History

South India: Kerala, Cape Comorin, Madurai

Journal entry of traveling southern India in winter ’11-12 (Reblog with more images).

January — Crossed border of Tamil Nandu state, and arrived to Cape Comorin. Kanyakumari, as locals call the cape, is the most southern tip of Indian subcontinent. There are couple of temples and large statue of Thiruvalluvar, a celebrated Tamil poet, is standing on an island. This is the only place in India to see both sun rise from sea, and landing back there at dusk. Lot of tourists visit it also for this special feat.


Statue of Thiruvalluvar was built 1999.

Kerala was an interesting experience. One of the curiosities that caught my eye was the Communist posters and ads everywhere. Arriving north, I stopped first in Kannur, then Calicut, neither didn’t offer much to see. After arriving Kochi thought its the same story, but it turned out to be best visit in Kerala.


Gone fishing. Chinese fishing nets in background in Kochi.

Kochi is complex of islands, archipelagos and backwaters. Town in continent side is called Ernakulam, that’s also where bus and train stations are. Old Fort Kochi is next to the beach and Chinese fishing nets and provide interesting sights to explore and photograph.


Munnar, a picturesque hill region is famous for tea plantations.


Exploring Kochi backwaters.

Kathakali is dance performance particular to Kerala. It is storytelling by dance and gestures. Actors are men only, and do roles of women as well. They are covered in strong makeup and elaborate costumes, careful preparations before performances is part of show. Stories are ancient Kerala’s and south Indian folklore, mixed with legends from Hinduism. Shows are arranged frequently in Kochi for travellers to see. @ Kanyakumari


Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Trivandrum. Read fascinating history about this place: link.

February — Arrived to Madurai couple days ago to see its famous temples. Minakshi Sundareshvara Temple is in the center of the city. The complex is just as ancient as it is enormous. Spirituality and sounds from rites pulse through the thick stone walls. Temple itself is inside the several high walled perimeters, and there are numerous side shrines for various Hindu deities. Visitor can come across big elephant, or small mouse running at sides of corridor. And anything in between! @ Madurai


Photos from Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.

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India in Miniature: Varanasi

Journal entry of visit to Varanasi, spring 2012. (Reblog with more images)

Varanasi is said to be first places on earth where light-bulb of human civilisation lit up. It is contemporary with cities such as Babylon, Niniveh and Thebes. While these civilisations have long since disappeared, Varanasi has been continuously inhabited during all this time, 3-4000 years. Travel guides describe Varanasi as India in miniature. Its good and not so good features, all compressed into one place. Colourful pilgrimages from all around the vast country, worshipping and purifying themselves in the holy river Ganges. But also, herds of tourists, touts, beggars and drug dealers. And not forgetting numerous cows, buffaloes, dogs, monkeys, and other tail-waggers.

March 17 — First day in Varanasi has been incredible, the place overwhelms even after several months in India and its hard to spare superlatives describing it. After dusty sweaty day; dusk surrounds the river, old town, ghats (washing and purification platforms), and all the life that goes on. As orange disk descends behind the buildings, sparrows race lower air, haze blurs the purplish horizon. Another day in the eternal city has come to an end, night ceremonies are awaiting to be started.

My night train from Siliguri (at foothill of Himalayas and Darjeeling) arrived well ahead of schedule. I was lucky to wake up around 1.15am when train motion stopped. Stepped outside my cabin to ask how many stations still to go for Varanasi, and thats actually where my train was standing! A miracle that didn’t forget anything in my cabin, while rushing out of train half asleep and unprepared. Finding accommodation at that time is another story, waiting morning at the station simply wasn’t an option. Local travelers had already camped the floor space, benches and everything. I was also surrounded by hotel touts and tuk-tuk driveres that seem to wait in the station at all hours. Circling around the station for a while, finally gave up to one of drivers who took me to hostel owned by his pal. Anyway, even just one day here, easy to see this is going to be one of highlights of my trip! @ Varanasi


OMG.

March 21 — Varanasi is an ancient maze of buildings, labyrinth of corridors, usually not more than 2-meters wide, full of people, scooters, cows, dogs, chicken, monkeys… After leaving the river front, it can reveal nice surprises like restaurants and shops. Knowing that river is never far away helps with fear of getting lost. Found a nice restaurant that serves personal South Indian favorite, Masala Dosa. Here in North its not so common, been missing it!

Varanasi is for Hindus what Mecca is for Muslims. Legends say it was found by Shiva, supreme God of Hinduism. One should visit least once in a lifetime, and to die here, will release a devout Hindu from the cycle of rebirth. Funerals are taking place in two cremation ghats by the river. Body of deceased and his/her relatives arrive to funeral from all around India. Carrying bodies (wrapped in cloth) to cremation site is yet another surprise unaware traveller can come across here. When cremation fires have burned, ashes are spread to Ganges. Not everyone needs purifying fire in their funeral though. Bodies of children and pregnant women are considered pure and can be buried to river without cremation! Praying and purifying rituals are ongoing by the river throughout the day, but main event is the sunrise around 6-7am.

