Friday, April 28, 2017

Annapurna Base Camp Trek | Harini Chandra

Harini Chandra trekked the Annapurna Base Camp route with South Col Expeditions in April 2016. In this interesting and evocative post Harini describes her experiences on the ABC trek. This is an ideal post for first time trekkers wanting to find out what trekking in Nepal is all about!
 - Sujoy Das

Hike, Eat, Sleep, Repeat…By Harini Chandra

It’s been a year now since I went on the trek to Annapurna Base Camp, a unique, mind-blowing experience that I’ve been meaning to write about ever since. I’ve always thought of writer’s block as a problem of mind over matter—until, of course, I sat down to pen my thoughts on this trip and couldn’t proceed beyond two paragraphs! This time, though, I’m more determined to get this all out—a fitting tribute, hopefully, to a memorable trip.

Some time around July 2015, I decided I wanted to get away for some much-needed “me time”—away from work and family—to do something I really enjoy. A trip to Darjeeling around the time, followed by the movie "Everest," sealed the decision in my unsettled mind: I wanted to do a trek. After some research, I settled on the Annapurna Base Camp trek, which would be challenging enough given my appalling fitness levels, but at the same time, not so challenging that it seemed crazy and out of reach. I had fond memories of a trek I’d done way back in college to the Kuari pass, which served as inspiration as I began my journey of getting fit physically and, this time, toughening up mentally (it would be the first time I’d be away from my younger son for so long).

After many months, which actually flew by much quicker than I’d expected, I landed in Kathmandu with my best friend, Ranjani, who had decided, to my delight, to join me. We felt excited--mostly in an I-can’t-believe-we’re-actually-doing-this way--as we spent our day buying last-minute supplies: hiking poles, iodine tablets, sun hats, head lamps, and other items suggested by our organizer Sujoy.

Then came the challenge of packing our duffel bag. For those of you who’ve never been trekking before, this is the point at which you realize two things: first, you have way more in your suitcase than you can ever imagine taking with you; and second, every inch of space counts! What to do? Cram in that extra packet of nuts, or sneak in that one additional pair of tracks that Sujoy specifically told us not to bother carrying? We called it a night early after an enjoyable dinner at a delightful outdoor restaurant, listening to live Nepali music and stories from earlier treks of Sujoy, and slowly beginning to wonder in what state we would return from our own expedition.

Day 1: Of hailstorms and expanding lungs
Ever since the earthquake of 2015, Kathmandu has been terribly dusty, with all the construction work going on, and a layer of smog constantly hung over the city. This always resulted in some uncertainty in flight schedules, and we had chosen to fly from Kathmandu to Pokhara, a journey that can also be made by road over 6-7 hours. Although the road journey is quite picturesque and enjoyable, we had chosen to fly to save ourselves that one additional day of travel. Thankfully, our flights were perfectly on time (contrary to the worrying newspaper article we saw in the paper that morning) and we reached Kande, our trailhead, a one-hour minibus ride from Pokhara, as planned.

The worrying newspaper article we saw before we flew to Pokhara

We began our adventure from Kande, climbing our way up hill (oh wait, I meant huffing my way uphill!) for the large part to Pothana, our lunch stop. We stopped by a beautiful Australian camp for tea, where the weather gods decided to give us a taste of their fickle mindedness, sending heavy, dark clouds our way. Luckily, we made it to our lunch stop just before the hail started pelting down (that’s right--hail on our very first day there). After a hot lunch of dal-bhaat (the traditional Nepali meal, consisting of rice, dal, veggies, pickle, and papad), we all scrambled to our duffel bags for the extra layers of clothing that had been packed deeply away, in the assumption that they wouldn’t be needed until Day 3 or 4, in the colder, higher altitudes. After making sneaky visits into the kitchen to warm up our frozen hands, we stepped outdoors to catch our first spectacular glimpses of the mountains—the sight that would egg us on through our weariness.

First sights of the glorious Annapurna
Just as Indian bowlers know their home pitches, the Nepalese have a way of looking at the clouds and knowing which way the weather will swing. So when our guide, Shyam, gave us the green signal, we headed out again towards our first camp for that night at Tolka. It was a lovely walk, mostly downhill or flat, and barring a couple of falls due to the slippery rocks and stones, we made it to Tolka just before the light started to fade.

Stones piled up as a symbol of good luck        

  End of Day 1 at Tolka

We were pleasantly surprised by the cozy and convenient lodging facilities throughout our trip—comfortable rooms with enough blankets to keep us warm, more-than-decent bathroom facilities, a centrally heated dining area where most people spent their time after the day of trekking (I’ll come back to these dining areas in a bit), and great food options. Honestly, one can’t ask for more when in the mountains. But there was more! It came at a nominal cost (with the value of “nominal” increasing with altitude!) but was absolutely worth it: hot showers, WiFi, phone charging, and even washing machines at some of the lodges to give your clothes a quick spin! Clearly, we were trekking in style.

Day 2: The last time I ever felt my back
We woke up in Tolka to the sight of looming snow-capped mountains and realized that every morning was going to look like that for the next 10 days! Sure, the water would freeze our hands while we brushed our teeth, but those mountains made every bit of it worth it!

We set out after breakfast towards Chhomrong, which became one of our favorite villages by the end of our trip. The first two or three hours that day were rather peaceful, the walk being largely flat and partly downhill, with gorgeous views of the Annapurna South. We were in a cheery mood despite the blazing sun, chatting away and making friends with the extremely cute Nepali children along the way. Then, all of a sudden, we didn’t know what hit us; it just got steep! We climbed for over an hour and finally got to our lunch stop, Jhinu, where our guide (very reassuringly) told us after we gulped down our nimbupani (lemon juice) that we had at least another 3 hours of climbing post-lunch!

