• 001 - the logo.jpg
  • 002 - Hiroshima sunset.jpg
  • 003 - Auschwitz-Birkenau ramp.jpg
  • 004 - Chernobyl contamination.jpg
  • 005 - Darvaza flaming gas crater.jpg
  • 006 - Berlin Wall madness.jpg
  • 007 - Bulgaria - monument at the bottom of Buzludzhy park hill.jpg
  • 008 - Ijen crater.jpg
  • 009 - Aralsk, Kazakhstan.jpg
  • 010 - Paris catacombs.jpg
  • 011 - Krakatoa.jpg
  • 012 - Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Hanoi.jpg
  • 013 - Uyuni.jpg
  • 014 - DMZ Vietnam.jpg
  • 015 - Colditz Kopie.jpg
  • 016 - Glasgow Necropolis.jpg
  • 017 - Hashima ghost island.jpg
  • 018 - Kazakhstan.jpg
  • 019 - Arlington.jpg
  • 020 - Karosta prison.jpg
  • 021 - Kamikaze.jpg
  • 022 - Chacabuco ghost town.jpg
  • 023 - Eagle's Nest, Obersalzberg, Berchtesgaden.jpg
  • 024 - Kursk.jpg
  • 025 - Bran castle, Carpathia, Romania.jpg
  • 026 - Bestattungsmuseum Wien.jpg
  • 027 - Pripyat near Chernobyl.jpg
  • 028 - Sedlec ossuary, Czech Republic.jpg
  • 029 - Pyramida Lenin.jpg
  • 030 - Falklands.jpg
  • 031 - Majdanek.jpg
  • 032 - Soufriere volcano, Montserrat.jpg
  • 033 - moai on Easter Island.jpg
  • 034 - Sidoarjo.jpg
  • 035 - Hötensleben.jpg
  • 036 - Natzweiler.jpg
  • 037 - Polygon, Semipalatinsk test site, Kazakhstan.jpg
  • 038 - Srebrenica.jpg
  • 039 - Liepaja, Latvia.jpg
  • 040 - Vemork hydroelectric power plant building, Norway.jpg
  • 041 - Enola Gay.jpg
  • 042 - Pentagon 9-11 memorial.jpg
  • 043 - Robben Island prison, South Africa.jpg
  • 044 - Tollund man.jpg
  • 045 - Marienthal tunnel.jpg
  • 046 - Aso, Japan.jpg
  • 047 - Labrador battery Singapore.jpg
  • 048 - Artyom island, Absheron, Azerbaijan.jpg
  • 049 - Treblinka.jpg
  • 050 - Titan II silo.jpg
  • 051 - dosemetering doll, Chernobyl.jpg
  • 052 - Holocaust memorial, Berlin.jpg
  • 053 - Komodo dragon.jpg
  • 054 - cemeterio general, Santiago de Chile.jpg
  • 055 - Tuol Sleng, Phnom Phen, Cambodia.jpg
  • 056 - West Virginia penitentiary.jpg
  • 057 - ovens, Dachau.jpg
  • 058 - Derry, Northern Ireland.jpg
  • 059 - Bulgaria - Buzludzha - workers of all countries unite.jpg
  • 060 - Sachsenhausen.jpg
  • 061 - Tiraspol dom sovietov.jpg
  • 062 - modern-day Pompeii - Plymouth, Montserrat.jpg
  • 063 - Pico de Fogo.jpg
  • 064 - Trinity Day.jpg
  • 065 - Zwentendorf control room.jpg
  • 066 - Wolfschanze.jpg
  • 067 - Hiroshima by night.jpg
  • 068 - mass games, North Korea.jpg
  • 069 - Harrisburg.jpg
  • 070 - Nuremberg.jpg
  • 071 - Mostar.jpg
  • 072 - Tu-22, Riga aviation museum.jpg
  • 073 - Gallipoli, Lone Pine.jpg
  • 074 - Auschwitz-Birkenau - fence.jpg
  • 075 - Darvaza flaming gas crater.jpg
  • 076 - Atatürk Mausoleum, Ankara.jpg
  • 077 - Banda Aceh boats.jpg
  • 078 - AMARG.jpg
  • 079 - Chacabuco ruins.jpg
  • 080 - Bucharest.jpg
  • 081 - Bernauer Straße.jpg
  • 082 - Death Railway, Thailand.jpg
  • 083 - Mandor killing fields.jpg
  • 084 - Kozloduy.jpg
  • 085 - Jerusalem.jpg
  • 086 - Latin Bridge, Sarajevo.jpg
  • 087 - Panmunjom, DMZ, Korea.jpg
  • 088 - Ijen blue flames.jpg
  • 089 - Derry reconsilliation monument.jpg
  • 090 - Ebensee.jpg
  • 091 - Mödlareuth barbed wire.jpg
  • 092 - skull heaps in Sedlec ossuary, Czech Republic.jpg
  • 093 - Nikel.jpg
  • 094 - Fukushima-Daiichi NPP.jpg
  • 095 - Tital launch control centre.jpg
  • 096 - Dallas Dealy Plaza and Sixth Floor Museum.jpg
  • 097 - Auschwitz I.jpg
  • 098 - Stalin and Lenin, Tirana, Albania.jpg
  • 099 - Malta, Fort St Elmo.jpg
  • 100 - Peenemünde.jpg
  • 101 - Tarrafal.jpg
  • 102 - Kilmainham prison, Dublin.jpg
  • 103 - North Korea.jpg
  • 104 - Mittelbau-Dora.jpg
  • 105 - St Helena.jpg
  • 106 - Stutthof, Poland.jpg
  • 107 - Merapi destruction.jpg
  • 108 - Chueung Ek killing fields, Cambodia.jpg
  • 109 - Marienborn former GDR border.jpg
  • 110 - Mig and star, Kazakhstan.jpg
  • 111 - Nagasaki WWII tunnels.jpg
  • 112 - Hellfire Pass, Thailand.jpg
  • 113 - Kiev.jpg
  • 114 - Grutas Park, Lithuania.jpg
  • 115 - Zwentendorf reactor core.jpg
  • 116 - two occupations, Tallinn.jpg
  • 117 - Trunyan burial site.jpg
  • 118 - Ushuaia prison.jpg
  • 119 - Buchenwald.jpg
  • 120 - Marienthal with ghost.jpg
  • 121 - Murmansk harbour - with an aircraft carrier.jpg
  • 122 - Berlin Olympiastadion.JPG
  • 123 - Bastille Day, Paris.jpg
  • 124 - Spassk.jpg
  • 125 - Theresienstadt.jpg
  • 126 - B-52s.jpg
  • 127 - Bledug Kuwu.jpg
  • 128 - Friedhof der Namenlosen, Vienna.jpg
  • 129 - Auschwitz-Birkenau barracks.jpg
  • 130 - mummies, Bolivia.jpg
  • 131 - Barringer meteor crater.jpg
  • 132 - Murambi, Rwanda.jpg
  • 133 - NTS.jpg
  • 134 - Mauthausen Soviet monument.jpg
  • 135 - pullution, Kazakhstan.JPG
  • 136 - palm oil madness.jpg
  • 137 - Berlin socialist realism.jpg
  • 138 - Okawa school building ruin.jpg
  • 139 - Pawiak, Warsaw.jpg
  • 140 - flying death, military museum Dresden.JPG
  • 141 - KGB gear.JPG
  • 142 - KZ jacket.JPG
  • 143 - ex-USSR.JPG
  • 144 - Indonesia fruit bats.JPG
  • 145 - Alcatraz.JPG
  • 146 - Chernobyl Museum, Kiev, Ukraine.JPG
  • 147 - Halemaumau lava lake glow, Hawaii.JPG
  • 148 - Rosinenbomber at Tempelhof, Berlin.jpg
  • 149 - Verdun, France.JPG
  • 150 - hospital, Vukovar, Croatia.JPG
  • 151 - the original tomb of Napoleon, St Helena.JPG
  • 152 - Buchenwald, Germany.JPG
  • 153 - Bhopal.JPG
  • 154 - Groß-Rosen, Poland.jpg
  • 155 - at Monino, Russia.jpg
  • 156 - blinking Komodo.jpg
  • 157 - inside Chernobyl NPP.JPG
  • 158 - Mount St Helens, USA.JPG
  • 159 - Maly Trostenec, Minsk, Belarus.jpg
  • 160 - Vucedol skulls, Croatia.JPG
  • 161 - colourful WW1 shells.JPG
  • 162 - Zeljava airbase in Croatia.JPG
  • 163 - rusting wrecks, Chernobyl.JPG
  • 164 - San Bernadine alle Ossa, Milan, Italy.jpg
  • 165 - USS Arizona Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.JPG
  • 166 - Brest Fortress, Belarus.JPG
  • 167 - thousands of bats, Dom Rep.JPG
  • 168 - Hohenschönhausen, Berlin.JPG
  • 169 - Perm-36 gulag site.JPG
  • 170 - Jasenovac, Croatia.JPG
  • 171 - Beelitz Heilstätten.JPG
  • 172 - Kremlin, Moscow.jpg
  • 173 - old arms factory, Dubnica.JPG
  • 174 - Pervomaisc ICBM base, more  missiles, including an SS-18 Satan.jpg
  • 175 - Cellular Jail, Port Blair.jpg
  • 177 - control room, Chernobyl NPP.JPG
  • 178 - Podgorica, Montenegro, small arms and light weapons sculpture.jpg
  • 179 - Vught.jpg
  • 180 - Japanese cave East Timor.jpg
  • 181 - Ani.jpg
  • 182 - Indonesia wildfire.jpg
  • 183 - Chacabuco big sky.jpg
  • 184 - Bunker Valentin, Germany.JPG
  • 185 - Lest we Forget, Ypres.JPG
  • 186 - the logo again.jpg

ARCHIVED DT PAGE FROM FACEBOOK: 2017

  
Again, these are recreations of most posts I put on my DT page on Facebook that has been purged (see full story here), and like the 20202019 and 2018 sets it's not 100% complete, for the same reasons (so see the explanation here). And again, the order is reverse chronologically, newest at the top, oldest at the bottom, like it would have appeared on a Facebook feed, but of course you can also go through the posts chronologically by starting at the bottom and scrolling up.
   
More years are linked up here.
  
  
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Friday 29 December 2017 – Wounded Knee
 
  29 12 2017   Wounded Knee, South Dakota
   
On this Day, 127 years ago, on 29 December 1890, The US Cavalry massacred some 200 Lakota Sioux, men women and children – and their chief Big Foot.
   
It happened during the late stages of the so-called “Indian Wars” and was one of the last such atrocities perpetrated against the indigenous population in the “conquest” of the Americas by Europeans. For that reason it stands out in the history of the continent.
  
The actual site of the massacre these days is inside the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and is marked by a plaque.
  
Today's photo was taken at that site and shows the path up to the nearby cemetery, where many of the victims are buried, including Chief Big Foot. Some of the locals don't like it when visitors take pictures within the cemetery, so I'm positing one from the foot of the hill.
  
In the little town of Wall, to the north of Pine Ridge and Badlands National Park, is a small museum about Wounded Knee and the plight of the Sioux. In a shop outside I spotted a T-shirt with a picture of four Sioux with rifles together with the legend “Homeland Security – fighting terrorism since 1492”. Dark sarcasm indeed.
    
The Lakota still have it tough today. The reservation offers hardly any jobs so unemployment is extremely high and poverty widespread. Yet if they moved away to some city to find work that would mean having to leave behind their culture and identity. So either way they lose. We spoke to a Lakota woman at the site and she remarked bitterly “We're like dinosaurs, they want us extinct”.
  
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Wednesday 27 December – grave of Dian Fossey
  
  27 12 2017    graves of Dian Fossey and some of her gorillas, Rwanda
  
On this Day, 32 years ago, in the early hours of 27 December 1985, the dead body of Dian Fossey was found in her cabin in the Virunga Mountains of Rwanda. She had been bludgeoned to death with a machete (ironically also the weapon of choice in the Rwandan genocide less than nine years later).
  
Today's photo shows her grave at her former mountain gorilla research station and cabin, where she was buried next to her favourite gorilla Digit (who had been killed by poachers in 1977).
   
Who had murdered her could never be established. Robbery was ruled out, as none of her valuables were taken. She certainly had made some enemies. But the murder remains a mystery to this day.
   
The legacy of Dian Fossey, though, remains. She brought the threat to mountain gorillas to the attention of the world through her book “Gorillas in the Mist” (later turned into a movie).
   
When I went to Rwanda in 2010/11, the day before I actually went on a gorilla-watching hike, I went on a pilgrimage to the former research post and cabin high up on the slopes of the mountain. This hike was actually more strenuous than next day's gorilla trekking trip. But our small group made it there. We were lucky to have as our guide a veteran of the Virunga National Park team who had known Dian Fossey and worked for her in the 1980s.
  
Of her research station and cabin only traces remain, since the place had been thoroughly looted during the Rwandan genocide of 1994. But the little graveyard is still intact.
   
It was a moving experience being there, which I felt well worth the exhaustion of hours of clambering up through the jungle in ever thinner air (the site is at nearly 3000 metres above sea level). Very memorable. Though seeing the actual gorillas from just a few metres away the next day beats it all. Probably the best wildlife encounter I've ever had.
  
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Tuesday 26 December 2017 – Tranquebar 2004 tsunami memorial
  
  26 12 2017   tsunami memorial, Tranquebar, Tamil Nadu, India
  
Sorry if this is tainting your festive spirit …, but:
   
On this Day, 14 years ago, on 26 December 2004 (“Boxing Day” in most of the anglophone world), the Christmas spirit worldwide was crushed by the news of the Indian Ocean tsunami that followed a massive earthquake under the sea just off the west coast of northern Sumatra, Indonesia.
  
The earthquake was one of the most massive ever recorded, and had a duration that exceeded all records (up to 10 minutes!).
  
However, it was the subsequent tsunami triggered by the seabed faulting that brought the catastrophe not only to Sumatra itself (the worst place hit being the nearby city of Banda Aceh) but to several countries bordering the Indian Ocean. Sri Lanka, Thailand and India were also especially badly hit, and the waves even reached as far as the coast of East Africa.
   
It was the worst natural disaster in recorded history, with a total death toll of at least 230,000, possibly as many as 300,000.
   
Today's photo shows the Tsunami Memorial in the little historic town of Tranquebar in the province if Tamil Nadu in the south-east of India that I visited last winter.
  
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Saturday 23 December 2017 – obviously a Nazi Santa
  
  23 12 2017   obviously a Nazi Santa
  
Christmas Greetings everyone!
  
From tomorrow early in the morning I will away from my desk. Because for the next few weeks I'll be visiting friends and family, first in the UK, then in Germany. During that time I will not be able to post as regularly as normal.
   
I've prepared a few dated posts, so it won't be a complete DT drought until next year, but I'll also be dependent on finding functioning wifi … and time. But hopefully it'll work out.
  
I'll resume more regular posting when I'm back in January.
   
The rather grim-looking Santa in today's photo, giving what looks like the Nazi salute (hence at least appearing a bit dark), was spotted in the marvellous Kandalama Hotel in Sri Lanka in 2006.
  
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Friday 22 December 2017
  
  22 12 2017   Soviet war memorial, Treptower Park, Berlin
  
Photo of the Day: It is now officially winter (astronomically speaking since yesterday afternoon, 4:28pm), so I dug out a snow-covered wintery scene from the DT photo archives.
  
This picture was taken in January 2010 (which was an exceptionally snowy winter) at the Soviet war memorial in Treptower Park in (former east) Berlin.
   
Berlin has three Soviet war memorials, the most famous being close to the iconic Brandenburg Gate. But this one in Treptower Park is the largest and grandest of them all.
   
The blocks of granite lining the field carry Stalin quotes in stonemasonry. At the front of the complex two huge flag-like slabs of red marble frame the scene (the marble was taken from what used to be Hitler's Reichskanzlei).
   
And the centre piece of it all – seen here in the background – is the large statue of a Red Army Soldier, carrying a child (orphan?) in one arm and a sword in the other hand, while his foot rests on a smashed-up swastika. Classic Soviet symbolism and pathos.
  
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Thursday 21 December 2017
  
  21 12 2017   Lockerbie memorial at Arlington
  
On this Day, 29 years ago, on 21 December 1988, Pan Am flight 103 was destroyed in mid-air by a bomb and crashed onto the southern Scottish town of Lockerbie. Hence the incident is also known as the “Lockerbie bombing”.
  
All 243 passengers and 16 crew were killed, plus eleven more in the residential area on the ground that parts of the plane wreck fell onto.
  
The photos of the ripped-off forward section with the cockpit of the Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, which had the romantic name “Clipper Maid of the Seas”, lying on its side looking almost impossibly intact otherwise, became one of the most iconic images of the whole theme of aviation and terrorism.
  
The pictures seen in today's post, on the other hand, shows the humble monument to the victims of the Lockerbie bombing that stands in Arlington cemetery near Washington DC, USA.
  
It's there because the plane had been on a scheduled transatlantic flight to America and the vast majority of passengers (and most of the crew members) were US citizens.
  
Initially, it was unclear who the perpetrators were – and several organizations quickly claimed responsibility. Eventually, however, the finger pointed towards some Libyans, and in 2003 the country's dictator Muammar Gaddafi accepted Libyan responsibility and paid compensation, though he maintained that the attack was not carried out on his orders.
  
Lockerbie also in a way spelled the end of the airline Pan Am. Founded in 1927 it was one of the oldest airlines in the world and at its peak in the 1960s and 70s one of the largest too. But it had already come under financial pressure when Lockerbie dealt a major blow to the airline's reputation, from which it never recovered. Less than three years after the bombing, Pan Am went bankrupt. Subsequent attempts at reviving the Pan Am brand all failed.
  
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Wednesday 20 December 2017
  
  20 12 2017   wild west atmosphere at Chacabuco
  
Photo of the Day: today let's go west, and south – and to warmer climes.
   
This photo exudes a veritable Wild West atmosphere, doesn't it? It was taken at the ghost town of Chacabuco in the lower-lying parts of the Atacama Desert, northern Chile.
   
Chacabuco has featured on this page before – not least because it is so massively photogenic. But just a brief reminder of the dark history:
   
Originally a nitrate mining town, which was abandoned in 1940 when the industry declined, it was re-used as a concentration camp for political prisoners from 1973 to 1974 in the early phase of the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile. After that it was abandoned again. But it has since been preserved and turned into a memorial/heritage site.
   
It is very remote, though, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. But well worth the effort it takes to get there.
  
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Tuesday 19 December 2017, #2 
  
  19 12 2017   Austria exit stamp
  
Follow-up to what I posted Sunday evening. Yesterday, someone I know posted this image and allowed me to reuse it and its associated story, anonymously. It shows the stamp of one of the exit documents of her Jewish grandmother that allowed her to get out of Austria and to safety in Britain. However, she was orphaned when her mother died shortly afterwards, basically from all the stress of fleeing the Nazis. Thus she was left alone, aged 24, in a strange land in the middle of a war, but at least alive. The rest of the family who got stuck in Austria did not survive the Holocaust and were killed in various camps, including this grandmother's sister who was murdered at the death camp of Maly Trostinec, near Minsk, in what is now Belarus.
  
It was when I posted an image from Maly Trostinec in August 2016 that I first heard some indications of this incredible story. This friend had – understandably – trouble looking at that post last summer. Yet again, it's moments like these, when it hits a personal nerve, rather than just being abstract “history”, that I think make you realize how important it is to engage in remembering such sites – and yes, that does include through dark tourism – and all those stories behind them, as far as that is still possible.
   
So I am very grateful to this person, who shall remain anonymous, for a) sharing her family story with me and b) letting me reuse this image. Her point of posting it yesterday was of course the swearing-in of Austria's new government, a coalition of the conservative party and the ultra-far-right, obviously an eerie moment for her, 79 years after these exit documents saved her grandmother's life (but not the rest of the family's). Fingers crossed it won't get that bad this time around.
   
Is there a better way of saying 'lest we forget'?
  
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Tuesday 19 December 2017
  
  19 12 2017   boom!   Stalin Line, Belarus
  
Photo of the Day: a follow-up to yesterday's post.
  
This was also taken at the so-called “Stalin Line” outside Minsk, Belarus, in the summer of 2016. As I explained yesterday, at this strange site, which you could call a “military amusement park”, visitors can pay extra to engage in all manner of activities, including at the shooting range.
  
The latter is actually a bit fake, though. The explosion you see in this photo is actually remote controlled by a guy in a shelter next to the range, so it is not the result of whatever gun some visitor fires. I saw that member of staff replace the charge at always the same spot behind that jeep in between “shots”.
   
Yet in makes a good “boom!” and releases a black plume of smoke, so I guess they're all happy. It's certainly popular. The booming was a regular background noise the whole time I was at this place.
  
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Monday 18 December 2017
  
  18 12 2017   Uncle Jo bust, Stalin Line, Belarus
  
On this Day, 139 years ago, on 18 December 1878, a certain Joseph Dzugashvili (also spelled Ioseb Jughashvili) – better known to the world under his self-adopted name Stalin (meaning Man of Steel) – was born in the town of Gori in Georgia in the Caucasus.
  
Aged 15 he joined a seminary to become a priest. And he excelled at writing poetry … Who would have guessed back then that this boy would become one of the most murderous dictators of the 20 century.
   
But soon after he took control of the Soviet Union following Lenin's death in 1924, he began an unparalleled series of purges within his Party, a ruthless collectivization policy, causing famine and social mayhem, and sent countless political prisoners to the gulags.
  
Yet he also pushed through an ambitious programme of industrialization (partly thanks to the sudden availability of all those forced labourers).
   
And when WWII was won in large parts thanks to the Soviet Red Army, Stalin was the great victor. The cult of personality he engendered was second to none (except perhaps that of the Kims in North Korea or Mao in China).
  
After his death in 1953, his successor Khrushchev embarked on a programme of de-Stalinization and most of the numerous Stalin statues all over the Eastern Bloc were toppled.
  
And yet, the glorification of Stalin never quite went away completely. And in recent years it has even seen a renaissance.
  
One piece of evidence of this can be seen in today's photo: this is a fairly new Stalin bust. I found it near the entrance to the so-called “Stalin Line” in Belarus. That is kind of a military theme park with lots of tanks, missiles, planes and what not on display, and you can watch battle re-enactments and go on rides in tanks, helicopter flights, and try your hand at the shooting range. It's a bit cheesy, the playground approach to military history, really. But clearly fun for whole families, who were out there in droves when I visited the place in the summer of 2016.
   
The name “Stalin Line”, btw., derives from some pre-WWII fortifications that are also preserved at the site. They formed part of a line of bunkers, obstacles, observation points and so on similar to those that had also been constructed elsewhere (e.g. France, Czechoslovakia, etc.), and which all proved pretty ineffective when the new type of warfare the Nazis brought to the battlefields of Europe in WWII showed that technology, mobility, speed, and air superiority were more crucial than fortifications.
  
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Friday 15 December 2017
  
  15 12 2017   Monumentale   come on granny, shove off
  
Photo of the Day: no lengthy history lesson today, just a photo – namely another one from the amazing Monumentale cemetery in Milan, Italy, which I believe is possibly the most fascinating and varied haven of works of sepulchral art anywhere in the world.
   
I've always wondered what this particular group of sculptures is supposed to tell us. It looks worryingly a bit like “come on Granny, shove off, will you?” (and that would be rather un-Italian, wouldn't it?)
   
What do you think?
   
I know it's Friday, when few people get so involved on Facebook, what with Christmas preparation stress and all that, but the odd reaction would be cool.
  
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Thursday 14 December 2017
  
  14 12 2017   shit on Amundsen
  
On this Day: 106 years ago, on 14 December 1911, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. This photo shows his statue in 
   
And why is that dark? Well, it wasn't for Amundsen or his home country Norway, but from a British perspective it left more than just a certain sour taste. That's because it was a British explorer, Sir Robert Falcon Scott, who was set to be the first to reach the South Pole. But then Amundsen, who had originally intended to go to the North Pole that same year, changed his mind and got in late on a competing mission south. He informed Scott by telegram as he was on his way. So, unexpectedly for Scott, suddenly it became a race. Well, sort of. They took different routes from different base camps quite a distance apart, so they never actually met down there in Antarctica.
  
Only when Scott's group finally reached the South Pole over a month after Amundsen they found a tent and marker with the Norwegian flag left by their competitors. They had lost and understandably their spirits were crushed. But much worse than that, it eventually also cost them their lives. Weakened, frostbitten, and without sufficient supplies for their journey back, Scott and his remaining comrades died on 29 March 1912 (two others had already died en route before). So there you go. That's the dark bit.
  
And for many a Brit there remains the feeling that Amundsen hadn't “played fair”. However, thanks to Scott's diary and the dramatic story it told, Scott ended up posthumously the more celebrated hero after all. The book, first published in 1913, became a best-seller.
  
Amundsen, on the other hand, was a man of few words and little is known about him personally or about the emotional details of his expedition to the South Pole.
   
He carried on as a polar explorer in the Arctic and flew the first airship to the North Pole in 1926. Two years later he presumably died when his plane crashed, which was on a rescue mission to find the Italian polar explorer Umberto Nobile, who had himself crashed his airship and got stranded. Nobile was later found and rescued. But neither Amundsen's plane, nor his body were ever found.
  
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Wednesday 13 December 2017
  
  13 12 17   repost from 13 07 16   Saddam Hussein mural, IWM London
  
On this Day, 14 years ago, on 13 December 2003, the former president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was captured. The old dictator, who earned himself the nickname “the Butcher of Baghdad” through his purges, genocidal attacks with chemical weapons on minority communities within his country and for going to war with Iran and invading Kuwait, had disappeared from public view shortly after the US-led invasion of Iraq in the second American Gulf War.
  
The manhunt for Saddam Hussein came to its conclusion in the so-called Operation Red Dawn in the town of ad-Dawr not far from Tikrit in the northern part of the country where he was originally from.
   
When the American task force found him, hiding in a hole under some floorboards, he had grown a long Karl-Marx-like beard. He put up virtually no resistance, was quickly disarmed (he had a pistol, and a Kalashnikov on him) and transported into custody. Later on he was tried and eventually sentenced to death.
   
Today's photo shows a “war trophy”, a typical glorifying mural of the Iraqi dictator, that is now on display at the Imperial War Museum in London.
  
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Tuesday 12 December 2017
  
  12 12 2017   Chelm chalk chambers ghost
  
Photo of the Day: after yesterday's super-dark post let's look at something from the “lighter” end of the dark-tourism scale. This photo was actually taken on that same trip to Poland in April 2008, the day after I had visited Bełżec.
  
This was in the little town of Chełm (not to be confused with the death camp of Chełmno!) east of Lublin, where we had a little stopover en route to Sobibor in order to check out the chalk tunnels underneath the town centre, which, according to our guidebook, Chełm is famous for. We found the entrance and went on a tour of the underground maze. And at some point it involved a little “ghost show”. The lights went out – total blackness – and then this blue-lit “ghost” appeared and did his little “scare” spiel.
   
Our guide spoke some broken English, but the “ghost” (= a colleague of his in a white sheet) did his performance all in Polish only, so I didn't understand a word. From the vague explanation by our guide afterwards it had something to do with a local legend. I don't recall any detail. But I do remember well the bizarreness of the situation and how I had to try not to burst out laughing. It was a totally unexpected “highlight” of that Poland trip. I even bought a little smiling ghost figurine made from chalk from the gift shop by the entrance!
   
The Chełm chalk tunnels were dug from mediaeval times onwards for chalk mining, which was discontinued in the 19 century. They go five levels deep (20m below) and carry on for several miles. Only a subsection has been opened for tourism and the guided underground tours (ghost show included) last about three quarters of an hour.
  
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Monday 11 December 2017
  
  11 12 2017   Belzec death camp memorial, Poland
  
On this Day, 75 years ago, on 11 December 1942, the final “resettlement” train arrived at the Bełżec death camp in Poland.
   
But of course there was no resettlement. Bełżec was one of the three “Operation Reinhard” camps, i.e. it was NOT a concentration camp, but a pure killing factory, just like the other two such camps Sobibor and Treblinka. The difference between a concentration camp and a death camp is not all that widely known, but it is a stark one (even though it is a bit blurred by the fact that Auschwitz, the most iconic and best known camp of them all, had a dual function of concentration camp AND extermination centre).
   
At the three Operation Reinhard camps there were no rows of wooden barracks housing thousands of haggard forced labourers in blue-and-white striped clothes. There were just a few barracks for the SS staff and some Jewish “Sonderkommandos” (whose gruesome task it was to empty the gas chambers of the corpses). Otherwise there was just the railway sidings and the structures that led to the gas chambers.
   
On arrival, the victims were told this was just a transit camp where they had to be deloused, so they had to undress and then were immediately guided through the so-called “Schlauch” (literally 'hose'), a slightly curved passage (curved so you couldn't see where it led) with high fences on either side. At the end were the gas chambers. Hundreds of victims were squashed into each of these, then specially adapted petrol engines started and the exhaust fumes were pumped in. It took up to half an hour before all inside the chambers were dead. The victims were then buried in mass graves.
   
In total, some 450,000 people were killed in the gas chambers of Bełżec, predominantly Jews.
   
Bełżec can be seen as the most “efficient” killing site in history. Unlike at Sobibor and Treblinka, there was never any revolt here and almost nobody survived (perpetrators included). Even though the death toll at Auschwitz and Treblinka was higher, at Bełżec it was almost 100% exhaustive and its evil task took only 10 months to complete.
  
After that, during the first months of 1943, the camp was completely razed to the ground, with all structures dismantled, the mass graves exhumed and the corpses burned, bones ground up and reburied together with the ashes, and then the area was ploughed over, trees and grass were planted, and a mock farm established (with one of the ex-camp guards pretending to be the farmer) to cover up the site's sinister story.
   
It remained almost forgotten until finally a proper memorial was set up here. This opened in 2005 (there's a small museum at the site too). Today's photo shows one of the main aspects of it, one that also makes it controversial. The memorial takes up the entire former area space of the camp, the perimeter a path made of concrete, and is covered with crushed blocks of cinder. In the centre there's the passage you see in this photo which leads through the sloped cinder field towards a memorial wall. At the start the sides are only ankle high, at the end it's more like 5 metres. This is a symbolic “Schlauch”, of course – and it is indeed quite an oppressive feeling walking through this to the end, with the walls getting higher and higher as you move along. This makes it possibly the most sinister Holocaust memorial in the world in terms of design. It literally guides you into darkness …
   
Btw. the name “Operation Reinhard” was an allusion to Reinhard Heydrich, the top Nazi who had chaired the Wannsee Conference where the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” and the plan to use mass gassing had been discussed in January 1942.
   
Finally: the camp's name Bełżec is pronounced 'belw-zhets', roughly ([ˈbɛu̯ʐɛt͡s] in exact IPA) and not like *belzek or so. I had mispronounced it myself for a long time until I learned the correct pronunciation the day before going there in April 2008 (namely from a young Polish waiter in a very olde-worlde Jewish cafe in Lublin).
  
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Friday 8 December 2017
  
  08 12 2017 m  guardian at Pere Lachaise
  
Photo of the day: one from Pere Lachaise in Paris – one of the most famous cemeteries in the world that has long been a firm favourite amongst dark tourists in France's grand capital city.
  
This sinister-looking hooded gatekeeper sculpture at the entrance to the Lagarde-Gueret family tomb is one of my favourite pieces of sepulchral artwork at Pere Lachaise.
   
Apparently, so I've read somewhere, the metal figure is attached to the door, which opens inwards together with this guardian, so the “gatekeeper” isn't actually an obstacle (if you have the key).
  
This tomb is to be found along Avenue Feuillant, roughly halfway between the Chapelle de l'Est and the grand crematorium. Well worth a look for those who want to go beyond the clichéd pilgrimages to the comparatively bland grave of Jim Morrison or the strange, lipstick-mark-covered sculpture for Oscar Wilde's tomb or other such famous names classics. Often it is the less well-known names' graves that, from a purely artistic point of view, are actually more interesting and visually appealing.
  
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Thursday 7 December 2017
  
  07 12 2017   Pearl Harbor
  
On this Day: 76 years ago, on 7 December 1941 Imperial Japan launched its surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, O'ahu, Hawaii (and simultaneously also attacked elsewhere around the Pacific, e.g. Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia … but since those places were on the other side of the International Dateline, those attacks are dated 8 December). This “date of infamy” (President Roosevelt) dragged the Americans into WWII, and, as we all know, it ended with the defeat of both Japan and Germany.
   
In Pearl Harbor today, a whole complex of memorial sites and museum exhibitions commemorates the 1941 attacks as well as the end of the war. This picture was taken from the bridge of the battleship USS Missouri, the vessel aboard which the official ceremony of the signing of Japan's surrender was held on 2 September 1945. The white structure in the background is the memorial directly above the submerged wreck of the USS Arizona, a battleship that was sunk in the Japanese attack 76 years ago. The sinking of the Arizona caused the single largest number of casualties of the day: 1177 of the crew went down with her.
    
By annual visitor numbers alone, Pearl Harbor ranks as one of the most popular dark-tourism sites in the world today – though most visitors will probably not even be aware of the existence of the term 'dark tourism' and come simply as WWII history buffs, as a pilgrimage to honour the dead, or simply because it is one the top “things to do” when in Honolulu, Hawaii.
  
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Wednesday 6 December 2017
  
  06 12 2017   Tuol Sleng torture cell, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
  
Photo of the Day: another classic of dark tourism, and a much discussed site: Tuol Sleng, a former special prison and torture centre of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia's capital Phnom Penh. This photo shows one of the torture rooms.
  
The building, previously a school, was also known as S-21. It is now the place where the history of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and their (auto-)genocide amongst their own population is most comprehensively documented in the form of a memorial museum.
  
The image may not have quite the immediate recognizability of the Hiroshima A-Bomb Dome or the Auschwitz gate, but it is also common as one representative for dark tourism at large. For instance, a very similar version of today's pic features on the title page of an academic book about dark tourism that I am currently reading, namely Sion, Brigitte (ed.) “Death Tourism” (London, New York, Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2014).
   
Another, earlier book, Richard Sharpley & Philip R. Stone (eds) “The Darker Side of Travel” (Bristol: Channel View Publications, 2009) in turn used on its cover an image of skulls from the stupa at the Choeung Ek 'killing fields' (also in Cambodia on the outskirts of Phnom Penh), while the very first book on the topic, simply entitled “Dark Tourism”, by John Lennon [no relation!] & Mark Foley (London: Thomson, 2000) has the iconic gatehouse of the Auschwitz II Birkenau extermination camp on its cover (which is also in the centre of my DT website logo).
  
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Tuesday 5 December 2017
  
  05 12 2017   Hiroshima A Bomb Dome in evening light
  
Photo of the Day: and here's another absolute classic of dark tourism: the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima (nicely reflected in the river in evening light).
  
This A-Bomb Dome, the Auschwitz II-Birkenau gatehouse and formerly the chimney stack of the Chernobyl NPP Block 4 have a similar status of immediate recognizability in dark tourism as the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Colosseum in Rome or Tower Bridge in London have in mainstream tourism. Hence I integrated them in DT's logo which you also see at the top of this page.
   
The A-Bomb Dome is not only the principal landmark of the city of Hiroshima, it can be seen as standing symbolically for the entire concept of nuclear bombing or even for the beginning of the Atomic Age in general.
   
In a way, though, the A-Bomb Dome is actually quite unrepresentative, insofar as most of the centre of Hiroshima was completely flattened and incinerated, as most buildings were made of wood. Only a few structures built with reinforced concrete were still partly standing, including this one (which was the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall). It stood a mere 150 metres from the hypocentre of the explosion, i.e. almost directly beneath it (the bomb detonated 600 metres above ground). The ceiling was pushed in and the interior burned out. But since there was less force impacting on the side walls, these mostly withstood the blast.
  
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Monday 4 December 2017
  
  04 12 2017   Auschwitz I gate   classic image
  
Photo of the Day: I promised to return to more prototypical, more conventional (if that's not a contradiction in terms) aspects of dark tourism this week, after last week's rather exotic food theme. So here we go: one of THE absolute classics of dark tourism: Auschwitz – considered by many to be the absolute epitome of dark tourism – hence this image is also so instantly recognizable.
   
What you see here is of course that main gate of the “Stammlager”, Auschwitz I, with the infamous sign above it saying “Arbeit macht frei” ('work sets you free'), the cynical slogan the Nazis used at several concentration camps' gates. This is still the original. It was stolen a few years back, and though it was eventually recovered, the management of the site decided to put a replica back in the original position, while the original is now housed in a more secure indoors location. But that was after this picture was taken, namely on my first visit to Poland in April 2008.
   
An indication that this is a fairly old photo is also the fact that you can't see any people in it – and it was taken during normal opening hours. It wasn't just luck – it was off season, and during an unusually cold wintry spell for spring. But overall visitor numbers back then were also still much lower than they are now. If you go these days, you'll hardly get a chance to photograph this without groups of visitors crowding the picture (and some probably taking selfies at the same time).
  
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Friday 1 December 2017
  
  01 12 2017   live tarantula to scare tourists   in Cambodia they eat these as snacks
  
Photo of the Day: feeling peckish? Fancy a tarantula for lunch? … final one in this week's series of 'dark tourism and food'!
   
I mentioned yesterday that eating insects is quite common in South-East Asia, e.g. in northern Thailand, where they are a staple. This is also the case in parts of Cambodia, and that's where today's photo was taken, at a roadside stall north of Phnom Penh where all manner of creepy-crawlies were on offer: fried grubs, locusts, worms, beetles, scorpions, and … tarantulas – as seen in this picture.
   
Again, I was in no way tempted to try one myself, but a friend of mine did once when he lived for a year in Indonesia. His description of the experience does not make them appear any more palatable to me. On the contrary! According to him, biting into the big abdomen part of the giant spider is a bit like eating a raw egg whole, as the outer skin cracks and the contents ooze out into your mouth ... yuk!!!
   
