Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Prayer Time

Monday, September 28, 2009

Kashmiri Eyes

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Birds of Kashmir

Monday, September 21, 2009

Dal Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir

The cleanliness of the water was the first thing I noticed – maybe because we came from Delhi which, at least in the parts we walked through, managed to win over Cairo in the competition for the filthiest place I’ve visited (don’t get me wrong, I still loved Delhi – the filth is just a part of the character). The water of the Dal Lake is dark and it’s hard to judge its depth but the thick underwater grass and the small fish which make it it’s habitat were clearly visible under our Shikara, the small wooden boat used for transport between the mainland and more than a thousand houseboats located on the lake.

Dal was the first part of the Kashmir Valley we’ve seen and if the rest of it is even close in beauty then this place truly is a paradise. The lake and its surroundings we’re astonishing even on a hazy and hot day that we arrived on. The calm surface reflected hundreds of houseboats lined up around its coast and around many small islands. Spread out between the boats are the water lilies, with bright yellow flowers reaching up from the green spherical carpet and small drops of water shining like diamonds on the wide leafs. Up in the air, scanning the space below the surface are several species of birds including eagles and kingfishers and surrounding it all to the East and to the North – rising up like the giant barrier hiding this beautiful valley from the rest of the world - the mighty Himalayas.

The lake is also famous for it’s floating vegetable gardens; cucumbers, pumpkins and other vegetables are grown on the floating vegetable patches and farmed with the use of small boats. One morning we woke up before sunrise to experience the famous vegetable market. It happens every morning at sunrise when growers, wholesalers and villagers meet up in the middle of the lake and the frenzied transactions go on for about an hour. The goods and money change hands (and boats) and the crowd disperse again through little canals between houseboats and lily and lotus patches.

Dal Lake seems to be the world on its own – separate from the polluted, noisy and explosive (read previous post) Srinagar.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Explosive welcome to Kashmir

It took me a few moments to realize that the sound which disrupted our peaceful and tranquil Shikara ride on the Dal Lake was a loud blast. We turned around and saw a thick cloud rising in the air somewhere beyond the west shore of the lake, just over a mile away from us. The smoke flew up quickly and dispersed into the late evening air in the short time in which I managed to release the shutter of my camera only several times. The two locals in our company, boatman and a guide, reacted to it like it was a only a minor disturbance, like when you here somebody shouting and you turn to see what is happening or when you hear screeching of the car brakes on the busy intersection and it catches your attention, but only for a moment. Nothing too unusual in this Eden.

As I’m writing this few hours later, on a beautiful and fresh Kashmir night, sitting on the back of a wooden houseboat straight from the colonial days, I am still not sure if the blast really was another bomb attack by militants or was it (improbable) random explosion in the heart of the old city. Last attack in the area was only two weeks ago. Kashmir has been a disputed region between Pakistan and India since The Partition in 1947 and thousands of people have died since on both sides of the conflict.

The relations between two groups were getting tenser recently and the increase in security was apparent from the moment we arrived at the Srinagar International Airport. The heavily armed soldiers were visible from the moment we walked through the aircraft door. Even though it was a domestic flight there were several additional forms to fill out and security checks on the way out of the airport but none of them too efficient since in all the frenzy with several flights arriving at the same time on this quite small airport I managed walk right out without anybody checking my forms. I did eventually realized my mistake and went back into the airport building to find a person who was supposed to check who is coming into the province.

On the road from the airport to the lake we witnessed the significance that Indian government puts on this conflict and the acclimatization of local people to the military presence in their hometown. The number of military vehicles was equal to that of civilian cars, mopeds and taxis and at least through the window of our cab the Hindu soldiers and the Muslim citizens seemed to have found a way to coexist together. Little did any of us know that only moments after the afternoon call to prayer in the mosques an ugly plot will culminate in a detonation we observed.

We continued our tour of the Dal lake, it’s beautiful patches of Water Lilies, floating gardens and Lotus flowers. The life in Srinagar continues as normal and relishing in the beauty of its surroundings cannot be disrupted by a bomb blast.

