Nan Madol: Ceremonial Centre of Eastern Micronesia

Posted by on March 8, 2017

Nan Madol: Ceremonial Centre of Eastern Micronesia

Nan Madol: My 313th UNESCO World Heritage Site

From the World Heritage inscription for Nan Madol:

Nan Madol is a series of more than 100 islets off the southeast coast of Pohnpei that were constructed with walls of basalt and coral boulders. These islets harbor the remains of stone palaces, temples, tombs and residential domains built between 1200 and 1500 CE. These ruins represent the ceremonial center of the Saudeleur dynasty, a vibrant period in Pacific Island culture. The huge scale of the edifices, their technical sophistication and the concentration of megalithic structures bear testimony to complex social and religious practices of the island societies of the period. The site was also inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to threats, notably the siltation of waterways that is contributing to the unchecked growth of mangroves and undermining existing edifices.

Overview of Nan Madol

The Canals of Nan Madol, MicronesiaNan Madol is one of the most fascinating and significant places in the Pacific. I first visited Nan Modal in 2007 as I began my around the world trip. However, it took until 2016 to be placed on the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The site is extremely deserving of world heritage status and years it was number one on my list of places which should have been world heritage sites.

The site has been called “the Venice of the Pacific” because it is a network of small islands separated by canals and connected by bridges. In fact, the name Nan Modal means “spaces between” which references the canals. Most of the islands have a structure which can best be described as a log cabin built with basalt rocks. Geologic testing shows that many of the rocks were brought from other islands to Pohnpei, and it hasn’t been positively determined how they were transported.

The structures were used both as dwellings and as burials sites.

How to Get There

Stones of Nan MadolThe hard part about visiting Nan Madol is getting to the island of Pohnpei. Micronesia gets very few visitors as it is far away from any major population center, and there is only really one way to get to the island. The only way to get to the island is via the “island hopper” flight which is run by United Airlines. It starts in Honolulu and stops at islands in the Marshall Islands and Micronesia on the way to Guam three days a week. It alternates going Guam to Honolulu the other days of the week.

There are no major hotels or resorts on Pohnpei, so you will likely be staying in lodging which would be the equivalent of a 2-star hotel or a motel.

I arrived at the site by boat on a day long boat tour of the Pohnpei lagoon. You can also arrive by car, but there is a hike involved to get from the road to the location. It is approximately a 90-minute drive from the capital city of Palikir.

Expect to pay a few dollars as an entry fee.

What to See

Give yourself at least an hour, if not more, to explore the site. The location isn’t very visitor friendly. There is no visitor center and little to nothing in the way of interpretative material. If possible, hire a guide who can share some of the oral history of the site.


View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Mar 11, 2017 @ 8:37 am

Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor

Posted by on March 7, 2017

Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor

From the World Heritage inscription:

The Silk Roads were an interconnected web of routes linking the ancient societies of Asia, the Subcontinent, Central Asia, Western Asia and the Near East, and contributed to the development of many of the world’s great civilizations. They represent one of the world’s preeminent long-distance communication networks stretching as the crow flies to around 7,500 km but extending to in excess of 35,000 km along specific routes. While some of these routes had been in use for millennia, by the 2nd century BC the volume of exchange had increased substantially, as had the long distance trade between east and west in high-value goods, and the political, social and cultural impacts of these movements had far-reaching consequences upon all the societies that encountered them.

The routes served principally to transfer raw materials, foodstuffs, and luxury goods. Some areas had a monopoly on certain materials or goods: notably China, who supplied Central Asia, the Subcontinent, West Asia and the Mediterranean world with silk. Many of the high-value trade goods were transported over vast distances – by pack animals and river craft – and probably by a string of different merchants.

The Tian-shan corridor is one section or corridor of this extensive overall Silk Roads network. Extending across a distance of around 5,000 km, it encompassed a complex network of trade routes extending to some 8,700 km that developed to link Chang’an in central China with the heartland of Central Asia between the 2nd century BC and 1st century AD, when long distance trade in high-value goods, particularly silk, started to expand between the Chinese and Roman Empires. It flourished between the 6th and 14th century AD and remained in use as a major trade route until the 16th century.

Overview

The Silk Roads world heritage sites is a serial site consisting of 35 different locations spread across three different countries: China, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan Corridor
I visited the Burana Tower which was in the ancient, and near the current, city of Balasagun, Kyrgyzstan.

