Friday, April 18, 2014

Ayuthaya Thailand

The World Heritage Site of Ayuthaya  is located about an hour's drive from Bangkok. It was the capital of Siam around 1400 AD and a trading port as well. The temples, many of which are now in ruins have been partly restored and give some indication of the pomp and splendour of those times.

Wat Phra Si Sanpet

Monks at Wat Phra Si Sanpet

Reclining Buddha - Wat Phra Si Sanphet

Wat Phra Mahathat

Prayer Hall of Wihaat Mongkhon Bophit

Elephant rides on the streets of Ayuthaya

Friday, April 11, 2014

Tenzing Norgay: Man of Everest

“… For what is Everest without the eye that sees it? It is the hearts of men that make it big or small.” Tenzing Norgay in Man of Everest

Sometime in 1971, a young lad aged around ten years and his grandmother walked out of Das Studio, a premier photo gallery in Darjeeling.  The boy clutched an envelope in his hand as though his life depended on it. The duo then walked past Glenarys, Keventers, The Mount Everest Hotel and continued down to Tonga Road. They stopped in front of a modest looking house and were greeted by the shrill barking of a number of small Lhasa Apsos. The door opened and my grandmother said “Tenzing, can you please autograph this, my grandson is a great admirer of yours.” I gazed spellbound as the great man signed his name with a flourish  and then asked us in for tea.  More than forty years later that postcard is still with me today – a cherished possession!

The year 2014 marks the birth centenary of Tenzing Norgay and in all likelihood will pass unnoticed.

It is generally believed that Tenzing was born in Nepal in a village called Thami, a stone’s throw away from the Sherpa capital, Namche Bazaar. In fact, he was born in 1914 in Tibet on a grazing alp called Ghang La, surrounded by emerald lakes and high peaks. Tenzing was the eleventh child out of fourteen of his mother Kinzom. His father Mingma was a yak herdsman and Tenzing spent his early years grazing yaks in the Kharta valley with the shadow of Everest looming above him. Many years later in Darjeeling, Tenzing named his house “Ghang La” after the alp where he was born. Sadly, his father Mingma lost all his yaks in an epidemic and with no work to be had in Tibet, the young Tenzing was sent to Nepal.

Around forty five miles west of the Kharta valley, lies the high and glaciated pass of Nangpa La (18,750 ft) which was a trade route between Tibet and the Khumbu in Nepal. This was the pass which Tenzing crossed, when as a young boy he came to work for a sherpa family in the Khumbu.  However, Tenzing had set his sights on being a climbing sherpa and realized that he needed to get away to Darjeeling – the base for all expeditions. He also fell in love with Dawa Phuti who belonged to a wealthy family in Thami.  Dawa’s parents were against the match and so the two of them accompanied by some other sherpa friends eloped to Darjeeling around 1932. 

After the tragic disappearance of Mallory and Irvine on Everest in 1924, the British did not attempt the mountain for several years.  In 1933 they returned to Darjeeling to select sherpas for the expedition led by Hugh Ruttledge. Lacking experience, Tenzing climbed the steps to the Planters Club to meet the selection committee.  However, the “sahibs” dismissed him and he spent the summer tending cows in Alubari, Darjeeling

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Long Telephoto Lenses on a Budget

Many of us who are wildlife and bird photographers yearn for super fast big glass! Oh, what could we not do if we had a Nikon 600 F4 or a 400 F2.8! Sadly, the cost of these lenses are prohibitively expensive and out of reach for most of us. It is also not so easy to use these big lenses and proper technique and support are essential to get good results.
So what alternatives do we have? How do we capture that rosy pipit  in the high Himalaya with affordable equipment?

This post discusses some of the so-called "budget" telephoto prime lenses and zoom lenses which are capable of  good photographs with proper technique and reasonable light. The crop factor with DX bodies should also be considered - a  300 f4 Nikon would give 450 F4 with a DX sensor and a 500 would give a reach of 750 which is huge! However, longer the lens the more difficult becomes the photograph and eventually you need a rock steady support for the camera! The zoom lenses would be slower than the primes but would have the advantage of a single lens covering a range of focal lengths.

Sigma 150-500 F5.6-6.3 $899
The Sigma 150-500 f5.6-6.3  is possibly the most popular third party zoom for wildlife. If you visit any of India's national parks a large number of shooters will have this lens.  It is very good value for the price point, if you can manage with a 6.3 aperture at the long end! At the shorter end it becomes a 150mm F5.6 which is about at least a stop slower than the 80-200 or 70-300 range of zooms! For a review visit

Tamron 150-600 F5-6.3 $1069
The Tamron 150-600 F5-6.3 is a new lens - it is similar to the Sigma but has an extra 100mm reach on the long end.  It has similar issues as the Sigma regarding speed and possibly greater issues regarding hand holdability due to being 600 mm at the long end! With a good sturdy support this could be a match winner especially for birds!