That day was easily one of the hardest uphill climbs. We’re not sure if it was because our bodies were still getting used to the climbing, or whether it really was that hard! We realized over the next couple of days that every day would have a downhill walk followed by an uphill one, since we were essentially crossing over from one mountain to another. So we would have to lose some elevation, get across either on a bridge or some sort of river crossing, and then ascend the next mountain (what joy!). We left Jhinu after lunch, still exhausted but wanting to get done for the day rather than relax too long there. After plodding on for another hour, we met another couple with their guide who pointed out that Chhomrong, our destination for that night, was within view. Our delight knew no bounds; we quickened our pace and made it to our lovely guesthouse in Chhomrong well in time for a hot evening shower, hot chai, and pakoras. Heck, we earned it that day!

Gorgeous views that egged us on                           

View from our guesthouse in Chhomrong

There was something very quaint and appealing about Chhomrong. It was a village full of steps, with colorful little shops and cafes lining the sides like banisters. We even tried cinnamon rolls and chocolate croissants at a German bakery on our way back--not the best we’ve had, but a refreshing change nonetheless! Although it got cold late in the evening, we could still sit outdoors and enjoy the stillness and silence of the mountains, something we could not do as we went higher up. We met an adorable couple from Munich who, despite our warnings, ordered and gave their stamp of approval to the pizza at that guesthouse!

Day 3: Through bamboo forests and rain-filled clouds
After breakfast at Chhomrong, we set out towards Dovan. Our bodies clearly felt better adjusted by this day, and the walking felt less strenuous. The downhill stretches, at times, felt hard on the knees, but by the time the pain actually started making its way into the mind, the terrain changed and it would be flat or inclined upwards. To be precise, there’s no flat terrain; it’s all “Nepali flat”—a term that amused us to begin with but grew on us so much that by the end of the trip, we were correcting our guide every time he said "flat." "Nepali flat" refers to a constant sequence of ups and downs, none of them too steep. We walked under overcast skies through the villages of Lower and Upper Sinua, followed by bamboo forests, to land up for lunch in a village called Bamboo.

As we got done with lunch, the heavy rain clouds again decided to shower their fury on us. We ended up staying put for a couple of hours after lunch, watching the steady inflow of drenched trekkers of various nationalities, listening to fun retro music, and waiting for the rain to abate. Once it had settled down to a drizzle, we made our way in single file through another forest, focussing on our every step through the slushy path, all our moods seemingly reflecting the somber and grey skies. We reached Dovan much earlier than we expected, gulped down some hot chocolate, and settled down in the warm dining hall for the rest of the evening, since the temperature outside had plummeted thanks to the non-stop rain.

                                                          Long and shaky bridges                                                             

After reaching Dovan under rain-filled skies

This might be a good time to talk about the dining halls, as our trekking days after Dovan got shorter because of the altitude (3200+ m) and we began spending more time in these halls. These halls are basically designed with tables and benches in the center for people to sit and eat, and the sides lined with inviting diwans, complete with mattresses and cushions thrown around. You are more than welcome to nap there after lunch! We came across so many interesting people in these dining areas: a teacher for autistic children from America, students of medicine from Germany, a delightful retired couple from America, a Nepali man attempting to summit in three days, an extremely well-travelled Frenchman who visited Nepal every year, and many others. It was always fun to strike up a conversation with these people, understand what brought them there, and of course, answer the many questions that they had about India: its new Prime Minister, the beaches in Goa, and of course, Rajnikant!

The dimly lit, cozy dining hall packed with trekkers

Days 4 & 5: Upward to MBC
While MBC does bring to mind certain offensive expletives in Hindi, I assure you, this MBC was truly majestic! From Dovan, we made our way further up, stopping for a night at Deorali and then proceeding to the Machhapuchhare Base Camp (around 3700 m). As the altitude got higher, we trekked only for 4-5 hours in the morning and had the rest of the day to acclimatize and get used to the thinning air. Dovan to Deorali was again a climb through forests; this time, rhododendron forests colored in beautiful reds and pinks. Our views of the Machhapuchhare peak, commonly also known as the Fish Tail peak, became more stunning with each passing day.

The hike from Deorali to MBC was another hard one, the trail punctuated with avalanche-prone areas that we darted across without looking up! The guide had advised us to leave early that morning, so that we could get across these areas before the sun got too high and started melting all the mountain snow, thereby increasing the chances of an avalanche. We therefore reached MBC well before lunch, giving us sufficient time to take in the jaw-dropping panoramic views and even get some clothes washed (in that order!). By the time we could get done with the washing and drying, the clouds had moved up all the way, completely blanking out our view. I had a mild headache by this point (presumably the altitude doing its thing), so we settled down in the dining hall for the rest of the day to relax and give our bodies enough rest before the final climb up the next day.

Day 6: Heave ho, and up we go!
After having pep talk Whatsapp calls with the family the previous night (a surreal experience in itself, given where we were), we woke up fresh and excited to head to the summit. The final climb up to ABC (around 4100 m) was more of a mind game than actual physical strain. It was only a short two-hour walk up through snowy slopes, powered by adrenaline and jaw-dropping views. With the oxygen thinning further, we made our way up slowly, huffing every few steps and pausing to take in our surroundings. We soon made it to the top, bundled in various emotions as we stopped to strike many crazy poses with the "Welcome to ABC" signboard.