But I promise that that was it. No more icky food posts for the foreseeable future. Next week we'll return to more conventional areas of dark tourism.
  
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Thursday 30 November 2017
  
  30 11 2017   Venezuelan delicacy
  
Photo of the Day: and another one in this week's series on the 'dark tourism and food' theme. Today's photo shows the type of grub (“suri”) that some of the native tribes in the Orinoco Delta and the Amazon Basin regard as a delicacy, especially eaten raw and alive. You bite the wriggling body off behind the (inedible) head, which you discard, and then devour the rest. Apparently the skin is quite tough, but the texture of the inside has been likened to peanut butter. Yum!?
   
Tourists in these areas are also frequently offered suri grubs to try for themselves, be it a freshly caught/picked one on jungle walks or ones offered at local markets. Would you be daring enough to give it a go?
   
Before you ask, I did not do it. This particular specimen was presented to me on a tour by boat to a small village of natives of the Warao tribe in the remote (and road-less) Orinoco Delta, Venezuela. The grub was really just for show, not for actually eating. And I don't think I could have. (The closest I've ever come to something like this was eating roasted giant ants from Colombia.) I asked my local guide, and he admitted to never having eaten a live suri grub either, but he'd had them in the roasted/fried form. I'm not sure if that would have made them seem so significantly more appealing to me, though.
   
Again, it's not a rational thing. There are many countries where eating insects is quite normal, especially in Asia (northern Thailand in particular). And it makes good sense – it's a protein-rich food source that is cheap and easy to produce. It could also have the potential to help solve the world's problems with food supplies and even climate change. That's because if instead of cattle farming we'd farm and eat insects we could eradicate one of the principal contributors to global warming (not only do cattle release large amounts of the climate-killer gas methane into the atmosphere, the main aspect is the large-scale deforestation to make space for cattle feed growing, especially soy beans, which is now the greatest threat to the Amazon rainforest … cattle farming overall uses up as much as a whole third of all resources and at current growth rates is predicted to go up to 50% by 2050 – totally unsustainable!).
   
Yet for somebody not used to it it's is hard to overcome the “disgust barrier” when actually presented with an insect like this. If that could be disguised, e.g. in the form of minced meat made from insects, and nicely spiced, then I might consider it, but biting the head off a live, wriggling grub the size of a thumb … no, thanks.
   
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Wednesday 29 November 2017
  
  29 11 2017   Argeninian rations from the Falkland War, including Breeder's Choice whisky, on display at Port Howard
  
Photo of the Day: and another one in the series 'food and dark tourism': these are some old Argentinian military rations from the Falklands War of 1982, on displays at the little war museum in Port Howard, West Falkland, which was the main base for the Argentinian forces on this more sparsely populated half of the archipelago.
  
The tins contain(ed) sausages (Wiener) and meatballs in sauce, respectively. The little bottle is interesting, culturally, as it's an empty bottle of Argentinian whisky, distilled and bottled in Buenos Aires, but it has an English name: “The Breeder's Choice”. That it's in English probably just reflects the fact that whisky (in the spelling without the extra 'e' before the 'y') is primarily associated with Scotland, i.e. the UK.
   
It's of course not without irony that it ended up here due to the war that Argentina went to against Britain over these remote islands. “Breeder's Choice” is additionally ironic, as sheep breeding was (and in part still is) the main industry the British settlers on the Falklands pursue(d). These days it's also fishing – and in particular the sale of fishing licences – as well as the prospect of oil drilling. Tourism – both battlefield tourism and wildlife/nature tourism – also bring in money. But the tourism sector is still relatively small.
  
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Tuesday 28 November 2017
  
  28 11 2017   Kazakh delicacies, market in Almaty
  
Photo of the Day: a follow-up to yesterday's post. This photo was also taken at the Green Bazaar in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Zoomed in from the upstairs gallery, it allows a grisly view of some of the other wares on offer in the market's meat section. This isn't horse, but the singed sheep heads and bags full of offal (or whatever it may be – please do not tell me) don't look any more appetizing to me.
   
Sheep heads are another idiosyncratic Kazakh speciality, and the eyes are traditionally regarded as the best bits – and hence are often offered to the guest of honour (that a foreign visitor would typically be) at a traditional Kazakh feast. Fortunately I was spared that experience (refusing the offer would have been very bad manners) when I travelled to the country back in 2011.
   
Seeing this market, and especially these offers, could have turned me vegetarian on the spot – had it not been for the fact that I had already decided to stay off meat anyway before I went there.
   
Kazakhstan in general is a very tricky country for vegetarian travellers to get by in. The concept is practically unknown there. And it frequently caused consternation when we announced that we don't eat meat – e.g. at the homestay we had in Aralsk. In the big cities, on the other hand, restaurants offering cuisines other than Kazakh, such as Georgian or Italian, come to the rescue with their vegetarian dishes such as Khachapuri and pkhali (Georgian staples – baked cheese bread and minced veg with walnuts, respectively, and common all over the former USSR) or the good old pizza or risotto that Italian cuisine contributed to the entire world. Vegans, however, will have a very hard time almost everywhere in Central Asia.
  
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Monday 27 November 2017
  
  27 11 2017   horse meat section, market in Almaty, Kazakhstan
  
Photo of the Day: from the fringe theme of 'dark tourism and food' – this photo was taken at the Green Bazaar indoor market in Almaty, Kazakhstan. At first it may look like a regular, typical former Soviet market hall. But look closely at the sign on the far wall … yes that's a pictogram of a horse. And the words in Kazakh (ЖЫЛⱩЫ ETI) and Russian (КОНИНА) spell it out clearly: this is the horse meat section!
   
Horse meat is held in high regard in Kazakhstan, it's considered a delicacy. You can even buy packets of horse meat at the departure lounge of the international airport in Almaty. Yet for many foreigners, and in particular those from Britain, the very concept of eating horse is seen as repulsive. I remember when in 2013 there was the so-called “horse meat scandal” (first in Britain and Ireland, then also in a few other European countries), when horse DNA was detected in some frozen 'beef burgers', i.e. horse meat had been surreptitiously (and illegally) mixed into the product. The outcry was immense – yet some Kazakhs here in Vienna commented: “What's the fuss? Why aren't they glad they got some better quality meat in it for free?”. Different traditions, different mentalities.
   
Of course, there is no real rational reason why beef or pork should be ethically any better than horse meat. In Britain it's probably just the equestrian tradition that makes horse taboo to eat. But why should eating a cow that's never seen daylight, was kept in a box hardly larger than its own size, with zero interaction with other members of its species, and that after a few months of joyless “life” was slaughtered in an industrial abattoir, be morally less dubious than eating a horse that presumably wasn't kept under similar conditions but had at least been allowed to move (or be moved) and possibly have some interaction with other horses?
   
It's food for thought … excuse the pun ...
  
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Friday, 24 November 2017
  
  24 11 2017   shot down Su 24 wreck pieces
  
On this Day, only two years ago, on 24 November 2015, a Russian Su-24 fighter plane was shot down by the Turkish air force near the border with Syria; the pilot was killed. The incident caused a diplomatic stand-off between the two countries, though that seems to have since been overcome … (as the political constellations in the region “evolved”).
  
Today's photo shows a piece of the shot-down plane. It's now on display at the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow. (The other item seen here is the pilot's logbook.)
   
It's clearly a museum that receives updates on a regular basis. It's certainly more up to date than many other museums I have seen in Russia and the other post-Soviet countries. It also retains some old-school stuffiness in the older sections, but this up-to-date-ness in the contemporary military history section quite impressed me, I must say. (They also had display cabinets related to Chechnya, Georgia/South Ossetia in 2008, and Crimea …)
  
In a way it also illustrates the elusive nature of the issue of when dark tourism is “too early”. This has often been raised as one of the elements of ethical concern about dark tourism. But when exactly “too soon” is, seems to vary enormously and along quite unfathomable parameters. While going to Sarajevo war sites or sites of the Troubles in Northern Ireland is still seen as controversial by some, this piece of a plane wreck, shot down in highly dubious circumstances only two years ago, is already “historicized” enough to be a perfectly normal museum piece now. (I'm aware there are political elements involved here too, but still ...)
  
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Thursday, 23 November 2017
  
  23 11 2017   trigger happy country
  
Photo of the Day: something from America – more precisely the USA. Trigger-happy country.
   
This “Pro Gun Club” sign was spotted somewhere in Nevada. It was taken from the car on a road en route from Arizona to Las Vegas in 2012. I can't remember where exactly it was.
   
It's perplexing to virtually the entire rest of the world, but the USA seems hell-bent on maintaining its lenient gun laws. (And the guys of this pro-gun club are probably even proud of it.). These laws allow practically anybody to own guns, including heavy-duty, semi-automatic assault rifles and such items which are obviously designed not for hunting, personal defence or such things, but as military combat weapons.
   
There are anti-gun-ownership movements in the USA too, but the country's gun lobby is very powerful (cue word NRA), and politically there is currently no sign of any efforts to restrict the existing gun laws (on the contrary, the current administration's suggestions go rather in the direction of relaxing restrictions further so that guns can proliferate even more) – and all that despite numerous high-profile shootings with large numbers of innocent dead civilians over the recent months and years, and despite overwhelming statistical evidence underscoring the unnecessary risks of open gun-ownership laws, and despite the examples of success of stricter gun legislation, set e.g. by countries like Australia.
   
The latter experienced a USA-like shooting tragedy in 1996, when a single gunman went on the rampage in Port Arthur, Tasmania, killing 35 people and wounding 23 more. It was the worst mass shooting in Australian history. After that, new tight gun-ownership legislation was rolled in, (semi-)automatic guns were banned altogether, a national firearms register was introduced, as was a mandatory waiting period for delivery of purchased guns, and in general gun licensing was strictly tightened up. The government even bought back hundreds of thousands of existing guns (at a high cost financed by higher taxes!). It all took just a few months. Since then Australia hasn't experienced any such mass shooting incidents (and overall gun-related homicides dropped by between 60 and 75%) … whereas in the USA they have become so common in recent times that they are almost no longer big news any more. Or don't you catch yourself with the same sentiment when yet another mass shooting is reported from the US these days – “Oh, well, another one …”?
   
As I said, in most of the world people are shaking their heads at this situation, but in the USA guns will most likely remain an omnipresent part of society for the foreseeable future, and hence more mass shootings will happen almost for certain.
   
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Wednesday 22 November 2017
  
  22 11 2017   first Soviet hydrogen bomb test   measuring tower, Polygon, STS, Kazakhstan
  
On this Day, 62 years ago, on 22 November 1955, the Soviet Union detonated its first hydrogen bomb at the Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS) in the steppes of Kazakhstan.
  
Today's photo shows one of the concrete towers that used to house measuring equipment for the test site at the STS that is also known as the “Polygon” or “Opytnoye Pole”.
  
The Soviets' two-stage thermonuclear device, code-named RDS-37, had a yield of approximately 1.6 megatons. Technically it was very similar to the USA's first hydrogen bombs based on the Teller-Ulam design. But unlike the first Soviet plutonium-implosion atomic bomb design (first tested as RDS-1 in 1949), which was obtained largely through espionage and was effectively an exact copy of the Trinity/Nagasaki bombs, RDS-37 was almost fully “home-grown”. This was mainly thanks to the achievements of one particular nuclear physicist called Andrei Sakharov … yes, that same Sakharov who later became a dissident and peace activist, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, and was hence persecuted and exiled/imprisoned by the Soviet authorities from 1980, until he was released by Gorbachev in 1986, three years before his death in 1989.
   
The STS/Polygon was part of my trip to (now independent) Kazakhstan in 2011, and was certainly one of the most exciting, most remote, most unusual and most adventurous dark-tourism sites I have ever been to. Back then there was very little security in this desolate area, so our guide and driver basically just drove in and we poked around unhindered (in case you were worrying: we were wearing protective overshoes and face masks so as to not take in any potentially radioactive particles). These days however, so I have meanwhile learned, you need to have a permit from the nuclear institute in Kurchatov and have an authorized guide from there. There are a couple of tour operators that can arrange this, including, from 2018, Koryo Tours – who are otherwise the main specialists in travel to North Korea.
  
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Tuesday 21 November 2017
  
   21 11 2017   Nuremberg Nazi rallying grounds
   
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post about the Nuremberg Trials – this is also from Nuremberg, but as it were from the other end of its infamous Nazi-era record …
  
This is what is left of the Nuremberg Nazi Party rallying grounds of the “Zeppelinfeld”. This was the main place where the German Nazis held their monumental mass gatherings in the mid-to-late 1930s, with lots of marching in parades, flying thousands of swastika flags, staging military performance shows and putting up those pompous “cathedrals of light” ('Lichtdom' in German – created by a ring of 130 anti-aircraft searchlights pointing straight up into the sky on the edges of the field).
   
In short: here the Nazis tried to present their power and ideology in the most elaborate “mass appeal” fashion. And of course it also had to include Hitler addressing his flock, which was sometimes exceeding 100,000 in total. His speaker's rostrum can still be seen to the left in this photo. The giant swastika symbol that used to dominate the scene at the top of the grandstand was blown up by the Americans after WWII as a highly symbolic act that was also filmed. The actual grandstand as such, however, is still there … the area has since hosted motorcycle races, rock concerts and festivals, and is otherwise used as a car park and playground for skateboarders et al.
  
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Monday 20 November, evening
  
“Warning: controversial subject!
No condolences from this page, but just to note that one of the most infamous criminals and cult leaders of modern times, Charles Manson, died yesterday, Sunday, aged 83. Even though he spent something like 80% of his lifetime in prison, mostly for masterminding the brutal murder of actress Sharon Tate in 1969, he enjoyed a strange cult of personality in pop culture.
   
I've never really understood that, but I saw it in action at the weird and gruesome Museum of Death in Los Angeles, where his letters, recent photos (with that swastika on his forehead!), even his guitar were on display in a special room entitled “Helter Skelter” (his twisted name for his actions, taken from a Beatles song, whose lyrics he interpreted as a reference to some kind of apocalypse he had to help bring about … or something like that). The graphic photos from the Tate murder scene were especially horrific. Yet, the wealth of displays at this museum were bordering on the glorifying, I found. You could even buy his music! (He thought of himself as a singer-songwriter of sorts.) I was never in any way tempted, though, especially since I also read that apparently the music is dreadful (unsurprisingly) …
   
Reading up on him more today, I also learned that he was really short, only 1.57m (5 foot 2). I don't know, but mentally twisted men with oversize egos and ambitions also being “vertically challenged” seems to frequently produce an especially dangerous mixture … think of Joseph Stalin, Hitler, Goebbels, Kim Jong Il, Nicolae Ceaușescu, …
   
  
  
<comment: another article with yet more details: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/20/obituaries/charles-manson-dead.html >
  
< comment #2: and here's the chapter on DT about that weird Museum of Death in L.A.:http://www.dark-tourism.com/index.php/usa/15-countries/individual-chapters/1096-museumofdeath >
  
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Monday, 20 November 2017
  
  20 11 2017   benches from the Nuremberg Trials
  
On this Day, 72 years ago, on 20 November 1945, the Nuremberg Trials began.
   
This photo shows two of the original benches on which the defendants had to sit during the hearings. They are amongst the very few original artefacts on display at the “Memorium Nürnberger Prozesse”, an excellent and illuminating exhibition at the very site where the trials were held, the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg.
   
The courtroom where the historic International Military Tribunal was held, in which the main surviving Nazis (in particular Hermann Göring) stood trial for their crimes against humanity, still exists and is in use as a regular courtroom these days. Through a window you can peek into it from the exhibition rooms, but only when the courtroom is not being used – so in a way this is the exhibition's prime “exhibit”, even though it's only directly adjacent and not actually part of it. The layout of the courtroom has changed since the days of the war tribunals, but a model in the exhibition shows the way it looked back then.
   
Of course, as is well enough known, none of the very top dog Nazis could be tried, namely because they had all committed suicide precisely in order to evade justice. Hitler himself, alongside Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels with his wife topped themselves right at the Führerbunker in Berlin (the Goebbels even poisoned their six children before taking their own lives!), Heinrich Himmler was captured but committed suicide while under arrest.
   
In the end, the only top Nazi at Nuremberg, Hermann Göring, after he had been sentenced to death, also took his own life in his cell – the day before his execution. How he got the cyanide capsule has never been fully clarified.
   
Still, the Nuremberg Trials had momentous historical importance, not just for what they were, but also in the way they changed international law. They became a model for many subsequent war crimes tribunals. And, on the side, they also initiated the important profession of simultaneous interpreters. All this, and much more, is covered by the Memorium exhibition in quite some depth. It's a bit text-heavy, but also has a range of audiovisual elements. I found it quite fascinating.
  
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Friday, 17 November 2017
  
  17 11 2017   Komodo dragon giving a sod off look
  
Photo of the Day: final one in this week's animal series. A Komodo dragon turning his head towards the camera with a fierce look as if saying “sod off, you human scum!” I am anthropomorphizing, of course. The dragon probably just noticed that we were following him in the same direction along the path. He then just shuffled on ...
   
This is a relatively young Komodo dragon ... you can tell by the darker colour, and theoretically also by the smaller size compared to a fully grown one, if there was a size reference in this frame.
   
The photo was taken on Komodo Island itself, which is one of only three islands where these rare giant monitor lizards can be found. They are the largest species of this group worldwide, and in many ways they're quite an evolutionary curiosity.
   
They kill their pray by giving them a bite but then let go and let it run away … the wound will then get infected (the bite is both toxic and the dragon's saliva is also full of nasty bacteria) and the victim will soon die somewhere on the island within a couple of days.
  
Now the odd thing is that it may not be the dragon who administered the fatal bite that will be the first to find the dead animal and feast on it. It might be a different one. And even though Komodos are known to congregate to devour a dead goat, deer or buffalo communally (which is an extremely gruesome spectacle), the one who should “own” the prey, may not get any of it. And that's a Darwinian conundrum. Lizards are hardly altruistic, so it is very odd that this system works and the species can survive on that basis. It probably only works because their environment is so territorially restricted. So the “benefit” of pray balances out in the longer run (some you lose, some you win kind of thing).
   
Oh, and they also don't shy away from eating their own offspring, if they fail to hide in the trees until they're big enough ... 'dark' enough?
  
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Thursday 16 November 2017
  
  16 11 2017   rat   shipwreck museum Cuxhaven
  
Photo of the Day: another animal with a PR problem, the rat!
   
This, too, is not a live animal. It's a stuffed one – an exhibit in a temporary exhibition about animals and seafaring at the Shipwreck Museum in Cuxhaven on the north-German coast.
   
Of course rats were a problem aboard ships (nibbling away on sailors' supplies), and are mainly attributed to spreading disastrous diseases such as the bubonic plague.
   
But, on the other hand, they too are amazing for their extreme ability to adapt to conditions within human civilization. They are 'synanthropes', i.e. animals that follow human culture and benefit from the human-made environment (in German such species are called “Kulturfolger”, literally 'culture followers'). And rats are perhaps the most successful animals of all in this category.
   
Yet, they remain very much an unloved species. Most people despise them. Whether for good reasons or not. Of course, you wouldn't want your kitchen to be infested with rats. But I don't quite get this typical shrieking reaction of disgust some people display on seeing a rat at a railway station, say, or even a domesticated pet rat in a cage. Again, my wife and I are different. There's a cosy Icelandic restaurant here in Vienna, and they have two pet rats in a cage in their back room. We sometimes go there more for “visiting the rats” than for the food (although that is excellent too!). In fact we are going there tonight!
  
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Wednesday 15 November 2017
  
  15 11 2017   saiga monument in Astana, Kazakhstan
  
Photo of the Day: Saiga monument in Astana, Kazakhstan. So not real animals this time, but just a group of golden sculptures of this endangered animal. It is endangered for very tragic reasons, and humans are partly to blame.
   
Saiga antelopes once roamed the Kazakh and southern Russian steppes in their millions, and were largely left in peace. But then, since the collapse of the USSR, they've became the target of excessive hunting – for their horns. You may already have guessed it: because, e.g. in “traditional” Chinese “medicine” (what a misnomer!), they are, like rhino horns, “believed” to be a remedy against erectile dysfunction. There are of course many Chinese men, and it seems that many of them have that particular problem. Hence it didn't take long before the saiga herds were so decimated by poachers that the species became endangered within the space of just 15 years.
   
Increased protection helped the numbers of saigas in Russia and Kazakhstan to recover somewhat in recent years. But in 2015 another, this time natural, disaster struck. A vicious infection spread quickly in the Kazakh herds and about 90% of the population suddenly died off within just a few weeks. I've seen film footage of this made by a German wildlife documentary maker who happened to be there at the time of this tragedy, which unfolded halfway through his time in Kazakhstan filming saigas. You could see him being visibly shaken by the mass dying all around him.
   
It was initially suspected that there might have been a human factor in this too, but meanwhile it has been confirmed by various labs, that it was indeed just a particularly nasty epidemic.
   
Saigas, with their characteristic big nose (to pre-warm air for breathing in the harsh winters of the Kazakh steppes), bulbous eyes and thin, matchstick-like legs, don't lend themselves to positive PR as much as pandas or tigers, but I find them quite amazing animals. My wife is even more enamoured with them and has donated money to the Saiga Conservation Alliance.
  
  
<comment: and if you too want to help the cause, look here:http://saiga-conservation.org/>
  
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Tuesday 14 November 2017
  
  14 11 2017   tsunami depictions by the roadside, south eastern India
  
Photo of the Day: staying in India, here's a picture of a roadside cow, blissfully oblivious to the disaster depictions behind her.
   
Of course, cows are almost as ubiquitous as people in India, and being considered “holy” (by Hindus at least), they roam the streets freely.
   
In this picture it's nothing about the animal as such that is dark, but the background is: these are paintings that are meant to illustrate the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami that hit several countries in the Indian Ocean, including India itself, especially the south. This is in Tamil Nadu, the south-eastern-most state of India, which was hit similarly severely as Sri Lanka just to the south.
   
The picture was taken on the road between Chennai and Tranquebar to the south, where I was given a tsunami-themed tour by a local guide/historian, which was quite illuminating.
  
  
<comment: you can read my account of Tranquebar and its connection with the 2004 tsunami here: 
    
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Monday 13 November 2017: mugger crocodile
  
  13 11 2017   mugger crocodile posing in  the middle of the Chambal river, India
  
Photo of the Day: I decided to devote this week to the sub-theme 'animals and dark tourism'.
  
The reason is that my sister will be visiting me for a few days this week, and she is a country vet in northern Germany. So I thought now is a suitable time to launch this series, which I had planned for a long while anyway.
  
So here we go, the first one: a mugger crocodile, seen on a boat tour of the Chambal River in India.
  
The Chambal River is a tributary of the Yamuna River, but in extreme contrast to the latter, the Chambal River is very clean and hence a haven for some rare animals, including river dolphins and the critically endangered gharials (also a type of crocodilian, but with a very long and thin snout), who couldn't survive for a day in the heavily polluted Yamuna.
  
The mugger crocodile, despite its fierce looks, is less aggressive than other crocodiles, but it can still be dangerous, especially the large males that can grow to a length in excess of 5 metres. It was only in September this year that a mugger crocodile is believed to have killed a British journalist who was holidaying in the south of Sri Lanka in an area known to be “infested” with crocodiles. Two locals, also in Sri Lanka, were reported to have been killed by mugger crocodiles earlier this year as well. But overall these are rare occurrences.
   
The victims were probably just inadvertently getting too close to the predator, as these are opportunists and lie hidden just under the water surface or in mud waiting for a suitable “meal” to get close – but then they can snatch their prey very quickly and drag it under water and take it away (hence the bodies of the victims were never found). The British journalist is reported to have gone to wash his hands in the river – and unbeknown to him a mugger must have happened to be just there. A case of very bad luck, then.
  
  
  
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Saturday 11 November 2017 
  
A while ago I was interviewed by the BBC for a radio programme called “The Why Factor”. The episode about dark tourism is now out. It's an interesting outcome overall, even though I slightly resent the fact that the editors so focused on what I said about Murambi, but left out most of the other things, like how I became a dark tourist (being a child of the Cold War plays a major role here), or what I actually had to say about those moral panic attacks, or why I exclude slum tourism from DT, … all in all from the about 30 minutes of the original interview only a fifth or so made it into the final cut. That was predictable. But with the focus so on Murambi they could at least have kept my remark about how utterly unrepresentative Murambi is for DT at large. (It's in fact absolutely unique. There is nowhere else on Earth that is remotely like it.) My remarks about Auschwitz being a bit of a victim of its success (as a tourist site, that is), what with the enormous visitor numbers necessitating uncomfortable and incongruous crowd management measures, could also have fitted in well. But never mind. You can't have everything. At least the programme overall conveys a very good message about DT. I especially like the bit at the end where one of the programme makers confesses that she now feels “guilty” for not having taken enough of an interest in things like Auschwitz before. It gets the educational and “cathartic” elements of DT across well. So overall I'm quite happy with the programme. Do have a listen (you can also download the whole thing for keeps).
   
  
<comment: journalists seem to get gripped by that smell element at Murambi especially – I had that before in a newspaper interview earlier this year (in Der Standard, Austria). Next time I'll just try not to mention this (or Murambi at all), then let's see what else they pick to focus on ...>
  
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Friday 10 November 2017
  
  10 11 2017   painting paying tribute to the battle of Surabaya
  
On this Day, 72 years ago, on 10 November 1945, the Battle of Surabaya culminated in a military victory for the colonial forces against the revolutionary Indonesian Republicans, though in the longer run it turned out to be a political victory, as the battle galvanized support for the cause of Indonesian independence after WWII.
   
Despite the military defeat on that day, 10 November is still celebrated in Indonesia as “Heroes Day”.
   
Today's photo shows a painting in the lobby of the Hotel Majapahit in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia. It's the melodramatic depiction of an incident in the run-up to the Battle of Surabaya, when revolutionaries climbed the building and tore the blue band off the Dutch flag, thus turning it into the red-and-white Indonesian national colours.
  
The hotel, by the way, is one of those created by the legendary Sarkies family, whose most famous luxury hotel is the Raffles in Singapore. But while the Raffles charges astronomically steep room rates, the equally luxurious Majapahit remains comparatively affordable (rates are about a fifth of those charged at its more famous sister). Hence I had the fortune of being able to stay there for a couple of nights during my 2014 Indonesia trip. And I think it was one of the best hotels I've ever stayed at. That it came with a bit of historical significance, was a bonus.
  
  
  
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Thursday 9 November 2017 – border strip reconstruction at Bernauer Straße
 
 09 11 2017   border strip reconstrution at Bernauer Straße, Berlin
   
A predictable one today: On this Day, 28 years ago, on 9 November 1989, the Berlin Wall “fell”.
  
Actually, the wall was only physically dismantled from the next day onwards, but today's date marks the first opening of the border of the GDR (East Germany). This happened when masses of Berliners had gathered at various border crossing checkpoints during the evening after having heard on the news the announcement accidentally made at a press conference that GDR citizens would now be allowed to travel to the West. It wasn't supposed to come into immediate effect, that was a mistake, but now faced with the masses demanding to be let through, the border security at Bornholmer Straße eventually caved in and let the elated flood of East Germans into West Berlin. And once the flood gate had been opened there was no turning back any more. Less than a year later the GDR was dissolved.
   
Today's photo shows a reconstruction of a short stretch of the former death strip, behind a part of genuine Berlin Wall – in the foreground. It's one of the few stretches of original wall that survived the frenzied destruction of that old symbol of the division of Berlin and the confrontation between the Eastern and Western blocs. The ensemble is part of the official Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straße.
   
Even though a watchtower (slightly too short) was added to the death strip reconstruction I find that it ultimately fails to get across even an approximation of what the real thing used to look and feel like. It's simply too short and looks way too artificial, what with those silver walls at both ends. Plus, there are coachloads of tourists these days.
   
I remember well seeing the original, complete border strip in Berlin when I was a little boy on my very first trip to Berlin (which my mother had treated me to). The sinister atmosphere at this border, stretching all the way to the horizon, it seemed, left a deep impression on me. Maybe it was precisely that experience that made me turn into a proper dark tourist later in life.
   
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Wednesday 8 November 2017
  
  08 11 2017   barbed wire and watchtower, Hötensleben
  
Photo of the Day: barbed wire, fences, walls, watchtower. Yes it's the Iron Curtain, or rather a small part of it, namely on the border between the former GDR (East Germany) and the FRG (West Germany) during the Cold-War era.
  
It was the most fortified, best-guarded border security installation system in world history.
   
Who would have thought it would so quickly disappear after what will be marked by tomorrow's date.
   
This is not a historic photo, by the way, even if the black-and-white effect may suggest that (it's no coincidence, of course). It was taken only a few years back, namely at the border memorial at Hötensleben. In my view this is actually the one that provides the best impression of what this border used to look like, much better than anything you'd find in Berlin these days.
  
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Tuesday 7 November 2017
   
  07 11 2017   famous gun that fired the first shot of the revolution
  
On this Day, exactly 100 years ago, the October Revolution started in Russia …
  
… hang on, the “October Revolution” started in November?!?
  
Indeed. The confusion arises from the fact that back then the Russians were still using the Orthodox Julian calendar, the Gregorian calender was only introduced in the emerging Soviet Union after the initial revolution, namely in January 1918. And so it happened that the events of 25 October 2017 had to be re-dated to 7 November.
   
Those revolutionary events took place in the city of Petrograd, now Saint Petersburg (and Leningrad during the Soviet era), which was the capital of the Russian Empire back then. The Bolsheviks took control of various strategic points and eventually stormed the tsars' Winter Palace – after a blank shot was fired from the cruiser Aurora as a signal.
   
Today's photo shows that very gun from which the “starting shot” of the revolution was fired – and it's still a pilgrimage site, not just for die-hard communists! It's a regular tourist attraction too.
  
The storming of the Winter Palace, by the way, was nowhere near the violent battle that Soviet legend had it built up to have been – helped along by propagandistic paintings and a monumental movie by Sergei Eisenstein.
   
In reality the old guard didn't put up much resistance and, vastly outnumbered, with only a meagre proper defending force, and no communications available to call reinforcements, the government basically surrendered instantly. There was only minimal gunfire in the process and only two people were shot. Of course that wasn't the end of it, the revolution still had to spread across the country – which then developed into the Russian Civil War, which lasted until 1922. And that did claim hundreds of thousands, possibly even millions of lives.
   
So while the Aurora gun seen in today's picture only fired a blank on this day a century ago, the historical developments begun on that day had enormous repercussions and with plenty of dark aspects …
   
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Monday 6 November 2017
  
  06 11 2017   Phenolspritze   Mauthausen
  
Photo of the Day: something spookily medical again for a change. This is a syringe that is/was on display at the main exhibition of the Mauthausen concentration camp memorial museum in Austria (at least it was still on display when I last went to Mauthausen in 2013).
   
This was a “Phenolspritze”, i.e. a syringe used to administer phenol (aka carbolic acid) directly into the heart. It was one of the Nazi doctors' preferred methods of killing their victims (often after performing medical experiments on them and before an autopsy of the fresh corpse). I've also seen such a syringe in the old exhibition at Buchenwald, but I think it has meanwhile been removed in the course of the redesign of the current new exhibition, for “ethical reasons”, presumably. So you see, even concentration camp museum curators regard this as an especially sinister artefact.
   
I'm posting this today A) because we haven't had anything of that particular 'icky medical' subcategory of dark tourism on this page in quite a while, and B) like before when I posted medically pics, it's because I'm undergoing medical treatment this week myself. I will be given an injection in the process but I can assure you it won't be anything as lethal as phenol (I trust), so nothing too serious. It's quite routine in fact. That's as much as I'll give away.
  
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Friday 3 November 2017
  
  03 11 2017   Sputnik 2, Laika's space ship
  
On this Day, 60 years ago, on 3 November 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first animal into space, the dog Laika. This photo shows a replica of the dog's spaceship, Sputnik 2. The pressurized cabin for its canine passenger is at the bottom. It even had a little window!
  
However, it was not a joyous ride for poor little Laika. Contrary to Soviet claims back then that she lived for days in orbit, it later came out that she did in fact die within the first few hours of the flight, namely from overheating and stress. So in a way the “experiment” failed. Subsequent space dog launches, however, were successful and even returned dogs back to Earth alive – most famously Belka and Strelka, launched together aboard Sputnik 5 in 1960.
   
This replica of Laika's Sputnik is on display at the Cosmonautics Museum in Moscow. Stuffed Strelka and Belka can be seen nearby, looking hopefully – but motionless – out of their glass display boxes ...
  
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Thursday 2 November 2017
  
  02 11 2017   rusty ancient vehicle wreck, Chacabuco
  
Photo of the Day: a bit more of some nice and dystopian atmosphere. This time at the ghost town of Chacabuco in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, with a rusty wreck of an ancient truck in the foreground and some ruins and desolate emptiness in the background. Lifeless. Totally silent.
   
Chacabuco used to be a thriving 'oficina', a nitrate mining town with a then state-of-the-art nitrate processing plant and up to 5000 inhabitants at its peak. It had been established in the 1920s at a time when nitrate exports were a boom industry.
   
But nitrate, also known as 'saltpetre', ceased to be the valuable commodity it used to be when synthetic nitrate took over and mining was first scaled down and then stopped altogether. Chacabuco was closed down in 1940.
   
Having been abandoned for a few decades it was briefly revived – but now with the sinister function of serving as a concentration camp for political prisoners during the first phase of the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet who had seized power in a brutal coup in 1973.
   
After that, Chacabuco was abandoned again. Some restoration work was begun in the early 1990s and the site is now a memorial of sorts, yet it is so remote that only a few foreign tourists ever make it there. So it is a bit of a pilgrimage. But I found it absolutely worth it. The atmospherically desolate and extremely photogenic ghost town of Chacabuco was definitely one of the highlights of my travels to the region in December 2011 ...
  
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Wednesday 1 November 2017
  
  01 11 2017   collapsed staircase, Chagan ghost town, Kazakhstan
  
Photo of the Day: after yesterday's rather depressing post, there were two directions this follow-up could go in, uplifting or dystopian. But hey, this is DT, so dystopian it has to be!
   
This photo shows the collapsed staircase of a residential block in the ghost town of Chagan, a former Soviet strategic bomber base in what today is Kazakhstan.
   
It looks almost like a war ruin, but no brute force has been involved in this, just decay. This is basically what happens within a couple of decades if you leave a cheaply constructed apartment building alone.
   
The blocks of flats were living quarters for the airbase personnel, and of the same type as the hundreds of thousands such prefab constructions that dominated Soviet residential town planning in the Khrushchev and Brezhnev eras.
  
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Tuesday 31 October 2017 – global population
  
  31 10 2017   global population
  
On this day, six years ago, on 31 October 2011, the “Weltbevölkerung” (= 'global population') increased beyond the 7 billion mark. Within my lifetime the world population of humans has more than doubled. I remember when the 4 billion mark was broken. Now we are en route to 8 billion (currently the count stands at a bit over 7.6 billion).
  
Today's picture was taken in late 2011 at an art installation in the underground tunnels of the Karlsplatz metro station in Vienna. Here various LED number displays set into the wall visualize the statistics of different aspects, ranging from harmless things like the number of hours worked in Austria, or the number of books on loan from libraries, to several rather dark themes such as the rapidly growing sum of money spent on arms – it races up so fast you cannot follow the final couple of digits. Other stats include the number of people killed in wars, landmine victims, the amount of waste/garbage, the number of HIV infections, undernourished children worldwide, the growth of the Sahara Desert, and so on, and of course global population, which you can watch going up by more than one a second. In that context, even the at first seemingly funny inclusion of “the number of Schnitzels consumed in Vienna since January”, takes on a grimmer undertone (see below).
   
One figure shows a downward direction, but a slow one: the “number of days that Chernobyl will remain uninhabitable”. This is of course totally fictitious. For one thing, people do live in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, it was never completely depopulated, and even if it had been there couldn't be a precise calculation as to when the day comes when it will suddenly be safe again. Radiation goes down gradually not overnight. Moreover, the Zone isn't a uniform area, some parts are already perfectly safe (some always have been), others remain heavily contaminated. But I guess this number display falls under 'artistic licence' – same as “the number of people in love in Vienna” or “people unhappy in their jobs”. I mean, how could anybody actually calculate such things.
   
However, the growing global population is quite real. Since circa the 1950s the rate has been exponential.
   
Demographers predict a certain further increase, though probably no more doubling, but a slow levelling out – at what level remains contested. It could be at 9 billion, it could more than 15 billion. But it will HAVE to actually go down again, namely because even at today's level, such a population on our limited Planet Earth is unsustainable. Already soils are strained, a further increase of agricultural output may be difficult or impossible to achieve. Distribution could be improved, waste levels reduced, industrial cattle farming phased out (a prerequisite if 10 billion+ humans should be fed – then you just can't feed half the available crops to farmed animals … hence the remark about Schnitzels above). But even with everything optimized and streamlined to the max, there simply is a limit to how many people this planet can support long-term. Population levels have to come down, either gradually and “naturally”, in a controlled way, or else it could get really nasty … if either Mother Nature sees to it, or human civilization descends into collapse and global wars for the remaining resources ensue …
  
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Monday 30 October 2017 
  
  30 10 2017   Tsar Bomba model
  
On this Day, 56 years ago, on 30 October 1961, the Soviet Union detonated the largest ever man-made explosive device, a hydrogen bomb with a yield of over 50 megatons! It became known as the “tsar bomba”.
   
This is a reference to two objects on display in the Kremlin in Moscow, namely the “tsar bell” and the “tsar cannon”. Both were the biggest ever in their respective categories, and: both were useless. The bell from the 18 century cracked before it could be rung, and the cannon was so large that it was never used and it's doubtful it could have fired its 89cm calibre cannonballs at all.
   
