Asian Geographic: Conversations with Invisible Men

ASIAN_Geographic_Issue_5_2012-1

Conversations with Invisible Men

This article comes from Asian Geographic, Issue 5, 2012: Hands and Feet.

I’ve included the article as it appears in the magazine, as well as my original text.

 

ASIAN_Geographic_Issue_5_2012-40

ASIAN_Geographic_Issue_5_2012-42

ASIAN_Geographic_Issue_5_2012-44

ASIAN_Geographic_Issue_5_2012-46

ASIAN_Geographic_Issue_5_2012-48

Conversations with Invisible Men

By Flash Parker

Asian Geographic Magazine

There was not much flesh on the Buddha’s hand. I found a bit of meat on that space between the thumb and forefinger, but otherwise the Buddha’s hand left me grasping for something more substantial. It looked beautiful next to the rockfish my host had sautéed in salt, pepper, and garam masala, but I suspected the Buddha’s hand was tossed into the pot as a nothing more than a garnish; the Buddha’s hand, for those that don’t know, is a bright yellow citrus fruit known for its fragrant aroma and limited use in the kitchen. Priya, my host, was in her mid-20s, and carried herself with an air of regal dignity, wrapped as she was in the bright colors of her native India. Priya was for a few years enrolled at the University of Toronto, and learned a thing or two about culinary extravagance from an uncle that owned his own Indian restaurant. I asked if her Buddha’s hand and rockfish recipe was an ancient family secret. She dipped a bit of fish into olive oil, and then she shrugged. “I learned it from the internet,” she said. “But if you are really interested in the secret of the Buddha’s hand, I know someone you should speak with.”

MEET THE RACONTEURS

The raconteurs are a group of elderly men who wander the streets of Udaipur, aggressively debating the nature of existence and all that life has to offer. Mohanlal is the youngest, brashest, and loudest of the bunch. It was his voice I heard booming from the rear of the Jagdish Temple.

“I don’t believe in having conversations with invisible men,” Mohanlal said. Mohanlal appeared to be substantially less destitute than his friend Vikas, as if Mohanlal had yet to experience all that life on the streets of Udaipur had to offer. Vikas tugged at his long white beard and listened attentively. “What has your God, or any other God for that matter, done to help me? What has any God ever done to help you, Vikas?” Mohanlal said. “Speaking with invisible men is a waste of time. Religion is a weapon used by clever people to appease the oppressed. If the poor and the stupid are promised a better station in their next life, then they have no reason to complain in this one!” Mohanlal rubbed his grubby hands together as he made his point.

Vikas looked deeply into the eyes of his friend, smiled, and turned his attention to me. “Do you agree with this man?” Vikas asked. I said that I didn’t know whether I agreed or not.

“I was hoping that you could tell me something about the Buddha’s hand,” I said.

“Then you are just as stupid as the rest of them,” Mohanlal said.

Vikas took my hands in the gnarled roots that passed as his own and faced my palms outward, my fingers pointed at the sky. “This is the abhaya,” Vikas said. “This is the gesture of protection. Do you feel as though you are protecting me when you make this gesture?” I said that I did not. “This is because you do not believe it,” Vikas said.

Mohanlal spit a jet of crimson betel nut juice onto the ground. “Foolishness,” he said. Mohanlal touched the tips of his thumb and index finger together and pointed his three remaining fingers at my face. “This is the gesture of debate,” he said. “But if I really wanted to start an argument with you, I would be better served by poking you in the eye.”

Mohanlal and Vikas carried on like this while my mind dialed up a memory from East Java, Indonesia, and the ancient temple of Borobodur, where I had first heard of the mudra. My guide at the time explained the concept of the five qualities of the Buddha, or the Five Dhyani, and how they embody the principles of enlightenment. I didn’t quite grasp how a simple repositioning of the hands could hold power over the cosmos, but with Vikas, Mohanlal, and their friends perched upon the balustrades at the Jagdish Temple before me in this bustling Indian city, I began to come to terms with how much sway belief has over the cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

“Disbelief is the single biggest obstacle we must overcome in our lives,” Vikas said, “while opprobrium for what we do believe in can be every bit as problematic.” I thought of the Buddha’s hand. In its natural form, the fruit has little to offer. But in my mind I can imagine it becoming more; with the proper tools, I can make something nourishing from it.

“A conversation with God is no different,” Vikas said. “I cannot see him, nor can I hear him. If I believe that the Buddha’s hands are empty, then they will be empty. But if I allow myself to believe that they can point me towards enlightenment, then they possess something very powerful indeed.”

THE CAWING OF CROWS

I’m not a spiritual tourist, and I am certainly no hagiographer, but it is difficult not to get caught in the spirit of things when people like Vikas are holding court for a grand audience. Yet Mohanlal also made what I thought was a sound argument. Therein lay the problem for people like me who sit on the fence with regards to this whole religion thing; the pages of history are filled with stories of men and women who offered the world to the devoted with one hand, and swiped away their dignity with the other. The concept of the hand as the driving force for change and belief is a big one, especially in Asia, where tactility drives nations forward. In India, men and women work with their hands. What those hands are able to do has a direct bearing on where they may find themselves on the sliding scale of the cycle of life at any given moment.

After listening to Mohanlal and Vikas communicate with invisible men, I went for a walk around Lake Pichola in an effort to make sense of what I had heard. I crossed a small bridge where two boys were fishing; the older boy was teaching the younger boy how to fix bait to his hook. On the opposite side of the bridge, an older man stood waist-deep in the water, washing his face and brushing his teeth. Beneath me, a dead cow was pushed into deeper waters by a teenaged boy. I know of no artist in the world who could have so succinctly drawn a picture of the cycle of life. I wondered what drove these men; I wondered what they believed in.

Standing on that bridge, I couldn’t help but reexamine Mohanlal’s skepticism. Where some men see a prophet, Mohanlal sees a false idol. Mohanlal does not believe because he is told to believe; he demands proof. Buddhism, Hinduism, mudras, the principals of enlightenment, and the infinite power of the cosmos have been around so long that by their very nature they seem infallible – the codes and tenants of these ancient religions exist because people believe in them, and people believe in them because they exist. The Buddha’s hands hold the key to enlightenment because they have always done so. Modern profits have had a difficult time making magic with their hands, as the people of India know full well. Śri Sathya Sai Baba worked his way into the national conscience by claiming to be the reincarnation of Sai Baba of Shirdi, a beloved spiritual seraph. For three-quarters of a century Sathya Sai Baba performed acts with his hands that were considered miraculous among the devoted and deceitful among skeptics. Sathya Sai Baba claimed to be able to heal the sick, materialize inanimate objects from nothing, and levitate. Sathya Sai Baba drew legions of believers, but also amassed a great mass of skeptics who claimed he did little more than take advantage of poor, unfortunate souls who yearned simply for something to believe in. Sathya Sai Baba claimed that in his hands his followers would find salvation; when he heeled the sick, he compared himself and his abilities to Jesus Christ, saying that "Jesus Christ underwent many hardships, and was put to the cross because of jealousy. Many around him could not bear the good work he did and the large number of followers he gathered. One of his disciples, Judas, betrayed him. In those days there was one Judas, but today there are thousands. Just as that Judas was tempted to betray Jesus, the Judases of today, too, are bought out to lie. Jealousy was the motive behind the allegations leveled at him." By likening himself to Jesus Christ, Sathya Sai Baba left his followers to decide whether the modern man was capable of performing miracles with his own two hands. Many of these followers decided that they would be better off believing.

PALM TO PALM

Hands, in the context of faith, are handled in quite a different way across different religions – they are not always used as a key to the door to enlightenment, as instruments of deception, or harbingers of magic. The teachings of Islam discourage physical contact on the grounds that contact may lead to familiarity that is unwanted on the part of females; the shaking of hands, in particular, is considered especially taboo. The hands are considered powerful tools, but not because they have the ability to shift cosmic energies, bring inanimate things to life, or turn water to wine; hands, as an extension of the human body, and therefore the human spirit, have the power to create desire. Desire can lead to lust, and lust can lead to wanton action. Wanton action, of course, is sinful action. Sinful actions are always to be avoided, so touching the hand of a woman is to be avoided. This makes the human hand a very powerful thing indeed; if there is so much potential sin emanating from a simple handshake, what sort of temptation and immorality lay in the palm of the hand?

As reported by al-Tabaraani from the hadeeth of Ma’qil ibn Yasaar, the prophet said, “It is better for you to be stabbed in the head with an iron needle than to touch the hand of a woman who is not permissible to you.” A man whom places his palm in the palm of a woman has wronged himself; while he may repent, he has invalidated his ablution, and for all intents and purposes he has sullied his character and spirit.

