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Category Archives: Travel Photography

Nomads and Villagers on the Tibetan Plateau

It was in the middle of a photo expedition in Qinghai in the Tibetan Plateau, in May last year that we discovered we would soon be returning to live in the UK after over 12 years overseas. The contrast of cultures could hardly have been greater! I wanted make the most of the opportunity to photograph this extraordinary place with photo buddy, Claire. Our trip was enriched by the help and advice of Julia, a Tibetan friend who I’d known for many years in Bangkok. (Some of these pictures were entered in the 2011 Travel Photographer of the Year competition, in which I was shortlisted as a finalist.)

Gazing at the distant horizon across the beautiful but barren landscape, I contemplated the closing of our life in Asia, and imminent return to London.

Arriving at Sun Moon Mountain, with the relative comforts of Xining City many hours behind us, we clambered down from our 4×4 and were instantly reminded that we were on the world’s highest plateau, over 4,000m above sea level. Wrapped up in layers, we braced the biting cold and wind, leaning at 45 degrees as we ascended to the summit. What a strange and lovely sight awaited us!

Sun Moon Mountain, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau

 

Prayer flags at Sun Moon Mountain, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau.

Sun Moon Mountain, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau

 

Sun Moon Mountain from the summit. Ice crystals on the mast where the prayer flags were tied.

Ice crystals atop Sun Moon Mountain, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau

 

Then on to Maduo, a little village on the vast plateau, where life has changed little over time and nomads can be found in the neighbouring prairies. It had been a long and dramatic journey and we were happy to arrive at this charming spot. Despite the even higher altitudes at 4,400m and our driver’s refusal to linger (departing instead in search of lower altitudes for the duration of our stay), I was eager to step out into the colourful high street of Maduo to capture scenes of everyday life there.

Both costumes and buildings were a rich array of vibrant colours.

Men on the colourful streets of Maduo, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau

 

Traditional costume was worn by older and younger generations alike.

Maduo traditional dress, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau

 

Maduo mechanics in their workshop – highly amused at my arrival. Don’t think they get many tourists in these parts!

 

General store, home and workshop were all in one. Their kids watched as I entered, fascinated by the strange and unfamiliar visitor.

A small temple structure and wreaths of prayer flags were located at the end of the high street. Here I met a young family who lived in a stone dwelling nearby.

Temple girl, Maduo, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau

 

The kids were curious as to who I was and what I was doing. They looked with great interest at my camera display as each image was taken.

Temple Toddler, Maduo, Qinghai, Tibetan PlateauLaughing girl at temple, Maduo, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau

 

Their mother came out to investigate, soon inviting me into their home for tea and traditional bread.

Tea in Maduo, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau

 

A family friend dropped in with her baby strapped snugly to her back.

Maduo Madonna, Qinghai, Tibetan Plateau

 

An excellent first day, altitude fatigue notwithstanding!

 

The following morning, we ventured out with a local guide to find the nomads that traverse the vast prairies surrounding Maduo.

Tibetan prairie, Qinghai, Tibetan plateau

 

We covered many miles that day, scanning the horizon for the small speck of white canvas denoting a solitary nomad tent. We discovered one family in the morning, and another on our way home at the end of the day. In each case, we were welcomed in for tea and bread. What a pleasure to step from the bracing cold to the warmth of the stove inside. The couple below explained that they stayed here on the grasslands through the warmer months, looking after their 140 yaks and 200 sheep, and moving in search of new grasslands for the herd as required.

Nomads outside Maduo, Qinghai, Tibetan plateau

 

They live by exchanging yak butter for other goods, such as flour to make bread. In each destination they erect prayer flags in the belief that the winds read the scriptures and keep them safe. In the winter months they return to the lower altitudes where they live in mud dwellings with their children and extended family. The children remain there through the year, staying with grandparents when their mother and father return to the prairie at the beginning of spring. Who knows what will happen to this way of life when the children grow and make choices of their own?

During our visit a baby yak who had lost its mother popped in for its morning bottle.

Baby yak at Nomad tent, Qinghai, Tibetan plateauFeeding baby yak in Nomad tent, Qinghai, Tibetan plateau

 

Freshly baked bread for us with and a bowl of hot yak butter tea – more butter than tea if you ask me!

