Friday, 9 September 2005

Returning home

Each time I post a new entry I am really shocked to find out just how long it was since the last one. The time between entries doesn't seem that long. If it doesn't seem long, then I don't think it is.

The last couple of months have been, without doubt, some of the most interesting, busy and enjoyable days of my life. There is no way I will ever forget the last month and a half travelling from Bangkok, Thailand, down south to the island of Phan Ghan and then back up north to Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Chiang Khong and across the border to Huang Xia in Laos. From there I spent two days on a slow boat down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, stopping off for a night in the beautiful small town of Pak Beng. From Luang Prabang further north to Udomxai and Luang Nam Tha with a day-trip to Muang Sing before catching the bus across the Sino-Lao border into the city of Jianghong in Yunnan province. From there the 18-hour sleeper bus took me to Dali with a two-day excursion to Lijiang before sleeper bussing to the provincial capital of Kunming. A day in Kunming before catching a flight to Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province. In Hangzhou I was met by Xiaoxiao and a driver for Vivi who drove me the three-plus hours to Taizhou city in south-west Zhejiang. That's where I am now. In bed.

Since I last updated my site I've been to Lijiang, which is north of Dali a mere 100km-or-so from Tibet (or the Tibet Autonomous Region as the Chinese government might have you call it). For me Lijiang was perfect. A whole mass of tiny, windy streets with wonderful fresh-water running down many of them in little streams. Beautifully constructed stone and wooden bridges and some of the most delightful looking restaurants you will ever find.

For many people though, Sayaka included, Lijiang isn't perfect. The sheer volume of Chinese tourists makes it hard for you to forget that you're not living a life hundreds of years ago. But for me it really didn't matter. Lijiang is one of the most charming places I've been; easily up there with Luang Prabang in Laos.

In Lijiang I managed to bargain a double room with en-suite hot-water shower/toilet down to just 35RMB, which works out at approximately GBP1.20 per person -- at that sort of price you'd expect something with damp sheets, moths and bed bugs, but that definitely wasn't the place. Yunnan province in general has some of the best weather in China... when I say it is similar to England you'll think I'm having a laugh, but I'm not. Sleeping at night without air conditioning or a fan is something very easy to take for granted, but I can assure you that I didn't, not for one single night in Yunnan. The nice climate keeps everything fresh too, which is more than I can say for some of the cheaper places in Thailand and Laos (damp sheets, insects, mosquitos, etc.), as well as some of the more expensive places in China!

I managed to get up very early one morning only to discover that the sun wasn't about to rise any time soon. So at about 5am I went back to bed until 6am to find, once again, the sun wasn't due for about another hour. Eventually (thanks very much, Beijing Central Time) I left my guesthouse at 7.30am to get some photos of Lijiang without tourists and with some more interesting light. It didn't really work out, despite my best efforts, thanks to the rain (and I was bloody freezing... I didn't realise things got so cold in China -- I only have shorts and t-shirts with me; no jumper, no coat and no thick woolly socks, scarf or anything else like that). Of the ten-or-so photos I took, it looks like one might be worth taking to the printers.

Later on that afternoon we headed back to Dali and I then caught the sleeper bus to Kunming to arrange a flight to meet Xiaoxiao in Hangzhou. I left a little bit earlier than I had wanted and I'm in two minds as to whether I'm happy or not. It's really brilliant to be with Xiaoxiao again after so long, but compared to the wonderful adventures I've had in the last few months, being in Taizhou (a fairly bustling Chinese city that has *no* foreigners (I mean they *really* stare at you here -- more so than the small tribal villages in Thailand and Laos!)) is sort of equivalent to... well, sitting in a small room and reading a long book about something that holds absolutely no interest to you. In short, right this very minute I could be... anywhere, really. Maybe in Dali, maybe on a sleeper bus to Kunming or any number of other places. But as I say, it is nice to see Xiaoxiao so I don't really mind at all... but if Xiaoxiao wasn't here I'd be going mad. It's now September 10 and I fly from Shanghai to England on September 13... doesn't sound long but you'd be amazed what you can get up to in so little time!