Ganges water isn’t warm, noticed it last night when washing my feet and sandal after stepping in a darkness to a “mine” dropped by a passing cow. This morning, woke up at early to see sunrise, and while walking to ghats, cheerful young dog joined me. Spotting nice view by the river, left my camera bag on ground and started taking photos. When finished, saw my camera bag was promptly “marked”, and dog disappeared. So another wash at the cool waters was needed. Hindu’s consider every drop of Ganges holy. Pilgrimers fill bottles from the river before starting journey back home. Saw often people washing themselves, including washing their teeth in it. @ Varanasi


Prayer rituals at night time are spectacle of their own.


Ganges makes a long curve, and ghats are situated so that pilgrims face directly towards east where sun is coming at morning. Its easy to see why location was chosen for the prayer site all those millennias ago.

Rajasthan — India’s West

Visiting Golden and Blue City in Thar Desert, spring 2012. (Reblog with more images and information)

April 8 — Rajasthan sun is merciless. Hot dry breath of wind blows over the dunes and through the ancient desert town. Am in India’s western border. Jaisalmer used to be trade post between east and west, until sea trade replaced camel caravans. After independence and partitioning of India, 1947, Indian-Pakistani border closed much of the regional trade as well. Name Golden City comes from yellow sand stone that is building material for majority of buildings.


Jaisalmer Fort.

My guesthouse arrange camel safaris to the desert. Decided to go with a traveling pal I met in the train. Seemed then like a great idea then. Now am wondering how on earth am going to survive, when even the shade of town seems too much. After washing, clothes are dry after two hours of hanging. @ Jaisalmer


Visit to desert.

April 10 — Back from desert! Air is exhausting from 9am to 5pm and temperature hangs over and under 40 Celsius. At evening winds get cooler and night air is almost chilling. I slept outside in open desert. Its exhilarating feeling, lying in bed and gazing up to bottomless silent night sky. Stars shine as bright as they possibly can. All sounds are natures own: camel munching grass, fire rattling in campfire, night bird cocooing somewhere in darkness. At first its hard to catch a sleep, but eventually the inevitable happens… @ Jaisalmer


Mehrangarh fort.

April 14 — Continued my journey to Jodhpur, the Blue City. Weather here has been nice relief after Jaisalmer. It has rained every afternoon. Yesterday night winds were strong and thunderstorms did show of drum and light over the Mehrangarh fort. Fortification stands on a cliff, and city has grown around it. Houses are colorful and have more variety than in Jaisalmer. Areas in old town are painted blue, from which city has gotten its name. Tradition originates from cast divisions that dictated who were living where.


Rich merchants used to show off their wealth, by building their homes extravagantly. They are called Havelis in Jaisalmer.


Zenana Deodi. The inner courtyard of Mehrangarh fort was once guarded by eunuchs. This is where the Maharaja’s wives lived.

Fort is definitely worth visiting. Audio guides were excellent, and place is fascinating adventure to history both in and outside. Marwars of Jodhpur had semi-autonomous status during reign of Mughal centuries (1526–1857). Wild desert region and proud warriors living here proved too much for even mighty Mughals to repress entirely.

Sati and Jauhar Traditions of Rajasthan

While walking by the big entrance gate of Jodhpur castle, I noticed curious hand insignia’s carved by the gate wall. They were painted in red and had decoration of fresh flowers on them. This is a shrine for widows of Maharajahs that had committed a Sati (seti, suttee), a self immolation.

Sati was practiced among aristocrats, and was at the time accepted practice in Hindu religion. Michael Edwards, British India 1772-1947:

… In 1780, the deceased Raja of Marwar was joined in death by sixty-four wives. A Sikh prince of the Punjab took with him ten wives and no less than three hundred concubines

Jauhar had to do with harsh reality of desert life: isolated communities living where marauding armies could (and did) appear out of nowhere and without warning. Jauhar, for men meant fighting and dying a certain death in hands of enemy. These events repeated several times during the history of Rajasthan. British banned immolations in 1829 and later independent India continued the work. Sati Prevention Act from 1987 makes it criminal to aiding, abetting, and even glorifying the act of Sati.

Coincidentally, years later learned another angle about the topic. This time in a museum in Iran:

Paintings … include the scene of a banquet in Persian and Indian style in which the wedding ceremony of Reza Qoli Mirza, son of Nader Shah and an Indian princess is shown. Another part of the picture is “Seti” ritual in which some Indian princesses commit suicide by being burnt with the corpse of their deceased husbands and this is regarded as a sign of their intense love.

Aside the fact that such ritual was also known in Iran, during the rule of Shah Abbas the second an event happened which connected this ritual with Kandahar conquest episode. Probably the significance of the event for the Safavid culture system caused its illustration upon a Chehelsotoon wall.