Like most towers in Muslim lands, it served as a minaret for daily calls to prayer. However, as it was an important stop on the silk road, it also served as a type of landlocked lighthouse. In the evenings a fire would burn on the top of the tower so caravans could see it from a distance. Today the tower is approximately half the height of the original tower which was reduced in size due to earthquakes.

In addition to the tower, there is also a graveyard located containing Turkish headstones known as balbals. They are carved into the likeness of the person who was buried there.

How to Get There

Silk Roads: the Routes Network of Chang’an-Tianshan CorridorThe Burana tower is located just outside the city of Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan. It is approximately 70km from the capital of Bishkek. You can reach Tokmok by bus and then take a taxi to the Burana Tower. It can be visited as a day trip from Bishkek.

What to See

The primary attraction is the tower itself. You can climb to the top of the tower via a very narrow and winding staircase. The staircase only has room for one person. The graveyard mentioned above is the other primary attraction of the site. There is also a small museum on the site which displays artifacts which have been excivated from the site.


View the complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Kyrgyzstan.

View the list of all of the UNESCO World Heritage sites I have visited on my travels.

Last updated: Mar 11, 2017 @ 8:40 am

Moving from Nikon to Sony: One Year Later

Posted by on March 6, 2017

The Decision

Early in 2016, I made the decision to switch from Nikon, which I had been shooting with for 9 years, to Sony.

It wasn’t an easy decision. When you buy into a camera system it isn’t just a matter of getting all your lenses and gear to be compatible. You become accustomed to where all the knobs, dials, switches and buttons are. It is similar to playing an instrument and then being asked to play something else, even if that something else is similar, like moving from playing the clarinet to a saxophone.

My new camera: the Sony A7rii

I had originally purchased a Nikon D200 back in 2007, which was their top of the line crop sensor camera. In 2011 I upgraded to the D300s, which was the successor to the D200, and which originally came out in 2009.

Since 2011 I had been waiting for the successor to the D300s to come out…..and nothing ever happened. I would occasionally read the Nikon rumor sites and a few times every year there would be rumors about how the D400 would be released at the next big photo/technology event.

…and nothing happened.

I then started thinking about just getting a full frame Nikon camera like the D810, which I almost did. Moving to a full-frame camera would have been close to switching to a brand new system because I would have to have purchased new lenses along with the new body. If I was going to do that, then I figured I should just consider changing everything.

I ended up just doing nothing for a very long time, using my D300s even as it literally started to fall apart (and I’m quite serious when I say it was falling apart. Most of the rubber surfaces on the body are now falling off.)

As I waited, and as Nikon kept not releasing the D400, I began hearing more rumors that they were simply abandoning the professional crop-sensor market. They weren’t releasing anything or saying anything, so it seemed a reasonable proposition which matched the facts.

My backup camera body: the Sony a6000


In 2015 the Sony a7rii came out and I started reading all of the reviews. Almost all of the reviews were gushing in its praise, and a several went on to say it was the best camera in the world currently in production. Several photographer friends of mine also switched to Sony and they were very pleased with the switch.

In early 2016 I made the decision that I was going to get a Sony a7rii and lenses which would replicate the current set of lenses I was using.

About one week after I set my mind to moving to Sony, Nikon finally released a successor to the D300s….the D500. However, by this time it was too little too late. Nikon’s seven-year wait was way too long, whereas Sony had been releasing a steady stream of new products, showing more innovation than Nikon or Canon.

So in one fell swoop, I not only changed manufacturers, but I moved from crop sensor to full frame, and from SLR to mirrorless.


Adjusting To A New System

Moving to a new camera system is a subtle thing. I think most photographers could pick up a camera they have never used before and quickly figure out how to adjust their aperture and ISO settings.

Really becoming comfortable with a camera, however, requires a lot of practice. It is knowing where the knobs and dials are so you can make setting changes without looking. It is having an intuitive feel for what you can get away with in terms of ISO. It is knowing where everything you need is located in the menu.

For example, I learned that I really didn’t want to go above ISO 800 on my D200, or above 1600 on my D300s. I could go a bit higher if I really had to, and maybe do some noise reduction in Lightroom, but that was pretty much my limit.

It took me a while to figure out what that level was on my a7rii. In Ethiopia, I took some photos inside of a cave which were absolutely unusable because I didn’t have the correct ISO settings. 9 months later I was again inside a cave in Great Basin National Park and I was able to take some pretty nice handheld shots because I had a much better feel for the camera and what it could do. I prefer to use tripod in caves for obvious reasons, but I was unable to get a permit in time from the park service.

