Another case of serendipity

posted in: Montana 3

For a people photographer, planning photographic opportunities is not an easy thing. Even more so when he’s traveling and wants to convey the mood of a place. You can’t really plan whom you’re going to meet and what the situation will be like unless you start with a preconceived notion, which is exactly the opposite of what I want to do when I explore a new location. So what can be done? Let serendipity come to the rescue.

What exactly is serendipity? Here’s what Wikipedia says:

Serendipity means a "fortunate happenstance" or "pleasant surprise". It was coined by Horace Walpole in 1754. In a letter he wrote to a friend Walpole explained an unexpected discovery he had made by reference to a Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip. The princes, he told his correspondent, were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of”.

While I’m unfortunately not a prince, what is described here happens to me on my travels all the time. Let me give you an example: recently, I traveled throughout Montana again in pursuit of capturing the wonderful spirit of this state (hint: there is more than one spirit…). I spent several days in Hot Springs, a quaint little town in the western part of the state which is full of interesting people. One day I tried to visit a friend who lives in the hills about 20 miles from the town. I wanted my visit to be a surprise, so I didn’t call her in advance. On the gravel road that leads to her cabin, only about 300 ft. from her gate, the right front tire of my rental car had a blowout. I walked up to her place, only to discover she was not home. Changing the tire with a whimsical scissor jack at 37°F in the rain on a muddy road was no fun. Using what is commonly called ‘the donut’, I slowly drove all the way to Polson and got new rubber on that front wheel. When all was done, it was 6 p.m. and I was back at my motel without a photograph worth talking about.

As the previous weeks of travel had been quite exhausting and I didn’t feel too energetic, I decided to give up searching for the day. I retreated to my room, started up the computer and worked on the pictures of the previous day. At some point I realized it was getting pretty cold (we’re in Montana…) and the electric heater in my room, not much bigger than a deck of cards (I am not kidding) just didn’t cut it. The solution would be to get a second blanket, so I walked over to the motel’s office. And yes, I did take my cameras because, after all, this is Hot Springs and in Hot Springs you never know.

The office was deserted, a weathered sign informing me that there would be somebody around the next morning at 8 a.m., which was no good news at all. But there was something in the air, a sound, a sound that resembled a guitar, yet it was strangely different. Following the direction of my ears, much like a dog follows its nose, led me to the porch on the motel’s street side. A gentleman was sitting there, smoking a cigar and playing what I soon would learn to be a Dobro guitar. He replied to my introduction in a strong southern drawl. As I had lived in South Carolina for a year back in the 1990s, I recognized his way of speech and told him how great it was to finally meet someone without an accent in Montana. This immediately broke the ice, of which I think there was very little to begin with, and within 30 seconds I found myself in his room, where he introduced me to his wife. It turned out they were from North Carolina (OK, slight accent) and had been travelling the American West for a few weeks. His name is Donnie ‘Dobro’ Scott, his wife’s is Barbara. He explained about the Dobro guitar (look it up on Wikipedia if you’re not familiar with it) and then the two of them performed a very romantic love song in that motel room:

Donnie 'Dobro' Scott and his wife Barbara performing a love song in their room at Alameda's in Hot Springs, MT.

After some more conversation and some tasting of the whisky Donnie always carries on his travels, he felt it was time to return to the pleasures of smoking a cigar. That’s when I took the second photo.

Donnie 'Dobro' Scott playing the guitar on the porch of Alameda's in Hot Springs, MT.

As happens so often, serendipity presented an opportunity that wouldn’t have come up in my dreams, let alone in any kind of planning. An open mind, an open heart and some familiarity with the tools at hand were all it took to capture this marvelous situation.

And, by the way, Barbara knew where the motel’s laundry room was, so I did eventually get that second blanket I had come for in the first place.

The 2016 dozen

posted in: Germany, Montana, Singles 0

With 2016 just behind me, I went through the pictures I took over the course of the year and selected 12 of my favorites. Not necessarily the 'best' ones (I find the concept of ranking each and everything a little odd, anyway), but 12 photographs that I will certainly remember.

