Thursday, March 22, 2018

Learning and peace, the Himalaya Buddhist Academy of Serlo (Nepal 2017-10)

The Himalaya Buddhist Academy at Serlo, in the southern Solu Khumbu, perches on a sunny hillside at 2870 m above the town of Junbesi. The Tibetian name is Ngagyur Sergon Lungrig Sheddup Zungdel Ling (Higher Buddhist Studies and Research Center). It was founded in 1959 by Ven. Khenpo Sangye Tenzin (1924 - 1990), a scholar and teacher who had trained in Tibet. After the brutal Chinese invasion of Tibet, many monks/scholars fled south to Nepal and set up schools or monasteries to preserve Buddhist teachings and traditions. The traditional Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp trail comes by the front of the monastery, so the monks and students see many tourists in the trekking seasons.
My friends and I hiked up from Junbesi on a cheerful sunny day. The students were glad to see us. They were especially impressed because my friend, Don Messerschmidt, speaks fluent Nepali. We received the royal treatment, including tea and Digestive Biscuits.
Some of the boys were practicing to make torma from barley flour and water. The torma is decorated with butter sculpture, known as chopa. The boys practice making shapes such as disks, dots, lunar crescents, and flower petals.
The more skilled boys make amazingly intricate shapes. In the lower picture, a teacher is grading them on their workmanship.

The students come from Nepal, India, and occasionally from further away. Many Nepali families send their children to be trained at the monastery. At about age 18, they can opt to remain or leave and return to the regular commercial world. They live in dormitories on site.
The monastery is partly self-contained. The monks and students grow vegetables and barley on the hillsides. And they make their clothes on sturdy treadle sewing machines.
Once again, the kitchen was an interesting place, with shiny pots and mugs and very directional light. In this monastery, the cook is a professional contractor, not a monk. They use some gas, which is brought in. A road links the monastery to Junbesi, so trucks can bring in supplies.

The black and white photographs are from Kodak Tmax 400 film taken with a Leica IIIC rangefinder camera and a 50mm f/2 Summitar lens.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Long View and some GAS: 250mm Sonnar Lens for the Hasselblad

Dear Readers, a confession: I suffered from GAS a few months ago. No, I did not eat baked beans or cabbage; I had Gear Acquisition Syndrome. All photographers suffer GAS to some degree or another, especially the ones who deny it! Last year, a friend let me use his 150mm lens on a Hasselblad, and I enjoyed the longer reach compared to the 75-80mm lenses from past experience with my Rolleiflexes. Afterwards, while perusing eBay (a dangerous habit), I saw a 250 mm f/5.6 Sonnar lens for $87, bid on it, and, amazingly, it was mine. So, for about $100 total, a magnificent Zeiss lens from the best of 1967 West German craftsmanship took up residence in my camera bag.
This is one of the chrome-plated units with single-coated glass, as opposed to the contemporary Zeiss T* multi-coating. Multi-coating has its greatest benefit in reducing flare in complicated wide-angle lenses, especially if they have large front elements, but has less noticeable effect with tele lenses. These Zeiss lenses were always built with baffles and edge paint on the elements to reduce flare, so they always performed well, even with glarey light.

But regardless of coating, you should always use a hood, and this is true for any lens. In this case, a Hasselblad Bay 50 hood cost half as much as the lens did. As the years go by, accessories become rare and the prices go way up. Decades ago, real camera stores usually had drawers full of camera and lens fittings, filters, and accessories, often at reasonable price. Where have all these things gone? Were they mass disposed in dumpsters over the years or hoarded in cabinets of eBay customers?

The shutter speeds on this old-timer sounded good, although 1 sec. may have been a bit slow. But with some exercise, it smoothed out and appears to be fine as per correctly exposed negatives. The coating was pristine.
Clay Street, Vicksburg, Kodak Tri-X 400 film.
Old Courthouse Museum, Vicksburg. The old Clay Street YMCA is on the right. Kodak Tri-X 400 film.

