Adventure Nomad

Adventure Nomad

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sea & Sea 1G: Adventure Camera

The Sea & Sea 1G comes with the DX-1G underwater housing. It’s a 10 MP compact camera with a 24-72mm (35mm equiv), relatively fast f2.5-4.4 lens. It’s decently built and pretty rugged, has image stabilization, great controls and a good lens with the widest coverage of any compact camera. It’s the same camera as the Ricoh GX100 with different firmware.

The handling and ergonomics are top-notch. The rubberized grip gives it a really solid feel and it has 2 control dials, which allow proper manual exposure control. There is the usual 2-stop under/over exposure value indicator, and the LCD gains up or down to show relative exposure in Manual Mode.

The meter is a little too sensitive and with high contrast scenes, I can get blown out highlights and sensor blooming is a possibility. I normally set the meter to underexpose by -2/3 EV and that seems to help.

Despite the 5.5-second time between RAW shots, I usually shoot RAW with this camera. Shooting RAW allows more leeway with manipulating exposure in post-processing. If I shoot JPEG, I set the Contrast all the way down to -2, Sharpness to -1 and Color Depth (Saturation) to 0.

Shutter lag is quick for a compact, but is still a problem for capturing that critical moment. There is no optical viewfinder and the LCD blacks out when the shutter is pressed so action shots and panning are going to be a hit or miss affair. It speeds things up if I use ‘Snap’ focus and I’ve got that saved using one of the two savable ‘My’ settings.

At the end of the day, it comes down to image quality. Here the GX100 is let down by the bad manners of its small sensor. I get good results using ISO 100, so I pretty much leave it there. At ISO 400, there’s just too much noise for the image to be useable.

What sets this camera apart from other compacts is its 24mm lens. You can go even wider with a 19mm conversion lens, but that adds to the bulk and portability of the camera. If you don’t need wide, you might also want to consider Canon’s G9, the shockproof, waterproof Olympus 790 SW, or the yet-to-be released Sigma DP1 with an APS sized sensor.

Despite its limitations, it’s a great adventure camera. I can put it in a Lowepro D-Pods 30 pouch, stuff a Ziploc bag into the pocket, and it is good to go just about anywhere.

The underwater housing is not available separately, so if you think you might need one, you'll have to buy the camera and the housing together as the Sea & Sea DX-1G Compact Digital 10.0 MP Camera and Underwater Housing Set.

Top: Underwatermelon, Sea&Sea 1G with DX-1G underwater housing;
middle: Making Tracks,
Bottom: Kids Ride For Free, panning with the Sea&Sea 1G.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Wonders Of RSS

I like how they explain it in this video. There's the old, slow way of visiting each and every one of your favorite blog sites to see if there is something new. Or, there's the RSS way, a painless, efficient way of subscribing to your favorite blogs, and having a reader tell you if there's something new. Check out how to do it on this video!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

From 0 to 100: Good News, Bad News

I got some good news, bad news yesterday. The good news is that The North Face (Singapore) officially invited me to join their team of athletes - sponsorship details to be worked out later. That’s really great news!

I’ve been a big fan of TNF since the early ‘80s, when I was in school in San Francisco and was climbing a lot. I felt that the brand sort of lost it’s way in the ‘90s with a change of ownership and a desire to go ‘mainstream’. I’m happy to say that TNF have re-discovered their ‘core’ values and deliver function over fashion to the hardcore athlete.

The bad news is that instead of an individual 100km run, its now become a 100km race in a team of two, each running 50km. It’s a little too short and a little too fast for my present level of fitness. It’s time to knuckle down and get back to training!

Photo: Workstation. Nikon D300, 50-150mm f2.8, 1/5 f2.8, ISO 800, SB600

Friday, December 14, 2007

From Canon To Nikon

Pop Photo chose the Nikon D300 as camera of the year. That’s great! Now I can feel really good about owning one until next year, when Canon comes out with something better.

I have a couple of Canon shooting friends wanting to jump ship and buy the D300. Think twice, because next year, Canon is probably going to come out with something even better. Old cameras are bound to be replaced by something new and better.

