Tag Archives: Fuji

Days 10, 11, 12 and 13: End of India, Khajuraho and Varanasi!

I’ve fallen a bit behind on my posts so the next couple will be extra long, in an effort to catch-up to my travels!

We had left our brave adventurers (us) in Agra, on our way to Varanasi. We gathered our belongings, waved farewell to the shitty purple orchid Hotel and headed to our train. When we got to the station we had to say goodbye to Kuldeep. He’d been a great driver and I didn’t realise at the time how lucky we were to have met him. We said our farewells (after the mandatory tip) and boarded on our first class train to Khajuraho.

This was the best train experience we had, a first class cabin just for us 2. We could nap through the 8 hour train ride and someone even ran to the station to get us our lunch! Travelling in style.

When we arrived at Khajuraho it was dark and we headed straight to the hotel. This was the best hotel we stayed in during our stay in India, Harmony Hotel, if you’re looking to stay in Khajuraho, this is a great mid range hotel to stay in.

We booked a tuk-tuk for the next day to take us to the temples and we had dinner under the mosquito lamps. We went to bed early and got ready for another day of exploring.

Khajuraho is a great place for a chilled day of sight-seeing. All the temples are easily accessible by tuk-tuk and you can just walk around and see sculptures of voluptuos women and flexible men doing fun things to each other. We had lunch and good espresso at the Raja Cafe, saw the waterfall (not worth it) and then went to see the light and sound show. You can skip the show, unless you want to laugh at some very bad over-the-top voice acting.

We had a train to catch that night so we spent some time lounging in the hotel and then went to the station again. This time we travelled in third class with air conditioning and the experience was very different! We were in a coach with no curtains, stacked three bunks high. I couldn’t clamber in to my middle bunk so I switched places with an Indian girl and climbed in to the top bunk. I wasn’t too sure the chains would hold my sleeping mass so I felt good being the eventual squasher and not the squashed.

We arrived at Varanasi after little sleep and went to the ticket counter to get our tickets to Gorakpur and the Indian border. We ended up spending 2 hours there as there was a change of shift and the new worker had a rather loud disagreement with the lady that was working the morning shift about how she did paperwork… At least that’s what I gathered from 40 minutes of shouting in Hindi and pointing at ledgers and receipts.

We eventually got through that and went looking for our driver, who had left. We were intercepted by a very stoned looking guy that told us to wait there, he’d call the driver to take us to the hotel. This set the tone for our experience with the bunch of dodgy people that operate from the Varanasi Villa Hotel.

We had seen that this hotel was really far away from town and we had tried to change the booking but our travel agent assured us we would have a driver all day long for both days. I turns out there are 2 drivers that work with the hotel but they are shared with all the guests. Everything with this place was not quite what they told you it would be.

For starters the location on Google maps is false. It’s a lot further away from the town, in the middle of a field, you have to walk down a dirt path alley to get to it and there’s no way to leave unless someone comes to pick you up. Once we’d dropped off our bags, we were shepperded to a restaurant which was un by the same group of people. The food was OK but they did try to push the beers a bit too much, which I guess is where they make their real profit.

After dinner, our driver wanted to drop us off at the hotel but we told him we wanted to go in to town so he left and sent the other driver to take us. I had wanted to just wander around the ghats and see some Indian life but that was not to be. We were once again accompanied to see “the ceremony” which is 4 monks doing the evening prayer/blessing to the ganges. It was nice but very crowded and there seemed to be more tourists than locals.

I had hoped to have some free time after the show but alas all my hopes seemed to be shattering that day as we were taken back to the car through the swells of people and traffic and deposited at the hotel for an early night as we had a sunrise boat tour the next day.

Our alarm went off at 5 am and we crawled out of bed to go see the magical Ganges! We were grouped up with 2 other German tourists that were staying at the hotel and taken to the river. The driver offered us tea but we politely declined as we had spent the last 15 minutes talking about the German’s friend who had really bad food poisoning and was being violently sick. We decided to play it safe.

The river tour was a bit of a letdown. We were 12 tourists (many of whom we recognised from last night’s restaurant) taken up and down the river with little ceremony or explanation. It was ok at times but nothing too great. Kind of a perfect metaphor for our time in Varanasi.

We had breakfast at the hotel and after a nap met a Mexican guy who had been also roped into staying at that hotel. He had strangely enough been booked by the same travel agent we had in Delhi. We went to lunch with him to a nice but not too expensive restaurant. We had to insist to our driver not to take us again to that other place. Then we made him take us to Sarnat.

