Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A wall, a door, a table, a chair, and some amazing colorful accidents. Nothing makes sense but everything seems to come together. I like the feeling in this shot of a wall in Nha Trang. Walked passe looked felt and captured.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Into the Cold

Into the Cold1
It’s winter and I’ve been tracking the “Snowmageddon” that’s ravaging the East Coast where I spent a good part of my wonder years. So in the spirit of this, I’m going to write about something wintery. I’m a warm weather soul and the cold is dreadful to me. This brings me to recall one of the coldest journeys of my life thus far. This segment leads up to the just before the expedition out of town into the chill of –50 C. People know me for my many excursions into Mongolia and Central Asia. Well, most people go there during the “On Season” when it’s mild. Blue skies; windy perhaps, and chilly at times to some. During the good weather on the open steppes or in the Gobi Desert, the morning sun rises fast, it warms up and then the nightfall brings in the chill of a crisp starry night. It’s challenging but tolerable. My point is you don’t really know a place until you’ve gone through what the good folks there do when no one else wants to come around. Meet Mongolia in mid January. The near empty plane flew me in from Tokyo via Seoul. I was arriving just before midnight and nothing prepared me for the next. As I disembarked I felt a sting of cold seeping through the cracks of the terminal boarding ramps. Through immigration and to the only baggage carousel in the international airport I went without any major delay. When you are one of only a few planes of the day, you can begin to miss lines. I flew in sitting next to a Pro Wrestler “The Blue Wolf” who makes the routine flight each month between family and matches. Blue Wolf and I chatted and then parted ways as we headed to the reception area. Already I saw people covered in bundles and multiple layers upon layers of clothing. My best friend and like a brother from another mother Enkhtuvshin called out from across the havoc and grabbed my things. “Welcome back, I’m sorry it’s not too bad out but only a little bit cold outside tonight” he said in his accented baritone voice. –27 Celsius which about –16.6 Fahrenheit is only a little bit cold I thought; what the hell? This before the wind hits you.  Out in the open nigh air, the first parts that felt it were my ears then my nose and fingers. It’s not cold to me anymore, it hurts. My cheeks seemed leathery and I thought it wiser to rush to the vehicle. Well crunching over the frozen airport parking lot I could smell the acrid smoke from coal fires. The nearby “The Three Mile Island” looking coal power plant was in full force and a huge plume of smoke and steam rose skyward. Adding to this were the smaller fires pouring out of more smoke from the smoke stacks of the ger (yurt) districts. These were basically unevenly fenced in tent ghettos consisting of thousands gers on the hillside overlooking Ulaan Baatar. Coal dust tainted the air with bitter. Into the car and towards town we went passed the gray white snow landscape. Ulaan Baatar is quaint at night; I like the warm lights from windows and bright blinking signs for bars, restaurants, clubs, makeshift kiosks, and oddly enough light up coconuts trees. Yes, some genius urban planner thought it a good idea to decorate the median strip of a major road with large fake coconut trees that have colorful light up coconuts and all. This in a place where the nearest beach or coconut tree is at least a thousand of miles away. It’s a splendid ironic image. Tonight was a good baptism into the cold. Hardly any tourists and I’m the only person booked in on the floor of my hotel, somewhat of a “Shining” moment. All work and no play makes Linh a dull boy. After checking in and clambering about with more layers of insulation. I went out to the square to meet up with friends. There was some sort of celebration incurring. In the cold night the Christmas decorations were still up. Music came from an unknown source and sparse crowds loitered together. One person handed me a cup of vodka which I faked drinking then tossed the contents to the sidewalk. To my surprise it hit the ground and sounded like coins. I was stunned, upon noticing this, they laughed and then one of them demonstrated that if you spit, it freezes in mid air then just lands on the ground and rolls away. Which we all confirmed thereafter. I was cold. My feet were numb, my face was stuck in a leathery stare, tears frosted to my eye lashes, and the hairs in my nostrils were frozen as I crouched and slouched in my coat to keep warm. I believe that at this temperature if you sucked air through with my teeth, they’d shatter. A few of my friends looked at me and asked me “Why would you ever want to come when it’s so cold and difficult?” Before I answered that it hit me. Not many people ever experience this. It sets me apart for a tourist and something between an outsider and one of them. I think the right word is visceral to describe something it all. “I like it and it makes Mongolia real to me was all I said.”  They seemed to understand then there was mutual laughter at the skinny Vietnamese American man trying to keep warm. Later I headed back to my hotel to plan out the next. I’ve found a whole new world for me in a place I’ve come to visit so often. Incredibly, the hotel room was toasty warm. The large Soviet era monolithic architecture proved practical. Blocky and blunt, but they do a good job at providing shelter. I tried to look out the window which was actually 3 sets of windows spaced within a very deep wall. To no avail, the windows were a solid block of ice about 2 feet thick. I laid in bed thinking about how the countryside people dealt with all this year after year.  Now I wanted to head out and find out for myself. I’m going to see how people can live in felt tents under such conditions. It's a hardship you have to admire. I really don’t think you can get to know Mongolia until you spend some time in winter here. Soon I'm getting my gear together and heading out. I’m going to be cold, miserable, begging to get back to a warm place, but I’ll love every near regrettable instance of it. More on the journey out into the frozen countryside in the next installment…