If you are buying your first camera or thinking of switching, do it for the right reasons. Individual camera bodies come and go, but you can look at the basic style, feel and handling. You are buying into a system, so look the selection of equipment, lenses, flashes, etc. Look at the companies, their reputations and philosophies. Finally, talk to (or google) the pros who do the type of shooting you do and ask what they use and why.

I tried to switch to Canon, but I couldn’t do it, and it was an expensive lesson to learn. I’m just too used to Nikon. I think my D300 is great, but if I could shoot with Canon, I have a 5D, a 17-40mm f4 L and a 70-200mm f4 L IS and never look back.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

From 0 to 100: Let it Rain

This series of articles tracks my progress to run a 100km Ultramarathon from zero training in just 4 months. Present weekly mileage: 35km

Here in Sunny Singapore, the North East Monsoon is upon us. It’s been raining every day for the past two weeks. And I mean RAIN as in tropical deluge. Still the training must continue, rain or shine. Two of the biggest dangers with running in a tropical thunderstorm are:

1. Being Struck By Lightning
2. Being Crushed By Falling Trees

Whilst training for an adventure race a few years back, my teammates and I were beaching our kayaks when a bolt of lightning toasted a coconut tree on shore about 50m away. We were out of the boats in shallow water and felt a strong jolt electrical current. We were lucky.

Singapore has the highest rate of lightning strikes in the world. The general advice when caught in a thunderstorm is to get out of the water, or get off your bike, or ditch your golf clubs and umbrella. Find low ground, stay low, crouch down and make yourself small. You are ok in a forest, but stay away from isolated tall trees, metal fences, and high ground.

Our other big concern is being crushed by falling trees or deadfall during a thunderstorm. This year in Singapore, 2 people were killed in separate incidents by trees felled by strong winds and heavy rain at two different nature parks.

The wind and heavy rain makes it difficult to hear and being pelted in the face makes it difficult to look up and around. That’s no excuse. You need to be very aware of your surroundings and what’s going on around you. If you’re plugged in to your iPod and got your eyes fixed on the slippery trail, you are not helping yourself. Trees will fall, whether you happen to be in the way or not.

Driving back home is another adventure. Oh, by the way, a flash flood warning for low-lying areas is in effect until Christmas. Be safe.

Photo: Pentax Optio WR43, 5.7mm, 1/60 f2.8, ISO 100

Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Nikon D300 Review

Judging from the number of hits on my last blog entry, people are hungry for a real D300 Review. James Markus of has put up a pretty decent review of the D300 here.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

My Nikon D300 Experience

This is not a review. A review implies proper testing protocol and methodology. For that, we are going to have to wait for the professional reviewers. These are merely my observations after a week of putting a couple of hundred compressed NEF test shots through my D300, processed in Lightroom.

It is such a pleasure to use the D300. It is highly customizable, even more so than the D200. Even the over-under exposure indicator can be switched around, something that Canon shooters coming over to the Nikon camp will appreciate.

The viewfinder is clean and the 51-point autofocus system works well. Very well. Confidence in your equipment is a large part of the game, and the D300 brings it.

Tested with all noise reduction off, 12-bit RAW images at ISO 800 are very clean, and at ISO 1600 still impressive and very usable. It shows significantly less noise than my D200. How much less? I can’t really tell you, but to me, it’s a significant improvement over the D200 and I’m very happy with it.

The D300 Matrix Meter works differently from my old D200. Initially, I thought that my D300 meter was more sensitive, resulting in slightly ‘hot’ highlights under high contrast lighting (Active D-Lighting Off). However, I now suspect that it is the new Scene Recognition System at work, allowing the highlights to go slightly ‘hot’ to preserve shadow detail. That’s fine, as long as it is consistent and predictable, but I need a little more time with this to be sure.

My last big niggle with the D200 was battery life. I haven’t tested this yet because I’m still on my first battery! But others are reporting significant improvements over the battery life of the D200, as much as double.

It’s going to be tough for Nikon to beat the D300. It may well be Nikon’s last DX format pro-spec camera. Only the future will tell...