One of the most important historical events during the reign of Shah Abbas the second was re-conquest of Kandahar by Iranian army from Indian Gurkanis (Mughals) in 1655 AD. As a story goes twenty days after the beginning of Kandahar siege by Iranian troops, one of the high ranked Rajas of Indian Gurkanis by the name of Matrodas … passed away suddenly. His distressed wife decided to observe the Seti ritual according to her ancient religion. Therefore, she adorned herself with various jewellery and got ready to set herself on fire. Afterwards she took her husbands body and went toward the fire accompanied by her relatives. At this time, Dolat Khan, governor of Kandahar tried to change her mind by giving advice but she remained silent and reluctant. When Dolat Khan and his attendants found out that she is very determined in her cause, they allowed her to go on. At this time the woman began taking off her jewellery on her way and throwing them toward the crowd. After reaching the destination she sat down and embraced the head of her husband. By this time, her relatives had brought a pile of firewood and after putting it around the dead man and the bereaved woman, had set it on fire. Rajput Hindus of the time believed that the words of anybody who was committing suicide in this way was trustworthy and would come true doubtlessly. Therefore, Dolat Khan sent a man to ask the dying woman whether the kind of India would dispatch any reinforcements to break Kandahar siege and whether the Qezelbash army would return to Iranian court empty handed?

The woman answered: “No reinforcement is on its way from Indian king, therefore the victorious Iranian army will conquer the castle in forty days. But about India it must be said that after eleven years a great languor will occur all over the land.”

At this point the woman was not able to talk anymore because the flames consumed her entirely. After this event the messenger of Dolat Khan told him what he had heard which made the governor and his attendants quite disappointed. After forty days her forecast came true and the Iranian army entered Kandahar.

Shah Abbas the second became very impressed by this story so he ordered the depication of it on the walls of Chehelsotoon in order to pay his respects to that courageous woman.


Cannon in Mehrangarh fort museum.

Moroccan Inland

Moroccan inland. This is second part of travel journal documenting trip around Morocco. Coastal regions in the first part can be found here.

December 2016. Marrakech. Djemaa el Fna square is an old Berber marketplace. It is intermingled with nearby souk’s, and a heart of the city. Snake charmers, touts, sellers and performers are attracting locals and tourists alike with their shows, stories and music. Both the market and souk’s are integral part of old town, and judging 100+ year old photographs, has not changed much in its general outlook. Large minaret of Koutoubia Mosque is towering nearby and providing scenic background of all the hustle and bustle in the square.

Saadis were Moroccan ruling dynasty in 16th century and Marrakech was their capital. This was the time when Ottoman Empire was pushing its borders from the east. Saadian Morocco became a region of contest between Ottoman expansionism and emerging Portuguese and Spanish Empires from the north. Christians had recently completed the Reconquista, the occupation of lands from Muslim Moors in southern part of Iberian peninsula.

Ruins of El Badi Palace, Marrakech. Atlas mountains can be seen in the horizon.

For Ottomans, Morocco was a distant land. Besides some military expeditions, occupation was never really attempted. Having a neutral state next to Ottoman North African coast was enough, and achieved with means of diplomacy and military support. Portugese crusade by king Sebastian I ended in defeat in Battle of Three Kings, 1578. Saadian Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur aided by Ottoman’s, decisively winning the battle. For Portugal, result was an unmitigated disaster. Despite the lack of a body, Sebastian was presumed dead, at the age of 24. In his piety, he had remained unmarried and had sired no heir. With the ransom money from Portugese, Saadi’s set out to improve their capital in Marrakech. El Badi Palace was largely funded with Portuguese gold.

Saadian Tombs were burial site that may have been used also before the period. Earliest known burial dates from 1557 and all the main buildings were constructed under Sultan Ahmad al-Mansur (1578-1603). Sultan was powerful ruler who fought several wars and started large building projects around his country, especially in the capital Marrakech.

Another Moroccan strongman, Ismail Ibn Sharif laid a bitter siege of Marrakech during the civil war in 1677. After siege, his forces sacked the city and destroyed many of its prominent buildings, including El Badi Palace of former rulers. It was perhaps superstition kept the burial ground in tact. Instead, entrances to Saadian Tombs were sealed up silence fell down for centuries.

Tombs lay hidden and forgotten until 1917, when they were discovered during a French aerial survey. Photographs revealed there was something at the centre of building complex, that nobody at streets knew and could not see. A new passageway was built from the side of the Kasbah Mosque. The tombs long neglect as well as dry climate ensured their preservation. Today Saadian Tombs have been fully restored to their original glory, and are not to be missed if visiting the city.

Another place worth the visit in Marrakech is Bahia Palace, it bears similar name as nearby ruins of El Badi, but is newer and was not destroyed during the turbulent history.

The Bahia Palace is a palace and a set of gardens located in Marrakech. It was built in the late 19th century and the name means “brilliance”.

