Travel

Leica Photography In The Tropics — Then and Now

This is a camera geeking post!

After introduction in mid 1920’s, Leica photography became synonym for more agile and reactive way of taking photographs. It made possible to use a camera in situations and locations that hadn’t been considered with earlier equipment. Bit like iPhone of its day, Leica camera defined a before-and-after point in photographic world. Lets travel back to 1937 and take Leica into a jungle! Quotes bellow are from book The Leica Manual, Willard D. Morgan, 1937.

Kilimanjaro national park, Tanzania.

“Several years of photographic work under difficult tropical conditions … a 600-mile trek across the Central African Highlands in the middle of the rainy season . . . 400 miles by dugout canoe in the humid swamplands of southern New Guinea . . , and the highly variable conditions encountered in the uplands of Fiji and the Solomon Islands, have satisfied me of the singular advantages of the Leica camera, and the Leica method in general, for hot-country work.

One virtue which the Leica possesses is: It is the only camera I know of that when in use is sufficiently sealed to guard the film inside from moisture. Practically no humidity, I find, penetrates the closed camera. If the film has been cared for properly before and after use satisfactory results are certain. Nothing can happen to it while it is in use.”

Infrared photos taken with Leica M8. Victoria Falls at Zambian-Zimbabwean border. Iguazu Falls at Brazilian-Argentinean border.

“My own methods of caring for film under tropical conditions methods which have proven completely successful are these.

I purchase all the film I need before leaving home. Even the less durable grades of super-speed pan will, I know from experience, last at least a year, if one takes care. And, so far as the tropics are concerned, I distrust the mails.

Some travelers order film to be sent out to them at various stages of their voyaging. The idea seems reasonable. Fresh film, straight from the factory, it should be fine. It is, unless it happens on the way to have had a long trip through tropical waters in the mail room of an average steamer. I have been in those mail rooms. They are usually amidships near the engines; near the equator their normal temperature is often well above 120(F). And somewhere, in the midst of it, someone’s film is simmering. For the same reason I allow no cases containing film to be taken to the baggage room. They stay with me in the cabin.”

Irrawaddy, main waterway of Burma.

“Film should be carried in a steel African uniform box. Boxes made in England for use in Africa and well worth the high price one pays for them boxes guaranteed airtight and watertight. I have one which is large enough to hold, except for the cameras themselves, all of a rather extensive photographic equipment. It is roughly the size of an ordinary suitcase. And one should improve it in one particular which the makers overlooked. African uniform boxes are painted black when one gets them. Mine is now painted with a white enamel. When, as it often is, the box is being carried in the sunlight on the top of an African’s head or a South Sea Islander’s shoulders, the difference in the interior temperatures between a black box and a white one is decidedly perceptible. And very important.”

Leica Manual — A Manual For The Amateur And Professional Covering The Entire Field Of Leica Photography by Willard D. Morgan; Henry M. Lester. Source.

Mayan temple complex in Tikal, in the sea of Guatemalan jungle.

Khmer temples in Angkor Wat, Cambodia.

Taj Mahal, India.

50 years later, African uniform boxes and steamers had largely disappeared. But world of photography was still analog. Gunter Osterloh, Leica M Advanced Photo School gives few tips about problem fungus can cause to photographic equipment. Quote:

“Long visits to areas with a hot and humid climate expose the entire photographic outfit to the risk of fungus growth. Film, lenses, leather cases, all of them can be damaged by fungus. The more frequently we expose cameras, lenses, and accessories to fresh air, the lower the risk of fungus formation. Fungus growth is much more likely to occur when the equipment is not used very often.

Film react even more sensitively to a hot and humid tropical climate than cameras and lenses. Problems result from the absorption of humidity by the film, causing it to swell and to stick to the inside of its cartridge, for example, or to the take-up spool of the camera. The emulsion may then be torn from its support during the winding or rewinding operation, destroying any pictures that may have been taken on it. Bits of emulsion that remain behind (mostly in the vicinity of the pressure plate) will foster the growth of fungus.”

Leica M Advanced Photo School, latest edition is on Amazon.

My own experience echoes Osterloh. When living in Thailand I foolishly left my equipment into a closed bag for few months. After finally taken out, outer lens elements were already growing fungus, but it hadn’t penetrated inside yet. Watch out especially with expensive gear such as Leica’s!

Golden Triangle seen from Thai side, at the confluence of the Ruak River and the Mekong River. The location is border tripoint of Thailand (behind), Laos (right) and Burma (left).

Lets go forward 30 years to 2017. World has largely shifted from analog to digital (film is also experiencing a resurgence like vinyl records and tube radios). Photo can be shared instantly and without costs across the globe. Democratization of photography has progressed also further. Where there was perhaps one Mr. Morgan to hundred thousand who didn’t own any camera, and one Mr. Osterloh to ten thousand the same. Today, thanks to phone cameras, figures are opposite.