Now, the “tsar bomba” did fire, but such a bomb could not have been used as a weapon, precisely because of its size and power.
   
In fact the device, officially designated RDS-220, could have had twice the yield, but it was decided to scale it down for fear of too much fallout. (At 100MT the estimated fallout would have amounted to 25% of all radioactive material ever released into the atmosphere in all other atmospheric nuclear tests put together.) This downscaling was done by replacing the uranium tamper of the three-stage device with a lead one.
   
Still it was more than three times more powerful than the biggest US device ever detonated (Castle Bravo Test, with a yield of 15 megatons), and it is estimated that the “tsar bomba” had an explosive force 10 times that of all bombs and shells used in WWII.
   
The mushroom cloud that the bomb created was 40 miles high and about a hundred miles wide. The flash could be seen over 1500 miles away. And the shock wave destroyed buildings hundreds of miles from ground zero. At ground zero the land was completely flattened.
   
However, as a weapon the “tsar bomba”, too, was useless. For starters, it was a huge device, 8m long and weighing 27 metric tonnes. Remarkably it was air-dropped, from a specially adapted plane (a Tu-95), namely over Novaya Zemlya in the Russian Arctic. Its descent was slowed down by a giant parachute to give the bomber time to get to a safe distance from the explosion – otherwise the fireball would have engulfed and vaporized the plane and its crew. Still the chance of the crew surviving the test was estimated at no more than 50%. The fireball nearly reached the altitude the plane was flying at and the shock wave made it drop 1000m. But the pilot managed to get the plane under control again and land safely.
   
Yet, given the evident risks and the whole scale of the bomb, both physically and in terms of explosive power, it could not possibly be turned into a deployable weapon. It was also ineffective, despite its enormous yield, because most of its destructiveness was actually reflected upwards into space. The fireball, though 4 miles in diameter, didn't actually touch the ground.
   
The test was a one-off, though a couple more devices of its type may have been built. One bomb casing of the RDS-220 design still exists and is on display at the Russian Atomic Bomb Museum in the closed town of Sarov, hence not accessible to normal mortals, let alone foreigners.
  
Today's photo shows a “toy” model of the bomb on display in the Central Armed Forces Museum in Moscow. In utter contrast to the enormous destructiveness of the real thing, this little model looks almost cute.
  
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Friday 27 October 2017
  
  27 10 2017   big gun, Singapore
  
Photo of the Day: as a kind of follow-up to yesterday's post, here's another big gun. This one is in a place that can genuinely claim to be one of the first victims of WWII in the Pacific “theatre” – namely Singapore.
   
Imperial Japan launched its attack on Pearl Harbor simultaneously with its landings on the Malayan peninsula on 8 December 1941. In fact in real time the landings preceded the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack by more than an hour, but because Hawaii is on the other side of the International Date Line the date there was still 7 December. Hence most people think that Pearl Harbor was first. It wasn't.
   
After the Japanese advanced south towards Singapore and subjected the city to heavy aerial attacks, the aggressors finally entered the territory of Singapore from the north and after losing heavy battles the British command surrendered on 15 February 1942. The “Fall of Singapore” was the biggest capitulation in the history of the British military.
   
This photo shows a reinstated coastal gun emplacement in what is now the Labrador Nature Reserve. When the war reached Singapore, this was a coastal fort with two heavy guns pointing out to sea and with a massive defence infrastructure. Yet, since the Japanese attacked not from the sea but from the hinterland, the various coastal batteries that were meant to defend Singapore were of little use – although the Labrador guns did briefly fire on the Japanese, both onto sea (sinking an ammunition supply ship) and towards the land, namely during the battle of Pasir Panjang (the ridge to the north of Labrador).
   
Before the big guns could fall into Japanese hands, they were destroyed when Singapore had to capitulate. So this gun emplacement is a reconstruction. All the trees you can see in the photo obscuring the view out to the sea are second-growth, i.e. back in 1942 all the trees had been felled to provide unobstructed lines of vision. The nature reserve that Labrador Park is these days has all grown since the war.
   
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Thursday 26 October 2017
  
  26 10 2017   Nationalfeiertag 4
  
On this Day it's “Nationalfeiertag” ('national day') here in Austria, when its military puts on a “Leistungsschau” (for the translators amongst my readers: try to translate word!), i.e. it shows off its hardware, usually some helicopters, a fighter jet (replica), various tanks and artillery. Kids can handle machine guns (get them early!) or clamber over the tanks … or not, as the case may be: the sign in the first photo reading “Raufklettern verboten” means 'do not climb'. The vehicle in question, whose gun barrel you can see here, is a M109 self-propelled 155mm howitzer (a US design from the 1960s).
  
  26 10 2017   Nationalfeiertag 5
   
The second photo shows the same without the sign and with the balcony of the Hofburg Palace visible in the background. This is all on Vienna's Heldenplatz ('heroes square'). This part of the palace is the Neue Burg – the last bit added to the Habsburgs' inner city palace complex. It was finished in 1913, just before WW1 (the defeat in which ended the monarchy).
   
And it's that balcony that is actually the dark link here: from here Adolf Hitler proclaimed the “Anschluss” of Austria, i.e. the de facto annexation of his home country by the Third Reich … and a crowd of 200,000 were cheering. So he was certainly able to “raufklettern” here. I guess there was no sign prohibiting this back then ...
  
Today, the Neue Burg is home to the national library and a couple of museums – but the dark historical role that this balcony played is not especially marked. Austrians usually prefer to think of their country as the “first victim” of Nazi Germany, and don't particularly want to be remembered as cheering collaborators. “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” ('coming to terms with one's past') is certainly more advanced in Germany these days.
  
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Wednesday 25 October 2017
  
  25 10 2017   Caracas, Venezuela
  
Photo of the Day: Caracas, Venezuela.
   
This is currently one of the darkest, most troubled places on Earth, as it were. Venezuela has slipped into chaos and despair, and has practically become a failed state.
   
Since the death of President Hugo Chavez in 2013, the country has become more divided than ever under his successor Nicolas Maduro and plunged into a bitter economic crisis with hyper-inflation at the same time. Many consumer goods as well as medicines have become extremely scarce, the shops are empty, the only trade still going is the black market.
   
The security situation too is pretty much out of control, crime is rife (including kidnappings), and political protests regularly erupt into violence, even resulting in deaths. The recent regional elections, in which Maduro's leading party claims to have won, remain controversial and have been contested by the opposition. So there is no sign of the situation improving any time soon.
   
It's a depressing development – Venezuela could be such a rich country, given its massive oil reserves. On the other hand, “Chavismo”, i.e. the late president's own form of socialism, is still adhered to by significant parts of the population (especially amongst the poorer people).
  
Moreover, its tourism potential could also be immense. And yet: currently, the general advice to tourists regarding Venezuela is “avoid all but essential travel” (e.g. on gov.uk).
   
This photo is obviously not a current one, but was taken way back when I visited the country in December 2007/January 2008. It was a great trip, taking in the Orinoco Delta, the Los Llanos plains and wetlands (the “Pantanal of the north”) and, especially, what I regard as the most stunning scenery anywhere on Earth: the tepuis of the Gran Sabana, the table mountains fabled as “The Lost World” (including the world's highest waterfall: Angel Falls).
   
This photo, in contrast, shows the drab side of the capital Caracas (where I only had two short overnight stopovers and didn't really see much). It was taken from a taxi en route to the airport as we passed from the inner city to the ring of favelas (slums) on the hillsides just beyond the regular residential blocks. Not an area you'd want to be strolling around in after dark …
  
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Tuesday 24 October2017
  
  24 10 2017   Eastern State Penitentiary, abandoned admin block
  
Photo of the Day: no big story today, just a cool picture – taken in the legendary former Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. This is obviously not in the cell blocks but in what used to be the administration part of the prison.
  
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Monday 23 October 2017
  
  23 10 2017   outside the Nord Ost Theatre
  
  23 10 2017   monument to victims of terrorism
  
On this Day, 15 years ago, on 23 October 2002, the Moscow theatre hostage crisis (aka “Nord-Ost siege”) began. It was ended three days later by Russian special forces pumping some kind of chemical gas into the theatre building's ventilation system, apparently some kind of incapacitating agent, and then storming the theatre. All of the terrorists were killed – but some 130 of the hostages died too and hundreds more were injured. This attracted severe criticisms of heavy-handedness and incompetence.
  
The hostage crisis began with a group of 30-50 attackers from an Islamist separatist movement in Chechnya entering the theatre of the House of Culture in the Dubrovka area of Moscow (south-east of the centre) during a performance of the musical “Nord-Ost” (hence the different names for the incident). The black-clad terrorists demanded an end to the Second Chechen War and a complete withdrawal of Russian troops from the republic.
   
The militants, who were heavily armed and had high explosives, initially released a number of the ca. 800-900 hostages, but threatened to kill the others if their demands were not met.
   
Then the Russian special forces launched their raid beginning with the chemical pumped into the theatre. Apparently not everybody inside the building was incapacitated and when the special forces stormed the auditorium gunfights broke out. Eventually all the terrorists were killed. Some sources claim most died from the chemical, but others claim that those terrorists who were merely unconscious were systematically executed by gunshots through the head.
   
The unconscious hostages were evacuated and treated by medics/doctors but since the security forces would not reveal exactly what agent they had used, there was confusion about what treatment to apply. It is assumed that this was the main reason so many of the hostages died. To this day it has not been disclosed what chemical had been used.
   
The handling of this hostage crisis put a black mark on the government of Vladimir Putin during his first term as president, just two years after the similarly inadequate handling of the Kursk submarine disaster and two years before the disastrous Beslan school siege …
   
The first of today's photos shows the building, with a commemorative plaque, as it looks currently (I visited the site in August this year), the other shows the monument to all victims of terrorism that stands in the square outside the building. The plaque seems to be well tended, but I found the monument in a somewhat neglected state, partly overgrown so that the words of the dedication stone next to the main obelisk were barely legible.
  
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Friday 20 October2017
  
  20 10 2017   Gaddafi gift to Tito   a camel saddle
  
On this Day, 6 years ago, on 20 October 2011, Muammar al-Gaddafi was murdered. The “Arab Spring” had engulfed northern Africa, including Libya, where it turned into civil war (in which the West also meddled). So Gaddafi's reign collapsed and he fled westwards. But he was was captured and lynched by an angry rebel mob. Footage of this was captured on a mobile phone, and shown on TV.
   
Colonel Gaddafi had led Libya since the 1969 revolution, a progressive modernizer at first, he later became an increasingly eccentric autocrat. In the process he turned the original post-revolution Libyan Arab Republic into his home-devised Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, based on his political writings on the so-called “Third International Theory”, a strange blend of Islamic and socialist ideas with a dose of nationalism, first Arab, but in later years more of an African orientation.
   
Nominally Libya had a direct democratic system during that era, but Gaddafi still presided over it as its “Brotherly Leader”, i.e. effectively as the country's dictator.
  
Internationally, Gaddafi was both a clever strategist but also a one-time sponsor of terrorism as well as aspiring to develop weapons of mass destruction (which he gave up in return for improved relations on the world stage).
  
Since his political ideas had some overlaps with those of Yugoslavia's leader Tito, especially in terms of anti-imperialism and the non-aligned movement, the two used to have a warm relationship with each other.
  
Today's photo shows a piece of evidence for that. It's an embroidered camel saddle that Gaddafi presented Tito with. It is now part of an exhibition of gifts to Tito located in Podgorica, the capital of the former Yugoslav Republic of Montenegro.
  
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Thursday 19 October 2017
  
  19 10 2017   Gefahr
  
Photo of the Day: Gefahr! ('danger'!)
  
This photo shows the air intake of a decommissioned fighter jet of the Austrian air force, on open-air display outside Vienna's military history museum. Its clever slogan is “Kriege gehören ins Museum”, literally 'wars belong in a museum', but the extra connotation implied is “wars should be a thing of the past” only to be reflected upon in a museum context but not put into practice any longer. It's thus a version of the familiar “never again”.
  
The plane that has this warning of danger written on it is an old Swedish-built Saab “Draken”. These jets, bought second-hand in the 1980s, used to form the backbone of the Austrian air force, its interceptor squadron – before modern Eurofighters replaced them from 2007 (at great cost, hence it was a highly controversial issue in Austrian politics at the time).
   
However, I heard from an Austrian linguistics professor I was associated with at one time (back in 2002) who had done his military service with some Austrian anti-aircraft unit near Innsbruck, that the whole idea of Austria trying to intercept planes violating its airspace was rather flawed. Over the “thin” western part of Austria it would take planes just a few minutes to cross through Austrian airspace from Italy to Germany or vice versa. Alerting the “Draken” fighter squadrons and getting them airborne, on the other hand, would have taken more than ten minutes. And then they'd have to make their way from their base in eastern Austria to the west, by which time any airspace violator would long be gone.
   
Apparently the Americans did just do that, i.e. just cross through neutral Austria's airspace. I think the story went that it was during the US's first Gulf War, though I'm not sure. But anyway, what could little Austria, with its fleet of ageing jets (the Drakens were designed in the 1950s), have done other than quietly accept and ignore it.
  
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Wednesday 18 October 2017
  
  18 10 2017   Felicette, the first and only cat in space
  
On this Day: 54 years ago, on 18 October 1963, the first and only cat in space, called Félicette, made her singular journey … and returned alive and well.
  
The French rocket she was launched with was based on a Super-V-2 rocket design by former engineers of the Peenemünde facility in Nazi Germany – and this is the dark link.
   
Everybody knows about Wernher von Braun, who went from chief designer of the Nazis' V-2 missile to heading the USA's ICBM and Apollo programmes. The same also happened on the Soviet side, and in Britain too. The Americans got the core group (through von Braun's own efforts, travelling to Bavaria in order to get captured by US troops rather than the Soviets), whereas the USSR and Britain basically only captured the second-best of the lot. But few people will be aware that France too made use of their former Nazi enemies' rocket expertise.
   
The space-cat capsule was launched atop a relatively small research rocket from a site in the Algerian desert and reached a height of 156 km on her 15 minute non-orbital flight (5 minutes of that in weightlessness) and then parachuted safely back to the Earth's surface.
  
Félicette (originally a stray cat picked up from a street in Paris) then spent the next few months in the research lab (CERMA - Centre d’Enseignement et de Recherches de Médecine Aéronautique), but was eventually put to sleep so that electrodes implanted into her brain could be retrieved for further research. Another cat was also launched a few days after Félicette's flight, but this time the rocket crashed and its unfortunate feline passenger was killed. They had another dozen or so cats lined up in the lab for space training, but I do not know what's become of those, other than that none were actually launched into space after those two attempts.
   
This photo was taken not in France, but in Saint Petersburg, Russia, namely at the Cosmonautics exhibition at the Peter & Paul Fortress. Amongst many other things it showed photos of various animals in space, most famously, of course, the first dog in space, Laika, launched by the USSR in 1957. Laika is thus still credited as the very first living creature in space (though, unlike Félicette, Laika did not survive her flight but died on board the capsule from overheating).
  
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Tuesday 17 October 2017 - Franz-Josef hanged in effigy.
  
  17 10 2017   Franz Joseph hanged in effigy, Historial de la Grande Guerre, Péronne
    
Photo of the Day: This is one of a whole series of “propaganda” figurines on display at the World War One museum “Historial de la Grande Guerre” in Péronne in northern France.
  
It is part of a section about how hatred of “the other” (or “the enemy”) was being fostered and orchestrated through propaganda on all sides. And this left Europe bitterly divided even after the “Great War” was over.
   
The negative and aggressive portrayals, such as this toy-sized hanging of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, had many forms in civilian society too and also found its way into everyday language, e.g. with Brits calling Germans “Huns”, while the French used the pejorative “Boche”, and Germans in turn called the French “Franzmänner”.
   
In the inter-war years this “hatred of others” partly fertilized the breeding ground for the rise of Nazism in Germany (together with the unfavourable terms of surrender in the Treaty of Versailles).
   
It was thus a great achievement that such divisive attitudes were overcome in Western Europe after WWII, first with the reconciliation between France and West Germany in the 1950s, which would pave the way for the precursors of the European Union being formed.
   
Currently, however, the signs are rather those of a return of division and nationalism instead of seeking unity and reconciliation. But then again, learning lessons from history has never been easy, nor long-lasting. And so we remain in flux … and who knows where we are heading …
   
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Friday 13 October 2017
  
  13 10 2017   past Chuquicamata to Calama
  
  13 10 2017   collapsed mine
  
On this Day, it's Friday the 13th – BAD LUCK day … if you're superstitious enough to believe in such things ...
   
So, to counter such superstition, today I give you a story of some bad luck that was turned around into a “miraculous” success story in the end:
   
Exactly 7 years ago today, on 13 October 2010, the Copiapó mining accident in the Atacama desert of Chile was brought to a happy conclusion when all of the 33 miners who had been trapped 700m underground after a mine shaft had collapsed were brought back by a specially constructed escape capsule that was lowered to their refuge chamber underground through a borehole that had to be specifically drilled for the purpose.
   
After the initial accident on 5 August, it took the rescue teams above ground 17 days to establish contact with the trapped miners. But they did find them all alive and in reasonable health and good spirits. And that even though they had been isolated in the dark, damp, hot underground with limited food supplies (intended to last only a few days – but through strict rationing they held out on it until the rescue workers were able to send down fresh supplies to them).
   
A plan was then devised and put into action to drill a wide enough borehole down to the miners and get them out that way. There was no guarantee that this would work – and it was uncertain how long it would take. But in the end, after about two months of determined work, it was a success story that attracted worldwide attention and awe when over the course of under 22 hours on 13 October 2010 all the miners were brought up to the surface one by one.
   
Imagine the despair, not just “bad luck”, of being trapped in such a hellhole for such a long time. Yet “the 33” (as they became known) kept their morale up and were eventually saved … So a super dark story that ended bright.
  
The rescue capsule, by the way, was called “Fenix” ('Phoenix' … as in 'risen from the ashes'). It is allegedly now on display in the Atacama Regional Museum in Copiapó. It might make for a dark-tourism attraction, but when I was in the Atacama some six years ago I was in an area further north (around Calama).
   
Hence today's photos show a) the Chuquicamata open-cast copper mine in the Chilean Atacama north of Calama, and b) a collapsed mine tunnel I photographed elsewhere (namely at a coal mine in Pennsylvania, USA) – the latter just to illustrate the idea of being trapped underground ...
  
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Thursday 12 October 2017 - Bali bombing monument in London
  
  12 10 2017   Bali bombing memorial in London
  
On this Day, only 15 years ago, on 12 October 2002, a series of terrorist bomb attacks in the tourist hub of Kuta on the Indonesian island of Bali killed over 200 people.
  
The photo shows the monument in memory of the victims in the centre of London, in Whitehall, right outside the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Horse Guards' Road next to St James's Park. It was unveiled on the 4 anniversary of the attack.
   
It was a “jihadist” attack carried out by the militant Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, who claimed they were specifically targeting Americans – even though Americans constitute only a tiny fraction of the Bali tourism clientele. Only seven Americans were amongst the those killed. Most of the victims were Australians, but also many Britons as well a citizens from some 20 other nations, plus a few dozen local Indonesians.
   
There are claims that the attack may originally even have been planned to coincide with the first anniversary of 9/11.
   
It was a typical al-Qaeda-style atrocity of co-ordinated bombs: first a suicide bomber set his belt off inside a busy nightclub at around midnight (prime party time, that is), then as panicking survivors, many of them injured, fled the club and ran into the street outside, they were met with the blast of a second bomb, this time a car bomb specifically planted in a van to “intercept” those fleeing survivors as well as helpers rushing to the scene. Perfidious. A third bomb that went off at the US consulate, however, did not cause much damage.
   
Even though the act was carried out by an Indonesian group, Osama bin Laden himself declared in an audio recording released afterwards that the attack had been in direct retaliation of the US “War on Terror” as well as the role Australia had played in the liberation of East Timor (namely from Indonesian occupation – which most of the rest of the world, and certainly the East Timorese themselves, saw as a very good thing).
  
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Wednesday 11 October 2017 -  the toppled giant at Ahu Te Pito Kura, Easter Island
 
 11 10 2017   the toppled giant at Ahu Te Pito Kura, Easter Island
   
Photo of the Day: I was talking with friends about Easter Island the other day, so here's one from there: the toppled giant at Ahu Te Pito Kura. Bet most of you will not have seen this one before.
   
Everybody knows those iconic images of the standing 'moai' (that's what these statues are called, 'ahu' are the platforms they're erected on), either those sticking out of the ground on a hillside of Rano Raraku, where they were made, or those re-erected ones, some of which have even been re-equipped with their 'pukao' stones on their heads. But the latter are all reconstructions, as by the 19th century all moai had been toppled.
   
It is assumed that this was a result of iconoclasm during tribal warfare that came about when the islanders had basically exhausted their tiny, isolated speck of land's natural resources. Since all trees had been felled, they couldn't even build boats to go fishing in. At the same time intense agriculture overstretched the soil, and overpopulation exacerbated the situation. Sensing the mounting threat, the politico-religious elite tried to reinforce their position of power symbolically by outdoing each other in erecting ever bigger moai. But as the environmental crisis got worse the hierarchical structure of their society, in which worship of the moai had played an important role, eventually collapsed. And so the old symbols of the failed system became targets when the revolting subordinates finally vented their anger violently.
  
Today's photo shows the largest moai ever made, and in this case it was decided to leave it in its toppled position, face down and broken, to serve as a reminder of the dark sides of the island's history …
  
The collapse of the Easter Island civilization is often seen as a warning model (“Easter Island Paradigm”) of what might happen globally, to all humanity, if we fail to make our economies/cultures sustainable. It is in this sense that Easter Island is a particularly dark destination.
   
Apart from that, though, it is also just extremely exotic and more remote than anywhere else (as far as inhabited places are concerned at least). Tiny Easter Island is thousands of miles from anywhere, 1300 miles (2000 km), to be precise, from the barely inhabited Pitcairn Islands, and a whopping 2300 miles (3700 km) from the mainland of Chile, to whom the island “belongs” these days. It makes for a real middle-of-nowhere feeling just being there …
  
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Tuesday 10 October 2017 - Windscale Fires
  
  10 10 2017   Windscale pile
  
On this Day, 60 years ago, on 10 October 1957, the worst nuclear accident in the history of Great Britain happened, the Windscale Fires. It was also one of the worst such accidents in the world at that time (later to be surpassed by Harrisburg, Chernobyl, Fukushima …).
   
The graphite-moderated reactors at the site, which is now known as Sellafield, had been constructed as part of the British nuclear bomb programme. Britain needed the prerequisite materials fast, and Windscale was to produce them. Reactor 1 and 2 used a system of horizontal “piles” with air ventilation (hence the tall chimney-like towers with their big filter blocks).
   
But in 1957 a cartridge in the pile caught fire, and various attempts at putting it out failed throughout the day. By then several tons of uranium were ablaze, with temperatures reaching 1300 degrees Celsius. Eventually the fire was extinguished by all air being shut off. Additionally cooling water was pumped through the pile. And so the next day the fire was finally stopped.
   
However, there had been a significant release of radioactivity during the accident, which gave rise to serious health concerns across the UK, but especially in the local area (elevated cancer rates were attributed to the disaster).
   
The photo shows the Sellafield site, which is still undergoing decommissioning, as I found it in 2008, when there was still a visitor centre some distance from the actual site. The photo was taken from there. In the centre you can still see one of the Windscale Piles' stacks, the other one had already been demolished. To the left are the reprocessing plant and the dome on the right belonged to the old Windscale Advanced Gas Cooled Reactor (WAGR) from 1962.
  
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Monday 9 October 2017 - Vajont
  
[Note: the photos' captions could not be reconstructed]
  
  09 10 2017   Vajont dam
  
  09 10 2017   Vajont dam, Italy
  
  09 10 2017   behind the dam   the rebuilt town of Langarone in the distance
  
  09 10 2017   mountainside still scarred from the landslide
  
  09 10 2017   nature reclaiming the filled in reservoir
  
  09 10 2017   remnants of the reservoir, Erto in the distance
  
  09 10 2017   ruin in Erto
  
On this Day, 54 years ago, on 9 October 1963, the Vajont Dam disaster in northern Italy killed some 2000 people.
  
It was part natural disaster and part man-made. The hydroelectric dam as such was an engineering marvel (at 262 metres the highest in the world at the time, and still in the top ten), BUT: the mountainside to the south of the reservoir that formed in front of the dam when it was completed was unstable. This geological instability had been recognized and warnings were voiced – but the relevant government officials preferred to ignore those warnings.
   
And so the catastrophe unfolded. Late in the evening, the mountain did collapse and the massive landslide that ensued displaced 50 million cubic metres of water from the reservoir in just a few seconds. The gigantic wave of water that formed overshot the dam's crest and surged down the valley to the little town of Longarone. Most of the residents had already gone to bed and thus were hit by the tsunami in their sleep. Some villages further upstream, such as Erto, were also severely damaged and lives were lost there too.
   
The dam itself, however, held – even though some sources claim the pressure it faced when the water hit it may have been stronger than the Hiroshima bomb's. Yet only the crest got scraped a bit. But the dam as such still stands. However, since much of the reservoir was filled with debris from the landslide the dam had become useless.
   
It is now a local visitor attraction and you can go on guided tours along a metal walkway that has been constructed on the dam's crest and look down into the abyss behind the dam. It's still a very impressive sight to behold (not for vertigo sufferers!).
  
In addition there's a small museum in one of the villages on the shores of the ex-reservoir that also tells the story of the 1963 disaster.
  
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Friday 6 October 2017
  
  06 10 2017   Ashgabat earthquake 1948
  
On this Day, 69 years ago, in the early hours of 6 October 1948, the city of Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, was hit by an earthquake of a magnitude of 7.3 whose epicentre lay just 25 km south-west of the city. It caused massive damage. Virtually all brick buildings collapsed and the death toll may have been in excess of 100,000!
   
Amongst the dead were the family of one Saparmurat Niyazov, who was left an orphan after the earthquake. Much later he became the country's leader, and iron-fisted dictator, after Turkmenistan became independent in 1991. He adopted the title “Turkmenbashy” ('father /leader of all Turkmens') for himself, and even though he passed away in 2006 he retains the title “president for life”.
   
His eccentricity also still remains legendary. He (in)famously renamed towns and even months of the year after himself and members of his family, and made his book of weird and wacky “spiritual” wisdoms, the “Rukhnama”, compulsory reading for every citizen. There are still golden statues of the man all over the country and even monuments to the “Rukhnama”.
  
Today's picture is of an oil painting that is on display at the extremely OTT Museum of Gifts to the Turkmenbashy (it's a bit like the International Friendship Exhibition in North Korea, which displays presents the Kims were given by other world leaders). The painting shows a dejected young Saparmurat amidst the rubble, ruins and ashes of Ashgabat, from which he was to rise like a Phoenix later in life …
  
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Thursday 5 October 2017
  
  05 10 2017   illegal photo of large RAF tanker plane at Mount Pleasant AB, Falklands
  
Photo of the Day: since I was talking about this with friends the other day … this was taken at the Mount Pleasant Air Base of the Royal Air Force on East Falkland.
   
It shows a Lockheed L1011 TriStar, a former passenger jet converted into an air-to-air tanker for the RAF in 1984, i.e. shortly after the Falklands War, when it had become clear that more long-distance strategic tankers and supply planes were required to sustain the Airbase. RAF Mount Pleasant itself was built to replace the old airfield in Stanley, which was insufficient for larger jets. The new airbase opened in 1985. It is also used for the single civilian flight connection to the Falklands, namely from Punta Arenas in Chile.
   
The RAF had a total of 9 such TriStar planes. But they were all retired in March 2014, after 40 years of military service (they were replaced by a newer Airbus design).
   
This photo was taken shortly before the planes' retirement, namely when I visited the Falklands in December 2013/January 2014. It is in fact an “illicit” shot, because photography was nominally not allowed at this military compound. But I hadn't yet been aware of that and nobody noticed me taking the picture – as I emerged from the plane's door onto the stairs. My wife, on the other hand, tried to take a picture of the “Welcome to the Falklands” sign by the apron, near the terminal building – but an agitated female RAF person quickly came running towards her admonishing her to stop photographing and delete any photos already taken at the base. Nobody asked me, so I quietly kept mine … and here it is now for you to see. Since the plane you see in it has long since been retired I doubt it will give away any military secrets anyway.
  
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Wednesday 4 October 2017
  
  04 10 2017   Ostalgie (at Mödlareuth)
  
On this Day, 27 years ago it was the day after Germany's official reunification. As a follow-up to yesterday's post, I therefore give you a bit of “Ostalgie”.
   
That's another very German word that isn't so easy to translate. Suffice it to say that the word is a blend of the adjective “ost”, 'east', and the noun “Nostalgie”, 'nostalgia'. You get the picture.
   
This sofa is covered with totally over-the-top representations of the old flag and state symbol of the former GDR. I'll leave it to you to decide whether the burst upholstery at the bottom left corner is to be seen as symbolic or not.
   
The photo was taken at the exhibition (“Deutsch-Deutsches Museum”) that is part of the border memorial complex at Mödlareuth, a village that was cut in two right through the middle by the former borderline between Bavaria (FRG) and Thuringia (GDR)
  
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Tuesday 3 October 2017 – German reunification
  
  03 10 2017   GDR border
  
On this Day, 27 years ago, on 3 October 1990, the Cold-War-era division of Germany was officially ended by the formal reunification of West Germany (FRG) and East Germany (GDR) – technically by the re-formed five eastern federal states of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Brandenburg, Thuringia, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt 'acceding' to the Federal Republic of Germany. And with that the German Democratic Republic ceased to exist. East Germany is still east, but no longer a separate country.
   
So why is this dark? Isn't it rather cause for celebration? Well, yes and no. Of course it was a joyous occasion for many – though not for everybody. It also had its less happy aspects. Economically as well as culturally the promised “blooming” of the east and the natural “growing together” did not just come about on cue, by itself, overnight. Instead it turned out to be a long and in various ways painful process. There were those who predicted this to be a not-quite-so-smooth transition and hence were less unequivocally filled with joy about reunification. And it's still not over. Such differences persist to this day. Also politically, as the recent general election has yet again shown.
   
For the dark tourist, on the other hand, the opening up of the former GDR and the many commemorative efforts undertaken regarding its dark history have provided a plethora of highly interesting sites, be it the various Stasi museums and ex-prisons or former border and Berlin Wall-related sites or abandoned bunkers, military installations and what not. You could travel around eastern Germany for many weeks on end before running out of DT-relevant sites to visit. I still have a long list of places I have yet to go to within the ex-GDR, and I'm sure there are scores more that I haven't even discovered yet.
   
Today's photo shows an old GDR border marker at one of the places where parts of the former inner-German border have been preserved, here with a stretch of metal fence and a watchtower. This is at the Point Alpha memorial complex near Geisa, Thuringia.
  
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Monday 2 October 2017
  
  02 10 2017   haunted murder house, Valparaiso
  
Photo of the Day: at the end of last week I promised not to post anything Nazi- or Soviet-related this week, so here we go – something completely different.
  
This is an abandoned, semi-ruined, wooden house in Valparaiso, Chile. Beauty in decay!
   
Moreover, I was told by a local guy that the house is allegedly “haunted”, because it was the site of an infamous multiple murder case. I can't remember the details, though. But anyway, because of its reputation nobody wants to go there, so instead of being torn down and/or 'redeveloped', the house is just left to slowly rot away …
   
Those who know me, and/or have read around on DT's main website sufficiently, will be aware that I don't actually believe in anything “supernatural” or “paranormal” and therefore normally exclude allegedly “haunted” houses from my dark-tourism coverage (the same goes for 'UFO'-associated sites like Roswell).
   
Nor would I cover just any murder site (there simply are too many – so I only include ones that are for some reason exceptionally significant, such as the JFK assassination site in Dallas).
  
But this house in its aesthetically appealing dilapidated state could for once represent those borderline areas of dark tourism and other forms of travel here.
  
And after all, it is just “pretty” in a dark kind of way (enhanced, admittedly, by the colour-extraction effect …).
  
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Friday 29 September 2017
  
  29 09 17   when Nazism ends   iron cross made from iron crosses taken from German POWs, Kiev war museum
  
Photo of the Day: and the last one in this week's Nazi mini-series.
  
This is how Nazism ends. The photo shows a display in the war museum in Kiev, in today's Ukraine, then part of the USSR. It involves a Nazi Wehrmacht flag thrown to the ground and the shape of an Iron Cross composed from hundreds of actual Iron Crosses, which must have been taken from captured German POWs and/or soldiers killed in battle.
  
The Iron Cross is probably the most recognizable Nazi symbol after the swastika. It was handed out as a kind of bravery medal and came in different variants (classes). It was much sought after by ambitious members of the Nazi military, seen as a mark of great achievement.
   
But of course if you amass such crosses in such a way it takes away the aura of being something very special … suddenly it seems common and meaningless. And I guess that was precisely the intention of the museum curators when they put this exhibit together. It subjects the Nazi symbol to Soviet triumphalism. So in a way it takes the fighting on the battlefield into the territory of aesthetics (here we go again) and of course it has to be made absolutely clear who's victorious. The Soviets were masters of such demonstrations of the power of aesthetics too …
  
But that's it now. Next week, I promise, all posts on this page will be completely Nazi-free! And no Soviets either.
  
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Thursday 28 September 2017
  
  28 09 17   Nazi office reconstruction, Memorial de L'Alsace Moselle
  
Photo of the Day: more on this week's Nazi theme – here's a Nazi office. Typical home of a typical “Schreibtischtäter” (see below).
   
The photo was taken at the Mémorial de l'Alsace-Moselle in France. It's a modern, very graphic and overall very visual kind of museum exhibition that chronicles the history of the region, which changed hands repeatedly between France and Germany.
  
The main emphasis is on the Nazi era and WWII, and part of this is this reconstruction of a “typical” office of the time, complete with swastika flag and a painting of Adolf Hitler on the wall.
   
You could say it represents the “Schreibtischtäter” of the Nazi regime. That's a very German word that is not easy to translate, really. The literal translation “desk perpetrator” doesn't capture it. It's about those who didn't personally commit atrocities in practical terms, who didn't kill by shooting, bombing, gassing victims themselves, but whose guilt lies in their participation in the bureaucratic management of the Nazis' state apparatus. It touches on the question of to what degree such Schreibtischtäter can justifiably use the common excuse of saying they only followed orders and only did their duty …
  
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Wednesday 27 September 2017
  
  27 09 17   Nazi cap on display at the military history museum in Belgrade
  
Photo of the Day: a Nazi hat.
  
After a book and some music, today it's the “fashion” side of Nazism. This photo was taken at the Military Museum in Belgrade, Serbia. But you can find the same sort of exhibit in many a museum all over the world, and especially in the east. I've just been to Russia where such artefacts are a standard encounter in all museums that have anything to do with the 'Great Patriotic War' (as they call WWII).
   
The skull-and-crossbones badge suggests that the original owner of the hat must have been an SS officer, as that was their dedicated symbol. The other symbol here, the Reich Eagle carrying the swastika in its talons, on the other hand, was commonly used on all manner of Nazi uniforms, on buildings, on stamps, on documents, everything.
  
The topic of Nazi aesthetics is a very sensitive one, of course, but I've heard it expressed many times that some of it, and spookily the SS uniforms and insignia in particular, has something strangely fascinating about it. I remember an interview with the late Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead, who was a collector of Nazi memorabilia, in which he said “let's face it: it's always been the bad guys in history who had the better clothes, the Nazis, the Confederates, ...”. But he emphasized that this didn't mean he was in any way sympathizing with the Nazis politically (“I simply like the clobber” he would say), quite the contrary.
   
A more academic discussion I read recently talked about the “terrible beauty of Nazi aesthetics”. And that also applied to architecture – often monumental “intimidation architecture”. But sometimes size does indeed matter and you can't help being impressed by it. The tricky bit, of course, is not to forget the political-ideological functions that all those Nazi aesthetics had.
  
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Tuesday 26 September 2017
  
  26 09 17   music from dark days   Neuengamme
  
Photo of the Day: to continue the Nazi theme … here's some Nazi music!
   
This photo shows a record that is an artefact on display in the exhibition at the Neuengamme concentration camp memorial near Hamburg, northern Germany.
   
The B-side is one of the most infamous songs that was a favourite amongst the Nazis, in fact it was elevated to become the NSDAP's party anthem. A typical, clichéd, military-patriotic battle song from the 1920s with simplistic lyrics about raising flags and standing strongly together, blah, blah … and with a melody that is uncannily not all that different in musical style from parts of the communist anthem “Internationale” (the hijacking of that revolutionary tone was probably quite deliberate).
   
Side A has the national anthem. The infamous first words will not need any comment or translation, I guess. Note, however, that the first verse with these words is no longer the contemporary national anthem of Germany (the third verse is).
   
In fact, the old first verse has been declared illegal (the Horst Wessel song, the B-side, as well, by the way). That is: singing it in public can land you in jail! And it has happened – I remember reading about a case a few years ago of British football hooligans who sang it in the Hofbräuhaus in Munich, probably to taunt the German guests. But the police were called and the offending singers had to learn the illegality of singing those lines the hard way, under arrest (I think they were then just kicked out of the country, rather than put on trial).
  
Also note that originally the words were written NOT as a Nazi song, but as a patriotic call for German unity, at a time (in the first half of the 19th century) when this was by no means a given. The author was Hoffmann von Fallersleben and he wrote those words while on vacation on the island of Heligoland, which at the time was actually a British possession.
   