Nikon 80-400 F4.5-5.6 VR $1995 street
The Nikon 80-400 f4.5-5.6 VR lens is often used for shooting mammals. A very popular choice in the game parks in Africa for Nikon shooters,  it has a decent zoom range. In good light it can deliver stunning results and a good beanbag  support can allow hand holding at low speeds due to VR! If you are not looking for birds at a distance this might be  a good choice. However it is definitely much more expensive than the third party zooms though is sometimes available refurbished and on sale!

Canon 100-400 f4.5-5.6L $1699
The Canon 100-400 F4.5/5.6 is similar the the Nikon above and used by Canon shooters and has similar features. For a review visit

Nikon 300 F4 AFS ED $1369 street
This is a prime Nikon 300 mm f4 lens which is capable of producing excellent quality and sharpness. Mated with a TC 1.4 converter it gives a range of 420 mm and on a DX body that would be more than 600 mm! This would be my first choice if quality was paramount and I could sacrifice the multiple focal lengths of a zoom!

Canon 300 F4L $1449
This is an extraordinary good lens from  Canon 300 f4L - it belongs to their L series of glass and produces excellent sharpness and contrast. Highly Recommended by who are usually miserly with their praise, it would be the first choice for a Canon shooter on a budget along with a 1.4 converter.

As you can see I personally prefer the primes with a tele converter to the long zooms - this is also because I usually have a lens like the 80-200 f2.8 or  70-200 F4 Nikon in my bag when shooting wildlife! On the flip side if you have one body only you need to change lenses and dong this you may often miss the shot!

Essentially you need to weight up what your needs are at a  price point which you can afford  and then make the correct decision! Good luck!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Hindu Business Line: The backbone of Everest - A Photo Essay

The Hindu Business Line March 22nd 2014

The sherpas of the Khumbu region continue to carry the weight of expectations of thousands of climbers
In the northeast corner of Nepal, bordering Tibet, lie four of the five highest mountains in the world — Everest, Makalu, Lhotse and Kangchendzonga. In the high valleys, below these mountains, lie the two districts of Solu and Khumbu, the home of the sherpas.

Ever since Nepal opened it doors to climbers in 1949, the sherpas have been the backbone of any climbing expedition, carrying huge loads, sometimes up to 50kg each, for a wage of not more than $15 per day. Many of the expedition sherpas, who are now Everest summiteers, started their lives as porters ferrying loads. Even today, most of these porters hail from the Solu-Khumbu district. Since 1949, the popularity of the region with its star-studded galaxy of high peaks, emerald lakes, icy glaciers and fast-flowing rivers has drawn tourists in droves. This influx also provided a means of employment for the villagers.

Every spring and autumn, more than 50,000 trekkers and climbers descend on the Khumbu region. A majority of them come to trek to the base camp (south) of Everest and to climb Kala Patthar, the black rock above the base camp with its splendid 360-degree view of the Khumbu Himal. Others attempt ‘trekking peaks’ like Island Peak, Lobuche East, and the most intrepid and determined attempt the Everest. There are guided climbs to Everest where a client can pay $50,000 for a place on the summit! To keep the lodges running en route and to provide food and shelter to this enormous influx of visitors, porters and yaks are used right through the season to ferry loads from the airstrip of Lukla to the base camp. Without this back-up team, no expedition can be successful.

Back to the grind: Two porters, bent over and oblivious to the stunning back the Cholatse peak, start the climb up to the Dugla memorials en route to Lobuche

The high fliers: Flights land at Lukla airstrip from Kathmandu, and the yaks take over. Expedition barrels are carried from the airstrip at 2,800m to the Everest base camp at 5,600m

By the way: A porter rests awhile near a prayer wheel of the Benkar village

Weighty matter: Surely it doesn’t get any bigger than this! A porter carries a huge suitcase for a lodge owner on the trail between Khumjung and Thyanboche monastery

Breathing easy: Exhausted, this young lad takes a short nap before resuming a punishing climb to Mong la pass.

Load shedding: Playing carrom in the Lukla sunshine on a rare afternoon off

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hiking & Mountaineering Boots

Vishnu Kumar from Thinking Particle suggested that I may like to do a post on different trekking shoes and boots and how they should be used. So here is the post!