What else to consider today, if heading somewhere warm and humid? Past several years I’ve been lugging my Leica and other cameras into tropical countries in Africa, South Asia and America. Couple points to take into account:

– Obviously our dependency on electronics has become a norm. Batteries for the camera and other equipment, and needed accessories (chargers, adapters) all add weight to the backpack. Same goes with storage and backups. Connectivity with the rest of the world. Editing and sharing work on the go.

– Electronic dry boxes are nowadays affordable and a cheap insurance against the fungal growth. The device contains a small cooler, which removes moisture from the air by condensing it out. Consider them if you live in tropics for longer periods of time. Silica gel bags are alternative for those who have to change location frequently.

Sunset at Vinales, Cuba and Vang Vieng, Laos.

– Digital sensor is more vulnerable to dust than film. Sooner or later spots start to appear on your photos even if you are careful when and where changing lenses. For a long trip, sensor cleaning solution is must have backup, least for me.

– Developing countries often have shoddy power grids. Leaving a gadget plugged in for long periods risk it to power spikes that can fry delicate electronics. Cameras that can share same batteries reduce need for constant charging. Wall chargers disconnect the device from direct connection with grid.

Then and now, many things are different but some similarities also do exist. Leica’s still a specialist tool and costs a fortune!

Further reading: Article by The New Yorker from 2007.

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.

Gorgeous Georgia

(the country of Georgia in Caucasus)

Title came to mind when I set way out of capital Tbilisi. Marshrutka (minibus) didn’t have to drive more than an hour when Greater Caucasus mountain range was already providing stunning views.

June 2016

@ Stepantsminda. Night descends to a small town in a deep mountain valley. Cows are leisurely walking in yards and roads, in their never ending quest for something to munch. Its mid summer, and snow rivers are still visible but quickly fading, glaciers at mountain tops withdrawing. Evenings even now are pretty chilly, but afternoon sun combined with exhaust of trekking is sweaty affair in the mountains. Glancing up from village, silhouette of Gergeti Trinity Church at 2200 meters starts to fade away as light diminishes, and behind, the mighty 5000 meter tall Kazbegi shines in orange and purple hues of sunset. I climbed today to see the church and surroundings, two hour ascend is tedious exercise for leg muscles, and one hour tap dance down is hard on knees. But it was well worth the trouble, views overlooking the mountain, the ancient church and the views back to town were gorgeous.

Photos do pale justice to the scenery visitor can see in real life.

My guesthouse had lovely old gramophone and some records. Wonder when machine delighting listeners last time?

@ Borjomi. Am sitting on a porch of my guest house. Its been exhausting hot day, as I visited Vardzia, near Turkish and Armenian borders. Vardzia was medieval stone town carved to a side of steep cliff. Famous Georgian Queen Tamar who presided over golden age of her kingdom, sent off her armies for conquest from here. Wikipedia:

The chronicler of Tamar describes how the army was assembled at the rock-hewn town of Vardzia before marching on to Basian and how the queen addressed the troops from the balcony of the church.

Borjomi is famous for its healthy mineral water and springs. Health tourism started already in early 1800’s, when Tsarist Russia started developing the infrastructure. Town is situated in charming narrow valley, surrounded by lovely lush jungle growing on both sides of narrow river valley.

In its early years, Borjomi was reserved for blue blooded. Nowadays the attractions has been democratised for everyone interested.

@ Mestia and Ushguli. Scenes of Svanetia region in north west of Georgia are like from Hobbit movies. For centuries, region was protected by its difficult accessibility. Even Mongol’s weren’t interested in spending resources to capture it, easier targets were elsewhere. Svanetia is famous for its tower houses, green valleys and beautiful white capped mountains.

Svaneti region, north west of Georgia.

Svaneti girl.


Katski Pilar near city of Kutaisi.

Today, traveler comes first Mestia as its better connected with the rest of country. Ushguli is further 40km by the road. Mestia has more modern infrastructure, paved roads, shops, banks, restaurants and cafes, but its remoteness is still evident especially at winter time. I personally liked more of Ushguli, mainly because of its originality. Chatted with fellow traveler, an Austrian alpinist. We both agreed that region was under rapid transformation and in five-ten years time Ushguli could hardly be recognised from its past or even current self. Unpaved jumpy road would be paved. Hotels, restaurants would spring up to cater growing numbers of visitors. Rusting Soviet era equipment of trucks, tractors that still stand in where they broke off, would be cleared out of sight. Some of the magic of remoteness and originality would no doubt be lost. This writer also describes the changing situation in Svaneti.

Pigs, horses and cows are bumming around everywhere.

Georgian driving culture can be rough experience for new comer. Drivers often straighten the curves even when there is no clear visibility of opposing traffic. Speed limits are nonexistent, and cows can be standing middle of road in curves and dimly lit tunnels.