Sarnat is where Buddha first preached his teachings and there are some nice temples and relics. The museum is especially worth it. We had a train to catch that night so we headed back to the hotel and picked up some food along the way.

Our next adventure takes us across the border into Nepal and on to Lumbini, birthplace of Buddha!

Iran – Top 5 places I saw – Hardest list I’ve had to make

I’ve tried to cut the number down to 5 to keep the article size manageable but there is so much more to see in Iran. I might have to make a part 2 🙂

In no particular order, here are the top 5 places I went to during my stay in Iran:

Yazd

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Yazd is a 5000 year old city of just over 1 million people that is located in the middle of Iran. It is a fascinating and beautiful city, famous for its confectionery, gardens and very strenuous strength training techniques. I loved to wander around the city’s bazaar and all the little winding streets.

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I spent a while just sitting in a park watching kids play football. At first they were a bit shy but after a while their natural curiosity took over.  These 2 walked away with a print of their picture. 🙂

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I also loved the Dowlat Abad gardens. The engineering required to channel water from the far mountains into the city is amazing. Small qanats (channels) were dug by hand  by men who wore white shrouds in case they were buried alive. I’m struck by a mixture of awe and terror at the work they did.

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Isfahan

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Isfahan is a city in which I wish I’d spent more time. It is a city of around 2 million people and is home to the Naghsh-e Jahan Square which is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The square with the mosques, bazaar and palace that surround it are enough to spend at least a day or two visiting.

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Once you have seen that, you have barely scratched the surface of the city. One highly recommended place to see is the Khaju Bridge. Local people gather under this bridge at sunset to sing and relax after the day’s work. I would highly recommend it.

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If you want to see something a little less typical, you can head to one of the city’s many pigeon towers. Pigeon guano used to be a very important source of fertiliser for the fields around Isfahan. The importance of the pigeons has decreased but some of the towers are still open and have been restored to their full glory. Worth a trip.

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Shiraz

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Ah, Shiraz, I will admit this is my favourite place in Iran and I don’t really know why. It has a certain vibe that makes me feel right at home as well as some pretty stunning architecture.

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This is the city where you can spend an evening in a coffee shop talking to the singer of an Iranian heavy metal band. It’s a place where the police ask if you need help finding your hotel and end up having a bite of your meal because you insist it’s really good.

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I feel like they are the Spaniards of Iran and that is one of the highest compliments I can give them.

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Persepolis

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Persepolis, home of Cyrus the great and Xerxes, this was probably the highlight of my trip. I have always loved the tales and stories of ancient greece. To think I was standing in the same spot where Xerxes probably planned the attack on greece.

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I walked around the site flabbergasted, having a hard tome taking it all in. It was also empty of other tourists which still amazes me to this day.

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And then when the sun was setting I was in the right place and I think I had a little nerdgasm.

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The Desert

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The city of Yazd is somewhat remote and you can go out and spend a night at one of the old caravanserais. These were the small forts where the caravans would stop to spend the night, water the camels and try to sell some of their wares.

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The setting is beautiful but what is stunning is the night sky out in the desert. Even with clouds it takes my breath away!

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Iran, things are going to change

Since I travelled to Iran last year, a lot of things have changed in the US-Iran relationship. As of the 17th January the US and EU have officially lifted oil sanctions on Iran. This has prompted a whole host of other nations to begin the process of lifting the sanctions as well.

This will have a huge impact on Iran and its economy. Iran has a population of 80 million people which are highly educated and ready to grow. It has a good infrastructure, a stable government and loads of oil. Oil may not be the great commodity it once was but it’s still worth quite a bit of cash and not something that we’ll stop needing any time soon.

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On the other hand, travelling to Iran now is much more inconvenient as the US has decided all those with dual Iranians citizenship, as well as people that have visited Iran since 2011, can no longer travel to the US under the visa waiver program. This has the perverse effect that travel to Iran for an EU businessman now has the negative cost of having to get visas to travel to the US. It is yet to be seen whether this will  also be put into effect by the EU but as things stand, the Iranian market is a lot more open for US businessmen than for the EU. It is also a deterrent for journalists, tourists, volunteers, etc. but that’s another story.