Trekking Shoes Low Cut
If you are planning to walk on a well defined trail without  a lot of streams to cross, rivers to ford and not much likelihood of snow and rain then this is a good choice. Most of the major companies like Keen, Merrell, Lowa, Vasque make these shoes - some of them are waterproof with Goretex liners, others have proprietary liners made by  the individual companies. Many of them come with Vibram soles as well.

Trekking Boots Mid Cut 
These boots are usually mid cut at the ankle and the upper is usually a fabric-leather combination with a waterproof liner. Many of them have Vibram soles as well. The weight would be less than 3 lb a pair and typically would need minimum break in. They would be suitable for spring and autumn hikes on regular trails. The Merrell Chameleon featured here is typical of a boot of this type.

Trekking Boots  - Heavy Duty and Off Trail
These boots are typically made with all leather waterproof uppers with Goretex liners. There are some models which use a fabric-leather combination as well. They would have a higher cut at the ankle and some of them would support step in crampons.  The weight is around 3-3.5 Lb for a pair and they would require break in. For winter hikes, or off trail/rough trails with heavy loads these boots would be recommended.

Mountaineering Boots
These boots would be typically all leather with a stiff shank. They would have rigid soles and would be waterproof and would be crampon ready - weight would be around 3.5 to 4lb or more and would require break in. The La Sportiva Makalu featured here is a typical boot of this type. These boots would be worn for extended glacier and Himalayan travel.

Plastic Boots
For climbing in snow and wet conditions these plastic boots are recommended. Used extensively in the high Himalaya they are part of every high altitude mountaineer's kit. They are heavy and can fit mountaineering crampons.They also have an insulated liner for maximum warmth. Some of them like the La Sportiva Batura have a gaiter attached to the boot. These boots are expensive in the range of US $ 400 to 800 and are meant for major expedition use. Some of the best mountaineering boots are listed here -

Top 10 Hiking Boots
How To Choose Hiking Boots
Common Hiking Boot Lacing Techniques
How to maintain Hiking Boots?
Boot Fitting Guide

Note: All photographs are copyright of their respective owners 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Markha Valley Trek: Part III

Ashesh Ambasta trekked with South Col Expeditions through the Markha Valley in Ladakh in September 2013. In the final part of this three part essay, Ashesh recounts his journey through the Markha Valley. 

 For the first part of this essay please do visit

For the second part of his essay please do visit

Day 7 (10th September 2013) – Secret Lake of Kang yatse - Nimaling

It was a very cold night. Not surprisingly, woke up to find the water channels frozen and part of the lake covered with a thin icy surface layer. Leisurely breakfast of pancakes and porridge. Watched the horses being tethered and loaded in front of our mess tent. Incredible how a single man manages 8 ponies, not only in terms of loading, etc but herding them through the trail.

Began walking at 9 am. Ambled through open pastures, loads of chortens and maney walls throughout the trek.  Lots of marmots and micehare (Ladakhi pika) all along the trail. Reached Nimaling by 11 am, which is a summer pasture for the animals of Markha and Hanker. And sure enough were treated to a large flock of sheep leaving for the upper pastures, including very woolly pashmina goats with rounded horns. 

Marmot on the slopes near Nimaling
Large campsite with one permanent camp for the summer season.  Several other groups (small and large) had already set up their camp by the time we arrived while two other groups arrived after us. Many of our party took advantage of the sun and caught a quick nap. But a partially clouded sky and cold winds forced us into the mess tent. Lunch of rice, chhole dal and two vegetable dishes.

Three of the party then decided to climb and explore the slope leading to, what we thought was, the Kangyatse base. Stiff climb of about a 100 m before it evened out to open pastures, the scrubs turning orange and brown; shades of autumn already . Saw herds of yaks in the far distance. The south face of Kang yatse was closer, rising loftily into the clouds. We realised that our secret desire of making it to the base camp was unrealistic, given that sunset was imminent. Stamped our feet in frustration – should have started earlier instead of hanging around camp. Perhaps the bigger mistake was not to have taken the upper slopes from our lakeside camp, via the Kang yatse basecamp to Nimaling.

The pastureland below the peak of Kangyatse above the meadows of Nimaling

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Markha Valley Trek Part II

Ashesh Ambasta trekked with South Col Expeditions through the Markha Valley in Ladakh in September 2013. In the second part of this three part essay, Ashesh recounts his journey through the Markha Valley. 

