singapore

Apparently Singapore is a pretty expensive city to stay in. We looked hard to find an affordable yet convenient rental on AirBnb, but gave up and ended up reserving a few nights at a backpackers’ hostel. When we arrived at the hostel, we were drenched in sweat. We found that the hostel wasn’t air conditioned, and we found that the room we were staying in had five bunk beds, so there were possibly going to be ten people trying to sleep in the humid heat.

Our recently met travel companions Sophia and Suzy had smartly booked a room in a hotel, and they found that there were rooms still available in their hotel, so we ended up cancelling our reservation at the hostel and booking a room at their hotel. It ended up being about $120 a night, which is close to double the next most expensive place we’d stayed at during this trip, but we decided it was a fair price to pay to be able to sleep at night. We lost the deposit that we paid for our hostel reservation, though in hindsight it wasn’t too bad because we got to store our bags there for the first day, and a locker at the train station would’ve probably cost the same as the deposit.

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We didn’t have too much of an itinerary for Singapore, more than anything it was a foodie destination for all of us. Our first stop was to Clarke Quay to visit Jumbo seafood for chili crab. Clarke Quay seemed to have a cool night life with various bars with bands playing live music, we would stop at one of them later on our trip where we discovered a cool local cover band called 3AM.

Singapore - chili crab @ jumbo seafood

One food I was really looking forward to trying in Singapore was the chili crab. It was pretty good, spicy and sweet and savory at the same time. Since I love crab so much I may try to make this at home sometime.

maxwell center. first singapore hawker center experience.

I’d heard much about the hawker center experience and was looking forward to visiting one to see what all the fuss is about. It’s kind of overwhelming, there are a ridiculous number of food stalls packed in a small area, so it’s hard to decide what to eat. Being a hawker center noob we just gravitated to the stalls with long lines of people ordering.

hainanese chicken rice

Hainanese chicken and rice was another dish that I was really looking forward to trying. We found a stall at the hawker center that had a long line of people waiting for it. It didn’t disappoint– the chicken was very moist, and the rice had soaked up a lot of the chicken flavor. I actually eat this at a restaurant back at home from time to time, but it’s much better in Singapore.

the marina bay sandsThe Marina Bay Sands is pretty cool, even from just an architectural standpoint. There’s a swimming pool and a park on the suspended roof, to me it boggles the mind that they can have that kind of structural load suspended in the air like that.

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There’s a bar at the top of the Marina Bay Sands called Ku De Ta. We went to the top so that we could get a view of the pool and of the skyline. The drinks were seriously expensive. This is the most expensive cocktail I’ve ever had. You’d think if you’re spending more than $20 for a drink it’d be strong at least, but no, this tasted pretty watered down.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnother architectural marvel is the Cloud Forest, which happened to be next to the architectural marvel that is the Marina Bay Sands. In fact you can see the Marina Bay Sands through the glass.

indoor waterfall at the cloud forest

The Cloud Forest is a humongous indoor arboretum that’s large enough to house a 35 meter tall waterfall.

chinatown

We spent a good amount of time in Chinatown shopping for souvenirs, but they also had a pretty good and cheap hawker center.

pork noodles

The hawker center in Chinatown was where I had my cheapest meal in Singapore. It came to about $3 USD, and came with dry noodles, a bowl of soup, and even came with an iced lemon jello dessert (not pictured.)

layers of temple

This ended up being one of my favorite pictures from the trip. There’s a pretty big Buddhist temple at Chinatown, this was taken near the entrance.

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We went to the night safari. I kinda wish we had gotten there a little earlier so we could walk around more because I really enjoyed it. In concept I guess it’s not all that special, it’s basically not much different from a zoo. But it was cool because it’s open at night when the animals are most active. If I go back I think I’d want to take a camera that’s really good in the dark, maybe a Nikon D750 or Sony a7. My camera was pretty much pushed to the limits by the darkness there.

Singapore is a place I’ve been wanting to visit for a while. I would have to say it’s a nice place to visit, the city is clean, the food is great, and except for the night safari it’s easy to get around by subway. But I think for me, once is enough. It was too hot and humid for me, and this was in the winter. I’d probably die or at the very least be an incredibly uncomfortable sweaty mess if I ever went in the summertime.

passing through prague

The last city on the European leg of our journey was Prague. At this point we were starting to get weary of the winter weather in Europe and were looking forward to the warmth of southeastern Asia. And the lack of sleep was catching up to us. So we decided to take it easy, and just hit some of the main sites in Prague that were close by, spending most of our time at the old town square and Prague Castle.

waiting for the clock to chime

No trip to Prague would be complete without watching the Astronomic clock strike. Even though I’d seen it before it was still sorta mysterious and magical to watch it again.

view of the old town square from the clock tower

We decided to pick up a Prague card, which included a trip to the top of the clock tower. The view of the old town square is nice, especially since it was decked out for Christmas. It had a Christmas market similar to the ones in Vienna.