Still didn’t have a chance to post this but in the meantime we found out that the blast was a car bomb – first one in two years – aimed at the police bus coming out of the jail building. It managed to kill four people and injure more than a dozen.
I wonder how do Pakistani’s think (they figured it was a Pakistani national who was behind it) that this would help their cause – do they really think that India will pull 600,000 troops they keep in the region because of an act like this?

Friday, September 11, 2009

First contact with planet India

You don’t need to book a special tour to see the essence of India; it hits you right in the face as soon as you leave the airport. It’s everywhere and it’s overwhelming to ones senses. My eyes marvel at the incredible sights around me as we drive into the city. Each face I see shines with character, with a story to tell. The behavior of locals sometimes causes shock and sometimes amuse in disbelief. Men are urinating on the walls right next to the road, barbers are carrying out their trade on the sidewalks, chicken are being slaughtered right there on the street in front of the restaurant where it’s going to be served in a tasty medley of spices.

While the eyes enjoy this feast of colors, both visual and that of many characters of Delhi, the ears are tortured by a noisy symphony of Indian traffic. The horn on the moped or a car seems to play the most important part of the transport. For a driver in Delhi, losing the ability to warn everybody of his coming with constant honking would probably be more of an issue than a flat tire. The rules of the road do not seem to exist and I held my breath while our bicycle rickshaw driver crossed 6 lanes of speeding traffic to make a right turn and everybody on the road just synched with him and fell back into their flow like there was no interruption at all.

My sense of smell alternates between the two extremes – the smell of freshly baked bread and Indian spices is often rudely interrupted by the smell of urine and then, a few steps further down the street I walk into a cloud of strong incense bringing yet another pungent aroma to my nostrils.

All that in just the first few hours and eight months to go!

Delhi seems like an incredible place, far from beautiful but enchanting in it’s own special way. It will have to wait for a more thorough examination though – we weren’t even supposed to be here right now but because of the airline pilots strike we couldn’t make it to our connecting flight. We only spent one rainy afternoon strolling around the city but we’ll be back. We’re off to Srinagar in a few hours where our adventure was originally set to begin.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Solo travel or Organised Tour

All of the travels, including the Everest Base Camp (EBC) trek were doing on our own – “we” is my wife Carrie and I by the way. There are 2 main reasons for it. First one is money. The trekking company from the UK is charging more than £2000 per person for 18-day journey to the EBC and that is pretty much our budget for 8 months in India/Nepal. Just a quick browse through few main travel forums will reveal that finding your way up to the EBC on your own is quite easy. Getting professional and experienced mountaineers to guide you up to the summit – I’m all for it – but paying somebody to stroll beside you up the mountain is just silly.

Even if you are looking for company if you are traveling solo you can post a thread on Thorntree or any other travel forum and find a buddy who is ready to join you.

That brings me to a second reason I don’t like organized tours – you never know who else is gonna be there. Imagine spending 2 weeks walking next to some annoying tourist who complains and nags about everything. Trust me they are out there and there are many of them and they can afford £2500 for a babysitter on the trek.

At this point I have to admit that I am little biased. My tourist allergy comes from me being surrounded by them for the past 14 years – 4 years living in Niagara Falls and 9 years living on the cruise ships so I’ve seen it all – I’ve met people who traveled from New York to Bora Bora and got off the ship to buy a T shirt and went back onboard to attend the next session of bingo. Not all organized tours are full of people like that but you just never know.

I do like making new friends and hanging out with other people but I’d like to have a choice in who is it that I share my adventures with.
Tonight is the last night in the Lake District – tomorrow we’re off to London and Thursday – incredible India.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Why travel to Kashmir and Himalayas

OK, I’m aware that Kashmir is not the most recommended destination due to the political instability in the region but there is just something about it that attracted us. Here are some of the reasons:

It has the coolest name - Kashmir – it just sounds sexy

Most of the travelers who have been there loved it – especially the photographers

It won’t be crowded – there is a travel warning for the Kashmir region.

It’s cheaper than the Swiss Alps.

