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.

Photos:
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.

Hmm…

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.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

D300: Why I Want One

We won’t get to handle one until it is released in November. Yet everyone already has an opinion on it and so do I. Here’s why I’m waiting for one to replace my D200:

100% Viewfinder Coverage
Nikon traditionally reserves this for its pro bodies. Nikon consumer bodies, like the D200, have approximately 95% coverage.

51-Point Autofocus System
I’ve never seen anything like it before but it looks like the AF system on Canon’s renowned 1D Series, and is probably a vast improvement over the AF system on the D200.

A New Self-Cleaning 12.3 Megapixel CMOS Sensor
The increase in megapixels over the D200 isn’t all that interesting. The self-cleaning sensor is interesting but the biggest attraction for me is that Nikon have gone from using a CCD sensor on the D200 to a CMOS sensor on the D300. I believe, or hope, that this will result in less high ISO image noise, as well as reduce the power requirements.

Cleaner images, longer battery life, better AF. Woohoo! Where’s my credit card!

7 Days in Tibet (Part 2)

So what’s there to do in Lhasa whilst acclimatizing? Once you are done visiting the Potala and various monasteries, there is still a lot to do to occupy your time. There’s shopping, anything from fake ‘The North Face’ jackets to antique Dzi beads, but you’ve got to bargain hard for everything. It’s a bit of a game with the locals to see how much they can fleece the tourists. The opening price is never the final price. Accept that you will end up paying too much, no matter what kind of deal you think you are getting.

The restaurants vary in quality from delicious to the inedible. The Lonely Planet guidebook has some good suggestions. The Dunya Restaurant next to the Yak hotel has a great selection of food. Everything we have tried there has been good. Stay away from the monastery restaurants, the exception to this is Samye Monastery Restaurant, which turned out to be pretty decent.

Finally, when it’s time to go trekking, make sure your guide knows what has been agreed on with your travel agent. Your Chinese travel agent will often sub-contract out the trekking arrangements to a Tibetan guide. It is best to iron out the details before you get started.

Photos:
Top: Jokhang Monastery, Lhasa, Tibet.
Middle: Vegetarianism, Anyone? Butcher carves up Yak carcasses in Lhasa, Tibet.
Bottom: Berry Good. Sampling some local berries along the Ganden to Samye Trek, Tibet.
All photos taken with a Nikon D200, Nikkor 12-24mm lens.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The Endless Summer


My wife, a retired investment banker, and I have sold our beautiful house, sold both the sports car and the SUV, and I’ve also quit my job as an airline pilot. Now, homeless and jobless, but with cash in pocket, there’s nothing holding us back. We want to see the world and, maybe, I can make a little money as a travel and adventure writer and photographer.

At 42, I’m considered to be in the prime of life. And, as a Boeing 777 Captain working for one of the best airlines in the world, I can think of no other job I want to do. Leaving it all behind is one of the scariest things I have ever done.

I don’t know what lies ahead. That’s the adventure.

A message to my colleagues:
The past 19 years with Singapore Airlines have been the best in my life. I joined the airline as a young man, and have grown up and matured here. My best wishes to all of you, and hope that your lives continue to be filled with joy.

Photo: Dawn, somewhere over Australia. Taken with a Canon 350D, 10-22mm lens, fill flash.

Monday, September 3, 2007

7 Days in Tibet

The insanity of flying form sea level directly to Lhasa at 12,500ft hit home when one of my traveling companions passed out shortly after landing in Lhasa. Had we been able to obtain tickets, it would have been much better to have taken the train from Beijing to Lhasa, which would have taken 48 hours, and would have given us more time to acclimatize. Carrying some Diamox, a drug that helps with acclimatization, would also have been prudent. In view of the things I learned, here are some tips to assist travelers going to Tibet:

Don’t underestimate the effects of high altitude. Lhasa is at an altitude of 12,500ft. That’s higher than Namche Bazaar, 11,300ft, a popular stop along the Everest Base camp trek for trekkers and climbers to rest and acclimatize.

If you plan on going trekking, 7 days in Lhasa acclimatizing should eliminate all systems of high altitude sickness, said one high altitude doctor I spoke to. If you can’t afford the time, again, there’s Diamox…

Taking the train in is better than flying in. From Beijing, it takes 48 hours by train. The first 24 hours gets you from sea level to 10,000ft and the last 24 hours is entirely over 10,000ft. (I have a lot more to say about the train, but I’m going to save that for another blog entry.)

You can also buy bottled oxygen from many of the convenience stores around Lhasa. These turned out to be pretty useful and each bottle lasts about a half hour, poviding a few hours of relief from the symptoms of high altitude sickness. Go see a doctor if the symptoms persist.

I’d stay in East Lhasa, within walking distance of the Potala and the Bakkor. That’s the old part of Lhasa, where the character of the city is Tibetan. West Lhasa is the new part of Lhasa, where the Chinese have built wide roads and 5-star hotels.

Get a guidebook and read it before you leave home, particularly about religious and political issues. Lonely Planet Guide books are always a good bet.

To be continued…

Photos:
Top: Om Mani Padme Hum. Tibetan Pilgrims spinning prayer wheels as they circumnavigate the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Taken with a Nikon D200, 12-24mm lens.
Bottom: Devotion. A pilgrim prostates himself over and over as he makes his way around the Potala. Taken with a Nikon D200, 12-24mm lens.