Monday, October 27, 2014

A Unique way of Traveling - Overlanding (In Mongolia)


When I first entered the room full of fellow travellers in Mongolia, I didn't realise Overlanding was a thing. I think almost 95% of the group had done this sort of travel before as I found out during our introductions. They overlanded in Africa, Central Asia and even India! When I was looking for options to explore the real countryside of Mongolia without compromising on quality of the experience and safety, this trip from Intrepid Travel looked like a good option. Personally, what drew me to this trip was the truck! I imagined it must be great fun to drive around in this truck, stopping and camping anywhere we pleased. There were a lot of camping nights involved as you can see from the pictures below.

Overlanding in Mongolia
One of the many exquisite camping locations and the truck named Xara that took us around!

So what is Overlanding?
Overlanding is a well known thing in North America, Europe and Australia. Its basically where you travel in a modified truck or 4-wheel drive with everything you need to survive for a few days. You can carry food supplies, water, cooking/camping equipment with you which gives you the biggest advantage of freedom to go wherever you want to.

So how to book yourself on one of these trips?
Well, the good news is we(Indians) are a bit late in catching up but overlanding is all the rage outside. It's especially helpful for all those of us who want to go on adventures/hiking/camping but find it too costly/impractical to self-organize or find a group. Small group adventures, as they are called, are organized by many companies such as Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Dragoman Overland Adventures, Exodus Travels etc. These are just the very famous ones that I've heard of but there should be many more who do these kind of trips in the remote places that you want to visit. 

So what is the biggest advantage of Overlanding?
There are two. 
First, it gives you a lot of freedom in terms of where to go and where to stop for the day. And because you are carrying everything you need to camp with you, you are not dependent on some town close by to shop for food or finding a stream for water. Stop anywhere you want to! That's just brilliant. 

Second, no hotels? No problem! In remote areas where tourism infrastructure is absent, like it was in Mongolia, you will have not have decent hotels to rest for the night. Camping is much better option in the absence of hotels instead of staying in dingy lodges and motels. This way, you get to experience the wilderness and countryside yet still be comfortable. 

When the driving distances are too long and driving time goes into days, nothing beats the freedom of having the option of covering as much distance as you want each day and camping when the clock strikes 6 in the evening. Overlanding brings this flexibility which is indispensable because we all know how travel plans can change in just few minutes.

Now moving on to the finer aspects of Overland travel, here are some pictures and their stories. Oh btw, our truck was called Xara!

Overlanding in Mongolia
Our trip was a mix of camping and staying Ger camps where available. The 10 nights we camped were this spectacular! Milkyway arched across the clear nightsky and all of huddled comfortably around a warm campfire. 

Overlanding in Mongolia
The truck has been modified keeping every requirement in mind for a long overland trip. The seats are comfortable, the windows are big so that every person has a good view of outside, not just the person in the window seat. The truck even has roof seats where you can sit comfortably enjoying a 360 degree view! The truck has several compartments to store food, camping/cooking equipment, tools, garbage, luggage, a fridge and even a secret locker! Seen here is our cooking set up. 

Overlanding in Mongolia
A typical evening in the Mongolian countryside on our 3 week trip. We were divided into 5 cook groups and we all would take turns cooking lunch, dinner and breakfast when we camped. At times, it felt tiring to actually cook instead of taking a walk around but it also kept us busy and gave us a good chance to socialize. And our campsites were always this pretty, every campsite beat the previous campsite's location. 

Overlanding in Mongolia
Irrespective of whether we camp overnight or not, we would almost always stop for lunch in places like this. Herds of sheep would pass us by, horsemen in traditional Mongolian Deels would come see us, local men on motorbikes would stop by. It was always fun to stop in such gorgeous locations and have lunch. 

Overlanding in Mongolia
But the most fun was definitely stopping somewhere in the middle of nowhere and calling it a day! Then going for a long walk and turn back to find this comforting view of a orange truck waiting to take you to a new place the next day.