After we got over that dreamlike sequence, we made our way up to the lodge to get their WiFi password and inform the folks back home. To our disappointment, their WiFiwasn’t working, and we had to make our peace with not being able to relay our achievement that day. We grabbed a hot drink and then stepped out near the campsite to see some glaciers and enjoy the feeling of being surrounded by nothing but mountains. As we sat there taking in everything in disbelief, we would hear a loud crack every now and again--the sound of an avalanche making its way down some mountain slope.

When we took another stroll after lunch, the clouds decided to close in around us, leaving even our guide perplexed for a while on the route back to our lodge. With the views disappearing, we made our way back to the cozy dining hall for the rest of the day, retiring early that night so that we could wake up in time for the glorious 5 am sunrise.

Made it!  

We couldn’t get enough of those views

Day 7: A palette in the sky
We woke up early the next morning and rushed outside to see the sky filled in hues of orange, purple, golden and blue. Now, it’s at this point where I must emphasize that absolutely no words or pictures will ever do justice to the real thing. I’m sure you’re thinking, "It’s just a sunrise, what’s the big deal?" But that sunrise was really something else, and I’m sure I’m going to run out of adjectives in my attempt to describe it. The grey-blue pre-dawn skies blended themselves gracefully with the orange and purple hues that the sun was beginning to throw out. Gradually, as though someone was running you through a shade card in a paint store, those oranges melted into multiple shades of yellow and gold, as those first rays started to make their way upon the snow-clad peaks. It was beyond stunning, and standing there, I’ll never forget the shiver I felt run down my spine--this time, not because of the cold, but because of how tiny one felt amidst these regal, imposing mountains. Any problems or challenges felt miniscule and insignificant, as I watched nature work her incredible magic with such ease. With a slightly heavy heart and clearer mind, we finally made our way in to get ready and head back down once the sun had come out in all its fiery splendor.

A paintbrush sweeps the sky

All good things must come to an end…
While I can easily go on about the rest of the trek with many more details, I realize that this post has become much longer than I imagined it to be. The journey down was again a test of mental strength, as we had planned a slightly longer way back down in order to cover Ghorepani and Poon Hill as well. Aches and pains started feeling more pronounced but again faded away as we were rewarded with more spectacular sights (something we didn’t think was possible!) as we caught a dress circle view of the Annapurna range from Poon Hill, with the royal Dhaulagiri adding another gem to the already studded crown. I must make a special mention at this point of the (in)famousUlleri steps that we encountered on our way back down on the final day. A series of 3,500-odd uneven stone steps between Ulleri and Tirkhedunga, these steps had me convinced that I would tear a ligament in my knees by the time I made it down. If you’re someone who already has knee trouble, then you should seriously consider and reconsider taking this route. But, as they say, all was well that ended well. We made it back in great shape and raring to go again!

For treks organised by South Col do visit

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Everest 2017 | Photographs

The 2017 Everest season is on it's way with the Icefall Doctors having opened the route Icefall  through to Camp II. A record number of climbers are expected on Everest this year, especially since climbers who have not been able to use their 2014 and 2015 permits need to use it this year.

Other than the guided expeditions, we have Uli Steck's attempting the Everest Lhotse traverse which promises to be a path breaking climb

Some  photographs of the mountain from different locations:

Moorise near Kala Pattar

Everest and the Lhotse - Nuptse wall from Thyanboche

Above the fifth lake of Gokyo

Approaching Kala Pattar

Sunset view Gokyo Ri 
For our treks in Nepal do visit

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Nikon D7500

Image result for new nikon d7500
Nikon has just announced the introduction of the new DX format D7500 camera using the same sensor as the advanced D500 and losing a few megapixels. If offers high ISO upto 51,200 as well as 8 frames per second shooting and 4K video.

The information about the new camera from the Nikon web site is given below:

"The Nikon D7500 was engineered to be as versatile as the photographer using it, and excels whether shooting fast-action sports, stunning low-light landscapes, distant wildlife, glamorous portraits or multimedia content," said Kosuke Kawaura, Director of Marketing and Planning, Nikon Inc. "This is a camera for the photographers who are serious about their passion, infatuated with the next frame and above all else, want speed, small size and an excellent value."

