Friday, February 29, 2008


First and foremost, for those who're born today, a very special Happy Birthday to you!
I mean, you only get to hear this like once every 4 years, it's gotta be special right?!

So enjoy the day!!

Well, one thing I can't enjoy as a Singaporean is the 4 seasons of the year. They say in Singapore, you only have 3 seasons - hot, hotter, hottest!! This makes an excellent excuse to travel, yah? Well, almost. I really wish to experience the changing of the seasons in a year - as in, experiencing the full cycle of nature's transformations in a country. Sure, there are practical realities of life in the 4 seasons, from the summer flies to shoveling of snow outside your house. But still, I wish....

In the meantime, as I've mentioned in one of my previous posts, the right season at the right places could really make a difference between a good trip and a fantastic trip! So, here's a recommendation of 4 seasons in 4 different countries :

Spring in Western Australia, where the wildflowers bloom, and the air is fresh and young!

Summer on the Mongolian steppes, where the expanse of sky and land merges, and the horses and your spirit run free!

Autumn in Xinjiang China, where pretty villages pass through time untouched

Winter in Hokkaido Japan, where the cold bites you, but the scenaries warm your heart and soul

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Winter in Hokkaido

I love winter. ;)
And especially so in Hokkaido! Cold.... extremely cold, but oh, so beautiful! I remember as I went through the customs check at Narita airport in Tokyo, and the officer asked where I will be heading. I say Hokkaido, and he raised his eyebrow, and said "Very cold there. You know?" I said I know :)

Well, besides being breathtakingly beautiful (and breathtaking cold), there are some festivals worth visiting in winter in Hokkaido. Most famous is its Sapporo Snow and Ice Festival. Most people might have heard of the more famous Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin China. This is something similar, where beautiful ice and snow sculptures and being displayed. Competitions are also being held, where international sculptors would come down to literally "carve out a name" for themselves :)

While Sapporo has several locations which have these sculptures on display, the festival is actually being celebrated in other parts of Hokkaido as well. Cities like Asahikawa and even onsen resorts like Sounkyo also have their versions of the sculpture display. Just goto any tourist information counter and you should be able to find out all the various celebrations around Hokkaido. And when night falls, and the lights go up, it's really pretty everywhere!

Besides the Snow and Ice Festival, there is another beautiful and romantic festival, held only in Otaru. The Otaru Yuki-akari-no-michi (Snow Light Path) Festival. Here, candles will be lighted in ice casings/chalices and placed along the streets as well as the famous Otaru Canal. Mini lighted "boats" (not sure if they're paper) will also be placed in the canal. At night, it is really really pretty! So remember to bring your tripods! Protect yourself adeqately, and you'll really enjoy the place and enjoy your photography!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

People. Faces.

Travel portraits are hard. I don't feel comfortable sticking cameras into people's faces. Yet I love capturing expressions, features, feelings. Faces that tell stories of a era past, faces that exude carefree abandon of distant future. So, it's about balancing what I like, and what I want.

There are a couple of strategies in taking people shots when traveling :

  • Talk to your subjects. Spend some time around them. I think it's human nature that once a person determines that you are a harmless dolt, they will be more natural in their behavior and more receptive of being photographed. I think this is the best method, although in some cases, it may not be practical.
  • Ask! Conquer the fear of asking. I know, it's hard, as I've faced this countless times. Whether isit a language barrier, or your potential subject looks like your enemy, usually all it takes is a simple question or gesture. Surprisingly, most people will obliged, although sometimes, you do get an unnatural, uncomfortable or awkward pose and subject.
  • Some subjects will ask for money to be photographed. If I encounter such a situation, I will usually walk away because I feel this is not a right practise and I do not want to encourage it.
  • Use a telephoto lens and shoot from afar. This may seem voyeuristic but it does give good candids. To make it feel less voyeuristic, I usually hang around the area so that the subject knows about my presence. This is probably the most convenient method to get people shots.
At the end of the day, everyone will have to find their own comfortable way to get their own people shots when they travel. For me, I placed a little more emphasis on people's feelings and reactions, so sometimes I do miss out some shots which I would have loved. But I it's something I will live with. YMMV.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Winter in Kashmir

Kashmir, one of the regions in the Jammu & Kashmir state in northern India is a beautiful place for trekking, with scenic lakes and mountains. In winter, it boasts a well known ski resort too. However, dogged by internal (and external) disputes and terrorism, tourism is relatively slow.

Nevertheless, if the opportunity arises, there's plenty to see and do. In summer, trekking is the thing to do, with spectacular Himalayan sceneries to accompany you. There are also the royal gardens to visit, reputed to be colourful and mermerizing. Well, I didn't get to see it because I visited Kashmir in winter, and the gardens are, well, alittle dry.

Still, winter in Kashmir presented its own charms. As mentioned, there is a ski resort in Gulmarg. Whats cool, you get to ski with the Himalayas as your backdrop! Or you could just do some simple sledding, or just take in the winter view!
The journey up the mountain is interesting in itself. The road at certain parts are challenging, and at one of the corners on the mountain road, traffic was held up because the bus on the opposite direction got stuck in the ice/snow slush! Also, the local Kashmiris would all clamour up the bus and take a free ride up the mountain on the bus top! Once on the top, they will jump down and offer their services, typically sled pulling!

Of course, the top draw in Kashmir, whether in winter or summer, is a visit to the lakes and their houseboats. These houseboats are a legacy of the British, and is now a major tourist attraction. You get to stay in a beautifully decorated houseboat, complete with a cook and butler. In winter, the landscape is grey and misty but has its own charm, and I'm sure in summer, it's spectacular. Access to these houseboats are via shikharas, a small boat that can sit 2-4 persons. The lake sightseeing are also done on these shikharas, and merchants on shikharas would row towards you and offer their wares. Bargain hard though!

Do note though, security is really tight in this region. We flew into Srinigar airport from New Delhi, and we had to go through like 4 security checks! On our way back, the airport declared that no batteries are allowed on the plane, and had to be checked-in!! The view of the Himalayas on the flight is really one of the most spectacular, and luckily, I somehow managed to find a battery on my compact... ;)

I hope the political situation improves over there. Kashmir is really a beautiful place not to be missed!

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Chinese New Year!

The Chinese/Lunar New Year is another festival worth coming out for, esp for photoshoots. For foreign visitors to Singapore, I would think the best time to capture the festivities and mood is the week (or few days) prior to the first day of the New Year. This is the period where we are out busy preparing for the New Year, and the streets will be filled with New Year goodies and merchandise. The main area where the mood is most prevalent would be Chinatown.

The lanes in Chinatown will come alive in the evening, where the makeshift stalls will be setup, and families will throng the streets.
Besides shopping, there will also be traditional performances as well. These are favourites for old and young alike (Though for the opera shows, the older folks will appreciate more).

This year, Chinatown has an additional "attraction" : the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. The temple has its fair share of news about its relic in its premises but I will not comment further on that. However, its architecture, and its decor and light up during the Chinese New Year period is worth checking out. Once into the New Year though, locals will be visiting relatives and friends, so tourists will find the streets quieter (especially the first day), unless you have a local friend to visit. In any case, here wishing all readers a Happy Lunar New Year!

Gong Xi Fa Cai!