I am generally delighted that the wonderful people of Iran are going to be able to have a better life now. I hope that the opening up of their economy will increase their quality of life. I am a little bit sad in a selfish way as I fear that this marks the beginning of the end of the Iran I saw.

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Iran has the feeling of a place hidden away in time, where everyone is open and welcoming and the foreigner is seen as an exciting opportunity for exchanging knowledge. I dread to think of the main square of Isfahan taken over by droves of tourists, forcing the men playing volleyball to stop their game and take it elsewhere. I shudder at the thought of tourists jostling to get a selfie in front of the “Down with USA” sign.

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I am sure that this will not happen overnight but I feel it is coming, On the one hand this will allow the amazing people of Iran to make money and with that increase their quality of life. On the other hand, it will make it a lot harder to simply spend an hour sitting in a carpet shop talking about Ibiza and how George Michael is a lesbian.

None of this please!
None of this please!

I am happy for them and sad for me is probably the best way I can describe it.

 

Iran – It’s where it’s at! – 5 reasons to go to Iran now!

Iran is without a doubt the best travel destination for 2016. I say that with 0 doubts. If you want to visit a country that has 2 thousand years of history; incredible architecture; a warm, hospitable, friendly people and small amounts of tourists, then Iran is the place for you.

I have been struggling to write this blog post as I came back overwhelmed with how great a travel experience I had. I previously wrote about how overwhelming the one-sided discourse of the media regarding Iran can be. I thought I had kept a healthy scepticism. I did not believe that things there were as bad as the media would lead me to believe, yet I still felt I was going to come face to face with a generally repressive, closed society. I could not have been more mistaken.

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The people of Iran are open and welcoming to a fault. Everywhere I went I was greeted with a smile and genuine curiosity as to my opinion. I discussed subjects I did not think would be easy to bring up and though I did not always agree with everyone, I found that I learned with every interaction I had. I never had any problems wandering around or taking pictures and was often a little embarrassed at the lengths that complete strangers would go to to make me feel at home.

It was a strange feeling sometimes to have to stop and remind yourself that you were in Iran. I think the most profound moments during the trip were those in which you looked around and realised that the surrounding could be confused with part of Madrid or Paris or London. It was shocking to stop and think how impossible you thought a scene like this would be inside Iran.

As I think you need to get there ASAP, I’m going to try to give you 5 reasons you need to go to Iran and end with a recommendation of a great way to get there.

1. The architecture

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Iran has been a great local power for the last 2500 years and this can be seen in the magnificence of its architecture. Another of the shocking things about Iranian monuments is the fact that they are so well preserved and still in use. Many of the great mosques we visited were still used mainly as places of worship with a few tourists meandering about between prayers. It made you feel more in awe as the buildings came to life with their true purpose. They were not museum pieces, they were living parts of the community.

Iranian architecture has also embraced the modern and Tehran is full of modern bridges and monuments that rival anything I have seen elsewhere.

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2. The people

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My good friend David Harden said: “The beauty of the Iranian people is the absolute lack of suspicion in their eyes.” I think this is the best way you can describe my experience of them. They are amongst the most open, welcoming and kind people I have met.

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They will also make you love tea. And sugar. Mostly sugar.

3. The desert

20151029-DSCF4272The desert is intricately tied to the history of Iran. The silk road ran through this country and it is possible to spend night in reformed caravanserais, pit stops for the old caravans taking spices and silk to the west.

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A night out in the desert under the light of the stars and the full moon is something that you will not easily forget.

4. The history

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Iran is the heir of the tradition of the great Persian Empire, stretching all the way back to 550 BC. It has been a centre of culture and knowledge for almost all that time. They proud remains of Persepolis are a reminder of the magnificence of a culture that was great when my ancestors were still living in huts.

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Iran is one the verge of becoming a huge touristic destination. Hotel prices are starting to increase and most big sites have the occasional bus of tourists. This is nowhere near what you will see at any major tourist destination but is a huge increase compared to a couple of years ago.

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It is still a privilege to be able to spot the tourists and not have them be anywhere close to the majority. I do have a feeling though that with the the lifting of the sanctions, it’s on the brink of exploding. So get there before everybody else does.

How to get  there?

I went with an Yomadic Un-tour. I would highly recommend booking a seat as they sell out fast, are really small and there’s not a lot of them. You’ll be treated well and get to see stuff you don’t normally see on any other tour.

If you’re not from the US or UK, you can just get a visa at the airport. Not sure of the situation for Israeli citizens. It’s honestly really easy to get around. I say just go!