And final reason is that since when I was a child, browsing through my older brother’s World Atlas, the Himalayas were always a spot on the page where my eyes would stop and I would envision the snow covered peaks and Yeti (I was 5 or 6 at the time) strolling around in front of his cave.

Also, in all my travels, 6 continents and 50+ countries, the most beautiful destinations were Alaska (in the photo), Norway, Canadian Rockies and the Lake District in the UK. I can’t help it – I like the mountains, so Himalayas was a must.

I do take warnings about the region seriously but like with everything else, a bit of research and a lot of common sense go a long way. To start with we won’t be hanging around in front of the police station or a military post - that should cover most of the risk.

I remember when we were headed to South Africa few years back and people warning us to be extra careful – one warning, repeated by several South Africans, was not to rent a good car because we gonna get carjacked for sure. We ended up with a tiny Toyota and I got on the road to Capetown to find myself in a river of brand new Mercedes, BWM and Audi luxury sedans and I didn’t see a line-up of carjackers anywhere.

Now I do now that these things happen but crime happens everywhere – even in the gorgeous, squeaky clean Copenhagen, on our way from Tivoli gardens we got onto the train station to see a guy smoking a crack pipe right there on the platform – and there are parts of many big cities in the US where I wouldn’t dare walk even in the middle of the day. Anyway, we spent amazing 5 weeks in South Africa without an incident.

So with that in mind – and with plan to spend the sunsets and evenings on the terrace of our houseboat on the Dal Lake and not doing solo treks towards the Pakistani border I think we’ll be pretty safe in Srinagar. It’s the driving across the mountain passes that scares me more. You should be able to see some pictures from those roads in just over a week.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Preparations for the trip part 1 – Indian Visa

Like any smart man should do I’m leaving most of the details of preparation to my wife. I figured that if I was organizing the trip I’d end up forgetting all the things that one might find necessary when traveling in some of the coldest and highest places in the world. She’s got the itinerary planned, marked in notebook and iCal, tickets are booked, travel insurance and visas sorted out and last week she took me to get vaccinated against all the bugs we might encounter out there in the third world.

First thing on the list: the necessary paperwork. Getting the Indian Visa is a good introduction to the bureaucratic machine that apparently awaits us. It started of pretty easy, I googled “India Visa” and the first link was which turned out to be the company that was chosen by Indian embassy to handle all visa applications.

We followed the easy enough instructions, filled out the forms and got the photos ready. Since we had to redo the form here are few tips for you: The referrals in your own country cannot be people who live on the same address – don’t know why but they made us change that. You will need a referral (where are you staying) in India which is sort of useless when a large number of travelers are backpackers who are going on their own and traveling through 20 different places just like we’re planning to do so I googled the Yoga Centre where we’re planning to visit in March next year and put their address on there and it was accepted. Funny enough one line in the address was “near the taxi stand” – incredible India.

Since we’re planning to stay in the region for 8 months we applied for the 12 month tourist visa using one of the options on the VF website. It was only £15 more. Also we were applying for the visa with Canadian passports in the UK and the website informed us that it would take 10 days extra for processing so we decided to deliver the passports to the nearest VF office to speed up the procedure.

The office in Manchester involves two desks in a warehouse like setting, two friendly young people and no computers. After we sorted out the reference issues (see above) we were told that we couldn’t apply for the 12-month visa!! The VF website didn’t say anything about this and they accepted our payment for the 12-month visa but now we were being told by a friendly young fellow behind a desk with no computer in an empty warehouse-like setting that we could only apply for the 6 month visa as the first timers. To add to the confusion, a traveler who was also in the office at the time showed us his passport which had a 12 month visa and he said he got the 12 month permit as his first visa. So we left our passports there, with the 12 month application, hoping for the best.

Approximately 2 weeks later we received our passports back with…you guessed right…6 month visa only….and to make matters worse – the visa is valid from the date of issue which is a month before our departure date!

Here comes my “what grinds my gears” moment. You are not supposed to book your tickets before you get your visa and your visa is valid from the date of issue. If you ever booked flights you know they get more expensive closer to the date so if you want to book your tickets a month in advance and save some money you are wasting a month of your visa.