Thunderstorm passing through Dunkirk, MT.
A musician friend relaxing before a concert.
Banker pausing on the steps of the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt/Main, Germany.
Reflection of the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom) in the window of a fashion store.
On the street in Frankfurt/Main, Germany.
While her soon-to-be husband takes care of their baby son, Angelica dives headfirst into the Flathead River in Paradise, MT. The day had brought temperatures in the upper 90s.
Main Street in Rudyard, MT.
Judith getting her makeup done at the Kustom Kulture Forever 2016 event at Zeche Ewald in Herten, Germany.
The cross-country team of the Hobson High School in Hobson, MT, consisting only of Rachel and Reba, practices on the football field . The school has about 100 students in K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade), down from 180 ten years ago. The graduation class of 2016 had only three students. All over the Missouri Breaks student numbers are in decline and schools have to pool sports teams.
On the street in Frankfurt/Main, Germany.
My friend Uli watching a model of the Earth in an exhibition in Oberhausen, Germany.
Justus Becker a.k.a. COR, a well-known graffiti artist from Frankfurt/Main, Germany, creating a new masterpiece under the Friedensbrücke.

Review of the Oberwerth München camera bag

posted in: Reviews 0

Disclaimer: I am an Oberwerth Ambassador. This means they send me stuff to review (and actually seem to listen to what I have to say about it). However, I don't get any compensation for this. The words you read here reflect my own opinion.

As you know, I don't usually do equipment reviews on my blog. There are entire websites dedicated to reviewing cameras and lenses and I don't intend to compete with them, nor do I want to convince my readers that my choice would also be right for them. However, at times I come across a piece of equipment that is not so much in the mainstream as the latest CaNikoLeica, yet I think it deserves some exposure. One of these items is the Oberwerth München camera bag.

The Oberwerth München in front of the Frankfurt skyline.

More than a quarter of a century ago, in summer of 1991, I switched from the big and heavy SLR system I had used to what could be called a mirrorless system, the rangefinder cameras made by Leica. These cameras and their lenses were far smaller and more lightweight than their SLR counterparts. Consequently, my existing photo bag and the new system didn’t really match very well.

However, this was a problem that could quickly be taken care of. I discovered bags, made by a British company, which seemed to have been designed for my new camera system. Being narrow and quite tall, their layout was very different from that of the bags I had used before. They hugged my body much more comfortably, didn’t stand out too much and allowed for carrying two lenses (or a camera body and a lens) above each other. Over the years I bought several of these bags in different colors and slightly varied configurations. Apart from a few small things I was very happy. After moving to another camera system (Fujifilm X-Series), everything still fit very well and the bags provided excellent protection for my gear. They are watertight even in very heavy rain, which is not much of a surprise considering the manufacturer started with making fishing bags. To this day, the design of the bags makes no secret of this fact.

In late summer of this year, a friend pointed out the Oberwerth bags to me. The München model immediately caught my eye as its size and its general layout are very similar to that of the British company’s model I had used so far. Still, the München leaves a strongly different impression. Oberwerth chose excellent materials and put a lot of thought into small and useful details. Also, the bag is extremely well made. Examining and handling it, you will realize right away that it is a high-quality item.

Being made of Cordura and leather, the bag is somewhat more rigid than my other camera bags, which are made of canvas, yet it is far from being hard. The carrying strap (which features a built-in cut-resistant wire!) is comparatively stiff, which has an advantage over cotton straps insofar as the bag doesn’t swing that much back and forth when you move.

The Oberwerth München easily holds two Fuji X-Pro2 bodies, six lenses, a flash and some accessories.

There are some small details I really like about the bag. For instance, there is a small inside compartment that can be closed by a zipper and holds smaller items or paperwork. At the back of the bag you can find an almost invisible strap that can be used to securely attach your München to the handle of a trolley.

The München bag is held close by LOXX fasteners. They look great, have a very precise feel to them and work perfectly. And, most importantly: other than Velcro fasteners, which some photo bags have, they work silently. There is nothing worse than fasteners that ruin the moment when the photographer opens his bag. However, the arrangement of the fasteners could be the matter of an argument. I prefer the concept with straps that are sewn to the bag at their lower end and have the fastener near the upper one. This way, the fastener can be reached more easily. Also, the bag doesn’t get pulled down when closing it. I have voiced my opinion to the Oberwerth people. Let’s see if future designs will have a different arrangement.