the charles bridge from our boat

We probably didn’t get our money’s worth on the Prague card, since we didn’t visit any museums and we didn’t ride the subway very much. But we did get to ride a boat underneath the Charles Bridge, which we probably wouldn’t have done otherwise.

spires

One of the things I love most about Prague is the architecture. There’s a ton of old buildings and towers with beautiful spires.

changing of the guard

Much of our sightseeing time in Prague was spent at the Prague Castle complex. We arrived just before the daily changing of the guard. I had staked out a spot outside of the gates to watch and take photos of the ceremonial changing.

musicians for the changing of the guard

But then I later found that it was actually more interesting to watch from inside the gates. Inside of the gates you can watch the band playing in the windows, and you can watch the officers performing their inspection of the soldiers.

waiting for the symphony concert

Inside of Lobkowicz Palace there’s a daily classical concert. The ensemble and performers apparently changes daily. We had a piano, flute, and violin perform a lot of classical pieces, some of which I recognized even with my extremely limited knowledge of classical music. I wasn’t sure on etiquette during these sorts of things so I didn’t take a picture during the performance, but in hindsight I wish I had since they were so talented.

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Even though it seemed like we didn’t spend too much time in the castle, we stayed until it started to get dark. During the golden hour the lights came on at St Vitus cathedral, and the tree in front of the cathedral was lit up as well, making for a much better nicer photo than the one I took earlier in the afternoon.

old town at night

By the time we reached the front of the castle it was getting pretty dark. The lights were starting to come on throughout the old town. Prague is a beautiful city, and the old town is even more beautiful at night.

The city of Prague holds a special place in my heart. Prague is the first city I had ever visited in Europe, and the similarly titled “Passage to Prague” is my first trip journal on this blog for an international destination. The train ride from Prague to Vienna during that trip was my first time riding the rails through Europe, and it was also my first experience traveling solo.

It’s been almost two years since that trip, and I’ve seen a little more of Europe since then. And it’s amazing to see how far I’ve come as a traveler– back then Prague and Vienna were the destinations, this time around Vienna and Prague were just stepping stones in a much longer journey. But even though I’ve become somewhat of a more seasoned traveler, it’s nice to see that places like Prague still have a bit of magic left in them.

vienna revisited

After spending a couple of days in Venice we hopped on a night train to Vienna. The sleeper bunks were all booked, so we ended up in second class seats for the eleven hour ride. It ended up being okay though, because we ended up in a train car that had separate little rooms for the second class seats, and we ended up being the only people in our room, with an entire row of seats for each of us, at least until we started to get close to Vienna.

As we reached the city outskirts the train began to fill up with people commuting to work. When we arrived at the train station in Vienna we hopped onto the crowded subway to get us to our AirBnb rental. The rental was owned by a nice Indian lady who worked as an IT consultant for the World Bank. It was pretty basic accommodations, and it smelled like curry, but it was fairly cheap and conveniently located near a subway station.

schnitzel

During our long train ride to Vienna I had messaged an Austrian friend who was from Vienna about where to get a good Wiener Schnitzel. I knew he wasn’t in town, since he was working on his PhD in the US. But his wife Eun-Young was in Vienna, so we met with her for schnitzels at Figlmüller, the famous restaurant in Vienna that’s been serving schnitzels for more than a century. The schnitzels there were huge and super filling, but surprisingly their mixed salad was pretty awesome too. I don’t think I’ve ever raved about a salad, but honestly I liked it so much I’d consider flying back for it.

vienna city center from the base of the alps. too bad it was kinda overcast.

Eun-Young showed us around town for a bit– she took us up to a coffee shop at the base of the Alps. There would’ve been a nice view of the city from there, except that it was pretty overcast that day.

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She also took us to some sites that are missed by most tourists. There’s an interesting horizontal clock that I missed last time I was in Vienna. She also took us to Vienna University, which had many famous alumni including Erwin Schrodinger whose famous wave equation I’m sure I learned about in physics class in college but now I have utterly no clue what the equation means.

the christmas market at city hall

We went to the Christmas market at Rathaus park. The park was packed with people looking at all the decorations and the booths filled with ornaments and foods.

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My favorite part of the Christmas market was the Weihnachtspunsch (Christmas punch) which was warm and fairly heavy with the alcohol, which made it go down even warmer and lifted the spirits. It was nice to walk around with a mug of the stuff admiring all the decorations.

more lights and more crowds in the shopping district

December seems like a great time to visit Vienna. Not only the Christmas markets, but the entire town seemed like it was decked out in Christmas lights and decorations. And even pretty late at night there were tons of people out. That’s another thing that I love about Vienna, it’s probably one of the safest cities in the world to be out at night.

christmas market at schonbrunn

We visited Schonbrunn palace. There was a Christmas market there too, though by now we were kinda done with the Christmas market thing. The tour of the palace was nice, the palace retained most of its original furnishings, so you were able to see what life was like inside the palace.

belveder gardensYou can’t see it in this picture, but Belvedere palace had a Christmas market too. (They’re basically everywhere.) But we weren’t there for the market, we were there to tour the art exhibits.