Generally speaking, all things that lead to temptation are prohibited by Islamic Law, though many scholars argue that this is out of a base respect for the rights of women. These scholars often refer to a verse from the Quran that reads, “"O Prophet! When believing women come to thee to take the oath of fealty to thee, that they will not associate in worship any other thing whatever with Allah, that they will not steal, that they will not commit adultery, that they will not kill their children, that they will not utter slander, intentionally forging falsehood, and that they will not disobey thee in any just matter, then do thou receive their fealty, and pray to Allah for the forgiveness (of their sins): for Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.” (Al Mumtahinah 60:12). When women accepted the conditions of this verse in the presence of the prophet, he received their oath of allegiance by word alone, refusing to shake their hands. Born of respect, this tradition continues today.

AN ORTHODOX APPROACH

Similar attitudes towards physical contact, and restrictions relating to the hands, can be found in Judaism. Orthodox Jews distance themselves from most forms of physical contact on the grounds of respect; by refusing to touch one another, by refusing to shake hands with laypeople, Jews are reminded of the sanctity of their most important bonds – both familial and marital. In the eyes of nonbelievers, this can be seen as a form of disrespect; in Western societies, where shaking hands is a casual form of greeting or an important part of business making, the refusal to shake hands can be viewed as off-putting, or even offensive. Yet Orthodox Jews view a prohibition on physical contact as an acknowledgement of the latent attraction between women and men, and a handshake, however innocent it may seem, may lead to something more severe. The hands, again, possess latent power in and of themselves. By refusing to allow them to fall into the hands of another, hands allow the faithful to reaffirm their respect for one another – and exclude any notion of casual sexual intimacy from even the most chance encounters.

HOT IN INDIA

Yet the Jews like to have a little spiritual fun of their own, characterized by the myriad symbols, motifs, and ornaments related to hands.

One of the most popular symbols in Jewry is the Hamesh Hand, a motif often found on pendants and bracelets. The symbol features an inverted hand with an eye at the center, and is used to represent the Hand of God. The Hamesh Hand is used as protection from the evil eye, a malevolent spiritual force aroused by jealous and envy. Historically, the concept of the evil eye has been associated with Judaism, though many other religions connect the spiritual power of the hand to the malevolent forces of the eyes.

In fact, the Hamesh Hand is known in Araabic as the Hamsa Hand, or the Hand of Fatima, and is similarly used to ward off the evil eye. There is some speculation that this apotropaic amulet predates both Islam and Judaism, and represents the hand of a Persian goddess; when this goddess placed her hand over the face of any man, their symptoms of envy and jealousy would abate. Hindus have their own way of dealing with the evil eye; often, when the evil eye is suspected of falling upon a member of a house, that member must crush dried red chilies into a powder and then burn the powder in their palm. I was tempted to raise an eyebrow in Mohanlal’s direction and present him a bag of chili powder, but thought better of this idea when I considered what sort of curse I may inadvertently lay upon myself.

THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD

Some folks need tactile evidence of a miracle in order to begin believing. Some folks need only to believe in the possibility of a miracle. I wondered how Vikas and Mohanlal would react in the presence of the world’s most famous hands.

If Jesus and I were skipping stones across Lake Pichola, I would ask him to turn the tepid water into wine. I want to believe in miracles, but I require that they happen before my own eyes. I am a skeptic by nature, but only because I know what the hands of man are capable of. The hands of the ordinary man are every bit as flawed as man himself – at once capable of great and evil deeds. The hands of Christ, so I have been told, were capable only of kindness and compassion. I wonder what Mohanlal might have said after shaking hands with Jesus; Jesus had a soft spot for beggars, after all. Jesus saw life through the eyes of skilled tradesmen and common folk, and it was with them that he connected. Like them, his hands were rough, calloused, and strong; they were capable hands. Jesus was a carpenter, and with his hands he built great things. What would Mohanlal have made of those hands?

I imagined Jesus presenting his palms to Vikas. As light illuminated from the palms, Vikas would have known that salvation was at hand. Mohanlal would have required Jesus to use his hands to build something of worth in order to believe in him, while Vikas would have required nothing more than an assurance that his faith would be rewarded. In the end, both would have believed, in their own way, in the power held in the hands of the crafty carpenter.

A PROPHET AND A PAINTER

Asia has long been a spreading ground for prophets who would do miraculous things with their hands – and ended up dead because of it. The Iranian prophet Mani has been forgotten in even his own native lands, the Manichaeism gnostic religion he founded no longer practiced. Yet I think Mani would have made an impact in India, if not in Udaipur; he believed that reality is little more than a base conflict between good and evil, or the light and the dark, and that the battle can be won by those who placed their faith in his hands. It didn’t hurt Mani’s cause that he believed himself to be an apostle of Jesus, and the reincarnated spirit of Buddha, Zoroaster, and Ganesha, putting a whole lot of cosmic firepower at his disposal.

Since Mani saw the world in definite black and white, it would have been interesting to see how he painted a picture of Udaipur; Mani was known as a great artist, and he used his paintings to captivate, provoke and motivate his followers. I wonder what Vikas and Mohanlal would have seen when they looked upon the easel; would they see images of heaven (where Mani claimed to have spent much time), or would they have seen a much darker reality?

People are drawn to miracles in dark times – whether those miracles are real, perceived, or something else entirely. Hands, for many, are the vehicle of deliverance. They are the driving force of change, and they carry the hope some people need from one heart to their own. Whether or not men like Sathya Sai Baba or Jesus Christ were able to perform miracles with their hands means little next to the perceived good their hands were able to do; when people are no longer able to take responsibility for their own happiness, they turn to others for guidance. The Buddha’s hands can lead anyone to enlightenment, but only if they chose to believe it is possible. Belief, like Vikas intimated, is the only real secret worth discovering.

- flash

 

PS: I’m much better at updating my Facebook page, so if you’re so inclined, head over there for the last goings on from the empire.  Click to join me on Facebook

Asian Geographic: Vampires of the Steppe–Part 3.

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-46

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

This is the largest piece I’ve written for any magazine to date. A robust 5,700 words, this piece featured in Asian Geographic 2012, Issue 6. It was split into three sections, so I’ve split it into three separate posts for anyone who may be interested in reading the entire piece. Original text follows the spread as it appears in the magazine.

 

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-47AsianGeographic2012Issue6-48AsianGeographic2012Issue6-49

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

How Turkic Blood Changed the World: Part 3

By Flash Parker

BLOOD, FANGS, AND SPEARS

I write a note at the top of the page reminding myself not to spend too much time on this crazy witch-hunt. I know the idea that Attila the Hun and Dracula are connected by blood is preposterous, and I know that Dracula is a myth. Yet I also know that most myths are rooted in at list a little bit of truth. Is it possible that Dracula had a bit of Hun blood in him?

I know I can’t approach Ark Raider claiming I’ve found a link between the Anatolian Tiger and Dracula – that would be insane. First of all, the fictional Dracula, the one who sprang from Bram Stoker’s imagination and claimed to be a Székely by birth (and may have had a tenuous connection to the Huns if this were true), never actually existed. The historical Dracula, Vlad III, the Prince of Wallachia, was in fact a Wallachian; the Wallachians would eventually become the modern Romanian ethnic group, but they were never ethnically Turkic people. Furthermore, Vlad III waged numerous campaigns against the Ottoman Turks during his lifetime; for his disobedience Vlad III was imprisoned by Ottoman Sultan Murad II, and subsequently beaten, tortured, and broken. Upon his release Vlad III’s character had changed markedly – he displayed a pathological hatred for the Ottomans, yearned for battle, and began displaying the bloodlust that would stain his character and define his legend forever. In case you didn’t know, Vlad III had a thing for sticking people on pikes, and he may have done it more than 100,000 times.

The fact that the real Dracula was a Wallachian and not a Turk is supported by volumes of historical evidence (and provides me with no small measure of comfort). For a moment I feel as though I have stumbled upon another dead-end; another bloodline that ends in the Middle Ages, another people disconnected from the Turkey of today. On one hand, I’m relieved that Dracula’s progeny no longer walk the earth. On the other, I thought it might be fun to be credited with finding a modern piece of Dracula’s genetic puzzle – I might have even won a Pulitzer for my troubles. At any rate, by drawing Ottoman blood, Dracula has opened the door to a new possibility – one I should have recognized from the very beginning. If Mehmed II was powerful enough to dispatch Vlad the Impaler, perhaps his bloodline has endured to today.

A HOUSE DIVIDED

The Mongols did serious damage on Anatolia soil during the 13th and 14th Centuries. Infighting, politicking, and general foolishness at the highest levels of government didn’t help matters much. The Byzantine Empire was crumbling, the Mongols were retreating to the steppe, and the fractured clans of the former Bulgar kingdom could not agree on where to graze their cattle, let alone on who should rule an empire. Out of this chaos rose the Ottoman Empire, led by the first sultan, Osman I.