Balance Image Quality and Low-Light Performance
The new D7500 features Nikon's latest 20.9-megapixel DX-format imaging sensor and EXPEED 5 processing engine, the same high-performance heart of the Nikon D500. Designed to excel in a wide array of shooting conditions, the D7500 eliminates the optical low-pass filter (OLPF) for maximum sharpness and clarity, with the class-leading dynamic range flexibility that is a hallmark of Nikon DSLRs. The compact DX-format form factor also gives photographers extended focal length reach that is an advantage for sports and wildlife photography, especially when coupled with the vast selection of available NIKKOR lenses.
Whether shooting a landscape at dawn or sports under indoor lights, the D7500 affords the latitude of low-light capability to consistently nail the shot, time and time again. Even in the most challenging light, users can capture images with minimal noise, thanks to a native ISO range that spans from 100-51,200, and an expanded ISO range up to an astonishing 1.64 million equivalent. Those same stellar image quality and low noise virtues also apply to those shooting video, whether it's a 4K UHD production or a mesmerizing astro time-lapse of the night sky.    
Focus with Precision, Capture with ConfidenceThe Nikon D7500 DSLR gives photographers many new premium features and advanced Nikon technologies to help create incredible images and video:
  • The D7500 is fast enough to keep pace with the quickest athletes or animals; capable of shooting at up to 8 frames-per-second (fps) with full AF/AE, with an expanded buffer of up to 50 RAW/NEF (14-bit lossless compressed) or 100 JPEG images.
  • Nikon's proven 51-point AF system covers a large portion of the frame. A Group-Area AF function has been added, which is a preferred focus mode for those shooting fast action.
  • The slim, tilting 3.2" 922K-dot touchscreen LCD can be used to easily control, compose and play back, even while mounted to a tripod. The menus can also be easily navigated using the touchscreen function.
  • Like the Nikon D5 and D500, the 180K RGB Metering system is used with the Advanced Scene Recognition System to help ensure balanced exposures and fantastic color rendition in nearly any shooting situation.
  • Lightweight DX form factor allows for an agile, comfortable body with deep grip and comprehensive weather sealing. The monocoque body is durable and approximately 5% lighter than the D7200 and 16% lighter than the D500.
  • Shoot all day and well into the night with up to approximately 950 shots per charge (CIPA standard).
  • Like the D500 and D5, the Auto AF Fine Tune feature when in Live View allows users to automatically calibrate autofocus with specific lenses if needed.
  • Through the Retouch menu, users can access an in-camera Batch Process RAW Converter that can handle multiple images to optimize workflow.
  • The camera's pop-up flash can act as a Commander for remote Speedlights, while the camera is also optimized to function with line-of-sight using SB-500, SB-700 and SB-5000. It can even support the radio frequency control system of the SB-5000 when using the optional WR-R10 accessory.
  • New Auto Picture Control function analyzes the picture scene and automatically generates a tone curve within the camera.
  • Images can automatically be downloaded to a compatible smartphone, and the camera can also be triggered remotely using Built-in Bluetooth1 and Wi-Fi2 technology.
Multimedia Capabilities for CreatorsThe Nikon D7500 adds in a diverse array of advanced features for multimedia content creators, including 4K UHD (3840 × 2160/30p) video capture and the ability to produce awe-inspiring 4K UHD time-lapse movies in-camera. Video files can be stored as either MOV files or as MP4 files, for greater flexibility and easier playback on a wide range of devices. Like the D500, the D7500 offers 3-axis built-in e-VR image stabilization when shooting 1080p Full HD video, and can be easily focused using the rear touchscreen function.
For the advanced videographer, the D7500 offers simultaneous 4K UHD output to card and uncompressed via HDMI, as well as a headphone and microphone jack for pro-level audio recording and monitoring. To allow for smooth exposure adjustments, the camera also supports power aperture for smooth and step-less depth-of-field transitions while users can also keep highlights in-check using visible zebra stripes in live-view mode. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Prosenjit Dasgupta | A Conflict in Thin Air

This review was published by The Statesman  on 19th March 2017

Prosenjit Dasgupta published by Cinnamon Teal Publishing Price Rs 399/- pages 147.

At a first glance, Prosenjit Dasgupta’s A Conflict in Thin Air seems to be about the Indo- China war of 1962 but on reading this slim volume, it is much more. Dasgupta has focused in great detail with meticulous research on the history, relationship and conflicts between Tibet, China, India as well as Russia from the 8th century onwards.

Most people believe that China’s invasion of Tibet in 1959 was an event which was precipitated by the aggressive policies followed by the Peoples Republic of China led by Mao Zedong, but,  in reality, way back in the 1750s, Tibet was ‘infuriated at the Chinese interference in their affairs and frequent clashes and skirmishes broke out between them.’  However, despite this, when Nepal attacked Tibet in 1792, the Dalai Lama appealed to the Chinese emperor Chien Lung for assistance and he sent a force which beat back the Gorkha forces.

Dasgupta  analyses in detail  the events occurring in the famous Simla Conference which started in October 1913 and ended in April 1914! In this meeting, China accepted Tibet as an equal entity and even  more Tibet and Mongolia signed a treaty to respect each other’s independence without  any ‘by your leave’ to China.  Not known to many is that the Simla Conference proposed an Inner Tibet closer to China and an Outer Tibet closer to Lhasa. The first zone would be under Chinese administration and the second would enable Tibet to function as an autonomously.  Thus, the seeds were sown to create the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) which came to pass many years later.
In 1950, the Chinese carried out what was then referred to by them  as the  ‘peaceful liberation of Tibet’  and other than El Salvador in Central America no other nation though it fit to bring up this matter before the United Nations.  Pandit  Nehru, as Prime Minister of India, did protest but did not go far beyond this, possibly not wanting to ruffle Chinese feathers.

  Dasgupta finally end his treatise with the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962.  It is most interesting to read that twenty days before the war started, Lt. Gen. Umrao Singh heading 33 Corps in charge of NEFA (North Eastern Frontier Agency) was abruptly removed and a new 4 Corps under Lt. Gen. B.M.Kaul was set up to mann the frontier at the last moment!  The lack of India’s defence preparedness is aptly brought out in this chapter and the Chinese abrupt cease fire after occupying Indian territory and being in a winning position was to ‘teach India a lesson’. Once the war was over, Menon was removed as Defence Minister and Lt. Gen. B.M. Kaul resigned from the Army along with Gen P.N Thapar then Army Chief.