@ Gori. Day started with sweaty train ride from Kutaisi, aircon in wagon just wasn’t sufficient enough against the sun and 35-40 Celsius outside. As we approached the Gori, rain front started to grow in horizon. Am writing this in my room at darkening evening, its still pouring rain outside. Couldn’t help but comparing the weather with thunderous son of the city. Joseph Vissarionovich Jughashvili was born in Gori 18 December 1878, to a poor family of drunk father and devout Orthodox mother, Keke. Parents regularly beat their children, and following quote is telling of what kind of childhood the son had: Wikipedia: “N. Kipshidze, a doctor who treated Keke in her old age, recalled that when Stalin visited his mother in October 1935, he asked her: “Why did you beat me so hard?” “That’s why you turned out so well”, Keke answered.”
Two years later when Ekaterine Geladze died in Tbilisi, her son was too busy orchestrating the Great Purge in Moscow, and couldn’t or wouldn’t attend the funeral.

Grave of Keke, Stalin’s mother, in Tbilisi.

Stalins armored train wagon he used to travel to three famous conferences during WW2: Tehran, Yalta and Potsdam. The Generalissimo was afraid of flight and paranoid about sabotage, so he traveled on land even as far as Iran.

Stalin museum of Gori.

Visited Stalin museum in city center was one of most rewarding museum visits I’ve done for a while. It was this because of contemporary Stalin-cult era information. Iron Joe, as many other dictators, built a personality cult around him. Gori was one of pilgrimage sites for diehard Stalinists. City’s main avenue is named after him. Stalin museum is in best place in the city, and from its park can be found humble birth home of Stalin, protected by neoclassic columns and covering. Photos, paintings and items of the dictator have long since disappeared from displays elsewhere, but here museum preserves and displays them as before. Visitor can grasp how seriously the man was taken in his time. Museum can also give a rare glimpse of nowadays-disappearing mindset of Soviet people.

Stalins cap and overcoats.

Stalin supermarket in Gori.

@ Tbilisi. Back in capital after tiring but very eye opening and rewarding trip around the country. Met many nice travelers from Poland, Austria, Korea, Japan. Tasted Georgian traditional foods like khinkali (meat dumplings) and khachapuri (cheese-filled bread). Country had a shady reputation during its first years of independence after collapse of Soviet Union, but since the Rose Revolution in 2003, new governments have managed to root out corrupted officials and mafia from hardening peoples lives. Like many former Soviet countries, Georgia is still in transition phase from this past, but things are changing rapidly. For travelers Georgia can provide experiences of beautiful nature, fascinating history and friendliness of local people. Wikitravel describes it better:

The Georgians have exceptionally strong traditions of hospitality, chivalry, and codes of personal honour. They believe that guests come from God. Friendship is prized highest among all the virtues. … The Georgians are proud, passionate, and fiercely individualistic, yet deeply connected with each other by a shared sense of belonging to a greater Georgian family.


Tbilisi views.

More Tbilisi views.


Tbilisi views.

Kachin State — Myanmar’s Christian North

This post is part of series documenting travel in Myanmar, Cuba and Iran: Introduction.

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Confluence of the N’mai and Mali rivers. Both originate as small streams on the Tibetan Plateau, and draw their waters from Himalayan-range glaciers. My tuktuk driver explained that N’mai is coming from China and Mali from India. Its not entirely clear wether the source of both rivers are in Burmese side or not. Judging the maps, some small streams indeed seem to come across the borders. The confluence is the origin of Irrawaddy River, Myanmars main waterway that flows through the country, all the way to Bay of Bengal.

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June 2015

Train to Myitkyina. We leave squeaking and shaking from Mandalay station into the night. Watching out into darkness, communities are living by the faintly lit street. Smart phones and TV screens are glowing back from there. Next morning we should be well on the way to north and after 24hrs should arrive to Myitkyina, Kachin state of Myanmar.

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Train traveling.
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Morning. Last night went without a sleep, not even the lightest dozing, ride is just too jumpy. Locals didn’t seem to mind much and kept sleeping. Outside our wagon, day is slowly opening. Clouds are looming low, and fields are wet. All the windows are open, sudden shower could wash us all inside. Farmers with their oxen are already plowing the paddies. “Iron-buffaloes” that are a norm in neighbouring Thailand, can be seen also occasionally. Change is coming also in remote parts of Myanmar. On railroads no such luck, except least were using steam locomotives like when British built the tracks 100+ years ago. Burmese trains defy the laws of gravity, to be put mildly.

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Ages old scenes meet today in north Myanmar.
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Myitkyina. Wide Irrawaddy is quiet. Night is coming and different shades over blue are descending over it. Due to the military restrictions, there is no traffic in the river. Water is plenty and level high, it would be easy to sail to Bhamo in south. Christian churches are everywhere, outnumbering the Buddhist temples in the city. A work of European missionaries in 19th century, who converted the local animist population to followers of Christ. Still, when looking the statistics, Buddhism is dominant religion also in Kachin state like in the rest of Myanmar.

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Street market in Myitkyina.

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Bhamo-Katha river boat.

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Two pranksters in Myitkyina.

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View from U-Bein bridge Mandalay, April 2013 & June 2015.
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