So this was actually my second time in Vienna, and even though I’ve been here twice now, I can honestly say I wouldn’t mind returning again. By now I’ve seen most of the palaces and museums in the city, and I’ve seen more than my fair share of the Christmas markets. So I guess there’s not much more to see from a tourist perspective, except maybe visit the famous symphony. But there’s something about Vienna (and Austria as a whole) that seems inviting and comforting to me. I think out of all the places I’ve been to in Europe so far, it would be the place that I could most see myself living.

venice

Out of the cities that we were visiting in Europe, Venice is the one that I was most looking forward to. It was also the city that I was most worried about our accommodations. We had rented a small apartment on AirBnb, but we didn’t have an address to the apartment. Our train arrived late at night, and we were supposed to meet on a bridge to get our keys to the apartment. Sounds pretty sketchy, right? To make things even more interesting, our host was actually unable, so we were supposed to meet the host’s friend on the bridge, but we didn’t actually have their contact information.

the area near our apartment in venice is desserted at night.

When we arrived near the bridge we found the area eerily deserted. I was actually quite surprised, because I thought Venice would be overrun with tourists. I took a picture from the bridge I thought we were supposed to meet at. It turned out that there were actually two bridges pretty close to each other, and we weren’t exactly sure which one we were supposed to meet at. Thankfully as we walked between the bridges we met our host’s friend.

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In the morning we got a better look at our apartment– it was actually a pretty charming little place. The back of the apartment actually opened directly into a canal. The neighborhood had few tourists, there seemed to be a fair number of students who lived in the neighborhood, which made sense because there was a college nearby.

gondolas

My first impression of Venice is that it’s a very beautiful city, and out of all the cities I’ve been to I’d have to say it has the most unique character. It has the same sort of old world character that most of the places I’ve been to Europe has, but it’s unique because everything centers on water.

UPS deliveries by boat

Even UPS delivers by boat in Venice.

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The gondolas are the famous way of traveling around the city, but we ended up not riding any. We traveled mostly on foot, though we rode the vaporettos (the ferry system) a fair amount too.

san marco square

Like most cities in Europe there’s a big public square. In Venice it’s San Marco Square.

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The square is famous for its pigeons, but they’re trying to crack down on tourists feeding pigeons. There are signs that say “Please don’t feed the pigeons,” but these Asian tourists apparently didn’t pay attention to them.

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The touristy areas are filled with little shops and various carts selling Venetian masks and various trinkets from Burano and Murano, the islands north of Venice.

ferry at murano island, which is known for its glass work

We spent a day taking the ferry to Murano and Burano. The island of Murano has various glass art displays throughout the island, including this one of ducks.

glass blowing

Murano is known for its glass artisans, they produce a lot of glassware using the technique of glass blowing. They’re also known for glass sculpture, which is used to produce statues and other artwork. We saw a quick demonstration of both techniques.

glass symphony orchestra

Throughout Murano (and throughout Venice as well) there are many shops that have miniature glass sculptures for sale. There’s everything from animals to inanimate objects like boats to even full orchestras made of glass.

burano, venice's colorful cousin

From Murano we took a ferry to Burano, which is Venice’s colorful sister island to the north. Unfortunately it was raining when we arrived, so the colors of the houses weren’t as vibrant as usual.

burano is known for its lace

Whereas Murano is known for its glass, Burano is famous for its lace. There were many lace shops on the island.

lace master at work

This lace shop even had a granny creating new pieces of lace. It seems like a time consuming process, which explains why everything was so expensive.

fish soup. good seafood in Burano.

Supposedly seafood’s pretty good on Burano, which makes sense because it’s an island. We had fish soup at one of the trattorias on the island. Maybe it was because I was cold and wet, but the soup really hit the spot. Well actually it was really good, probably among the best seafood soups I’ve ever had.

I was really looking forward to visiting Venice, and it didn’t disappoint. It definitely has its own character that’s very different from anyplace else I’ve visited. And it was nice visiting Murano and Burano, which had their own unique character as well. That being said, I don’t know if I’d ever come back to Venice– it’s one of those places to visit once, just to cross it off a bucket list. There’s not too much there that I’d need to see again.

mad tired in milan

The first international stop of our round the world trip was Milan. In truth I wasn’t really looking forward to Milan. There were other people who got our crazy flight deal that had to fly into Milan as well, but they decided they would skip touring the city and flew out the same day. Tim and I decided that we wouldn’t spend the night in Milan, but since our flight arrived early in the morning and our train would be leaving late in the evening, we had the entire day to explore the city. I’d been to Milan before, and I felt like I had already seen all there is to see there, so I thought I would be just seeing the same stuff over again.

