Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Hanging around in Junbesi, rural Nepal (Nepal 2017-11)

On the Kathmandu to Everest Base Camp trail, approaching Junbesi.
The cheerful Sherpa town of Junbesi was our base for visits to nearby monasteries and for some trekking. The town is in a valley which opens up to the south and is surrounded by both forest and verdant farm fields. This area has not been deforested to the degree suffered by many other parts of Nepal, which has led to myriad environmental consequences, such as soil erosion, runoff, and flash flooding.
We stayed in the Apple Garden Guest House & Restaurant, which was clean and cheerful. The rooms were clean and the food was good, but the toilets and wash facilities needed work (typical in most of the country).
Room with a View - Junbesi from the Apple Garden Guest House.
Pack explosion = room with a mess. In the Apple Garden Guest House.
Entering town from the south, you are welcomed by a chorten with prayer wheels on all four sides. You are supposed to circle a chorten clockwise, meaning pass to the left, and spin the prayer wheels for good fortune and health. Chortens are found throughout the country, and range from huge structures in the city to small units on trails, villages or mountain cols. They serve as a religious focal point in the town or countryside and have a positive effect on the people who live nearby or pass alongside. "Building a chorten is an especially karmic act, helping to ensure fortunate rebirths."
Late tomatoes still ripening in the sun.
Toilet brushes ripening in the sun.
Most of Junbesi is cheerfully painted and in good maintenance. Some of the stores have odd items on display. A couple of my co-travelers found plenty of beer for sale.

We met an Australian dentist who comes to Junbesi once or twice a year to treat local residents. He had a clinic in a small building which was equipped, he said, to do most procedures that he might encounter. He brought most of his supplies with him when he came from Australia. For fillings, he used composite resin. He told me no longer used silver amalgam because the material was too heavy and there was the issue of disposing of waste. The day we talked, he was awaiting nuns to come down the mountain from the Thupten Chöling Monastery.
A short distance up-valley is another prosperous Sherpa town, Phungmoche. This photograph was from the trail that leads uphill to the Thubten Choling monastery.
I have already written about the Thupten Chöling Monastery before, so will only show one photograph. Drying barley in the sun is a common late autumn activity throughout Nepal.
A short distance below Junbesi, a lady was sipping her tea in the town of Benighat.
The boys of Benighat, cheerful and optimistic.
The photographs with grain are from Kodak Ektar 100 film, shot with a 35mm Yashica Electro 35CC camera. The grain-free photographs are from a Nexus 4 phone.

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 elevation above the town of Junbesi. The Tibetian name is Ngagyur Sergon Lungrig Sheddup Zungdel Ling (Higher Buddhist Studies and Research Center). Ven. Khenpo Sangye Tenzin (1924 - 1990), a scholar and teacher who had trained in Tibet, founded the academy in 1959. After the brutal Chinese invasion of Tibet, many monks and 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 my 1949 Leica IIIC rangefinder camera and a 5cm ƒ/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 Sonnar 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 ƒ/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 usually 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 in 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 often 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, and maybe one of the 120mm lenses.
Hasselblad advertisement, Popular Photography, March 1981, p. 72.
UPDATE May 2021: The 250mm Sonnar continues to serve well. It is a spectacular lens.

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 with 5cm f/2.0 Summitar lens. 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 article 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 assurance 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 (excellent 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 tens 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).
Tibetan couple, Phaplu
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.
Biscuits, chocolate, and other manufactured goods, Phaplu
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 and 5cm ƒ/2 Summitar lens. The color photographs are from Ektar 100 film shot with a compact Yashica Electro 35CC rangefinder camera with 35mm ƒ/1.8 lens.

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