Palace was built by grand vizier of the sultan for his personal use, craftsmen from Fes were brought to ensure the prominence of the building. The harem includes a vast court decorated with a central basin and surrounded by rooms intended for the concubines.

Menara Gardens, Marrakech.

Complex of souk’s is large and varying, and in Morocco its second to none except perhaps the one in Fes. Souk has spread through the medina and its hard to tell when one ends and other begins. On sale are literally everything, from modern plastic stuff made in China, old antique collectibles, Berber carpets and clothes, spices, fruits and food. Buildings are mostly in low height, also in new town adjacent to the medina.

While air is cold and one can see breath in the morning, its dry and sunny at day, laundry dries fast outside. Summer in Marrakech is a different story, temperature will raise above 40 Celcius!

Views from Marrakech souk and medina.

Leather tanneries of Marrakech. Google “Marrakech tannery scam” to avoid expensive “guided tour” by touts loitering and waiting for unaware tourists.

January 2017. Ouarzazate. Came today from Agadir to the edge of Sahara. Views are arid although true Sahara begins further south-east in Mhamid oasis town. Trip went fine and views from front of the bus were interesting. Had a dinner in tajine joint at the back alleys, went sleep early and tried to stay warm. Room is absolutely freezing, but least the WiFi works pretty well. In morning, sun fails to warm even at 10am although Saharan light is radiant. In the afternoon wind raises and brings dust from the desert, corners of my old hotel begin howl.

Aït Benhaddou is a ksar along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech in present-day Morocco. Inside the walls are half a dozen merchants houses and other individual dwellings. Aït Benhaddou has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site and several films have been shot here.

Bus through the Atlas mountains. Serpentine road is traversing the mountain region at above 2000 metres. Average elevation of the snow-covered mountains lies above 3000 metres. Passengers are having motion sickness, not having strong stomach myself either. Am leaving the region with a bit of sigh. There was whole world am feeling of having barely scratching the surface.

January 2017. Fes.

While approaching Fes in the afternoon, rainy weather, and sloping green fields and agriculture made me feel like traveling somewhere in France. Fes is ancient city with rich history behind it. It rivals Marrakech in prominence as centre and former royal capital. Medina resembles European medieval city, rather than African. Cold and rainy winter weather does its part to bring the image to mind. One can really photograph and walk oneself to exhaustion in narrow streets and alleys. Visual bombardment is coming from all directions.

Large Fes medina at night.

The University and Mosque of Al-Karaouine. It is the oldest existing, continually operating educational institution in the world and sometimes referred to as the oldest university. The Al-Karaouine mosque-madrasa (religious school) was founded by Fatima al-Fihri in 859AD, which subsequently became one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the historic Muslim world. For such a historic sight, its a shame its closed for non-Muslims.

The Bab Bou Jeloud is a gate that leads to the old medina, and a local landmark everyone knows.

Leather tanneries in Fes.

January 2017. Chefchaouen — blue city.

Chefchaouen is a small picturesque town in the Rif Mountains, around 700meters above sea level. Its also called blue city, for its trademark colour that is painted every house in historic part of the town.

There are several theories as to why the walls were painted blue. One popular one is that the blue keeps mosquitos away. Heard the same story also elsewhere in the country where blue is the favourite colour, so it may hold some truth in it.

Travel practicalities in Morocco.

Trains in Morocco are reliable and affordable method of traveling, going from centre to centre. If choosing a bus instead, use established bus companies of Supratours and CTM. Just walk by the touts loitering at the entrances of bus stations. Their “service” can end up to a no-name company not driving to centre (despite what they agree to get your money), but instead leaving you by the road at city outskirts before continuing next destination. Happened to me once in Agadir.

How to catch a taxi correctly is easy to forget when actually doing it: Before jumping inside, have proper change because driver will pretend of not having a change for tourists. If still not having the change, ask driver about it before letting him to start driving. Moroccan drivers usually accept using their meter, but sometimes claim its broken and negotiate price instead. Again, agree price before sitting inside and go. Dont wait until you have arrived, then its too late.

Couple lines from Wikitravel Fes matches my experience as traveler in Morocco.

There are many other scams and annoyances trying to get you into a shop/restaurant/hotel with various degrees of lying in the stories people make up. If in doubt, be independent and look for yourself e.g. whether the hotel you want to go to is indeed closed or under construction. This is unfortunately one of the sad things about Morocco, that you get to distrust every one, even those people who are genuinely friendly and hospitable, because sometimes this is only a facade.

Even if some slight annoyances can be expected down the road, no country is perfect. Morocco is welcoming, safe and developing country with lots to offer for curious and open minded traveler. Go see it yourself! 🙂

Kingdom of Morocco

Travel journal and photography of two month journey around Kingdom of Morocco, north-west corner of Africa. December 2016 to February 2017. This first part consists of Moroccan coastel cities, from Gibraltar in north, to Agadir and Essaouira in south. Part two dives into Moroccan inland.

