Sunday, 22 April 2012

Goldeneye ... the painter in light and the men who stare at eagles

Copyright: Palani Mohan
Palani Mohan is a dear friend, a top bloke and one of the most talented photographers around. I was planning to go with him on this trip in search of the last Kazakh golden eagle hunters who inhabit the Mongolian Steppe. Fate had other plans for me. Palani has kindly allowed me to use his stunning series of portraits of these hard men with hardscrabble lives and a soft spot for their feathered friends. The modern world is slowly strangling their traditions and they may be the last of their kind, much like the whale hunters of Lamalera we covered together here:

This is a piece I did for Postmagazine (South China Morning Post) about one man's suffering for his art. Please view these images through the prism of what it took to capture them. You can also view his bestselling book Vivid Hong Kong, all shot on an iPhone, here:

“There are three things a real man should have: a fast horse, a hound, and a golden eagle,” according to an ancient Kazakh proverb. Photographer Palani Mohan had a slow jeep, a malfunctioning camera and a golden vision of capturing one of the world’s most unique relationships between man and beast in a way never seen before.

With the depths of unforgiving winter approaching, in temperatures that plummeted to below 35 degrees Celsius at night, Mohan made his way across the Mongolian steppe to the far-flung western border region of Olgii, where the last of Mongolia’s Kazakh nomads still hunt the corsac fox using golden eagles.

He would not be the first or last photographer to go in search of these frost-bitten hardmen, with their wise, lined faces, fox-fur hats and fearsome winged hunting machines mounted upon gloved arms. But in this series of black and white portraits, which largely eschew the action of the hunt in favour of exploring the bond that builds between hunter and raptor, one cannot help but be transfixed by the unique and arresting images obtained. The posed formality of the portraits lends an incongruity that adds to their otherworldly quality.

“This was without a doubt the biggest challenge and the most intense place I’ve ever faced as a photographer,’’ the Australian-born, Hong Kong-based Mohan says. “There is a festival once a year in summer where these guys bring their birds and pose with tourists but I wanted to really spend time with them, live with them in winter. That’s when they hunt because that’s when the fox has its thick winter coat and its reddish fur can be spotted easily by the eagles against the snow cover.’’

Olgii is at the intersection of Russia, China, Mongolia and Kazakhstan. Kazakh nomads have roamed the steppe since the days of Genghis Khan and their ability to hunt with eagles was remarked upon by Marco Polo. The advance of the Russian empire into Kazakhstan two centuries ago swelled their ranks, and when the modern borders were drawn, the Kazakhs found themselves cut off from their homeland and left with little choice but to settle on the arid, wind-scoured plains and foothills of the Altai mountain range of western Mongolia.

Mohan visited nine different eagle hunters’ homes, hundreds of kilometres apart, and lived with several of them for days at a time. “For a photographer, the conditions were pretty unforgiving,’’ he notes. “It’s so cold that your batteries freeze up, so you have to sleep with them under your arms to warm them up. The camera lenses get condensation, you’re bundled up in so many layers that you are moving like you’re underwater, and your fingers are constantly numb because you can’t shoot with thick gloves.’’

At night, he slept in the hunters’ crude stone homes, on a bed of planks under stinking yak pelts while yak dung burned in the fireplace, drying horsemeat festooned the rafters and hooded eagles stood frozen on their perches. “They keep the birds hooded when they’re not hunting,’’ he explains. “Otherwise, their instincts are so fine-honed that they will attack anything that moves. In one house, an eagle’s hood fell off, and it attacked and killed the family cat before anyone even realized what had happened.’’

The golden eagle is a perfect predator, capable of killing a wolf, with a wingspan edging two metres, beaks built to rend flesh and talons that kill prey instantly by piercing the heart. “They are the most amazing things,’’ says Mohan. “They look noble, distinguished, just like their masters. And the eyes. Their eyesight is amazing, exponentially better than a human’s and they seem to burn with a real intelligence and ferocity.’’