they take christmas seriously here in milan

The main attraction in Milan is the Duomo, the big cathedral in the center of town. Like most big squares in most big Western cities during this part of the year it had a big Christmas tree, although this one was just getting setup.

milan

Even though I’ve seen the Duomo before, I was actually kinda looking forward to seeing it again because of a chance encounter at the airport in New York. We were sitting at the gate waiting for our flight to board when we saw two kids playing pretty rough. Tim, I guess because he has nephews and nieces that are pretty young, tried to scold the kid. The little girl stopped beating up on her brother, but then started hitting Tim and me. We were wondering where the parents were, when an older gentleman came over and told us to please be patient with the little girl, since she was being adopted from a rough orphanage in Serbia. We ended up talking with the nice old man for a bit, and found that he was originally from Milan, where we were headed. He said to look out for two things that are easily overlooked at the Duomo, one is the statue of Saint Bartholomew, the other was the calendar on the floor.

The statue was pretty easy to find based on his description. It was pretty unique looking because you could see Saint Bartholomew’s muscle definition pretty clearly, that’s because he was skinned alive and wears his skin draped over his shoulders. We walked all over the church looking for the calendar, eventually finding it near the entrance. It’s easily overlooked, and almost everybody walks right past it without noticing it. The calendar consists of a line with the zodiac symbols embedded along it. Apparently at noon each day a beam of light shines through the ceiling and a circle of light appears on the calendar. Unfortunately we couldn’t see it because we arrived after noon, and there was probably too much ambient light to see it anyways, since the door was open.

park in milan. forgot the name. nice foliage.

We went to Castello Sforzesco and took some pictures of the castle. I think we exited at a different side than I had last time, because I saw these park grounds for the first time. There were nice colors in the trees even though it’s pretty much the end of autumn.

santa maria della grazie. home of da vinci's last supper. it was closed.

The church of Santa Maria delle Grazia is the home of Leonardo’s famous Last Supper painting, which I missed out on last time I was in Milan because I didn’t buy tickets in advance. Alas I would miss out again because the church is closed on Mondays.

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There’s a small church near the Duomo that has walls decorated in bones. I missed this last time I was in Milan. It’s a bit morbid, but this picture kinda describes how I was feeling at that point of the trip. I felt pretty dead, since I wasn’t able to sleep much during our overnight flight from New York. I’m pretty bad at travel math, but Tim calculated that we would be up for 30 straight hours. I really wanted to take a nap here, since it was pretty quiet, but Tim had something against sleeping near the remains of so many dead people. So yeah. I was feeling pretty dead at this point, but there was a light up ahead, our train ride to Venice was just a few hours ahead. And after that there would be much rejoicing. Okay maybe not so much rejoicing, but there would be awesomeness after that train ride. It’s kind of like the picture– there’s death, but there’s a light at the end of that tunnel, then the heavens afterward…

aperitivo in milan.

The last time I was in Milan I discovered the aperitivo, which is basically the Milanese version of happy hour. I thought the whole concept of the aperitivo was pretty awesome– you buy a drink and they give you free food, unlike an American happy hour where the food is just discounted. So we walked around the area between the Duomo and the train station looking for a place that had aperitivos. After a while we couldn’t find one and sat down at a random deli feeling utterly defeated. We each ordered a slice of pizza or something, and ate dejectedly. At 6 o’clock a waiter came and brought over an aperitivo menu– so apparently we weren’t defeated, we were just early. So we each ordered a drink, and they brought over the aperitivos, which consisted of various breads and deli meats and olives. That’s something I need to keep in mind in case I ever find myself in Milan again– aperitivo starts at 6 (which is kinda confusing because that’s usually when happy hours usually end where I’m from…)

After our little semi happy hour (it’s hard to be truly happy when you’re utterly exhausted) we had a train ride to Venice. So it seems like a day in Milan was plenty more time than needed. I guess I’m being a bit harsh in my judgment of Milan– it’s not a bad city at all, there’s just not to much to see from a tourist’s perspective.

new to me in new york

I think I’ve mentioned before that I’m not the biggest fan of New York. So I don’t really ever go out of my way to visit this monstrous city. But I found myself here because our flight out of the country departs from New York. So without too much of a plan, we explored some of what New York has to offer, and it ended up that all of the stuff we visited was new to me.

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This was my first time visiting New York during the Christmas season. There were many Christmas decorations up, and many of the trees throughout the city had lights on them. And of course there’s the big Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center, which we passed briefly, but for some reason I didn’t take a picture of the tree.