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Front Page News

I opened my newspaper this morning and this was front page news. It made me glad that I have chosen to make Singapore as my home. With all that’s going on in the world today, the most exciting news in my country for the day was that the police chased a stolen truck around for an hour before catching and apprehending the culprit.

What’s on the front page of your newspaper today?

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Carpe Diem

Today was my last day at my job as an airline pilot. I needed to give my company 3 months notice when I quit my job. It seems like such a long time ago.

I’m a little bit at a loss about what to do next, and about who I am, and what my role is in life. It was all grand and exciting when it was just a dream, but now its very real, and starting to sink home.

I’m going to miss my colleagues, who have become an extended family to me. And, yes, I’m going to miss my identity as an airline pilot. When I wake up tomorrow morning, who am I going to be? Still me, I hope, and ready to start anew. Carpe Diem.

Photo: Singapore Girls. Nikon D200, 50-150mm f2.8, 1/40 f2.8, ISO800

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Day in the Life of...

Last night, I managed only 3 hours of sleep worrying if a screw up at work late last night may have been my fault. I woke up at 6am, wrote a letter to my boss to defend myself, and spoke to him on the phone before emailing the letter off. I needed to fix my teeth, so I paid a visit to the dentist in the late morning. I’d bought the new Nikon D300, a few days ago, so while I was out, I also met up with a nice lady to sell her my D200. Back home for a quick lunch when the office called to tell me that they needed me to fly to China early tomorrow morning. I had a photo deadline to meet tomorrow. Since I wasn’t going to be around, I gave a call to the printer to see if my slide had been scanned. It was, so off I went to collect the scanned image. Back home again and I went for a quick run. I needed to maintain my training for a 100km run next April, so out the door I went, even though I was dog-tired. After a quick shower, I worked on the scanned image for Lonely Planet Publications who might use the image for one of their guidebooks next year, and sent it off. Dinner, and a quick chat with an Intellectual Property rights lawyer for some advice, and I’m back at the computer again, writing this blog. After this, I’ll need to pack for my trip to China, hit the sack and get ready for a 5am wake up call.

Ok, anybody keep count of how many times I used the word ‘quick’?

Photo: Flight Level ThreeSixZero. Altitude readout at sunset over South Korea. Taken with a Sea & Sea 1G/Ricoh GX100

Saturday, November 24, 2007

From 0 to 100: R & R

This series of articles tracks my progress to run a 100km Ultramarathon from zero training in just 4 months. Present weekly mileage: 25km

My training plan called for 25km in the first week, 30km in the second week, and followed in the third week with a week of rest. However, after the first week of 25 km, I was so tired that I had to take my second week off. Pathetic!

Fortunately, I was rather busy with work and it would have been difficult to stick with my training plan. Anyway, I thought I’d talk about some ways to get some R & R:

Shower with Hot/Cold Water
A masseuse can expertly move blood and waste products around the body, but another way you can do this is to take a shower alternating between hot and cold water. In cold water, blood is shuttled to the vital organs to protect them, and in hot water, blood moves back to the skin to cool your body. It’s uncomfortable, but it works!

Cross Training
Swim, bike, rock-climbing... do anything other than running to revitalize you. Also consider gym work. Working out in the gym is a two edged sword. Running doesn’t work out the upper body much, so on the one hand, gym work brings those body parts back up to par, and helps prevent injuries when I participate in other sports. On the other hand, the wrong type of training can bulk you up and add unnecessary weight, a big no-no for ultra distance running. The trick is how to work out. I like Core Performance by Mark Verstegen.

I down my post workout drink within 30 mins after my run, and consume my main meal about 2 hours later.

Regular and sufficient sleep would put me on the right path to recovery. Unfortunately, with my present job, I get none of those. Ah well, only 2 more weeks before I start my new life !

Photo: View To A Different World. Osaka Aquarium, taken with a Canon Ixus 850 IS.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Nikon D300 Launched in Singapore

The D300s are available in stores from today! Street price is about SGD$2500 (USD$1720) before GST, or about SGD$2700 including tax. Man, I’m still on my trip to the USA. I hope they keep one for me...