In conclusion, Dasgupta’s detailed research attempts to unravel the tangled threads of history of China and Tibet and the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962 and the border disputes are only symptomatic of large ranging differences between the two countries. The book attempts in a concise volume to address all these far reaching issues and in this Dasgupta has been successful.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Trekking and Photography | Interview with Sujoy Das

This interview first appeared in Livingit on March 8th 2017 - the link is below

Interview by Rachna Jain - Livingit

A photographer who enjoys walking and was inspired to pick up a camera by the beauty of the mountains. Sujoy Das combined his two passions for trekking and photography together becoming the founder of South Col Expeditions; a company offering treks and photography workshops up in the scenic landscapes of the Himalayas. His passions for mountains and photography are well blended. We at Livingit are honoured to connect with someone who has been living his passion for the last 30 years. Connecting for the #IamLivingit series, Rachana from Team Livingit got in touch with the mountain inspired photographer  for stories on how he got to where he is today, his love for the mountains and his passion for stunning landscape shots.
RJ: You have been photographing, climbing and trekking in the Himalaya for the last thirty years. Tell us something about yourself and your journey.
Sujoy Das: I was born in Calcutta and have spent most of my life there. However, my family had strong ties with Darjeeling – my grandfather built a house there called Ray Villa in the 1930s  which is still standing on the hill – it was built on the edge of a hill which had an uninterrupted view of Kangchenjunga right across the valley, possibly one of the best locations in Darjeeling.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Ray Villa circa 1940’s

Ray Villa was later sold and when I first went to Darjeeling as a child in the sixties, we lived in the town in a house called Dahlia which also had a great view of the snows, as they are referred to in Darjeeling. My grandmother used to walk a lot and she often took me on these walks – I must have been around eight or ten then and sometimes we walked to the neighbouring village of Ghoom and back. We used to live below the house of the great Tenzing Norgay, the first man to summit Everest along with Edmund Hillary, and I still remember meeting Tenzing and his dogs on these walks.  To see the great man himself was an inspiration and I still treasure the autograph I have. There is also a famous photo studio in Darjeeling called Das Studio (no relation to me!) and I used to go there every day to look at the big mountain blow ups, that Durga Das Pradhan, one of the Das brothers, had shot and beautifully enlarged.
Unlike today, Darjeeling was a beautiful hill station then with leafy lanes, moss drenched rocks, waterfalls gushing down the hillside backed by that superb view of Kangchenjunga. Darjeeling was my introduction to the Himalaya and to photography and my first trek was in the hills across Darjeeling – the Singalila ridge of Sandakphu and Phalut. After I completed school in Kolkata and went to college, I continued to visit Darjeeling and later on ventured into Sikkim.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Climbing a snow slope in West Sikkim in the Kangchenjunga region – note the primitive equipment Bata power shoes and makeshift stick circa 1980

That was, in fact, the start of my Sikkim book project, even though I did not know it then. Most of the treks which I undertook were with a friend from school Srijit Dasgupta and were low budget shoe-string affairs. We often boarded a ‘Rocket Bus’ as it was known then from Calcutta and reached Siliguri in the foothills at dawn. From there another packed bus or jeep used to take us into the mountains either to Darjeeling or Sikkim. There were no porters or guides with us – we could not afford them. We carried our own backpacks with our own supplies and stayed at the dak bungalows or mountain huts at a nominal charge – something like Rs 20 a night!  If there was no hut we used to bivouac in the open sometimes under a rock or stone wall.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
An emergency night stop near Phalut after getting lost the previous evening circa 1982

My interest in photography, in fact, grew from my interest in the mountains – I wanted to make better photographs of the Himalaya and I started reading up all I could about photography – I borrowed books and magazines like Amateur Photographer from the British Council library – those were the days before the internet and mobile phones. A friend of my father’s gifted me his old black and white enlarger and processing equipment so I started to learn by trial and error how to process black and white film at home in the bathroom.  That was a great learning experience and now with digital photography that experience has gone.
RJ: When did you first think of becoming a photographer?
Sujoy Das: 
I don’t think it was a conscious decision – I started photographing very early when in school and as I grew more and more into it I started getting opportunities to work for some magazines and newspapers and also doing freelance assignments for friends and family and that increased over the years.
RJ: Any favourite photographers? What is your biggest source of inspiration for your work?
Sujoy Das:
 In the area of mountain photography, which is my major interest it would be Vittorio Sella and Galen Rowell, both masters in their field. Sella was a pioneer in many ways – he used large format cameras at high altitude, including the Himalayas and the Karakoram, and some of his images are just magical! Rowell was also an amazing landscape photographer – he pioneered some techniques including the use of split neutral density filters and has a filter series named after him! I am also a great fan of Raghubir Singh – his street photographs were intricately layered and it looks easy but is very difficult to achieve. It was extremely sad to lose him so early.
RJ: What photographic equipment did you start off with?
Sujoy Das: 
Well, I had an Agfa Click III first and then a small Kodak Instamatic! They were popular beginners’ cameras in the late sixties and early seventies. Then I moved over to a Pentax Spotmatic which is an SLR and finally soon after college got a Nikon FM. I have stayed with Nikon ever since – I have both film and digital Nikons at the moment.

RJ: Among the gadgets that you’ve collected over the past 30 years of your career is there anything you feel you could’ve saved on?