Stowing your equipment and enjoying the look and feel of a photo bag are important, yet the main questions are how well the gear will be protected and, even more importantly, how comfortable is it to carry the bag. The last question is really critical for me as I have my cameras with me almost every day.

In terms of protection I can say that even during an intense rain shower no water entered the bag. Even the leather looks like new after I let it dry slowly (just don’t put it in front of a heater if it’s wet).

The real surprise for me is how pleasant it is to carry the München. Although it is 200g (that’s about 6.5 ounces) heavier than my previous bag, it actually feels lighter after hours of carrying it. I’m not sure how this comes about. Most probably the very well designed shoulder pad, the right flexibility of the carrying strap and the fact that the bag is more rigid all play a role here.

In a nutshell: an excellent bag, especially for mirrorless systems (if you get additional dividers), a pleasure to carry and very well made. Maybe a little too nice to be used in the jungle, but certainly fit for bad weather.

Visiting Jeannie – A stay at the O’Haire Motor Inn

posted in: Montana 0

 

When I was a boy, one of my favorite TV shows was I dream of Jeannie with Barbara Eden playing a 2,000-year-old genie who gets freed from her bottle by an astronaut (played by Larry Hagman) with whom she falls in love. A few years ago I bought all episodes of the series on DVD and had a great time indulging in the atmosphere of the 1960s.

What I didn’t know then is that I would get to know this special ambience firsthand, live and in 3D.

The Room Status Control Board at the reception desk. The different color lights indicate the status of each room.

In September of this year, I drove to Great Falls, Montana. It was a stop on my way to the Missouri Breaks (more on that area in a later post). I had read about a bar that was supposed to be quite noteworthy, the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge. It’s a tiki bar that opened in 1962, a time when Polynesian themes were ‘in’, and intended to take a look at and possibly photograph this establishment.

What I didn’t know before is that the Sip ‘n Dip is located inside a motel, the O’Haire Motor Inn, that perfectly preserves the style of the decade during which America, as ordered by John F. Kennedy, would put a man on the moon, both the Rolling Stones and the Beatles gained world-wide popularity, Barbie became a top-seller and technological advances were greeted with an innocent optimism that is hard to imagine in our time.

When Edgar O’Haire opened this motel in 1962, he already had 12 years of experience running a smaller one in Shelby, which incidentally is one if my favorite towns on the Montana Hi-Line. He centered the design of the building around the travelers’ convenience, including features like a heated parking garage, TV and hi-fidelity music systems in every room, an indoor pool and a helipad that was popular with ranchers who came in with their ‘choppers’. With electronics just taking off at the time he built the motel, O’Haire had a Room Status Control Board installed. This allowed the staff to monitor the state of every room from the reception area and signal the maids when to clean a unit.

Walking through the corridors, examining the reception area and enjoying the Sip ‘n Dip Lounge made feel that Jeannie would come around the corner any minute.

The Sip ‘n Dip is truly special, too. Every night from Wednesday through Saturday, one or two women will swim in the pool behind the bar dressed up as mermaids, fishtail and all. The atmosphere is so cool that GQ magazine listed the place as #1 on its list of bars worth flying for.

Tracy the mermaid.

Holding her own against the competition of the much younger mermaids is “Piano PatSpoonheim. Pat is an octogenerian who started singing and playing the piano at the lounge in 1963.

Piano Pat.
Piano Pat.

If you’re interested in getting to know more about the O’Haire Motor Inn, I recommend reading the 1966 article from the Tourist Court Journal at http://ohairemotorinn.com/history/.

Another place in Great Falls that takes you back to the 1960s is Ford's Drive-In. The Ford Mustang shown in this picture was introduced in 1965.

