A Staff Postcard from the Field: Discovery in China

China travel notes from Chris Dunham, Asia Travel Specialist


Ni hao from China!

I’m currently on a whirlwind visit to cover 9 cities in 17 days. It’s amazing to see all the changes that have occurred within China since my last visit. I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Yunnan Province, which is new for me and I would fully recommend you visit Kunming, Lijiang, Dali and Zhongdian if you are looking for something different from the traditional tourist track in China. Yunnan is very tribal and while many parts of China are predominantly of the Han majority, Yunnan’s population is comprised mainly of ethnic minorities such as Naxi, Tibetan and Yi Peoples, to name a few.

My favorite experience so far was in Zhongdian, which is about as close to resembling Lhasa, Tibet as one can get without actually traveling to Lhasa. As a side note to this story, my fiancée, Ali, is back in the US and she is constantly on my mind as we are getting married in about two months, but she couldn’t take the time off to travel with me this time around. On this particular day in Zhongdian with my guide, I hiked up to the top of Dabao Monastery just on the outskirts of Zhongdian, where I lit Yak Butter Lamps for my future with Ali as well as all of my family. Then, I was blessed by the Chief Lama of the Monastery and given some lovely prayer beads, which I am still wearing. Finally, I purchased Tibetan prayer flags from a local woman and wrote down my wishes for a good life with Ali on the prayer flags and then hung them in the sea of prayer flags on the side of Dabao Mountain. Our names and wishes for a good life are still blowing in the wind on those prayer flags. I will always cherish the time I spent in Zhongdian and I look forward to my next opportunity to return to this gem nestled along majestic mountains and beautiful countryside.

My account above is just one of the amazing, beyond-the-ordinary experiences I’ve had while in China. Time is fleeting, so keep traveling!

Zai-jian,

Chris

Interview with Traveler and Award-Winning Photographer Dimitra Stasinopoulou

Among the things that make our jobs so rewarding are the special people who travel with us. Dimitra Stasinopoulou has been to Asia four times with Asia Transpacific Journeys, and photography is her means of connecting with local cultures. She has traveled with us to India, Bhutan and Papua New Guinea and has published books about her travels. But the books are not for sale—Dimitra gives them away. She has given away nearly 10,000 books so far.

We called Dimitra in her native Athens to talk travel, photography, and how she finds joy in “giving the books away.”

ATJ: What drove you to begin photographing people and producing such beautiful books?

DS: “Five years ago I was 52, I quit my job at Chase Manhattan Bank in Athens, in order to be involved in the pharmaceutical business my husband has in Romania. This was a big change in my life. I was feeling depressed there until I bought a camera and began taking pictures, mainly of the local people and their life. I had never photographed anything before. This was like opening a door for me, to really see the people. I published a book called Romania of my Heart. In this book I tried to express my love for this country that has moved me with its genuine character, its beauty and its boundless hospitality. The 4,000 copies printed have been offered as a gift both in Greece and Romania. For this book they gave me the UNESCO prize, since, as they said, it has deepened the friendship between our two countries. The book was officially presented to Greece by the President of Romania. After distributing the book I received many letters, but what I cherish the most is the Romanian people, who, as they told me, felt again proud for their country. It was a labor of love and they understood it. It changed my life.”

ATJ: In your book, Bhutan—Smiling Faces From the Roof of the World you take many portraits and seem to have a gift for engaging people. Can you comment on that?

DS:  “Communicating with people for me is the most interesting and rewarding experience. In Bhutan my eyes opened to a completely different world. It is so peaceful and the people are so innocent and welcome you wherever you go. I believe they understood that I really liked them and that I wanted to communicate with them. It was very special.”

ATJ: How do you go about getting someone’s permission to take their photo?

DS: “I never ask. I just engage. If you ask, then they freeze, everything changes. With my photography I try to really see the person. I smile and they smile back. That’s the permission. My camera does not come between us, it helps me to really see their heart. They feel this too.

I don’t look for perfect light or position. I don’t know how to adjust the camera for this type of thing. I just try to communicate with people.  Even if I knew I wouldn’t have time enough to adjust the camera since it is only a second that you capture.”