Thursday, February 4, 2010

One that Lasts

Child Horse Racer
My Steady Cam operator looked like a door gunner bearing down at the horde racing in full gallop under the midday sky. It was bright blue and cloudless above as our  4x4 mini van bounced over the grassy steppe terrain in parallel. People see the flat grasslands here in Mongolia from afar and mistaken it for soft flat earth. It’s something like that and then some. The soil is a near powdery sand and it’s full of sharp rocks, holes, and ditches that are not realized until you are in them. Our makeshift filming platform was a used space ship looking Mitsubishi Delica with its cargo door duct taped open. The two of us stooped inside managing to hang on as our driver named “Baatsukh” (Mongol for Sturdy Ax) rallied his machine through the gears. We could barely hear each other for the atmosphere was bombarded with the sound of wind, pelting rocks, tires biting for traction, the drum like pounding of horse hooves, clanking of bridles, and our senses bouncing about .  Baatsukh drove with one eye looking forward and the other navigating along side the riders. They were a large group of children doing practice runs for the Naadam horse race which were less than a week away. Each day small groups would assemble for intense runs. The race itself covers about 30km of overland riding. This is about the same distance used between the horse changing stations in the old Mongolian Pony Express employed during days of Chinghis Khan. These kids were very young ranging from 6 years old to 12 and already adept. In the confusion I focused on taking in everything I saw with the intent of capturing something from this experience that would last. Well, the lead pack seemed to be separating from the main. We zoomed and pulled up alongside. Neither the horses nor riders gazed at us in distraction. My cameraman kept his aim and I decided lean out with my still camera. One hand grabbing onto the door frame and my legs balancing and cushioning each impact. You get so involved and disoriented when you find just the right composition. I framed, I reached, took the shot, I felt weightless. The shutter clicked and I had a millisecond to be gratified. With the camera pulling away from my view point, I realized that the ground was rushing under my feet and it was unusually windy.  That’s when I discovered inertia. I was floating in near fetal position just outside the bay door. Passing dirt, grass, horses, van, wind, and my boots flashed before my eyes. Then like a slap, reality gets the best out of you. I frantically grabbed for any part of the van and pulled blindly. Miraculously I found myself back inside and I froze. Out of sheer luck, the van ascended, banked, and descended in my favor. It was foolish, it was reckless , and I could have, should have fallen out of the moving van and likely found myself trampled. I regret being careless and learned from it. But I’m never going to regret this shot, it’s one that lasts.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The "Yum Yum Spider" Incident