Here are two examples taken with the 250mm Sonnar from the 4th floor of the Relax Inn in Vicksburg. The proprietor generously let me go to the balcony with my tripod. The light was misty, accounting for the soft contrast.
Washington Street view north, Vicksburg, Fomapan 100 film. 
Kansas City Southern (KCS) tracks view east from Mission 66 bridge, Vicksburg, Fomapan 100 film.
Yes, it does occasionally snow in Vicksburg. We had two snowfalls this winter. It is such an unusual event, I could not resist recording the scene.
KCS tracks from Baldwin Ferry Road, Vicksburg. Fomapan 100 film.
KCS tracks and rail yard from Washington Street, Vicksburg. Fomapan 100 film.
So far, I have used the 250 lens on a tripod, thereby letting me stop down to f/8 or smaller. It is sharp, and contrasty - what is not to like? (To see more detail, click any picture to expand to 1600 pixels wide). Next bit of GAS: some Bayonet 50 filters.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Traditions and Books: Thupten Chöling Monastery, Nepal (Nepal 2017-09)

The Thupten Chöling monastery/nunnery is situated on a hillside in the Solu Khumbu at about 8900 ft. altitude. The setting is magical, with neat houses built up a south-facing hillside for the nuns and Tibetian refugees. According to their web page: "Thupten Choling is a celibate Buddhist monastery located in the high and remote mountains of Nepal. Founded by His Holiness Trulsik Rinpoche in the 1960's after fleeing Tibet, it is an independent and autonomous institution. Consequently, Thupten Choling has been able to remain authentically traditional, and hidden from the outside world." It is not exactly hidden today: a couple hours walk up an excellent trail from the town of Junbesi takes you to the monastery.
Wheat biscuits drying in the sun, Thupten Chöling (digital photograph).
Many of the nun's homes were destroyed in the 2015 earthquake, but we saw many brightly-painted new or repaired buildings.
We were allowed into the central prayer room of the gomba, where students were reciting from sacred texts. From Wikipedia, "A gompa is a meditation room where practitioners meditate and listen to teachings. Design and interior details vary from region to region; however, all follow a general design of a central prayer hall containing a murti or thangka, benches for the monks or nuns to engage in prayer or meditation and attached living accommodation." I was a bit uncomfortable taking photographs, but our guide said it was all right, and I tried to be as quiet as possible. There were other distractions that day: a construction crew was building a tower within the room that would project up through the roof eventually. We saw Tibetan holy books on shelves behind neat glass door. A monk said they were from Lhasa, which would make them especially valuable. Religious texts are now printed in India.
The monks generously fed us tea, dry crackers (the things drying in the sun in the 2nd photograph) and McVities Digestive Biscuits. A Tibetian nun who spoke excellent English said I was could photograph in the kitchen. This was a fascinating room with a wood stove on the floor and cauldrons of rice and dahl. They made rice in industrial quantities. The room resembled the ancient kitchen at the Grand Meteoron monastery in Meteora, Greece, which I photographed years ago. The kitchen was dark with light streaming in from one side through clouds of steam. I had to prop my Leica camera on shelves or posts for long exposures.
The 70-year-old 50mm Summitar lens and TMax black and white film does a nice job with the shiny pans and ladles. Click any of the pictures to enlarge them to 1600 pixels wide.
Two of our companions and a Sherpa guide stayed behind for an overnight and then a morning ascent to a sacred cave. The rest of us hiked back downhill to Junbesi, which is a cheerful Sherpa town in the valley.
This part of the Solu is lower altitude than the "real" mountains further north. The hillsides are heavily forested, interspersed with deep ravines and cultivated fields of wheat, barley, and pasture. The traditional expedition route from Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp comes through Junbesi. Although most trekkers now fly into Lukla further east, many hikers still walk the entire multi-week route.

The black and white photographs are from Kodak TMax 400 film, taken with a Leica IIIC rangefinder camera. This was my father's 1949 camera, recently reconditioned. Praus Productions, Rochester, New York, developed the film in Xtol developer.

We will visit more monasteries in the next two articles. Thank you for reading.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Out to the Solu Khumbu: Phaplu, eastern Nepal (Nepal Post 2017-08)