This photo was taken at ISO 25,600. It is a hand held photo taken inside of a Lehman Cave in Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Next time I change cameras or a camera system, I think I’m going to spend several days a home just working on learning the settings of the camera. I didn’t spend enough time learning with this switch.

I also purchased a second body to have in my bag. I purchased a Sony a6000 prior to my trip to Ethiopia. Honestly, I really just purchased it as a spare body in case something happened to my a7rii, but I found myself using it as my primary body when I was off shooting polar bears in Manitoba.


Benefits of Moving to Sony

Overall I’m pleased with my move to Sony.

As I noted above, in addition to switching manufacturers I also moved from a crop sensor camera to a full frame, an SLR to a mirrorless camera, as well as to a camera with a much higher resolution. Many people will point out that I could have gotten similar benefits of just moving to a Nikon D5 or a similar body, and they would be correct. Just keep in mind that many of my observations might not just attributable just to moving to Sony.

Low Light Capabilities

I have to start with this because it was the primary reason I moved to Sony and to the a7rii in particular. The low light capabilities are amazing. I felt shackled with my older, crop sensor body when it came to low light photos. There were many photos I wasn’t able to capture simply because of the poor low light performance of my D300s. As a travel photographer, this is probably the most important attribute for any camera body because I am often in places like churches or temples which have little light and a flash is not an option.

There were several photos I’ve taken over the last year which simply would have been impossible with my old gear. This photo of an Ethiopian priest was taken at ISO 12,800, several stops above what I could have done before.

Taken at ISO 12,800, this photo wouldn’t have been possible with my previous gear.

From the reviews I’ve read, The a7rii is about one full stop better than the top end Canon and Nikon bodies right now. That is debatable I know, but I’m very happy with where I’m at for low light performance right now.

Size and Weight

It is true that, in general, mirrorless cameras are smaller and lighter than SLR. My current kit does take up less space in my bag than my previous gear. However, the difference isn’t as great as some people think. Much of the weight is just squeezed into a smaller package. It is lighter, but not so much that I think it would be worth making a change on this basis alone. Nonetheless, it is a nice side benefit when you have to carry your gear around all day long.

The size difference is enough that when I put my current gear in my camera bag, which is pretty analogous with what I before in terms of lenses, there is definitely more space. This makes it much easier to carry a second body, which brings me to…

Smaller Crop Sensor Cameras

The Sony a6XXX line of cameras is very affordable and come in a small package. They basically look like point and shoot cameras, except they can use the same e-mount lenses that you can use on other Sony mirrorless cameras. Whereas the size and weight benefits to the a7rii over an SLR are marginal, the benefits to the a6000, a6300, and a6500 are substantial.

It is very nice to be able to carry a backup body with me which is so light, small, and cheap. They also perform quite well. I used my tiny a6000 with a huge Sigma 150-600mm lens while in Manitoba and was able to take respectable photos with it.

Taken with my Sony a6000. ISO 600 / f6.3 / 1/2000 sec

Taken with my Sony a6000. ISO 600 / f6.3 / 1/2000 sec

Higher Resolution

I went from a 12.3-megapixel camera in the D300s to a 42-megapixel camera in the a7rii. That is an enormous jump in resolution….and file size (see below).

Because most of what I do is displayed online, I really don’t need 42-megapixels, but having the extra resolution is handy for a host of things.

The higher resolution gives me more options when it comes to cropping is post processing, as well as the freedom to do other things with my images down the road if I so wish.


Downside of Moving to Sony

While I’m overall satisfied with Sony, everything isn’t perfect. Here are some of the downsides to the system.

Battery Life

I usually could go several days or longer on one battery in my SLR’s. Now, I have change batteries at least once a day and quite often I go through multiple batteries a day. I pretty much have to recharge my batteries every evening or I risk being without power the next day. Several times I’ve forgotten to charge the night before and I got by on the skin of my teeth the next day.

The battery drain primarily comes from the fact that because there is no mirror, at least one LCD is usually running whenever the camera is on, even if it is the tiny one in the eyepiece.

I’m sure there will be improvements to battery life in future models, but I don’t think that mirrorless cameras will ever be as good as SLR’s in this department.

Write Speeds

The size of RAW files in the D300s are approximately 15mb each. The Sony a7rii produces RAW files which are about 80mb. That is a substantial difference is size.

It takes an abnormally long time to write the images to the memory card. The decision to use such a slow bus, and to not use the Sony proprietary XQD format memory cards, is one of the most baffling things about the a7rii.

I’m often waiting for the camera to finish writing to the card and there were a few times when I’ve missed a shot because of the buffering.