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The last time I came to New York the World Trade center area was still under construction. Now the construction is mostly complete, there’s a memorial for each of the twin towers that were destroyed on 9-11, and the Freedom tower is just about complete as well. There’s also a 9-11 museum, which we didn’t have time to visit.

nyc1Despite having been to New York City a few times, I never really visited the Theater District. We wanted to see “The Book of Mormon” seeing as how that would have been one of the few plays that wouldn’t be too bromantic to watch, but found that even the cheapest tickets were nearly $200. We decided to wait in line for standing room tickets, which ran concurrently with the ticket lottery. (There’s a limited number of standing room tickets that are first come first serve for $27, and there’s a lottery for an even more limited number of front row tickets for the same price.) We weren’t successful in the lottery, but we were able to get some of the last standing room tickets. They’re actually in a pretty good location, right behind the orchestra level seats, the only downside is you have to stand for the entire show, and by the end of it my legs were hurting pretty badly. It was totally worth the pain to save more than $150, and the show itself was hilarious.

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Another thing we had to wait in line for was the cronut at Dominique Ansel Bakery. We waited about an hour for it, possibly one of the most famous baked (or is it fried?) goods in America. It’s also probably pound for pound the most expensive baked (so actually according to Wikipedia it’s fried) good I’ve ever had, costing $5 and an hour of my time. I’d say it’s worth it though. It’s hard to describe, it’s flaky like a croissant, but at the same time it’s sweet and doughy like a doughnut, which I guess is the point, seeing as it’s a cross between the two.

lower manhattan from a random pier

After polishing off our cronuts (and several other delights from the bakery) we decided we needed to walk off some calories. We walked towards the waterfront and found a pier from which we took some pictures of the skyline of lower Manhattan.

the high line

Then we walked on the High Line park. This is another New York attraction that’s new since the last time I’ve been to New York.

watching the traffic is fascinating

To be perfectly honest, I think the High Line park is a bit overrated. But there are some cool features built into it, like this little amphitheater where you can watch the traffic drive by underneath you. Why is that cool? I don’t know to be honest, but it felt cool just because I’ve never really seen anything like it before.

I enjoyed my time in New York city. It was cool seeing all the things that were new since my last visit. And I guess my attitude towards the city has improved. My main gripes with NYC were the dirtiness and crowdedness of the city, as well as the perceived danger of being in the wrong parts of the city. But after having traveled to some of the major cities in Europe, I’ve found that NYC isn’t all that bad, and it isn’t all that different from cities like London or Paris or Rome. Those cities are just as dirty and crowded. And after being in those cities, I’ve come to realize that NYC is pretty cool too, and I wouldn’t mind returning for another visit.

inauspicious positioning

Once in a while an amazing flight deal comes along, one that’s almost impossible to pass up. It is because of one of these amazing deals that I’m about to embark on a journey that I’ve always wanted to do, a journey that circumnavigates the globe.

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Back in May I received a message from my friend Tim asking if I wanted to get in on an amazing flight deal. As part of this deal we would be able to fly from New York to Italy and from Prague to Singapore for under $325. It was a deal that was too good to pass up, but it would take a good deal of planning to fill in the holes in the itinerary. In travel blog parlance, we’d need to take what’s called a ‘positioning flight,’ a trip that we’d need to make solely to take advantage a fare deal.

For our positioning flight we decided that we would take a red-eye flight to New York, leaving California late at night and arriving in New York the morning before our scheduled international flight. Then we’d spend a night relaxing and eating in New York, before flying out to Europe. In Europe we would be taking the trains from Milan to Prague, stopping in Venice and Vienna along the way. From Prague we had our ticketed flight to Singapore, which we’d use as a base from which to take discount Asian airlines to Phuket (Thailand) and Siem Reap (Cambodia.) The plan was then for Tim to fly home from Cambodia, and I’d continue on using airline miles to visit family in Korea for a little over a week before flying back home. It seemed like a good plan, but all hinged on that initial positioning flight to New York.

Our itinerary seemed like it would have an inauspicious start when we received an email from US Airways stating that our flight had been rescheduled. Instead of being a red-eye flight arriving the morning after our departure, the flight had been rescheduled to arrive very late at night the same day. This would mean that either we’d need to spring for another night in a hotel or we’d need to spend the night at the airport. Since both of us are kinda cheap, we decided that we’d just rough it on the airport floor.

Luckily we didn’t have to rough it at the airport. Tim had some other friends who had gotten in on the same flight deal as us, and luckily for us they weren’t as cheap as us. They had booked a hotel for the night, and they were fine with us crashing on their hotel room floor. They were staying at the Marriott in Queens, and when I checked my email I saw that lo and behold I had a Marriott free room certificate.

My Marriott credit card had just been charged for its annual fee, and as part of that deal I get a free room certificate good for up to a category 5 hotel room. When we arrived at the Marriott at Queens I asked what category their hotel fell under, to which they replied category 5. What seemed like an inauspicious start to our trip wasn’t looking too bad anymore. In fact, it seemed like things were starting out on an awesome note! But when I called the Marriott reservations line, I found that the front desk had been mistaken, the Marriott in Queens was actually a category 7, so I wasn’t able to use the certificate. So we still ended up on the floor in Tim’s friend’s hotel.