The empire flourished for more than six centuries, and was only dissolved in 1923 – though more than 100 years of political maneuvering against the British Empire, the Crimean War, and a rising wave of ethnic nationalism that swept across Eurasia had reduced the Ottoman Empire to a shell of its former self, and it was never to regain the glorious standing it enjoyed on the world stage during the 16th Century. Aligning itself with the Central Powers during World War I was simply the last gasp of a wasted kingdom.

Sultans ruled uninterrupted from 1299 to 1922, an unprecedented reign for any modern empire. Ertuğrul Bey, a leader of the Oghuz Turks and the father of Osman I, set the stage for his son to found the Ottoman Empire in the face of Byzantine rule; the House of Osman would send 36 sultans to the throne. Some, like the great Suleiman I, reigned for 46 years. Meticulous records have been kept dating all the way back to Ertuğrul Bey, even as they relate to the Imperial Harem.

A sultan’s harem often included dozens, if not hundreds of concubines, and while it is conceivable that concubines bore sons and daughters that were never recorded in historical texts, it is unlikely that the Anatolian Tiger was born as a result of one of these extra-matrimonial arrangements, and unlikelier still that he is a direct descendant of the House of Osman. The entire house was declared persona non grata under a provision of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, and the sultan and his family were banished from Turkey. The family was allowed to return to Turkey some years later, and were even afforded an opportunity to apply for Turkish citizenship in 1974, though most Turkish citizens are in no rush to retreat from a democratic parliamentary republic and return to life under an absolute monarchy.

There are currently 24 princes standing in the line of succession behind Osman Bayezid Osmanoğlu, who would have been styled Grand Sultan Bayezid III had the sultanate never been abolished; some of the men in line after Osman Bayezid Osmanoğlu are businessmen, some are foreign diplomats, and some are comedians. Some live in Turkey, while others live in France (where a large number of the royal family sought refuge after being exiled), the United States, Germany, and Canada. In addition to these 24 princes there are hundreds of Osman princes and princesses who are officially linked by blood to the empire. Whether or not descendants of the House of Osman are welcomed with open arms into the Turkish business community is a matter of debate, but one I’m not likely to be having with Ark Raider’s Anatolian Tiger.

As I fill pages with ethnogenetic trivia, I realize that I’ve gone too far down the rabbit hole to ever come back. By digging deeper and deeper into these bloodlines I have come to realize that they are all connected in some way. The Anatolian Tiger may share a blood link with Suppiluliuma, Attila, Dracula, or Osman, he may be connected to all of them, or he may be connected to any one of the Turkic peoples I have failed to mention – I could delve just as deeply into the bloodlines of the Turkmens, Uyghurs, Kyrgyzs, Sejjuks or the Gogturks and I may arrive at the same conclusion. Attila’s grave has never been found, and scientists are on the whole afraid to swab Dracula’s fangs for DNA; suffice to say, unlocking ancient genomes is not likely to happen any time soon. We’ll never know if greatest is a genetic trait, or a fluke of history.

Turkey has one of the richest genealogical histories the world has ever known; I could spend a year attempting to break the code of a thousand bloodlines, and I would be no closer to solving this mystery than I am today. If I wrote a book on Turkic genealogy, it would be titled Chapter One – if I followed it with 500 volumes at 5,000 pages each, I would hardly begin to understand how Turkey came to be. This is an awesome thought, at once overwhelming and wholly disheartening, for now I must admit to Ark Raider that I have failed in my quest to uncover the secret of the Anatolian Tiger’s bloodline.

Dejected, I interrupt Ark Raider and his friend. I place my notes, my family trees, my sweat, my blood, and my tears upon the table before them. I begin with an apology. I tell them that I could not solve the mystery – I don’t know where the Anatolian Tiger is descended from, and I do not know which line of Turkic blood is the greatest of all. Ark Raider and his friend exchange worried glances. “You are missing the point,” Ark Raider says, laying a hand upon my shoulder. “All of these lines are great. Each has produced great people, and each holds an esteemed place in Turkic history. But none of these men is an Anatolian Tiger.”

Confused, I look over my research. There must be an answer hidden in here somewhere. Ark Raider consoles me. “You see, we know the identity of the Anatolian Tiger; the tiger is a great city or a state, not a man or a woman. A tiger is built by these great people: for the Ottomans the tiger was Constantinople; for the Bulgars, it was Bolghar; for the Hittites it was the city of Hattusa that lay here in ruins.”

I may have misunderstood Ark Raider in the beginning, but I now understand what he meant all along, and I am bolstered by this revelation; every great civilization, ever great people, has the capacity to bear a tiger. Each of these bloodlines was great in its own time. A city cannot become a tiger without a great bloodline to build it, to facilitate its rise, and to preside over it. The real power of blood is in the potential, and any bloodline may rise to the occasion.

In the end, Ark Raider asks me a question. “I will tell you the name of the tiger if you ask,” he says. I consider his offer, then respectfully decline. I’d like the secret of the tiger and the bloodline that brings him to prominence to remain a secret as long as possible. Besides, I’m still just a little upset that Dracula doesn’t have anything to do with all this.

- flash

Asian Geographic: Vampires of the Steppe–Part 2.

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-40

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

This is the largest piece I’ve written for any magazine to date. A robust 5,700 words, this piece featured in Asian Geographic 2012, Issue 6. It was split into three sections, so I’ve split it into three separate posts for anyone who may be interested in reading the entire piece. Original text follows the spread as it appears in the magazine.

 

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-41AsianGeographic2012Issue6-42AsianGeographic2012Issue6-43AsianGeographic2012Issue6-44AsianGeographic2012Issue6-45

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

How Turkic Blood Changed the World: Part 2

By Flash Parker

THE SCOURGE OF THE STEPPE

With an exasperated sigh I set down my notebook on the edge of the table and look out over the Turkish countryside. I have failed to shed a drop of the tiger’s blood, and now the scent has left the air. The tiger is not descended from a lost Turkic civilization – that much I am sure of. I scratch my head and twist the corners of my mustache, hoping to come to some sort of revelation. If the tiger’s blood were in some way connected to Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, or Sargon, I would have no problem finding the blood link. History has a way of remembering merciless despot warrior kings, after all. Is it possible that Ark Raider is making an erroneous link between his tiger and the Great Khan? It wouldn’t be a stretch; as many as eight-percent of men currently living in former Mongol territories share Y-chromosome similarities with the Ghengis line.

I decide to eavesdrop on Ark Raider for clues. “The tiger is already fierce,” he says. “Powerful, ambitious, and hungry.” His friend considers this for a moment. “But ambition left unchecked can quickly become prejudicial,” the friend says, “especially when the tiger does not get his way. Then the tiger may become the scourge of the steppe, bloodthirsty and angry.”

I slap my hands together so hard I’m sure goats six towns over are having heart attacks. Why didn’t I see the link before? Why did it take until now to realize that Ark Raider was talking about the man whose legend made Genghis quake in his boots? The scourge of the steppe must be another name for the Scourge of God – the one and only Attila the Hun.

Attila the Hun was kicking ass on the steppe long before the mighty Genghis was even a glint on papa Khan’s bloodstained sword. Attila’s vast armies spread across the countryside the way my spilled coffee spreads across the white linen table cloth. Just as my waitress is nonplussed at the sight of my transgression, so too did Attila piss off just about every man and woman he happened across. Being Attila the Hun, he didn’t put up with much gruff; disrespect or dissent was likely to be met with a yak-hide boot to the chops, while more serious contraventions met with more serious punishments: some legends hold that Attila trained his horses to eat human flesh, and he would feed them the still-beating hearts of his enemies. Historians reluctantly concede that Attila’s nomadic Hun’s were forbearers of the Turkic people, despite genealogical claims from every corner of the globe. If I could get away with it, I too would claim Hun ancestry, though my ineptitude with a sword would certainly give me away. Suddenly I feel as though I’m on the right track this time.

I apologize to my waitress, tear the ancient history from my notebook, and begin looking deep into the tiger’s past. I consider pricking my finger and writing this chapter in my own blood – it seems like something Attila might do.

I understand that claiming a direct link between the tiger and Attila is presumptuous; historians have been making the same concerted efforts for hundreds of years. Chasing a single drop of blood through history is a daunting task, even if that blood belongs to a historical juggernaut like Attila the Hun. His DNA was never harvested by a mosquito and then locked in an amber marble, so it seems unlikely that scientists will ever unlock the secret code to his genome and populate a remote island with snarling, sword wielding proto-Turks. Yet there are some clues as to how the Huns may have contributed to the modern-day Turkish gene pool. Sorting out who tossed a chlorinated DNA tablet into the deep end is another matter entirely.