My friends and I were on our way to trek in the Solu Khumbu region in east central Nepal. This is a beautiful forested terrain inhabited by the Sherpa people. We planned to fly to the town of Phaplu, which has a short airstrip carved out of the mountain just below the town. We sat in Kathmandu airport all day, but all the flights were diverted to the town of Lukla. This is where the hoards who tromp to Everest Base Camp and genuine expeditions disgorge. Some 35,000 trekkers a year do the Base Camp forced march, so Lukla is high priority, while a town like Phaplu is lower priority. There was no promise that the plane would fly to Phaplu the next day. OK, change of plan. You need to be flexible in Nepal. We loaded our duffels back onto jeeps, stayed in a hotel in Kathmandu overnight, and set out the next morning.
The 7 hour jeep ride became 13 hours, thanks to tire repair, lunch stop, and rough roads. Some of the main road south to the lowland (the Terai) was well-paved, but some sections were mud, water, holes, stream crossings, and ruts. The road east along the foothills reminded me of Greek mountain roads, but with much poorer paving (where it was paved) and with sides that plunged down 3000 ft. An occasional squashed bus or pickup truck lay down in the gullies.
Schoolgirls in Dhulikhel, Nepal
Waiting for the bus, Khukot, Nepal
We stopped for tea in Dhulikhel and lunch (dahl baht, of course) in a market town called Khukot.
Waiting for the bus in Phaplu, and waiting, and waiting....
Phaplu was pretty interesting. It consisted on a main street lined with 10s of shops and guesthouses. It is a busy trade town because it is at the end of the main paved road, although secondary roads do fan out to the north. Morning was noisy with trucks, dogs, yelling vendors, tractors pulling laden trailers, motor scooters, and planes droning overhead on their way to Lukla. The people were friendly and pleased to see foreigners (= potential customers).

We met the friendly couple who ran the Tibetan Shop. Many of these people are refugees from Tibet after the Chinese invaded in 1953 and proceeded to systematically destroy the culture and religious traditions. The Tibetans are ethnically different than the Sherpa people who have lived in these valleys and ridges for centuries.
Typical Phaplu guesthouse/hotel.
Fermenting hot pepper sauce on the windowsill.
The black and white photographs are from TMax 400 film from a Leica IIIC rangefinder camera. The color photographs are from Ektar 100 film shot with a compact Yashica Electro 35CC rangefinder camera.

The next few Nepal articles will cover the towns and monasteries we visited on out trek north of Phaplu.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Kaiser Mahal and Kaiser's Library, Kathmandu (Nepal article 2017-07)

The Ranas built a number of extravagant palaces in Kathmandu. Many are now being used as government ministries, while others were damaged in the 2015 earthquake and are closed. But there is some good news. The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Restoration, funded by the United States, has provided a grant for conservation and restoration of the south wing of Kaiser Mahal. I think this is the section that includes the library but am not sure.
When my friends and I visited the Garden of Dreams in October of 2017, the Kaiser Mahal was a hulking building of brickwork and plaster with only a small section open as a photograph gallery. But looking over a brick wall, we saw the palace east entrance, a dilapidated garden, deserted cars, and junk. Ah ha, urban decay on a grand scale.
Surprisingly, we could walk around the corner to Kanti Path (street) and walk through an unguarded brick entrance. A couple of cooks were cleaning dishes at a tap. And there was the palace, looking quite forlorn. The Department of Education formerly used the building, but has now moved.
The architecture is a combination of neoclassical European with Oriental influence. Everything was locked, so we left.
Two weeks later, I returned by myself to Kanti Path. This time, the grounds were bustling, with parked scooters and cars and lots of people milling around. And the Kaiser Library was open! I signed in and walked around. The collection looked like a repository of early 20th century Indian-printed volumes: Birds of the Indian Garden, or Sport on HRM's Royal Tour of India and Burma (= shoot many tigers from the back of elephants), or Journey to Lhasa and Central Tibet (the amazing story of Sarat Chandra Das, a school teacher turned explorer and spy). The books were damp. The library desperately needs climate control.
A barrier prevented me from going upstairs, but I saw a group with an English-speaking gent go up the stairs and examine the collections and some oil paintings. Dr. Messerschmidt, an anthropologist, told me that many volumes have been stolen because of lax security.
Some background to the library: According to an article in Wikipedia, Kaiser Shumsher Jang Bahadur Rana was an avid book collector. Kaiser visited England with his father early in the 20th century. "He was very much impressed by the government of England, as well as by the library system and the proper management of books there." He brought home many books, and back in Kathmandu, he established a library in the palace. Eventually, he acquired thousands of volumes. At first, the library was open only to family members and special visitors, but he bequeathed the collection to the nation upon his death in 1964. The good news is the library is still open to students and the public, there is staff during opening hours, and there is functioning electricity. Let's hope this cultural treasure can be preserved.

The black and white photographs were taken with a Leica IIIC rangefinder camera. The library photographs are from a compact Yashica Electro 35CC camera with 35mm f/1.8 lens using Fuji 200 film. The camera's shutter is electronically timed, so I set it on shelves, set the self-timer, and let the shutter stay open as long as needed (many seconds), Very convenient.