Thankfully, the rumors are that the next Sony flagship camera will solve this problem with a vengeance, allowing continuous RAW shooting. That means you will be able to hold the shutter down and it will shoot and save continuously until the battery is dead. That’s impressive.

Body Sealing

Even if I never change lenses or open the battery door, the sensor on the a7rii gets really dirty. Whereas I didn’t flinch in taking my SLR out in a light rain, I wouldn’t think of doing that with my Sony cameras.

Because there is no mirror to protect the sensor, they need to do a much better job of sealing the camera to keep dust out.


Conclusion

Despite its flaws, I’m overall pleased with the images I’m getting from my a7rii and my a6000. I don’t forsee myself changing systems for quite a while.

Sony has been innovating at a much faster pace than Nikon or Canon, releasing new cameras and features every year. Moving to Sony wasn’t just a play to take better photos today (which it did) but also a bet on the future.

The Polar Bears of Cape Churchill

Posted by on February 10, 2017

Every year, the polar bears of the western Hudson Bay region congregate in the area around Churchill, Manitoba as they wait for the sea ice to form. Given circulation of water in Hudson Bay, and the location of river systems which flow into Hudson Bay, the ice near Churchill is the first to freeze in the region.

Since the 1980’s, travelers have been able to see the polar bears of Churchill with the creation of the tundra buggy; a giant vehicle which can traverse over frozen tundra and is so large, even the tallest polar bears can’t reach the windows. Almost every visitor to Churchill will see polar bears in the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, which is right outside of the town of Churchill.

However, once a year a single trip gets to go further, all the way to Wapusk National Park and the end of Cape Churchill. It is at Cape Churchill that you can see the greatest concentration of Polar Bears and it is probably the great polar bear experience in the world. I had the pleasure to be on this trip in November 2016 with Frontiers North Adventures. It quickly ranked at one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in 10 years of traveling around the world.


Polar Bear sign in Churchill, Manitoba

1 The town of Churchill isn’t very big and the economy is almost totally based on tourism with the recent close of the Port of Churchill, Canada’s only port on the Arctic Ocean. Almost every business in Churchill uses the name “polar”, “polar bear”, “aurora”, “arctic”, or some play on that theme. After the polar bear season ends, the population of Churchill drops dramatically until the summer when tourism, particularly beluga whale watching, picks back up.


Polar Bear danger sign in Churchill, Manitoba

2 Polar bears are a real danger in the town of Churchill. Several times during our trip we heard news of bears in or near the town of Churchill. As the bears have nothing to do while they wait for the sea ice to freeze, they often wander into town following the smells coming from the community. At the start of our trip we had a brief tour of the town, and even in town, we had people on the lookout for bears.


Polar bear traps in Churchill, Manitoba

3 The threat of polar bears to Churchill is so real that the town has their own polar bear holding facility. In the event of a polar bear sighting, these traps are used to catch polar bears. They are lured into the trap with the scent of seal fat, which is the primary food source for polar bears, and it drives them nuts. Once in the cage, they are taken to the holding facility where they are held until the sea ice has come in. While in the holding facility, the bears are not fed at all. They are only provided water. The bears have ample fat to survive off of and they have found that when bears are fed, they simply return so they can get the easy food.


Tundra buggies in Churchill, Manitoba

4 Polar bear viewing is possible only due to the creation of the tundra buggy. Created in 1979 by Leonard Smith, he originally took out a National Geographic film crew which popularized the idea of viewing polar bears. The best way I can describe a tundra buggy is that it is a school bus split lengthwise down the middle and widened and placed on top of a monster truck. Each tundra buggy is rather self-sufficient for a day’s adventure as they have their own heating, toilet, and are stocked with food for lunch.

The buggies travel very slowly along trails created decades ago when the area was used as a cold weather training facility for the US and Canadian armies.


Sleeping Polar Bear near Churchill, Manitoba

5 While the polar bears are waiting for the sea ice to form so they can go hunt, there is little for them to do. Most bears will do very little in the course of a day as they want to conserve their energy. Moreover, even if the temperature is below freezing, the insulation of a polar bear’s fur is so great, that they can still overheat if they exert themselves too much. While you will see bears walking, playing and sparring, mostly they are just sitting around.


Young male polar bears sparring in Churchill, Manitoba

6 Polar bears, especially males, are usually solitary creatures. During the gathering as they wait for sea ice to freeze, the young males will often use the opportunity to spar with other males. This activity is practice for serious fighting which may take place later on. At this time of year, there is little to fight over as the seal hunt hasn’t begun and it is not mating season. The males will spar for a few minutes, take a break to cool down and then go at it again.