Edit: Corrected information regarding AU visas.

Why the Fuji X100S is the only travel camera I need

On my trip to Japan this February I made a radical choice. I would travel only with my Fuji X100S. There were several reasons behind this choice. I wanted to have a small camera that would be easy to take everywhere. This was also my first trip with my girlfriend and didn’t want her to have to wait too much while I took my pictures. Not having the option to switch lenses meant my process skipped straight to taking the picture and significantly cut down the time I spent taking and retaking a picture.

My biggest concern was my lack of options for specific situations. From my previous trips I knew the not having a telephoto would not be a big concern but not having a wide angle lens might be a problem. Also, Japan has always been at the very top of the list of countries to visit for me and I do not know if I will get to return so missing out on shots that I might never get a second chance to take was something really worrying for me.

So, given all that, what is it about this camera that made me want to take the risk?

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The Good

One of the things I love the most about the Fuji is its size. It is just the right size to fit in a large jacket pocket (as most of mine tend to be). It also transforms your camera bag into a multipurpose bag with plenty of space to store other items.

It is also big enough to allow you to grip it well and operate all the manual controls without it feeling like it is going to fall out of your hand when you are doing so.

This little camera also does not compromise when it comes to quality of images. Its 23mm F 2.0 lens is sharp at all apertures. It only suffers a bit when doing macro shots at f2 but stopping it down to f2.8 removes the issue.

Compared to the X-Pro 1 it has faster autofocus and a much better EVF. It is also much faster to write to disk and overall is a better camera than its older sibling.

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The Bad

The autofocus. As you have probably heard, autofocus is not one of Fuji’s strong points. They have greatly improved this with the XT-1 (or so I’ve heard) but these are not cameras for action or sports photography. Given all that, I find that the autofocus is enough for my needs 95% of the times. There are moment in which I miss a shot because of a missed focus but these are not the majority of shots. Once you understand the quirks of the focusing system, it sort of becomes second nature.

Fixed lens. The Fuji X100s has a fixed focal lens. It is not interchangeable which means your are stuck with one field of view. This is limiting though not always bad. When I first started in photography I was obsessed with having a lens to cover every possible focal length. This of course meant buying several zooms and  a couple of primes.  When I switched to Fuji, I gave up my zooms and switched to only prime lenses. I have not used a zoom lens in over 2 years and I can honestly say I do not miss them.

Reducing my options even further to just a 35mm equivalent was a scary step. Though I love the 35mm focal length, there are time when you wish you had something a little wider. I always managed to work around these limitations but at times I would have liked to have the option.

 

Wider angle would have been nice.
Wider angle would have been nice.

The Ugly

There is nothing ugly about this camera.

The Verdict

I am very happy with my choice for this trip. It allowed me to forget I had a camera with me for most of the time but was already ready to go when I needed it. In fact, I am seriously considering doing the same thing when I head off to Iran this autumn (SPOILER).

It allowed me to be much more present while travelling as I had a lot of choices already made for me due to the limits imposed by this camera.

The 35mm field of view is a perfect balance for both people and landscapes. Though at times a wider angle might have been nice, being limited forced me to work more on my composition and find creative solutions. It was an inconvenience, not a deal-breaker.

The camera is a workhorse that will work just as well in the middle of the day as in the brightest conditions (did I mention it has a built in ND filter?).

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Why I have a second camera

I am they very proud owner of an X-Pro1 camera. I bought this camera last year and I am extremely happy with it. While it is a lot smaller than my previous camera and allows me take it a lot more places, it still isn’t a truly pocketable camera. I was looking for a camera that I could take everywhere but as usual I needed it to meet some pretty stringent requirements.

Play the game!
Play the game!

I needed a camera that I could use in low light, gave excellent image quality and I could slip into my jacket pocket. I looked at many cameras on the market and ended up having my eye on the excellent Fuji X100s. The only limitation of this camera was its fixed focal length of 23mm (35mm equivalent in Full Frame) but I see this as almost an advantage. It forces me to think more about my photos and get closer to get a good picture. I will post about this camera a lot more in the coming weeks. 🙂

This is the kind of picture I'd be missing!
This is the kind of picture I’d be missing!

If I hadn’t bought this camera, there are a lot of photos I would not have taken over the last month. I find it incredible to think that I can pull it out and take amazing pictures whenever I see something that catches my eye. It also makes it so much more fun to walk anywhere as I can always keep my eye open for photo opportunities.