Morocco is part of Maghreb. Greater Maghreb is defined of the region of Northwest Africa, west of Egypt. The traditional definition as the region including the Atlas Mountains and the coastal plains of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.

North African native Berber heritage have influenced distinctively Moroccan history and culture. Arab’s conquered the region early 8th century AD, but it was far away from centres of Arabia, Baghdad, Damascus and later Istanbul, and soon country break away to its own course. Successive local dynasties overthrow the Arab rulers and formed powerful regional empires of their own, such as Almoravids (10th century) and Almohads (until end of 13th century). Ottoman Turks and Europeans started arriving around 16th century.

With Arabs, bazaars common in Mid-East spread along the North Africa. Here they are called a Souk (find more about bazaar’s in Persia here and here).

Other common terms traveler soon will come across are: Ksar (fortified village), Kasbah (walled building where prominent local leader or tradesman and his family/court lived. A kasbah walls were high and usually without windows. They were often built on hilltops and/or near the entrance to harbours), Medina (labyrinth like old town), Riad (mansion, characterised by an open central garden courtyard surrounded by high walls. Recent times, old riads with good location have seen renovation and building boom around Morocco. These exotic houses are refurnished as hotels and houses for rent).

Tajine and Couscous. The main Moroccan dish most people are familiar with is couscous, the old national delicacy. Beef is the most commonly eaten red meat with a wide selection of vegetables. Chicken is also often used in tagines, or roasted. Both dishes are served in tangia, an urn-shaped terra cotta cooking vessel. It is also the name of the stew cooked in the pot.

Atlantic shores of Rabat.

December 2016. Rabat. As taxi from airport approach my apartment, warm 17 degrees wind, moist sea air from Atlantic were telling that chilly Europe was a thing of a past for now. Temperatures in coastal Morocco vary between 15-20 at day time at winter. Inland at night, temp can drop as low as freezing the water pools on streets.

Rabat is walkable developing city. Atlantic shore is magnificent with house size waves pushing against coastal rocks and wave breaker. More calm and pleasant waters can be found at river side of Bou Regreg, where fishermen are fixing their nets and boats, and people doing relaxing walkabouts at the shores.

Kasbah of the Oudaias is dominating the river mouth.

French coffee shops. Having a morning coffee in downtown cafes has quickly become my favourite past time during early morning. Coming here and sip the strong Moroccan drink, watch and chat with others, customers having their morning cafe noir and watch news on tv, reading papers, chatting. Waking to streets outside, traffic humming by and children walking to school, businesses opening.

December 2016. Casablanca.

City has given name for Hollywood block buster by Warner Bros Studios, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Today, center stage of the movie, Rick’s Cafe Americain can be visited by film noir nostalgia craving travelers.

Modern day Rick’s Cafe interior.

Casablanca is largest city and commercial center of the country. Although early settlements go long back in time, city really started as its current for in late 18th century. French style venues are long and wide. Building base is often not older than perhaps 100 years, although medina exists here too. Traffic police can be seen on foot on many street crossing and controlling busy traffic that passes by. Driving style on streets is fairly organised, although pedestrians are expected to give way to cars. Signpost and plaques are usually Arabic and French only, also in museums. Words boulangerie, patisserie, glacier, croissant, baguette come by everywhere.

Downtown Casablanca.

The Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca. It is the largest mosque in Morocco and the 13th largest in the world.

December 2016. Agadir.

Agadir’s is prosperity is emitting of being holiday and retirement destination. People arrive with family and friends, spend time relaxing at sun and sea and doing beach activities at day, clubbing and dining at night, and shopping in between. On its back streets and suburbs, poverty manifests itself in various forms. Agadir is fairly liberal city in Moroccan terms. Rhythms from salsa class are waving hips near the beach. Twenty meters apart devout Muslim men are doing their afternoon prayers, while bikini girls play beach volley and people are sipping caipirinhas like its Fortaleza Brazil. Winter morning light is strong and bright but air is cool. Jackets should be kept on while walking outdoors.

January 2017. Taghazout, north of Agadir. Atlantic waves are inviting surfers from over the world to enjoy waves. Small town has long since changed from sleepy Berber village to international Mecca for wave hunters, hipsters and nomads. All along the coast north from Agadir, large building projects are sprawling.

January 2017. Essaouira — town of trade winds.

Mogador island is the main island of the Iles Purpuraires near Essaouira. Island and its protection from Atlantic waves the reason why navigators have appreciated Essaouira as a natural harbor.

Essaouira medina.

Had a wonderful stay in Essaouira. The medieval town was originally founded by Portugese in early 1500’s. This fact is emphasised for tourists but not much from Portugese history is left standing today. Walled medina by the coast is two hundred years younger and built by local rulers. Nevertheless medina is the main drawing force to the town. Relatively compact and walkable in size, narrow labyrinth-like design provide fascinating experience for travellers. Corridors often lead to dead end at someones front door. Tunnel like streets are passing under peoples houses. Fishing harbour is another place not to miss. Every sunset fishing boats return from the sea with the daily catch. This ignites nervous activity in the harbour, as fish is processed and sold to local businesses and restaurants. It also awakes army of seaguls that have been impatiently awaiting the day. Irresistible smell of fish ignites chaos from the skies.