So, how do you like Overlanding? Have I tempted you to book yourself on an Overlanding Trip yet? ;)

{Many of the pictures seen here are shot using a Canon EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM lens I rented from Tapprs. }

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Rain Soaked Beauty of Bhutan - In Pictures


Every year, between June and October, I've been dedicatedly returning to the Indian forests and mountains to experience the wonder that is Monsoon Magic! But earlier this year in June, I ended up chasing monsoons in Bhutan as well. Considering how pristine the countryside and wilderness is in Bhutan, it was a delightful time to be there. I think, only a snow-ridden winter visit can top what I've seen in those misty rain soaked days. Without further ado, here's a glimpse of my monsoon escapade in the Land of Thunder Dragon!

(Also read7 Interesting things about Bhutan you probably didn't know!)

Monsoon in Bhutan
This is why Bhutan is called the last Shangri-La! Look at the mist covered mountains and monasteries perched on impossible cliffs. Woke up to this view for 3 days and it will never cease to amaze me - a perfect memory from a beautiful country.  

Monsoon in Bhutan
Beautiful Rhododendron bloom welcoming me in Bhutan as well. I had seen these flowers adorn the forests of Sikkim (Goecha La Trek) just the month before and couldn't get enough of it. Luckily, the season was still on and I got to see much more of these pretty flowers during my time in Bhutan. 

Monsoon in Bhutan
This is where fairies must be living or probably this is the Shire! Clusters of pretty houses in a narrow valley between pine covered mountain slopes. I was impressed by how well the wilderness areas were protected in Bhutan. They have, after all, vowed to keep at least 60% of the country under forest cover.

Monsoon in Bhutan
Bhutan is primarily an Agrarian country and this is why you will find lush green fields everywhere you go. In the monsoons, it is a sight to behold as you can see. 

Monsoon in Bhutan
My tryst with the forests of Bhutan was fleeting and nominal because trekking in Bhutan will burn a deep hole in my pocket. So I had to suffice with the roadside stops to peer into the lush greenery. But you can imagine how beautiful the country is, if I could get views like this just from the road!

Monsoon in Bhutan
Okay, you don't need me to tell you how pretty this scene is. Instead, tell me, so who wants to live here? ;)


Monsoon in Bhutan
Monsoon in Bhutan
Monsoon is my favorite season not just because of the mist and greenery but because of all the wild flowers it brings. I followed a trail going up a mountain and ended up in a sea of wild flowers of every shape and color! Also ended getting very lucky with sighting this super rare Blue Himalayan Poppy!

Monsoon in Bhutan
One of the several Rice Bowls of Bhutan, Paro and it's green fields shining despite a dark stormy sky! 

Monsoon in Bhutan
Last rays of the day during the last few hours in Bhutan, just few kilometers from India. . See how the hills of Bhutan are reducing to plains of India?

Monsoon in Bhutan
See the narrow line in dark just before the houses start? That's the border wall, between India and Bhutan. Final goodbyes, from one green land to another. Days after returning from Bhutan, memories of it's pristine beauty and cheerful people will haunt you to go back. I know I want to and probably will! :)
So where have you been chasing monsoons this season? Tell me in the comments!

{All the pictures seen here are shot using a Canon EF 24-105 f/4L IS USM lens I rented from Tapprs. }

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Capturing Amritsar's Exquisite Colors with Microsoft Lumia!


Most of us here do share a fascination with Pakistan! I have always wanted to visit that side of the border but I mostly knew the closest I can ever get to Pakistan would be only to the Wagah-Attari Border. So when the folks at Nokia Lumia invited me to go on a trip to Amritsar, I jumped at the opportunity. Part of the appeal was also the fact that I would get to capture the colors of the city with the 41 MegaPixel PureView Nokia Lumia 1020.

Of late, I've been a big fan of using mobile cameras for travel photography. In fact, my recent Mongolia post(3 Weeks in Mongolia) featured pictures captured entirely through my Samsung Galaxy. Coming to Lumia, I can't comment much on the phone because I've barely used it for 2 days but the camera sure rocks! I will let you be the judge, see for yourself what I captured in Amritsar.

Colour of Amritsar

***

Wagah-Attari Border Ceremony

Situated 25kms from the city of Amritsar, Attari is a village 3kms before the India-Pakistan international border at Wagah. The pleasant surprise after reaching Attari was that Punjab Tourism had arranged for us to be seated right next to the Iron Gate on the Indian side. Across the gate was Pakistan! I looked that way more than I watched the Indian side- so tantalisingly close, yet so unreachable. 