 For the first part of this essay please do visit

Day 4 (7th September 2013) – Skiu  - Markha

After a breakfast of omelettes and muesli, hit the trail by 8 am. First sighting of the lone ranger from Barcelona on this stretch, who was with us until Hankar. Steady climb, on a narrow trail for a while before flattening, until we reached a tea house at Pendse .  Used to be a proper eco resort until it was washed away by the floods in 2010.  Only the main building left, which offers refreshments and sells handicrafts made by the Ladakh Women’s Alliance Group.  Back on the trail for several hours, down to the river, crossed a two-logged bridge (the ponies waded through the water), moderate climb to a shady glade where we take a short halt. Soon after, cross Humarge village and after an hour so reach Sera village by 1 pm where we stop for lunch at the tea house.
The sun had been beating down on us relentless throughout the trek from a brilliant clear blue sky. The first thing we did was to remove our shoes and hang the socks to dry. Washed our feet and faces with the deliciously cold water from the hand pump before tucking into our lunch. The tea house was stocked with assorted cold drinks and toilet paper rolls (for sale). It also had waste segregation bins. A signage by Exodus Travels informed us that every year 15,000 plastic bottles of water sold. Their objective is to reduce plastic waste by setting up water purifying units.
After an hour’s break, set off again. What had, until now, been a narrow gorge, now opened out into a wide river valley. Long trudge, which went on endlessly, or so it seemed, due to the heat and the extreme discomfort caused by the rock/stone strewn, rough trail.  A short climb to a pass with prayer flags and a fascinating assemblage of yak horns and prayer stones. A rapid descent to the river and then the first river crossing through ice cold water! Back on the trail, thinking we were finally on the home-stretch. But obviously a wide gulf separates Tenzing’s notion of distance and time from ours because it went on interminably like the proverbial last mile. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Markha Valley Trek - Part I

Ashesh Ambasta trekked with South Col Expeditions through the Markha Valley in Ladakh in September 2013. In this three part essay, Ashesh recounts his journey through this wild and desolate landscape. A very enjoyable account which gives an insight into the daily travails on a South Col trek!

Chronicles of the Markhian Voyagers (MV)
Crew: Ashesh Ambasta, Dipan Bhattacharya, Hanif Barma, Kanika Pal, Kankana Das, Sujoy Das, Tenzing (guide cum cook), Pema (Assistant to Tenzing), Ongchuk ( Helper) and Jigmet (ponyman and his six ponies)

Day 1 (4th September 2013) - Leh

The view of the Indus just before landing at Leh
Dipan takes the early morning flight to Leh to catch the sunrise over the mountains as he’s flying in. Lands and catches up on sleep thereafter.
Hanif, Kanika and Ashesh land by 10 am and are received by Sujoy and driven to the hotel where they are joined by Dipan looking refreshed and ready-to-go. So, the whole team, bar one, is together for the first time (Kankana is somewhere in the vastness of Ladakh, having smartly given herself extra crucial days to acclimatize to the high altitude). Nice; no awkwardness or discomfort amongst us from the word go. We sip tea and exchange notes with a group which had been sent back by the army half way from Nubra because of heavy snowfall. Snow on their vehicle bore testimony to their tale.
Thereafter, Hanif and Kanika retire to their respective rooms for a snooze (Hanif’s first of many, as we were to realise later!).
Sujoy leaves for the market to make arrangements for our trip. Ashesh buttonholes Dipan to give him a crash course on photography, which lasts until lunch time - appreciate his forbearance, which was in evidence throughout the trip.  Hanif and Kanika still lost to the world, deep in their dreams.
Sujoy, Dipan and Ashesh trot off for lunch at Tibetan Kitchen, an eating place frequented by the locals.  Quaint place with atmosphere and great food – the mutton momos and the talumein soup were outstanding.  Highly recommended restaurant. 
Leisurely evening tea on the terrace in the hotel. Climbed up on the half-finished roof for shoots. Dipan was after birds, magpies I think (who, according to the cognoscenti amongst us, were always to be found in pairs; I always found them alone). Ashesh valiantly trying to practice the photography lessons of the morning but evidently with little success! Hanif finally surfaced and has toast and tea for lunch. Sujoy finally returned from the errand connected to our trip. 
Dinner by the MVs at Dreamland. The sixth member of the group, Kankana, continued to remain outside communication range. Captain mulls if a search party is warranted yet. Great food here too.
Back to the hotel for the first night in Leh. Sleep for all; not for Hanif, poor man – Auditory Assaults of the Worst Kind was the title of his nightmare. 


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