Monday, November 12, 2007

You Can’t Go Back

Last week, we revisited the Ketam Mountain Bike Trail on Pulau Ubin. I wanted to buy a Sea&Sea DX-1G / Ricoh GX100 and bring it along on this ride, but my wife said I needed a ‘cooling off’ period of 1 week before I would be allowed to buy it.

I felt my Nikon D200 was a little too big and heavy to ride with and I didn’t want to risk smashing it up should I crash (a very real possibility). So I pulled my Canon 350D with the 10-22mm lens out of the dry box. After playing around with it for about 15 minutes though, I was thoroughly confused and frustrated. To cut a long story short, it reminded me of why I switched back to Nikon in the first place.

Disappointed, I put the 350D back into the dry box and I reluctantly pulled out my D200 and tried to think of a way to carry my camera, have it protected and yet not interfere with my ability to ride.

I ruled out putting the camera into my hydration pack because of leakage worries (my bladder blew out he week before and leaked lime squash all over my back. Yuk!). Other options for carrying the camera included putting it into my camera backpack (too big), fanny pack (still too big). In the end, I put it into a Lowepro Topload Zoom case and slapped on a 2-inch wide waist belt.

It worked out very well. With the case pushed behind me, it didn’t interfere with my riding at all. All I had to do to access the camera was swivel the case to the front. Needless to say, I’m very happy with this system for riding. Anybody want to buy a used 350D?

Take A Closer Look. Aloysius Wee takes a closer look at a Yellow Orb Web Spider. Taken with a Nikon D200, Nikkor 12-24mm lens.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

From 0 to 100: First Steps

This series of articles tracks my progress to run a 100km Ultramarathon from zero training in just 4 months.

Gear Up
First of all, my shoes are about a year old, so I’m probably due for a new pair. Midsoles lose their cushioning over time and it’s better to retire shoes too early than too late. I usually buy 2 pairs at once, and I rotate them to even out their use. Runner’s World has good information on shoes, foot types and what shoes will suit you.

This is a good time to work on my technique before I start racking up the heavy mileage. I like Danny Dreyer’s Chi Running .

Training Program
Next, I’ll find a good training program. Most training programs are based on the principles of Periodized Training. Training programs are good motivators, but I’ll cut workout days for rest days if I feel I really need it. It’s a fine line between training hard and training TOO hard. I think it’s better to arrive at the race a little under trained than over trained. Hal Higdon has an ultramarathon training program here and a marathon training guide here.

Running Disco Ridge. Taken during The Gobi March, a 250km foot race across the Gobi Desert of China. Taken with a Pentax Optio 43WR.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

From 0 to 100

I’ve just agreed to participate in a 100km charity run organized by The North Face (Singapore).

Although people think of me as a runner because I’ve participated in a couple of ultramarathons, I’m not. I haven’t run any real distance in over a year amd My mileage for the past week has been zero. I’ll literally be going from 0 to 100km in just 4 months, and putting myself head to head with the best endurance athletes in the country. Yes, this scares me. It’s normal to feel a little overwhelmed, and even afraid. This is going to be tough, and the chances of injury due to overtraining are high.

Still, I believe it can be done, and I’m going to write about my thoughts and progress over the next 4 months.

Wish me luck!

Running MacRitchie Trail. Taken with a Pentax Optio 43WR.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Sea & Sea DX-1G

Holy Captain Nemo, Batman! And it comes in black too! Is that cool or what?

If this camera looks familiar, it’s because it’s the Ricoh Caplio GX100 dressed up with a Sea & Sea badge and slight modifications. It’s called the Sea & Sea 1G . The underwater housing is the Sea & Sea DX-1G and is good down to a depth of 50 m.

Sea & Sea sells the housing and camera as a set, and together they cost SGD$1450 (about USD$1000) including GST here in Singapore. The Ricoh GX100 costs SGD$824/USD$569 (including GST).

The thing is that Sea & Sea won’t sell you the housing on its own. Which means I’ll need to buy the Sea & Sea 1G version of the GX100 if I want the housing.