Since 1959, an elaborate border ceremony has been staged every evening and continues till date. Michael Palin called this ceremony "carefully choreographed contempt" and I think that's an apt description. Tall people from Border Security Force (India) and Pakistan Rangers (Pakistan) march, salute, stomp and enact aggression. Respective country folks are incited to cheer for their country and the audience is more than happy to indulge in the shoutfest.  Just before sunset, the iron gates are opened. The flags are simultaneously lowered and folded. Then the soldiers retreat with the flags and the iron gates are shut. It's a strange ceremony between two countries that share so much history and animosity. It's interesting nonetheless and it's the closest I'll probably get to that side!

Wagah Border Ceremony, Amritsar
Flags being lowered at sunset at Wagah Border. 

(With 41 Mega Pixels, the biggest advantage is you can shoot first and seriously compose later. In all that chaos, I managed to sneak up onto the road getting a clear view of Pakistan and quickly took some shots before I was chased back to the side. Later at home, I cropped the picture and it's still has an excellent resolution!)

India Pakistan Border Ceremony, wagah
Before the ceremony begins, visitors on the Indian side are allowed to run to the gates holding up the Indian Flag. Lots of kids seemed to be loving it. And if you're wondering, no, I did not run. ;)

Looking into Pakistan
Window to Pakistan, the other side! From where we were sitting, this was the view right next to us. The arena filled up eventually but compared to that side, there was a sea of humanity on this side of the gate, obviously.  

Fawad Khan, Sonam Kappor, Kirron Kher, Movie Promotion
Do you recognize anyone here? Yep, that's the cast of Khoobsoorat promoting their movie. It was really funny to see Fawad Khan sitting on the Indian side listening to all the cheers of Indians against Pakistan. I wonder which PRs sick idea was it to get him to the border! 

***

Early Morning serenity at Harmandir Sahib, also known as Golden Temple

I keep saying I'm not a temple person and I keep getting blown away by temple after temple! Getting up at 3.30AM is not exactly my idea of fun but hey, duty calls! We were on our way to witness the Palki Sahib ceremony where the holy book, Granth Sahib is moved to the sanctum in a palanquin. We did see the procession but what blew my away was the beauty and serenity of the Golden Temple. In the night, the temple glowed and reflected in the pool of nectar surrounding the structure. By morning, the red of the sun reflected in the holy waters. The temple itself, at the centre of the pool was extremely beautiful with intricate marblework with embedded gems quite similar to Taj Mahal. Inside, every inch of the wall and ceiling was covered in elaborate designs made of gold embossing and other bright colors. I was lost in the two floors of the sanctum marvelling at the intricacy of the fine Sikh craftsmanship. 

Golden Temple, Harmandir Sahib, Amritsar
When the sun rises, the first light falls on the temple and it's easily one of the best times to visit. In the pool of nectar, as it's called, there are huge fishes that add color to the scene. In the centre, however, is a devotee taking a holy dip before visiting the temple. 

Early morning at Golden Temple, Amritsar
Thousands of pilgrims throng the temple everyday and they bring such a huge array of diversity and color with them that it is fascinating to just watch them go by.  

Night Reflections at Golden Temple, Amritsar
This was the view that greeted us 4 in the morning! The reflections of the temple and the watch towers were so impressive that I kept staring at the view.
(I'm actually quite impressed with the low light capability of the Lumia, it captures the scene in great detail and I'm a bit sad to report that it looks like the Lumia handles low light better than my DSLR does at the moment)

Roti preparation at Langar, Golden Temple, Amritsar
Women adding final touches to the rotis in the community kitchen called Langar where free food is served to everyone visiting the Gurudwara irrespective of any distinctions. The whole of the roti making process is automated, just the last step of applying butter is done manually by the women. 

Golden Temple, Amritsar
Got a bit adventurous and took this people shot. Not my forte at all, but with such a small yet powerful camera, I could get used to taking portraits of people! ;)

Golden Temple, Amritsar
Golden temple, seen through the foliage. 

***

The Old and The Colorful - Lanes of Amritsar

After the visiting the Wagah Border and Golden Temple, our group descended upon the old streets of Amritsar. I wasn't sure what I would photograph in the city but the old city turned out to be quite colorful and really really old. Every lane had interesting visuals and the colors were mindblowing. Add to that, I was shadowing the talented Sid - The Wanderer who specializes in street and portrait photography. So, with the help of an inconspicuous camera and an expert I actually quite enjoyed taking these street shots!