It was the bond between hunter and eagle that fascinated the photographer. “They all had stories about how they loved their birds more than their wives. There’s even a proverb that if a hunter’s father dies on the day the snow starts to fall, the hunter won’t be at the funeral because he’ll be up in the hills with his eagle. They trap the birds when they are still young and just learning to hunt using nets and meat for bait. And they let them go back into the wild after ten or fifteen hunting seasons, because they feel the bird has done its job and earned its freedom.’’

One hunter he lived with, Ongar Kanbay, 51, was a local legend, with an eagle that had killed 102 foxes in three years. Another, Oraz Khan, 92, had just gone blind and recently ceased hunting, having owned 15 eagles over a 60-year career.

It was Oraz Khan with whom Mohan felt the closest bond, as the stout but wizened sage shared his wisdom over fireside chats and horsemeat meals. Losing one’s sight after a lifetime of profiting from the sharpest eyes on the planet might seem like some great karmic payback or cosmic joke, but the hunter was in good humour and had no regrets.

 “The golden eagle is like no other bird,’’ Khan told him. “They want to be with you. They love you. And they love to kill for you. When the time comes to let them go, it’s the hardest thing a man can ever do.’’


Roads and Kingdoms and Three Cities  ... a tight edit of the longer piece posted here previously. Thanks to Nate Thornburgh and Matt Goulding at Roads and Kingdoms and Liam Fitzpatrick for the brilliant images

Friday, 13 April 2012

Interlude with the Ironman

This is a story I wrote for Tri-Mag, the Hong Kong bible for those who take pleasure in the triple-trio of pain that is the Triathlon. Full disclosure: Eight times Ironman champion Jurgen Zack now works for Thanyapura, a PR client of mine, and this piece was written on their behalf and I wasn't paid by the magazine for it. But I thought it was a decent read on a fascinating chap so onto the blog it goes ... 

Jurgen Zack appears relaxed and happy as he takes a sip from his cappuccino and surveys his kingdom. We are sitting in the organic restaurant and coffee shop that is part of the ambitious Thanyapura project in Phuket, where the legendary ironman and speed chess aficionado is Director of Triathlon at its Sports & Leisure Club.

His pale gaze sweeps languidly across the shimmer of the club’s swimming pool, where some of his charges are churning impressive wakes under a cloudless cobalt sky. He puts his coffee down, contemplates a cookie perched on the saucer, then his head swivels and he looks straight at me for the first time.

For a split second, his eyes blaze with the cool blue fury of a gas flame; intense, laser-like, blinding. It’s like staring into the sun. In a flash, the legend comes to life; here is the ironman  whose steely will and merciless bursts of pace rode roughshod over rivals; the master of mind games and tactics who once represented his native Germany at chess. Picture those eyes locked like tractor beams on the riders ahead, reeling them in, upping the cadence, dropping a gear, and then – swoosh, clank, whir – a blur of carbon fibre and pistoning lycra blows past, heading for the horizon. Behold the ‘Zack Attack’.
The moment passes, he smiles, and the friendly crinkles steal back across his sun-tanned face. Zack demurs when pressed for details about his famed maneouvre and would rather discuss his role at Thanyapura than dwell on past glories. Triathlon aficionados will know the numbers anyway: the extra 10km/h he could summon from his legs to drop flagging rivals, and the 17 times he qualified for Kona, home of Hawaii’s original and brutally punishing Ironman race. The five European Ironman Championships - four of them in a row – and the second quickest Ironman time in history at 7:51:42.
And then there’s his best Ironman bike split: 4:14:14, until 2010 the fastest ever; and a record of fitting symmetry for a man-machine. To achieve it, Zack had to sustain an average speed of 42.35 km/h around all 112 miles (180.25km) of the Klagenfurt, Austria course. Austrian Sebastien Kienle went faster, recording 4:14:07 at Roth in Germany but purists argue the Roth course is notoriously ‘bike short’ and that Zack’s record should stand.

