Sunday, September 28, 2014

Capturing Amritsar's Exquisite Colors with Nokia 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! :)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Cycling in the Lush Green Countryside of Coorg - Monsoons of Karnataka, In Pictures!


Ever since I moved to Bangalore in 2008 I made it a point to visit Western Ghats in monsoons, year after year, without fail! This year, I made two back to back trips in a week. [Things I can do now that I'm jobless! ;)]. In July, I first visited the lush jungles of KGudi where I also managed to sight a Tiger in wild. 

Two days after I returned from KGudi, I went on a cycling trip with The Adventure Gypsies in Coorg, a fun adventure company started by my good friends. Except I didn't cycle. Still reeling from the cold I caught during KGudi jungle safaris, I didn't want to miss this trip but there was no way I could cycle with bad cold and fever. So instead I sat inside the support vehicle to bring you a glimpse of how awesome monsoons in Western Ghats are! :)

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Over two days we saw as many vehicles as we count on fingers, no kidding! The route was through the lush green countryside of Kodava land. It rained on and off but when it rained it poured and it looked like those who cycled had the time of their lives.  

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
That's me doing my classic jump! I was trying hard not to get tempted to get into the mud and rain with my cold and fever. But who can resist a landscape like this? ;)

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
My friends did a recce few weeks before to finalize the route and went through several tiny villages. The kids of this particular village remember my friend Rajesh here, and were quite excited to see him!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Between the dense forests, small patches of land were used for terrace cultivation. With it beautiful steps, red mud and lush green fields, it looked insanely beautiful when the clouds rolled in over from the mountains beyond.

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
That's Mallali Falls in full flow surrounded by dense jungles at the foothills of Pushpagiri Mountain range. We walked to this falls in pouring rain late in the evening on day one as part of the ride. 

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
And here's a selfie of a different kind! Me soaking in the freshness of an overflowing stream by the road side. Love the dash of red in my slippers. ;)

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
We drove, many rode along lush rice fields like this. Flooded and looking beautiful under a monsoon sky!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Small streams and brooks were overflowing to the brim under the spell of a generous monsoon! Insane amount of greenery and awesomeness packed into two days.

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
The vast grassland was irresistible for many reasons, but the main reason was the amazing photo opportunities! Just look at this, who doesn't want a photo here? ;)

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Pretty much shows how the ride over two days was - green, wet, misty and awesome!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
This is one of the many approaches to Harangi Backwaters. We walked along this muddy route to get to the waters but in reasonably dry season, makes for a good mountain biking route!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Coffee Plantation workers using their traditional raincoats which work like a charm. A Plastic cover that's pointed over the top and stays on top of their head while they work in the farms. A part of the route also goes through lush coffee plantations.

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
On the way, we encountered many such green and vast grasslands. These were fields that were yet to be sowed and were left empty till the rains subside for a while. But it was a great place to cycle and walk around!

Coorg/Madikeri Monsoon Cycling
Last time I cycled in the rain in Madikeri, I enjoyed it the core. It was around the same area with but we did climb up and down a lot. In this ride however, the route was nice with nominal gradient and perfect for beginners. Beautiful countryside routes passing through dense forests, lush fields and brimming backwaters. 

I could talk more about how much I love monsoons but by now, you all probably know and it doesn't make sense to repeat the same old again. So, how did you enjoy this Monsoon Odyssey? My friends at TAG, (The Adventure Gypsies) have many more events planned for the monsoon, do join if you like getting off the beaten path.

Have you done any monsoon trips so far? Let me know in the comments.

More Monsoon Magic Here :-
Monsoons of Rajasthan - Photos of Desert in the Rains!
Monsoons of Kerala - The Offbeat side of Mystical Munnar
Monsoons of Sikkim - Photos of Nature Extraordinaire
Monsoons of Maharashtra - A Photo Essay of 1800+km Weekend Journey!
Monsoons of Karnataka - Photos of Cycling in the Rain, Madikeri
Monsoons of Karnataka - A Wild Monsoon Outing to the Jungles of BR Hills!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A Wild Monsoon Outing & My First Tiger Sighting - K Gudi Jungle Lodges at BR Hills

Last week I spent 3 days in the dense forests of Biligiri Rangaswamy Hills in Karnataka along with fellow travel blogger Anita Bora, on invitation from Jungle Lodges. BR Hills is where the Eastern Ghats meet Western Ghats and you can see the landscape change quickly from one side to the other. This little known Wildlife Sanctuary also happens to be a Tiger Reserve with 44 Tigers, 75 Leopards and 600 Elephants! Ever since my visit to Kanha & Bandhavgarh last year and Dandeli earlier this year, I have been slowly growing fond of wildlife and jungle safaris. This trip sealed the deal with the beautifully green, rain-soaked forests and my first ever Tiger sighting in the wild!