National Geographic Traveler – Stars and cars in Fort Benton

posted in: Montana 0

 

In the summer of last year, when I was shooting for a story on the Missouri Breaks, I stayed in Fort Benton for a few days. Walking around this beautiful town that had seen its heyday as a trading post in the middle of the nineteenth century, I came across a small house that had a big American flag in its windows. This is what it looked like:

1206 Front Street, Fort Benton, Montana.

This house stayed on my mind as I wondered how I could make use of this unusual sight. The following evening I realized that the setting sun would illuminate the building across from it, an old brick edifice that was being used for storage, leading to an interesting reflection in the windows with the flag. I tried different angles and waited for something to happen on the street with the hope of getting a third layer into my picture. Passersby and cars went in an out of the frame, but none really seemed to make sense. Eventually, a silver-and-red pickup truck, another symbol of small-town America, slowly drove by. I waited for it to be at what I felt was the right place and got my picture.

Stars and cars in Fort Benton.

I'm happy to report the picture ran as a double-page spread in the November 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveler Magazine.

National Geographic Traveler, November 2015.

And yet, the story does not have a happy ending. I passed through Fort Benton again this September and of course looked at the place where I had taken the picture again. This is what the brick building looks like today:

Brick building in September of 2015.

Addendum:

I have just received some more info on the Fort Benton building. Sharalee Smith of the Fort Benton Restoration Committee kindly sent me this:

The building you are asking about was built in 1915 and known for a number of years as LaBarre’s Garage. It was sold sometime in the 1950’s and renamed Fort Benton Motor Company. The building was still known as Fort Benton Motor Co. at the time it was torn down.

 

Photographing Helmut Schmidt (1918 – 2015)

posted in: Events, Germany 0

 

Earlier this week, on Tuesday, to be more precise, Helmut Schmidt passed away at the age of 96. He was one of the most respected politicians of post-war Germany. As a senator in Hamburg he was instrumental in dealing with the consequences of the 1962 flood and gained widespread popularity. From 1974 through 1982 he served as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany.

The news of his death reminded me of an event back in 1983. Helmut Schmidt's party, the SPD (Social-democratic Party), held its final rally in my hometown of Essen in the Grugahalle, one of the the biggest indoor arenas in the country at the time.

Helmut Schmidt speaking to the audience in the Grugahalle.

I was 17 at the time. Security was not very tight then, I got into the area reserved for photographers simply by having two Nikons around my neck and by trying to look busy. My film of choice was Kodak Tri-X, pushed to ASA 1600. The longest lens I had was a 135mm f/3.5, so you can imagine that we got pretty close to the politicians.

The top row shows Willy Brandt, former Chancellor and another legendary politician of post-war Germany.

The atmosphere in the arena was very different from what you would see today. Smoking was still allowed, and you can guess what the air was like by looking at the smoke in the background of the next picture.

A look back into the Grugahalle arena.

Singles: Photographer, Mexico City

posted in: Mexico, Photographers, Singles 0

 

Whenever two photographers meet and talk about their occupation, they will inevitably end up taking pictures of one another. So happened back in 2005, when I was in Mexico shooting the preparations for the Día de los Muertos and a story about the island of Mexcaltitán (more on both in later posts).

Walking around the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, I noticed an older gentleman taking pictures of tourists in front of that wonderful piece of architecture. He held a somewhat unwieldy looking camera, which at further inspection revealed itself as a Polaroid model. Fidel Angeles López, as his name was, spent his days approaching visitors to the Palacio, talking them into being photographed by him and sold them the resulting Polaroid picture. He had a very charming apperance and I talked to him for quite a while, which can be taken as an indication of his patience as my command of the Spanish language leaves a lot to be desired.

Fidel Angeles López with his Polaroid camera in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City.

I think it is safe to assume that with the advent of ever-present smartphone cameras and the phenomenon of the selfie his business model is no more.

Oh yes, he did photograph me, too. Here's a scan of the original Polaroid.

Yours truly in front of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, Mexico City.

Paris Plages – Turning a city street into a beach

posted in: Events, France 0

 

Paris, no doubt about that, is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Its charms have inspired poets, photographers and painters, musicians and lovers. Visitors come from all over the world to catch a glimpse of Parisian life. Reflecting the city’s attraction, rents are sky-high. Yet during the heat and humidity of summer, when tourist masses overrun the city, every Parisian who can afford to leaves the city for the countryside or the coast. Which means many have to stay within its confines.

The water sprayers provide relief from the heat for man and beast.