I thought it was something like a "Blooming Onion." It wasn't. I found out the hard way at a Cambodian rest stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere. All day long the rickety bus roared down the dusty roads. We passed beautiful farmland, small hamlets, and the occasional town. The driver drove like Mad Max. I'm on holiday in Cambodia. We've been traveling overland from Vietnam and had crossed the border and made a brief stop in Phnom Phenh earlier in the day. Now I'm on my way to Siem Riep and I want to see the ruins of Angkor. I'll write more about this road trip in another excerpt, but today It's my "Yum Yum Spider Incident." Back to the bus. The screech jolted us to a full halt which then followed by the driver muttering indecipherable words, fingers to indicate numbers, and then a gesture to his watch. 15 to 20 minutes sounded like enough time to venture out of this death trap and off the endangered species list for just a little while longer. I looked out the bus window and a tray of food walked passed me. It was atop the head of a small lady and it appeared to be good to eat. Wow, "Blooming Onions." Perhaps it was thinking too much about Mad Max in the Outback that lured me to the thought of "Blooming Onions." Mostly likely because they serve this type of looking dish at the wannabee Australian "Outback Steak Houses" that are found everywhere but Australia. Well, proceeding onwards I found the lady near some market stalls. The dish was now placed on a small 5 gallon bucket and I moved in to inspect closer. It was much like fried onions or some assorted vegetable. The dark crispy bits enamored with roasted garlic. All of it sat atop a seasoned oily base. Something looked good about it, but something else caught my glace. Eyes were looking back at me and what shouldn't have been legs were. 8 legs each as spiders should. "Holy Crap" I peered closer. Blurring in and out of focus a figure moved nearer to me. It was the lady. Standing in her red hat and shirt she smiled with big bright teeth, smacked her lips, and uttered "Yum Yum Spider." Then it all came to me, this was a dish of friend spiders. "No way" I said. She tilted her head and confirmed "Yes" it's "Yum Yum Spider." Then without asking she lifted the tray and beneath it was a bucket full of big black spiders. Big ones, really big fuzzy ones. Again without asking, she picked one up and tossed it onto my shirt. I was in disbelief. The moment had the same type of feeling you get when you dive into cold water. Shocking and overwhelming at first, then you deal and get used to it. When it moved you could feel its strength. I turned around and a traveler from Vietnam who was on the bus saw me and screamed. I then felt braver for some reason. I put it on my hand and took some photos. People laughed, people were scared, and it was amusing for a time being. The lady insisted that I buy something and began aggressively trying to charge me for pictures and she even tried to bag some of the fried ones for sale. I took out a dollar, gestured at the arachnid in my hand and gave it to her. She politely snatched the money and after the exchange I realized I had no idea what I was going to do with this guy. As I walked closer to the bus the other occupants and travelers looked horrified. I felt braver again and gave devious smile, but common sense lead me across the street to a large patch of shrubs near a wall. I placed him on some branches and told him he was free. Hoping for good karma for the ride ahead perhaps or just me trying to do the right thing. Snapping a few last shots and glances I walked backed to the honking bus. I felt brave, heroic, and almost fearless. Yes very brave but not enough to eat any of these "Yum Yum Spiders."
Posted by Picasa

Friday, January 29, 2010

Shooting in the Dark

When it's dark you can always focus on the brighter things. I'm a night person, always have been. The best part of being one is that you get a lot of time to yourself. I like it. On my travels I seem to find myself wandering around in the later hours. Watching how the world settles in and take in the night reveals a lot about the people and the place. It could be a big canopy of stars overhead, fires coming from camps in a valley, a group of Kazakhs singing songs around a bonfire, or an old couple in their pajamas sitting outside their storefront on rickety plastic chairs. I've always wanted to capture it, but it's just about the hardest thing. Takes discipline, patience, equipment, and luck. You most definitely need a tripod and a good set up. Somethings of which never seems to suit me. I'm not a shooter that has a lot of gear. Most of my stuff is basic. Short of buying very expensive infrared film and paying for my cameras to be repaired. I've never been a person that's had the best gear. I've always prided myself in being the underdog.That basically describes me, my gear, and how I struggle to get that shot with a presence. This can be very apparent in my many attempts at getting shots when it's dark. I can't recall how many rolls of film I wasted trying to or how I came to realized that the "Night Shot" option on a digital camera was down right creepy looking. Everything looks green and people have soulless black pupils. A fan of the night I like the sense of the warm glow from a light bulb scattering about. Colors seem different and shadows fade into each other. You can always take a light into darkness and brighten the environment, but you can never take the darkness into the light. These shots here are some of the few that I feel came out well. Many differently places but all with the same hauntingly beautiful imagery. Be it Hanoi's old city district, a ger's roof top glow, bright colorful lanterns, a Japanese alley, a child trying to spook me, a couple dressed up for a New Year's ball, or ghostly light pillars for remembering the Twin Towers. Like I said, these are some of the most difficult things for me to capture, but when it works it was well worth it.

Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Hustai Valley Steppes

Hustai Valley Steppes, originally uploaded by linhvienthai.
Hustai Valley, Mongolia; September 2001: The time just before dusk is some of the most amazing 20 minutes of light.  This was a cold day in Hustai Valley, Mongolia; and the winds came in strong from the North. When winter encroaches here, it literally roars in with powerful howling gusts. It's bright, it's cold, and hardly anyone come here this time of year. This valley and just over the hills mark the edge of Siberian taiga forests. From here it's flat grasslands and arid stretches of vast open land. I was riding through on horseback amid  bright drab of grasses and rocky ground. Looking up at a ridge line I noticed a shiny glint coming from a small dark green dot. It was a typical UAZ 469 Russian jeep, the ones commonly found in Central Asia; it was sitting idle with a few people running about.  They were atop a very high hill. I could see them hastily arranging equipment. Upon riding closer for further inspection, I heard them calling and they waved me towards them. It was all in Russian and there was a writer and the other a photographer. Their Mongolian driver/guide was also with there, he was frantically readying their equipment. When I arrived and dismounted they excitedly greeted me. Patting me on my shoulder and pointing wildly, they directed me to look back towards where I came from. Then I saw this. The streaks of light and long stretched shadows from both the terrain and clouds were magnificent. The sky was brilliant. The weathered looking Russian man nodded and smiled then lifted up his camera. I then joined them. With this window of time brief, we panned for the right scene, focused or cameras, looked, felt, and shot. It's one of those times in life you don't ever forget. None of us could understand each other but we all expressed with the universal thumbs up, laughter, and a bone crunching Russian's handshake. As it got too dark to shoot, their Mongolian guide brought out a bottle of vodka and a large plastic bag. In it was a very gracious portion of smokey meat. I believed it was marmot a delicacy here. Offered to me I grabbed  bit of meat, ate it, chased it with a swig of vodka. Then consumed a hit of sharp tasting albeit very dry cheese. This was repeated one or too many times for me to recall. We were carrying on conversation in our very loud native languages. None of us could understand a word we were saying, but it was all good. Later, I rode back to my camp in the dark, cold but very happy, and slightly buzzed.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Snowy Day in Kawasaki, Japan

Nihon Minka En; Kawasaki City, Japan: This is an open air museum which is nestled in a small wooded valley not too far from Tokyo. It's full of rustic houses that represent different eras and places from throughout Japan. Each building was relocated in order to preserve a rich part of Japanese architectural history. I especially like this place as it's beautiful, peaceful, and not crowded by tourists and visitors. On many occasions I had this place completely to myself. This day in particular was a very snowy day in Tokyo. Although many parts of Japan get very cold and snowy in winter. The area around Tokyo does not. Most of winter is very dry and chilly and when it snows, it's usually a mere dusting. On this morning when I woke up I was inspired by the winter scape and grabbed my cameras to go outside for some shooting. I had a good feeling to head here and was greeted by staff who were surprised that someone showed up. For only 500 Yen they let me in and I wandered throughout the garden of homes. The light winds muffled the crackling tinsel like sound of snow falling. The old houses creaked in the cold. I came to a section where A-framed shaped houses from a Japanese mountain village were on display. I took a panoramic shot and captured this very hauntingly beautiful image. Soon after I went into one of these houses where a mom and pop restaurant was serving some of the best hand made soba noodles and soup I've ever tasted. It was a great day.
Posted by Picasa

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Eagle Returns to his Master: Kazakh Eagle Hunter demonstrates his mastery

Bayan Olgi, Mongolia October 2004: Photo of Kazakh Eagle Hunter just as the eagle lands back onto his hand whilst in full gallop. From high above the eagle swoops down towards the dust and to his mounted master. Landing onto a gloved perch they both slow to trot. A surreal scene; man, eagle, horse, all working together. I ran alongside the rider as the eagle flew down from a rocky cliff above in order to get this photo. To reach here we had to fly a small propeller plane from Ulaan Baatar to Bayan Olgi. Then took 4x4 jeeps and camped in gers/yurts nearby until the hunters gathered for the event. The landscape here is rocky and barren. It's windy, cold, and dusty. I recall at the time MIAT the domestic carrier left all our gear and luggage behind. For a week I had no shower and change of clothes. With very little batteries for my cameras and every shot moving or still had to count. It was perfect.

Montagnard Boy

Central Highlands, Vietnam
I shot this photo in 2006 during my journey from Dalat to Nha Trang. This boy was with a group of kids tending to water buffaloes along a river bank near the unpaved road. This area is just at the edge of the mountains as the road heads towards the sea. This hamlet is one of the outer lying Montagnard villages. Montagnards are the indigenous people of Vietnam. Most are found living deep inland in mountains that border Cambodia, Laos, and China. There are hundreds of different tribes each with their own unique language and culture. They live in long huts which are stilted and Montagnard women can be seen walking on roads and trails wearing a large basket like backpack. During the Vietnam War these people fought alongside U.S. Special Forces and were known for their fearlessness in combat and deep knowledge of the local terrain.

Posted by Picasa

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Day One

First Blog Post Ever; This is one of the places I log and collect my experiences. Hopefully to be full of interesting sites and sounds, funny ideas, with a little this and and that. I'm an Amerasian working in Japan. I travel throughout many amazing places. I have a passion for adventure travel, writing, photography, and film making. I've shot covers for books, made a film about Mongolia, and consulted on various writing projects. Over all I make the best of my journeys by going off the beaten track and immersing myself among the culture and locals. My name is Linh Vien Thai, thank you for reading...