The Huns descended from a line of ancient nomads who ruled the Mongolian steppe, coexisting with the Han Dynasty between 206 BCE – 220 CE; these nomads were known as the Xiongnu, and they were a force to be reckoned with long before Attila appeared on the scene. In fact, the Xiongnu were so ferocious that they terrified the Chinese into building the first sections of the Great Wall. When the Han Chinese finally mustered the courage to launch an all-out assault on the Xiongnu, some Xiongnu clans headed west, pillaging and plundering along the way. One particularly battle-hardy clan landed in Scythia, and proceeded to pummel all adversaries into submission. The Scythian tribes that were not obliterated joined forces with this new power, and the Huns were born.

When Attila was born in 406 CE, the Huns were a scattered alliance of nomadic herders. Each clan had a separate king, and clans frequently warred with one another over territory, livestock, and tributes. The Roman Empire pitted clans against one another to serve their own purposes, such as when they needed mercenaries to dispatch hostile nomads from distant territories. Sometime after 420 CE, Attila’s uncle Rua brought the Hun clans together by killing these feuding kings; Rua subsequently united the Hun clans against the common Roman enemy, and demanded tribute payments in exchange for keeping the peace – and the odd freelance mercenary assignment. With the tribute gold received from the Eastern Romans in Constantinople, the Huns were able to transition from relying on a pastoral economy to one based on currency and the exchange of goods; this allowed the Huns to build cities and centralize their government, as they were no longer required to follow herds of livestock across the steppe.

When Rua died, his nephews Attila and Bleda took power, and sough immediately to expand the Hunnic Empire. The Huns waged war for a time in Persian territories, but a defeat at the hands of the Sassanian Empire forced them to turn their attention – and their bloodlust – on the Romans. Bleda and Attila ran roughshod through a number of Eastern Roman cities before Constantinople again bought a measure of peace – for a price so steep that the Huns were able to build great cities of their own, and pay for thunderous campaigns Attila would soon launch against his enemies.

A BARBARIAN LOVE STORY

Attila took control of the Hunnic Empire upon Belda’s death in 445 CE; again Attila attacked the Eastern Romans, this time taking the Balkans, and steadily marched on Constantinople. The Romans paid the Huns for their trouble yet again, saving their great city in a last-gasp effort. The intervening years would see Attila mount a series of campaigns against the Romans and other enemies, while the Romans attempted desperately to assassinate the leader of the Huns in an effort to exert a measure of control over the steppe.

A watershed moment in the history of the Huns occurred in 450 CE. Attila had formed an uneasy alliance with Emperor Valentinian III of the Western Roman Empire, joining forces to sack Toulouse, at the time a part of the Visigoth kingdom. Attila had previously assisted the Western Romans in their campaigns against the Bagaudae and the Goths, and he enjoyed a good relationship with the powerful Roman general Flavius Aëtius.

Shortly before attacking Toulouse, Attila received an entreaty from the Roman princess Honoria (sister of Valentinian III): Honoria had been betrothed to a man she feared, and she begged Attila to rescue her. Attila interpreted Honoria’s entreaty as a marriage proposal – she had sent a ring to the king of the Huns, after all – and demanded half of the Western Roman Empire as a dowry. Valentinian III refused, and Attila promptly marched his great army into France and Germany, pillaging and plundering his way to claiming his new wife.

Attila met his old friend Aëtius on the battlefields of Catalaunia. With the assistance of numerous vassal states the Romans were able to keep Attila from riding roughshod through all the European territories – and wiping Christian Europe from the face of the earth in the process. Attila had failed in spreading his bloodline deep into enemy territory, and was unable to claim his Roman bride, markedly altering the course of Hunnic history.

Infuriated at his defeat in France, Attila turned his attention to Rome. Italy had been devastated by a famine in 452 CE, and Attila saw an opportunity to lay waste to the Roman Empire once and for all – he also saw this as an opportunity to take Honoria as his bride. If Attila couldn’t wipe out the Romans, he would reign as their Emperor instead. The Huns sacked Milan with ease, but did not anticipate the effects of the famine on their own warriors. Subsequently, they were forced to retreat from Italy, as the Pope sighed with no small measure of relief.

Attila died soon after, and his death rocked his empire. His sons quarreled for control, again splitting the Huns into feuding clans. Attila’s oldest son Ellac eventually won control of the throne, but not before the Huns lost most of their own important vassal states. The Huns were forced out of major strategic posts in Europe, Ellac was killed, and another son, Dengizich, took control of the crumbling empire. The ambitious Dengizich deigned to reign supreme as his father had, and looked to exert power over the Eastern Romans once again. The young Hun demanded tribute from Constantinople, but in the process lost the support of his brother, Attila’s third son, Ernakh; Ernakh turned his back on his brother, and left Dengizich to face the Romans with a relatively small band of warriors. Dengizich was defeated by the Byzantines; the few warriors that remained after the slaughter joined Ernakh’s ranks, and integrated with the Bulgars – precursors to today’s modern Bulgarians. The Huns, as they had been known, were finished.

A CHANGING OF THE GUARDS

The Bulgars make the most substantial claim to the line of the Huns, through their connection to Attila’s sons, yet while they were of Turkic blood, they were never wholly Hunnic; the Bulgars were from the beginning a mix of Scythians, Iranics, Finnos, Suars, and numerous other ethnic bloodlines. The Bulgars thrived in the power vacuum created by the demise of the Huns, and established a modest kingdom on the Pontic steppe, as well as the Islamic state of Volga Bulgaria.

The Bulgar king Kubrat was the nephew of Ernakh, son of Attila. Kubrat was educated in Constantinople, and raised a Christian; he used religion as a tool to unite many Bulgar tribes, and established the kingdom of Great Bulgaria. Great Bulgaria expanded to encompass lands from the Danube to the Volga River, and enjoyed friendly relations with the Byzantine Empire. Kubrat’s death saw his sons seize command of various outposts, engage in numerous expansion battles, and influence bloodlines through Europe and the Near East forever.

Great Bulgaria was eventually annexed by the Khazar Empire, leading to the establishment of the Bulgarian Empire; Kubrat’s son Asparuh ruled the Bulgarian Empire and mounted campaigns against the Byzantines that earned him great respect among his brothers and contemporary clans. When Asparuh signed a treaty with Constantine IV in 681 CE, modern Bulgaria was established. Asparuh’s branch of the Bulgar tree was broken when his people were assimilated by Slavic peoples in the 10th Century.

Kubrat’s son Batbayan’s control over Black Sea territories was likewise stripped by the Khazars, and his Bulgar clans were converted to Judaism. They spread throughout the Balkans and are considered ancestors of the Balkars.

Volgar Bulgaria, ruled by son Kotrag, converted to Islam in the 10th Century, and built great cities that controlled trade throughout the region prior to the Crusades. Volgar Bulgaria stood until Ghengis Khan’s army took the capital of Bolghar in the 13th Century. Bolghar became an integral part of the Golden Horde, but Bulgar culture endured; the people that remained after the Mongol invasion are now considered the ancestors of the modern Tatarstans and Chuvashia peoples, of southeastern and central European Russia, respectively.

Kubrat’s sons Alcek and Kuber settled their Bulgar clans in Italy and Macedonia. These clans were extremely multi-ethnic, and splintered often through history; historians have in general failed to link these ancient bloodlines with any contemporary peoples.

Looking back through history and down the line of the Bulgars, through the Huns, and all the way back to the Xiongnu, it quickly becomes evident that making a real, substantial link to the house of Attila is difficult, if not impossible. I see no end to this odyssey, no end to my frustrating search. For every solid line I discover, ten crooked tangents shoot off in another direction. A kingdom fell here, and a people flourished there – clans rise, tribes fall; some kings procreate, and some great lines turn to dust. One book convinces me that the Chuvashia are the true descendants of Attila, while another persuades me to believe that the Magyars, also known as the Hungarians, have the persuasive power of popular ethnogenesis on their side. Academic journals ask me not to forget about the Khazars, while the Székelys merit some attention for slipping in through Transylvania’s backdoor and claiming Hun ancestry as the gatekeepers to the Carpathians. There is no dearth of claims to be made on Attila’s misshapen crown; even Bram Stoker’s fictional Count Dracula was based in part on a nonfictional Székely lord. It’s frightening to think that even Dracula himself drew the blood of Attila the Hun.

Suddenly, my blood runs cold. A chill races down my spine, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. What if I’m wrong about Attila? What if it is possible to trace his bloodline through the ages? When Ark Raider’s friend made mention of the blood-thirsty tiger, perhaps he was doing so in the most literal sense imaginable. I lower my head, pull my jacked up nice and snug around my neck (one can never be too careful), and slink low into my char. I need to know whether or not the Anatolian Tiger is a descendant of Dracula, and I need to know it now.

- flash

Asian Geographic: Vampires of the Steppe–Part 1.

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-35

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

This is the largest piece I’ve written for any magazine to date. A robust 5,700 words, this piece featured in Asian Geographic 2012, Issue 6. It was split into three sections, so I’ve split it into three separate posts for anyone who may be interested in reading the entire piece. Original text follows the spread as it appears in the magazine.

