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Digital Photography on the Silk Route

The medieval Silk Route has new aspirations as a tourist destination. The Soviet-built railways through Central Asia and the developing Chinese rail network are opening the Route up to modern travelers. However, the infrastructure is mostly of the railway age with the exception of the Chinese cell ‘phone network and the occasional Internet Café. West of Lanzhou, all the way to the Caspian Sea, one finds a few isolated cities separated by days of train travel mostly across desert.


The photographer can use a film camera and carry a suitcase full of film waiting to be developed in Moscow or Beijing or subject to the uncertainties of airport screening on the way home. The digital photographer can carry multiple memory cards but enough for a month’s high resolution snapping is very expensive. That still leaves the need for battery charging. (Carrying a suitcase full of non-rechargeable batteries is not a good idea, especially on aeroplanes.)


We took our existing digital camera, a Minolta DiMage 7i (7x optical zoom, 5 Megapixel sensor). We decided against our tripod because of the weight and the lack of time when sightseeing in a tour group. Some shots would have benefited, especially Registan Square at dusk in Samarkand, but I still would not take a tripod. For us, the camera was a good compromise between lighter less capable cameras and heavier more sophisticated ones.  


We opted for just two camera memory cards, a 1 GB card and a 250 MB card as a backup. We downloaded the images daily to a laptop computer so we started with clean cards every day. The 1 GB card was adequate for even our busiest day taking photographs. All the images were shot at 5 mega pixel resolution and saved in the JPEG fine mode. This is the highest quality that can be shot at reasonable speed with this camera.


We bought an IBM ThinkPad R50 laptop computer. At the time, this was IBM’s cheapest Centrino-based notebook computer (cheap so as not to exceed travel insurance limits among other reasons). It’s rugged and has excellent battery life, courtesy of the Pentium-M processor. The wireless networking might have been useful if we had found any WiFi hotspots but we didn’t. We changed the battery for a larger battery from an IBM T40 to get even longer life between charges, knowing the computer would have to compete with the camera battery charger and even an electric shaver for electrical power. I watched a full-length DVD on this system and it took less than half the charge from the battery.


The R50 has shock protection for the hard drive but we still felt it would be necessary to backup the images immediately on site. We did this with an IBM portable USB hard drive. Its only 20 GB but it’s also small and light (about the size of a pack of playing cards but lighter). This system worked flawlessly. We decided against backing up onto CDs, although the R50 has a CD burner, because of the bulk and weight of the CDs required. We decided against a sub-notebook because of the battery life issue. We didn’t carry the computer with us on sightseeing trips – just used it for downloading in the evenings and making notes during days on the train.


We took two sets of rechargeable camera batteries and two multiple-voltage battery chargers with adapters for Australian and European sockets. This was satisfactory except at the Sheraton Hotel in Xian which used British sockets; fortunately they provided an adapter when we asked. However, finding a socket was not always so easy. On the Chinese Orient Express our compartment had a socket that worked for charging batteries. The Russian train, “The Rus”, which we took from the Chinese border at Alashankou across Central Asia to Volgograd and then Moscow, did not have a socket in our compartment. There were two or three sockets in the corridor of each carriage but mostly they didn’t work or worked intermittently. Nevertheless, we were able to keep the camera batteries charged by taking every opportunity to top them up. Some of the hotels we stayed in also had a socket that worked.


Overall, the trio of digital camera, laptop computer, and hard drive backup worked, for us and our needs, the best of the different arrangements our fellow travelers had tried.

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