Hotel Des Iles, where Jimi Hendrix arrived to experience Essaouira in the late sixties.

February 2017. Tangier.

Tangier is probably oldest still habited city of Morocco. Wikipedia:

The history of Tangier is very rich, due to the historical presence of many civilisations and cultures starting from before the 5th century BC. Between the period of being a strategic Berber town and then a Phoenician trading center to the independence era around the 1950s, Tangier was a nexus for many cultures. In 1923, it was considered as having international status by foreign colonial powers, and became a destination for many European and American diplomats, spies, writers and businessmen.

American Legation in Tangier. Morocco was first foreign country to recognise independent United States of America. Legation complex contains the two-story mud and stone building presented to the United States in 1821 by Sultan Moulay Suliman. It is the first property acquired abroad by the United States government, it housed the United States Legation and Consulate for 140 years. Today building houses a museum with interesting display of exhibits from the past centuries.

Today, city is well connected to Europe, regular ferry lines operating to port of Tarifa in Spanish side of Gibraltar.

Sunset in Rabat.

Foolhardy Test with a Faulty Reactor — Chernobyl 30 Years Ago

September 2016

While driving north from Kiev, could not help of thinking the bus convoys from Pripyat coming opposite direction 30 years ago. A test in Chernobyl reactor #4 had gone horribly wrong, and had triggered series of events that still resonate today. 49 thousand people living in Pripyat were elite workers of Soviet famed nuclear industry, and their families, a prestigious position that guaranteed better living compared to average Soviet citizens.

Soviet era photo of reactor inspection.

After being exposed to high levels of radiation for a day without knowing about the danger, they were told few hours in advance to gather most important belongings and board on busses. Not much else were known by anyone inside and outside Soviet Union, except the political elite in Moscow and specialists that were hurriedly dispatched to the nuclear plant.

Road to Chernobyl.

Quotes bellow are from World Nuclear Association website.

Quote: On 25 April, prior to a routine shutdown, the reactor crew at Chernobyl 4 began preparing for a test to determine how long turbines would spin and supply power to the main circulating pumps following a loss of main electrical power supply. This test had been carried out at Chernobyl the previous year, but the power from the turbine ran down too rapidly, so new voltage regulator designs were to be tested. A series of operator actions, including the disabling of automatic shutdown mechanisms, preceded the attempted test early on 26 April. By the time that the operator moved to shut down the reactor, the reactor was in an extremely unstable condition. A peculiarity of the design of the control rods caused a dramatic power surge as they were inserted into the reactor.

Schematic model of RBMK1000 (High Power Channel-type Reactor), Chernobyl Museum in Kiev.

Quote: For this test, the reactor should have been stabilised at about 700-1000 MWt prior to shutdown, but possibly due to operational error the power fell to about 30 MWt at 00:28 on 26 April. Efforts to increase the power to the level originally planned for the test were frustrated by a combination of xenon poisoning, reduced coolant void and graphite cooldown. Many of the control rods were withdrawn to compensate for these effects, resulting in a violation of the minimum operating reactivity margin (positive void coefficient) by 01:00 – although the operators may not have known this. At 01:03, the reactor was stabilised at about 200 MWt and it was decided that the test would be carried out at this power level.

Quote: At 01:23:43, the power excursion rate emergency protection system signals came on and power exceeded 530 MWt and continued to rise (Wikipedia: the last reading on the control panel was 33,000 MW, ten times the normal operational output). Fuel elements ruptured, leading to increased steam generation, which in turn further increased power owing to the large positive void coefficient. Damage to even three or four fuel assemblies would have been enough to lead to the destruction of the reactor. The rupture of several fuel channels increased the pressure in the reactor to the extent that the 1000 t reactor support plate became detached, consequently jamming the control rods, which were only halfway down by that time. As the channel pipes began to rupture, mass steam generation occurred as a result of depressurisation of the reactor cooling circuit. A note in the operating log of the Chief Reactor Control Engineer reads: “01:24: Severe shocks; the RCPS rods stopped moving before they reached the lower limit stop switches; power switch of clutch mechanisms is off.”

Moon rover from Soviet space program that was used during cleanup efforts. It was only equipment that could sustain the levels of radiation, all other remotely controlled equipment stopped working after few hours. Most of cleanup effort were done by army reservists, that have since been called as bio-robots.

Quote: Two explosions were reported, the first being the initial steam explosion, followed two or three seconds later by a second explosion, possibly from the build-up of hydrogen due to zirconium-steam reactions. Fuel, moderator, and structural materials were ejected, starting a number of fires, and the destroyed core was exposed to the atmosphere.