 

AsianGeographic2012Issue6-36AsianGeographic2012Issue6-37AsianGeographic2012Issue6-38AsianGeographic2012Issue6-39

VAMPIRES OF THE STEPPE

How Turkic Blood Changed the World: Part 1

By Flash Parker

Blood runs thicker than water. Thicker than oil too, depending on whom you ask. About the only thing in the world thicker than blood is the Turkish coffee that is currently wreaking havoc on my nerves. In case you don’t already know, Turkish coffee is as black as midnight, kicks like a mule, and comes sprinkled with a little bit of magic. I came to Turkey to climb up and down Mount Ararat looking for Noah’s Ark, find an Eastern Karadeniz hamlet to hold up in between summer meadow picnics, trek the Kackar Mountains, and explore the ancient ruins of Hattusas. I even had plans to visit the rock-hewn Sümela Monastery with a basket packed full of anchovy pies, Aryan salted yogurt, and a few Akcabat koftesi meatballs for good measure. Now, with the world’s strongest coffee coursing through my veins, I can hardly remember why I wanted to come out here at all. I suppose even the best laid plans have a way of unraveling.

From my perch at a little café in the remote village of Bogazkale, ancient Hattusa unfolds before me on the steppe. Where moments ago there were only ruins, now the great city stands in all its mighty glory. My mind wants to tell me I’m hallucinating – I’m not much of a coffee drinker after all – but my heart begs me to believe that the city, annihilated more than 3,000 years ago, really does exist. A great wall, six kilometers long and some eight meters thick, protects the outer perimeter; ramparts rise to meet great gates, guarded by fierce lion simulacrums; serfs work the fertile plains; a great chariot thunders towards the southern ramparts carrying a proud king, returning home after the conquest of another distant land. My vision encapsulates the entire ancient kingdom of Hittite; I realize I can’t drink any more coffee.

Voices bring me back to reality. The men at the table next to mine are engaged in a heated conversation. “This is the personification of the Anatolian Tiger,” the gentleman closest to me says as he slams his tiny cappuccino cup down on the table. He’s dressed in a plaid shirt, slacks, and has a scarf wrapped around his waist in a manner that makes him look like he’s about to raid an ark. Ark Raider continues; “the blood of ancient Turkey is pure, and it courses through his veins. Istanbul recognizes this, and she is afraid; soon he will rise to take his place among the greats of history and rule this nation. This is the destiny of the Anatolian Tiger.”

Ark Raider accentuates his point by jabbing his fist at the air; his companion nods, as if everything Ark Raider says is true. For some reason, I want to agree. I’ve heard the term Anatolian Tiger used in casual conversation, even seen it pasted on newspaper headlines throughout the country. As I understand it, an Anatolian Tiger is a businessperson of significant entrepreneurial aptitude, a mover and a shaker, an industrial giant, someone for whom commercial, cultural, and industrial conquest is the rule, and not the exception. In short, an Anatolian Tiger is someone who rules the country.

Synapses firing on meta-human levels, caffeine saturating my brain cells, I start making minute connections. Ark Raider’s Anatolian Tiger must be descended from the royal line of Hittite kings – rulers of the city state of Hattusa – a great civilization that once flourished on this very domain. The Egyptians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians are widely regarded as the giants of the ancient world, and each had a hand in shaping the cultural landscape of what is today modern Turkey, yet the Hittites themselves were at one time as powerful as any of them – perhaps even more so. If Ark Raider’s Anatolian Tiger is in some way connected to these ancient peoples, I want to know how.

As far as most people are concerned, the only Hittites of note were the biblical characters of Uriah and Bathsheba, a warrior in King David’s army, and his wife, respectively. The love triangle between these characters conspired to bring about King David’s downfall, and while this biblical account makes for exciting reading, it is preposterous to think that Ark Raider’s Anatolian Tiger could in any way be linked to the line of the King of the United Kingdom of Israel. The only plausible connection to be made concerns the historical Hittites, the former lords of Anatolia.

My originally planned journey is no longer of consequence; I understand now that my task is to unravel this mystery, and discover the clues to whose blood courses through the tiger’s veins. In short, I must know who had the greatest bloodline of all. I order a fresh pot of coffee, flip to a fresh page in my notebook, and dip my pen in ink. The first lines in the sand have been drawn.

THE BIRTH OF THE TIGERS

The inhospitable terrain of the Anatolian steppe had been home to various peoples for millennia, but the Hittites were the first to lay the foundation of an empire. Hattusa sat at the core of this empire, a strategic stronghold that grew powerful enough to rival the great Egyptians under the leadership of Suppiluliuma I. The royal line of the Hittite kings was considered by many to be divine; these kings sent consorts to far-flung reaches of the empire to spread royal blood and expand the sphere of empirical influence. The ultimate goal of many Hittite kings was to inject Anatolian blood into the Egyptian line of pharaohs. The Egyptians, fearful of the emergent Hittite power after the death of Pharoah Akhenaten in 1336 BCE left the Egyptian line of succession in question, facilitated a covenant to marry the Pharaoh’s widow to one of Suppiluliuma I’s sons. The widow Dakhamunzu, commonly referred to as Nefertiti today, sought to unite the two titans and create the most powerful bloodline the world had ever known. The Assyrians, fearful of this union as a portent of their own downfall, assassinated Prince Zannanza, Suppiluliuma I’s son, and began a campaign of purging Anatolia of Hittite royal blood. The Hittites were enraged; they had long sought an ally with the strength and resources of the Egyptians, and had they succeeded in marrying Zannanza to Dakhamunzu, the next Pharaoh of Egypt would have been a Hittite, and the Hittite line would have changed history forever. Bound by blood, the unified kingdoms would have been able to defeat any army and conquer any territory.

The Hittites struck back at the Assyrians. Strong, disciplined, resourceful, and technologically advanced for the age – the Hittites also had a number of great pyramids in their capital city, but they didn’t brag about them like the Egyptians did – the Hittites engaged in a long campaign against the Assyrians that would weaken their overall power and crack the very foundation of Hattusa – and the Empire. Mursili II, another son of Suppiluliuma I, took the reins of the empire’s mighty chariots – the most feared weapon of war at the time – and dealt a blow to Assyria that was severe and devastating. Bolstered by his triumph, Mursili II sought to reclaim great swaths of Hittite land, spreading his armies thin in the process, though he did manage to send emissaries into the Greek territory of Achae in an effort to inject Hittite blood into the Hellenic lines.

Mursili II and future Hittite kings would war with the other great empires for control of Kadesh, an eastern Mediterranean littoral that had held strategic importance for hundreds of years. The Hittites engaged in open battle against the Egyptians and the legendary Ramses II for control of Kadesh in what was the greatest chariot battle ever fought, while at the same time the Assyrians assailed their flanks. With many soldiers engaged in campaigns in remote outposts of the empire, the Hittites were ill equipped for battle on two fronts. Though they defeated the Egyptians at Kadesh, the Hittites were weakened, and they had no choice but to sign a treaty with Ramesses II; this treaty, the first of its kind, was signed in 1259 BCE and ended more than 200 years of battling over Mediterranean territories between the Hittites and the Egyptians. Hattusili III, a son of Mursili I and king of the Hittites, signed the treaty and wed one of his daughters to Ramesses II. The Egyptians aided the Hittites in their campaign against the Assyrians, and for a time it seemed as though the empire would again flourish, and the great kings of the Anatolian steppe would finally see one of their own rule over the Egyptian Empire as great pharaoh.

Proud, powerful, and headstrong, the future kings of the Hittites spilled as much blood as they spread, as Hattusili III’s sons Tudhaliya IV and Suppililumas II struggled to defend the empire from emergent threats. In the end, it was Hattusa’s remote location that would doom the empire; for ages Hattusa existed as the paragon of strategic military defense, cut off from the rest of the world, impervious to attacks from the sea – the closest major river was hundreds of miles away – and protected by one of the ancient world’s most formidable defensive perimeters. Yet this isolation meant that Hattusa’s supply lines were always vulnerable; the enemies of the empire took notice, and they struck hard. The Assyrian’s pushed deep into Hittite territory while the Phrygians and Kaskas attacked supply lines and trade routes. Hattusa was razed in 1175 BCE, and the last Hittite king’s blood was spilled on the soil of the steppe.