Sujoy Das: Not really – I never had much money to invest in photography – it was always a struggle to buy something new and I made do with the minimum. For example, I never used the top of the line and most expensive Nikons like F2AS, F4, F5 –I was quite satisfied with their mid-range like FM/ FE/ F100 etc. and even today in digital era I use the mid-range full frames like D610 or D750 etc.
RJ: Do you always have a camera with you?
Sujoy Das: Well, nowadays I always have an iPhone with me and it’s not the latest – it’s a 5S!  I am pretty happy with the iPhone – I like the panorama and video features as well and use it quite a bit – perfect for posting on Facebook and Instagram – earlier before mobile phones, in the mountains, I always had a camera usually one of the smaller Nikon SLR’s with a fixed lens and maybe a lens or two in my backpack.
RJ: You are the founder of South Col Expeditions which runs treks and photo workshops in the Himalaya. How has the experience been? Enriching so many lives with your passion?
Sujoy Das: It’s been a great experience. Many of the South Col trekkers came to me as clients but have become close friends over the years. There are some who have done multiple treks with me year after year and there are some who don’t trek with any other company other than South Col!  It has also been great taking them up to locations which are off the beaten track for mountain views which they might have missed had they been on their own and enjoying our evenings in the camp discussing different subjects.
Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
RJ: What are your essentials when packing for a trek?
Sujoy Das: Other than the regular stuff like t-shirts, thermals, boots, cap, gloves, goggles etc, I would never go without a good down jacket and sleeping bag. At high altitude both these are essential and can save your life especially when it is very cold. Water tablets and a good headlamp are also on the essential list along with an emergency medicine and first aid kit.
RJ: What are the mistakes that most of the new photographers tend to make?
Sujoy Das: Well, I think they tend to get equipment oriented. I was also like that –I used to buy photo magazines and analyze new cameras, new lenses and wonder whether they would make better pictures than my existing equipment. Now I realize that it doesn’t matter – to quote a cliché ‘the best camera with you is the one in your hand’ and if it is an iPhone then that’s it.  Also when you are new to photography there is a possibility that you would try to copy other photographers work and that’s a strict no-no – you need to develop your own style and vision from the very beginning.
RJ: Locations and weather conditions are definitely a deciding factor in the success of a photograph, how do you handle the unpredictability of the two?
Sujoy Das: Well regarding locations, when you are walking through the mountains you see viewpoints which look attractive and you do your shooting on the way – if the light is not suitable and you can’t go back as you are trekking to another night stop then that photograph is lost. However, sometimes when camping or spending the night at a lodge there are locations around which will work in the right light like before dawn, the golden hour before sunset etc. For this, you need to be ready and waiting at the right time and hope you get your shot.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Photographing Primulas in the upper Yumthang Valley in North Sikkim

For weather conditions, you can’t really do much. Himalayan weather is unpredictable and when you expect bright sunshine you may be enveloped in fog! Having said that, it is also possible to make a photograph in inclement weather – many of my best shots have been taken when the weather has packed up or is just clearing after a storm.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Clearing spring storm on Thamserku in the Gokyo valley

So bad weather is not necessarily an impediment to getting a photograph – it’s just that you will get a different sort of photograph which may infact, be more dramatic than the one you intended in the first place.
RJ: You are the co- author and photographer of the book SIKKIM – A Travelers Guide with Arundhati Ray which was a finalist in the Banff Book Competition in the Adventure Travel category. Tell us something about it?
Sujoy Das: I spent more than fifteen years on and off shooting in Sikkim. It had become an obsession for me to get this book published and it was my first book. The proof and photographs were sent to around fifteen publishers all over the world including Indian publishers and all of them rejected it. In between the rejections, I used to keep going back to Sikkim and shooting different locations and events. Then finally two friends of mine Rukun Advani and Anuradha Roy, who is now an acclaimed author, started their own publishing house, Permanent Black.  I asked them if they would do this book and they agreed. So that’s how Sikkim was published and interestingly the book sold very well – it went to three editions – it is now out of print and I am thinking of updating it for a fourth edition if possible.
RJ: Your book Nepal Himalaya – A Journey Through Time is specifically dedicated to black and white photographs. Any particular reason?
Sujoy Das: One day, some years ago,  I was in Pilgrims Bookshop in Kathmandu, which is one of the biggest bookshops in Nepal and has a superb collection of mountain books. I was looking at the big coffee table books on Nepal and I noticed that almost all of them were in colour. I asked the owner whether any recent black and white photography books had been done on Nepal – he could not come up with any. So that was the seed of the idea to do a black and white book on Nepal which would look different and stay away from the stereotype images.
Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
RJ: You also did another powerful book called Nepal for the Indian Traveller. Tell us something about that.
Sujoy Das: This was a Lonely Planet India publication – it followed the Lonely Planet layout and design which is similar for all their guide books. Even though I knew Nepal well I had to research a lot for this book as Lonely Planet is very particular about correct information and normally requires the author to visit the location before commenting. So most of what is covered in the book is based on personal experience – I recommended hotels where I had stayed, restaurants where I had eaten, travel companies I had found reliable and so on. In fact even now sometimes I refer to the book myself if I need something!
RJ: If you had to choose one, which of your photographs is your all-time favourite, and why?
Sujoy Das: This is the most difficult question of the whole lot! There are so many… it’s very hard to make a choice and the one I have selected today is, of course, one of my favorites’.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
The kitchen of Lingshed monastery Zanskar

Tenzin Tsewang one of my trusted guides and I were on a trek across Zanskar from Lamayuru to Padum. A couple of days into the trek we reached the village of Lingshed. It was lunch time and we were both hungry. The weather was also not very good which is unusual in September. Tenzin knew a monk in the monastery at Lingshed and said we would go there hoping to get something to eat. So, we sat down in the monastery kitchen and Tibetan tea was served. It was dark in the kitchen but there were some interesting elements and I was wondering how to make a photograph. Suddenly, the sun came up through the clouds and illuminated the kitchen beautifully in splendid back lighting. I think even if I had a set of lights I could not have done it better – I shot three or four photographs and then the sun went behind the clouds again. The best one of the lot is the picture above and the man sitting next to the pillar on the right is Tenzin. I feel it conveys beautifully the ambience of a kitchen in the high Himalaya.
RJ: Similarly with treks, any particular favourite trek that will always hold a very special place?
Sujoy Das: I think it would be the Green Lakes trek – the base camp of Kangchenjunga in North Sikkim along the Zemu valley.  Green Lakes had become some sort of Holy Grail for me. I have done this trek twice once way back in the spring of 1987 when I was photographing for my Sikkim book and again in November 2014 when I took a small South Col team to the base camp.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
View of Kangchenjunga from my tent at Green Lakes in November 2014