In 2002, the office of the mayor of Paris decided to provide a relieve for this part of the populace. Since then, every July and August a 3.5 km stretch of the Voie George Pompidou, a road on the northern bank (Rive Droite) of the Seine that is heavily frquented at other times of the year, is blocked and temporarily converted to a beach. This means moving more than 5,000 tons of sand, hundreds of big umbrellas and palm trees, building playgrounds, dancefloors and bars.

Sports or relaxation.

The result is called ‘Paris Plages’ (Paris beaches) and provides a welcome refuge from the heat, humidity and tourist masses that have a firm hold on the city. The Paris Plages offer a sandy beach, music, dance, games for children and a romantic atmosphere for lovers. While cities around the world have come up with similar concepts, none of them can beat the atmosphere of a warm evening on that stretch of road that is borrowed from traffic for a few weeks in the sweltering heat of summer.

Watching the girls at Paris Plages.
Sand art at Paris Plages.

At full steam towards the Himalayas

posted in: India 0

 

Conceived and built during the British Raj, India’s railway lines are still the main arteries of the country’s traffic system. In hectic, overcrowded train stations travelers fight for space inside (or even on the roof of) one of the seemingly endless trains. Photographs of Mumbai’s Church Gate Station and Kolkata’s Howrah Station are symbols of overpopulation and the collapse of transportation infrastructure. Yet India’s railway system also offers an oasis of tranquility: the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, affectionately called ‘toy train’ because of its diminutive track width of 2 ft., running from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. Today, visitors come to Darjeeling for the famous four Ts: Tibetan temples, Tenzing Norgay (the sherpa who in 1953 together with Sir Edmund Hillary was the first to climb Mt. Everest and who later lived and worked here), the world-famous tea and the toy train.

Majestic Kangchenjunga, seen from the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway's famous Batasia loop.

It's 5:30 a.m. in the small town of Kurseong, some 5,000 ft. up in the foothills of the Himalayas: a steam locomotive of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, the ‘Mountaineer’, is being prepared for the 20 mile trip to Darjeeling in the Loco Shed. The ‘Mountaineer’ was built in 1899 in Scottish Glasgow and has been chugging up the narrow tracks that link the plains of Bengal with the tea gardens of the foothills ever since. It’s cold and drizzling; some workers stand around an open coal fire in the Loco Shed, still shivering. The locomotive has already been fired up; the air is saturated with the smell of coal, steam and oil. For the trip ahead about 4,000 lbs. of coal are needed. Four workers load it into the engine’s reservoir using wicker baskets; nobody here seems to think of automation.

Preparing a steam engine, the 'Mountaineer', for its morning run to Darjeeling.

Some 20 minutes later: Heren T’khatri, Chief Ticketing Officer of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, patrols the platform and checks everybody’s tickets. The fare for the 20 mile ride in second class is ten rupees, about 20 US cents. Departure is at 6:00 a.m., right on time; according to the timetable Darjeeling will be reached in 2 ½ hours. The three tiny train cars carry an interesting mix of people: vendors who will sell their goods in the Darjeeling market, two railroad maintenance workers on their way to a repair site and, occupying the majority of the seats, young students. Along the railway there is a number of prestigious boarding schools dating back to the times of the British Raj, as their names still tell: St. Helens ConventGoethals Memorial SchoolDowhill Girls School and Victoria Boys School can be found here. The train is very popular with the students as it costs only a fraction of the bus ride.

Very slowly the train chugs through Kurseong’s ‘High Street’, passing so close to the stalls on the right-hand side that it would be easy to shoplift their wares by reaching out of the window. It’s still quiet in the streets, only at 10:00 a.m. the stores will open and the noise of the bazar will begin, not to end before late evening. The train line runs mostly parallel to the main road and crosses it frequently –there are 177 crossings altogether. At each and every one, the engine blows its whistle. Then there will be people or animals on or near the track, and the whistle will sound again. Once the train is on its way, night has ended for Kurseong’s inhabitants. In fact, people stand at roadside water taps, brushing their teeth.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway train with a diesel engine passing through Kurseong.

Twenty minutes later the train stops for the first time. The hardwood sleepers of the 126 year old track have to be exchanged for more durable concrete ones, the track is blocked. After only a few minutes the train starts moving again - moving very slowly, coughing loudly and bellowing soot and coal filled plumes of steam and smoke. This is hardly a clean technology.