Though the empire had fallen, Hittite kings had succeeded in injecting royal blood into Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian lines; numerous Hittite vassal states were also infused with royal blood. The suddenly mighty Phrygian Empire was also linked to the Hittite through King Gordias, founder of the Phrygian capital Gordium. Historians disagree on accounts of the king’s lineage, but most concede that he had a son named Midas, who donated a great throne to the Oracle of Delphi. King Midas himself had strong Greek ties, but doomed his own line when he accepted the gift of the golden touch from the satyr Silenus. Under the vain and treacherous Midas, the Phrygian line destabilized and disintegrated. Over time the historical and mythical versions of Gordias and Midas have fused into one rich, multi-layered lyrical tapestry, where truth is little more than the thread that binds the narrative together. Whether it was the golden touch that doomed the Phrygian Empire, or the rise of the Cimmerians, or the renewed vigor of the powerful Assyrians that hastened their downfall, the Hittite bloodline was, by all historical accounts, wiped clean from the ancient slate. By the time Hellenistic powers were rising in Anatolia and Alexander the Great was conquering the world, blood that had flowed for centuries had ceased to ebb.

- flash

Asian Geographic: Spanning Space and Time

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012

Now and then I post tearsheets from my portfolio online, but those tearsheets are frequently low-resolution copies that are difficult to read. I thought I’d start posting some of my articles in a format that won’t strain your peepers. 

This article comes from Asian Geographic, Issue 7, 2012: Bridges.

I’ve included the article as it appears in the magazine, as well as my original text.

 ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012

ASIAN Geographic - Issue 07 2012

SPANNING SPACE AND TIME

By Flash Parker

The world is full of astonishing bridges. Some are famous, some are infamous, and countless others attract no attention at all. Millions of tourists visit the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco each year, but how many of them have ever heard of Japan’s Kintai Bridge, a 17th Century marvel that offers stunning views of Mt. Yokoyama and an ancient castle from atop its sturdy wooden arches? Folks the world over have heard that the London Bridge is falling down, but where were they when the Kutai Kartanegara Bridge in Indonesian Borneo crumbled into the Mahakam River?

Travelers embark upon the great train journeys of Europe, the thrilling hikes of Africa, and the serendipitous highway adventures of America, yet few ever consider crossing a continent bridge by bridge. Asia in particular is home to countless bridges that act as a sort of historical connective tissue, linking culture, politics, and economics across physical spaces. Without them there would be no way to get from Point A to Point B, while the journey from the tropical waters of the Laccadive Sea to the frigid tundra of Siberia wouldn’t be nearly as fun. On a trip from Sri Lanka’s southern tip to the Russian port city of Vladivostok, these are some of the bridges that can’t be missed.

Adam’s Bridge, Sri Lanka-India

Adam’s Bridge isn’t just another border crossing. Hindu’s believe that the bridge was built by Lord Hanuman and his Vanara ape army at the behest of Lord Rama; the Vanara used the bridge to cross from India into Lanka to retrieve Sita, Rama’s consort, from Ravana, the king of Lanka who sought vengeance from Rama for disfiguring his sister, Surpanakha. In the Indian epic Ramayana, Adam’s Bridge is known as Setubandhanam, or Rama’s Bridge. Some of the most famous bridges in the world were built to serve a tactical purpose, but Adam’s Bridge holds the rare distinction of being built by militant monkeys.

Adam’s Bridge spans a distance of roughly 30 kilometers, and seems like an ancient engineering feat on par with the construction of the Pyramids of Giza, but has more in common with Mount Olympus. Geological evidence suggests that Adam’s Bridge is a loose collection of shoals and sand and is more than 3,000 years old, born of a series of natural phenomena. The bridge links Rameswaram Island in India to Sri Lanka’s Mannar Island, and, in a feature unique to bridges throughout the world, has served to hinder more transportation than it has helped. Adam’s Bridge was passable on foot for a few hundred years, but sometime in the 15th Century, a cyclone slammed the shoals and destroyed parts of the bridge. The shallow waters of the Palk Strait have made navigable passage difficult for all but tiny skiffs captained by pearl fishermen, but in contrast to their monkey counterparts, human engineers conquered the strait in the mid-20th Century when they build a rail-and-ferry system that transported passengers all the way from Chennai to Colombo. That bridge was destroyed by a cyclone in 1964, while politicking, civil war, and natural disasters have conspired to wreak havoc on Adam’s Bridge ever since. While bridges are constantly being built and crumbling, Adam’s Bridge may cease to exist altogether in the near future, as plans are currently being drawn that would see the strait dredged in order to allow large commercial shipping vessels access to India. Better start your journey.

The Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge, Tibet-Nepal

The Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge stands tall at upon the planet’s apex, overlooking China, Tibet, and Nepal. The bridge was built as part of a joint effort to link Kathmandu with Tibet at a time when Sino-Nepalese relations were strong, and tensions between Beijing and Delhi were high. The bridge was finished in 1967, though by that time trade relations between Nepal and China had cooled (China became involved in the construction of the bridge under the pretense of providing aid), and Kathmandu would reap no rewards for its tremendous efforts in building the highway to Lhasa and the Friendship Bridge. However, the bridge has always held extreme tactical significance for China, as it serves to link two Chinese military installations to one another. How’s that for amity tactics?

As China has eased restrictions on trade, the bridge has been used as a conduit for aid, resources, and tourism. Surprisingly, the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge is a popular place for bungee jumpers who don’t mind staring the icy waters of the Bhote Kosi River square in the face. The bridge has also become important among Tibetan pilgrims, who use the highway to reach Lhasa, and is noted for its scenic beauty – it is possible to glimpse Mount Everest from the highway, in addition to the peaks of some of the other highest mountains in the world. The bridge cuts a striking figure as its blue steel connects one mountain to the next, the river raging below. Few bridges on earth can rival the Sino-Nepal Friendship Bridge for scenic beauty, while fewer have been built under such falsely magnanimous circumstances.

Tajik–Afghan Friendship Bridge, Afghanistan-Tajikistan

A bucket list of adventurous journeys often includes trekking up and down the world’s tallest mountains, fording crocodile-infested waters in weather-beaten canoes, or traversing sun-scorched desert terrain in search of a glimmering oasis. Bridges seldom make lists compiled by the adventurous, yet when a bridge connects one of the most dangerous places on earth in Afghanistan with one of the poorest in Tajikistan, the crossing of it suddenly seems rife with adventure.

The Tajik-Afghan Friendship Bridge connects Northern Afghanistan with the city of Khorugh in Tajikistan by crossing the Amu Darya River, providing a physical link between some of Central Asia’s starkest alien moonscapes. The bridge was built in 2004 at a cost of $500,000 USD as a result of cooperation between the Afghan and Tajik governments, in addition to the Aga Khan Development Network, opening a much-needed gateway to a region desperate for aid, relief, and social assistance. Additionally, the bridge has greatly improved commercial and trade links between the two nations. The 135-meter suspension bridge was built over difficult mountain terrain, and stands as something of a modern engineering achievement, considering a nearby bridge spanning the Panj River was built in 2007 at a cost of more than $30 million USD. Hitching a ride on a forest green Turkmen Railways locomotive and rumbling across the galvanized steel bridge as men in ushanka hats wave at heavily armed military personnel hunkered behind sandbagged turrets as a sign welcomes the uninitiated to Afghanistan certainly belongs on any courageous traveler’s itinerary.

Can Tho Bridge, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

A cross continental journey wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Mekong Delta, perhaps the most iconic representation of South East Asia for an entire generation of men and women. The delta conjures visions of fisherman hauling nets off the sea floor, endless swathes of rice paddies, and Mekong moonshine. And since 2010, one of the most stunning bridges ever built.

At a cost of $342.6 million USD, the Can Tho Bridge is by far Vietnam’s most expensive, but it is also one of the most aesthetically stunning bridges ever erected in Asia. The bridge is 2.75 kilometers long, has space for six lanes of traffic, and has more than 40 meters of clearance which allows large sea vessels to pass underneath. The bridge is viewed by many as a testament to Vietnam’s explosive growth and financial successes over the last three decades, and is also an achievement in industrial design; some consider the bridge as beautiful as anything ever built in Europe or the Americas, with its two massive white towers shining brightly at night against the dark blue sky.

The cable-stayed bridge suffered a catastrophic accident on September 26, 2007, when a section of ramp fell more than 30 meters to the ground, killing more than 50 of the 300 engineers and laborers working under the structure. The local community rallied together to assist wounded survivors and search for the bodies of the fallen. The completed bridge now stands as a memorial to the dead, and a testament to what individuals can achieve when they band together.

Tumangang Rail Bridge, North Korea-Russia

In 1952 North Korea and Russia connected the Russian town of Khasan with the Korean town of Tumangang via a wooden rail bridge that spanned the Tumen River, ignoring all standard conventions of industrial design in the process. The Koreans wanted their half of the bridge to be the tallest. The Russians wished for the same. Locked in a perpetual pissing match of international scale, engineers built each half of the bridge independently, without consulting their cross-border contemporaries. The resulting monstrosity was a mismatched iron gangway that stood a few feet taller on the Russian side, and featured a break-of-gauge that rendered the bridge all but useless. Meanwhile, the Chinese were angry that the bridge had not been built tall enough to allow their commercial fleet access to the Sea of Japan – the bridge had been built at a point along the river where the three borders converge – effectively blocking Chinese access to the east. Leave it to the North Korean military regime to build a useless, hideous bridge in the middle of nowhere that served only to piss off the two most powerful nations in the region.