Biking at night
Biking at night

It also allows me to take pictures of my friends and nights out. It is also so small and silent that I get as many pictures as I need. I am loving it and my friends are loving it as well.

Party!
Party!

I would highly recommend getting pocket camera if you find you’re not taking as many pictures as you want. It really has changed my outlook on photography and allowed me to get a lot of images I would have missed otherwise.

Why I sold my DSLR and switch to Fuji

Back when I was preparing for my trip to Nepal, I realised that I was not looking forward to lugging my DSLR around with me. Back then my workhorse was my Nikon D7000. This is a brilliant camera that I had owned for over a year but which I was using less and less. For any of you out there with DSLRs you have to admit that lugging them around with a decent lens on them is a bit of a pain. It is also not the best for street photography as people see you coming from a mile away.

I had my eye set on a Leica M9 back then but they were/are prohibitively expensive. A second hand Leica plus a decent 50mm lens would set you back at least 5000€. I was doing all sorts of mental justification to try to convince myself I could afford one when I stumbled across Zack Arias’s post on the Fuji X-Pro1 (see here). While I will admit that he is not the most unbiased of reviewers, he did manage to pique my curiosity. At that time a new X-Pro1 with a 35mm lens and a free 18mm lens were going for 1500€. This was more in my price range though still a lot of money to spend on  a camera!

I started reading up on the Fuji X cameras and the more I read the more I was convinced it was the camera for me. Not only was the image quality one of the best out there in low light (when I do a lot of my day to day shooting) but Fuji was continuously upgrading the firmware of the cameras and adding new features that the customers wanted. When I saw someone selling one on-line for 900€ I pounced and bought it.

One of my first pictures with my new camera
One of my first pictures with my new camera

 

What I love

The thing that first impressed me about the X-Pro1 is its size and shape. It fits perfectly in my hand and all the controls are within easy reach. I own the 35mm f1.4  and 18mm f2 lenses and the whole pack fits easily into a very small bag. For my entire trip to Nepal I could carry all my electronics gear in an over the shoulder carrier bag. This would have been impossible with my DSLR. 

I also love the control set-up. All the functionality I need is easily adjustable without having to delve into any menus. This makes me forget about settings and just focus on taking pictures. Add to that the highly innovative combination of optical and electronic viewfinder and I’m almost back to shooting film but with infinite (almost) film!

The combination of size and almost silent operation volume means it is great for street photography, theatre photography and anywhere else where you don’t wish to be seen taking pictures. As I can easily shoot with extremely high ISO with almost no loss of quality I do not need to use a flash and can capture great candid shots without ever being seen.

The thing I love the most and which still blows me away every day is the quality of the images I get from this camera. I don’t know what kind of witchcraft the people at Fuji did but this camera produces the best images I have seen. The colour and dynamic range in these files is hard to understand. Add to that the outstanding quality of the Fuji X lenses and it’s hard to get a bad picture!

Look at those colours!
Look at those colours!

 

What could be better

Don’t get me wrong, not everything is perfect with this camera! The focusing is sometimes hit and miss, you do need to pre-focus or be patient but it is getting better with every firmware upgrade. You will also sometimes end up focusing on the wrong thing, especially when focusing close and using the Optical Viewfinder. I would never recommend this camera for a sports photographer.

The battery life is also pretty bad, especially when used to a DSLR. I carry around 3 spare batteries and have to switch them out every 150 shots or so which is not great.

Most of these quirks are easy to work around and not much of an issue for street photography. They have also mostly been addressed in the X100S which I also now own (more on that in a future post).

While still a nice picture, I would have loved to have the focus on the eye where I pointed at!
Still a nice picture but I would have loved to have the focus on the eye where I wanted it!

 

Conclusion

As I gave away in my title, I have finally taken the step and sold my Nikon DSLR. It wasn’t an easy decision but I realised I had not used it a single day since I bought my Fuji. I am currently in the process of selling most of my old lenses as well as my big, cumbersome carry bags. I am keeping my sigma 105 macro lens as I have an adapter to use it on my Fuji and it works like a charm.

I am now a convinced user of the Fuji X system of cameras and am saving up to get my hands on the 56mm f1.2 lens sometime in the future. If you have any questions on this camera please feel free to let me know below.

Did I mention it's discreet and quiet?
Did I mention it’s discreet and quiet?