Decisions, decisions…

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ricoh Caplio GX100

Is this my next lightweight adventure camera? I’ve been looking for a compact camera to replace my Pentax Optio 43WR and this is the most likely contender.

Ricoh has a long history producing its GR line of compact film cameras with high quality, wide-angle lenses. These rugged, compact and lightweight cameras were popular with outdoor enthusiasts like backpackers and climbers.

Why I like it:
Compact and lightweight (220g)
Wide (The only compact that zooms to 24mm)
Fast reaction/low shutter lag
Good battery life/supports AAA use
Raw file support
Meaningful control options (manual & aperture priority)
Image stabilization

What I don’t like about it:
No optical viewfinder
Noisy above ISO 200
Not weatherproof
Slow to write raw files

DP Review has a thorough review on this camera here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Adventure Singapore: Ketam Bike Trail

I just rode the Ketam Mountain Biking Trail on Pulau Ubin, a small island off Singapore, and I am impressed. I think this has the potential to be the best MTB trail in Singapore.

While The Tampines MTB trail I wrote about earlier can offer riders a ‘quick fix’, getting to the Ketam trail is at least a half day affair. You’ll need to get yourself over to the Changi Point Ferry Terminal, and then catch a bumboat for the 10-minute ferry ride to the island of Pulau Ubin. If you didn’t bring your bike with you, you can rent a ‘mountain bike’ at Ubin Village when you get off the ferry.

Getting to the Trail is a pleasant 15-minute road ride towards the western part of the island. There should be signs to guide you to the start of the bike trail when the trail is officially open in January 2008.

When I first rode this trail 3 months ago, it was still a work in progress. I thought it was a little too technical, and reminiscent of the Kentridge MTB trail. No surprise, since the same guys are involved in the construction of both these trails.

DirTraction, the trail builders, have made some very intelligent changes since then. There are 8 km of beautiful singletrack trail, which circumnavigate Ketam Quarry Lake. It is tight, twisty jungle singletrack, which occasionally opens up to spectacular views of Ketam Lake and the sea. There are 3 levels of challenge. Most intermediate riders will opt to ride the black diamond trail, which have sections hard enough to make you think twice. Yummy!

t took us one hour and 15 minutes to ride the trail, including stops to take photos and having to re-ride sections we failed to clear on the first go. Novices should stay off the black diamond trail. It’s a long way down to Ketam Lake and if you goof, it could be very bad for you!
All photos captured with a Pentax Optio 43WR

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Shoot Your Next Adventure Race

When I wanted to bring a camera to the Southern Traverse, an expedition length adventure race in New Zealand, my teammates were against it. They were worried that we would waste time having to stop to take photos. I told them that we didn’t need to stop to take photos and that the camera would hardly impact on our race performance. Well, carried a little point-and-shoot and not only did my teammates enjoy the photos, but I also managed to have some of the shots published.

If you have an interest to take some pictures in your next adventure race, I may have some advice to help you out.

Discuss it with your teammates first
You’ll need to discuss how heavy a camera you are willing to carry, and who is going to do the shooting. When shooting, I generally tell my teammates to ignore me, unless I call to them to look my way, and do nothing else (like giving me the ‘V’ for victory symbol). My teammates were even willing to take some of my load so that I can move quicker into position to shoot. You can even discuss what color uniform looks good on film (hint: wear red).

Get A Rugged, Lightweight, Water- Resistant Camera

Your camera will be bashed around, get dirty, and probably get wet. It may not survive. These days, a number of water-resistant, lightweight point-and-shoots are available with enough megapixels to have your shots published as a full page spread.

Know Your Camera
Be familiar with the controls, performance and various scene modes of the camera. If you are using a point and shoot, your control over your camera is limited. Leave all the automatics on – Program mode, Auto focus, Auto exposure, Auto ISO, etc. I would also suggest turning the flash on and leaving it on. The flash will work within a range of about 10 feet, outside of this, it’s just wasted energy, but you won’t have the time to manually turn the flash on and off during the race. In addition to the night, the flash will also be useful in filling in shadows in harsh daylight conditions.