Dimitra Stasinopolou © All rights reserved | Girl at Pushkar, India

ATJ: You also just published an amazing book of photographs called India—Unity In Diversity. Can you highlight some of the differences and similarities between photography in India and Bhutan?

DS: “Bhutan is unique. There are so few people living there. They have had very little contact with outsiders. India is quite different, India has a billion people, it can feel overwhelming at times. But, everywhere I went in India, I met an unparalleled cultural heritage and magnificent people, sometimes sad in their poverty, but always positive and peaceful within. Hindu people are the most compassionate, sweet and calm people anyone can come across. Violence is never part of their emotions. It is these people, with their disarming innocence, in reality, that represent the biggest treasure of the country. Take the slums—the people are smiling, beautiful, clean and hard working. I decided to attempt to capture with my lens the human dignity of the Indian people, their sweetness and their optimism. The qualities of these people are so strong that conditions of life are a secondary matter.  I am really exhausted after the India project but I will always remember Indian people and their smiles.”

ATJ: Do you have a favorite place or destination for your photography?

DS: “It’s very difficult to say. Every country has its own beauty. Bhutan is special, very quiet and calm. The people are smiling all the time. You must be there to feel the peace. It’s one of the happiest places on Earth.  India is also exceptional, Papua New Guinea is unique.  Every place has its own beauty.”

ATJ: Do you use all digital technology or also film?

DS: “I only use digital. That’s how I started and I think it is unique, if a person like me that knows absolutely nothing about cameras is able to take good pictures.”

ATJ: What type of camera do you use?

DS: “Canon. I started with a Canon EOS 30D, 50D and now I shoot with a Canon Mark II 5D. I am used with them and also very pleased. I don’t think I will ever change.”

ATJ: Can you give a tip or two to aspiring photographers?

DS: “Shoot from the heart. Don’t think about the quality of the picture. Engage emotionally.  Share with other people. Today’s technology is so huge, a picture can be fixed, but it should be as close to reality as possible. No Photoshop, don’t try to turn the sky blue. The technical things are not important to me.”

ATJ: Do you have any other books planned?

Dimitra Stasinopolou © All rights reserved | Boy in Mt. Hagan, Papua New Guinea

DS: “Maybe the next one will be for Papua New Guinea. I am also going to China’s Silk Road with Asia Transpacific Journeys in May. Maybe China will be the next one. I don’t know yet.”

ATJ: Where can someone buy your books?

DS: “They are not for sale. I give them away to people I love, to people I admire, to friends, so that they pass them on to their friends, and of course to people I meet while traveling—fellow travelers and local people. It’s the biggest gift to give myself, for me to be able to give to others. For example in Romania while I was at a diplomatic reception I gave a local woman who was attending the coat check the book Romania Of My Heart. She thanked me so sincerely, and said she had been working at that coat check for 30 years but no one had ever given her a gift before. When she said that to me she gave me a gift to remember and treasure for the rest of my life. She and I both made a friend that day.

It’s so personal. I put my soul in these books. I couldn’t sell them or connect them with money. I don’t think a professional photographer would spend thousands of hours putting a book with more than 950 pages together. It’s a huge effort, it takes months. It could never pay. A publisher is now asking me to reprint the Bhutan book and sell it to India. If that happens I will donate any money away to charity. I know I am very lucky I can do this and I also know that so many other much more talented photographers could have made an even better book if they had the means. I believe the most important things in our life are given free, so what I am doing is the minimum I can do. I am a happy person doing this now.”

ATJ: Thank you so much Dimitra, it has been our sincere pleasure to talk with you.

DS: “I want to make a comment about your company. I feel I am the luckiest person on earth to be able to discover Asia Transpacific Journeys out of so many companies existing. I really believe you are working in such an exceptional way that you are also the ones to be credited for the books, at least for Bhutan and India. You organize things in such a way that you made me discover the best of each country. The personnel is so friendly (especially Rebecca Mazzaro with whom I talk the most) and well informed and always understood what I am looking for and guide me accordingly. I am always traveling alone, and in the beginning I thought it wouldn’t be easy. Most of the times the rest of the group are Americans, but they all are so very kind with me, making me feel at home with them. These pictures are a wonderful keepsake of our trips together. I am honored to have traveled with them and feel so privileged to have them as my friends. I thank you from my heart for existing and enabling me to make my dreams come true.