For the music it used an older, already existing piece composed by the reputed classical composer Joseph Haydn as the anthem of the Austro-Hungarian/Holy Roman Empire. The original had words eulogizing the Habsburg emperor, in the most pathetically simplistic manner: “Gott erhalte Franz den Kaiser, unsern guten Kaiser Franz”. (I won't translate. If you need to know – and trust me you don't – ask a German speaker or try Google translate.)
   
Also note that the piece was first declared the German national anthem in 1922, long before the Nazis rose to power and when Germany (as the Weimar Republic) had a social democrat as Chancellor.
   
Yet the association with the Nazi era made it a controversial choice as the reinstated national anthem of West Germany in 1952 (and of all of unified Germany from 1991). Personally, and as a German, I'm still very uncomfortable with it and I'm glad that I was never in a situation in which I would have been expected to sing it.
   
I had a very surreal encounter with the music once – in the most unlikely location, namely in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Beijing, China, back in 2005: A string quartet was playing for the guests' entertainment in the hotel's lobby bar and suddenly started intoning the original Haydn string version (i.e. without any words being sung, just the instrumental version). I couldn't believe it. I just froze and looked accusingly at my cocktail – but no, they were really playing it, live, with gusto and lots of vibrato, and nobody else was batting an eyelid. Spooky!
  
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Monday 25 September 2017
  
  25 09 17   Volksvergifter Adolf, Kazerne Dossin museum, Mechelen, Belgium
  
Photo of the Day: Volksvergifter Adolf Hitler.
  
The eyes of the world were on Germany and its general election yesterday over fears of a surge in votes for the ultra-right-wing party AfD.
  
I'm taking it as a cue to look back at the original Nazis of Germany, whose reign only ended in defeat in WWII after tens of millions of lives had been lost.
  
This photo was taken at the Kazerne Dossin museum in Mechelen, Belgium, and it is an uncanny juxtaposition: Hitler's infamous book “Mein Kampf”, in a Dutch translation, and in the background the single word “Volksvergifter”. The latter translates roughly as 'poisoner(s) of the people' and was an expression the Nazis used to discredit e.g. Jews, communists, artists accused of producing “entartete Kunst” ('degenerate art', i.e. anything modern, abstract, and/or not full of Teutonic clichés), or basically just anybody who wasn't for them.
  
This photo's composition thus turns it on its head by suggesting that the real “Volksvergifter” was in fact Hitler. And I stand by that! He really was!
  
Let this continue to be a warning NOT to repeat history of such dark proportions.
   
As it turned out, the right-wingers did win a sizeable proportion of the vote in yesterday's German election, almost 13% – but that means they are still far from having any real political power. All of the other parties have made it clear that they will not give them a warm welcome in parliament and will not co-operate, let alone form a coalition with them. So it's not really that bad (yet).
  
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Friday 22 September 2017
  
  22 09 2017   Wagah
  
On this Day, 52 years ago, on 22 September 1965, the Second Kashmir War, or Indo-Pakistani War of 1965, was ended with a UN-mandated ceasefire after both superpowers, the USA and the USSR, had intervened diplomatically. The conflict had seen some of the largest numbers of tanks and other army hardware amassed in battle since WWII.
   
The war ended inconclusively, and in some sense it is still a 'frozen conflict' to this day, as the two countries' territorial disputes concerning the region of Kashmir have never been resolved, nor does it look like they could be resolved in the foreseeable future either.
   
This photo shows a scene at the (in)famous border-closing and flag-lowering ceremony at Wagah, the border-crossing point in Punjab ca. 30 km west of Amritsar on the Indian side and a similar distance east of Lahore on the Pakistani side.
   
During the ceremony, both sides put on a flamboyant OTT display of military posturing (literally) that is so outrageous that it is almost funny to watch … but at the heart of it is still a genuine military threat. One mustn't forget that. At least the shooting and killing has been replaced here with nothing more aggressive than highly ritualized gestures and parading.
  
  
<comment>The Indo-Pakistani border is still one of the most militarized borders in the world. In fact, India claims that its BSF (Border Security Force) is the very largest in the world – as seen on this sign not far from the Wagah border-crossing point.
  
  22 09 2017   bigly security force
  
  
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Thursday 21 September 2017 – Titan folder
  
Photos of the Day: because it was so exceptional I decided to give you a whole album of photos taken during my 5-hour top-to-bottom tour of the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona back in 2012 (see previous two posts).
  
Step through the photos one by one to get individual captions/explanations for each one of them. [Note: unfortunately not all of the captions could be reconstructed]
  
The photo gallery takes you basically from the top of the missile to below its bottom end, at the very lowest level of the silo with the flame deflectors.
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 1   visitors looking at the warhead through the glass roof
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 2   missile plugged in
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 3   underneath the missile
  Caption: Under the missile. At the time of my visit the twin engines of the Titan II were not attached to the bottom of the missile but on display elsewhere. But the curator told me that he was thinking of re-attaching them. He showed me a photo taken down here with the engines on – and indeed it would have looked much more dramatic.
  
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 4   flame ducts at the bottom of the silo
  Caption: at the flame deflectors. This W-shaped concrete structure would have been directly underneath the twin engines, one half of the W would have taken the left engine's flames, the other the right engine's, and taken each to the separate exhaust smoke ducts and vents to the sides of the silo.
  
  
The second batch is from the launch control centre. The launch simulation that is part of the tour (also the shorter ones) is a bit cheesy on the group tours (I witnessed one), when they usually ask the youngest ones in the group – kids usually – to sit at the desks and turn the keys. On my private tour it was just me and the guide, so it wasn't quite so show-y and much more real – because when the complex was on alert there would always have been two personnel at the desks in the control centre, one commander and one deputy.
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 5   launch control centre
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 6   secure box for the launch codes and keys
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 7   top secret
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 8   entering the code
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 9   all set
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 10   launch sequence
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 11   me launching WWIII
  description: Welcome to World War Three … in reality, though, just me sitting there with just one launch key would have been no reason for concern. One of the safety mechanisms against any single madman launching nuclear Armageddon was that for the missile to launch, after entering all the secret codes etc., both commander and deputy would have to turn their keys simultaneously, hold for a few seconds and release simultaneously. The two desks were also ca. 2 metres apart, so that no single person could possibly turn both keys at once.
  
   
The final batch takes us back out in the open, or “topside” as the missileers call it.
  
  21 09 2017   Titan 12   topside
   
 21 09 2017   Titan 13   not the only hazard here
   
  
   
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Wednesday 20 September 2017
  
  20 09 17   Titan II ICBM in its silo, Arizona
  
Photo of the Day: as promised, here's the follow-up to yesterday's post. This photo shows the Titan II missile inside its silo as seen from above, namely through a glass roof that partly replaced the concrete silo lid when the site was converted into a museum.
   
Atop the missile sits the warhead – and at the time this was the most powerful thermonuclear warhead deployed by the US: a whopping 9 megatons (for comparison: the Nagasaki bomb had a yield of a bit over 20 kilotons, or 0.02 megatons).
  
If you look closely at this photo you'll see that there's a square hole on the side of the warhead's re-entry vehicle. Apparently that was a requirement, basically so that the Russians can see with their own satellite eyes that the missile is indeed disabled and no longer poses any threat.
   
It wouldn't anyway, because obviously this missile (originally a training model) is not fuelled up. Otherwise normal mortals could not visit it, due to the toxic and hazardous chemicals used as propellants (see yesterday's explanation).
   
The Arizona Titan II museum offers a range of visiting options. The most basic one, and the one that the majority of visitors choose, is a short one-hour tour of just the launch command complex, a glimpse of the inside of the silo, and a look down it from the glass roof. Various other, longer, more expensive, and much more infrequently run tour options are also offered, and are well worth considering. I invested in the most complete option, the full top-to-bottom tour that includes every level and component of the whole complex in an intense private 5-hour tour. It was one of the absolute highlights of my entire “career” as a dark tourist.
  
Yet more on that in tomorrow's post.
  
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Tuesday 19 September 2017 – Titan II, Damascus accident
  
  19 09 2017   Damascus accident 1980, Titan II nuclear missile, Arizona
  
On this Day, 37 years ago, on 19 September 1980, a Titan II ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) armed with a 9 megaton thermonuclear warhead exploded inside its silo near the little hamlet of Damascus, ca. 50 miles north of Little Rock in Arkansas, USA.
   
In many ways it had been an accident waiting to happen. The Titan missile was a design from the late 1950s and relied on so-called hypergolic liquid propellants. That means two liquids, one the 'fuel' the other the 'oxidizer', would spontaneously ignite on contact – per design this would be inside the engines on launch. (The advantage of such a design was that no ignition system was required, so it was mechanically simpler.)
   
However, these propellants had to be stored inside the missile while it was on hair-trigger alert (it could be launched in less than a minute). And obviously this is a hazardous set-up, also given that the liquids had to be kept at a constant cool temperature. So cooling was required in the hot summers of the southern US, where these missiles were mostly deployed.
  
In addition these propellants are highly toxic, so personnel handling the missile inside the silo had to wear cumbersome safety suits.
   
On 18 September 1980, a two-man team entered the silo at Launch Complex 374-7 for routine work. One of them accidentally dropped a socket which fell 24m and punctured the missile's fuel tank. Fuel vapour was escaping and the two men had to evacuate.
  
Over the following hours the situation became ever more hazardous, as the fuel escaping the tank made the rest of the rocket unstable, and if it collapsed the oxidizer would come into contact with the fuel and … boom!
   
And so it came – after hours of various emergency teams discussing (and partially undertaking) all manner of attempts to prevent a disaster. But at about 3 a.m. the missile exploded. Twice, to be precise. The first explosion of the missile's first stage blew off the 740-ton silo lid and catapulted the second stage with its warhead into the air. This second stage then exploded too.
  
The warhead landed in a ditch just outside the launch complex. Fortunately, the safety mechanisms on its thermonuclear bomb held. Had it detonated, it would have been the worst nuclear accident in history.
   
The whole dramatic story of the Damascus accident is described in the minutest detail in a book I recently read, “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser (published in 2013). It's actually like two books weaved into one. The description of the unfolding Damascus disaster reads like a thriller. At the same time the book delivers a full history of the development of the American nuclear arsenal, from the Manhattan Project to (almost) the present day. For anybody with at least a passing interest in these topics, this is required reading! I cannot recommend it enough.
   
The disaster site at Damascus was cleaned up and “re-naturalized”, i.e. the remains of the silo were filled in and today there's hardly a trace of it visible. It is also on private land, so not normally accessible. The Titan II system was subsequently decommissioned completely over the years following the accident.
   
Today's photo shows the only surviving Titan II missile silo. This now serves as a museum, namely at a site near Tucson, Arizona, which I visited in 2012 and went on a full top-to-bottom tour. More from that tomorrow …
  
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Monday 18 September 2017 
  
  18 09 2017   Jimi Hendrix outfit, EMP, Seattle
  
On this Day, 47 years ago, on 18 September 1970, Jimi Hendrix died.
    
Hendrix, commonly regarded as one of the most influential and greatest guitarists in the history of rock music, was found unconscious by his girlfriend in his London hotel room in the morning. She called an ambulance and Hendrix was taken to hospital, but all reanimation attempts failed and he was pronounced dead by midday.
  
He had been weak, exhausted and possibly ill with flu, and used barbiturates. He had apparently taken a whole handful of sleeping pills and died of asphyxiation, basically drowning in his own vomit.
   
Given that he was only 27 years of age at the time, his death contributed significantly to the “27 club” legend. Examples of other musicians who died at that age, and are thus “members” of that “club”, include Jim Morrison, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Richey Edwards and Amy Winehouse.
  
Today's photo, showing a typical Hendrix stage outfit, was taken in the Museum of Pop Culture (formerly EMP Museum) in Seattle, the city where Jimi Hendrix was born. The museum is generally about pop culture, but with an emphasis on rock music. In the main exhibition, two dead “sons” of the city are given special attention, other than Hendrix that's Kurt Cobain of the band Nirvana, who were also from the region.
   
So, given that that's two members of the “27 club” commemorated in this museum, it definitely is an overlap of mainstream pop culture and dark tourism.
  
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Friday 15 September 2017
  
  15 09 17   Ta Prohm, Cambodia
  
Photo of the Day: staying in Asia, here's one from Cambodia. This photo was taken at Ta Prohm, a 12 century temple complex not far from the famous Angkor Wat. Unlike the latter, Ta Prohm was left in the atmospherically overgrown state it was found in when it was rediscovered in the 19 century.
   
Given it's such an ancient site, what's the link to dark tourism, you may wonder. Well, ask Angelina Jolie! Yes, you read right – now read on ... This is the link:
   
Angelina Jolie starred in the 2001 film “Tomb Raider” playing the role of Lara Croft. Not only was this film her breakthrough as an international star, it also forged a special relationship with Cambodia for her. And when you deal with contemporary Cambodia, there's no escaping one of the darkest chapters of 20 century history: the Cambodian (auto-)genocide at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s.
   
And so it came that Angelina Jolie recently directed and produced a film based on one of the accounts of this horrendous era, called “First They Killed My Father” – a memoir penned by Loung Ung, who was also involved in the adaptation of the book for the film script. (See also last Saturday's post on this page!)
   
The film, with the same name as the book, was shot on location in Cambodia and with Cambodian (lay) actors instead of any international stars. And this film is being released on Netflix ON THIS DAY! So if you're on Netflix, you could do worse than go and watch this film. It has great potential
  
  
<Comment> You can find a trailer of the film here: http://www.tiff.net/tiff/film.html?v=first-they-killed-my-father
  
<comment> and again here's the link to that article about the film and its importance for dark tourism: https://adventure.com/angelina-jolie-cambodia-dark-tourism/
  
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Thursday 14 September 2017 – bunkers at Mt Aso + lava bomb
  
  14 09 17   bunkers for protection from lava bombs, Aso, Japan
  
  14 09 17   lava bomb, Aso, Japan
  
Photos of the Day: a follow-up to yesterday's post … these pictures were also taken at the Mt Aso volcano in Japan.
   
The first one, taken from just a bit below the crater rim on the slopes of the volcano, shows a set of shelters, pillbox-bunker-like concrete structures built to provide emergency shelter for visitors (you can see people standing on the crater rim) in case there is an unexpected sudden eruption.
   
There is plenty of evidence that Aso has indeed sent lava bombs flying from the crater in the past. The second photo shows one of them, lying just metres away from one of the bunkers.
   
This lava bomb broke up on landing as you can see. There's no real reference for size, but this cracked lava bomb was about 2 metres in diameter and about a metre high. You certainly don't want anything like that landing on your head ...
   
Both photos were taken during my visit to Japan in 2009. I couldn't have taken them now. When eruptions are expected at Aso, as is currently the case, there is no access to the viewing area at all.
  
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Wednesday 13 September 2017 – 'No smorking' sign at Aso
  
  13 09 17   no smorking at Aso
  
Photo of the Day: we haven't had anything from Asia in a while. So here's one from Japan.
   
This was taken (in 2009) at the Mt Aso volcano, in Kumamoto Prefecture on the southern main island of Kyushu. In the background you see one of the volcano's craters, Nakadake, with its eerily steaming green sulphur lake.
   
So the sign in the foreground saying “no smorking” (sic!) is clearly being ignored by the volcano here. And in fact Mt Aso, Japan's largest active volcano, disobeyed even more when it woke up in September 2015 with a rumble and a comparatively small eruption, and then properly erupted again in October 2016, much more violently this time, spouting an ash plume 11 km high into the sky and covering the surrounding landscape with a layer of volcanic ash.
   
As of 1 September, the official alert level has been lowered to “1” again, but access to the viewing terrace by the Nakadake crater (as seen in this photo) remains restricted nonetheless. You can only go as far as the lower ropeway station. The toll road to the crater is still closed.
  
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Tuesday 12 September 2017
  
  12 09 2017   The Sphere, Battery Park, New York
  
Photo of the Day … the day after 9/11 (so a follow-up to yesterday's post). This photo shows the “Sphere” sculpture that used to stand in the centre of the plaza between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York.
  
It was damaged by falling debris when the towers collapsed, but somehow, miraculously, it escaped total destruction.
   
As “Ground Zero” was slowly cleared from all the debris and turned into a building site (where now there are the new WTC-1 tower, the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum, and other new developments), the “Sphere” sculpture was moved to a new location in Battery Park further south towards the tip of the Manhattan peninsula.
   
The choice of Battery Park was not an arbitrary one. During the hours of chaos in the immediate aftermath of the attacks and the towers' collapse, many people found refuge here. Amongst them was a teacher from a school just across from the WTC, who evacuated his class of pupils to this location, although in the chaos and dust clouds they got separated before finding each other again at Battery Park. So this open space served as an oasis and safe haven within all that chaos and therefore still holds a special place in the hearts of those who made it there on 9/11.
   
This teacher later joined the “9/11 Tribute Center” group (formerly named “Tribute WTC”) who conduct guided tours around the site of 9/11 and the former WTC. When I went on that tour it was his first day and he delivered his story to a group of strangers for the very first time. This story of witnessing the attack, evacuating the school and being engulfed by the dust clouds from the collapsing South Tower (he still suffers from lung damage) was totally gripping. He told his story when the main other guide took a break from his own narrative to give this new eyewitness the floor. The other guide had been doing it for years and was clearly experienced. His own link to the events of 9/11 (all 9/11 Tribute Center guides have some such link) was that he lost a brother who was a policeman, sent to the WTC after the first plane had hit, and who was killed when the North Tower collapsed.
   
But of course what story you'll get if you go on these tours will vary a lot from guide to guide. But that's the essence of the concept. To keep it personal. So you can go several times and always get a different angle.
  
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Monday 11 September 2017
  
  11 09 2017   mangled top of the mast of the WTC North Tower, Newseum
  
On this Day … I guess you know what's coming … 16 years ago, “9/11” happened. It changed the world, also for dark tourism. So the date has to be marked here.
   
The National 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York is one of the most popular dark-tourism destinations worldwide (ca. 5 million visitors in its first year alone). There are various other sites related to 9/11 not only in the USA but pieces of the WTC, for instance, ended up in museums all over the world.
   
Most of these are mangled steel girders left behind after the collapse of the Twin Towers. But the item in today's photo is different and unique: the twisted antenna mast that used to stand at the top of the North Tower. It too is now a museum piece – namely in the “Newseum” in Washington DC.
   
The Newseum is, as the name is supposed to suggest, a museum about the news, or rather: about news reporting, the media in general, its history, development and risks. It's excellent – and the 9/11 section especially so.
   
The mangled antenna is the centrepiece, but note also the background: there are hundreds of international newspapers' front pages published immediately after the attacks. It's extremely interesting to see the different approaches – especially those that did not succumb to the most obvious (the fireball after the South Tower was hit, which a majority of papers picked, by default, it seems).
   
I remember the front page of the German news magazine “Der Spiegel” standing out in particular. Instead of choosing a photo showing the devastation, the debris, ash-covered victims or so, it used a frame from the video footage of the second plane hitting the South Tower, namely the one just before it disappeared into the tower, i.e. the split-second before its impact changed the world (since it was only after the second plane had hit that it became absolutely obvious that this was an attack, not some big tragic accident).
  
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Sunday 10 September 2017: share Der Standard Interview (+ Bulgaria & DT article) [could not be reconstructed]
  
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Friday 7 September 2017
  
  07 09 17   toy from the early days of the Atomic Age, Dresden military history museum
  
Photo of the Day: since toying with nuclear weapons appears to be fashionable again at this present time, here's an image of a vintage toy from the early days of the Atomic Age … when there was an astonishingly (in hindsight) positive outlook on all things atomic.
   
That rather naïve positive attitude in popular culture soon changed, of course, and was replaced by a more “doomsday” outlook of fear during the most dangerous phases of the Cold War.
   
After the end of that era we thought we'd seen the back of such doomsday scenarios and nuclear sabre-rattling. But now it seems to be en vogue again, what with the current bizarre confrontation between North Korea and the USA (and Japan, ROK and the rest of the world). But I must say I am following all that with some bemusement.
  
I am far from a real, properly trained expert in nuclear weapons technology myself (though I've tried to read up a lot on it, as far as that's possible as a lay person), yet what I have learned about this subject makes me think that what is currently going on with North Korea is a crazy mix of exaggerated posturing, also wishful thinking perhaps, and just sheer propaganda. And too many people fall for it.
   
As far as I can see it is more than doubtful that the DKRK will actually be capable of firing a long-range missile with a (working) nuclear warhead to America any time soon, as so much of the media hype these days seems to suggest.
   
Yes, the Koreans have managed a series of underground nuclear test detonations, and yes, they keep firing missiles (which pretty often fail), BUT: a) none of these missiles would have anywhere near the range required to reach America (let alone have any degree of accuracy), and b) having a nuclear test device does not mean you have a warhead. You can't just stick a test device atop a missile, and voilà – there's your nuclear ICBM. It's just not as simple as that.
  
That's because the really tricky bit is the prerequisite miniaturization of the nuclear device, plus the development of a working re-entry vehicle, so that it can become a missile warhead. And don't be fooled by that photo of Kim and his alleged thermonuclear bomb – that's definitely just a propaganda stunt. From all we can know, observe and conclude, it's precisely this extremely complicated technology and expertise that the DPRK is lacking – and that, unlike uranium and rocket engines, can not be so easily imported from any sinister black market.
   
Moreover, even if they did have the capability (and maybe one day they will, but not in the short or intermediate term) would they really be so stupid as to immediately nuke a US target? That would be suicidal! The whole point of the DPRK wanting nuclear weapons is for them to serve as a kind of life insurance for the regime – given its conventional military hardware is for the most part hopelessly outdated, probably barely functional.
   
I don't know what Kim Jong-un is playing at and why he seems so keen on overstretching the bow in his posturing, but the way I see it the greater risks here lie in the reactions of the world to this propaganda game rather than in any real nuclear threat on the part of the DPRK itself (however unsavoury all this Korean posturing may be).
  
But so much for current affairs, politics and nuclear physics. Back to dark tourism.
   
Coming back to today's photo: this remarkable artefact is on display at the Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany (Militärhistorisches Museum der Bundeswehr). And it is excellent! I'd go as far as saying it's probably the best museum of its type in the world. And not just for its exhibits, but also the way it is laid out and how the artefacts are presented. It also avoids the all too common glorification of military hardware (what many military museums in the world do to excess), but looks at war and the military from a plethora of different, often unexpected angles. And one of them is “war and play” (where this “Atom-Rocket” can be found). Others include “war and animals”, “military and music”, and, of course, “war and death”.
  
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Thursday 6 September 2017
  
  06 09 17   whole floor missing, Kurchatov former hotel, Kazakhstan
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post. Here's another one from Kurchatov and it shows a different, current side of the place. It's partly a ghost town!
  
This photo was taken in an abandoned building that used to be a hotel – now whole floors are missing! It's cool for a bit of urban exploring, and for photography, but it is also testament to the decline of the town.
  
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Kazakhstan becoming an independent country, also came the end of nuclear testing at the Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS), for which Kurchatov had served as the headquarters.
  
Even though present-day Kazakhstan tries to pursue some nuclear programmes for peaceful purposes (the country did not inherit any nuclear weapons from the USSR nor has it developed any of its own) and has a nuclear research institute based at Kurchatov, the main reason for the town's existence, its purpose in life, so to speak, vanished when the testing stopped. And so Kurchatov's population declined dramatically as well, from over 20,000 to just around 8000 (according to Wikipedia - it felt even emptier than that when I visited the town).
  
Hence there are lots of abandoned structures and empty houses. The whole place has a rather forlorn feel to it. But that gives it an extra allure to the dark tourist, of course ... on top of all the nuclear history and the sinister problems that created.
  
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Wednesday 5 September 2017
  
  05 09 17   Kurchatov war memorial, Kazakhstan
  
Photo of the Day: war memorial in Kurchatov, Kazakhstan.
  
At face value this seems to be rather unspectacular. There are tens of thousands of such memorials to the Great Patriotic War (i.e. the part of WWII the USSR was involved in) all over the former Soviet territories. Every village has one. They often follow a familiar design pattern (stone needle, bronze soldier statue and the years 1941 and 1945).
  
What's special about this, however, is that it's, strictly speaking, fake.
  
Why? Well, Kurchatov was the city constructed specially to serve as the base for the nuclear testing programme at the nearby STS (Semipalatinsk Test Site). It was purpose-built - from scratch - in the same largely empty steppe of the STS. That is: before the Soviet Union's nuclear programme, more specifically: at the time of WWII, there was no Kurchatov town (the nuclear programme only began a couple of years after the war). In other words nobody lived there, so nobody from there could have lost their lives in the war. So what exactly is this monument to commemorate here?
  
It was probably just felt that no Soviet town is complete without its own war memorial of this sort. So they put it there regardless of the fact that Kurchatov logically has nothing at all to do with the Great Patriotic War.
  
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Tuesday 4 September 2017
  
  04 09 17   three crosses, Atacama desert
  
Photo of the Day: no big story this time, just a cool image ... three crosses (Atacama Desert, northern Chile)
  
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Saturday 2 September 2017
  
  02 09 2017   patriotism overload at the USS Missouri, Pearl harbor
  
On this Day, 72 years ago, on 2 September 1945, World War Two officially ended also in the Pacific Theatre with the formal surrender ceremony and the signing of the “Instrument of Surrender” document by Japan, aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.
  
Today, the USS Missouri (also affectionately referred to as “Mighty Mo”), seen in today's photo, is a museum ship that has been incorporated into the memorial complex at Pearl Harbor on O'ahu, Hawaii. The spot where the surrender ceremony took place is marked by a plaque and a glass display cabinet has replicas of the document.
  
As you can see in this photo, there is no shortage of displays of patriotic American-ness here either. In addition to the flood of stars-and-stripes flags, there's a copy of the statue based on the iconic photo of a soldier kissing a girl on Times Square during the festivities on “V-J-Day” in New York. There is another sculpture of the same sort at the Peace Museum at Caen, France, and a giant version first displayed on Times Square in 2005 has since been erected in several cities (I saw it in San Diego in August 2015).
  
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Friday 1 September 2017
  
  01 09 2017   Westerplatte, two 280mm shells from the Schleswig Holstein
  
On this Day, 78 years ago, on the morning of 1 September 1939, shells like these (with a calibre of 280 mm and weighing 330 kg each) were fired from the German cruiser “Schleswig-Holstein” onto a Polish weapons depot at Westerplatte on the edge of Danzig (now Gdansk). They were the first shots fired in what was to become World War Two.
  
Despite the surprise attack, the Polish defenders held out against the Nazis' onslaught surprisingly long (some 7 days), and thus delayed further attacks from the seafront.
  
Yet, as is well enough known, Germany still managed to sweep through Poland in its “Blitzkrieg” fashion and occupy the country … and that was only the beginning of much worse yet to come …
  
These shells are (were?) on display at the small museum inside a former guard bunker at Westerplatte … or at least they were when I visited the place 9 years ago. I've heard of grand plans for an all-new big WWII museum to be constructed at Westerplatte (a controversial project), and I wonder what will become of this little museum and its displays. Does anybody have an update?
  
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Thursday 31 August 2017
  
  when Syria was reaching for the stars   not going to the dogs
  
Photo of the Day: having mentioned Syria in the previous post, here's a little reminder that Syria was once reaching for the stars ... rather than being the depressing war-torn mess it is now.
  
This photo was taken at the Cosmonautics exhibition at the Peter & Paul Fortress in St Petersburg and shows the insignia of one of the "Intercosmos" missions, on which the USSR took cosmonauts from various allied "brother states" along in their Soyuz capsules. In this case that was the Syrian Muhammed Ahmed Faris (from Aleppo), who joined a mission to the Mir space station in July 1987 and spent almost 8 days in space. He was the first and only Syrian in space.
  
The Cosmonautics exhibition in St Petersburg can't quite compete with its much bigger counterpart in Moscow, the Cosmonautics Museum at the VDNKh, but it was little details like this that I thought made it special nonetheless.
  
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Wednesday 30 August 2017
  
  early Soviet ICBM
  
Photo of the Day: a follow-up of sorts to yesterday's post. This is an early-generation Soviet ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), or rather a replica thereof, on open-air display outside the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow.
  
This museum covers the USSR's and Russia's military history from ca. WW1 to the present day. The latter almost literally: amongst their newest artefacts on display are pieces of wreckage of the Russian Su-24 fighter plane shot down by the Turkish air force near the Syrian border in November 2015. That's indeed pretty recent.
  
A large part of the museum is predictably devoted to the Great Patriotic War (i.e. the part of WWII from Germany's invasion of the USSR in 1941 to the Nazis' defeat in May 1945), but for me the more modern parts, especially the coverage of the Cold-War era were more impressive.
  
Here an especially remarkable exhibit is the wreckage of the American U-2 spy plane that was shot down over Soviet territory in 1960 (the pilot, Gary Powers, was captured and put on (show-)trial but was later exchanged for a Soviet spy at Glienicke Bridge in Berlin).
  
So much history!
  
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Tuesday 29 August 2017
  
  RDS 1
  
On this Day, 68 years ago, on the morning of 29 August 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb at its Semipalatinsk Test Site. The bomb was officially named RDS-1, but in the West it became known as "Joe One" (in reference to Josef Stalin, of course).
  
The device bore more than a passing resemblance to the "Fat Man" design of the American Nagasaki bomb, not just in its looks but also technologically (a plutonium-core implosion device). It's no coincidence. In fact the design was obtained through spies within the Manhattan Project and the subsequent US nuclear weapons programme. (The Rosenbergs were tried and executed for it ... but that's another story for another post).
  
On my recent trip to Russia I saw two replicas of the RDS-1, both in Moscow, one at the "Bunker 42" Cold War museum, and this one at the Polytechnic exhibition at the VDNKh (a stand-in for the proper Polytechnic Museum, while its home building is undergoing substantial refurbishment).
  
Here it formed the core (excuse the pun) for the whole exhibition - and it came with a regular "sound-and-light show" involving a shaking bit of floor, rumbling noises and strobe lights. This shot was taken during such artificial light flashes, so that it looks bright and almost white. At other times it was drowned in awful garish coloured LED lighting, which my camera's white balance didn't like at all, so I was glad that I managed to get this shot done at the split second this bright white light was on ...
  
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Monday 28 August 2017
  
 [photos could not be reconstructed]   
  
... and another batch from Russia ... also in a way a follow-up to yesterday's post.
  
The first picture shows the (in)famous Lubyanka building in Moscow. It used to be the headquarters of the KGB, now it houses part of the administration of the successor organization FSB as well as of the Border Guards Service of Russia.
  
The second photo shows a plaque on the wall of the building depicting Yuri Andropov, who used to be the head of the KGB from 1967 to 1982. Afterwards he became General Secretary following Brezhnev's death. Andropov popped his clogs too only 15 months later, to be (briefly) succeeded by Konstantin Chernyenko, whose term in office was cut even shorter by his death only eleven months after taking office. And after that the comparatively young Gorbachev (then aged 54) took over as the final head of the USSR until 1991.
  
The third photo shows a memorial to the victims of political repression, incorporating a Solovetsky stone from the Solovki prison camp (part of the Gulag system) on an island in the White Sea. This memorial was erected in 1990, shortly before the demise of the USSR.
  
The Lubyanka building across the street had a notorious prison in its cellar/ground floor. Here, political prisoners were interrogated and tortured, and for most of them it was their first step into the Gulag system. Others never left the building alive (including, perhaps most infamously, Raoul Wallenberg).
  
There is even a KGB Museum inside the Lubyanka - but unfortunately it was no longer open to the general public when I was there ... At one point apparently it was open, but that's no longer the case (and I wonder why - does anybody have a clue?).
  
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Sunday 27 August 2017
  
  FSB   the new KGB
  
now back from Russia ... without running into any problems with these guys  ;-)
  
That's the shoulder patch of the FSB, the successor of the infamous KGB, so the Russian Federation's contemporary secret service/police.
  
This particular specimen is part of a dummy-in-uniform display at the Museum of the History of Political Police in St Petersburg (yes, they really do have such a museum!).
  
Fortunately I must have behaved myself sufficiently well on this past trip to Russia that I never had to encounter any police, political or otherwise, for real  ;-)
  
Now back at home in Vienna, I have well over 60 GB of photo material to sort through and process ... it will take a while, obviously. But you can expect a continuing flow of Russia-themed photos to appear here for some time to come ...
  
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Saturday 26 August 2017
  
  Volgograd
  
Photo of the Day: another one from Volgograd. This is probably the second most important memorial here: the ruins of the Old Mill, next to the Panorama and War Museum.
  
It's the city's only large-scale ruin left in its war-torn state. After the Battle of Stalingrad, almost the entire city looked like this. Everything else you see today has all been rebuilt after the war - except for this ruin and a small ensemble of old Tsarist-era buildings in a courtyard that somehow escaped the otherwise total destruction.
  
As we all know, the Battle of Stalingrad was the great turning-point in WWII - the first major defeat of Hitler's Wehrmacht. From then on it was retreat for the Nazis ... in a scorched-earth manner.
  
For the city of Stalingrad, renamed Volgograd after Stalin's death, the battle still totally characterizes the place. In addition to the large-scale memorials, there are smaller ones practically on every corner. Most tourist souvenirs on sale also represent the 'Great Patriotic War'. It's absolutely everywhere.
  
Today, I have a little bit more exploring to do, before flying back to Moscow in the afternoon for my last night (at an airport hotel) of this very fruitful trip to Russia. Hopefully I can post more from there - or otherwise I'll add more follow-ups when I'm back home.
  
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Friday 25 August 2017
  
  Rodina Mat 2
  
Photo of the Day ... and possibly the highlight of this trip, certainly in terms of Soviet monumentalism - because it simply does not get any more monumental than this!
  
This is the famous Rodina Mat at Mamayev Kurgan in Volgograd (formerly 'Stalingrad'), the absolute *mother* of all 'Mother Russia' monuments in the former USSR ...
  
And here the Soviet Union seems pretty much alive and kicking still. There is even a Stalin Museum right behind the memorial complex ... very bizarre.
  
Also bizarre, but good for giving a size reference: the statue is undergoing substantial refurbishment (very much needed), and if you look closely, you'll see some workmen at the top right in front of Rodina Mat's mouth ... gives you a sense of dimensions!
  
Tomorrow is my last day here in Volgograd, and possibly my last chance of posting anything before going home, unless I do another one over breakfast tomorrow or from my airport hotel at Moscow before my flight home the morning after tomorrow ...
  
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Thursday 24 August 2017
  
  Cosmos hotel Moscow
  
quick photo of the day: as it turned out, the Cosmos Hotel in Moscow (seen in today's picture) did indeed, as feared, make for a four-day Internet blackout. So: sorry for the unusually long period of silence ... but I did forewarn you  ;-) ... that place was a very back-to-the-USSR experience in more than one way ... I'll report more later
  
Now I've moved on to Volgograd, where I can at least get brief Internet access in the lobby of the Intourist hotel. Still no connection in the room, so I'll keep this short for now.
  
Tomorrow I have a big itinerary. First and foremost, a visit to the famous Mamaev Kurgan with the "mother of" all Mother Russias, the grandest soc-real statue ever made.
  
I already saw it from a distance from the tram today. Tomorrow - in better morning light - it'll be a closer encounter. Very much looking forward to it.
  
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Saturday 19 August 2017
  
today I am moving on to another hotel - itself a quirky Soviet relic: the gigantic "Cosmos" hotel, built for the 1980s Olympics out at the VDNKh. Whether I'll get as good WiFi there as I've enjoyed here is doubtful. So I may not be able to post as much and as regularly as of late, or maybe not even at all, for the next four days. After that I'll fly to Volgograd, where I already know that I won't have WiFi in the hotel room. So there may be an even longer period of silence ... unless I find some hotspot elsewhere in town. We'll see
  
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Saturday 19 August 2017
  
  Lenin shrine at Gorky Leninskiye
  
Photo of the Day: another one from Gorky Leninskiye ... since I had kind of promised that earlier this week.
  
This was taken at the Lenin Museum that was added to the complex in 1985. It was the final effort in the Soviet cult of personality about Lenin. And what an effort it was!
  
The whole experience of visiting the place very much reminded me of my visit to North Korea several years ago: the gold and red colours, the white marble, the sombre aura, the hyperbole about tiny little displays (like certain documents), and especially the automated display 'cubes' (large glass cabinets about 4 metres high and wide).
  
In these, whole scenes were played by a combination of moving screens and objects plus lighting effects and a super-serious soundtrack.
  
The only difference was that the old lady guiding us through the museum wasn't taking all of this quite as seriously as a Korean guide would have. She expressed kind of sarcastic astonishment about the fact that the old remote control from the 80s was still working (to start the 'cube' shows). She even let me handle it, even though if I had dropped it and it broke, that would be the end of the show elements in this museum 
  
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Saturday 19 August 2017
  
  gulag cell doors
  
Photo of the Day: cell doors from various gulags. Seen yesterday at the excellent GULAG History Museum, Moscow.
  
I went there yesterday with already rather high expectations ... and it exceeded them!
  
In fact, it's probably the best museum I've seen on this trip so far (and it will be a hard one to top). It may be a bit thin on the original artefacts front (there simply aren't so many to be found still - some of these doors were retrieved on expeditions to the sites of former camps at extremely remote locations), but it more than makes up for this through the narrative, both in the bilingual (Russian & English) text panels, the (English subtitled) videos of interviews with former gulag inmates, and the superb audio-guide. I often prefer not to use those devices, but here I thought it would be useful. And I'm glad I did make that decision. Not only was the content highly illuminating, it was also delivered in perfect English by a native speaker (unlike the rather clumsy, highly accented English you often get in Russia elsewhere).
  
After the museum had/was moved from the centre of Moscow, some people wondered whether that was in order to make it less visible and whether the content would also be affected (sanitized maybe?). But as with Perm-36 these concerns turned out to be unfounded. They even show a video featuring the curators explaining the move to these larger premises, and also featuring footage of Putin himself endorsing the museum and calling for a better coming to terms with Russia's dark history of repression. Now that's something I really wouldn't have expected here.
  