Yak milk tea and home baked bread, Nomad tent, Qinghai, Tibetan plateau

 

Jewellery, given as part of the dowry, and gold teeth were proudly displayed by the nomadic women we met, as a sign of wealth and well-being.

Nomad lady with jewel necklace, Qinghai, Tibetan plateauNomad man in nomad tent, Qinghai, Tibetan plateauNomad woman, Qinghai, Tibetan plateau

As we left the nomads behind and began the long return trip to Xining, and then Bangkok, my thoughts turned to my family and the imminent end to our own wandering existence… for the time being at least.

Art and Flamenco in Sitges, Spain

Some days unfold in a way you could never predict. So it was one sleepy Sunday morning as I strolled through the cobbled streets of Sitges, near Barcelona.

I had ventured out to capture the stillness of the streets before the throngs descended for the spectacular Festa Major later in the day. The narrow Calle de la Carreta alleyway caught my eye as it wound its way up the hill towards the church, a profusion of flowers in hanging boxes adding splashes of colour to the old stone buildings. I met Sitges artist, Manuel Blesa,  as he opened the doors of his gallery, and stepped inside to view the fine art paintings of antique ceramics that adorned the gallery walls.

Manuel Blesa art gallery, Sitges, Spain

His artist studio at the top of the building is a light, open space with piles of artifacts and fine pottery, as well as wooden shelves bearing the antique ceramics he paints.

Studio of Manuel Blesa

The easel with partly completed painting presided over the studio (below left). Portrait of Manual Blesa (below right).

Manuel Blesa art studio, Sitges, SpainManuel Blesa

The tablet of vibrant oil colours next to the easel (below).

Manuel Blesa's oil tablet in his studio

I noticed a number of guitars around the studio and discovered that decades ago Manuel Blesa played flamenco guitar for a living. I asked if he still played but he seemed doubtful. With a little encouragement, however, he left to find his favourite instrument, and, to my delight, began to play. I love live music and relish the little I know of the melody, sadness and duende, or soul, of flamenco music. The experience of listening to an ex-professional flamenco guitarist providing an impromptu performance in this fine setting was magical.

Manuel Blesa playing flamenco guitar

Manuel Blesa playing flamenco guitar

He seemed to enjoy the experience and almost an hour flew by before I realized it was time to meet friends. What a fine prelude to lunch.

Bhutan and Beyond

One of my favourite projects at the start of the year is planning travel for the coming months.   For those who like going off the beaten track, I can highly recommend Bhutan and the Bhutan dance festivals; and this is the perfect time to book a trip.

Spectacular dance festivals run from February to April and September to October.  These are the times of year when the weather in Bhutan is at its best and visitors can readily understand why the country is known as  the ‘Jewel of the Himalayas’.

I’m delighted to be a contributor in the January 2011 issue of Marie Claire Magazine in Thailand, with an article and photographs on Bhutan, including the Tamshingphala  Tsechu in full flow (below). Feel free to view further photographs in my gallery, and if you possibly can, go there and see this beautiful and remote kingdom for yourself.

Bhutan article in Marie Claire Jan 2011

In the meantime, here are some of my favourite moments from the last trip.

A young spectator at the Tamshingphala Tsechu watches the festival, framed by the rich silk of her traditional dress (below left).

Below right is Tiger’s Nest Monastery viewed through Bhutanese prayer flags. The walk to this viewpoint provides the perfect way to acclimatize to the altitude upon arrival in Bhutan. A fine way to recuperate from the long and rocky descent is dinner at a local farmhouse, followed by a hot stone bath to sooth your aching muscles. A wooden bath is filled with freezing cold water from the stream, then furnace-hot stones from the roaring fire are dropped sputtering into one end if the bath until the water temperature reaches decidedly fiery levels. Those brave enough then lower themselves with care and some trepidation into the searing heat – to be rewarded by all traces of pain and stiffness melting away. Bliss!

A young spectator at the Tamshingphala Tsechu. Tiger’s Nest Monastery through Bhutanese prayer flags

A dancer rehearses for the Tamshingphala dance festival, entertaining a passing monk (below).

A dancer rehearses for the Tamshingphala dance festival in Bhutan, entertaining a passing monk.

I look forward to bringing news of further destinations and projects in the coming months.  My friend Claire and I embark on a photo expedition to Nan province in northern Thailand later this month and I have further travel planned around Asia and to Europe later in the year.  With a bit of luck, I may also find time to take photos in the Japanese Alps in February, while the rest of the family roll about in the snow…!