Keep Your Camera Handy
It’s no use having your camera in your pack, because you will miss shots while you decide whether or not it’s worth the effort to get the camera out of the pack. I’ve been there. A camera holster or pouch works best, and you can fasten it to your belt, or backpack shoulder strap – somewhere quickly and easily accessible.

Think Composition
Try shooting from unusual angles, called POV (Point of View) shots. Get down low to shoot footprints in the sand, or of your teammates as they jump over you, or hold the camera up over your head for a quick self portrait.

Anticipate The Action
Your team is not going to stop, so look ahead for photo opportunities. When you see one, quickly run ahead into position. Regulate your breathing, and steady your camera. Get some shots of your teammates as they move towards you. Wait for your teammates or direct them into ideal position for the key shots. Continue shooting your teammates as they move away. Then run to catch up!

Shoot Early
Take your pictures in the morning of the first day, or if it is a stage race, every morning. Not only is the light is better, but you will be fresher, more alert for photo opportunities and have more energy to get the shots.

Shoot, and keep shooting
Shoot the pre-race briefing, shoot the equipment check, shoot the race volunteers. Shoot everything from the before the race, to the post race party. You will have a more rounded portfolio and a better picture story to show.

All photos taken with a Pentax Optio 43WR whilst participating in The Gobi March 2005.
From top: Racing The Planet. I ran ahead of my teammates and waited for them to run up to the race organizer's logo to get this shot;
The Long Road Ahead. A POV shot I got holding my camera at knee level whilst running and being towed by my teammate on a bungy towline;
The Flaming Mountains. Dust in the air as my teammates negotiate a 6 foot jump out of a slot canyon;
Disco Ridge. Competitors run along a knife-edge ridgeline during the race;
The Chase. Getting the shot early in the morning on day 3 of the race;
Running in the Desert. Getting a shot of my teammate as he leaves footprints in the desert sand.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sorry, I Don’t Do Weddings

I’ve still got a month of work left before ‘My Endless Summer’ begins. I am so ready for this. I’ve already distributed my new business card. It says ‘Adventure Nomad – athlete/ writer/photographer.

I’ve already had to reply to a few inquiries:
“No… I don't do adventure tours.”
“Er… Sorry, I don’t shoot weddings.”

Clearly, I’ll need to redo my business card. Since I just 'retired' from my first career, money is not my main motivator. I can afford to be picky.

There's an opportunity for me to take on a job to shoot some photographs for a new adventure tour business. It's for a friend, so there's no money in it. But at least I'll have a week of mountain biking, canoeing and caving in Kuching, East Malaysia. Woohoo!

Receiving blessings from a Lama, Ganden Monastery, Tibet.
Photo taken by Laura Koh with a Nikon D200, 12-24mm lens.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ads Alive!

Some of you might have noticed that I’ve caved to commercialism and quietly snuck some ads into my blog. Now that I’ve gone and quit my day job, the money has to come from somewhere. I hope that the ads won’t be too intrusive, but the ads are here to stay. Sorry.

Monday, October 8, 2007

More Images of Tibet

I wanted a classic image of the Potala at sunrise, so we hiked out early to this spot on our last morning in Tibet. Unfortunately, we never got a 'classic' sunrise due to the cloud cover. I wasn't really happy with this shot until I converted it to black and white and could use the contrast to show off the dramatic early morning cloud cover.

Kitch is adding a stone to an 'Oris'. Oris's are piles of stones at holy places like mountain passes. Travelers passing by are encouraged to add a stone, a sort of offering or prayer, before moving on.

When I took this, I thought it was kind of funny. But when I look back at this image, I'm a little sad, and sort of disgusted. Tibet has changed so much since the Chinese took over, and not all of it is for the better.

This little guy was having his dinner when he came out to see what the commotion outside his home was. Shy at first, but he ended up holding our hands as we made our way through his village to our campsite. Taken during the Ganden to Samye trek, Tibet.

A yak and handler making their way down from Yumbu Lakhang Palace after dropping off some visitors.

Images of Tibet

These are some images I shot in Tibet. There are more in my earlier posts: 7 Days in Tibet and parts 2 and 3. This top one of a woman carrying some vegetables back from the field was taken on the first day of the Ganden to Samye Trek, just outside a small village where we spent the night.