Did you know? Unlike other National Parks in the country, Wildlife Sanctuaries in Karnataka do not close down during monsoons. Meaning, you get a chance to witness the beauty of the forests in full monsoon glory!

KGudi, BR Hills, Karnataka
KGudi, BR Hills, Karnataka
The generous monsoons have turned the forests of BR Hills into a magical green paradise! We went on the safaris with constant drizzle and heavy downpour for company. It was so cold in the open jeeps that I caught cold right away but it was totally worth it.   

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
Our first sighting was handsome Changeable Hawk Eagle. I am usually not that fond of birds but look at the beauty of this majestic bird!

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
One afternoon, we went to the centuries old Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple on the hill top. We walked up the stairs and I walked around the temple to find this breathtaking view of what looks like Eastern Ghats to me.  

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
If you go towards West, this is the kind of forest you encounter which is very typical of Western Ghats. The forest was green beyond imagination, drenched in fresh rain and full of misty views. 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
Look who's behind the bushes! My first Tiger sighting in the wild, it was as exciting as I had always imagined. The sighting lasted less than 5 seconds but we could hear the pair moving around us and grunting loudly for more than 10 minutes. It is extremely difficult to sight tigers in the monsoons and even more difficult to sight them in BR Hills with its dense forest. But I guess, my time had finally come to witness the magnificence of this creature.

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
All the ponds inside the forest was full and brimming. We saw Stripe Necked Mongoose next to one pond, several deers and sambars next to others. It was so nice to see the forest lush and thriving! 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
We went on a total of 4 safaris - in the morning and in the evening. We saw many birds, Indian Gaur, Wild Boars, Barking Deers, Serpent Eagles, Jungle Owlet, Wild Mynas and many more birds whose names I do not know. For such a dense forest, it was surprisingly easy to spot wildlife. Loved all the safaris. 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
Stunning view of the dense, layered and forest-covered mountain slopes from the Biligiri Rangaswamy Temple. Dark clouds moved swiftly across the sky pouring down like crazy one moment and disappearing the next. Being in the Western Ghats in monsoons is an unparalleled experience!

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
A Crested Serpent Eagle gracefully sitting on top of a dried up tree. It sat there quietly as we drove towards it. It was very curious and from what I could make out of its head movements, it was checking us out too! 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
A nightjar, which apparently is quite rare to see in the daytime this being a nocturnal bird, stopped us in our tracks as you can see. This particular safari was even more enjoyable as we were in company of avid birders and a knowledgeable Naturalist. 

KGudi Jungle Lodges, Monsoons in BR Hills
A Barking Deer wondering when is the right time to run away into the bushes to escape the incessant clicking noises! Shortly after we, the photographers, started clicking, it ran back into the dense forest.

Where to Stay? - KGudi Jungle Lodges at BR Hills

This camp is one of the very few resorts in India which is located inside a wildlife sanctuary and offers a truly wild experience. Since it is located inside the forest, there is no power supply. Generator is used for electricity needs through the day only for few hours and it is shut down strictly by 10PM leaving the camp in absolute darkness. There are no fences to keep the wildlife out and wild animals freely walk into camp after dark and many times during the day as well. There are 8 well appointed tented cottages and 3 wonderful log huts(stayed in one of these). The camp overlooks densely forested hills and is surrounded by tall trees that sway like mad on windy days. There is absolutely no noise pollution apart from the sound of screeching insects and wild winds.

Location - 86km from Mysore and 225km from Bangalore
Reservations and Details here - http://www.junglelodges.com/k.gudi-wilderness-camp

KGudi, BR Hills, Karnataka
KGudi, BR Hills, Karnataka
The comfortable Log Hut we stayed at. (Left) The interiors of the Log Hut - 3 beds, attached Bathroom, and a beautiful balcony to see the mist rolling on the hills opposite to the hut. (Right)

So this was my first monsoon foray in this season and I couldn't have asked for a better start!
Where have you escaped/planning to escape this monsoon? Let me know in the comments.

{P.S - I was about to leave to BR Hills with just an Ultra Wide Angle but in the last minute I rented an 18-200mm Canon Lens from Tapprs - my gear partner, just in case I saw a tiger! Highly unlikely scenario but so glad I borrowed it. :)}

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