Radiation level today, next to Reactor #4 is above normal background radion. About the same as in passenger jet in cruising altitudes.

Quote: Fires started in what remained of the unit 4 building, giving rise to clouds of steam and dust, and fires also broke out on the adjacent turbine hall roof (bitumen, a flammable material, had been used in its construction). A first group of 14 firemen arrived on the scene of the accident at 01:28. Over 100 fire-fighters from the site and called in from Pripyat were needed, and it was this group that received the highest radiation exposures. Reinforcements were brought in until about 04:00, when 250 firemen were available and 69 firemen participated in fire control activities. The INSAG-1 report states: “The fires on the roofs of units 3 and 4 were localized at 02:10 and 02:20 respectively, and the fire was quenched at 05:00.” Unit 3, which had continued to operate, was shut down at this time, and units 1 and 2 were shut down in the morning of 27 April.

Monument for the firemen who were first to arrive the plant after accident. Not knowing what they were dealing with, they were unprotected against the massive levels of radiation released from reactor. Most died in coming weeks after the incident.

After the accident, several investigations have been conducted to find causes of the accident. The first one still during Soviet Union laid all the blame on operators of the plant. Second one after couple years in turn blamed the reactor design. Consensus today seems to be combination of both:

  1. Errors done by the reckless and inexperienced control crew. Even with quirks of reactor that delivered the final blow, operators demonstrated that they didn’t fully control the reactor, and created conditions for the accident. For example the inability to stabilise the reactor at 700-1000 MWt before starting the test, power level dropped to measly 30MWt in their hands, and led to extremely unstable reactor configuration. Another example is manually overriding several automated safety systems, to be able raise the reactor output that had plummeted.
  2. Reactor design, described earlier.

Several contributing factors have also been identified, for instance:

  • Bad luck. Inexperienced night shift was doing the test, instead of day/evening shifts as originally planned. Kiev power grid controller needed power until 23pm, which postponed the test later than expected.
  • General lack of respect to safety procedures and wider operating margins, as well as withholding important information can be attributed as products of paranoid, totalitarian and dysfunctional society of Soviet Union after decades of Brezhnevian stagnation. For instance same type reactor had already demonstrated its tendency for power spikes in Ignalina nuclear plant (Lithuania), four years prior Chernobyl 1986. This important information was not spread anywhere, and Chernobyl operators were unaware of it.

Pripyat town center today.

Two days after the accident, radiation detector alarms went on in Swedish Forsmark nuclear plant, over 1200 kilometers away from Chernobyl. After checking their own plant several times, without finding the cause of high levels of radiation, Swedish started to look causes abroad and contacted Soviet authorities (link for more info). This finally forced Moscow to admit to the rest of the world what had happened.

Abandoned school in Pripyat.

All resources of super power were employed to contain the radiation, disconnect reactor from atmosphere and prevent even larger damage. Superheated core was slowly eating its way to lower sections of destroyed building, which risked yet another explosion if it reached large water pools under. Helicopter pilots from Afghan front were rushed to Chernobyl and drop sand, lead, clay, and neutron-absorbing boron onto the burning reactor. Miners from Russia were brought to dig tunnel under the reactor and replace water in pools under the reactor with cement. Thousands of army reservists were used as bio-robots because equipment available broke down. They had to clean the highly radioactive debris and destroyed buildings. Large sarcophagus to seal reactor from air was hurriedly designed and built in highly radioactive environment.

Ghost town of Pripyat is touching place to visit and see.

Pripyat.

Abandoned Duga radar near Chernobyl, nicknamed “Russian Woodpecker”. It was a Soviet over-the-horizon radar system, used as part of the early-warning network of oncoming American ballistic missiles. Two operational Duga radars were deployed, one near Chernobyl and Chernihiv in Ukraine, the other in eastern Siberia.

Starting in 1976 a new and powerful radio signal was detected worldwide, and quickly dubbed the Woodpecker by amateur radio operators, due to its sounding like a sharp, repetitive tapping noise at 10 Hz. In late 1980’s Duga system was made irrelevant by satellites. The satellite system provides immediate, direct and highly secure warnings, whereas any radar-based system is subject to jamming.

Duga radar can be easily seen from higher buildings of Pripyat, so it was hardly a secret for civilians living there. What was secret though was its purpose. Locals were told it being television antenna!

Just two years after Chernobyl, Gorbachev government found itself again at odds with harsh realities of Soviet system. December 1988 an earthquake 6.8 Ms magnitude, rocked northern regions of Soviet Republic of Armenia. Casualties have been estimated 25000—50000 dead. Much of casualties were attributed to substandard construction of buildings during Breznevian decades, such as excess amount of sand used because cement had been stolen or sold to black market. Also the Soviet war in Afghanistan was going wrong big time, and eventually they would have to recognise the defeat and withdraw. These hardships were used by Gorbachev as evidence that Soviet system needed fundamental changes, enter the glasnost and perestroika reforms. However as history then witnessed, it was too little too late. In November 1989 Berlin Wall fell, and dominoes started to fall for Soviet block.