Fettlers repairing the tracks of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, exchanging wooden sleepers for concrete ones.

Not too long before the train has to stop again: the steam engine needs a water refill. While the tank is being filled, women from the village appear and offer hot chocolate-colored milk tea, the chai that is so popular everywhere in India, for sale. Especially the driver, the fireman and the two ‘sandmen’ who sit on the very front of the engine and drop sand onto the tracks to prevent excessive wheelslip at steep sections, are grateful customers of the invigorating early morning brew in today’s weather.

Refilling water on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railroad train on its way from Kurseong to Darjeeling.

As soon as the train resumes its run to Darjeeling, the students begin to sing in a language that most Indians will not understand: it is Nepali, the dominant language here in the hills. A few miles later the clouds lift. On one side of the tracks the lowlands of Bangladesh come into view, on the other majestic Kangchenjunga, at 28,169 ft. the third-highest peak on earth, presents itself in the morning light. The Nepali song, the rhythm of the engine and the impression of being halfway between heaven and earth combine for an almost surreal experience.

At the steeper sections the train moves so slowly that it’s easy to hop off, walk alongside for a while and hop back on again. After more than 1 ½ hours only half of the distance has been covered and the train reaches the station of Sonada. Twenty minutes later it still hasn’t moved. Passengers become restless, some get off and continue with one of the many shared taxis. Someone asks the station manager for the reason of the delay: a landslide, caused by the heavy rains of the previous day, has blocked the tracks ahead. Nobody knows if they can be cleared today. The fireman keeps the engine on operating temperature, but of course he also doesn’t know when or even if the train can continue. The station manager calls the Darjeeling station over and over again, passengers ask policemen, who are equipped with two-way radios and should have real-time information on the progress of clearing the landslide, about the situation. One statement contradicts another: as soon as someone says the track has been cleared, another source claims the track won’t be usable before late evening. Meanwhile the first shared taxis return with the passengers who had left the stranded train earlier, now reporting that automobiles can’t pass the landslide, either.

The engineer of the locomotive takes it easy, warms himself on the boiler and exchanges the latest gossip with passers-by. Some boys collect small pieces of coal that have fallen from the engine. Delays like this are a fact of life on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway; nothing to worry about, the train will start moving again a little later. But today the odds are against making it to Darjeeling. Two hours after the train arrived at Sonada the station manager declares that it will return to Kurseong. The return trip takes about as long as the journey uphill; altogether the train took more than six hours to cover 10 miles towards Darjeeling and back. The passengers who have to go to Darjeeling have no other choice but to spend another night in Kurseong and try again. For some it is an unpleasant interruption of their journey, for others, the chance to experience a fascinating part of railway history one more time.

Information

At the time of the raj, the British rule in India, hill stations were popular destinations to get away from the heat and the threat of malaria during the summer months. Not at all of them were easily accesible, though: the journey from Calcutta to Darjeeling took three days and involved trains, bullock carts and steam ferries. To improve this situation and to facilitate the trans­portation of the world-famous tea from the area, the government of British India decided in 1879 after brief deliberations to build a railway line connecting Darjeeling to Siliguri, 50 miles away and 6,600 ft. below. To save cost the line would not include tunnels, which meant that it would have to hug the terrain, necessitating steep climbs and very tight turns. Only a narrow gauge could be used and a width of 2 ft. was chosen. This narrow gauge invariably led to small-size rolling stock, giving rise to the moniker ‘toy train’. Operations started in September 1881.