Today I've had a shower (very nice when I consider that I previously showered over 48-hours before (showers are done in the evening here; I travelled from Lijiang to Dali and then from Dali to Kunming by sleeper bus (no shower); I spent the day in Kunming before catching a 7:45pm flight to Hangzhou and did not arrive in Taizhou until almost 2am... having had no more than two hours sleep on the sleeper bus (ironic, really) I went to sleep)) and eaten a Big Mac at McDonald's before sitting in on one of Xiaoxiao's driving lessons. Then I went on the Internet and really enjoyed it. For the past few hours I've been briefly looking through a couple of my photos. Earlier on today I told my Dad that I wasn't really too happy with the photos I'd taken, saying only a few were worth keeping, as well as making up a lot of excuses about not having anybody to copy... by this I mean "learn from". i.e. I don't really know any great photographers; I know Ansel Adams but only about three photos at best. I know what photos are nice but I've never really considered what goes into making them nice. I don't own any books on making (and making really is a better word than taking) photos, which I really wish I did. When I get back I'm going to buy three books (after skimming through them to check they are as good as their recommendation to me) -- the Lonely Planet book on photography and two National Geographic books on photography, one on portraits and one on landscapes. I'm still not sure what I enjoy more... some of my landscape results are fairly impressive, I think, but on the whole I enjoy portraights more... but only very infrequently do I enjoy the results.

I said the same to Vlad on MSN too. But now that I've had a very quick skim through some of my Laos and Yunnan photos I really need to change my mind. Some of the photos I've got on my little USB hard drive are absolutely amazing! I obviously forgot or got annoyed with the ratio of amazing to good to acceptable to downright poor. But even looking at them now there are so many things I can look at and think "Oh, why didn't I do it another way, instead?" And that's good. Another reason I don't think I've improved my results as quickly as I'd have hoped is lack of time to look at what I'd come up with. Mostly it was about five minutes for 150-odd photos while they were being transferred from the CF card to the laptop hard disk. And that's not long enough.

For my own curiosity I've just checked how many photos I've got on this hard disk -- there are now 53.5GB of compressed photos -- it says there are 16658 items (including directories) but I have got two files per photo (one "negative" and one "print"). That's still quite a few photos. Out of these ten thousand photos I'll be really happy if I come up with 100 *really good* ones to print out and use as postcards for the places when I re-visit them in the future.

I feel I've learned a lot about cameras, too. When I bought my Nikon D70s I based my decision almost entirely on online reviews (mainly D70s v 350D) and a very quick hands-on test. What eventually sold me was the size and build quality and the decent-sized viewfinder. I say "decent sized" but I really mean "bigger than the Canon equivalent". Since then I know a lot more and I'm in a far more educated position... if I went back now I don't know if I'd go the same way again. The 350D is too small for me but I think I like the way the auto-focus works better than with the D70... but having said that I don't use the fancy AF stuff that the Nikon offers, so it might be a bit of a no-issue. One thing I knew when I bought the D70 was the lack of extended battery pack/vertical grip. I considered this a non-issue but now I know it's not. I want a vertical grip with shutter-release and main command dial (for aperture) but with the D70 that is not an option. The older and more expensive D100 has one and the high-end D2X and D2Hs both have them as part of the body. There are rumours of a D200 all over the Internet but no official details. If it is the successor to the D100 then it should it as an option. I really don't need a better camera -- I'm not good enough with the camera I've got now but I have this annoying habit of wanting things to be "just right". But anyway... I said I might go the Canon route if I went again... mainly because of the extended battery pack and because of the slightly better auto-focus. But also because there is a mid-range camera (and a very good one it is, too) -- the 20D, which right now Nikon don't have. It's not an issue now but in the future it might be... but in the future there might be a D200, which I reckon will whop the 20D's ass, anyway. I think the Canon lenses are a bit cheaper, too, which is quite important.

But the D70s is a really great camera and if you know what you're doing then there is the D2X. I used one a few days ago in Lijiang and it is a seriously nice camera... ergonomically it is outstanding -- far far far better than the latest Canon EOS-1D revision, which makes me glad to be a Nikon user... even if they do tend to lag a year behind Canon ;)

Right, far too much woffle. The last thing I want to say before I get to bed is just how many people I've met along my travels. I can't possibly name them all but a quick attempt would include Sayaka, Laurene, Conrad, Tracy, James, Quentin, "Dave", Ava, Shinpei, Ming, Xiaoqian, Vivian, YU Lu, Miss Zhang, Rusty, Michelle, Davide, Mr Haggis and a whole pile more people that I have no idea as to what their names were. I've got plenty of things to do when I get back home -- find somewhere to live, sort through my photos, get in contact with people, post photographs I've promised to post and start learning a lot more.

I'm really looking forward to it.

P.S.
This is an addition. Just as I was about to switch my laptop off and go to bed... it started vibrating... my bed that is. I do believe I've just experienced my very first earthquake. At least, the first I've been awake and known about.

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