This shot of a nun was taken just outside Jokhang Monastery. I was behind her taking some shots when she heard me, turned around and smiled... which kind of surprised me, because Tibetans, in general, are pretty camera shy.

A young man, all dressed up on a motorcycle seems out of place as he rides by a group of monks. It seems to be a clash of cultures. The modern and the traditional. Personally, I think the motorbike looks out of place.

A boy and his donkey pose outside Ganden Monastery.

Yaks and horses waiting to take visitors unable or unwilling to make the climb up to Yumbu Lakhang Palace. The Palace is over 2000 years old and claims to be the first palace built in Tibet. It was one of those places that was not really on our list to visit, but our Lonely Planet guidebook said it was 'a must visit', so we went, and we were glad we did!

Monday, October 1, 2007

48 Hours in Beijing: Part 2

0900 – Panjiayuan Flea Market
If you are fortunate enough to be in Beijng over the weekend, the Panjiayuan flea market is well worth a visit. This was another of Felicia’s suggestions and, again, I was surprised by how interesting this place turned out to be. It seems you can find just about anything here, from Tibetan beads, antiques, pottery, toys, arts and crafts, and even a tiger’s claw! Bring money, because chances are, you are going to spend some here.

1200 – The Forbidden City
The Forbidden City is probably the next most popular tourist destinations in Beijing after the Great Wall. It is located just to the north of Tiananmen Square. Rumored to be the largest palace on earth, the Forbidden City has 9,999 buildings. From here, the Chinese Emperors ruled their empire for 500 years. If you only have a few hours, it’s very important to control the amount of time you spend at each site or museum. Just remember, it gets better the further in you go. Incidentally, if you are looking for Starbucks at the Forbidden City, its been closed since July.

1900 – Reflexology and Dinner
By now, your feet must be pretty beat up and well deserving of a foot massage. These massages, also called reflexology, are an ancient art form. The Oriental Taipan Spa gives it a modern twist it by including a buffet of sorts. While you are having your feet rubbed and massaged, you can order up some food – noodles, dumplings, rice, and vegetable and fruit juices. You could have different massages and treatments, but it might be difficult to eat at the same time. The menu is small, but the is food quite edible. This spa is quite reasonably priced and you can make reservations at 65025722.

Thanks to Felicia Soh of The Ascott Hotel, Beijing, for providing us with the above suggestions.

Top: Jack Wen, Photographer. While wlking through Panjiayuan Flea Market, I came upon some beautiful black and white photographic prints for sale. This is a picture of Jack Wen, the photographer who made those prints from all over China.
Right: I made a 'stealth' shot of this tiger's claw for among other relics up for sale at Panjiayuan Flea Market.
Center: Guardian of the Forbidden City. This gilded unicorn stands guard at the rear entrance to the Forbidden City.
Left: Changing of the Guard. A portrait of Chairman Mao ovesees the changing of the guard at Tiananmen Square just outside the Forbidden City.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

48 Hours in Beijing: Part 1

During my career in the airline, I must have been to Beijing over 30 times. I’ll admit that other than the first couple of trips, I’ve spent most of my layovers within a few kilometers of the hotel. Felicia Soh, an employee of The Ascott Hotel, suggested an itinerary for our two days in the Chinese capital that would turn out to be some of the highlights of the trip.

0700 – Great Wall of China at Mutianyu
The arranged minibus picks us up from the lobby and sends us to The Wall at Mutianyu. We arrive just after 0900, early enough that it’s not too crowded. We decide to walk up. It took us about 30mins, but it’s not a spectacular walk up and I would suggest you shell out the money for the cable car up. How much time you spend up there is up to you, but when you are done, you can either walk, cable car, or take the luge back down. We took the luge, a high-speed fun ride back to the parking lot. If you are short on time, you could visit the Great Wall at Badaling, which is closer to the city. Brace yourself: With the luge, cable cars and shops lining the way up, the visit tends to be pretty commercial. But the wall itself is spectacular and well worth the visit.