The trek is in a restricted area and it if very difficult to get permissions. What struck me on both occasions was the pristine condition of the valley especially the forests of the Zemu which are quite incredible.  There are no villages in there and you meet no one – it is pristine wilderness. Infact, I did a photo essay just on the forests of the Zemu without any mountains – it is here .
RJ: What is a piece of advice you would offer to aspiring photographers looking to make their passion into their profession?
Sujoy Das: I think they need to understand that it’s not an easy job to make a profession out of photography. If you are able to get a photography job with a magazine or newspaper then you would earn a monthly salary and that would keep you going though your own personal projects and creativity may get blunted. However, freelance photojournalism, travel, magazine stories are difficult to find and payments are also mostly inadequate.  Sometimes it is easier to follow your passion as a part time photographer and do the assignments and stories that you are really interested in.

Photography and Trekking in The Himalayas with Sujoy Das
Late winter at the base camp of Annapurna I with Gandarva Chui and the ridge to Macchapuchare behind circa 2014

RJ: What’s next on your bucket list?
Sujoy Das: I don’t really have a bucket list though I would like to go beyond the Himalaya and visit Tibet, Patagonia and the New Zealand Alps once in my life.
It is not always straight forward and easy to live off of a passion. Living your passion simply means allowing ourselves to give it a priority in our life, whether as our profession, full time or part time, or as a hobby. 
You can follow Sujoy Das here

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rumtse to Tso Moriri Trek | Ladakh

South Col Expeditions  has a fixed departure trek in Ladakh in early autumn. There are some seats available for this trek so if interested please do sign up!

August 30th to to September 10th 2017 Leh to Leh

If you are fit and can manage only one trek in Ladakh, I recommend this one. The trails are relatively free of noisy tourists who prefer the great herd at Markha. Here, the rolling, billowing grasslands stretching out as far as the horizon are usually empty, giving one the sense of infinite, almost primordial space. Occassionally you will chance upon a nomad on horseback herding his great lumbering, shaggy yaks.  Ranging across the western extension of the high Tibetan or Changthang plateau, the trek starts at over 4000 m at Rumtse, well above that throughout, often peaking over 5000m at the passes. And though this at first may be daunting, once you have acclimatised the walk is surprisingly easy on the legs as the trails— mostly well-defined stone and gravel-free paths— meander gently through velvet-soft pastures. . This area is colder and windier than other treks in Ladakh, so ensure you have a good parka and a warm sleeping bag.

Who should join this trek?
A good choice for regular hill walkers, high level of fitness required.  Prior trekking experience is advisable
1) Walking times: average 5 to 8 hours walking per day
2) Altitude: up to 5,450 metres - most of the trek stays above 4000 metres with passes above 5000 metres.
3) Terrain: for some of the time following well-travelled trails although also likely to encounter rough and rocky conditions.
4) Remoteness: the trek is in a remote mountain area and a long distance from the roadhead and the nearest cities. There is no   mobile phones and wifi  connectivity.

This route description is courtesy Sonia Jabbar

Day 1: Delhi to Leh by flight

Days 2 and 3: Acclimatisation days in Leh and around.

Day 4 Rumtse-Kyamar (4400m) Time: 4 to 5 hours 9 km Level: Easy
We drive to Rumtse (2hours) , a small village at 4,200 m (14,000 ft), is where your pack horses will meet you to load up for the trek. Walk up the highway from the tea stall and at the sign which points to the Highest Idli-Dosa joint in the world, alas, turn away to the left or east down towards the river. Cross the river at the point where the large rocks form a convenient bridge to the disused jeepable dirt road constructed by the army. Follow east around a small spur and then turn south along a small stream. Walk upstream for about a kilometre and then cross stream, climbing up small plateau. Follow the well-defined path for about an hour which turns east (left) and then runs south-east back towards the stream which you will have to cross. Do not follow the stream as it veers to the east. Continue south along the bottom of a wide, grassy stream-fed valley for 2-3 hours until you come upon a couple of large mani walls. This marks the beginning of Kyamar at 4,400 m (14,600 ft.).

Day 5 Kyamar to Mandalachan 4 hours to Tisaling (4250m) 8 hours 15 km Level: Moderate to Difficult 
Follow the jeep track on the eastern edge of the valley which suddenly widens. The road takes a long winding route to get to the Kumur La. But there are short cuts: well-defined pony tracks cutting across the road. A pleasant 2-2.5 hours climb is over a very gentle gradient (except about an hour from the top where the track is a little steeper), will take you to the Kumur pass (5080 m/ 16,764 ft.) marked by cairns and prayer flags. From the top do not head straight down towards the V of the valley. Instead find a path skirting the top of the hill on the right. Forty-five minutes to an hour along this easy path and you will find it curving to the south, or right before zigzagging down to the base of the valley at Mandalachan. You can have lunch here.
The main valley through which the stream runs lies north-south. Cross the stream and find a smaller valley directly in front, or to the east south-east. Walk up the trail for half an hour as it turns east and becomes quite steep. But it is only about another half hour to forty minutes up to the Mandalachan La, 5090 m (16,800 ft.).
Follow the path which skirts the top of the hill on your right, or south. Walk in a south easterly direction for about forty-five minutes until you round a spur and find yourself facing another east-west valley. The path zig-zags down to the floor of the valley where you cross a small stream and either camp there or walk another 15 minutes further south to a larger stream (4250 metres)