The lack of common sense at high levels of government always fascinates me – are they doing it on purpose or are they really that daft?

Anyway – we have the visas that will expire 5 months into our 8-month trip so the plan is to waste a big chunk of our budget and head to Katmandu in January and reapply for a visa there in the Indian consulate. Apparently that is a questionable task in its own but more update on that later.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Semi adventure on the almost top of the world

From this point on, DarkoRoom will take a slight turn from Travel Photography blog to Travel & Photography blog which depicts a journey of discovery, both inner one and that of a place wherever we might end up. The journey, this time around, leads to India and Nepal and the inner part of the voyage began weeks ago with me calming myself down in the office of the Indian Bureaucratic Irritation Machine but more on that later.

So here is the brief breakdown of the “travel plan”: we’re heading out of London on September 10 and flying into Srinagar via Delhi on September 11. For those of you not familiar with the region: Srinagar is Kashmir, which is northern part of India, which is on the border with Pakistan. There is a bit of a political situation in the region but I won’t go into that. If you have a favorite news website you can look it up and if I figure out what is really happening there I’ll make sure I announce it here on the blog.

From Srinagar we’re heading into Himalayas and some cool (feel free to use either fashionable or temperature meaning of the word) places to visit on Indian side of the mountains; Ladakh and Darjeeling being some of them. In Nepal we’re headed up the famous and apparently very busy trek towards the Everest Base Camp. When winter arrives (I was surprised to hear that winter ever leaves these places) we’ll be heading south to relax on the beach. More detailed plot will appear eventually on these pages.

Today’s photo was taken on the warm-up hike in the Lake District. This was taken about a week or so ago since it’s been raining every single day this week and we didn’t go out much. I know what you’re thinking – we should have been hiking in the rain to prepare ourselves for months of trekking which await and what if it rains on the Everest trek. Well then I won’t have the option of staying in a warm home so I’ll have to deal with it. Anyways, the view is of Crinkle Crags from our hike to the Pike of Blisco.

The adventure begins in one week and in the next few post I’ll go through the details of preparations for the trip so if you are planning to go to Kashmir, Himalayas, Nepal or India or wherever – come into the DarkoRoom

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Photo tip from Tuscany

I spent majority of my time in the last few weeks going through my hard drives and sorting through thousands of pictures I took in the last five years. I never sorted through them before because i was always traveling and taking some more which created quite a backlog.

Looking at some of my old photos I came up with a great tip for beginners which I could have used when I was in Tuscany back in 2005. If your camera has that capability ALWAYS SHOOT IN RAW.

Tuscany is one of the most beautiful places in the world and i was fortunate enough to have my first DSLR with me which was the original Rebel but all of the shots I took are JPGs. Now there are quite a few nice ones but there are a few that could have used some exposure adjustment and fixing in the post production - sunny day and narrow streets will create some difficulties with bright sky and dark shadows on the street.

So if your image does need some adjusting - if you have the RAW file you will have much better chance of fixing up some of those issues (up to a point) than working with a JPG file. In theory - you can move up to 4 stops up or down if you need to - but if you underexposed your shot by 4 stops you have a whole different problem.

So here is an example and here is how I manage to "improve" it:

I took the original image into Camera Raw or Lightroom - and by the way you can open JPGs in the Camera Raw through Adobe Bridge - and made 5 copies of it - on 2 I lowered the exposure by -2/3 and -1 1/3, the other 2 the exposure was increased by 2/3 and 1 1/3.

Load up those 5 images into some HDR software and the miracle happens - after few tweaks the detail in the shadows is back and the sky is darker (not so much in this cloudy day image).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Parthenon experience

We ended our visit to Greece this past July with a stop in Athens and a mandatory visit to Parthenon. ON a different day it might look impressive but we were surrounded by thousands of cruise ship tourists on tour and the Parthenon itself was covered in scaffolding - it looked more like a construction site than an ancient temple.

Anyways, I managed to catch a couple of moments where there was no tourists in my way and here is one of them.

For more shots from Greece trip check out the Greece gallery on my site.