A polar bear showing some buggy love

7 Polar bears are extremely curious. When they see a tundra buggy they will often walk up to investigate. When the bears get up on their hind legs and rest against a tundra buggy, it is called “buggy love”. It should be noted that the bears really have no vertical leap ability in this position.


Sunrise over Cape Churchill, Manitoba

8 In November, you have less than 8 hours of daylight at 59° N. That means you don’t have to change your sleep schedule to see sunset and sunrise. The cloud formations around Hudson Bay made for some unique sunrises. I took this photo one morning when most of the sky was overcast and there was a break in clouds along the horizon.


The Tundra Buggy Lodge

9 Given the distances to Cape Churchill, and the slow speed of the tundra buggies, it isn’t possible to stay overnight in town. The solution is one of the most unique accommodations in the world: the Tundra Buggy Lodge. It is most similar to a train with sleeper cars. The lodge consists of several different modules which are hooked together end to end to create a single lodge. In the photo, you can see the two sleeping modules (with small windows), the lounge car (with the spiral staircase), and the dining car. There are also 2 other cars for supplies and the staff.

Each tundra buggy is backed up and docked in the space between the cars when not in use. Because you go directly from the buggy to the lodge, most people staying at the Tundra Buggy Lodge will never touch the ground during their stay. Several of the staff will not touch the ground for 2 months. People are usually prevented from touching the ground due to safety concerns with polar bears.


A snowy owl in Churchill, Manitoba

10 While polar bears are the star of the show and the most visually abundant animal on the tundra, they are not the only ones. One of the other creatures on the tundra is the snowy owl. We were able to spend about an hour photographing this owl flying from spot to spot, hunting voles for over and hour. This photo shows it immediately after its success in capturing its prey.


Snowy owl in flight near Churchill, Manitoba

11 Like the polar bear, the snowy owl is almost perfectly designed as a predator in this environment. Quick, quiet, and camouflaged with amazing eyesight, the snowy owl can survive where few animals can.


polar bears sliding in the snow

12 It isn’t hard to find polar bears on Cape Churchill in November. After a day or two, the novelty of just seeing bears laying down wears off. What you then look for are bears engaged in some sort of behavior. Bears who are up and about doing “something”. Occasionally we would see bears push themselves along the snow with just their hind legs with their backside in the air.


Wapusk National Park sign

13 Wapusk National Park named after the Cree word for polar bear. It was established as a park as it is one of the most important areas for polar bear dens in the world. The park is very remote and difficult to reach. There are fewer than 200 people who set foot in the park, most of whom are scientists, students, and park staff. The Cape Churchill trip which I was on is the only official tour which is allowed in the park each year.


Polar bear mother and cub

14 Because of its importance as an area for polar bear dens, you will see a fair number of mothers with cubs in Wapusk. The young cubs always stay close to their mother as a matter of protection. It is not unheard of for older males to kill younger males who they are not genetically related.


Six polar bears in one spot

15 While you will usually see polar bears alone or in small groups, sometimes you see even larger numbers. In this photo, you can see six polar bears all in one place.


Polar bear with paw print

16 The perspective you get from being in a tundra buggy can sometimes be unlike anything you can from any other platform. When the bears approach the vehicle, you can often shoot straight down at them.


Cape Churchill as seen from the air

17 While the tundra buggies can give you a unique perspective, you are still bound to the Earth. Once you get up in the air, you get a totally different perspective of the landscape. From above you can see just how desolate and barren Cape Churchill really is.


Polar bears waiting at the water's edge

18 From the air you can see exactly what the polar bears are doing. They are waiting for the ice to freeze. Once the sea ice is frozen, the seals can give birth and the bears can start hunting.


Polar bear footprints

19 From the above you can also get a sense of where the bears are going. If you look closely at these footprints, you can see a double pair of footprints which go in a circle. This is undoubtedly a mother and cub given how close together they are. The straight lines are all solitary footprints from single bears.


Polar bear mother with two cubs

20 You will almost always see a mother with one or two cubs. This year we managed to actually see a mother with three cubs. It was the first time any of the staff, many of whom had been coming up to Churchill for years, had seen such a thing. Most family units will look like the one shown here.


Arctic fox in Churchill, Manitoba

21 While the polar bears were congregating, we also managed to see a few of the elusive arctic fox. At this time of year they were much smaller in number, much smaller in size, and well camouflaged.


Sunset on Churchill

22 The short winter days ensure that we get to see the sunset, as well as the sunrise, every single day.