When Zack ceased competing as a professional ironman and triathlete in 2006, an unsettling torpor descended. “I didn’t train at all for quite a while once I stopped racing,’’ he says. “It was a big adjustment.’’ Sports history is littered with sad tales of former heroes who failed to adjust to life outside the limelight. Zack counts himself fortunate to have landed a dream job on the island he believes will become triathlon’s new Mecca.

Today, it might be already. As we speak, the Laguna Phuket Triathlon has just been held, and the following weekend will see the Phuket Ironman 70.3 put athletes from all over the world to the sternest test of all. Many of the sport’s big names are in Phuket, and Thanyapura is buzzing.
“I’m happy to say our triathletes who represented Thanyapura did very well,’’ Zack says. “Frederik Croneberg came fourth in the men’s triathlon, and Katya Rabe was third in the women’s. Also training at our academy is the best Thai triathlete, Jaray Jearanai, who was the first-placed Thai in the race and also became the first Thai to qualified for and finish the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii this year.’’

Zack also counts himself fortunate to have reconnected with his sport in  ways he never imagined. Who, for instance, could see the ‘Zack Attack’ tootling along at 20km/h on a Sunday ride with a plodding peloton of novices and amateurs, having the time of his life? “Actually, it’s something I look forward to all week,’’ he says. “It’s a great social event. We always get 30 or 40 riders, we keep together as a group at a nice steady pace, and no one gets dropped. But once we hit the bridge (that links Phuket to the mainland) on the way back, for the final 20km the race is on, so the top riders still get a high intensity workout.’’

For much of his professional career, Zack based himself in San Diego, California. “That was considered to be the Mecca of triathlon,’’ he says. “I was always looking for the perfect triathlon destination. San Diego is pretty good, but I have to say that Phuket is even better. For triathletes, it’s the perfect place to live and train.’’

Despite an aversion to spicy food and no great interest in Asia, Zack journeyed to Phuket for his first triathlon in 1997 and says he fell in love. He became a frequent visitor, and at one point donned a backpack and spent months traipsing around the country in a bid to “get to know the real Thailand.’’
When German entrepreneur and the visionary behind Thanyapura, Klaus Hebben, invited Zack to Thanyapura last year, the former champion says he was skeptical. “I thought, well, it can’t be that big. In Phuket? It’s probably just a swimming pool with a locker room. And then I saw the facilities. Wow. Then I understood the vision, and that’s when it hit me that Phuket could become the world’s premier triathlon training base.

“Look at this place. All the facilities are world class. We’ve got the Olympic standard 50m pool, a 500m Tartan running track, an almost 1,000 sq m gym. We have a nice sports hotel and we’re building a bigger one, which will open in a few months. And the facilities for the other academies are at the same level – championship tennis courts, full-size rugby and soccer pitches with professional standard locker rooms.’’

The Sports and Leisure Club is part of a bigger vision. Thanyapura’s 23 hectare campus, located in the natural amphitheatre of a national park on the island’s north-eastern coast, also includes an international school and the Thanyapura Mind Centre. Beyond the campus, Thanyapura also offers a chic Beach Club and the award-winning Thanyamundra eco-retreat, a five star organic resort in Khao Sok national park.

Thanyapura, Zack explains, is pioneering a holistic approach to sports, wellness, education and spiritual development. With upwards of US$100 million invested to date, the vision is fast becoming a reality. “I’ve competed all over the world, and I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ Zack says. “Thanyapura really is unique and triathletes all over the world are talking about us.’’

Its three centres work closely and adopt a cross-disciplinary approach. Zack says he finds the work of the Mind Centre intriguing, given the increasing importance afforded sports psychology and visualizing success as part of training elite athletes.

Phuket’s climate also offers athletes a boost. “Even in the rainy season, there are very few days where you can’t get out for a ride or a run,’’ he said. “I investigated all the bike rides and the running loops and they are way better than what I expected of roads in Thailand. From our campus, further north, east and across the bridge to the mainland has some amazing rides.’’