This was again looking like an inauspicious sign for the rest of the trip. If we had this much trouble with flights and hotels before even leaving the country, things would only be more difficult after we leave the country, since communication using our cell phones may not be possible. And to make things even more complicated, for most of our trip we’d be using AirBnb instead of hotels, and I figured if we had this much trouble with a hotel, AirBnb might be even worse, since we may have trouble getting in touch with our hosts. And if the huge US Airways was able to reschedule a flight for a different day, wouldn’t a small discount airline in Asia be even more unreliable? I’m not usually one to worry, but these thoughts, especially the worries about communicating with our AirBnb hosts, would stay on the back of my mind throughout our crazy round the world trip.

om-d, om-g?!

It’s been a while since I’ve done a photography post. Apparently it’s been a year, since the last photography post on my blog appears to have been from November of last year. Man it’s crazy how fast time flies. It’s not that I haven’t been taking any pictures. I’ve just been too lazy to write lately. Last year I made a point out of trying to post at least once a week, but most months this year I barely even managed to crank out one post. So yeah, I’ve been lazy, but I will try to be more consistent in writing for the rest of the year.

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Anyways, a lot has changed since my last photography post. I ended up selling all my Pentax camera gear. It was a pretty tough decision. I’ve used Pentax SLR’s for over a half dozen years. I started with a Pentax K100d, then moved to a K20d, then finally a K-5. And I had a fairly decent collection of Pentax lenses too, covering from ultra wide to fairly long telephoto. I sold the entire collection on eBay.

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I had thought about selling my Pentax collection a couple of years back, when I bought a full frame Nikon D600 during a holiday sale. On paper that Nikon was superior to my Pentax in just about every way that a camera could be superior, but I ended up sticking with Pentax that time. Strangely enough, the camera that got me to sell all my Pentax gear, the Olympus OM-D is actually quite worse on paper than the Pentax camera that I had.

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Although the specs are worse, the Olympus OM-D is a much smaller camera. Since most of my pictures are taken when I’m traveling or hiking I felt that having a smaller camera was worth the small tradeoff in performance.

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The size difference is especially noticeable when you’re looking at the camera from above with a lens attached. Because the OM-D is a mirrorless camera, the lens can sit very close to the sensor since there’s no need for space to clear a hinged mirror. And since the camera has a smaller sensor, the lenses can be designed smaller since they don’t need to cover as large an area. All this basically means is that there’s less weight on my shoulders when I hike and less space taken up in my bags when I travel.

I’ve been using the camera for my last few trips and have found that I really don’t notice a difference in image quality, especially in good light. I was mostly worried about losing the ability to shoot in darker situations, but have found that it’s really not that much worse than my previous camera at the high ISO’s needed for those dark situations. ISO 1600 and even 3200 is still pretty usable, which is more or less where I was at with my old camera. The Nikon that I briefly owned was better of course, shooting at 6400 fairly cleanly, but for my purposes 3200 is plenty.

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These are a couple of shots I’ve taken in dark situations in the last few months. There’s some noise visible in the images, but for my purposes the noise is not too bad. Part of the reason why the camera’s so usable in low light is the amazing image stabilization system in the OM-D. The shot on the right was taken with a shutter speed of an entire second. That definitely would’ve been a blurry mess with my shaky hands on my old camera. With my old camera at a similar focal length of around 24mm equivalent the best I could do is maybe 1/6 of a second, and even then most of my shots at that shutter speed were too blurry to use. Now 1/6 of a second seems like no problem. This ability to use slow shutter speeds is good for dark situations, but it’ll also come in handy for stuff like waterfalls where I’d deliberately use slow shutter speeds to make the water look smoother. I might be able to get away without a tripod in more situations, which again means less weight on my shoulder and less space taken up by camera gear in my bag.

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When hiking I often find myself in situations where I have a light foreground and dark background or vice versa, so it’s nice to have a camera with very good dynamic range. I was pretty spoiled with my old camera, it had amazing dynamic range, according to DxoMark it was among the best in this regard. The new camera is not quite as good, according to DxoMark it gives up almost two stops of range, and this is one of those areas where I actually notice a difference in the pictures. On my trusty old Pentax I bet I could’ve gotten more detail in both the bright areas and the shadows of both of these photos. But I’m happy enough with the pictures I got, and these sorts of photo situations seem to happen when the hiking is the hardest, in deep canyons or in forests, so I guess having a smaller and lighter camera is a fair trade.

Downloads-001One unexpected bonus is the touchscreen. I honestly didn’t expect to use it much, but it actually comes in handy in a couple of situations. First, when I’m hiking I often hand off my camera to a stranger to have them take a picture for me. It’s much easier to explain to them to just touch on my face to take a picture than to explain that they should try and get the focus point in the viewfinder onto my face. So far since I’ve started using the OM-D I haven’t gotten an out of focus shot when handing off the camera to someone else. The second unexpected bonus is that the camera is still usable when your right hand is busted. With the cast I was wearing when I broke my hand I couldn’t wrap my finger around the shutter button of a traditional camera but I could tap the screen with my thumb to take pictures on my OM-D.