1200 – Lunch at The School house
The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu is a restored former school, which has been restored and converted into a funky restaurant and a glass-works and studio by the resent owners. The chef, Mr. Singh, a Sikh from Canada, who has settled down in China, is representative of the type of atmosphere and food you can expect to find there. Cosmopolitan. And the service is excellent.
No.12 Mutianyu Village; Tel: 6162 65067

1500 – The Emperor’s Summer Palace
We visited The Emperor’s Summer Palace, but arrived late and had to rush through it, so I can’t really offer any views on it. I’d suggest you try to limit your time at the Great Wall and have an early lunch, so that you can spend a decent amount of time at the Emperor’s Summer Palace.

1930 – Dinner at Li Qun
I must admit that during my career in the airline, other than the first couple of trips, I’ve spent most of my layovers within a 1 km radius of the hotel. So when, Felicia Soh, an employee of The Ascott Hotel, suggested we have Peking Duck at this out-of-the –way restaurant, I was skeptical. Li Qun Roast Duck Restaurant serves up the famous Peking duck and is located in an old slum. The taxi will not enter the slum and will drop you off on the main road, where you either have to find your way in, or succumb to the touts and pay 10 Yuan for a 2min rickshaw ride in. It turns out this restaurant is well worth the effort to go there. Reservations are required.

No. 11 Beixiangfeng, Zhengyi Rd; Tel: 67055578
From Top: A Bike Whizzes By Li Qun Restaurant;
Tourists Climbing Up The Great Wall At Mutianyu;
The Schoolhouse at Mutianyu;
Welcome to the Summer Palace;
Get Your Name Painted at the Summer Palace;
Roast Ducks in the Oven at Li Qun.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

How Far Does The Apple Fall?

My wife’s ancestors were probably fishermen from Southern China. Every time we walk past fresh seafood at a market or restaurant, she has to stop and take a look. Yes, really, she does! And I have a bunch of photos, including the one above, to prove it. That plus her strong work ethic and a need to live near the sea got me thinking about our roots and how they shape our lives.

My father’s ancestors were probably farmers from Southern China, and I inherited my short legs and long back from them. That’s probably not the best genetic makeup for an endurance athlete, but great for working on a farm. My mum’s ancestors were nomads, originally from Manchuria, and I inherited their free spirit, and the unfortunate desire to be constantly on the move.


Photo: On The Menu Tonight. Taken in Krabi, Thailand with a Canon 350D, 10-20mm lens.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

7 Days In Tibet (Part 3)

Leaving Tibet was a bit of a bittersweet experience. On the one hand, it was time to go. But we also left some unfinished business. We failed to complete our planned trek from Ganden to Samye due to altitude sickness. Well, that, at least, gives us a reason to return.

The good news, or so we thought, was that we would be taking the Lhasa to Beijing train, one of the high points of the trip. The scenery was outstanding, but poor service standards, choked toilets and continuous smoking would mar our memories of the ride.

Service standards are variable. Some of them are good, others are poor. And they have a peculiar habit of chasing away passengers from the dining car during non-meal times (I suspect this is so that the staff have somewhere to sit, rest and smoke). Incidentally, the food in the dining car turns out to be quite decent.

Toilets eventually become choked and unusable by even the most hardy. But to be fair, the staff do clean the toilets. So if a toilet looks too grim to use, return in a couple of hours and the situation should have improved. Bring your toiletries, towel and extra toilet paper with you.

No smoking signs, like pedestrian crossings, mean little in China. Even the staff smoke freely directly beneath the ‘No-Smoking’ sign in the dining car, and they do little to prevent other passengers from doing the same. The smoke permeates everywhere, so even if you retreat to your cabin, there is no escape.

The train is the best option for those arriving into Lhasa. But when leaving, I’d choose to fly out. Which way you choose to do it, the train is a must do, and will surely leave you with a memorable experience.

Photos from top:
Laura with our little cabin mate outside the train;
Scenery from the train: Mountain and Gateway;
Our two cabin mates checking out the scenery from our cabin;
More scenery: Nomad tents and yak herd;
Chilling out in our cabin;
Scored a watermelon! In the dining car with a gift from our cabin mates.