Zack says island life has lifted his own mood and filled him with fresh enthusiasm. “I am amazed. I feel so fit now. After not training at all for years, I think I’ve missed maybe one day in the last three months. I’m leading a daily training program. We have a Monday run, Tuesday is a bike ride, Wednesday is a swim in the morning, open water, and a track session for running. Thursday is bike, run, Friday is run, swim, and on Saturday we do a long high tempo ride at a fast pace.’’

He becomes increasingly animated as he recounts this litany of pain and suffering. The fire in his eyes ignites again. The ‘Zack Attack’ is back.

Friday, 6 April 2012

How very Pinteresting

I love Pinterest. You might too. It's eye candy, a snapshot of how your mind works and what matters, and a procrastination gadget to rival Facebook. I'll show you mine if you show me yours ...

Monday, 2 April 2012

Bamboozling sex life of kung fu pandas

A version of this appeared recently in the South China Morning Post. Respun and revved up for the bloggy-wog.

Hong Kong’s superstar pandas are randy. Ying Ying and Le Le have been seen batting big black goo-goo eyes at each other and generally getting jiggy in their Ocean Park love shack.

This is news because pandas are not nature’s porn stars. They are shy, coy and rarely mate in captivity, eschewing the libidinous lewdness of, say, bonobo chimps and humans. There is no Panda Craigslist, awash with importunate urgings and sad pleas of perversion. Pandas don’t whack off in their cages, hump the nearest object or toss scat at each other. They are gentle souls, the animal kingdom’s slackers and sofa surfers, laid back in every sense. The three-toed sloth, should he creep by, would raise a gnarled paw in slow-motion salute to a kindred spirit. For the panda, life doesn’t get any better than lolling about, munching bamboo shoots.

The fact that pandas exist, however, is evidence that from time to time they do answer nature’s call to mate. So the kind folks at Ocean Park recently closed the panda exhibit for three days after Ying Ying, the female, reached what zoo experts termed “the peak of her estrus’’. Alas, this was to be no Last Tango for Pandas. Le Le failed to deliver the yang for Ying Ying’s yin, even when she brought out the kinky stuff, including “increased water play’’ and “bleating’’.

“They responded well to each other and unclose (sic) interactions have been observed from the pair. Unfortunately no successful mating behaviours have been observed,’’ said a zoo panda handler.

As a married man, I know a thing or two about unsuccessful mating behaviours. Le Le has my sympathies. While Ying Ying was shaking her substantial money-maker and oozing estrus, Le Le was most likely fretting over the male panda’s famously small equipment, pondering his bad press and pining for springy length of bamboo.

News of the thwarted coupling prompted sad, knowing smiles in Thailand, where the Chiang Mai Zoo's most famous guests, Lin Hui and Chuang Chuang, became overnight soap opera stars following the launch of a 24-hour Panda Channel.

Absenteeism soared and productivity plummeted as a nation was transfixed by each new plot twist. Chuang Chuang, the male, was pronounced 'too heavy' and put on a low carb diet. Zoo staff screened 'Panda porn’ clips of successful matings. But nothing worked ... and no wonder. They could have tossed him tabs of panda Viagra, lined his cage with satin sheets, bought him a studded collar and stuck a mirror on the ceiling: the poor fellow would still have been pinching his love handles and pouting.

Artificial insemination succeeded where nature failed. The birth of Linping in 2009 saw panda-monium, panda-mania and other bad panda puns reach a peak. If Linping’s birth almost ruined Thailand, the cub's early years sparked a spectacular revival. Zoo visits doubled, along with toy makers' profits. Panda fans queued in all weather and often for hours to get a glimpse of the famous family.

Should Le Le get lucky, Hong Kong might one day have its own bouncing panda cub. Enjoy the bonanza. Take the ride. But not too far: in Bangkok, hawkers recently began flogging ceramic pandas with Hitler moustaches in “Sig Heil’’ poses. The international opprobrium was instant, and a bearish backlash began.

Surely this faux paw will be a wake up call for Hong Kong’s panjandrums. Learn from Thailand's mistakes. Drop the pressure. Ditch the love shack. Don't rush down the slippery slope of 'panda porn' and cable channels. Do the right thing: it's black and white.