Festa Major Sitges, Spain

Festa Major Sitges, Spain

The Catalans know how to party. My trip to Europe this summer was rounded off perfectly with festivities and a feast of fine foods in the beautiful seaside town of Sitges, near Barcelona in the Catalonia region of north eastern Spain.

The Festa Major is the annual feast day celebration at the end of August each year, held in honour of Sant Bartolomeu, patron saint of Sitges. Spectacular processions march through the narrow cobbled streets, re-enacting the Reconquest of Spain in the late 1400s, where Spanish Catholics defeated the Moorish monarchs, so completing the Reconquista.

The procession is raucous. Enormous models of the Spanish and the Moorish monarchs head the procession, followed in the heaving throng by dancers, papiermâché giants, devils brandishing pitchforks, and a large dragon and phoenix, fireworks exploding from their jaws.

Festa Major opens in Sitges town square

As the procession begins, devils with firecrackers advance through the town square (above).

The monarchs lead the way through the streets, the Spanish victors at the front followed by the Moorish King and Queen, see below.

The Moorish King and Queen advance through the streets

The chief devil pauses in the procession to re-load his tenedor del diablo with firecrackers, before igniting those of the other devils.

Chief devil re-loads his tenedor del diablo with firecrackers

The chief devil lights his many firecrackers (below).

Chief devil ignites the firecrackers, Festa Major, Sitges in Spain

The group of devils then form a tight circle to ignite each of their firecrackers (below).

Forming a tight circle to ignite the firecrackers

Devils in the procession wear earplugs to protect themselves from the extraordinary volume – not unlike a round of gunfire. Those less prepared feel the full force of the sound.

Devil with firecrackers - cover your ears!

All mayhem breaks loose as the firecrackers explode simultaneously (below).

Firecrackers exploding simultaneously

Most spectators dodge to avoid the firing sparks. However the braver ones and those emboldened with plenty of beer and wine race through or dance under the blaze. The challenge for anyone foolish enough to point a camera into the inferno is to get the picture before the sparks get you – or your lens. Easier said than done!

The dragon emerges through the smoke (below left), followed by the phoenix, setting off another whirl of crackers in the main town square (below right).

Dragon emerges through the smoke, Festa Major, Sitges in SpainPhoenix in the town square

Each character in the processions has a team of people to man and look after them, ensuring nothing and nobody gets in the way, and ready at any moment to jump inside the model characters and take the reins as the parade continues through the town (below left).

Time for a role switch!Lady emerges from mask for air, Sitges Festa Major

A lady emerges briefly from her papiermâché head for some air (above right).

The previous day, I was fortunate to stumble across the backstreet (middle photo below) where artists were making repairs and adding finishing touches to the procession puppets (below left and right). They work throughout the year, carrying out repairs for the various fiestas of the town.

Artist making finishing touches before the Festa Major, Sitges, SpainBackstreet where artists are making finishing touches before the Festa MajorFinishing touches before the Festa Major

Musicians playing traditional reed instruments to accompany the dancing procession.

Musicians playing traditional reed instruments

Dancing models become increasingly flamboyant, not to mention unsteady on their feet, as more beer is handed out to the teams.

King dancing in the streetsDancing in the streetsDancing Queen

Spinning monarchs in the town square.

Spinning monarchs in the town square

Good humour abounds and dancers embrace as they finish their routine.

Good humour aboundsHappy faces as musicians finish their routines

A band of musicians enters the town square as revellers contribute to the mêlée.

Musicians in the town square, Sitges Festa Major

Happy devils call it a day.

Happy devils at the Festa Major, Sitges in Spain

Update from Scotland

It’s been a while since I posted anything new on my blog and it’s definitely time for an update.

Firstly, I’m delighted to be a contributor to the September 2010 issue of  Travel + Leisure magazine published throughout SE Asia.   A new selection of my Tokyo Fish Market images are featured as a portfolio collection entitled ‘Catch Of The Day’.  Hope you get a chance to have a look.

Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market

Now, time for a quick update. We’ve had a long lazy summer in Europe, firstly catching up with family in the UK, then followed by a delightful jaunt to Spain where I photographed the magnificent annual Festa Major in Sitges, just south of Barcelona. More on that to come.