Statue of Lenin still stood at firmly in Kiev, September 2012. In public view it had transitioned from being Communist monument, to a symbol of Ukraine’s linkage to Moscow. After EuroMaidan protests in 2013-2014, old gentleman finally had to step down from his podium.

Chernobyl today: the New Safe Confinement is getting ready. It is a structure intended to contain the destroyed nuclear reactor #4. Besides better prevention of radiation leaks, secondary goal is to allow partial demolition of the old sarcophagus built 1986. The total cost of the project is estimated to be around 2.15 billion Euros. November 2016, NSC moving has started: Link.


Interesting clip about starting and stopping a scientific nuclear reactor.

Armenia Impressions

December 2015 & July 2016

@ Yerevan. What to write about Armenia and Armenians? I’ve been in capital now few weeks and liked my visit a lot. Center Yerevan has effectively washed its face from the Soviet past. Although it doesn’t take long walk after grey concrete blocks starts to appear. Downtown has several western style avenues with cafe’s, restaurants, hotels and boutique shops.

Prices compared to Europe are reasonable. Living expenses, gasoline and transportation, accommodation etc. are attractive. EU citizens don’t need visa for arrival, and can stay as tourist for half a year (and in neighbouring Georgia tourist visa permits stay a full year!). People are friendly, and women true beauties. Yerevan weather can be hazy when it hasn’t rained for a while, but once air is cleared, Ararat is providing magnificent views over the city.

Mount Ararat and statue Mother of Armenia.

Population of Armenia is just 3 million, and its a land locked country. Border can be crossed north from Georgia and south from Iran. Country was the first in world to turn officially Christian, year was AD301. Most Armenian churches are well older than Europeans counterparts. Compare for example Echmiazin Cathedral that was founded same year that country turned Christianity. Notre Dame de Paris, ancient by European standards, was founded “only” AD1163. Although center Yerevan contains little historic sights, it is surrounded with several interesting places to see, one or two hour drive away.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral, oldest state built church in the world. It has same meaning for Armenian Christians as Vatican for Catholics.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral

Sevan, second highest lake in world (after Titicaca in South America). Sevan has magnificent sights for surrounding regions, and two ancient churches. Winds were chilly in December, but lake is popular spot during summer time

Cave chapel of Geghard from AD1215

Mount Ararat

Mountain seen from Yerevan, Armenian side (above) and Dogubeyazit, Turkey (bellow).

Monastery of Khor Virap, winter (above) and summer (bellow).

@ August 2016, Yerevan. Is there angry God of Photography at Mt. Ararat? How hard it can be to take a single decent photo of something as fast moving as 5000 meter tall mountain and 1000 year old stone monastery? After 3 attempts, winter and summer, I must confess not as easy as one might think.

Mount Ararat and monastery of Khor Virap offer perhaps the most scenic vista near Yerevan. Trip is easily doable with half a day trip using public transport. Taxi or own vehicle even less. Problem is that Yerevan plain emit mist that can hide mountain entirely. And also, clouds can appear out of nowhere to cover the mountain. Best bet to go after the rain, when air has been cleared, but not too soon to allow skies clear. Naturally golden hours of sunrise and sunset give most scenic views.

Ararat for Armenians is what Fuji is for Japanese, a holy mountain that has been part of their culture and history throughout the millenniums. After borders where redrawn at the end of WW1, Ararat now stands in Turkish side of border.

Noah descending from Mount Ararat (Genesis 8:1-17):

Then God said to Noah, “Come out of the ark, you and your wife and your sons and their wives. Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you—the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground—so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

@ Goris, Armenian south. Surprisingly, there was no busses available from Yerevan to Goris, so I had a share-taxi with locals. Journey was interesting. Our Armenian driver nicknamed Schumacher, manoeuvred his big Mercedes at high altitudes in South Caucasus. Speeding around 160km so we were literally flying on a curvy and bumpy roads.

Speakers were blaring Armenian pop songs, and Schumacher was doing little dance performances while overtaking old Lada’s on our way. Utility vehicles have uncommon mix of historic equipment. Soviet era trucks, like Kamaz are remnants of Armenias past. Old oil trucks coming from Iran are made in USA Mack trucks, from Iran’s pre-revolution days. Views were great, even with a bit shaken about driving, couldn’t stop awing them.

Goris is in a deep U-shaped valley. Buildings are lower brick houses, normally 3 floors high. Streets are Russian style prospeks, wide streets in grid formation. I find the remoteness and grittiness of Goris quite appealing.

@ West Armenia

Mount Aragats is dormant volcano massif in western Armenia. Its highest summit at 4090m is also the highest point of the Armenia.

Mamashen Monastery near Gyumri.

Interior of Sanahin Monastery, near Alaverdi.

Dilijan, Armenian Alpine region north from Yerevan.