So, top marks for this superb museum. If you ever are in Moscow put it towards the top of your priority list. And allocate plenty of time. I spent a whole 4 hours in there!
  
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Friday 18 August 2017
  
  Lenin bathtub
  
Photo of the Day: a bathtub ... now, you might think, how can that possibly be dark? Well, it can be (also think of Uwe Barschel's - cue for my German readers who can remember the 80s, others will probably not get the reference). This is the bathtub in which Lenin was first embalmed immediately after his death. It was the first stage in preserving his body, later followed by more elaborate processes, so that it can still be viewed to this day at the Lenin mausoleum outside the Kremlin in Moscow.
  
This bathtub is at Gorky Leninskiye, the country manor house where Lenin spent the last couple of years of his life, suffering from deteriorating health. He initially was recuperating well from his first stroke, but had two more, and eventually fell into a coma and died on 21 January 1924.
  
The estate at Gorky Leninskiye has been preserved and restored. Guided tours of Lenin's (and his family's) rooms also include a peek into his bedroom with his deathbed.
  
In addition there is a separate Lenin museum (first established in 1985), which also incorporates his study. This had been preserved in its original state at the Kremlin following Lenin's death, but was moved here in the mid-1990s. The museum is a jaw-dropping throwback to Soviet times - a full-on cult-of-personality onslaught ... probably worth a separate post of its own at some point (maybe soon).
  
Today is going to be a heavy museum day in Moscow ... I've got three lined up, including the newly relocated and revamped GULAG museum, which I am especially intrigued about. Watch this space ...
  
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Thursday 17 August 2017
  
  Nazi trophies at the Moscow Great Patriotic War Museum
  
Photo of the Day: Nazi trophies taken from a Wehrmacht commander by a Red Army commander during WWII ... seen yesterday at the Great Patriotic War Museum at Park Pobedy ('Victory Park'), Moscow.
  
The park is enormous (like Moscow itself), and I couldn't do everything - since I had a walking tour booked for the afternoon back in the centre. So I gave the outdoor exhibition of tanks, guns and other war hardware a miss. I think after Monino these would have had a hard time to impress me, really. Also, tanks and artillery do not excite me remotely as much as wacky Soviet aircraft designs.
  
But if I can find time later on this trip (quite unlikely), I might try to go back for those parts.
  
The indoor museum is also vast, with several cool exhibitions. The main one even includes a mock-up of the bullet-pockmarked columns and steps of the Reichstag in Berlin, complete with various graffiti by Red Army soldiers.
  
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Wednesday 16 August 2017
  
  IMGP0656
  
... just now, crossing Bolshoy Moskvoretsky Bridge in Moscow, I came across this little improvised memorial shrine to Boris Nemtsov, the Russian opposition leader who was shot dead on this spot exactly 901 days ago.
  
I hadn't expected that here, to be honest ... I was really quite moved by this little discovery.
  
Before that, the day had been a hard day's field work for DT, with Park Pobedy (and the Great Patriotic War Museum) the main thing ... it was lots and lots of walking in the heat outside and along endless (rather cold) museum corridors inside. But it was all worth it. I'll post a photo or two from that before long.
  
Tomorrow, it'll be a tour to Gorky Leninskiye, and in the late afternoon the Contemporary History Museum, which is said to be quite good. Anyway, it'll be another interesting and full day ... stay tuned.
  
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Tuesday 15 August 2017
  
Photo series of the day: to make up for the last few days' lack of posts I give you another set of photos. I was at a friend's house and then out in the country - at the "dacha" - so no WiFi. But now I'm back in Moscow and can resume posting.
  
In Yaroslavl I expected a break from any sort of dark tourism, but then to my surprise (and delight) I was taken on an impromptu "urban exploration" ('urbex') trip to these abandoned and semi-ruined former grain silos by the Volga River, just outside Yaroslavl. So that was kind of DT, right?
  
After fighting through the undergrowth we reached the base of the tallest of the towers, found a staircase inside and went up to the top. The stairs were rather dicey in places, but with care and patience we managed to negotiate them. The view from the top was a cool reward ... our host even supplied celebratory shots of his own moonshine to salute it. Fortunately only one shot each, otherwise the descent down those stairs, past big gaps in the walls and parts of the floor, would have been even more dicey ...
  
  15 08 2017   urbex 1
  
  15 08 2017   urbex 2
  
  15 08 2017   urbex 3
   
  15 08 2017   urbex 4
  
  15 08 2017   urbex 5
  
  15 08 2017   urbex 6
  
  
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Tuesday 15 August 2017
  
  15 08 2017   Victor Tsoi graffiti, Pavlodar, Kazakhstan
  
On this Day, 27 years ago, on 15 August 1990, Soviet rock icon Viktor Tsoi was killed in a road accident, aged only 28. He is still revered all over the former USSR – as evidenced by this image of him sprayed onto a garage door near Pavlodar, Kazakhstan.
  
Tsoi, co-founder, guitarist-singer and frontman of the Band “Kino” (Кино) was one of the most popular and influential pioneers of rock music in the Soviet Union. His tragic death came during the production of a new album, for which he and a fellow band member had temporarily relocated to Latvia. On 15 August, Tsoi drove his car on a highway west of Riga and, so the investigation after his death concluded, he must have fallen asleep behind the wheel, possibly due to fatigue from the work on the album. He veered into an oncoming bus and was killed outright.
  
Remarkably, the tape he had with him in the car survived (other sources claim it wasn't actually in the same car, but anyway ...). The tape contained the vocal tracks for the forthcoming album and so the remaining band members were able to finish the album without Tsoi and released it as a tribute to Tsoi under the title “Black Album” (Чёрный альбом), with a completely black cover, in December 1990, as their 8th and final studio album.
  
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Saturday 12 August 2017
  
  11 08 2017   Monino 1   futuristic
  
Yesterday at the Central Air Force Museum in Monino, about an hour's train ride from Moscow. I give you a set of photos, and these will have to do for the next few days, as I'm now taking some time off this DT field trip to stay with friends of my wife's in Yaroslavl until Tuesday (then it's back to Moscow).
  
The museum at Monino has the largest and best collection of Soviet aircraft in the world. Many pieces are unique - in that they were one-off prototype designs, including some really wacky, weirdly shaped planes, such as those seen in the first three images here. But there are also real beauties of Soviet design (such as the Tu-22M supersonic bomber - or of course the legendary MiG-29, MiG-31 or Su-27 interceptor fighters).
  
  11 08 2017   Monino 2   biggest chopper ever
  
  11 08 2017   Monino 3   crazy
  
  11 08 2017   Monino 4   Tu 22M
  
Some classics of the Cold War are here, including the mainstay of the Soviet long-range strategic bomber fleet, NATO reporting name "Bear", with its sleek V-wing with four double propeller engines ... the most powerful and fastest turboprop plane ever built.
  
  11 08 2017   Monino 5   splat
  
However, parts of the museum are in a bad shape. You can see that it doesn't receive sufficient funding. Some of the planes are just lying half broken in an overgrown field, and are impossible to get close to. That's a shame, but still, there is plenty enough to justify the somewhat cumbersome journey out there (by regional 'elektrichka' train and then a ca. 20 minute walk). It's perfectly doable travelling there independently, provided you can at least read Cyrillic and preferably have some basic Russian for buying the tickets. That way you don't have to go on the hugely expensive guided tours that several Moscow tour operators have on offer.
  
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Friday 11 August 2017
  
  prison cell of Alexandr Ulyanov
  
Photo of the Day: one more from St Petersburg, taken a few days ago.
  
Prison cell at the Trubetskoy Bastion in the Peter & Paul Fortress in the heart of the city.
  
In this cell the brother of Lenin, Alexander Ulyanov (Lenin's real name was Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov), was incarcerated for being a leader of the People's Will Party (which the Tsar regarded a "terrorist organization" - that ploy seems to be as old as the hills ...), before he was executed at Schlisselburg, north-east of Petersburg, in 1887.
   
But today will take me back into the 20th century and the Cold War era, namely on an excursion to Monino and its large Soviet aircraft museum ... expect some pics of weird Soviet-design supersonic bombers and stuff like that ...
  
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Thursday 10 August 2017
  
[sorry, photo could not be turned]
  
  IMGP9776
  
Photo of the Day: yesterday at the Perm-36 GuLag ...
  
This is the only proper memorial at an authentic gulag site. In recent years there has been a bit of confusion about its fate. Lonely Planet, Monument Watch and others incorrectly reported that the memorial closed a couple of years ago. It had indeed long been under threat, and the people who previously ran it were indeed pushed out. But the place has been taken over by "the state" and in fact never really closed.
  
Also contrary to some reports it has not been completely changed into a sanitized, revisionist narrative. The old exhibition in one of the barracks is still there, but has been supplemented by additional exhibitions, some permanent, some temporary. So nothing's been "lost", really, even though things have indeed changed. Most importantly, the buildings, fences, watchtowers etc. are all still there.
  
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Wednesday 9 August 2017
  
  09 08 2017   piece of destroyed cathedral, Nagasaki
  
On this Day, 72 years ago, on 9 August 1945, the second and so far last atomic bomb was dropped in “anger”, this time on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Given that Japan surrendered to the USA a few days later, the Nagasaki bomb is sometimes considered the crucial straw that broke the camel's back, “the bomb that ended WWII”. Others see in it an unnecessary, blatant war crime, and possibly more intended at sending a signal to the Soviets. But I'll leave aside the political interpretations here.
  
The photo shows the main 'ground zero' memorial in the background and in the foreground some parts of the ruins of Urakami Cathedral, which was destroyed by the blast (back then it was the largest church in the Far East). This part of its wall was moved here when the cathedral as such was rebuilt at the original location some 500m from the 'ground zero' site.
  
If you're not so familiar with the history of Nagasaki you may wonder what a cathedral is doing in Japan?!? Explanation: Nagasaki was, and to a degree still is, the most “multicultural” and hence also “multifaith” cities in this otherwise rather homogeneous country, culture-wise. Nagasaki remained a point of contact with the rest of the world during the centuries when Japan otherwise isolated itself. In Nagasaki, some trade contacts with e.g. Portugal, Holland and the British Empire were kept alive. Even today there is still a “Dutch quarter”, and a British one – and: several Christian churches. And these are indeed an odd sight in the Japanese context. But they are a peculiar special characteristic of this city – which I found to be my favourite one of all the five cities I visited on my Japan trip a few years ago (the others were Hiroshima. Kagoshima, Naha, and of course Tokyo)
  
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Tuesday 8 August 2017
  
  IMGP8986
  
Photo of the Day: another one from 'on the road' as it were, more precisely: a photo I took two days ago in Saint Petersburg, namely at the anatomical collection (started by none other than Peter the Great himself) at the Kunstkamera.
  
The anatomical collection is definitely the highlight here, especially from a dark perspective ... and to my great surprise there were no restrictions on photography whatsoever here (very much unlike at similar institutions elsewhere!), so I had a field day! This is one of my favorites because the empty eye sockets being see-through from this angle give the impression of a fierce, piercing stare.
   
Other specimens included all manner of deformed babies in jars of formaldehyde - some looking really gruesome (and they were even labelled 'monsters'), others much more angelic (cf. the post about the Semey university anatomical museum earlier on this page - or the associated chapter on DT's main website).
  
I'm sure a few others of those photos I took at the Kunstkamera will appear here before long.
  
But for now I've moved on to Perm in the Urals region, i.e. on the border with western Siberia (but I'll stay on the European side). Tomorrow's plan is the big excursion including the Perm-36 gulag site. I'm very intrigued about that ... I'll report back soon
  
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Monday 7 August 2017
  
  07 08 2017   Korczak monument, Jewish cemetery, Warsaw
  
On this Day, 75 years ago, on 7 August 1942, Janusz Korczak accompanied “his” children from the Jewish orphanage that he ran in Warsaw into the gas chambers of the Treblinka extermination camp when the Nazis liquidated the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw.
  
Korczak had been offered sanctuary repeatedly but refused to “abandon” his orphans. He was not only a famous doctor and pedagogue but had also written popular children's books. So the Nazis had a sort of “special treatment” in mind for him, as they occasionally reserved for “prominent Jews” (he could perhaps have been sent to the “model” camp Theresienstadt instead).
  
Allegedly he was again offered a chance to escape when he and his group of ca. 200 children (all dressed in their Sunday best) arrived at the “Umschlagplatz”, the place from where the deportation trains departed for Treblinka. But again he turned the offer down and instead stayed with “his” children all the way to the bitterest end. This loyalty is hence remembered as one of the most outstanding acts of self-sacrifice to this day.
   
Today's photo shows a monument to Korczak and some of the children at the old Jewish cemetery in Warsaw at Okopowa Street. There are many more monuments of him, both in Warsaw, e.g. outside the orphanage (which still exists), as well as e.g. at the site of the former Treblinka death camp and at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel.
  
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Sunday 6 August 2017
  
  06 08 2017   molten glasses, Hiroshima
  
On this Day, 72 years ago, on 6 August 1945, the world's first atomic bomb was dropped in war, namely on the Japanese city of Hiroshima in the final phases of the Second World War in the Pacific “theatre”.
  
Today's photo shows an exhibit at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, a pair of glasses melted inside their metal case by the intense heat of the bomb. This artefact was donated to the museum by Ayano Harigaki. It is one of a large number of breathtaking exhibits at this museum. I remember it as one of the best museums with a dark theme that I've ever been to.
  
And I still keep learning new details about the Hiroshima bombing. Just recently I read that of the ca. 64 kg of enriched uranium in the bomb, only a bit over 1% actually fissioned the rest, almost 99% was just blown apart. And of the small amount of uranium in the fission reaction most was turned into lighter elements. Only as little as 0.7 grams was actually turned into pure energy. That's less than the weight of a small bank note (like a Dollar bill). This gives you an idea of the enormous energy inside an atom. 0.7 grams of the uranium atoms split and 75% of the city of Hiroshima was destroyed and between 65,000 and 88,000 people were killed in an instant.
  
I read those details in Eric Schlosser's book “Command and Control”, which is an authoritative, comprehensive account of the US nuclear weapons programme from its very beginnings to almost the present day (the book was published in 2013). Even though it is based on countless volumes of technical writing and interviews with relevant experts, Schlosser's own narrative style is as entertaining and gripping as a thriller. One of the most un-put-down-able non-fiction books I've ever read!
  
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Saturday 5 August 2017
  
  IMGP8471
  
Photo of the Day: here we go - first one from Russia. This is the monument to the victims of political repression in Saint Petersburg, right on the banks of the Neva River. The two sphinx sculptures have heads that are half face, half skull. Quite a sight to behold.
  
The red brick complex you can see in the background on the other side of the river is the old Kresty prison - which is fitting, as many political prisoners were held there.
  
Today there'll be a grand tour of sites along the supply route that kept the city (barely) alive during the Siege of Leningrad in WWII.
  
Leningrad, by the way, was still the name of the city when I was last here in the late 1980s (I'm showing my age here, I know). Needless to say, the city has changed a lot since then. Back then all you could see in regular shop windows was pyramids of tinned food with only the most minimalist labels (so I couldn't tell what the contents may have been). Now it could be anywhere - the same international brands everywhere just like anywhere else.
  
But the architectural cityscape is still unchanged - and absolutely glorious!
  
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Wednesday 2 August 2017
  
  03 08 17   off to Russia   space exploration monument in Moscow
  
Photo of the Day: tomorrow I'll be off to Russia – so I give you another fitting photo from the last time I was in Moscow way back in 1999. It's hence another low-res scan of an analogue photo print … but soon I will be able to give you higher resolution digital photos!
  
I'll be away for 3 weeks. During that time I may not be able to post on this page as regularly as from home, but I will try to keep it up to a certain degree and mix in some brand-new photos from “on the road”, as it were.
  
This photo shows the monument to the Soviet space exploration programme near the VDNKh Park – spot the little rocket at the top of this swooshing silver jet-stream-like monument. Oh, I just love such OTT Soviet-era monumentalism!
  
To be fair, though, space exploration is something the Soviets should rightly be proud of: they sent the world's first satellite into space to orbit the Earth (Sputnik-1, in 1957), followed by the first animal (Laika the dog), the first man (Yuri Gagarin), the first space station, and they sent a number of pioneering probes to neighbouring planets (esp. Venus) and to the Moon, including the first unmanned rover to explore the Moon's surface.
  
The USSR only fell behind its rival, the USA, when the latter pumped vast amounts of money into the Apollo programme to beat the Soviets in being the first to accomplish manned Moon landings. After that the “Space Race” lost momentum and much of its fierce rivalry too. Soon it was superseded by efforts for more co-operation, beginning with the Apollo-Soyuz rendezvous in 1975. By today such co-operation has become pretty much the norm (at least as far as space business is concerned), with the International Space Station jointly operated and Russian rockets routinely launching American (and other) Astronauts into orbit.
  
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Tuesday 1 August 2017
  
  01 08 2017   sewer tunnel, Warsaw Uprising Museum
  
On this Day, 73 years ago, on 1 August 1944, the Warsaw Uprising began. It was a major effort by the AK (Armia Krajowa – the Polish Home Army resistance organization) to liberate Poland's capital city from the Nazi German occupation – just as the Soviet Red Army was approaching Warsaw from the east.
  
The Soviet support that the AK had hoped for, however, stopped rather short. The Red Army did reach the eastern banks of the Vistula River but largely halted their attack there. Yet the Allies were able to drop some supplies into the AK-held parts of the city.
  
So for 63 days the Poles fought the Nazis, who after initial defeats and losses were able to regroup and fight back, eventually crushing the Uprising brutally.
  
In Warsaw, and Poland, the story of the Uprising is a major element in the nation's WWII narrative. And within it a major aspect of heroism often made reference to is the fact that the resistance fighters used Warsaw's system of sewers to travel from one place to another rather than at street level (which was too dangerous).
  
Today's photo shows a reconstruction of a stretch of sewer at the popular Warsaw Uprising Museum. Here visitors can walk through a stretch of brick sewers to get an impression … but thankfully without the stench …
  
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Monday 31 July 2017
  
  31 07 17   angel of death shadow, Kaisergruft, Vienna
  
Photo of the Day: hands and shadow of an angel of death … taken at the Imperial Crypt, Vienna.
  
So I'm back from Britain and briefly at home in Vienna before heading off again in a few days, this time to Russia.
  
Liverpool last week was good. The International Slavery Museum that I visited on Friday, I thought, struck a good balance between cold historical facts and “edutainment”. It's part of the Merseyside Maritime Museum, which also covers other dark aspects, such as famous shipwrecks – not least the mother of them all: the “Titanic” (after all, the White Star Line that owned “Titanic” had its base in Liverpool and the ship was registered here).
  
The Gary Numan concert on Thursday evening predictably focused on the recent, very dark, material, including several new tracks from the forthcoming album that he performed live for the very first time. Amongst these was the current single “My Name Is Ruin” for which he brought onto the stage his 11-year-old daughter Persia to sing with him. She was obviously nervous as hell singing in public for the first time (in front of some 3000 people!) but performed spot-on. Gary was visibly proud. That proud-dad-and-nervous-daughter element formed a cute contrast to all the dark content (and sounds!) of the songs as such.
  
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Wednesday 26 July 2017
  
  25 07 17   Hack Green
  
Photo of the Day: another one from Hack Green, the (formerly) secret nuclear bunker near Crewe in Cheshire, Great Britain.
  
I picked this because it's the closest (ca. 50 km/32 miles) to where I am travelling tomorrow: Liverpool (via Birmingham for a short visit to see friends & family) – it also means that for the next few days I may not be able to post anything on this page. But I'll be back here from Monday.
  
Primarily I'm going for a concert, but I'll also add a spot of dark tourism. The main thing to do in Liverpool in the DT niche is the “International Slavery Museum”, which is part of the Maritime Museum at the converted Albert Dock. I might also be able to add one or two other extras. We'll see.
  
The concert I'm travelling to the UK for can actually be classed as 'dark' too. It's Gary Numan's first gig back in Europe in a long while and the first at which he will play tracks from the forthcoming album “Savage”. Gary Numan's music has for the past 20 odd years taken on a distinctly 'dark' style (between Goth Noir and Industrial), and the theme of the new concept album is certainly very dark indeed too: it's derived from a draft novel of Gary's about a future post-climate-change dystopian world that he describes thus (quoted from a release on Gary Numan's official Facebook page a couple of weeks ago):
  
“There is no technology left and most of the planet has turned into a desolate desert wasteland. Food is scarce, water even more so and human kindness and decency are just a dim and distant memory. Western and Eastern cultures have merged, more because of the need to simply survive than any feelings of greater tolerance or understanding. It’s a harsh, savage environment, as are the survivors who still roam across it.”
  
“It's about a desperate need to survive and they do awful things in order to do so, and some are haunted by what they've done. That desire to be forgiven, along with some discovered remnants of an old religious book, ultimately encourages religion to resurface, and it really goes downhill from there.”
  
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  [link could not be reconstructed]
  
Follow-up to earlier. In dark tourism we normally look at the past, i.e. at tragedy and disaster in *history*. But it's not always only about heritage/legacy, occasionally the dark gaze goes into the future. Pripyat & Chernobyl are a classic example. It's partly a kind of “time travel” that makes those places so fascinating; and it's simultaneously time travel back into the Soviet past AND into the future: a glimpse of what the world may look like after human civilization has gone.
  
Now, as accelerating climate change becomes ever more evident and the outlook for the future of civilization as we know it becomes ever more frightening (climate change deniers notwithstanding – but they're just after extracting more carbon money now, they clearly do not genuinely care about the future), it makes sense to try and get as clear a view into that grim future as possible so we can at least have an educated guess as to what we will be dealing with. The most pessimistic projections forecast as little as 8-10 years before we face the collapse of civilization, but more often the time frame considered is between 30 and 100 years.
  
Road maps to avert total collapse have been drawn up (especially worth mentioning is “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming” ed. Paul Hawken, Penguin Books, 2017). The measures urged in such works are along three tiers: cutting down fossil fuel by half every decade from now on, cutting animal agriculture out altogether and scaling back CO² emissions from land use overall to zero by 2050, plus some yet-to-be-developed method of carbon capture. But instead of anything like that, the opposite is actually happening: fossil fuel burning is still going up, industrial agriculture too (at current growth rates, half our resources will go into animal agriculture by 2050) and, as far as I know, no one has yet come up with a sufficiently effective carbon capture technology.
  
So if this continues, what is the outlook? This article I found recently is the most comprehensive attempt at formulating such an outlook that I've ever seen. Instead of looking at just one or two isolated factors (rising sea levels is a favourite that people like to solely concentrate on), it pursues a whole host of different aspects, some of which I admit I had never even thought about before (e.g. rising temperatures hampering our cerebral capacities). It is a rather long read, but well worth your time! Try not to slit your wrists afterwards … It's kind-of a worst-case scenario “only” (though a necessary one to contemplate). Cool artwork illustrations too, btw. ...
  
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Monday 24 July 2017
  
  24 07 2017   Nikolaikirche, Hamburg 
  
On this Day, 74 years ago, on 24 July 1943, “Operation Gomorrah” began – the systematic aerial bombing of Hamburg, north Germany, in WWII by the Western Allies … British bombers flew at night, Americans during the day. Wave upon wave of bombings lasting for 8 days and 7 nights wreaked incredible havoc, including what was amongst the largest “fire storms” ever created. People in houses or air-raid shelters were asphyxiated as the fire storms and tornadoes sucked all oxygen out them.
  
Worst hit were working-class residential areas east and north of the industrial centres of the harbour, which had allegedly been the main intended target. While these were also hit, much more devastation affected civilian districts. The overall death toll exceeded 40,000 (far more than later in Dresden!) plus almost as many injured, and hundreds of thousands made homeless. Though it was “conventional” bombing, these figures are in the same league as those of the A-bombing of Nagasaki.
  
At the end of the war about half of the buildings of Hamburg were in ruins or completely reduced to rubble. Even three decades after the war there were still parts of the city where you could see the bombing damage, e.g. in the harbour – as I remember vividly from my early childhood. For those who don't know this yet: I was born in Hamburg, though I spent my first seven years in a nearby small town. Then we moved into an old turn-of-the-century tenement building in the district of Rotherbaum that had survived the bombing. However, half our street consisted of post-war residential buildings that had been quickly and cheaply erected after the war to fill the “bombing gaps”.
  
One of the most striking war ruins was left in its ruined state to serve as a memorial: Nikolaikirche, a large, Gothic-cathedral-like church in the heart of the centre of Hamburg. The blackened church tower is still an impressive site, as you can see in today's photo. Of the nave of the church only a few wall fragments remain. A part of the former crypt now houses a memorial museum about the bombings (not just of Hamburg, but also Coventry, Warsaw, London, etc.).
  
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Sunday 23 July 2017
  
  23 07 2017   Majdanek, Zyklon B tins
  
On this Day, 73 years ago, on (or around) 23 July 1944, the concentration camp of Majdanek was liberated by the Soviet Red Army as it advanced westwards rapidly, so fast indeed that the SS didn't have enough time to blow up installations such as the gas chambers to cover up their crimes. This photo shows a stack of Zyklon-B gas canisters found at the camp and still on display at today's Majdanek memorial site.
  
Majdanek was the first camp to fall into Allied hands – and because of the rush in the evacuation by the Nazis it was also the most intact one ever to be captured. What the Soviets found was of course a great shock – too shocking to be believable to some in the West … until the Western Allies made their own grim discoveries at Buchenwald, Bergen Belsen, etc. for themselves.
  
Majdanek, located on the outskirts of Lublin in Poland, was smaller than Auschwitz but had partly a similar role of combined forced-labour concentration camp and a death camp (though the latter designation is contested) – and just as at Auschwitz it was Zyklon B gas that was used in the gas chambers (whereas at the other death camps carbon monoxide was used) you can still see the bluish-green coloration inside the chambers today!
  
However, the initially claimed figures given for the estimated death toll at Majdanek later turned out to have been vastly inflated. Still, some 80,000 people are today assumed to have lost their lives here.
  
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Saturday 22 July 2017
  
  [link could not be restored]  
  
Another article that incorporates parts of an interview that I gave recently. What I think about selfies comes across in it quite clearly (and selfie-lovers will not like it) – but I'd like to stress again very clearly that it is debatable whether this selfie-taking at Grenfell Tower can even be classed as dark tourism proper. At best it is on the very fringe and not representative of what 99% of dark tourism otherwise is. (Some of you may remember the discussion we had about this on this page recently – which is also mentioned, and hyperlinked, in this article). Still it gives an interesting spread of views. I must say that I, too, wonder how far this selfie craze will still go. I sincerely hope it will subside again, but it could well be that it'll get a lot worse still first ... We'll see. At least those horrible selfie sticks have already been banned in some places (e.g. in the Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia).
  
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Friday 21 July 2017
  
  21 07 2017   ice   Svalbard
  
Photo of the Day: as a contrast to all the Central European (post-)war history this week, now for something completely different. Ice! … also to give those of us suffering in the summer heat something to dream cool dreams about …Also: it was on this day, 34 years ago, on 21 July 1983, that the lowest ever natural temperature was recorded, namely at the Russian research station “Vostok” on the central inland icecap of Antarctica. The thermometer read a whopping minus 89.2 degrees Celsius (-128.6º Fahrenheit)!!!
  
And even when it's not quite so extreme, it isn't much milder at Vostok: according to Wikipedia the *average* winter temperature is -65ºC. And the “warmest” temperature measured at Vostok was a balmy -14ºC.
  
It is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Without adequate protection it would be absolutely deadly to be exposed to such temperatures – you'd literally freeze solid in no time. But even with all the modern technological protection available, it is still an extremely tough workplace for those few hardy scientists that hold out there in the Antarctic winter, which for a whole 130 days is in complete darkness.
  
It's not just the extreme temperatures, the air is also almost completely dry, there's a constant sharp wind, high ionization of the air, and low levels of oxygen due to the elevation of nearly 3500m (11,500 feet) above sea level. All this together makes acclimatizing to such conditions hard and it can take many weeks – accompanied by headaches, nose bleeds, vomiting, ear pain, eye twitches, loss of sleep, raised blood pressure, pains in the joints and muscles and the perceived feeling of suffocating. Nice work conditions, eh? I guess the money must be very good.
  
The photo above was obviously enough not taken at Vostok or indeed anywhere near Antarctica (I've never been, though it is one of my absolute dream destinations – not Vostok, through). Instead it was taken at the northernmost part of the world that I've ever visited, namely Spitsbergen, Svalbard. And it was summer – i.e. the sun never went down. This photo was taken shortly before midnight from the plane approaching Longyearbyen.
  
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Thursday 20 July 2017
  
  20 07 2017   at Bendlerblock, Berlin, where Stauffenberg et al were executed
  
On this Day, 73 years ago, on 20 July 1944, the assassination attempt on Hitler at his Headquarters at Wolfschanze in Masuria (in what today is north-eastern Poland) failed. The bomb hidden in a briefcase and placed under a table by Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg in a war conference room inside one of Wolfschanze's buildings went off during a meeting of commanders, and some were killed – but not the Führer … he miraculously survived with only comparatively minor injuries.
  
Stauffenberg had already flown back to Berlin where he met with his fellow plotters, ready to take over the government, when they heard of the failure. Shortly after that they were quickly rounded up and summarily executed in the courtyard of the Bendlerblock, then part of the War Ministry. Today's photo shows the plaque and wreath at the very wall they were put against and executed.
  
After the failed plot Hitler unleashed a ruthless witch-hunt aimed at purging everybody who may have had the slightest connection to the conspirators, including totally innocent family members. Thousands were arrested. Even high-ranking war heroes such as Erwin Rommel were not spared. His case was especially nasty: when Rommel was implicated in the plot, Hitler gave him the “choice” to either face trial and disgrace, and almost certainly a death sentence, or instead quietly take his own life for the promise that his reputation would be left intact and his family spared. He obeyed and committed suicide by means of cyanide, kindly provided by the Führer's messengers to Rommel. The Nazis then officially proclaimed a cover-up story of a tragic accident and staged a grandiose state funeral ceremony. Nazi perfidiousness to the max!
  
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Wednesday 19 July 2017
  
  19 07 2017   Allied Museum Berlin, on the left the original Checkpoint Charlie hut
  
Photo of the Day: following yesterday's post about Vienna's post-WWII division into Allied occupation sectors – plus the jointly administered International Zone in the centre – here's something from the equivalent formerly divided German capital Berlin.
  
This photo was taken at the Allied Museum in Berlin's district of Dahlem, which was formerly part of the American sector (until the post-reunification withdrawal of the Allied military). In fact, part of the museum is housed in what was a cinema for the US troops stationed in West Berlin.
  
In this photo you can see a French special railway carriage used for Allied personnel transits from West Germany through the GDR ('East Germany') to West Berlin. And to the left of this you can see the original border guard hut that used to stand at the famous Checkpoint Charlie. The hut currently at that location is just a replica set up for tourists to pose for photos in front of (together with mock border soldiers in mock uniforms and with mock flags). This, in contrast, is the real thing.
  
There are plans for the Allied Museum to relocate to a hangar of the historic Tempelhof airport. That would be quite fitting, given its role during the Berlin Airlift, which is a big topic at the Allied Museum, naturally. We'll see if/when these plans materialize …
  
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Tuesday 18 July 2017
  
  18 07 2017   joint MP Jeep, Arsenal Wien
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post. It is well known that one outcome of the Potsdam Conference was the division of Germany into four occupation zones (American, British, French and Soviet) – and likewise the division of Berlin into four sectors. Less well known internationally is the fact that Austria was also subdivided in such a fashion from 1945 to 1955. The capital Vienna, too, was divided into sectors like Berlin was, but with one significant difference: its central district (“Innere Stadt”) was jointly administered by the Allied Control Council and was also known as the “International Zone”.
  
Here Military Police conducted joint patrols in Jeeps like the one depicted in today's photo. This specimen is on display at Vienna's Military History Museum (“Heeresgeschichtliches Museum”). Such Jeeps of the joint MP also feature in the famous movie “The Third Man” that was set in Allied-occupied Vienna, so if you've seen the film, this may have looked immediately familiar.
  
I thought of posting this also because yesterday I took a couple of visitors on a walking tour around Vienna, and one of them turned out to be a huge fan of “The Third Man”. The previous day they had gone on the official “Third Man Tour” of the parts of the sewers that were used as a set in the film, and then yesterday I took them to various other sites in the city with some dark connection or other, some related to the movie and the time it is set in, but also others, from pre-war persecution of Jews, war-time fortifications, as well as more modern dark aspects ...
  
It's a great shame I'm not allowed to offer such 'DT in Vienna' tours officially to tourists in general, given that it is the city I've lived in for over a dozen years. But the authorities here in Austria stubbornly hold on to an antiquated law that stipulates that only 'licensed' tour guides can take tourists around this city. And in order to obtain that licence you have to pass a tough test following a four-semester course of study that costs thousands of euros and in which the aim is to make sure that participants acquire the ability to portray the city in the rosiest light, obviously focusing on the grand Habsburg era with Sisi and Franz Joseph, waltz music, schnitzel, Sachertorte and all the usual hackneyed mainstream clichés tourists are supposed to be solely interested in … and which would play no part whatsoever in the tours I'd offer. Dark tourism just doesn't comfortably fit into the Austrian set-up.
  
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Monday 17 July 2017
  
  17 07 2017   Cecilienhof, site of the Potsdam Conference
  
On this Day, 72 years ago, on 17 July 1945, the Potsdam Conference began at Cecilienhof, Potsdam, near Berlin, Germany. This photo shows the grand conference hall at this palace. The hall and the adjacent delegation rooms have been preserved as they were and today serve as a memorial museum.
  
So it was here that the heads of the victorious Allied powers of the Second World War met from 17 July to 2 August: the USSR's Joseph Stalin as the host (since Potsdam was in the Soviet sector), US President Harry Truman, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, later succeeded by Clement Attlee (after Churchill lost the post-war general election in the UK).
  
And it was here that these victorious leaders decided on the fate of not only defeated and occupied Germany but also agreed on territorial shifts in the east affecting mostly Poland, with the Oder-Neiße Line set as its new western border, and the territories that had been seized by the USSR in the east remaining under Soviet control (a decision that many Poles resented as a “Western betrayal”).
  
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Sunday 16 July 2017
  
  16 07 2017   Trinity
 
On this Day, 72 years ago, on 16 July 1945, the first atomic bomb explosion was set off in the so-called “Trinity” test of a plutonium core implosion bomb that was the model for the Nagasaki bomb and generations of subsequent nuclear weapons.
 
Trinity, in a way, was the culmination of the Manhattan Project, the secret and immensely expensive research and development programme that brought together the likes of Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Leó Szilárd, Edward Teller, Robert Oppenheimer and many others in a concerted effort to develop an atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could.
 
The Manhattan Project had its HQ at Los Alamos in New Mexico, but the site for the first test was further south in the desert near Alamogordo. Today, the spot is still part of the White Sands Missile Range, a military area out of bounds for the general public. Only on one or two days a year, normal mortals are allowed to visit the Trinity site. I did so in April 2012. That's when I took this photo. It shows the fence around the ground zero area of Trinity.
  
The warning of radioactivity is not to be taken too seriously, though. Ambient radiation is almost completely normal here. And the “radioactive materials” mentioned on the sign refer mainly to “trinitite”, the greenish glass-like substance created by the intense heat of the explosion melting down the desert sand. You can still find pieces of this on the ground – but are not allowed to remove any of this as another warning sign clearly points out. However, there are stalls on the edge of the area that sell pieces of trinitite as souvenirs! (Before you ask: no, I did not buy one; I found them way too expensive … and I resisted the temptation – strong as it was, I admit – to simply pocket the pieces I found myself at ground zero … I made do with taking pictures of them, and some of these may well appear here in the future ...)
  
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Saturday 15 July 2017
  
 [link could not be recovered] 
  
Apparently Bikini is a tropical Pacific equivalent of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Wildlife seems to thrive despite the remaining radioactive contamination ... the sheer absence of humans seems to outweigh such detriments. Left undisturbed by us, even after the most destructive interference imaginable, nature shows remarkable resilience. Makes you think ...
  
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Friday 14 July 2017
  
  14 07 17   grim dim light, Bautzener Straße, Dresden
  
Photo of the Day: to finish this week's electricity theme with its escalating electric power struggle, let's come down again and end on a small and humble scale.
  
The photo of this lone electric light bulb was taken inside the former Stasi remand prison at Bautzner Straße in Dresden, in Saxony, East Germany.
  
Small as this light bulb – and its spooky reflection – may be, I think this photo exudes a strangely grim atmosphere, perfectly in line with that of the rest of this sinister place.
  
The prison was originally set up by the Soviets as a political prison operated by the NKVD (what was later to become the KGB), but like so many such places was taken over by the GDR's secret police, the Stasi, in the early 1950s.
  
And also like its many counterparts (remember, for instance, the recent posts from Potsdam!) it all ended in 1989 in the Peaceful Revolution that brought down the GDR regime, and eventually the whole state. The prison is now a memorial and, in my view, one of the eeriest relics of the GDR times.
  
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Thursday 13 July 2017
  
  13 07 17   electric superpower, Ekibastuz, Kazakhstan
  
Photo of the Day: further on this week's electricity theme – now we come to absolute electric superpower. Literally.
  
This is a transformer station from where electricity is distributed via the world's highest voltage power line (1150 KV). It's near Ekibastuz in north-eastern Kazakhstan. The electricity is generated by a set of power plants that burn coal mined at the massive Bogatyr open-cast pit. And one of the plants (GRES-2) features another world record, namely the highest chimney (at 420m).
  
Seeing the Bogatyr pit, the power stations and all the other Soviet-era industrial landscape with their near dystopian atmosphere was a totally off-the-beaten-track highlight of my trip to Kazakhstan back in 2011.
  