Day 6 Tisaling to Ponganagu (4500m)  7 hours 15 km Level: Difficult
FromTisaling proceed south towards a large hill. Here the path is not as well defined as it was earlier but find a saddle-like dip at the top of the hill which is the Shibuk pass. Running from the bottom to the top in the middle of the hill is a dry nullah. Zig-zag up either to the left or right of this. Watch for Bharal in this area. It takes only about an hour to get to the top which is over 5000 m (16,500 ft.) Once over the pass walk straight down heading south to the bottom of the valley. Walk along the valley which narrows as it turns slightly to the west. Two hours later find a well-sheltered campsite at Shibuk. Either camp for the night or proceed further south following the path which is now visible to Ponganagu on Tso Kar lake.
From Shibuk the valley narrows into a gorge and the path runs along its right side until the gorge opens up onto a vast sandy plain. Follow the track down into the plain. Do not be tempted to walk east around the hill in front towards Tso Kar which will be visible for this is a much longer way. Walk in a south-westerly direction over the top of the hill. The sandy soil makes this hard going. Once at the top you’ll find you’re on a small plateau across which runs a path defined by cairns. Cross the plateau and the path will lead down towards Ponganagu (4500 metres) by Tso Kar. Unfortunately the campsite is dusty and a favourite of tourists from Leh who have 4-wheeled down to the lake.

Day 7: Ponganagu to Riyul Time: 2-3 hours Level: Easy Riyul to Nuruchan (4350m) 4 hours 16 km moderate
If you’re not absolutely dead tired, another two to three hours of easy walking on almost flat motorable road along the right or western edge of the lake will lead you to a large chorten beside lush pasture land which marks the campsite of Riyul. You can have lunch here.
Then, follow the jeep road which runs on the right of the pasture moving south. The road traverses soft, sandy soil which makes the first few hours difficult walking. Some 4x4 have made tracks moving south-east. Do not follow this. Carry on south until you reach the fields of Nuruchan (4350 metres). If you are walking from Ponganagu you may want to camp here. The campsite is further south from the village. The track follows the river upstream, curving to the right.

Day 8 Nuruchan to Gyama Barma (5150m) Time: 7 to 8 hours  16 km Level: Tough
Cross the river at some point upstream. Wherever you cross you will have to take your boots off and wade across the calf-deep waters. Climb onto the other bank and climb up the plateau in front. Walk in a south easterly direction. The path is well defined and climbs very gradually to the top of the Horlam Kunga pass. From Nuruchan it should have taken no more than three to four hours to the top. From the pass follow the path which goes down rapidly to the base of the valley in a south-easterly direction to Rajungkaru. There are many places to camp here. It’s also a favourite with the nomads. Although their camps are picturesque watch out for their large, fierce dogs.
From Rajungkaru, follow the river upstream until you see a rocky plateau with nomad camps. You’ll need to climb up to the plateau, cross the stream and head straight south towards the Kyamayuri La 5410 m (17,853 ft.). Do not head towards the south west which leads over the Barma Pass. Instead, follow the well-defined track, keeping to the left or east side of the mountain. The last hour is difficult as the track becomes steep and the soil is soft and crumbling. It often snows on this pass so keep a jacket handy. From the top follow the track which runs along the left or east side of the mountain down to a vast, grassy valley ringed by snow peaks on the south west. A river runs east-west. Either camp here at Gyama Barma for the night or if you aren’t knackered then continue upstream until the track moves south east up a rocky mountain. You will have to cross the stream to get to this.

Day 9 Gyama Barma to Gyama (5100m) 3 to 4 hours 9 km Level: Moderate
From Gyama Barma it is a steep one hour climb up to Kartse La which is again well over 5000 m. From the top the path runs down a meadow gradually reaching the bottom of the hill at Gyama after another hour or two.. There are two streams here. A small stream running west-east (right-left) and a larger one running southwest-northeast. Camp along the small stream as it is well sheltered. The larger stream runs through a windy plain which would get cold at night.

Day 10 Gyama to Korzok (4500m) Time: 6-7 hours 14 km Level: Moderate to Difficult
At Gyama cross the large southwest-northeast stream which will take you to the eastern side of the valley. The pony track which runs below the Mani wall on the left leads south-east up a smaller valley. Climb steadily for a couple of hours, traversing a small grassy plain and then entering a narrow gorge. You will need to criss cross the shallow stream in the gorge at several points. When the gorge opens up again find the path turning left or east over a grassy knoll until you come upon the prayer flags and cairns marking the Yalung Nyau La. From Gyama this would have taken about three hours. You can catch a glimpse of Tso Moriri from the pass. The track moves down steeply towards the east onto a broad, dry plain, eventually turning into a small pleasant green valley traversed by a stream. This area provides excellent campsites. A little further down towards Korzok and you will again run into campers from Leh who have made the journey to Tso Moriri by jeep.
Tip: Check out the Gompa at Korzok which houses a tooth relic of Kashyapa Buddha in the Heart Chakra of the Buddha statue in the main prayer hall.

Day 11: Tso Moriri to Leh by road Time: 6 hours

Day 12: Leh to Delhi by flight

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