In 1959 the Tumangang Bridge was upgraded with metal trusses so that it would be able to service both road and rail traffic, though it was never officially opened to commercial or civilian vehicles. The bridge remains the only serviceable land connection between Russia and North Korea, its rusted steel trusses strike an awkward, imposing figure as it juts out over the river. Assuming that you can get into North Korea in the first place (Americans and South Koreans need not apply) crossing this bridge en route to the Russian port city of Vladistovstock serves as the final exclamation point on the great Asian bridge expedition. Another notch on your belt would have you crossing the Bridge of No Return that spans the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, between North and South Korea, though legally crossing that border poses a unique set of challenges. Best to stick with the Tumangang, Asia’s quirkiest bridge.

A journey from one corner of Asia to the other by way of the continent’s most unique bridges proves that these structures have not been erected over physical space alone, but time, history, and culture. They are embedded in the minds and the milieu of the spaces they inhabit, and offer a fascinating glimpse at the way people live, move, and wander. Most important of all, bridges show us that the world isn’t nearly as big as we think it is; if we can travel from the southern tip of Sri Lanka all the way to Vladivostok by way of this bridge or that bridge, we may be more connected to one another than we ever dreamed.

Project 366: Week 1

I’ve neglected my blog for a while now, but only because I’ve been working on 101 different things. Like shooting to pay the bills and keep the water hot. I don’t know if you know this about me, but I hate taking cold showers in the dark. Hate it.

One of the things I’ve been working on is a personal project that, in a lot of ways, is designed to help me in my professional work. That’s the idea behind my Project 366, at any rate, and so far it has been quite a bit of fun. Time will tell if real life gets in the way of completing this thing, or if I suddenly get interested in something else (Hot Yoga is a contender), but I don’t foresee any significant breaks in the action for the next little while.

Rather than wait to break down each photo at the end of the week, I’ve been including detailed walkthroughs with my posts on flickr and Facebook. Going forward, I’m only going to be including the info on the Facebook images – so hit the link to my page, LIKE said page, and follow along, if you feel so inclined.

I’ve had a lot of fun with this project so far – and there’s plenty of gooey goodness ready to see the light of day. I have a few alternate versions and supplemental material to go through as well.

The Story.
Back in February I started work on a project. The genesis of that project was to craft a workbook of my favorite lighting designs, and to push myself to try new techniques. I wanted to do something that would keep me busy in the dead of winter and while I wasn’t on assignment, but it grew and grew and grew… and left me with this mess.

And thus this Project 366 was born.  The goal is to use, shape, mod and mold light 366 different ways. It’s an ambitious goal, and I can tell you from time to time I stumble. Sometimes I fall flat on my face. Not every one of the images included are world-beaters, but then some of them never were designed to be. I’ve held back from posting this for quite some time because I wanted to make sure that I could see it through – if I’m out shooting all day on assignment, sometimes the last thing I want to do is come home and shoot some more. But I did it, all for the sake of light. And now I’m going to share it.

 

USA_96681x

USA_96738-2x2

USA_96888x2

USA_96863x

USA_97016x_pp2

USA_97146-3x-2

USA_97190-2x-3

An Approach to Portraits – Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE – THE CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT

“I don’t want to get into someone’s face with my camera. It feels weird to me. I much prefer to shoot them from far away, with a telescopic lens or something. I don’t want to invade their privacy. I think it’s better to take pictures of people when they don’t know you’re doing it. That’s how I would take travel portraits.”

- a traveler in Laos.

I’ve been playing this quote over in my mind time and again for a long time. In fact, I’ve thought about it every time I’ve made a portrait since I heard it back in October of 2011. What’s fascinating to me about that quote, about the rationale behind it, is that it runs totally counter to everything I believe in as a photographer. It runs counter to the way I work. But it’s not wrong – in fact, there are many obvious merits to conducting yourself in that manner.

I decided I would spend a little time discussing my own view on shooting portraits when I travel, how I got comfortable putting people in front of my lens, how I make people comfortable in front of the lens, my own views on the best way to approach someone at random, and how I work with people in a controlled environment, whether I know them or not.

The Quote.

Let’s go back to Laos.

From my observations and conversations with photographers I’ve met on the road, I believe that this attitude stems, in general, from a lack of confidence in shooting portraits of people. This isn’t a surprising thing – how many of us are really comfortable talking to strangers? How many of us are really comfortable talking to strangers when there is virtually zero chance that they’re going to understand what we’re saying to them, and vice versa? It’s much easier to sit back, watch the world unfold, and pick your photographic spots, for lack of a better term. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this approach. We’ve all seen beautiful images of people taken by photographers whom did not make their presence known or felt. I do it myself, and I do it frequently. Below are just a few examples of the sort of images that traveler was talking about.

India_89407

Laos_74045-2

SriLanka_87781-2

Myanmar_81482-6

What these frames have in common is that they do in fact feature people. But I wouldn’t necessarily call any of them a portrait. The subjects were largely unaware of my presence in each of the four cases. Now, don’t get me wrong – I like these frames, and I shoot this way all the time. In fact, shooting people in this manner is a great way to learn how to incorporate people into your pictures without the hassle of getting up close and person. However, a picture of a person is not the same as a portrait. So, how do we get from A to B? How to we transition from shooting pictures with people to shooting portraits?

Let’s step back for a moment. What is a portrait?

A portrait is generally considered to be a representation of a person in which their personality, disposition, likeness, and/or attitude is put on display. By definition, a portrait showcases engagement between the photographer/viewing audience and the subject. The subject is usually – but not always – photographed looking at the camera.

Photographers utilize a variety of portrait styles and techniques. Some are self-explanatory, like headshots, street portraits, and self-portraits. Others we’ll touch on in this guide – like the all-important environmental portrait.

A travel portfolio is not complete without images of the people that inhabit a place. If I’m going to North Korea, I want images of Kim Jong-Il riding an eagle while swinging a golf club. If I’m going to Cuba, I want pictures of Mark Cuban. A travel portfolio that isn’t packed with portraits is one that is incomplete, in my humble opinion. But how does a photographer go about breaking down the walls of timidity and insecurity? How does a photographer build his confidence behind the lens, and keep his subject engaged in front of it?

Get Comfortable At Home.

The key to getting comfortable behind the camera is patience and practice. When I started out I was awful nervous with someone in front of my camera; I often felt like I was going too slow, like I was wasting my subject’s time, like I didn’t even really know what I was doing. I worked my way through those problems by practicing. I practiced with people who would be forgiving and more than a little understanding – my friends and my family. I learned a few things about people back in those early days: I learned that most people enjoy having their photo taken (who doesn’t like attention? It’s flattering); most people will allow you however much time you need to get the photo you want (within reason… though there have been times when I have gone on and on long beyond reason); most people have never really had a real portrait made, and they’ll totally want to see your work.

USA_104931

If there’s no one around to shoot, try turning your camera on yourself. Test your own patience for a while. I frequently practice new techniques on myself before employing them in the field – that way I’m free to focus on craft and technique, and I don’t have to worry about working out the kinks with someone else in front of my camera.

—–

Back to work with people.

Just remember that your subject will feed off of your energy. If you seem nervous behind the camera, there’s a good chance that they are going to be nervous too (unless your subject is a professional model or someone used to having a camera pointed in their direction for hours on end). Even if you are uncomfortable or nervous, it is to your benefit to hide it. Make a little small talk. Crack a few jokes. There is nothing more awkward than a quiet photographer. It seems like little more than common sense – talk to the people you’re taking pictures of – but it is rather common to see photographers get locked in on what they’re doing and forget about the people they’re doing it to. Make every shoot seem like an event, like you’re out to have a good time. Since you’re already in a controlled environment, make it your own. Throw on some music. Have a drink. Relax. Build a rapport with the person on the other end of your lens, and your images will benefit from it.

Take a break.

Whether you’re working with one person for a few minutes or a group of people over an extended period of time, don’t forget to take a break. Give the person you’re shooting a few moments to relax. Show them the images you’ve been making, and help them get excited about what’s to come. Ask for their input. Ask them if there’s anything they’d like to try. In my experience, an engaged subject is a happy subject is a willing subject. If their ideas are insane or silly, just roll with it. Your ideas probably seemed insane or silly when you first explained them. All these factors combined will help put your subject at ease, and they’ll help you to relax. It’s a bonus if you can actually make some decent pictures, but we’ll deal with that later.

Never underestimate the importance of the controlled environment – whether it’s a studio, your backyard, or a fantastic new location you’re visiting for the first time. When you control the environment, you control the variables – this is your opportunity to experiment, play around, hone your craft, and help you relax behind the camera.

