Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Great Wild Wall

I was recently chatting to someone about the China and I just thought I’d post a photograph taken there five years ago.

One thing you simply have to do when in Beijing is visit the Great Wall. There are several sections readily accessible from Beijing and many hostels and hotels offer day trips to these. The most popular section is Badaling. Completely reconstructed, it offers all the tourist amenities; toilets, coffee shops, souvenir stalls, cable car lifts to name but a few. Problem is everyone goes there – several people I bumped into even referred to it as Disneyland, which should give an idea as to the experience you’ll have!

Next are Jinshanling and Simatai which offer a great 9km walk between the two. Though not as touristy as Badaling, it’s still very much on the tourist trail. Another section is Mutianyu which hasn’t been reconstructed to the degree that Badaling, Jinshanling and Simatai have been. However, though the help of a photographer who was based in China at the time I found myself at a remote farmhouse in Jian Kou with only three Chinese words in my vocabulary…

Most of us are aware of the Great Wall of China, so I’m not going to go  into the details other than to say that the Great Wall is, strictly speaking, several walls built over a 2200 year period and stretching 6400km or so. Many sections have disappeared altogether whilst others are in a state of dangerous disrepair. As can be seen here, the section of the Wall at Jian Kou is losing the battle with nature and hence its more familiar name of ‘The Great Wild Wall’.

The Wall served a number of purposes, the primary of which was defensive. Over the course of the Wall, the frequency of the guard and signalling towers varies, but here at Jian Kou they can be found on a regular basis. Presumably this is due to the mountain terrain – from a given vantage point you don’t get to see much of the Wall before it disappears over some ridge.  An attack from the ‘northern hoards’ could be communicated back to Beijing via smoke (during the day) or fire (during the evening) in very short order. The signalling system was pretty elaborate too and could communicate such facts as the number and nature of invaders over 500km in a number of hours.

You don’t so much walk this section of the Wall at Jian Kou as hike it. You are continuously climbing and descending as the Wall undulates its way over the mountains and it’s a very picturesque way to keep fit. For us hiking the Wall today we also have to contend with the vegetation that has taken hold. Also the appearance of the Wall varies over its length – local materials have been used wherever possible and at Jian Kou the rocks are laden with the mineral dolomite, giving a white appearance.

One of the many nice things about avoiding the touristy sections is that you have the Wall largely to yourself. I was reading that Badaling gets about 1 million visitors a month. By contrast over the course of six hours at Jian Kou I bumped less than a dozen Chinese students. You do have to be careful when walking – death is relatively rare but not unheard of at Jian Kou. It’s also a good idea to let someone know where you’re going. A sprained ankle out here in the mountiains could turn into a nasty experience real quick…


Posted in Frame by Frame, Travel Tagged , , |

West Shinjuku at Dusk


West Shinjuku at dusk


Well, I was hoping to get out in Cambridge for some night photography but the consultancy work ran on longer than expected. So instead I thought I’d post from a couple of years ago of another well-known city.

Tokyo is often credited with being the inspiration for the futuristic cityscape in the 1982 film Bladerunner. Alas, it would seem that this is an urban myth and director Ridley Scott simply based his vision on an industrialised Los Angeles, albeit one where global population migration meant that, in his vision of future Los Angeles, there were large Hispanic and Japanese populations. So I’m guessing that it’s because of all the Japanese signage that people make the Tokyo cityscape connection. That said, as dusk falls and the neon lights up, you simply cannot help but think Bladerunner…

The low light conditions meant that a one second or so exposure was required but I didn’t have the tripod with me at the time. The image was taken by holding the camera as steadily as I could on one of the bridge railings and trying to time it so that the groups of people who were constantly crossing the bridge weren’t causing too much vibration. During post production I created an HDR image off the single shot to  push the colour saturation – it felt appropriate given that many feel slightly overwhelmed by the full-on nature of Tokyo the first time they visit it.