Downloads12The touchscreen was a great bonus, but I’m not yet fully sold on all the tech on this camera. The OM-D has an electronic viewfinder rather than an optical one, which is nice when shooting directly into the sun. I can take my time to expose and frame carefully without worrying about burning my retina. And it’s nice to see exposure and depth of field in the viewfinder. But the electronic viewfinder is completely worthless in darkness. The first time I took my camera out backpacking the stars were pretty bright, so I wanted to get a picture of the big dipper over my sleeping bag. I found that I couldn’t see anything in the viewfinder, so I couldn’t focus and I couldn’t frame the shot. To make matters worse, you can’t focus when you can’t see since the couple of lenses that I have, since they’re all focus by wire lenses. It was only after an hour of guessing and testing, moving my camera slightly and moving the focus slightly that I was able to get a picture of the dipper.

So yeah, there are times when I really miss having an optical viewfinder and mechanical manual focus lenses. I think with the OM-D I can get halfway there, I can buy a manual focus lens with distance markers, so I would at least be able to focus, but I still wouldn’t be able to see what I’m shooting at. I guess if I bought a really wide manual focus lens, I can just set the focus and point the camera in the general direction of what I’m shooting at and then crop to get the shot I want. But it’d be nice to not have to jump through all those hoops to get star shots.

Aside from the star photography issues, I’m pretty happy with my OM-D and I don’t really have much regret in selling all my Pentax gear. Most of my Pentax gear was weather sealed, and I often shot in the rain or underneath waterfalls without worry. Supposedly the OM-D and the kit lens I’m using is sealed, so I guess time will tell if it holds up as well as my Pentax gear did in inclement weather.

Over the years I became kind of a Pentax fanboy, I would always read up on all the latest Pentax news (it was actually easy cuz there really wasn’t much news, haha) and I was at times an avid contributor to Pentax forums. I can’t say that I’m a fanboy of Olympus or the OM-D series, I’m not OMG in love with the camera or the brand but it’s been good so far and I’m looking forward to a lot of travel and adventures with the camera. Who knows maybe I will someday be OMG in love with it.

positive is positive?

Yesterday I went in for a routine physical. Part of the reason for the physical was for me to check if I needed any immunizations for an upcoming trip. The other main reason was to ask for blood lab work to be done. I was curious about my cholesterol levels, especially since I haven’t done much cardio for a couple of months. I guess I’m kind of a hypochondriac. Actually I take that back. I’m actually a massive hypochondriac.

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Today I started receiving the results from my tests, so I’ve been checking the website as the test results come in. The third test result I received was this: VARICELLA ZOSTER VIRUS, POSITIVE. So of course the hypochondriac in me kicks in and I convince myself that I have a life threatening illness. First order of business, click the link above that says “About this test.”

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Clicking the link does not ease my worries one bit. It lumps all the viral tests together, including HIV, which I know I definitely don’t want to be tested positive for. The third sentence is particularly worrying: “Viruses cause disease by destroying or damaging the cells they infect, damaging the body’s immune system, changing the genetic material (DNA) of the cells they infect, or causing inflammation that can damage an organ.” So now I’m convinced that I must be dying. Since the website doesn’t have much information on my particular viral outbreak I turn to trusty Google for more information.

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So it turns out that a positive Varicella Zoster virus test result means that I’ve had the chicken pox before. It means that I should be immune to a future outbreak of chicken pox. Reading that on a random website was a huge relief, but it’s information that probably should be on the test results page. Or at the very least it should indicate that testing positive in this case is something positive (i.e. constructive or good) unlike the case of HIV where testing positive would be unequivocally bad.

the summit. whitney. conquered.

It’s been almost two years exactly since my last trip to Mount Whitney. I failed to make it to the top that time, but vowed that I would return someday and conquer this peak. This weekend I can say that I finally conquered California’s highest peak.

permits!

The permits make it quite clear that this mountain is the highest in California– in fact it’s the highest point in the continental United States.

scale

At the trailhead there’s a scale where everyone weighs their packs. Last year my pack was over 40 pounds. This year my pack was just over 30 pounds including water.

fall foliageThe hike begins with a set of switchbacks that climbs rapidly out of the Whitney Portal area. The scenery was nice here, with the colors from the fall foliage running down the valley. At the top of the switchbacks is a creek that runs out from Lone Pine Lake. We stopped there for a short water break before continuing onward and upward.

entering the whitney permit zone

Shortly afterward we entered the Whitney Permit zone. From here there the trail becomes quite rocky.

stopping to admire the meadow

The trail then suddenly drops you off in a meadow. The orange and gold in the meadow contrasts against the green pine trees and the white granite. It’s quite beautiful, especially this time of year. At the end of the meadow is Outpost Camp, the first of two major campsites on the mountain. We thought about eating lunch at Outpost, but decided to continue on a little farther.

lunch!

