hong Kong style:
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?
A selection of my favourite images are below. (To see the larger collection, please click on this link.)
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.
(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!