Since English is not my native language it is not so easy for me to express what I feel but I hope you understand.”

Dimitra in Ladakh

Dimitra Stasinopoulou is the recipient of the International Aperture Award for her photography and the artist behind three books of photography. Her book on Romania was awarded a UNESCO prize. She picked up a camera for the first time five years ago.

For the Traveler Who Has Seen It All


Mongolia, the Last Frontier

This summer, traverse the golden sands of the Gobi Desert to discover untouristed, vast and untamed Mongolia—heir to a remarkable history and clinging to ways of life that have endured for centuries. On Mongolia—In the Path of the Nomad you will:

• Ride a camel in the Gobi Desert
• Explore desert, steppe, forest and mountain
• Savor lunch with nomads, and Mongolian feasts
• Stay in a ger, the traditional collapsible yurt of the nomad
• See archery, wrestling and horse racing at the Nadaam Festival
• Experience authentic song and folk dance performances

Dr. Steve Halkovic

This in-depth journey will be led by Dr. Stephen Halkovic, who holds a Ph.D. in Inner Asian Studies. He is the veteran leader of nearly 100 trips to Mongolia. Scholarly and passionate about the region, Steve’s in-depth knowledge, infectious laughter and engaging style make this a once-in-a-lifetime Mongolia adventure.

This year, don’t just take a vacation. Journey Beyond the Ordinary™ with Asia Transpacific Journeys.

Mahjong, a Popular Game in China

We just came across an online version of mahjong, a favorite pastime in China, Japan and other Buddhist communities throughout Asia. Learn how to play online, then impress new found friends while traveling in China with your skills. We’ve found learning traditional pastimes is a wonderful way to make connections with people while traveling, so we encourage you to try your hand at mahjong. Warning: it’s slightly addictive once you get the hang of it!

Sri Lanka: Checkpoints in Paradise

The New York Times featured an article on tourism in Sri Lanka as reported by Lionel Beehner

“…In recent months, tourism has steadily inched upward from past years, thanks to efforts by the government and local entrepreneurs to redevelop the eastern coast and to build an airport down south near Hambantota. The tourism ministry has also begun a “Visit Sri Lanka 2011” public relations blitz to rebrand itself after the war…

But it is the country’s tranquil beauty that draws most visitors. “You don’t need to do a great deal to have the good life here,” said Ivan Robinson, a British real estate developer who refurbished a colonial manor in the south. “The rivers are full of fish. Fruit falls off trees.” Water buffalo graze beside Buddhist stupas. Elephants roam freely. And innkeepers warn guests to keep their windows closed to avoid pickpockets — not people, but monkeys swinging from the trees.

Then there are Sri Lanka’s famed beaches, crescent-shaped coves of white sand framed by colorful bungalows and bamboo groves. An unintended consequence of the war is the coastline’s lack of development. You can stroll past beat-up outrigger boats, which look like showpieces from a maritime museum, and past fishermen on wooden stilts. Or hike inland to discover hideaway guesthouses carved from old gem merchants’ homes, with mango gardens and infinity pools tucked into their courtyards…

But it is the southern town of Galle that is the coast’s biggest draw. The city feels more European than South Asian, owing to the fact that its center — a jumble of quaint gem shops, cafes and guesthouses — sits within the weather-beaten walls of a Dutch-built fort…

High up in Sri Lanka’s hill country, the feeling is more authentic, less touristy. To get there, hop on the train that rattles past rain forests, tea plantations and elephant orphanages. The final stop is Kandy, famous for its lakeside shrine called the Temple of the Tooth…

But it is Kandy’s Buddhist roots that entice most visitors. Head to the Y.M.B.A. (Young Men’s Buddhist Association) around sundown to witness a pooja dance. Dancers twirl about in red and gold sarongs, clink brass rings and bang on drums before staging a fire-eating ritual. Or hop on a tuk-tuk, the motorized rickshaw taxis all over Sri Lanka, to make the drive to Dambulla, an ancient complex of cave temples stuffed with reclining Buddha statues.”

To read the complete article, visit NYTimes.com

Visit our site for information on creating a custom private trip to Sri Lanka for just you and your family or friends.