We stopped for lunch on the shore of Mirror Lake. We were making great progress up until now, so we had time to take a short nap after lunch.

the upper meadow

Above mirror lake is another small meadow. We were starting to slow down at this point, the altitude was starting to get to us, since we were already above 10,000 feet at this point.

last climb towards trail camp

After the second meadow was a rocky climb towards trail camp, our goal for the day. The sun beat down on us relentlessly. There was no shade since we were already pretty far above the tree line at this point.

closer view of our campsite

We camped at Trail Camp, which is just above 12,500 ft. Thankfully there’s a good water supply here, and there are rock walls to shelter you from the cold winds.

our campsite, right near the base of the switchback section

The scenery’s at trail camp is pretty epic. Despite being over 12,500 feet high the mountains still tower over you. It makes you feel tiny in comparison.

dawn

We woke up at the crack of dawn to filter water and prepare for our summit attempt. We decided to skip breakfast, which in hindsight was a horrible idea.

looking back on our campsite from the switchback section

We started up the switchbacks above Trail Camp. There are supposedly 99 switchbacks here. It felt like way way more than that.

big patch of ice

For the most part the trail was clear of snow and ice. The only somewhat treacherous part was the cable section. It was much easier than last time I was out here.

descending to trail crest

It seemed like we made it to Trail Crest pretty quickly. Trail Crest is the top of the switchback section, at 13,700 feet. There’s a short descent from the crest where the trail crosses over to the backside of the mountains.

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At this point the altitude was starting to affect everyone. Some people get headaches from it, some people get weird, and some people stay completely cool.

looking over the edge. sheer drops down most of the backside.The backside of the trail is pretty epic, with amazing views of the John Muir Wilderness. The trail is kinda scary at times, with sheer thousand foot drops at some points.

about a third of the way into the backside sectionOne of the easier sections, about a third of the way up the backside.

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The Keeler needle area. This is where we turned back last time I was here. It was really disappointing last time, since you could see the Whitney Peak from here (it’s the slope in the background.) This time it was pretty encouraging to see that the end was in sight.

first glimpse of the summit

With the end in sight I started to quicken my pace, only to feel the effects of the altitude. I had to slow down to almost a crawl, otherwise my pulse in my neck would start to pound and I’d be gasping for air.

the highest trail in the united states

The marker at the top of Mount Whitney. Apparently it’s the highest trail in the United States. That means if I want to go any higher, I’ll probably need to learn some crazy mountaineering skills. Nah. I think Whitney’s enough for me– I don’t need to kill myself to go higher.

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Tao made it to the top first. I made it a while after him. I ended up taking a nap on a rock and was woken up when Vishal made it to the top. He said that Steve was waiting down below the peak because the altitude was getting to him. We started down the mountain to find that Steve wasn’t where Vishal had left him. We were starting to get worried, but we eventually found Steve further down the mountain. He had made the right choice to descend to a lower altitude. The altitude was hitting him pretty hard at this point, so we slowly made it down together to trail camp, stopping every once in a while to catch our breaths.

When we arrived at Trail Camp we tried to eat a bit, but none of us really had an appetite, despite the fact that none of us had anything except some snacks all day. We decided to pack up and head down the mountain. Steve was ready first, so he decided to head out first. The rest of us finished packing and filtered some water then headed out as well. By this time the sun had already set, so we had to hike out in the darkness using our headlamps. Tao, Vishal and I decided to stick together, thinking that three lights on the trial were better than one. Even with the three powerful headlamps we lost the trail a few times. The walk down felt absurdly long. Our legs were all pretty sore already, and none of us had much energy left. We were worried about Steve since we didn’t see any headlamps ahead of us the whole way down, and because he didn’t seem to be in great shape when he left camp. Vishal, Tao and I made it back to the parking area a little before 11 at night. I was relieved to find that Steve had left a note on my car saying that he had made it down safely and was driving home.

So in the end I was finally able to conquer the trail to the summit that eluded me two years ago. For much of the hike I thought about my previous trip. In many ways the trip was the same– same time of year, same cold sleepless night at Trail Camp, same brutal hike out after dark. The difference was that this time around the drought made it so there wasn’t much snow on the trail. I think the only thing that was better about last time was that Jamie had brought Diamox, a medicine that helps the body acclimate to high elevations. If I had asked Steve to bring it, I have no doubt that he would have made it to the to without any problems. So now Steve is left where I was at two years ago– having had to turn back just short of the summit. I wonder if he has the same burning desire to return and conquer the summit that I had. I guess if he does, I’ll be down to come back and conquer this mountain one more time…