Be prepared.

Creating portraits is different from shooting people on the street. It’s different from street photography too, but that’s a whole other ballgame. It pays to be prepared, especially if you’re just getting your feet wet. When I set up a portrait session with someone, I go into that session with an idea of the style of photos I want to create, the light I want to use, and the environment I want my subject in. I even have an idea of the kind of poses I want my subjects to be in; believe it or not, most people have no idea what to do in front of the camera, and if you don’t push, pull, or prod them into the position you want them in, they’re likely to stand there looking at you with a dull expression on their face. If you’re a 16-year-old girl and you plan on washing out the colors and adding some faux film effects to your pix, you can probably pull this look off. For everyone else, it pays to plan ahead.

The bottom line: control your environment. A big part of control is preparation, which we’ll cover in-depth in the fourth part of this guide. Check back for that in a few days – I plan on including a full play-by-play of how I get ready for a location shoot.

Move quickly, and carry a light stick.

You can’t shoot portraits if you don’t have your gear handy. Toss your camera into a bag, and keep it in your car, on your handlebars, or in your backpack. Bring it out at family functions, dinner parties, picnics, wherever or whenever you’ll be around people that you’re comfortable with. Shoot these people, shoot them often, and work on your craft. Find a style that works for you, then try techniques that are new to you. If you keep your gear close, chances are that there will be someone nearby ready and willing to have their picture taken. Does it seem a little silly to break out your camera at a family dinner party? Cheesy? Dorky? Sure, but whatever. If you’re getting better, and you’re learning, and people are having fun, who cares? I’d rather feel a little silly and learn something new than not do anything at all.

In part four I’m going to help you build a compact, travel-friendly lighting rig that you can tote around with you anyplace you go. Believe it or not, when you’ve got a few pieces of equipment set up, when you look like you know what you are doing, people will generally give you a little latitude in terms of time and patience. It’s a neat trick, and it works.

Size Matters.

You know what else makes people nervous? Your big, ungainly, awkwardly proportioned camera. Unless you’ve ever had a cinder block shoved in your face, you probably don’t know what it’s like to have a huge DSLR and a mammoth 70-200mm f/2.8 lens pointed at you. If you don’t know how to handle your rig, if your nervousness with someone in front of the camera comes to the fore, that’s only going to be magnified in your subject. One idea is to strip away the size variable – shoot with something smaller. Grab your little point and shoot camera or your cell phone and fire off a few frames. It’ll take the pressure off of everyone – we’re all used to having these things pointed at us, right? With that point and shoot or cell phone, you likely won’t be compelled to shoot 500 frames of the same person. You’ll chase the shot you’re after, and you’ll get it quickly.

I know you’re cringing now. You’re worried about image quality. You’re worried about looking silly shooting portraits of someone on your phone. You’re worried about the gathering dust on your expensive SLR. But an image of a bewildered, confused, and mildly annoyed subject is more worrisome. You need to be comfortable in order to shoot great portraits. Get comfortable any way you can.

A Portrait Session.

Both sets of grandparents were on their way over for dinner. I’ve been working on a family portrait project for well over a year now, and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get a clean, simple portrait of each of them. I knew I would only have enough time to grab them for a quick frame or two, so I did my prep work about an hour before they showed up. I set up one light in a softbox, dragged the rig outside, and put a chair under it. When my grandparents showed up, all I had to do was sit them down in the chair, one by one, and fire away. I controlled the environment. I controlled the variables.

Canada_1392Canada_1387-2Canada_1374-2Canada_1383-2

So  there I was, testing my mettle with my grandparents. I’ve shot them before, I know them pretty well, and I knew exactly what sort of image I wanted to get. I didn’t go to work and waver and waste time – I fired off three frames of each of the four of them – one to test the light and make any adjustments, then a vertical, then a tight horizontal shot. I didn’t even need to crop these frames, because I knew exactly what I wanted.

Could I have messed around and experimented with a bunch of different looks? Yeah, of course! But my primary goal was to get out of this shoot a clean, elegant, timeless portrait – if I had time left over, I could do a few other things. As it happened, the burgers came off the grill just as I clicked the shutter for the last time on my Oma, and this shoot was in the books. But because I knew exactly what I wanted to come away with – never underestimate the importance of your vision – I remained confident, I put my subjects at ease, and I got the job done. There’s always next time to try new things.

You need to try this. If you can’t pull off something under pressure with a member of your own family or one of your friends, how are you ever going to cope in the field, when you’re under the gun, your subject is disgruntled, running late, hates their hair and their shirt, and is going to give you exactly enough time for you to cough, clear your throat, and click the shutter three times?

Chapter One is in the books. In Chapter Two, we’re going to take our act out into the field. Stay tuned.

- flash

The Cover Shot

May 14. That’s the last time I posted a blog.

oops!

Now, the main reason that I haven’t posted is that I’ve been working on this that and another thing, which includes a ton of new content for this space, as well as Flash Light Expeditions. Sure, maybe it sounds silly to say that I’ve been missing from the blog because I’ve been working on content for the blog, but it is what it is, and there’s plenty of good stuff coming.

First and foremost, I want to make a little noise about a contest we’re running in conjunction with the good people at South East Asia Backpacker Magazine. Have you ever wanted to see your photo on the cover of a magazine? Here’s your chance.

Vietnam_26811-2

Calling all Budding Travel Photographers!

As travel writers and photographers, we know that there is no better feeling than the day you get a magazine in the mail and see your work plastered all over it. That’s why we’re giving everyone the chance to see their work in print – on the front cover of South East Asia Backpacker Magazine, no less!

In an exciting partnership with Flash Light Photography Expeditions, the winner of this competition will also get a space on one of their greatly anticipated Thailand photography expeditions. The lucky winner will get to join professional photojournalists Dylan Goldby and Flash Parker as they guide you across white sand beaches, over legendary karst peaks, and into the heart of ancient Thai culture…

Click Here for more information on the contest.

Crossing Signals

Myanmar_81616

I don’t fancy myself a street photographer in the traditional sense. It’s just not a style I have ever been taken by. My editors have never asked me for street images, and I don’t particularly feel like running around shoving my camera into someone’s face in a provocative manner. Not that I have anything against the style – some street photography is interesting and some street photographers are brilliant – but it’s just not for me.

When I shoot a portrait of someone on the street, I look for a connection, however faint or brief it may be, that tells me something about that person, or the place that person inhabits. I don’t look to provoke them just so I can get an “honest” or “authentic” image. In fact, if you were to use those words to reference photography in my presence, I might hit you in the nose with my camera. Yet I digress – all this is a preface.

Wandering around Rangoon last year, we met many people who wanted their picture taken. I didn’t have to try hard to make a connection in most cases – it was often made for me. But in this particular case, a few wires were crossed, and I felt uneasy about the image I had created for quite a while after.

The man in the photo waved at me as we came out of a noodle shop on Sule Pagoda Road. He wanted my attention; I presumed he wanted me to take his picture. People in Rangoon rarely beg or ask for money, so I didn’t think he was after my loose change. As I crouched down and raised my camera, a forlorn look fell upon this man’s face. His shoulder’s sagged and he became one of the saddest people I’ve ever seen. I didn’t think much of it – it reminded me of all those times I was asked to take a photo of a smiling person in Korea, only to see their smile disappear when the camera came out. After I took the photo, the man started tapping on the sign in his little basket. The sign read "”HIV Positive, Help Please,” in English and Burmese. I was shaken up when I read that. I know that Burma has one of the worst HIV problems in all of Asia. I know that people all over the country are struggling mightily with this virus. If I had been shooting photos for a story on public health, this might have been the kind of image I was after. As it stands, I wasn’t shooting a story on public health. I was reminded of a quip my friend Nate Keirn made about shooting disadvantaged people – “War casualties can be seen throughout Cambodia and I consider it hackneyed to take a picture of them. I certainly don’t want to exploit them or gawk at them.” I believe that the same applies in this situation. I try hard to focus on the positive side of place and space when I visit a country – I wasn’t looking to make a statement or capture the brutal reality of the dark side of Burma. I’m careful about what I shoot and what I post because I don’t want to give people the impression that Burma or any other country is dark, dangerous, or vile – truth be told, I could wander around a big city in Canada or the USA and find someone with HIV, take their picture, and make the same case. I’d much rather give people a reason to visit someplace new. I have no interest in warning them away.

That’s why shooting this sort of stuff, without a good reason to do so, makes me uneasy. I would certainly never try and profit commercially from this image, include it in a book, or submit it to one of my editors. This image exists as a part of a larger narrative that I’m currently ill-equipped to explore.

What about you?

Have you ever had to step back and think twice about an image you created? Has something you took a photo of ever kept you up at night?

I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.

- flash