You can perhaps argue that all this isn't really prototypical dark tourism (though the environmental aspects involved in unfiltered coal-burning power stations of such scale do have seriously dark implications, I would argue back), but Ekibastuz also has more historically dark associations:
  
It was a place of exile for political prisoners, part of the GuLag network of the USSR. The best-known name of a victim of this system linked to Ekibastuz is writer Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. His experiences later fed into his best-known work “The Gulag Archipelago”, for which he was arrested again by the KGB and eventually expelled from the USSR in 1974.
  
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Wednesday 12 July 2017
  
  12 07 17   Duga
  
Photo of the Day: continuing the electricity theme of this week … this is part of the fabled “Duga” over-the-horizon (OTH) radar installation near Chernobyl, Ukraine.
  
This monster of a Cold-War-era vintage technological installation looks like it could be a film set for some 1960s Bond movie villain intent on destroying the world through some weird electric super-weapon. Yet in reality its function was more defensive in nature, namely as part of the Soviet Union's early-warning system designed to detect ICBM launches from the USA.
  
OK, that's where the defensive nature of Duga would have ended, because had an attack by US nuclear missiles indeed been detected that would have led to the immediate retaliatory launch of the Soviet nuclear arsenal, i.e. to World War Three, i.e. to a total nuclear Holocaust, i.e. to the end of the world. It was a doctrine accepted as 'MAD' - mutually assured destruction.
  
Why is Duga in this electricity theme? Well, an OTH radar of such proportions (ca. 150m high, 500m wide) requires vast amounts of electric energy. That's the reason why it was built so close to the nuclear power plant of Chernobyl. So we are talking mega electricity here!
  
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Tuesday 11 July 2017
  
  11 07 17   old sparky, WV
  
Photo of the Day: an electric chair called “Old Sparky”!
  
This sinister exhibit with this macabre name is on display at the small museum part of the former West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, WV, USA.
  
The original “Old Sparky” was even built by an inmate, who was then moved to another correctional facility as the prison administration feared for the man's safety had he stayed here. The chair was in fact used in the 1950s for a total of nine executions (and at least one of the convicts killed in it had always protested his innocence!).
  
The prison itself was closed in 1995, having been too old, with too small cells, which were eventually deemed “cruel and unusual punishment”. It has been largely preserved in the state it was in when it was vacated and is now a visitor attraction.
  
Guided tours lead tourists through the cell blocks – and at one of them some of the tour's more fearless participants are encouraged to go inside a row of cells while the guide demonstrates the remote-operated locking mechanism for all cell doors at once. You just have to trust that the machinery still works well enough after all these years to also open the cell doors again.
   
However, it is “Old Sparky” that is the “star exhibit” of the West Virginia Penitentiary. Accordingly it also features on the various merchandise items on sale at this place: on coffee mugs, postcards, T-shirts, you name it … I admit I couldn't resist the temptation to get the T-shirt, which is now part of my collection of DT-related souvenirs.
  
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Monday 10 July 2017
  
  10 07 17   electric fence, Groß Rosen concentration camp
  
Photo of the Day: electrified barbed wire on the fence around the concentration camp of Groß-Rosen.
  
Groß-Rosen is perhaps one of the less well-known camps, compared to the more infamous names like Dachau, Buchenwald and of course Auschwitz, but it was nonetheless a very dark place. It is these days located in Poland, not far from Wroclaw, formerly Breslau, in Silesia, an area that became part of Poland after WWII (due to the territorial changes agreed on at the Potsdam Conference in 1945). With this the name of the village that the camp had been named after also changed, namely to Rogoźnica.
  
Before that Groß-Rosen used to be one of the main concentration camps within the German Reich. It started out as a satellite camp of Sachsenhausen (near Berlin), but from 1941 became an autonomous camp in its own right, and had its own set of satellite camps dotted around the area.
  
Groß-Rosen was primarily a forced-labour camp. At the site of the camp itself inmates had to toil away in a granite quarry – like at Mauthausen, Natzweiler or Flossenbürg. Later, more and more industrial work was done at the camp – especially armaments production for the Nazis' war effort, of course. Some big name companies such as Siemens and Blaupunkt (electronics) and IG Farben (chemicals) had workshops at the camp and made good use of the slave labour provided by Groß-Rosen.
  
At the peak of its operation (in 1944), Groß-Rosen held about 45,000 prisoners, over all the years of its existence the total number exceeded 120,000. And more than 40,000 of these did not survive the camp.
  
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Sunday 9 July 2017
  
    
dark tourism and FOOTBALL!!! I could imagine that many of you will find that combination surprising, but here we go (fascinating article!)
  
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Saturday 8 July 2017
  
  08 07 17   bullet holes galore, Mostar
  
Follow-up to yesterday's post with the "Fuck the War" graffiti on a wall. It was seen in Mostar - and today's photo shows a bullet-hole-riddled wall of a house not far from where I had spotted the graffiti. When you see something like this, the f-word expletive seems totally appropriate.
  
So, yes, it was the Balkans War that was meant, but Mostar is strictly speaking in Herzegovina, although that is part of the state of Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH), so the guess Bosnia was as close at it gets, just a tad short of being totally spot-on ...
  
BiH is a somewhat cobbled-together entity to have come out of the Balkans War. It certainly does not have a single distinct nationality. In addition to the two parts featured in the name, there is also a split between a Muslim Bosniak part and an Orthodox Christian Bosnian Serbian part ('Republika Srpska'). Furthermore there is the ethnic group of Bosnian Croats. And animosities and tensions between the different factions/ethnicities are far from over. But at least there's no longer the all-out violence that left behind sights like this wall in Mostar.
  
The picture was taken in the summer of 2009, so quite a number of years after the war had ended, but still there was plenty of evidence of the fighting all around.
  
When I was in Mostar some refurbishment efforts on a nearby row of yet more badly damaged houses was just beginning. Maybe this wall has meanwhile also been repaired or taken down and replaced with something new. I don't know. It would certainly be interesting to go back and see what's changed eight years on, also in Sarajevo ...
  
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Friday 7 July 2017
  
  07 07 17   graffiti on a war ruin wall, Mostar
  
Photo of the Day: Having featured both graffiti and war in yesterday's post, here's a fitting follow-up.
  
Have a guess where this was spotted and which war's meant here …
  
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Thursday 6 July 2017
  
  06 07 17   contradictory graffiti, Tel Aviv
  
Photo of the Day: a follow-up to yesterday's reference to the world of big business and the Devil's assumed hand in it … I spotted this rather contradictory set of graffiti in Tel Aviv, Israel, many years ago (almost 11 years to be precise, in August 2006).
  
If the top graffiti is applied, then the bottom one should rather have read “be rich AND die”, really. But it was probably two different graffiti “artists” who left these slogans anyway.
  
While this find was merely an intriguing and in its own way entertaining side aspect, my trip to Israel in August 2006 also included a few proper dark-tourism activities (and that was about a year before I had even become aware of the existence of the term 'dark tourism'), for instance a visit to the world-famous Holocaust remembrance site and museum Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and a trip to Masada and the Dead Sea, travelling through the West Bank territory.
   
Moreover, at the time Israel was actually at war, namely with Hezbollah in Lebanon (the Israelis I met euphemistically called it “the troubles we're having in the north”), so from the waterfront and beaches of the city you could see military planes heading north just off the coast, and at the bus station soldiers boarding buses to take them to the front. This included pretty blonde girls with machine guns slung over their shoulder … and how distinctly Israeli is that!?!
   
And of course security was tight everywhere. No public building could be entered without prior thorough checks of bags by armed guards. In Jerusalem, parts of the Old Town were deemed off limits to us tourists (so we couldn't see Temple Mount, for instance), and some tension was palpably in the air (I saw a Palestinian kid, maybe 10 or 12 years old, casually giving the intercom box by the door to a police station a good whack, just in passing).
  
Yet in Tel Aviv there was a certain fatalistic relaxedness to be felt too – people clearly had gotten used to living with constant threats and security measures. Still, it wasn't like soldiers armed to their teeth were on every corner ... unlike in parts of some European cities at the moment that have more recently been targets of terrorism, such as Paris.
  
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Wednesday 5 July 2017
  
  05 07 17   the devil drives big business, devils museum Kaunas
  
Photo of the Day: one of the many curiosities on display at the Devil Museum in Kaunas, Lithuania. The museum houses a collection of hundreds and hundreds of depictions of the Devil, in all manner of guises, though the horned and bat-winged variety does feature a lot.
  
But what is this particular ensemble trying to tell us? That it is the Devil that is behind big business? That He's the driving force for a businessman? That He is pushing it too far? Or the opposite: that He's holding business back? Or even that he is taking Mr Business "away" (i.e. to hell)? Or what about this interpretation: that He's propping up the British Chancellor of the Exchequer (just going by the red coffer and the rather old-fashioned British look of the guy in front … even complete with an umbrella carried in his other hand – British clichés galore!).
  
In any case, the Devil Museum in Kaunas is definitely pretty unique. Not really dark in the usual sense of a historically dark site, but the associations with the Devil myth have plenty of darkish aspects too, even in political senses, or are just plain moralistic (e.g. the demon alcohol portrayed as an incarnation of the devil, or the vice that is smoking – or the many sexual allusions). It's certainly entertaining. A must-see when in this pretty Lithuanian town.
  
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Tuesday 4 July 2017
  
  04 07 17   caged USA
  
On this Day it is the 4th of July, when the USA celebrates its Independence Day.
  
Normally this is a really grand affair with big fireworks, gun salutes, lots of flag waving and plenty of other patriotic displays, as well as bonfires, family gatherings, BBQs, singing, and general private festiveness as well ...
  
I am just wondering whether in this particular year, some may be a little more cagey about it … hence the choice of today's photo.
  
Sure, there will be all the official festivities, with parades and fireworks in Washington DC and all that, but whether in private the pride in all things American may have got a little bit dented over the past six months and the developments it brought … I don't know. The USA's standing in the rest of the world has surely suffered during that time. Will that have any impact on how people in America mark this day?
   
By the way, the 4th of July is also “Republic Day” in the Philippines, marking the day when this island state celebrates its full independence FROM America (which it gained in 1946 through the signing of the Treaty of Manila).
   
And in Rwanda the 4th of July is a national holiday called “Liberation Day” and it commemorates the defeat of government forces in Kigali by the Rwandan Patriotic Front rebel army under Paul Kagame, thus ending the Rwandan genocide in the capital (though it took them some ten days or so more to liberate the western and southern parts of the country too).
  
Sorry if this genocide reference spoils the party, but it just goes to show that celebratory dates can mean very different things in different parts of the world …
  
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Monday 3 July 2017
  
  03 07 17   North Korean soldiers guarding DMZ hut with South Korean air con unit
  
Photo of the Day: at the DMZ in Panmunjom. I recently gave another interview, this time with a focus on dark tourism in North Korea. So I dug this photo out from my archives, taken in 2005.
  
DMZ stands for 'demilitarized zone', but that's a big misnomers, as this is in fact the most militarized zone on Earth: the border between North and South Korea. There's no border crossing. The only point of contact is at Panmunjom. The rest of the border is like the Iron Curtain in the Cold War era, except here it still stands and is even more fortified, and with artillery ready to depopulate a strip of enemy territory dozens of miles deep.
  
Panmunjom was also the place at which the truce negotiations were held that eventually ended the Korean War … well, suspended it, would be the more correct expression. Since no actual peace treaty was reached, only an armistice, the war is technically speaking still on.
  
The village of Panmunjom is on the northern side (or rather: was – the original village has been completely dismantled since the 1950s). But the name is also used to refer to what's officially called the “Joint Security Area” (JSA). It's the only point along the North-South border that is physically “open” – but is guarded on both sides by soldiers of the respective military forces.
  
The set of blue huts that straddle the actual borderline, which is marked by a thin strip of concrete, and the houses with observations platforms both to the north and to the south, are often collectively also referred to as “Truce Village”.
  
It is here that soldiers from both sides stand face-to-face. The DPRK soldiers in their typical green uniforms and wide caps usually just stand still completely expressionless, whereas the Southern border guards wear more macho outfits (with helmets and mirrored sunglasses) and often assume more aggressive postures, with clenched fists (apparently a modified taekwondo stance), and sometimes stand half hiding behind the corners of the blue huts. It is all supposed to look intimidating – and it does! The DPRK soldiers in contrast look rather harmless (although they too are armed – and there have been exchanges of fire here in the past).
  
The central blue hut seen in today's photo is the one that visitors can enter, as our tour group did when I was there in 2005. Inside is a negotiating table used by diplomatic delegations of the UN, the DPRK and ROK  (= South Korea). Visitors are allowed to walk round the table and even sit at it, whilst accompanied by officials, and being monitored by guards from the southern side who watch through windows from a small enclosed guard post inside a corner of the hut. The borderline runs right through the middle of the table.
  
Since I also walked around that table and thus technically speaking set foot onto South Korean soil, I could in theory claim to “have been to” the ROK, a country I have otherwise not yet visited. The same logic was used when that British guy a few years ago went on his mission to “visit” every single country in the world, without using planes, in order to gain an entry into the Guinness Book of Records. He included the DPRK as “done” after a visit to the JSA from the Southern side and taking that walk round the negotiating table inside the blue hut. So why shouldn't I make the equivalent claim?
  
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Sunday 2 July 2017
  
  [link could not be restored]  
  
a bit blurry and boxy but otherwise fascinating rare footage of the opening of the magnificent Buzludzha monument!
  
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Friday 30 June 2017
  
  30 06 17   Soyuz capsule
   
On this Day: forty-six years ago, on 30 June 1971, the USSR's Soyuz-11 mission ended in tragedy when the capsule suddenly de-pressurized and lost all oxygen due to a broken valve, just as the re-entry procedure was commencing with the separation of the capsule from the service module.
  
The descent appeared normal, but when the ground crew opened the capsule at its landing site they found all three cosmonauts inside dead. One of the bodies was apparently still warm, but all reanimation attempts came too late. The autopsies later confirmed that the cosmonauts had died of asphyxiation and concomitant effects. The medical details of these make for extremely harrowing reading, so I'd better spare you that here.
  
On a positive note: this was the only case in the history of space exploration of humans actually dying in space (although the American Apollo 13 mission only narrowly escaped a similar fate). All other fatalities up to now occurred either on the ground (e.g. Apollo 1) or during launch (e.g. Space Shuttle Challenger) or landing (e.g. Columbia), but not while in space. Quite remarkable really!
  
Soyuz-11 had also been quite a successful mission until the valve failure. It was the first successful mission docking a manned space vehicle onto a space station orbiting the earth and conducting experiments while on board. This first-ever space station, called Salyut-1, had been launched in April that same year. An earlier mission, Soyuz-10, had failed. Soyuz-11's crew also set a new record for time spent in space (almost 24 days).
  
Yet the Soyuz-11 disaster also spelled the end for Salyut-1. Since the Soyuz programme was suspended while the accident was being investigated, no further supply flights to the station could be performed and the station was intentionally “de-orbited” after having spent only 175 days in space and only ever having been manned that once.
  
This particular capsule in today's photo is an exhibit hanging from the ceiling in the (outstanding) Military History Museum in Dresden, Germany.
  
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Thursday 29 June 2017
  
  29 06 17   Franz Ferdinand's Sarajevo car
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post about the assassination of Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914.
  
The Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (HGM) in Vienna does not only have the Archduke's bloody uniform and death bed on display (as seen in the previous photo) but also the car he was riding in when he was shot.
  
Note the bullet hole in the rear, just above the watermark! This hole was pierced by the bullet that then went on to hit the Crown Prince's wife Sophie in the abdomen, from which she too died shortly afterwards.
  
Also part of the Sarajevo assassination room in the museum are displays of some possessions and clothes of Sophie's, such as a bloodied lace cloth, a glove and a rose she was carrying when she was shot dead.
  
Furthermore, the kind of pistol used by Gavrilo Princip as well as a hand grenade of the same type as the one the assassins used in their initial, failed attack on the car are also on display, as is a shattered part of the windscreen of the car damaged in that first assassination attempt.
  
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Wednesday 28 June 2017
  
  28 06 17   bloodied uniform of Franz Ferdinand
  
On this Day: 103 years ago, on 28 June 1914, the Austrian Crown Prince Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia, which triggered the outbreak of the First World War.
  
What you see in this photo is the actual bloodied uniform of Franz Ferdinand, which is on display at the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Army History Museum) at the Arsenal in Vienna, Austria. It is probably the museum's foremost “star” exhibit. The little arrow on the photograph next to the original jacket points out the location of the bullet hole the deadly projectile went through. What attention to gory detail! (Btw. this photo with the arrow has now disappeared, after the WW1 section of the museum was redesigned for the centenary of the war's outbreak.)
  
The shooting actually happened after the initially planned assassination attempt had gone wrong. Sarajevo was at the time under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian empire and a Serbian Bosnian separatist underground organization planned to seize the moment and kill the Crown Prince in the hope it might facilitate a break-away of Bosnia from the Empire.
  
As the open car with Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Sophie was driving through the town on their visit to Sarajevo, the plotters positioned themselves at strategic points along the route. One of them then took his chance and threw a hand grenade at the vehicle. However, he missed the car and the explosion wounded several bystanders instead. The car then sped up and left the scene – so the assassination plot looked like it had failed
  
Later that day Franz Ferdinand decided to visit some of the wounded victims of the attack in hospital. His car took a wrong turn at the head of the Latin Bridge and reversed and stalled – just in front of one of the plotters, 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip, who allegedly had just had a snack after the presumably failed assassination attempt. Now he quickly drew his pistol and fired at the car. One bullet pierced Franz Ferdinand's neck, another hit his wife Sophie. Both died shortly afterwards.
  
Princip was captured and put on trial, and having been too young for a death sentence was instead incarcerated at the prison in Theresienstadt (which would later gain notoriety as a Nazi concentration camp). He died less than four years into his 20-year sentence from tuberculosis, which he had contracted as a result of the harsh conditions of imprisonment.
  
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Tuesday 27 June 2017
  
  27 06 2017   Ustica memorial   emergency exit doors unused
  
WARNING: people with a fear of flying look away now!
  
On this Day: 37 years ago, on 27 June 1980, Itavia flight 870, a DC-9 en route from Bologna to Palermo, crashed into the sea near the island of Ustica north of Sicily, killing all 81 people on board. This is the actual wreck, laboriously reassembled from the debris salvaged from the seabed. It is now on display as a museum-cum-art-installation in Bologna. It's a true one-of-a-kind sight!
  
The “Ustica Tragedy” was the second-deadliest air disaster in Italy ever, and its most mysterious. Initial theories of a bomb on board that blew up the plane were soon refuted. Instead it became clear that the plane had been brought down by a missile!
  
After decades of investigations shrouded in secrecy and suspicious “disappearance” of evidence, which in turn fuelled all manner of conspiracy theories, a high court in Italy ruled in 2013 that the plane had indeed been shot down by an anti-aircraft missile and that relatives of the victims were entitled to compensation by the Italian state.
  
But who did it? Was it on purpose or a tragic mistake? We will probably never know but there are various theories, involving a French aircraft carrier, some other NATO planes, Libyan fighter jets and even Colonel Gaddafi's private plane that apparently was in the region's airspace at the time too. Maybe the civilian plane was mistaken for Gaddafi's and it was a blotched assassination attempt that went tragically wrong? French, Italian, US and NATO officials, however, all denied any involvement.
  
The Ustica Memorial in Bologna is an incredibly moving site. In addition to the reassembled plane wreck there are 81 slowly flashing lights hanging from the ceiling. Black boxes next to the plane contain personal belongings of the 81 victims. And along the walls a sound installation plays 81 short recordings of ordinary utterances passengers may have been making before the plane was hit by the missile.
  
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Monday 26 June 2017
  
  26 06 17   Auschwitz suitcase
  
Photo of the Day: sometimes dark tourism really hits home, when suddenly you come across something that overlaps with your own biography. Spotting this suitcase in the museum at Auschwitz was one such moment for me.
  
The reason: the address written on this suitcase, one amongst hundreds and hundreds of victims' cases, jumped out at me because this address is right next door to the primary school I went to in Hamburg when I was little (and still more or less blissfully unaware of the horrors of the Holocaust). Seeing this address therefore really hit me.
  
I explained this to my guide as well, and so he granted me an exception from the no-photography rule that is normally in place inside this exhibition part of the memorial site. It's only because of this exceptional permission that I can now share this photo here. And it still gets to me now …
  
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Sunday 25 June 2017
  
This was brought to my attention recently - any thoughts?
  
  
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Friday 23 June 2017
  
   23 06 17   Broken Britain
  
On this Day, exactly one year ago, on 23 June 2016, the Brexit referendum was held in the UK (and in its dependencies elsewhere, such as Gibraltar), with the result that we all know: a narrow 52 : 48 per cent win for “Leaving” the EU, after a bitter and often toxic political campaign. (Even leading to political murder! See last Saturday's post!)
  
As it turned out nothing has divided British society as much as Brexit since the Civil War. Some even see a kind of new civil war looming because of it. Hopefully that's an exaggeration, but it is undeniable that this division is unlikely to go away any time soon, whatever pleas for unity the leaderships of the political parties may try to make.
  
And it's not just political – often also personal: many families have fallen out over this and no longer talk to each other. And the younger, student generation is in large parts bitter about what they (probably rightly) see as vanishing future opportunities they would have had in a united Europe. And then there are of course the many worries concerning the economy, though some also see potential chances. We will see in the longer term.
  
I truly hope the worst of these worries can be averted or alleviated, but I am deeply concerned that for the foreseeable future at least, very difficult and bitterly divisive times are still ahead for this country that I have always so loved.
   
What is particularly worrying is the “war” that's been taking place in the media since the run-up to the referendum and that is showing no signs of abating. Some of the tabloid papers have become veritable propaganda organs with no regard for truth or decency, putting out vile headline after vile headline in a manner that in other countries would have resulted in countless court cases. But the British tabloids are so powerful they can apparently get away with just about anything. And that's not a good sign of a functioning modern society.
  
I normally try not to be too political on these pages, but this is also personal for myself, due to the many ties I have to the British Isles. So on this day, I thought I had to say something.
  
HOWEVER: I do not want the acrimonious nature of the discourse on this topic that you see all over social media to spill over to this page. Any comments that contain insults, personal attacks and unnecessarily strong swear words will be deleted! (Don't get me wrong, I don't mind the odd f-word for emphasis, but the often unrestrained pure shit-storming instead of any attempts at rational reasoning that you have to witness on FB all too often is something I cannot tolerate).
  
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Thursday 22 June 2017
  
  22 06 17   former KGB prison, Potsdam
  
Photo of the Day: kind of a follow-up to yesterday's post. There's another prison memorial in Potsdam, namely the former KGB prison at Leistikowstraße in the Nauener Vorstadt suburb.
  
This district became a closed area for the Soviet military after WWII, called Militärstädtchen Nr. 7 ('military town No. 7), and a former vicarage was turned into a special prison.
  
Initially it served a similar function as the prison on Lindenstraße in the heart of Potsdam, namely as a site of general political persecution. And many Germans were tried, sentenced and sent to gulags from here too. But from the mid 1950s onwards it only housed Soviet prisoners, in particular members of the Soviet military who had attempted to desert or defect to the West or were accused of spying for the enemy.
  
The prison as such was already closed and turned to other uses by the 1980s, and after the Soviets left Germany in the 1990s the place was abandoned altogether.
  
Preservation efforts eventually led to the memorial site of today. But it was a long, stony road. The current permanent exhibition inside the cell block opened as recently as 2012. But it is very revealing and tells lots of moving personal stories. Especially touching are the inscriptions scratched into the walls by prisoners, especially in the older cells in the basement.
  
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Wednesday 21 June 2017
  
  21 06 17   cell block at the Stasi prison Lindenstraße, Potsdam
  
Photo of the Day: another recent photo, this time something really quite dark. This was taken inside the former Stasi prison at Lindenstraße in Potsdam near Berlin, Germany.
  
The building as such predates the infamous Stasi (the secret police in the former GDR, East Germany). Most of the present structures were already in place in 1910. Originally a regular remand prison adjacent to a court of justice, the first really dark period in the site's history came when the Nazis moved one of their Erbgesundheitsgerichte ('courts for racial hygiene') here. Later the prison was used to incarcerate mainly political prisoners.
  
After WWII, the Soviet NKWD (the precursor to the KGB) took over and political purges continued under a different banner, but by no means with less brutality. Thousands were sentenced in “tribunals”, which were mere show trials really, and sent to gulags or even executed straight away.
  
But the longest dark period came next: when the prison was handed over to the Stasi in 1952. For the next 37 years the Stasi used the place as a remand prison exclusively for political prisoners. Some 7000 are believed to have gone through that ordeal here.
   
This ended in the Peaceful Revolution of 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the GDR and the entire Eastern Bloc. Today the prison is a memorial site.
  
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Tuesday 20 June 2017
  
  20 06 17   Beelitz rooftop forest
  
Photo of the Day: another one from my recent research trip to Germany – and it's another one from Beelitz Heilstätten (see last Wednesday's post).
   
Beelitz Heilstätten was a sanatorium built at the turn of the 19th/20th century, mainly for tuberculosis sufferers. Following WWII the area ended up in East Germany, and Beelitz became the largest Soviet military hospital outside the USSR. After the Soviets departed in the wake of Germany's reunification, the complex was abandoned. More recently some of the fabled abandoned buildings (which have become quite legendary in urbex circles and were used as film sets too) have become commodified for tourism, while other parts have found or are finding new uses.
   
The building seen in this photo has actually been abandoned ever since the end of WWII, when it burned down after having been hit by bombs/shells in the final fighting around Berlin. You can still see “keep out” warning signs written in Russian Cyrillic script that are from the days of the Soviet military presence.
   
Now there's an elevated treetop trail that allows visitors bird's-eye insights into the ruin – and also into the rooftop forest that has grown here over the past 70 odd years. It is apparently one of the largest rooftop forests in the world (if not THE largest). Allegedly there's even a fox living up here!
   
Beelitz is a visually stunning place and full of photogenic bits – so you can expect quite a few more photos from there to appear on this page in the future ...
  
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Monday 19 June 2017
  
  19 06 17   Asse II
  
Photo of the Day: for the start of the week I give you a hearty “Glück auf”! That's the German miners' greeting, which doesn't really have an equivalent in English, but roughly translates as “good luck!”.
  
Have you ever wanted to visit a repository for radioactive waste? Have you ever thought that was even possible? I hadn't – until I learned about this place! This is Asse II, in central Germany. It's a former salt mine hundreds of metres below ground underneath the headframe seen in this photo.
  
In the early, more enthusiastic and naïve days of the atomic age in Germany, this abandoned salt mine was chosen to store low- to medium-level radioactive waste. Initially it was thought that it could be a permanent repository, but meanwhile it has become clear that this is by no means so.
  
In fact, the mine has turned out to be absolutely unsuitable for that purpose since water entered through cracks in the geologically not so stable mountain above the mine – and the brine forming on contact with the salt could seriously corrode the metal of the barrels containing the radioactive waste and subsequently contaminate the groundwater table. Now all the tens of thousands of barrels will have to be retrieved and then stored elsewhere. Needless to say it's a gargantuan logistical challenge.
   
Yet the German authority now responsible for the site is very open about it all (that used to be very, very different in the past!) and part of its PR efforts include offering visitors the chance to go on underground tours of the mine! However, you have to be reasonably fit to do this as tours last five hours, you have to wear miners' outfits and carry a 5kg emergency kit – and all that in temperatures that can exceed 30 degrees Celsius. And you mustn't suffer from claustrophobia, of course.
  
I haven't yet had the chance to partake in such a tour. I only visited the above-ground information centre. But I would certainly try to arrange it some other time when I'm in the area (near Salzgitter in Lower Saxony). You have to sign up for tours many weeks in advance. I hope it will work out one day …
  
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Sunday 18 June 2017
  
I found it somewhat disturbing to see the recent Grenfell Tower fire disaster in London being exploited on Facebook by 9/11 conspiracy theorists to propagate their beliefs – roughly along the lines of: “tower burns for more than a day, still stands – WTC burns for barely two hours, collapses into its own footprint. It clearly was an inside job!”
   
For one thing, I find this rather disrespectful towards the victims (of both tragedies). Moreover the comparison is in no way valid, and the conclusion devoid of any logic.
   
Why? Beyond the simple “high-rise on fire” there are practically no similarities between the two cases. They are fundamentally different. This begins with the differences between the buildings themselves, not just in size (24 storeys versus 105), but also their design in civil engineering terms.
  
While Grenfell Tower was/is a conventional, ordinary concrete apartment block, the World Trade Center was of a distinctly different, revolutionary design in that it was based on an outside steel frame, like a stack of columns meshed tightly together (hence the very narrow windows) in a square-shaped tube. In other words, this frame supported the weight of the whole structure primarily on the OUTSIDE (which also gave it extra flexibility to withstand strong winds). That way the inner core of concrete staircases and lift shafts only needed to be very small and didn't have to support much weight other than its own – which meant more and more open and flexible commercial floor space. It was an ingenious design – although it also contributed to the towers' eventual downfall (literally – see below).
   
The two fires were also of completely different natures. At Grenfell Tower, from what we know so far, the main cause for the localized fire on the fourth floor spreading so fast to almost the entire building was the flammable aluminium cladding of the façade that had just been added in the recent “refurbishment” of the tower. That way the fire rapidly reached up and around the building on the OUTSIDE (in a way reminiscent of the Hindenburg disaster), finding its way in through the windows and then slowly consuming whatever flammable material it could find inside.
  
The fires at the WTC on 9/11, on the other hand, were brought about by the planes crashing into the towers, releasing their jet fuel, which not only exploded in that iconic orange fireball on the other side of the impact zone, but more importantly it spread inside the core of the towers, where it shot down elevator shafts and ignited also well below the impact zone. Plummeting elevators even sent the fire straight to the ground floor where they crashed like bombs. Countless internal fires were started.
   
The kerosene-fuelled fires burned at a temperature high enough and long enough to weaken (not melt!) the steel, until it bent enough to unhook the floor beams. At breaking point the floors then started to come crashing down on top of each other in what has been called a “pancake effect”. This also accounts for the illusion of “explosions” that inspired many conspiracy theorists to assume that the buildings were brought down by controlled explosions – instead it was just a displacement effect: when the floor above crashes down on the one below, the air and smoke and fire have to go somewhere, i.e. sideways, which then looks similar to an explosion.
   
Remarkably, the outside steel frame as such kept standing even after those huge holes had been ripped into it by the impact of the planes. So the remaining frame as such would have been strong enough, at least for much longer – but the heat-weakened floors were not. And once the floors collapsed the outside frame was taken down with them. All this can be seen on the initial stages of the North Tower's collapse in particular. The South Tower's earlier collapse (even though it had been hit second) was slightly different in that here the outside frame did eventually fail as well (having been hit much lower and on a corner). Hence the collapse was less “pancake-effect-like” and also spread debris of the outer steel frames wider.
   
In any case, none of this compares to Grenfell Tower, whose structural integrity was barely affected – though the outside façade in this case was/is the weak part and made search efforts inside additionally difficult. But the tower is unlikely to collapse – due to the very different natures of a) its design and b) the fire that destroyed it.
   
I guess it will still have to be demolished, though, so before you even ask: no, it won't be a dark-tourism site in the making as such. Yet I would expect that some form of memorial will probably be erected at the site at some point in the future. It will hardly be on the scale of the vast and impressive 9/11 Memorial & Museum in New York, but still, hopefully something appropriate. We will see.
   
In the meantime I wish people would stop rushing to unfounded conclusions based on inappropriate comparisons ...
  
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Saturday 17 June 2017
  
  17 06 16   silent today
  
Photo of the Day: re-post from a year ago, when I (like millions of others the world over) was left speechless the day after the murder of the British Labour MP Jo Cox – shot down in the open street by a right-wing nationalist, who deemed her a “traitor” because of her campaigning for 'Remain' in the then upcoming Brexit referendum with its highly charged toxic atmosphere and ruthless propaganda. And all that in what was once the “motherland of civilized political debate” (quote Klaus Kleber).
  
And that Brexit quagmire is still ongoing to this day with no end in sight … though at least no more people have been literally assassinated over it.
   
But a year on, it's an occasion to reflect about how far it can go with the increasing political division that's affecting not only Britain but many other countries too (not least the USA).
   
A really sad anniversary!
  
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Friday 16 June 2017
  
  16 06 17   Tollund man
  
Photo of the Day: I'm still a bit shaken from my recent op but now rapidly recovering ... unlike the poor chap in this photo, who's been dead for more than two and a half thousand years!
  
This is the Tollund Man – the world's most famous bog body. He's on display at the Silkeborg Museum, in central mainland Denmark. He was discovered in a peat bog near Tollund in 1950, and since the corpse was so well preserved it was at first presumed that he may have been a recent murder victim, until forensic tests confirmed his ancient age.
  
He was probably executed (though for whatever reason we will never know) as the leather rope around his neck indicates. Yet despite his violent death he looks like he is sleeping peacefully.
   
He's of course just one of many bog bodies that have been discovered in various locations, and the museum in Silkeborg has a few further specimens too. But the Tollund man is the “star” exhibit, the best preserved one of them all.
   
The photo doesn't actually show the real Tollund Man, however. It's a replica. I saw it on display in a special temporary exhibition on the topic of executions at the Museum für Sepulkralkultur (museum for funeral/burial traditions) in Kassel in Germany a few years ago. Even without this high profile (copy of a) dead visitor, that's a museum surely well worth visiting!
  
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Wednesday 14 June 2017
   
  14 06 17   shattered glass in the shape of a howling wolf, Beelitz
  
Photo of the Day: shattered glass in the shape of a howling wolf!
  
That's me right now: a bit shattered but still howling ;-)
  
Anyway, this was just to let you all know that I survived my operation and am now recovering. Let's see when I feel fit enough again to resume posting longer texts here.
  
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Sunday 11 June 2017
  
This short (ca. 15 min.) film by Chris Lloyd about dark tourism has just come out this past week. It doesn't cover many places (naturally, given the running time) but I like it ... in particular for its personal angle. Especially touching is the interview with a survivor of the Aberfan disaster, conducted right at the site of it.
  
The film also looks at the more controversial end of the dark-tourism scale, one that I don't even cover on my own DT website, in this case the site of the former home of the serial killers Fred and Rose West. Since that house has been demolished it's really a non-site anyway, but still people go there specifically, and one such visitor is interviewed in the film as well. (And they do get some aggro from a passer-by!)
  
The third site featured at length is the Littledean “crime museum” in a former prison, which has some exhibits related to this particular case as well. I quite like the curator's attitude – especially his view on selfie-taking ;-) … (Regular followers of this page will already know what I think of that pathetic trend.)
  
Moreover, the film features a Skype interview with one of Britain's many academics specializing in dark-tourism research. The most important thing to take home from that is that the motivations for visiting dark-tourism sites “vary hugely”. Indeed. But I like to stress that even so the vast majority of dark tourism is in no way so controversial as the bits so routinely picked out by the media (serial murderers' homes, slum tourism, war tourism …). It is thus telling that the Aberfan memorial and cemetery are the only sites featured in detail in the film that also appear on the DT website.
  
However, the film mentions a few other sites in passing as well, without specifically commenting on them, just as more or less typical examples of dark tourism: “Ground Zero” in New York, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the former Nazi rallying ground at Zeppelinfeld in Nuremberg, the (non-)site of where the “Führerbunker” used to be in Berlin and the Princess Diana car crash site in Paris. All of these feature on DT too, the first three with their own chapters, the last two only indirectly as part of other chapters (Topography of Terror, Anhalter Bahnhof and the general Paris chapter).
  
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Friday 9 June 2017
  
  09 06 17   gruesome amputation mock up, Somme 1916 Museum, Albert
  
Photo of the Day: WARNING, graphic depiction of medical procedures!
  
I chose this picture because I learned yesterday that I have to undergo an operation next week. Those who've been following this page for a while will already know that I often resort to such black-humoured choices when I'm medically concerned myself. There's no reason for serious concern, but it may well mean that I won't be able to post as regularly as usual next week.
  
Of course it won't be quite so bad for me as for this poor patient in today's photo. This set of dummies is part of a life-size display at the “Somme 1916 Museum” in Albert, northern France. The town, right on the front-line in the Battles of the Somme, was all but destroyed in WW1. The museum is full of such illustrations of the horrors of the “Great War” (which wasn't so great at all). This depiction is particularly nasty, what with the amputated hands complete with a fly crawling around on them. Yuck
  
In contrast, mine will be a rather minor, quite routine operation. And I'm confident I won't lose my hands in the process. I also trust it will be under much more hygienic conditions. (If you must know: it's a hernia operation, so comparatively harmless, but it's the second one I have to have done … does that mean I'm thin-skinned?)
  
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Thursday 8 June 2017
  
  08 06 17   SBX, Pearl Harbor
  
Photo of the Day: and another one from Hawaii (cf. previous post), this time from the Pearl Harbor US Navy base, where I saw this UFO-like, giant white radar dome atop a former oil rig, some 280 feet (85 m) tall.
  
This is the SBX (Sea-Based X-Band) Radar platform that is part of the USA's Ballistic Missile Defense System. It's supposedly meant to be stationed out at sea near the Aleutian Islands off Alaska – roughly underneath the potential flight path of any North Korean missiles on their way to the US mainland (in the rather unlikely event that the DPRK ever achieves that kind of capability).
  
But apparently this odd giant has been a regular (at times near permanent) visitor in Pearl Harbor, where it allegedly undergoes maintenance and calibration tests. Rumour has it that it has never been properly operational and never spent much time at its intended location. It's all shrouded in much military secrecy.
  
But it surely makes for a very intriguing, James-Bond-film-like sight to behold amongst all the WWII history memorials as well as the more regular contemporary Navy vessels you can see here.
  