Old lanes of Amritsar
Show me blue and I'm already in love with the place. For some strange reasons, many of those old city lanes were bathed in generous blue.  

Amritsar
We called him the Afghan Guy, he had the look. 

Amritsar
This kid wanted a piece of the action, he was excited looking at all attention the Afghan guy was getting. If there's a willing model, I'm more than happy to shoot! I'm sure the kid must've been disappointed to see I wasn't shooting him with the big professional camera. ;)

Amritsar
An old abandoned temple right in the middle of the lane was painted all in blue. Blue, pretty and ruined - I can easily spend hours here photographing but we made it out in about 10 minutes. 

Colorful, wasn't it?

But there was lot of food!
Apart from all the roaming around, we also ate a lot of food. Because, none other than MasterChef Vikas Khanna was showing us around and taking us to his favorite food joints in Amritsar. I could talk about it but I would be as lost as a blind man in a maze! So allow me to direct you to the expert's post - Kalyan Karmakar, better known as Finely Chopped has written about the food trail, go read - A food safari in Chef Vikas Khanna’s Amritsar

About the Lumia, I think it has great potential in the hands of a travel photographer because the 41MP resolution is actually quite useful here. And the camera is as powerful as it is discreet. So easy to carry around, post updates on social media (finding good Apps is a bit difficult at the moment) and the picture quality is insanely good. (In case you are wondering, the .jpeg image size varies between 7-15MB and the device comes with a 32GB storage. Not sure about the size of the raw(dng format) images though.)

So what do you think - about Mobile Cameras and Nokia Lumia for Travel Photography?

Note - My trip to Amritsar was hosted by Nokia India

Sunday, September 14, 2014

3 Weeks in Mongolia - The Long Journey, In Pictures.

If you've been following this blog for a while, you'd know I made a 30 Before 30 List few years ago. The first one on the list was "Go to Ulanbaatar". I don't when or how this fascination with Mongolia began but I was pretty awestruck by this country. I also (in)famously talked about Why I never traveled out of India so far. Apart from the reasons mentioned in the post, I also never thought of traveling out of India because visiting some country for a week or two didn't really sound exciting. So, as soon as I quit my job and had all the time in the world, the first thing I did was to book myself a ticket to Mongolia - The Land of Eternal Blue Skies!  

Mongolia

Last month, after several hiccups in the initial planning, I finally landed in Chhinggis Khan International Airport and it felt surreal to finally realize a long pending dream. I spent a little over 3 weeks in Mongolia and covered a bit of Central and Northern parts. We traveled around in a super efficient truck, stayed in the traditional Mongolian Yurts/Gers for few nights and camped under the open skies many nights. 

You should know 3 weeks is a long long time and I have accumulated 80GB worth of pictures and numerous stories. I'm still dazed, with the amount of memories from the trip, the work after coming back home and my insufferable laziness. So I haven't been able to process the images from DSLR yet but anticipating this, I took a lot of pictures from my mobile and this should give you a decent glimpse into the 3 weeks in this wild country while I get my bearings straight.  

Sukhbataar Square, Ulanbataar, Mongolia
Ulaanbataar is the capital of Mongolia. More than 40% of the country's population lives in this city and the rest are spread across the vast country. Heavy soviet influences give the city a very strange and rather drab look. This is the centre of the city, Sukhbataar Square and the huge building is the Parliament House. It's an interesting place to spend an afternoon but after spending 4 days in the city, I was dying to get to the countryside.

Overlanding in Mongolia
This killer truck took us around for 21 days over non existent roads through incredible countryside. Overlanding, as it is called, is very popular in the western world apparently. I myself had never heard of this but found it to be a pretty cool way to get around in remote areas. It had almost everything you need to travel onboard. The name's Xara btw! ;)

Into the Steppes of Mongolia
Off we go, rolling on the Steppes under clear blues skies on bright sunny days! The criss crossing tracks that you see are the roads in Mongolia. How people navigate here is beyond me. 

Yaks and Storm Clouds in Mongolia
After initial few bright sunny days, storm clouds took over. Even on overcast days, the beauty of Mongolian countryside was hard to escape. Under the dark stormy skies, the green rolling grasslands looked spectacular still. 