Climbing up the Himalayan foothills in the toy train, a journey scheduled to take 6 ½ hours, but in reality usually closer to 10, evokes the feeling of that bygone era. The first part of the line leads through thick rainforest with beautiful sights of bougainvillea and orchids. Soon the track begins to slope upwards at a gradient of 1 in 20. At some sections it is even steeper; this is where loops and Z-type switchbacks were put into place. After a short climb the scenery changes again: now the train runs through tea plantations dotted with trees that provide shade for the delicate plants. In Tindharia the train passes the main depot and the workshop of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway; this is where the old locomotives and cars are lovingly maintained. With the appropriate permit (available for a small fee) tourists can visit the workshop and get a notion of how much work is involved in keeping a 100+ year-old steam engine in shape. Even today most of the passenger trains are pulled by steam engines; the more modern Diesel engines are mainly used for freight trains. In 1999 the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Kurseong is the most significant town along the line and offers spectacular views: on one side of the train the view extends to the plains of Bangladesh, on the other side the peaks of the Himalayas come into view. In clear weather the third-tallest peak on earth, Kangchenjunga (28,169 ft.) can be seen from here. From Kurseong the train takes another two hours (if all goes well) to the highest point on the line, Ghoom. At 7,400 ft. this is the highest station in India and one of the highest in the world; only in the Andes of South America some stations are at higher altitudes. Ghoom is home to several very interesting Tibetan monateries, among them Samten Choling Monastery and Yiga Choling Monastery. The monks speak English and show visitors around the premises if their time permits.

From Ghoom the train slowly descends the last 5 miles into Darjeeling.The last section of the line extending from the passenger station into the bazar is no longer in use. The home of Tenzing Norgay, who climbed Mt. Everest together with Edmund Hillary on May 29, 1953 is on a hillside, a good kilometer before the station. Darjeeling's most famous sherpa later directed training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) established by the Indian government in 1954. Located next to Darjeeling's beautiful zoo, HMI with its museum, showcasing equipment of many Mt. Everest expeditions, is well worth a visit, even more than a half century after the first ascent - a major world event in its day.

Two helpers at the front of the engine drop sand onto the tracks on steep sections to improve traction.

Moving India – The Hindustan Motors Ambassador

posted in: India 0

 

There are automobiles that have made history. Some did because they were fast, like the Ferraris and Porsches. Others because they represented the owner’s wealth, like those made by Bugatti and Rolls-Royce. There are those that are famous for their beautiful looks and those that have revolutionized automotive technology, like the Toyota Prius and the Tesla cars do now.

And then there are cars that have made history – because they were common. Cars that enabled the populations of entire countries to travel, to see places, to visit relatives, shedding the limitations imposed by railways and buses. The Ford Model T comes to mind, Italy’s Fiat 500, the French Citroen 2CV and, of course, the Volkswagen Beetle of my native Germany.

The second-most populous country on the planet, India, is home to an automobile that boasts a production span of 57 years. The Hindustan Motors Ambassador, a four-door sedan based on the British Morris Oxford Series III. Production started in 1957 in Uttarpara, West Bengal, not too far from Kolkata.

Ambassador taxi on Kolkata's Karl Marx Sarani.
Changing a tire on an Ambassador at Barabazar, Kolkata.

For many years, the Ambassador was the quintessential Indian car. It was ubiquitous in the cities, mainly in the form of taxis or, sporting a white exterior, as the typical government official’s means of transportation. It was a status symbol for private owners and an icon of dependability and national pride for the political caste. When I was photographing in Darjeeling in 2008, the governor of the state of West Bengal at the time, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, a grandson of the Mahatma, visited the city. He was driven there in a Mercedes, but made sure to change into an Ambassador a few miles before he could be seen. It was simply expected of him to arrive in the vehicle that had been known for more than half a century as the car that was moving India.

Indian Government Ambassador car in front of Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata.
Ambassador taxi near the New Market in Kolkata.

However, the success story of the Ambassador was not to be continued for long. Production had been going downhill since about the mid-1980s, when competition in the form of the Maruti Suzuki 800, a far more modern automobile, hit the Indian market. Also, more stringent emission standards proved to be a challenge for the technological base of the Ambassador. Eventually the assembly lines stopped on May 25, 2014.

And that may have been a good thing. When I visited the Uttarpara plant, conditions reminded me of the times of the industrial revolution. Assembly took place in a huge, dark building. There was no automation nor were there any safety measures to speak of. It simply looked like an almost 60 year-old industrial operation that had never been modernized. In the foundry, where the engine blocks were cast, workers handled the glowing, liquid metal withour protective clothing. The air was so bad that my assistant had to go outside after ten minutes.

Still, in a way it is sad that the days of the Ambassador are over and its numbers are dwindling. Hopefully some collectors will save a few cars, to be admired in another 57 years.

High-tech precision.
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