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Wednesday 7 June 2017
  
  07 06 17   Kalaupapa ex leper colony, Molokai
  
Photo of the Day: we are going further West still! After Oklahoma and California we now head out into the Pacific to the USA's westernmost state: Hawaii. This picture was taken in Kalaupapa on the island of Molokai.
  
Kalaupapa was – and in a way actually still is – a leper colony. It's on a remote, isolated peninsula on the north coast of the island, separated from the rest of it by sheer 500m cliffs. In the 19th century when the then ill understood disease was spreading in the archipelago, the poor leprosy sufferers were basically just dumped here and left to fend for themselves – except for the help given by dedicated Christian priests, such as the legendary Father Damien from Belgium who came here to soothe their souls and improve their living conditions.
  
A cure for leprosy, or Hansen's Disease to use the PC term these days, was discovered in the 1940s and from the 1950s the strict isolation of Kalaupapa was lifted, although the official policy wasn't fully abolished until 1969.
  
Today, Kalaupapa is still the home of the former outcasts, some of whom decided to stay in this place they had called home for so long rather than move away to somewhere unknown. The peninsula is now a National Park and access is restricted (in part to protect the privacy of the residents). You can either take a long mule ride down the one trail that zigzags down the 500m cliff face - or fly in by small propeller aircraft to the tiny airfield. There are organized day tours by plane from Honolulu. Once in Kalaupapa you are taken around in this ancient veteran school bus you see in today's photo.
  
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Tuesday 6 June 2017
  
  06 06 17   stars and rainbow stripes, Castro, San Francisco
  
Photo of the Day: and another US flag – this time a version in the gay pride rainbow colours!
  
I spotted this when I visited the district of Castro in San Francisco, California. That district was, and still is, one of the epicentres of the gay rights movement. This earned San Francisco the epithet “gay capital of the world” in the 1960s and 70s.
  
And what's the dark connection, you may ask. Well, it may be calm, peaceful and jolly in The Castro these days, but that was not always so, of course. It's the result of decades of difficult campaigning against prejudice and repression. And that also included violence and even murder.
  
A leading figure of the gay rights campaign in The Castro in the 1970s was Harvey Milk, who was even given the unofficial title “Mayor of Castro”. But he did in fact become the first openly gay man to obtain a public office in California, namely when he was elected a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977.
  
Tragically, however, his career was cut short brutally when on 27 November 1978 he was assassinated. Another Member of the Board of Supervisors, who was hostile towards the gay movement and had resigned, entered City Hall and shot the mayor first and then Milk.
   
It sent shock waves through the gay community but also ensured that Milk's legend lives on. He's practically the “martyr” of the scene in San Francisco and beyond. In The Castro there is a monument to him, a couple of plaques, and his former shop has become a Human Rights Campaign Centre and is practically a pilgrimage site (where you can buy hundreds of different T-shirts and other items on the gay theme). And Harvey Milk's story is also told in detail in the fascinating local GLBT History Museum.
  
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Monday 5 June 2017
  
  05 06 17   caged and chained
  
Photo of the Day: after last week's focus on Russia, let's now Go West! Back to the US of A!
  
I like this particular photo because it so invites over-interpretation, what with the flag behind a fence, the chain and the cross … But I'll leave it to you to come up with your own reading of this juxtaposition.
  
The photo was actually taken right in the heart of the Bible Belt, namely in Oklahoma City, OK. (By the way: Oklahoma has to be the state with the coolest abbreviation for sure!)
  
This ensemble was found on a fence next to the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum, which commemorates the terrorist bombing (by an ultra right-winger) of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building on 19 April 1995.
  
During the clearing-up operations after the bombing people started leaving messages and mementos that they attached to the fence that had been erected around the site. When the clearing-up work finished the fence was no longer needed, but it was then decided to leave part of it in place.
  
And so it is still there today, and people still add new objects to it. Most of these are wreaths or soft toys, and of course US flags too, and as seen here, chains and crosses as well. But I also spotted less easily explicable objects, such as a bottle opener, an old sports watch and even an electric toothbrush. I can only speculate but maybe they're objects that once belonged to some of the victims? Why else would they be here?
  
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Saturday 3 June 2017
  
  
got a mention in a new online media article again - it's mostly about the KarLag gulag museum in Dolinka, Kazakhstan. Check it out.
  
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Friday 2 June 2017
  
  02 06 17   Novodeviciy 3
  
Photo of the Day: final one in this week's Russian series. This was also taken in Moscow in 1999 (so it too is a low-resolution scan of a print), namely at the famous Novodevichy Cemetery.
  
The grave shown in this image is that of Artem Mikoyan (1905-1970), the famous Armenian-Soviet aircraft designer. Together with his partner Gurevich (hence the short name MiG – the small <i> is from the Russian 'and') he designed many iconic Soviet military fighter planes.
  
The tombstone includes a small image of one of his most successful designs, a MiG-23, a variable-sweep-wing fighter aircraft. See it shooting up the right side of the stone as if about to reach for the sky like a rocket, past his designer's content gaze.
   
The MiG-23 and its derivative MiG-27 are still in service in several countries' air forces, especially in Africa, though it's been retired in Russia (but hundreds are still stored in reserve).
  
Novodevichy cemetery is the second-most prestigious burial ground in Moscow (after the Kremlin Wall), and countless big names can be found here. These include Artem Mikoyan's older brother Anastas, who was Head of State under Nikita Khrushchev.
  
Khrushchev himself is also here, as the only Soviet leader not buried at the Kremlin Wall. Other famous names include Andrei Gromyko, Boris Yeltsin and Raisa Gorbachova, the wife of the USSR's last leader (and there is a space reserved for Mikhail next to her!).
   
The list of notable names from the arts that are here too is also long, including Anton Chekhov, Nikolai Gogol, Sergei Prokofiev and Dmitri Shostakovich.
  
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Thursday 1 June 2017
  
  01 06 17   Moscow 4
  
Photo of the Day: as a follow-up to yesterday's post, here's another oldie, also shot in analogue back in 1999 and scanned from a print (hence the low res).
  
This was also taken at the VDNKh in Moscow, just outside the “Kosmos” pavilion at the north-western end of the Park. It shows a Vostok rocket, the classic design of the Soviet space programme. The design was derived from the R-7 that had originally been developed for the military as a nuclear ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) and was actually the first of this type of weapon in the world. And there were more firsts:
  
It was a rocket of this adapted type (8K72K) seen in today's photo that launched the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, onto his historic journey in 1961. Two years later it also took the first woman into space, Valentina Tereshkova. An earlier version of this rocket also shot the world's first satellite (Sputnik) into space in 1957.
  
Later versions of this type of rocket were given the name Soyuz. The Soyuz-2 is still in active service, making it the longest lasting and most successful rocket design in history.
  
That said, though, there were also serious accidents involving these rockets. One of the worst happened in 1980 when a Vostok rocket exploded at the launch facility in Plesetsk in northern Russia killing 48 people.
  
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Wednesday 31 May 2017
 
  31 05 17   Moscow 1
    
Photo of the Day: to continue the Russia theme ... I was digging deep in my archives looking for some old photos from when I was last in Moscow in 1999. Here's one I found:
  
It shows the monument “Worker and Kolkhoz Woman”, a gigantic sculpture, a whopping 24m high, originally created for the Paris World Exhibition in 1937. The raised arms holding up a hammer and a sickle (what else) were pointing towards the Nazi German pavilion with its swastika that stood right opposite the Soviet pavilion.
  
This sculpture duo was later moved to Moscow to stand on the edge of the VDNKh Park, the Exhibition of Achievements of National Economy, a Stalinist kind of theme park glorifying the Soviet Republics and different areas of industry and agriculture.
  
In 2003 the sculpture was dismantled for refurbishment and when it was reassembled in 2009 it was put atop a new and much bigger pedestal, a full 35m high, so the overall height was increased to almost 60m! When I photographed it 1999 it was still on its original 10m pedestal so you could actually see the statues better from street level. Allegedly you could even climb up to their feet and I heard it rumoured that tramps used to sleep inside the woman's steel skirt (I saw a hatch under it, so it's not totally unthinkable ...)
  
Anyway, what a marvel of OTT socialist realist monumentalism it is! It is probably the most classic sculpture of Soviet times. It was also copied many times in other places too. I even saw a smaller copy of this in remote Aksu in Kazakhstan!
  
Note that it was still the pre-digital age back in 1999 – the photo was shot with a simple compact analogue camera, and this is actually a scan of a print. So please excuse the low resolution. Despite the technically low quality, I think it's still a cool picture, though.
  
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Tuesday 30 May 2017
  
  30 05 17   Russian military gear in the Pasvik border area near Norway
  
Photo of the Day: follow up from yesterday's post. Here's some Russian military gear in the Pasvik region, the north-westernmost part of mainland Russia.
  
This was taken (illicitly - normally it's probably not allowed to photograph military installations here) from a moving car, hence the swooshiness of the foreground, en route back from Murmansk to Kirkenes. The minubus service wasn't running that day, so we took a taxi.
  
It's a fascinating corner of the world that would be worth exploring in more depth, but unfortunately on that occasion I only had very limited time and had to concentrate on the city of Murmansk.
  
The Norwegian side shows a lot of Russian influence too, though. In Kirkenes street names and signs are all bilingual in Norwegian and Russian/Cyrillic. And there's a lot of trade as well, including a regular Russian market. Given the price levels in Norway for practically everything, the Russians can make a good profit by selling their goods here, whatever it is ...
  
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Monday 29 May 2017
  
  29 05 17   Russian watchtower on the Norwegian border
  
Just got my visa for Russia, so I will go back there in the summer. It's long overdue. So many gaps to close, especially in Moscow. Haven't been to that city since 1999! When I was last in Russia, in 2012, it was in the Pasvik region and Murmansk, where I went as an excursion from Kirkenes, Norway. That's when I took this picture.
  
It shows a Russian border watchtower seen from the Norwegian side. Don't be fooled, though. The figure you can see “standing guard” at the top is actually a dummy, just a stuffed cold-weather suit strapped to the railings, as I ascertained through my superzoom camera's 30x magnification.
  
The border river, by the way, is so shallow that in theory you could just wade across, ignoring the border marker posts. That would be quite an unwise thing to do, though. The Norwegians put up lots of signs warning against such reckless behaviour, and they guard their border quite thoroughly too. You'd get into trouble no matter if it's the Russians or the Norwegians who find you crossing this border illegally.
  
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Friday 26 May 2017
  
  26 05 17   the fluffy side of the Nagorno Karabakh war
  
Photo of the Day: … and to finish this week's theme: here's the fluffy side of the Nagorno-Karabakh war!
  
And again, in reality there's nothing fluffy about it. This is one of the world's “frozen conflicts” to which there just doesn't seem to be a genuinely possible solution. It's like the Middle East (esp. Israel and Palestine), but in the Caucasus.
  
In this case the bone of contention at the heart of this insurmountable enmity is a disputed territory that is “de jure” (officially, by international law) still part of Azerbaijan but is “de facto” part of Armenia – or rather: it's a quasi-exclave of Armenia, geographically separate but with an ethnically mostly Armenian population, and cultural and religious roots that are also firmly Armenian. And it's been militarily protected by Armenian forces (with a little help from Russia) for almost two and a half decades. The actual full-scale war in Karabakh, which ended in this stalemate, lasted from 1991 to 1994.
  
The territory nominally declared itself an independent state in 1991 – but this independence has not been officially recognized by any of the UN countries. The only entities that do recognize it are similarly contested self-declared but (mostly) unrecognized break-away republics – namely Transnistria (formerly part of Moldova), as well as Abkhazia and South Ossetia (both formerly part of Georgia, also in the Caucasus).
  
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Thursday 25 May 2017
  
  25 05 17   the fluffy side of Nazism
  
Photo of the Day: the fluffy theme continued even further. And if you thought it couldn't possibly get as far as “The fluffy side of Nazism”, think again, because here it comes!
  
This embroidered cushion is an exhibit at the “Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (HGM)” at the Arsenal in Vienna, Austria. This military history museum is actually the oldest of all those grand museums in this city. Before World War One its purpose was primarily to glorify the Habsburg Empire's military tradition and might.
   
This has since changed considerably, of course. In fact even in recent years the museum has undergone further modernization, esp. with a brand-new, state-of-the-art section about WW1, opened on the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War (and in my view this new exhibition even beats its equivalent at the Imperial War Museum in London in quality!).
   
But this particular artefact is to be found in the section about the Third Reich and WWII, of course. It's not even the only item of such “dodginess”, they also have a jolly lantern with the Nazi symbol on it and also a golden Adolf bust (protected by perspex).
  
But don't let that give you the wrong idea. The museum is as far from celebrating this dark era as you can get. In fact, having such shockingly “distasteful” items (from today's perspective) on display is actually rather courageous, I think, from a point of view of museum curatorship. It certainly confronts you with a very poignant impression of how comfortably (even literally!) ultra-right-wing symbolism can go with homely cosiness. In that sense I find an exhibit like this far more chilling and disturbing than displays of weapons or uniforms or images of Hitler in mid-agitation. This unexpected Nazi-cushion is certainly one of the must unusual and thus most memorable artefact I've ever seen in any museum exhibition on this subject.
  
Finally I don't want to finish this post without mentioning the cool slogan that this museum has adopted: “Kriege gehören ins Museum” – 'war belongs in a museum' (i.e. rather than in the real, contemporary world)!
  
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Wednesday 24 May 2017
  
  24 05 17   the fluffy side of the American military presence in Germany during the Cold War
  
Photo of the Day: continuing the fluffy theme of this week – but now looking across the former Iron Curtain, at the Western side: here's the fluffy side of the American military presence in Germany – and a bit of Elvis (see below)!
  
All through the Cold-War era the USA maintained a strong military presence (including plenty of nuclear weapons!) in West Germany ('FRG'), its former-WWII-enemy-turned-key-ally in NATO. And to a lesser degree it has continued its military presence ever since Germany's reunification and the end of the Cold War as well.
  
The American military bases were/are mostly located in the south-west of Germany, and include the (in)famous Ramstein. It still serves as the HQ for the US Air Force in Europe. In 1988 it was the site of a tragic air show disaster in which 70 people were killed – and which in turn gave rise to the band name “Rammstein” (slightly misspelled, but at the same time alluding to the word “rammen”, 'to ram').
  
The Ray Barracks in Friedberg, celebrated in this wall rug spotted at the Allied Museum in Berlin, was, however, closed in 2007 and the forces stationed there were sent home to the US.
  
But to come back to the Elvis reference in the first paragraph: one famous soldier to have served at Ray Barracks long before that, back in 1958, was indeed Elvis Presley!
  
The then entertainment superstar had to suspend his career for two years when he was drafted. He declined the offer of doing only “Special Services” (aka “celebrity wimp-out” amongst ordinary soldiers), meaning he would have done merely basic military training for a few weeks and then just toured army bases but otherwise more or less continued his stardom lifestyle. But instead he served, nominally, as a regular soldier and was stationed at Ray Barracks, Germany.
  
The decision wasn't quite as heroic as it was/is widely seen, though. In fact it was a deliberate decision by his manager that it would be better at this point in Elvis' career for him to step out of the limelight for those two years (at a point when more conservative, older Americans viewed him as a menace to society), pocket the respect that doing regular military service would earn him, as it did, and then return to continue his career as an even bigger star.
  
His military service in Germany also wasn't quite so “ordinary” after all. He was quickly allowed to live “off post” and he took up base first in hotels, then in a house he purchased. So no regular barracks life for him.
  
It was also during his military duty in Germany that he picked up his amphetamine habit, which would lead to his addiction to various drugs that eventually played a major part in his untimely death, at age 42, in 1977.
  
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Tuesday 23 May 2017
  
  23 05 17   the fluffy side of the Stasi
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post … and here comes the fluffy side of the Stasi!
  
The Stasi was the equivalent of the KGB in the GDR, the “German Democratic Republic', or simply 'East Germany', during the Cold War era, when the GDR was a “Bruderstaat” ('brother state') of the USSR and part of the Warsaw Pact/Eastern Bloc. In fact the Stasi and the KGB worked closely together.
  
The Stasi was actually the largest state security police organization in history, if measured in relation to the size of the population it kept under surveillance (ca. 16 million). It officially employed over 90,000 people and in addition recruited roughly twice as many so-called “IMs”, which stands for “inoffizielle Mitarbeiter” – 'unofficial collaborators'. These were often coerced or threatened (or lured by perks and career advantages) into spying and writing reports on their colleagues, neighbours, friends and in many cases even their own family members.
   
Stasi, btw., is short for “Ministerium für Staatssicherheit” ('Ministry of State Security”, or simply “Staatssicherheit”) and internally had the additional epithet “Schild und Schwert der Partei” ('shield and sword of the party').
  
When I saw this fluffy Stasi emblem on the wall in one of the memorial sites in Germany I immediately thought: wouldn't it be cool to have one of these to put in front of my loo at home? … is that a legitimate thought? Or would that be too disrespectful? But then again, wouldn't it be disrespect directed at quite a deserving target? Or still in too iconoclastic a way? Not so easy, is it? Anyway, it was only a thought experiment, since I doubt that specimens of this fluffy symbol would be available anywhere other than as exhibits in museums … or am I wrong?
  
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Monday 22 May 2017
  
  22 05 17   the fluffy side of the KGB
  
Photo of the Day: to compensate for last week's spiky barbed-wire theme, this week I'll go all soft and fluffy – while still maintaining dark associations, of course ...
  
So let's begin this week with a look at the fluffy side of the KGB, the former Soviet Union's infamous secret service and intelligence agency.
  
Of course, this is just about the only side of the KGB that can be called fluffy. In all other regards it's a name that still triggers reflex reactions of fear and loathing … as well as some curiosity about this organization's mysterious secrecy.
  
KGB, btw., stands for “Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti” ('Committee for State Security'). Internally its purpose was to keep the Soviet population under surveillance and stamp out any subversion or opposition to the communist regime. Internationally, it was the USSR's spy network, the direct counterpart to the USA's CIA or the UK's MI6. Brings back images of old James Bond movies, doesn't it?
  
In the real world, the KGB broke up together with the USSR in 1991, but its successor organizations still exist in Russia, most notably the FSB (for “Federal'naya sluzhba bezopasnosti” – 'federal security service').
  
However, outside Russia the KGB still carries on: namely in Belarus and also in Transnistria! (Both just never bothered to change the name for their secret service.) That is also quite fitting in a way, in as much as both these places maintain a lot of “Sovietness” in general. The latter has even been called “a Soviet open-air museum”. But that's for another post some other time ...
  
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Friday 19 May 2017
  
  19 05 2017   Uncle Ho on Vietnamese former North South border monument
  
On this Day: one hundred and twenty-seven years ago, on 19 May 1890, a certain Nguyen Sinh Cung was born, who would later become better known to the world under his adopted name: Ho Chi Minh
    
The meaning of this name is something like “Ho the bright spirit” or “Ho the enlightened” – Ho being just a common surname in Vietnam.
  
Under this name, Ho became world-famous as the leader of the Vietnamese communists and the main mastermind behind the revolution which led to the founding of the independent state of the “Democratic Republic of Vietnam” (aka North Vietnam).
  
He became president of this new state in 1956. As such he became the North's leader in what in Vietnam is known as “The American War”, i.e. the   “Vietnam War” as it is called in the USA and the rest of the West.
  
Ho Chi Minh didn't live to see the North Vietnamese eventual triumph in this long-drawn-out and nasty war. He died in September 1969, six years before the fall of Saigon and the subsequent reunification of Vietnam under communist rule.
   
This photo was taken at the monumental plinth of the flagpole at the northern end of Hien Luong Bridge (which used to cross the dividing line between North and South Vietnam, and is now part of a reunification monument complex). It features some fantastically OTT socialist realist mosaics, including this depiction of old “Uncle Ho” standing fatherly behind his cheering soldiers like a shadow from the afterlife.
  
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Thursday 18 May 2017
  
  18 05 17   Boden   barbed wire & fortress
 
Photo of the Day: … carrying on with this week's barbed-wire theme. This picture was taken at Boden Fortress in northern Sweden, almost on the Arctic Circle.
  
Boden Fortress is the collective name of a whole complex of forts, spread out over quite a large area. They were constructed at the beginning of the 20th century, back then mainly as a bulwark against the Russian Empire. In WWII Sweden's gold reserves were stored here. During the Cold War the forts became part of this (neutral) country's defence line against a potential Soviet threat. (Boden is also a large military garrison town.)
  
In recent years parts of the complex have become a tourist attraction, especially the Rödbergsfortet, where you can go on guided tours of the preserved and refurbished interior. Other forts are abandoned and derelict – and hence an attraction for urban explorers entering them illegally (and the graffiti left behind testifies to the fact that they do).
  
The fort in this picture with the atmospheric rusty barbed wire in the foreground is one of those abandoned forts. And before you ask: no I did not intrude and trespass here. I only explored the outside – which I found pretty impressive as it was. To get into the fort you'd need ladders and/or ropes to begin with, in order to get across that massive ditch cut into the bedrock, and then torches and helmets for exploring the interior I should guess. But I wasn't carrying anything of the sort around with me on my northern Scandinavia round trip back in 2012 (which also took me to Norway, Svalbard and Murmansk).
  
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Wednesday 17 May 2017
  
  17 05 17   barbed wire, on the edge of the STS, Kazakhstan
  
Photo of the Day: yet more barbed wire! This cluster of rusty barbed wire I found on the edge of the Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS), aka The Polygon – the former Soviet Union's main area for conducting tests of their nuclear weapons!
  
This barren part of the steppe in Kazakhstan is now abandoned. There isn't even a proper fence around it. Whether this barbed wire was intended to deter people from entering the site I don't know. It may just have been left behind. But it would hardly suffice to keep people out anyway.
  
It's more astonishing that it was even still there. When I went to the STS a few years ago I witnessed several scrap metal hunters digging up old cables from the test grounds. The various measuring towers around the Polygon were of course all connected by underground wires. These wires are highly likely to be irradiated still from all those nuclear tests. Yet that doesn't stop the scrap metal hunters collecting the materials and selling them off (to China mostly – so it could well have ended up in your new microwave or smartphone if it's manufactured in China).
  
This old rusty barbed wire was probably simply not valuable enough to get stolen.
  
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Tuesday 16 May 2017
  
  16 05 17   barbed wire heart
  
Photo of the Day: following on from yesterday's post … here's more barbed wire – but now in the shape of a heart!
  
That would be a rather dangerous heart to touch, because that's not just old-fashioned barbed wire but so-called “razor wire”, designed to cut into flesh nastily and to tear clothes.
  
I just found this fascinating as an image because it is a cliché-puzzling juxtaposition: the shape of a heart is normally associated only with nice things, but here that clashes with the cruel nature of the material that forms this shape.
  
You normally see lots of this type of razor wire atop fences around prisons or at borders, such as the new fortifications recently put up at the outer EU borders in the Balkans (especially by Hungary).
  
Such razor wire is also known as “Concertina wire”, because rolled up it packs flat and is easy to store and transport, but then can be set up quickly by pulling the coils apart (like a concertina, hence the nickname).
  
It's effective as a deterrent certainly in psychological terms. But in practical terms it only works to deter unprepared people, such as prison inmates or civilian refugees would be. However, if you come prepared it's less insurmountable than it looks. The wire is actually quite easy to cut and rolls of it can also be overcome by throwing tough layers over it (e.g. old carpets). Hence razor wire apparently plays less of an important role in military contexts.
  
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Monday 15 May 2017
  
  15 05 17   barbed wire and wall, Hötensleben
  
Photo of the Day: barbed wire and the Wall, at Hötensleben, Germany.
  
This photo was taken through some art installation involving lots of barbed wire, and behind it you can see a white wall in the background. It's the same type of wall that used to characterize the Berlin Wall all through the second half of its existence (earlier incarnations were cruder but were gradually updated to this 1970s design).
   
But this is not Berlin. Occasionally this type of wall was also used at the inner-German border between the GDR and the FRG, where the usual metal fence was deemed insufficient. This was the case at places where there were settlements on the Eastern side very close to the borderline, like here at Hötensleben (or ones actually cut in two by the border, like at Mödlareuth).
   
While in Berlin most of the Wall was quickly destroyed after 9 November 1989, here in Hötensleben the local mayor had the bright idea of preserving this special stretch of border wall. And what a good idea that was. This unique relic is now the closest you can get anywhere in the world to an impression of what the Berlin Wall looked like … and that outside of Berlin. Historical irony.
  
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Friday 12 May 2017
  
  12 05 17   Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna
  
Photo of the Day: no big story or history lesson today, and no particular reason for posting it today … it's just a cool photo I've long wanted to share. Well, I at least find it quite pleasing aesthetically.
  
It's not especially dark either, though that dragon in the centre gets it close to looking a little menacing, doesn't it?
  
It's actually not a dragon, of course, but the replica of a pterodactyl, a kind of flyng dinosaur species that became extinct long ago together with the other dinosaurs.
  
I took this photo several years ago at the Naturhistorisches Museum (natural history museum) in Vienna, mainly to try out a new 16-45mm lens I had just bought for my SLR back then. I still think the result isn't too bad …
  
It was shot vertically up from the bottom of the central entrance hall of the building looking through the circular hole in the ceiling towards the top of the central grand dome that sits atop the museum. The replica pterodactyl was suspended just above this hole … I think to great effect. It has a certain pseudo-ghoulish aura, don't you think?
  
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Thursday 11 May 2017
  
  11 05 17   Haus der Wannseekonferenz
  
On this Day, 57 years ago, on 11 May 1960, Adolf Eichmann was captured by Israeli agents near Buenos Aires, Argentina. So here's another captured-Nazi story to follow on from yesterday's post ...
  
Eichmann's story, however, is even grimmer than that of Rudolf Hess. Eichmann was the prototypical “Schreibtischtäter”. That German word (“Schreibtisch” = 'desk', “Täter” = 'perpetrator') refers to someone who doesn't commit murder himself, but pulls the necessary bureaucratic strings to make such atrocities happen. And in this case the atrocity is the biggest ever committed: the so-called “Final Solution” in the Holocaust. The systematic extermination of Europe's Jewry.
  
This photo shows an idyllic-looking little bay window in a villa at the Wannsee in Berlin. This was the venue of what has become known as the Wannsee Conference. This took place in January 1942 and it was at this meeting that the “Final Solution of the Jewish question”, as the Nazis called it, was decided on. Well, not decided on per se. That was basically Hitler's decision already. But the ways of how to go about it were discussed and decided upon here. And so the mass gassing in dedicated death camps in eastern Poland went ahead beginning that same year …
   
Chairing the conference was not Eichmann, but Reinhard Heydrich. Yet it was Eichmann who took the minutes and became the main co-ordinator between the different departments in the Nazi machine in this matter. In a sense, then, he can indeed be regarded as the principal bureaucrat behind the Holocaust.
  
After the war he somehow managed to weasel out and flee to Argentina. But after his capture by Mossad (possibly their highest-profile catch ever) he was put on trial in Jerusalem, sentenced to death and executed in 1962.
  
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Wednesday 10 May 2017
  
  10 05 2017   piece of the plane Rudolf Hess flew to Scotland in
  
On this Day: 76 years ago, on 10 May 1941, Rudolf Hess, the “Deputy Führer” of Nazi Germany, flew to Scotland, apparently on an unauthorized mission to initiate peace talks with Britain. But he ran out of fuel and parachuted out before his plane crashed. This is a part of it.
  
So, in a way following on from yesterday's post, here's another piece of plane wreckage, much smaller than yesterday's, but one showing the iconic cross marking of the Nazi Luftwaffe. It is now on display at the Imperial War Museum North in Manchester. The plane from whose wreckage it was taken was a twin-engine Messerschmitt Bf-110.
   
The exact circumstances of this Scotland flight by Rudolf Hess are a bit mysterious. Apparently Hess was under quite some illusion as to what he could possibly achieve; some have even expressed doubts about his mental health more generally.
   
Moreover, his move was not co-ordinated or even known about by Hitler or the rest of the Nazi leadership. Hitler apparently considered it betrayal when he heard about this unauthorized initiative the day after. He subsequently stripped Hess – in absentia – of all his duties and titles and even abolished the role of “Deputy Führer” altogether.
   
Hess, meanwhile, was captured by the Home Guard, handed over to the appropriate authorities and put under arrest in Britain for the rest of the war. After the war he had to appear before the Nuremberg Trials. There he was given a life sentence, which he spent at Spandau Prison in Berlin. It ended with him committing suicide – in 1987, at the age of 93, and 42 years after the end of the war!
  
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Tuesday 9 May 2017
  
  09 05 17   B 17 wreck salvaged from Papua New Guinea, on display at the Pacivic Aviation Museum, Pearl Harbor
  
Photo of the Day: following on from yesterday's post … in a way I can actually top that for far-eastern-ness, as this plane spent most of its existence as a shot-down wreck in eastern Papua New Guinea … except these days it is on display at the Pacific Aviation Museum, Pearl Harbor, O'ahu, Hawaii (ironically the most western place I've ever been to, if only because of the arbitrary course of the international date line). The story of this plane is truly remarkable. I quote from my main DT website:
  
“a B-17 bomber that had crash-landed in a swamp in Papua New Guinea (PNG), where it remained lying largely intact in its desolate, remote location for over half a century before being salvaged and brought here.
  
This particular plane had been scheduled to arrive in Hawaii in mid-December 1941, so it only narrowly escaped the Pearl Harbor attacks when it flew in just ten days later. In early 1942 it was then sent down to operate out of Australia against the advancing Japanese.
   
On 22 February 1942, on an air raid on Rabaul, New Britain, the plane came under fire by Japanese fighters' machine guns, which punctured a fuel tank on the B-17 so that the pilot was unable to fly all the way back over the mountains of PNG and had to put the plane down somewhere in the jungle. What he thought to be a green field, though, turned out to be swamp. Yet, the crew survived and walked for six weeks through the jungle to Port Moresby (the PNG capital).
   
The plane was simply left semi-submerged in water – where it could clearly be seen from the air. Australian pilots nicknamed the wreck the “Swamp Ghost”. Only in 2006 was an expert in South Pacific plane wrecks permitted to salvage the B-17 from its swamp. It was dismantled on site, and each bit flown out by helicopter. The parts were then painstakingly cleaned and eventually reassembled. It finally returned to Hawaii in 2014. What a fascinating journey!”
  
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Monday 8 May 2017
  
  08 05 17   Yushukan
  
Photo of the Day: we haven't had anything from the Far East in a long while. So today I'll go about as far east as I can from my own travel history. To Japan, more precisely Tokyo.
  
This is a photo I took from the gallery level down into the big foyer of the Yushukan. Apart from an iconic Zero fighter plane, what you can see on display here includes, on the left, an especially remarkable artefact: a steam locomotive that used to ply the Burma-Thailand Death Railway (of “Bridge on the River Kwai” fame/infamy)!
  
The Yushukan is a kind of WWII museum directly adjacent to the Yasukuni shrine. The latter is the place where, controversially, Japanese war heroes are worshipped … including convicted war criminals. The attendance of Japanese prime ministers and other high-ranking officials in recent decades   has regularly outraged the Koreans and Chinese (who suffered immeasurably from Japanese war crimes).
The Yushukan museum is no less controversial. Its portrayal of, say, the Massacre of Nanjing (aka “The Rape of Nanking”) is nothing short of revisionist. Similarly skewed is the coverage of the Death Railway: the locomotive on display is there to *celebrate* that railway line as a great Japanese achievement (which in a way it was … yet it cost so many lives of brutally exploited forced labourers, POWs, which is against the Geneva Convention, which, however, Japan hadn't signed, so … but I found those angles don't really get covered in this museum anyway).
  
Somewhat disturbing is also the glorifications of the Kamikaze pilots … though with regard to the latter, the attitudes in the west and in Japan itself couldn't be more different in general. But that's really another topic for another time (in fact it already has featured on these pages before).
  
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Sunday 7 May 2017
  
  07 05 17   church and terror, Corbera D'ebre, Spain
  
Photo of the Day: since it is Sunday … let's go to church … er, no, wait, there's something in the way! Terror! ... what is this strange juxtaposition supposed to mean? Church is terror? Terror against the church? The church against terror? Terror before church?
  
It's not made clear at this site. But the fact that it is related to the Spanish Civil War may be a hint (read on).
  
This juxtaposition was spotted at Corbera d'Ebre in the Terra Alta region of Catalonia, northern Spain. The old village was almost completely destroyed in the Battle of the Ebro, the longest, bloodiest and also final battle of the Civil War … it ended in the total defeat of the Republicans and Franco's ultimate victory.
  
The ruined old Corbera d'Ebre is now a ghost town that serves as a memorial, with the semi-ruined church at its heart and a number of art installations inside it as well as in between the empty shells of the ruined houses around it. At the foot of the hill that the church sits on a new village was built after the war. This new town is also home to two remarkable museum exhibitions about the Battle of the Ebro
  
Now, back to this juxtaposition: given that on the Republican side large factions, especially communists and anarchists, were not just atheists but quite openly against the church, whereas Franco aligned himself with the Catholic church, the terror cross in this picture may indeed be intended to be anti-church, since Corbera was mainly a victim of the Francoists. If this is so, then it is at least only symbolic.
  
Especially in the earlier stages of the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans had vented their anger with the church and its repressive conservatism much more concretely and brutally: many churches and monasteries were desecrated and vandalized, corpses of monks dragged out from their crypts and coffins and defiled in public, statues of Christ symbolically “executed” by firing squads … and it didn't stop short of actually killing members of the clergy. In fact many thousands were killed (suggested figures vary widely, but it could have been in the region of 50,000).
  
It was named “Terror Rojo” ('red terror').
   
This art installation could thus in theory also be reference to that less glamorous aspect of the Republicans' history. But in the light of the overall rather pro-Republican and anti-Francoist stance in the commemoration of the war in Catalonia, I'd still go with an anti-church interpretation here. But, as I said, it's left open – at the site you are alone in interpreting this symbolism. And there's certainly enough to ponder here ...
  
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Friday 5 May 2017
  
  05 05 17   piece of Yugoslav helicopter wreck, Slovenian contemporary history museum, Ljubljana
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post. Having mentioned the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, here's a photo to go with that topic, quite symbolically.
  
It shows a broken-off tail piece of a helicopter bearing the Yugoslav national flag – it was apparently shot down in the brief first war in the Balkans of the 1990s, just after Slovenia declared its independence.
   
That war lasted only ten days, from 26 June to 6 July 1991, and was fought between the old Yugoslav People's Army and the new Slovenian Territorial Defence ... until the Brioni Agreement (brokered mainly by the European Community, the precursor of the EU) put an end to the hostilities.
  
Even though this stopped the war in Slovenia from escalating any further, it meant basically the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia. The focus for the Yugoslav forces then shifted towards Croatia, and as we know things weren't settled quite so peacefully there ... and it got even worse not much later in Bosnia. Of all the post-Yugoslav regions, Slovenia probably got away the lightest in the end.
  
The piece of a wreck of a helicopter seen in today's photo is now on display in the Slovenian Museum of Contemporary History in the little nation's quaint and pleasant capital city Ljubljana.
  
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Thursday 4 May 2017
  
  04 05 2017   the brave Broz in bronze, Tito grave and museum, Belgrade, Serbia
  
On this Day, 37 years ago, on 4 May 1980, Josip Broz, better known to the world as Tito, passed away, aged almost 88.
  
So to mark the occasion I give you an image of a bronze Broz – showing a statue still standing proudly in the gardens outside his “House of Flowers” (where his tomb is), next to the current “Museum of Yugoslavia”, in the capital of Serbia, Belgrade.
  
Tito was the leader of the partisans that drove out the Nazis in WWII and subsequently headed the new Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. He was also instrumental in bringing about the Non-Alignment Movement (an alliance of nations not taking sides with either of the two Cold War power blocs, NATO and the Warsaw Pact).
  
Officially Tito held the post of first President of Yugoslavia until his death in 1980, even though he had already largely withdrawn himself from most active roles of leadership in the couple of years leading up to his demise.
  
With his demise, it is often argued, also disappeared the one uniting element of the multi-ethnic federation that was Yugoslavia. And indeed, just over a decade later its break-up began with the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, starting with the declaration of independence by Slovenia (ironically it was in Ljubljana, Slovenia's capital, that Tito had died) and then Croatia, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and Macedonia, leaving just Serbia and Montenegro in a federal alliance, albeit no longer a socialist one (hence the old SFR of Yugoslavia was dissolved already in 1992).
  
In 2006 this last alliance was also finished, following an independence referendum in Montenegro. Now all six former constituent parts of Yugoslavia are separate countries in their own right … plus Kosovo, which also broke away from Serbia and declared its independence in 2008 (though Serbia and a number of other countries still haven't formally recognized it).
  
Ethnic tensions still play a role in many parts of former Yugoslavia, not just Kosovo and Serbia, but also within Bosnia & Herzegovina (mainly Bosniaks vs. ethnic Serbs).
  
Given the chaos and violence that his country slid into, it's no wonder that there are more than just a few who harbour nostalgic feelings for Tito and the olden days of socialist rule and unity. That's even though Tito's authoritarian rule was, despite all his achievements, still pretty much a dictatorship (and not generally a benevolent one, especially not with regard to ethnic Albanians and political dissidents).
  
Alas, at least one bird left some evidence of no respect for the man ...
  
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Wednesday 3 May 2017
  
  03 05 17   actual equipment used by Thatcher to authorize the sinking of the General Belgrano
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post about the sinking of the “General Belgrano” during the Falklands War.
  
This photo shows the actual equipment used by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher back in 1982 to transmit the authorization to the submarine “HMS Conqueror” for attacking the Argentinian cruiser. So it's quite a historic piece of gear.
  