In the meantime, let me share a few photographs taken around my mum’s home on the west coast of Scotland. We spent a wonderfully relaxing couple of weeks there doing little more than taking walks from the house, making sandcastles, collecting shells on the beach, and pondering what delicious food we should have for lunch, dinner or whatever came next. Clearly, quite a challenge, but we struggled through as best we could…

Walk to beach

Mushrooms by the coast, ScotlandThistles by the beach, Scotland

Views to Arran, Scotland

Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market

Gordon Gecko might look out of place in the middle of Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market, but there are plenty of things that would make him feel right at home. Like Wall St, the world’s largest fish market runs on a frenzy of activity and adrenaline, the most expensive of fish stocks changing hands as high-value deals are closed in the blink of an eye.  Every morning at 5.20am, as regular as the NYSE opening bell, Tsukiji chimes into life and for the next 5 hours the largest and most important fish market in the world runs at the pace of a Shinkansen going in a hundred directions at once.

Trucks, cars and mini forklifts laden with today’s catch of fish and seafood, dart like minnows through the narrow streets and passageways of the market. No time for the usual niceties of Japanese service during the early morning trading hours … twenty million dollars of produce are bought and sold each day and no one can afford a minute’s rest.

Transporting tuna in Tsukiji fish market

Visitors must arrive before dawn to catch a glimpse of the auction where mammoth 300kg tuna are bought and sold by traders. As a result of the increasing numbers visiting the fish market in recent years, tourists have been banned from the tuna auction area on many occasions.  I was lucky to get through during one of the periods where they were allowing access to limited numbers. The small and tightly packed space allowed only a few any vantage point, however I squeezed through in time to see the action.

Visiting this main hall is an arresting experience.  Bitterly cold temperatures preserve the frozen fish as they lie beached on the expansive trading floor. The tail of the tuna is carved open to reveal the quality of the splendid catches on display.  Surprisingly there’s no smell whatsoever throughout the market, such is the coldness of the air and prime freshness of the fish.

Tsukiji tuna on auction floor

Carved tuna tails in Tsukiji

Prospective buyers trawl the lines of fish, using torches and probing hooks to extract and inspect the flesh before bidding for the best catch.

Inspecting tuna at Tsukiji fish marketInspecting hooks at Tsukiji fish marketTsukiji Auction in Tokyo

As the auction ends, the fish are transported to their next destination or moved to the many shops and stalls inside the market. The variety is astounding, with over four hundred types of fish and seafood of all shapes and sizes changing hands each day.  First, larger fish have to be prepared for sale.  Frozen tuna is divided up using large band saws and fresh cuts are carved with metre-long, highly specialized knives resembling great samurai swords.  Not the time to pick a fight with the locals!

Carving tuna at Tokyo Tsukiji fish market

Carving frozen tuna with bandsaw in Tokyo Tsukiji fish marketFresh tuna is carved in Tokyo Tsukiji fish market

Once the early morning frenzy has died down, there’s time to indulge in some good-humoured banter as customers arrive to buy the auctioned fish.   I joined in the fun, requesting a shot of the ‘handsome man’ in the middle (below) to the great amusement of all nearby!

Fish seller at Tokyo Tsukiji fish marketFish seller - Tokyo Tsukiji fish marketFish seller at Tokyo Tsukiji fish market

Mr Yamamoto (below right) is loved and revered. Not only does he buy great quantities of breathtakingly expensive fish, but he’s also a master sushi chef and therefore permitted to carve his own cuts, a rare honour and one he accepts with great enjoyment and excellent humour. The proprietor of an exclusive Tokyo restaurant, he’s clearly the favourite customer of the day. The owner and staff of the lucky stall crowd around to watch a true master at work.

Chef carves fresh tuna, Tokyo Tsukiji fish market

Chef packs fresh tuna, Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo

Last orders are taken as stall holders finalise business and wrap up for the day.

Taking final orders at Tokyo Tsukiji fish marketGreat smile! Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo.Taking last orders, Tokyo Tsukiji fish market

What better reward could there be for getting up at 4-something-am than a hearty breakfast at Tsukiji? The finest sashimi and sushi known to man (or woman!) provides a splendid start to the rest of the day.  No wonder everyone’s smiling when the morning’s trading is done.

End of the day at Tokyo Tsukiji fish market

Gordon Gecko would no doubt approve.  Lunch is indeed for wimps.