Posted in Frame by Frame Tagged , , , , |

Cambodia and Vietnam

It’s not set in concrete yet, but I have a strong suspicion that I’m off to Cambodia and Vietnam later this year.

It all started with a idle contemplation of historically significant sites that I would like to see. The two that kept floating to the top of the list were Machu Picchu in Peru and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Whilst Machu Picchu is still very much a place I want to see and the Inca Trail a walk I very much want to do, Going back to South America would mean going back to Bolivia and also down to Patagonia. A lot of preparation and perhaps best left for another time.

My interest in Angkor Wat stems from a photograph I saw years ago where a tree was growing on top of an old temple. ‘Just how cool is that!’ was my initial thought. At the time I wasn’t really into taking photographs and I certainly didn’t have the courage to travel alone outside of an English speaking country. So there it stayed: a very cool image of what be a very cool place.

Still, these days I have no real problem travelling outside of my comfort zone and not being able to speak a language sometimes work better. And, to be honest, whilst the expense of Antarctica last year left me telling all and sundry this year would be a quiet (i.e., cheap) travel year, I’m already getting itchy feet.

But the deciding factor was when I nearly bought a new MacBook Retina a couple of weeks ago. Twice it ended up in the shopping cart and twice I thought about all the places I still want to see. If I had money for a new laptop, I certainly had money for travel.

Still lots of preparation to be done. The first hurdle is whether it’s affordable. Yes is the probable answer. Flights there and back will be by far the majority share of the total cost as once there accommodation and daily living is cheap, especially for how I like to travel.

The next hurdle is time. It’s a 13 hour flight and so I’m not looking at a two week break. Initial plans were for three weeks, but now Vietnam has crept into the itinerary, I’m looking to take the maximum I can. So when I asked my boss the other day “I’m looking at taking October off on holiday” I wasn’t kidding. In reality I’m looking at 24 days holiday, so nearer five weeks. It’ll be the longest trip I’ve ever been on. The boss has tentatively agreed, although official confirmation is still to come.

On the plus side, it would appear that Adrian, one of the people I used to study Japanese with now lives in Cambodia, which means lots of tips and insider knowledge. Also Teja at work spent several weeks in the area last year, so more useful tips of what to see and avoid.

Since planning a photography trip is usually the hardest part of the whole experience, and it’s something I have become reasonably good at doing, I’m going to try and keep the blog updated with how it’s coming along…

Posted in Travel Tagged , , , |

Sunrise Over Laguna Colorada


Back in 2010 I ended up in southwest Bolivia on a brief trip that changed my appreciation of the environment. The southwestern region of Bolivia lies high up in the northern Andes at an altitude between 4,200 and 4,800 metres. Its a barren, volcanic region, desolate and undeveloped. There’s no electicity; the only water in in the form of the lakes which are so heavily laden with volcanic minerals that the only life that survives in them is microbial extremophiles; there’s no roads, no cell coverage. Nothing. I fell in love with it immediately.

I was sharing a Toyota Landcruiser with five others and we arrived at the refuge that we were to spend the first night in. We were all surprisingly tired after a dinner consisting of a delicious vegetable soup and, er, less delicious fried spam. It also gets pretty cold at this altitude – we were expecting something in the region of -15°C and so we were all in the dorm and safely tucked up by 9PM  It was a rough night – the first day at high altitude and that’s when it hit me: All day I had been active and so my heartrate was nice and high, pumping those little oxygen molecules around. But as I slept and my heart rate slowed, my poor brain was slowly being starved in the oxygen-deprived high-altitude air. Consequently I woke up the mother of all headaches! Still, all thoughts of tiredness and pain were forgotten as I peeked outside and saw the pre-dawn morning light reflecting off Laguna Colorada…

The problem is that most of southwest Bolivia is a mineral, natural gas and rare element goldmine, primarily due to in being in a volcano belt. As a result the Bolivian government is under extreme pressure to allow mining rights which would greatly aid the impoverished country. If that happens, scenes such as the one here will soon be impossible.


Posted in Frame by Frame Tagged , , |