Ogii Lake, Mongolia
On the first night out of the city, we arrived at this huge lake called Ogii Lake. Legend has it that the lake was formed from the tear drops of a man whose wife was kidnapped by an evil king. After reaching this Lake, I walked around till 8 in the night. Yes, that's when sun begins to set. I was delighted in the beginning with the long daylight hours but it became a problem soon. It was impossible to catch the sunset colours because, one - it was too quick and two - it was dinner time when the sun set!

Orkhon River, Mongolia
This is one view I never associated with Mongolia. We reached the town of Kharkhorin and stayed in the outskirts. We hiked up a small hill to find this brilliant green valley with a meandering river. This is Orkhon River, the longest in Mongolia. I stayed alone at the hilltop till 8 in the night again, I could afford to miss the late evening golden light.  And good things come to those who wait! ;) The drab skies turned dramatic as rain clouds moved in from across the mountains. 

Meandering Orkhon River, Mongolia
Meandering Orkhon River and the smooth rolling hills. The best part of Mongolia is most of the hills are so eroded you can practically climb anything you set your eye upon. It makes for excellent walks, go wherever you want kind of walks. 

Storm Clouds and Mongolian Highways
Storm Clouds and Mongolian Highways where Xara took us on a ride, across green grasslands and over eroded mountains.  

Horserider, Sheep in Mongolia
And scenes like this that I could never get used to. Horses are an integral part of the nomadic Mongolian lifestyle and every single time I saw the horse riders, it felt like I traveled back in time.

Campsite in Mongolia
Camping in amazing locations was the most fun part of the trip. We would drive until 5.30 in the evening to arrive at the most stunning locations. And camping was so easy because it was all flat and soft ground. I remember camping in Himalayas where you keep sliding off in the tent due to the uneven ground or clear ground of rocks and insects in the dense forests of Western Ghats. Here in Mongolia, it hardly took more than 5 minutes to pitch the tent. 

Camping in Mongolia
My tentmate and I, we always discussed what view we wanted from our tent.  Of course, this took more time than pitching the tent.We always had excellent views to wake up to courtesy stunning Mongolian Countryside!

Camping under the stars in Mongolia
Towards the end, we were well accustomed to the cold and we slept under the starry skies with just sleeping bags. I've seen the milky way several times before but never saw it arch across the entire sky as my views in the Himalayas or Western Ghats were always blocked by some mountain. Here, it was almost like a planetarium. It was so much fun to spot shooting stars and falling asleep to a clear view of the galaxy!

Typical Mongolian Towns
This is how Mongolian towns look like - wooden houses with colorful tin roofs. We stopped at small towns like these to stock up on food supplies for the times when we camp. 


Milk Products in Mongolian Market
Meat in Mongolian Market
Mongolians love their meat and milk products! These two form the staple food and a vegetarian or a lactose intolerant person would have a super tough time here.

Northern Mongolia
Winding our way around central Mongolia, we reached north for the final leg of the journey. Northern Mongolia feels more like Russia or Siberia with the pine forests and mountains typical of the Siberian Taiga. 

Khovsgol Lake, Northern Mongolia
Lake Khovsgol is Mongolia's largest fresh water lake, is over 2 million years old and feels more like an ocean than a lake. It is that vast! On this lake, we went boating to see a little island full of cormorants and sea gulls. For the 3 days we were in this part of the country, felt like I was in Russia or Canada because of the landscape.

Crazy Offroading in Truck, Mongolia
Firstly, I've never traveled for 21 days straight. And secondly, never in a truck. So, it was super interesting, this journey. At times, we got stuck like this and at other times, we sat on the roof of the truck(Yes, this truck has roof seats too!) shivering in the cold wind but also enjoying the 360 degree view. And then, we also camped and cooked under the starry skies. In the evenings, we wandered alone in the vast steppes, along the lake shores and over eroded mountains. That's the beauty of Mongolia, it's so vast and beautiful, you'll be hard-pressed to think of anything but the present. 

Cloudy Skies in Mongolia
And then, the night falls. When the morning comes, we pack up and leave - looking back at what we left behind at times and looking forward to what's in store the other times. But, as travellers we all know that,  don't we? That it's all about the journey anyway. It's all good as long as we keep moving! :)

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