It's a VLF radio transmitter control deck – where VLF stands for “very low frequency”. It's a technology used for secure communication with submerged submarines, and would also have been used in the event of a nuclear war to transmit the launch codes for Britain's “Trident” SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles). So it's pretty dark on more than one level ...
  
This particular authentic VLF radio transmitter set is on display at the museum inside the former secret nuclear bunker of Hack Green near Crewe in Cheshire, England.
  
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Tuesday 2 May 2017
  
  02 05 2017   Argentine war cemetery, Falklands
  
On this Day: 35 years ago, on 2 May 1982, the Argentine cruiser “General Belgrano” was attacked by a British submarine and after having been hit by two torpedoes sank. 323 of the over 1000-strong crew on board lost their lives, just over half of all the Argentinians killed in the Falklands War.
  
I obviously do not have any photos of my own of the ship or of the sinking, so I picked one that shows the official Argentine war cemetery on East Falkland, not far from Goose Green, which I visited as part of my tour of the Falklands in 2013/14.
  
The sinking of the “General Belgrano” was and still is a controversial issue. Its “legality” is disputed primarily because the cruiser was outside the “Total Exclusion Zone” around the islands that the British had unilaterally imposed (itself an unprecedented move whose legality was also uncertain). Yet, the British argued that the ship posed a serious threat to the British Task Force, given that orders for a massive attack had been intercepted, and so the vessel was attacked in self-defence. It was unclear whether the “General Belgrano” may have been ordered to penetrate the Exclusion Zone.
  
In any case it was the single worst incident in terms of casualties of the entire war – and it had major repercussions. The Argentinian Navy was effectively pulled out of the conflict after the sinking, and attacks on the British Task Force were carried out from the air by planes that had to fly their maximum range all the way from the Argentinian mainland, which was a severe disadvantage.
   
The submarine that sank the cruiser was “HMS Conqueror”, the first and to this day only nuclear-powered submarine ever to have sunk an enemy ship in a military conflict.
  
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Monday 1 May 2017
  
  01 05 2017   Life in the GDR Museum exhibit
  
On this Day: it's Labour Day, or International Workers' Day, 1st of May! This special date was given its significance by the international socialist/communist movement over 130 years ago and is still observed as a public holiday in the vast majority of countries.
  
In the olden days of the communist Soviet empire and the Eastern bloc it was the main holiday of the year, a grand occasion for parades and mass marches. And here's some evidence of that. This photo shows the “battle plan” of the May Day festivities in East Berlin on and around Karl-Marx-Allee (which still bears that name to this day).
  
Workers and members of the Socialist Unity Party (SED), the military (NVA) or the socialist youth organization (FDJ) and so forth were assembled in huge numbers to (compulsorily) take part in the marches, which were collectively dubbed “Kampfdemonstration der Werktätigen”. That term literally means something like 'fighting/battle demonstration/rally of the working people', though these are not really good translations capturing the full connotations of that lingo … can any of the translators amongst my followers come up with anything better?
  
Anyway, these marches were lavish affairs, with lots of red-flag waving and banners celebrating the party, the state and its leaders and generally hailing the victory of socialism (“Der Sozialismus siegt!” – sometimes corrupted in subversive graffiti to “Der Sozialismus siecht”, i.e. 'socialism is wasting away').
  
The highlight would be when the marchers passed by a podium were the leaders of the state would greet them and wave back, gloating and wallowing in their cult of personality. In the days that this document must be from the top dog of the GDR leadership would have been Erich Honecker.
  
I always found that this man's outward appearance was quite at odds with such a cult of personality. In my circles in West Germany where I grew up we often regarded Honecker as a man with the glamour appeal equivalent to that of a “Kaninchenzüchter” (literally this means 'rabbit breeder', but, again, this translation does not quite capture the connotations, which includes something a bit 'nerdy', 'reclusive', 'wooden' and perhaps with an awkward dress sense … hope you get the picture).
  
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Sunday 30 April 2017
  
  30 04 2017   Hitler kicked off his pedestal and into the dirt, German Russian Museum Berlin
  
On this Day: 72 years ago, on 30 April 1945, Nazi Germany's “Führer” Adolf Hitler committed suicide by shooting himself through the head while at the same time biting on a cyanide capsule. With the dictator gone, the Third Reich surrendered unconditionally just over a week later and WWII in Europe was over.
  
This photo shows an Adolf bust knocked off its pedestal and kicked into the dust, possibly by means of that brick lying next to it, and is on display at the German-Russian Museum in Berlin Karlshorst. Apparently, such evidence of end-of-war Adolf iconoclasm was quite commonly encountered all over the fallen “1000-year Reich” amongst the rubble and ruins that this grim period ended in.
  
The German-Russian Museum in what was formerly East Berlin also has an interesting history itself. It was set up in the olden socialist days on the edge of what was then the largest KGB HQ outside the USSR itself. It celebrated the communist alliance between the then GDR and the Soviets as much as the military victory of the latter over Nazi Germany. After the collapse of the USSR and the Eastern bloc, and with Germany reunited and a member of NATO, the perspective on history at this museum also changed. It recently received yet another facelift and its historical exhibition underwent more modernization yet again (including English labelling and the obligatory addition of interactive multimedia elements).
  
But the very heart of the place, the “surrender hall”, remains almost as it was back in 1945. This was the place where the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany was officially signed by all sides (even though the Nazis had, technically speaking, already surrendered to the Western Allies in Reims, France, the day before).
  
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Friday 28 April 2017
  
  28 04 17   Pripyat doll b&w
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post … a doll I found on the pavement between abandoned buildings in the ghost town of Pripyat on my first visit to the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, over ten years ago, in 2006 (on my honeymoon that was!).
  
There has been a lot of discussion about how “authentic” such encounters really are. It's fairly well known that the gas masks strewn all aver the floor in one of the abandoned school buildings (you may well have seen photos of this – including on this page) were deliberately placed there by whoever it was who discovered these gas masks in a box somewhere in that school. Most obviously, individual gas masks strapped onto dolls' heads are of course “staged scenes” set up by visitors.
  
Other ensembles have clearly been arranged in particular ways too ... just to look evocative and photogenic, often playing with clichés of familiar horror film imagery. As such, they are “manipulations” and not really part of the authenticity of the site.
  
But whether this doll lying forlornly on the wet pavement outside one of Pripyat's buildings back in 2006 was put there or indeed “genuinely” left behind in its location has to remain an open question. The line between what's authentic and what's not (fully) genuine is a bit blurred here.
  
And before you ask: yes, we dosemetered the doll too and found it was only mildly radioactive. But I think it's a rather powerful image nonetheless, if I may say so myself ...
  
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Thursday 27 April 2017
  
  27 04 17   Pripyat main square
  
On this Day: 31 years ago, on 27 April 1986, the entire population of the city of Pripyat, northern Ukraine, was evacuated due to the disaster at the nearby Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. The accident started in the early hours of the day before when reactor block 4 exploded, releasing large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere. Yet it took the Soviet authorities a whole day and a half before the people of the neighbouring town were taken to safety.
  
Initially the people were told that they'd only be away for a few days and accordingly they were instructed to pack only the most important items, such as personal documents, and just a couple of changes of clothes. They had no idea that they were never to return to live in their former homes. They were later allowed back briefly just to fetch a few more possessions, but nevertheless much of the town was just left as it was on that fateful day …
  
Pripyat has since become the world's most fabled ghost town. And for good reasons. Not only is it one of the largest ghost towns on Earth, it also has this unique air of time travel to it. On the one hand you stumble upon plenty of relics from the Soviet era past – but the eerie emptiness of Pripyat and the surrounding Exclusion Zone also provides a glimpse into the future, as it were, namely into the era after human civilization will have ended.
  
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Wednesday 26 April 2017
  
  [video link was not restorable]  
  
And another 'On this Day' post! ... since today is also the 31st anniversary of the start of the Chernobyl disaster back in April 1986 ...
  
This time here's a shared video (thanks Misha!): ... classical music meeting history meeting dark tourism ...
  
The video also features some very good period footage - especially of today's ghost town of Pripyat still in happier days, but also some cool b&w contemporary images, some obviously shot by drone.
  
It must have been quite an effort carting that grand piano into the Zone too (and back out afterwards, so one would hope).
  
I especially like the rather poignant juxtaposition of the music with images of that totally damaged upright piano at some point in the second half of the video ... I remember seeing that piano on my most recent trip too.
  
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Wednesday 26 April 2017
  
  26 04 2017   air raid shelter, Gernika, Spain
  
On this Day: exactly 80 years ago, on 26 April 1937, the little town of Guernica (or “Gernika” in the local Basque spelling) in northern Spain was bombed from the air by the German Condor Legion that Hitler had sent to assist the fascist Francoist side in the Spanish Civil War.
  
The deliberate aerial bombing of such a purely civilian target later became quite common during the course of World War Two, but at that time it was a new type of atrocity. Gernika was not the very first to suffer such a fate (for instance, Barcelona had also already been bombed by Mussolini's Italian air force before Gernika happened), but it has become more symbolic of this new type of war crime than any other place … and that is mainly due to the fact that this tragedy inspired one of the best-known works of modern art ever: Pablo Picasso's large-scale painting of the same name: “Guernica”.
  
But instead of posting an image of that painting (which you can also find reproduced all over the rebuilt town of Gernika today) I decided to pick a photo that shows something that is perhaps less well known: This is the inside of a preserved air-raid shelter in Gernika. Indeed, the onset of large-scale aerial bombardment during the Spanish Civil War also saw the earliest appearances of this new type of building, constructed specifically for the protection of civilians in towns and cities against this new deadly threat coming from above (again it was in Barcelona that the very earliest civilian air-raid shelters were constructed).
  
This particular bunker is now a memorial near the railway station of Gernika and supplements the better-known Peace Museum ('Museo de la Paz') in the centre of the town
  
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Tuesday 25 April 2017
  
  [video link could not be retrieved]
  
A friend of mine is making a film that has some dark connections - being about spy networks and nuclear (non-)proliferation in a kind of New Cold War setting. And it's set in Vienna, where I live and which is, of course, also a prime DT destination. So there you go. It's sufficiently related to this page's themes, then.He's started a new crowd-funding campaign (follow the link below) for which there are various ways of contributing - and verious perks in return ... including possibly being invited to Vienna! Take a look and see if you can help (and potentially benefit) ... Also watch the already existing trailer, which I think is quite intriguing.https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/city-of-spies-movie#/
  
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Tuesday 25 April 2017
  
  25 04 2017   beginning of the Battle of Gallipoli, Z Beach, ANZAC memorial
  
On this Day: it's ANZAC Day. Originally introduced as a special remembrance day to honour the soldiers of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (hence the acronym) who fought and died in the battle of Gallipoli. Today's photo shows parts of the official memorial at the site.
  
This battle began exactly 102 years ago, on 25 April 1915, with the Allied landings on the peninsula of Gallipoli in the Dardanelles strait in what is today Turkey (then the Ottoman Empire).
  
The Gallipoli Campaign is regarded as an early example of the mass carnage that World War One was developing into even before the hellish trench warfare of Ypres, the Somme and Verdun on the European Western Front.
  
The eight-month battle at Gallipoli resulted in over 300,000 casualties on the Allied side and about a quarter of a million on the Turkish side. Such mass slaughter had until then been virtually unheard of. And in the end it was all for nothing, from the Allied perspective, as the battle was ultimately lost against Turkey, for whom it still stands as one of the country's greatest victories in modern history. One of the Turkish commanders was propelled to prominence through his role at Gallipoli: Mustafa Kemal, later to be better known as Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish state.
  
For the Western Allies, however, Gallipoli was a devastating defeat.
  
Today ANZAC Day not only stands for Gallipoli but for all the sacrifices Australians and New Zealanders have made in the wars since WW1 as well.
  
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Monday 24 April 2017
  
  24 04 2017   monument to the executed Easter Rising leaders
 
On this Day, 101 years ago, on 24 April 1916, the “Easter Rising” in Ireland began. This was an armed rebellion against British rule on the Emerald Isle that lasted for six days and took place mostly in Dublin. It was eventually crushed by the British.
  
This photo shows a monument to those executed by the British following the uprising. It stands near the old Kilmainham Gaol, where some of those executions were carried out (and which today is a historical monument and tourist attraction).
  
The Republican rebels had chosen a moment for their uprising attempt when the British army was heavily involved in the battles of the First World War, especially in France. But the assumption that this would sufficiently weaken the British grip on power in Ireland turned out to be mistaken … at least for the moment.
  
The Easter Rising did achieve something after all, though, if only in so far as it had brought the fight for Irish independence back into the limelight, as it were.
  
It wasn't long before this indirectly led to the proper Irish War of Independence, which lasted from 1919 to 1921 and ended with the Anglo-Irish Treaty and the creation, in 1922, of the Free State of Ireland – the precursor of today's Republic of Ireland (which came into being in 1937). However, it also led to the partition of the country, as Northern Ireland opted to stay with the UK. And this division still has repercussions to this day, even right now that there is uncertainty over exactly what's to happen with the inner-Irish border after Brexit and how this in turn might impact on the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process that had ended the decades of political violence commonly referred to as “The Troubles”… historical complications in Ireland still going on ...
  
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Sunday 23 April 2017
  
  06 09 15   grinning skull, Imperial Crypt, Vienna
  
Photo of the Day: I'm now back home in Vienna. And to mark this I decided to re-post this photo of a "grinning skull" part of the elaborate decoration of one of the sarcophagi in Vienna's fabulous Imperial Crypt. Happy Sunday everybody!
  
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Friday 21 April 2017
  
  [photo could not be retrieved - but see the gallery in this chapter that was creeated after my visit in Beelitz!]
  
Photo of the Day: last posting from 'on the road', as it were. Today I'll be heading home again.
  
This photo was taken a few days ago at the legendary Beelitz sanatorium south-west of Berlin, Germany. The complex was originally built at the turn of the 19th/20th century to treat the poor working class people of the rapidly growing metropolis, where inadequate living conditions led to a dramatic rise in tuberculosis.
  
After WWII the place was taken over by the Soviet military, who used it as its largest military hospital outside the USSR. When the Soviets finally left in the wake of Germany's reunification, the whole complex was abandoned and for a while became a wild playground for urbexers and vandals alike ... as well as scrap metal hunters who stripped off as much material they could take.
  
These days parts of the complex are being converted into housing or already have been put to new uses (including again, a hospital). But about a third of the ensemble is now commodified for tourism. This includes guided tours of some of the abandoned ruins. And it was on one of those tours that today's photo was taken. Purist urbex fans may dislike this sort of organized "exploitation" of many people's fascination with abandoned buildings, but it's still better than not allowing access to these wonderful buildings at all. And it also protects them form further vandalism. So I'm quite OK with it.
  
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Thursday 20 April 2017
  
  20 04 2017   Eagle's Nest, Berchtesgaden, Germany, Hitler's 50th birthday gift in 1939
  
On this Day: 78 years ago this splendidly located little house was a birthday present, namely to Adolf Hitler, for his 50th – he was born on 20 April 1889.
  
It was probably one of the most useless birthday presents in history. Adolf only visited it a couple of times – as he preferred his nearby Berghof abode, in Obersalzberg, near Berchtesgaden, southern Bavaria, Germany.
  
Nevertheless, this ‘tea house’, officially called Kehlsteinhaus (after the mountain it sits on top of), but better known internationally as “Eagle’s Nest”, became a legendary site. For many years during the Cold War era it was out of bounds to most mortals, as after WWII it was part of an American military zone. Only after the US military departed in the wake of Germany’s reunification after the end of the Cold War, the Eagle’s Nest became accessible to everybody (seasonally only) and turned into a veritable tourist attraction. Its dark historical associations are not particularly in your face. It’s mainly a typical Bavarian tourist restaurant/café. But you can go on historical guided tours that provide all the relevant background.
   
Today it’s a case of dark tourism meeting mainstream tourism. The views over the wonderful Alpine scenery are undeniably fabulous. Wandering around the site you have to pinch yourself from time to time to remind yourself of the dark legacy this place has …
  
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Wednesday 19 April 2017
  
  [photo could not be restored - but see the gallery of this chapter!]
  
Photo of the day: earlier on my current little research trip through Germany I visited a relatively new sight that had been high on my priority list ever since I watched a documentary about it on TV.
  
It’s the “Topf & Söhne Erinnerungsort”, a memorial museum about the company Topf & Söhne, which designed, manufactured and delivered the ovens for the crematoria for most of the concentration camps the Nazis operated during the Third Reich, including Auschwitz.
  
It was more than just profiteering – the company’s designers were knowingly complicit in the Holocaust, the greatest crime against humanity to date. They visited the camps and oversaw the installation of their ovens, and they made suggestions for improvements to the designs of the gas chambers too. So it was plain obvious that they knew perfectly well what they were involved in.
  
Yet after the war, their story was more or less swept under the carpet. One of the designers, who had been captured by the Soviets, was sent to a forced-labour camp in Siberia himself (where he later died), but another was even awarded the status of a victim of the Nazi regime, simply because he was a communist, despite his work in the design bureau of Topf & Söhne. The company’s part in the Holocaust, however, was more or less ignored and forgotten.
  
The factory continued to operate after the war too, as a state-owned company in the GDR. After the collapse of the Eastern Bloc it closed in 1994 and was just left abandoned. Thus it became the playground for squatters, graffiti sprayers and, presumably, urbex fans. Eventually the complex was demolished – except for the administrative block, where a memorial museum was finally inaugurated in 2011.
  
Today’s photo shows the building the museum is housed in. The line on the wall translates as ‘always happily at your service’. It was the line the company’s representatives used to sign off invoices as well as letters in their correspondence with the Nazis.
  
EDIT: btw. the place is in Erfurt - sorry for not having mentioned it in the first place
  
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Monday 17 April 2017
  
  [photo could not be restored - but see the gallery of this chapter!]
  
Photo of the day: another one from the shipwreck museum in Cuxhaven, northern Germany. This is the salvaged conning tower of a British submarine that was sunk just off the German coast in the early phase of World War One.
  
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Sunday 15 April 2017
  
  [photo could not be restored - but see the gallery of this chapter!]
  
Photo of the day: a new discovery in northern Germany, more precisely in Cuxhaven, a few days ago: a museum called “Windstärke 10” (‘gale force 10’) which is about the coastal town’s maritime history and especially about shipwrecks. And I thought it’s also a fitting post given that yesterday was the 105th anniversary of the most legendary sinking of a ship in history – that of the “Titanic” …
  
Amongst the museum’s displays are plenty of artefacts salvaged from various wrecks and also some well-designed audiovisual/multimedia elements, such as the one seen in today’s photo, which tries to give visitors an impression of what it looks like when you’re shipwrecked and on a life raft lost at sea in a storm. To accompany the visual impression created on a 180 degree surround screen you can listen to an audio track on which a survivor of a real such shipwreck incident tells his story. Gripping stuff.
  
They also had a special temporary exhibition about animals aboard ships – both wanted (as cargo or pets) and unwanted. The latter include not only rats and cockroaches, but also destructive little critters such as kind of worm that eats away the wooden hull of ships. They even had a live one in a fish tank where you could watch the creature work away at a piece of submerged wood. Icky!!!
  
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Thursday 13 April 2017
  
  13 04 2017   Jallianwala Bagh massacre site, Amritsar, India
  
On this Day: 98 years ago, on 13 April 1919, Amritsar, in Punjab, a north-western region of India, saw one of the darkest chapters in the history of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent: the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre.
  
Today's photo was taken in the memorial park of the same name that now occupies the site of the massacre. The bushes cut in the shape of shooting soldiers was a feature that especially surprised and somewhat bemused me. I don't think you would get that sort of thing anywhere in Europe …
  
Anyway, for those unfamiliar with the Jallianwala Bagh or Amritsar Massacre, here's a bit of background, quoted from DT's main website:
  
The British feared “an imminent revolt, and following outbreaks of violence, much of Punjab was put under martial law on the morning of 13 April 1919. Part of this was outlawing freedom of assembly and imposing evening curfews.
  
That day, however, happened to be the date of a traditional Punjabi harvest festival, and so lots of people were coming into the city for this purpose – just as the new rules were being proclaimed. Many of the villagers arriving in Amritsar would not yet have even heard of them.
  
By midday thousands had gathered in Jallianwala Bagh and the military commander of Amritsar, Colonel Reginald Dyer was getting nervous because he had got wind of a political protest meeting apparently having been scheduled for that afternoon. He sent a reconnaissance aeroplane to fly over Jallianwala Bagh to estimate the size of the crowd (given at probably over 20,000).
  
Later that afternoon Dyer set off for the site with a contingent of 90 Gurkha soldiers (note: a non-Sikh ethnic group known for its loyalty to the British Crown). Immediately blocking the sole usable exit to the complex he ordered shooting at the dense crowd.
  
The physical nature of Jallianwala Bagh was such that this meant that no escape routes were available: the area was/is ca. 200m square and enclosed by walls on all sides, with houses rising high above the wall. The few narrow gates other than the main one were usually kept locked. With the passage serving as the only access point to the area now blocked by the soldiers this meant the victims were trapped. What's worse, at the time there was an area of higher ground by the entrance while most of the remainder of the area was lower-lying than it is today, so it gave the soldiers an enhanced vantage point from which to shoot at the crowd.
  
The shooting continued for something like ten minutes and only stopped when the soldiers' ammunition had almost run out. Apart from being mortally wounded by gun shots, many victims died in the stampedes triggered by panic breaking out, so many were trampled to death or crushed at the closed gates. Most tragically, many tried to seek refuge in large well only to drown or be crushed to death in there. As many as 120 bodies were allegedly retrieved from the well after the event.
  
The figures for the total number of casualties differed widely. The “official” death toll given by the British was 379. And independent inquiry conducted by the Indian National Congress arrived at an estimate of over 1000, perhaps it was as many as 1500 – which is indeed more in line with the crowd size, their exposed position as targets and the number of rounds fired (ca. 1650, calculated on the basis of the spent cartridges collected at the site afterwards).”
  
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Wednesday 12 April 2017
  
  [photo not restorable - but see the photo gallery in this chapter!]
  
Photo of the Day: a follow-up to yesterday’s post. This is the gate of the Buchenwald concentration camp. There is a rather unexpected positive twist to its story … read on!
  
The Nazis usually had a kind of “message” to the camp inmates inscribed either above the gate or, as here, inside it. Most often the line used was the well-known “Arbeit macht frei” (‘work makes you free’), which is cynical enough. But at Buchenwald the words chosen, seen in today’s photo, translate as ‘to each his own’. It’s from an old legal term, ‘suum cuique’ in Latin, that goes back to ancient Greek/Roman philosophical texts about moral principles of justice. But in this case it is of course highly cynical too, rather conveying the message “you deserve your punishment” and implying: “you won’t get out of here”.
  
But here comes the twist: the Nazis ordered a camp inmate to do the actual design of the gate: This was Franz Ehrlich, an architect and graphic designer who had studied at the famous modernist Bauhaus school. As a communist he had been imprisoned by the Nazis since 1935. He was later transferred to Buchenwald to work at the camp’s construction office. When it came to designing the camp gate, he used a type font typical of the Bauhaus style – which the Nazi ideologues despised for its modernism. But the Nazis of the SS who were in charge of the camp failed to notice this little detail (being obviously not cultured enough) – they actually liked the design and happily approved it.
  
So, grim as it at first appears, in this very dark context, there’s also something bright about it: a fantastic example of a silent, symbolic act of resistance!
  
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Tuesday 11 April 2017
  
  11 04 2017   Buchenwald
  
On this Day: 72 years ago, on 11 April 1945, the concentration camp of Buchenwald was liberated by soldiers of the Sixth Armoured Division of the US Third Army – or at least that is the official date. In fact, the camp had more or less liberated itself just before, when a fairly well-run underground organization of communists amongst the inmates took control of the camp and chased away the SS guards.
  
Even though officially liberated by the Americans, the camp, located near Weimar in Thuringia, ended up in the Soviet occupation sector after WWII, and later the GDR, East Germany.
  
The memorial set up at the former camp was like many others in the GDR: biased towards commemoration of communists, Soviet POWs and resistance fighters against the Nazis, while failing to mention, especially, Jewish victims, or homosexuals or Jehovah's Witnesses.
  
After the fall of communism, this was gradually changed, with a new main exhibition established in one of the remaining buildings (while a separate exhibition about the memorial's role in the GDR was installed near the bell tower of the memorial complex). But it was felt that here were still some shortcomings in the presentation, so the main exhibition recently received a complete make-over yet again. It opened in April last year.
  
The day before yesterday I re-visited Buchenwald to check out the new exhibition and will soon update the old Buchenwald chapter on DT's main website.
  
Today's photo was taken a few years earlier during my first visit and it shows the barbed-wire fence with the gatehouse and the crematorium in the background.
  
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Friday 7 April 2017
  
  30 11 15   Hamburg Ohlsdorf
  
Photo of the Day: tomorrow I'm going on a two-week trip to Germany, so today I'm re-posting one from Hamburg, the city I was born in. And I apologize in advance that I probably won't be able to post as regularly as normal over the coming fortnight (but I will try).
  
This picture was taken at Ohlsdorf cemetery – the largest cemetery in Europe. It is truly massive, you could wander around in it for days without ever coming back to the same spot.
  
Much of the sepulchral art you encounter here, however, is comparatively bland. Maybe it's because Hamburg is a protestant city with a merchant heritage, so the people tend towards sober pragmatism and rather do not indulge in the same form of flamboyant exaggeration in their tombs' designs as you can find in France or Italy.
  
But you can still find the odd remarkable sculpture – such as this hidden statue, which is actually also quite an erotic form of sepulchral stonemasonry, quite atypical for this cool Hanseatic city.
  
I like the way somebody proceeded to further enhance the erotic appeal of this sculpture by placing a red flower in her hand (it wasn't me, I swear!).
  
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Thursday 6 April 2017
  
   06 05 17   grave kissing, Cimitero Monumentale, Milan
  
Photo of the Day: … and another one in this mini-series of cemetery promotion images. This one was taken at the “Monumentale” cemetery in Milan, northern Italy.
  
In my view this is one of the most fabulous cemeteries in the world, full of wonderful sepulchral art in a plethora of styles, often involving flamboyant sculptures – such as this one with its two female figures, one staring vacantly into thin air while the other is kissing the tomb of whoever it was who departed and whose departure inspired such over-the-top mournful behaviour.
  
It's no wonder that Milan's Monumentale cemetery has already featured on this page several times – and I still have some more photos from there in stock to appear here at some point later ...
  
This particular one could be entitled “Kiss of Death” - if that title wasn't already taken (namely by an album by Motörhead – incidentally my favourite one, mainly for Lemmy Kilmister's exceptional song-writing on this album … some of the lyrics are fantastic, haunting poetry, including some of his best anti-war songs ever … but that's getting a bit off-topic, even though it is definitely also dark ...).
  
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Wednesday 5 April 2017
  
  05 04 17   Montparnasse   French eroticism even in death
  
Photo of the Day: Pere Lachaise is not the only remarkable cemetery in Paris. I found this fantastic tomb at Montparnasse cemetery.
  
This depiction of an angelic embrace is a superb example of eroticism even in sepulchral works of art (well, it is in France, so it's not that huge a surprise), even if it's a bit on the kitschy side.
  
Montparnasse also has several other outstanding tombs. But it is these days probably best known for being the final resting place of Serge Gainsbourg, the legendary singer-songwriter, director, author and actor who died in 1991.
  
His grave is full of devotional memento mori left by his still mourning fans at this pilgrimage site. These “gifts” include cigarette butts and empty packs of Gitanes (Gainsbourg's favourite brand) or metro tickets. The latter are a reference to a famous song of Gainsbourg's, "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas", which is about a metro attendant.
  
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Tuesday 4 April 2017
  
  04 04 17   weeping beauty at Pere Lachaise
  
Photo of the Day: weeping beauty - another wonderful piece of sepulchral art found at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France.
  
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Monday 3 April 2017
  
  03 04 17   double headed at Pere Lachaise
  
Photo of the Day: back to Europe – and following up from yesterday's post. Here's one from the famous Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
  
Most people go there to see the graves of famous people, such as ex-Doors singer Jim Morrison's, though his plain grave is hardly as flamboyant as its occupant was in real life. Oscar Wilde's tomb gets much closer to such a semblance. But I found many tombs here that for their sepulchral art alone are much more remarkable.
  
This particular one I found especially impressive. It's the tomb of one Fernand Arbelot, allegedly a musician, actor and/or architect, or perhaps a banker (sources vary on this), who was born in 1880 and died in 1942.
  
The highly unusual design is allegedly due to his last wish: gazing into the beautiful face of his wife for eternity (she had passed away before him … some sources even allege that he may have helped her demise along in some way, but such claims are beyond what can be ascertained with any accuracy).
  
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Sunday 2 April 2017
  
  
promoting cemeteries as tourist destinations - the two in Croatia mentioned at the end of this artcle I haven't even seen yet. More reasons to explore that country ...
  
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Friday 31 March 2017
  
  31 03 17   slaughtering seal pups, Polar Museum Tromsö
  
Photo of the Day: from Asia to the Arctic – WARNING: cruelty against animals! Don't look, and don't read, if you're squeamish in that regard.
  
This is a life-size display at the Polar Museum in Tromsø, Norway. There's quite a bit of dark stuff in this museum, including whaling (in which Norway still engages to this day) and this graphic dummy diorama of a seal pup slaughtering scene (still ongoing too, see below).
  
The battering-to-death of these cute fluffy-white seal babies by fur hunters caused massive outrage in the 1980s, which eventually led to a ban on imports of whitecoat pelts (the finished product and commercial reason for the slaughter), at least in the European Union (Russia joined the ban in 2011 as well). In Canada, Greenland, Norway and a few other countries, however, the “hunt” for harp seals for their fur is still continuing to this day, and on a big scale.
  
Of course “hunting” seal pups is not really a hunt in the strict sense of the word (the Canadians prefer the term 'harvesting'). These ca. three-week-old babies are defenceless and a pure embodiment of innocence itself. All the “hunters” have to do is get on the ice floes where the pups are born (and spend their first few weeks before moulting), then just walk up to them and club them to death, before skinning them on site, leaving behind the carcasses to rot … tens of thousands of them meet that fate every year.
  
The Polar Museum in Tromsø obviously also celebrates the adventure stories of polar explorers, especially Norway's own – with Roald Amundsen obviously being the biggest star here (his trophy flag, raised at both the North and South Poles, is on display in the museum, for instance). Brits may find that a little hard to stomach too, given the historic rivalry Amundsen had with Captain Robert Falcon Scott and the way the latter tragically lost the race to the South Pole (and subsequently his life too).
  
So there is plenty of dark stuff in the Polar regions too ...
  
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Thurday 30 March 2017
  
   30 03 17   old mausoleums at abandoined Christian cemetery, Etawah, India
  
Photo of the Day: let's continue the continent-hopping, this time from Africa to Asia. This is a photo from my recent trip to India and shows part of an overgrown cemetery in Etawah in Uttar Pradesh.
  
Cemeteries in general are a rare sight in India – since most Indians cremate their dead. What few cemeteries you encounter here are Christian cemeteries, mostly from the British colonial era (although some remain in use for the small Christian minority of contemporary India – such as Nicholson Cemetery in Delhi).
  
The fact that these cemeteries are associated with the British heritage also makes preservation efforts difficult. I was on a tour of Etawah and the surrounding area with an Indian woman who was both an entrepreneur in the tourism industry as well as a historian. According to her it is seen as 'politically incorrect' for an Indian to be even interested in such relics from the colonial era. And she encountered a lot of resistance from the local authorities in her effort to clean up and refurbish this particular cemetery in Etawah.
  
Hence it is still in a rather sorry state, with some of the large mausoleums and monuments crumbling away, while cows and other animals roam the overgrown area amongst the tombs (and leave their droppings, so you have to closely watch your step here!).
  
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Wednesday 29 March 2019
  
  29 03 17   Senegal   where family ties seem to be even closer than we thought
  
Photo of the Day: from America to Africa. This was taken on the road somewhere in Senegal.
  
I knew that family ties are taken very seriously in this West African country, but I didn't expect it to go quite so far as to carry your deceased along when going for an outing … that at least was my thought when I spotted this.
  
But of course I don't really have any idea what's actually behind this. Probably something quite innocent, maybe just an empty coffin being transported from where it was made to where it will be needed, whether immediately, soon, or as an investment into future preparedness. I doubt it is already occupied (though you never know, given what kinds of precarious scenes of road transport you can encounter in countries like Senegal).
  
Anyway, it was quite a sight to behold – something you don't see every day on the roads, in Africa or indeed anywhere else in the world …
  
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Tuesday 28 March 2017
  
  28 03 17   Harrisburg kitsch
  
On this Day: 38 years ago, in the early hours of 28 March 1979 the Three Mile Island accident began at the nuclear power station of that name near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. It was the worst such incident to date in the history of civilian nuclear power generation in the USA, rated 5 on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale (the most serious rating, 7, has only been given to Chernobyl and Fukushima).
  
In an unfortunate chain of events one of the plant's two reactors (TMI-2) suffered from loss of coolant, failing auxiliary pumps and ended in a partial reactor core meltdown. Some radioactive gases were released into the environment as well. But at least the worst-case scenario of a melt-through of the core, i.e. a breach of the containment vessel, did not happen.
  
Yet the reactor was ruined beyond any hope of repair necessitating a long-drawn-out, difficult clean-up operation that was only completed in the 1990s. The stricken reactor building still stands, together with its two equally silent cooling towers, right next to its counterpart, TMI-1, which remains in operation to this day (it's currently licensed to operate until 2034).
  
In this photo you see a depiction of the plant on a lampshade atop a base in the shape of a cooling tower (just like the little coffee mug next to it). This almost unbelievably kitschy representation celebrating the TMI plant is on display at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
  
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Monday 27 March 2017
  
  27 03 17   lighthouse at the end of the world reconstruction, Ushuaia
  
Photo of the Day: after the recent rather heavy bias towards the East on this page (especially the Soviet theme), it's time to look the other way again for a change. And this is about as far away as we can go in the other direction: to the southernmost city in the western hemisphere: Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina … almost at the bottom tip of South America.
  
Today's photo shows the “lighthouse at the end of the world” ('faro del fin del mundo') – or rather a reconstruction of it, on open-air display at Ushuaia's 'ex presidio', i.e. the former prison that was at the heart of the penal colony set up in this utterly remote spot at the end of the 19th century (this particular prison building dates back to 1902).
  
Today it serves as museum, nominally a 'museo maritimo' (maritime museum), but in actual fact it goes far beyond that theme and, for instance, also includes sections about the Falklands War (though of course here in Argentina these islands are referred to as “Islas Malvinas”), about other exemplary prisons around the world and about Ushuaia's role as a jumping-off point for expeditions to Antarctica.
  
The original location of the “lighthouse at the end of the world” is the outermost tip of Tierra del Fuego pointing out into the South Atlantic (and thus forms the spot on Argentinian territory closest to the contested Falkland Islands/Malvinas).
  
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Sunday 26 March 2017
  
Brilliant little documentary from good old Channel 4 News about the thriving wildlife in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone - it really underscores the point that even the worst nuclear disaster is nowhere near as bad for wildlife as sheer human presence. Makes you think about humanity and what it does to the planet even more ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khv87k68kIs&feature=share
  
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Friday 24 March 2017
  
  24 03 17   rust forming beautiful shapes, Zhalanash
  
Photo of the Day: more Soviet-era rust. This time on a boat stranded in the desert that once was the bottom of the Aral Sea – whose desiccation was one of the worst environmental disasters in Soviet times … which lasts to this present day and will mostly be irreversible (though Kazakhstan is making efforts to bring back a small part of the northern Aral Sea, but the parts further south in Uzbekistan are most probably lost forever).
  
I love this particular photo, because of the crumbling rust making patterns that look almost like a map, with the shapes of coastlines and tundra-like lakes. Or maybe that's just my vivid imagination … anyway, I find it quite aesthetic.
  
The rusting wrecks in the former Aral Sea are endangered not only from natural decay but much more so by scrap metal hunters who are busy selling off what they still can of these old wrecks. When I visited this particular site, the (former) ship “cemetery” of Zhalanash, my guide from Aralsk surmised that within just a couple of years all traces of these stranded ships would probably disappear. So by now, I presume very little, if anything, will be left of the wrecks as I saw them back in 2011.
  
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Thursday 23 March 2017
  
  23 03 17   rusting wrecks, Chernobyl exclusion zone
  
Photo of the Day: continuing the Soviet maritime theme in a way, here are two rusting wrecks left behind to slowly crumble away in the harbour of Chernobyl. Yes, of course, Chernobyl lies far inland, but it's on a river and did indeed have a river harbour.
  
That river is called Pripyat – and it is after this river that the town was named which was built for the workers of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant (ChNPP) and which had to be evacuated after the 1986 disaster at the NPP, so that it is now one of the most fabled ghost towns in the world.
  
Most visitors to Chernobyl these days do indeed primarily go in order to see Pripyat (and take a quick look at the old NPP). But there are plenty of other fascinating locations within the Exclusion Zone (which isn't actually so totally exclusive). And amongst these is the harbour with these atmospherically rusting shipwrecks.
  
This photo was taken from the banks of the river to the south. In order to get close or even onto the rusting wrecks you'd need a boat … or come in winter: I've seen photos online taken close up when the wrecks could be reached on ice when the water was completely frozen over. But since I took this picture when I went in May (and it was hot!), I couldn't get that close myself.
  
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Wednesday 22 March 2017
  
  22 03 17   early generation Soviet missile submarine, Peenemünde
  
Photo of the Day: following on from yesterday's “Kursk” post, here's a picture of another Russki submarine.
  
This is a much older Cold-War-era Soviet design, namely a missile attack submarine from the 1960s, NATO code-named “Juliett Class”. This particular one is “U461” (aka “K-24”).
  
It was a diesel-electric-powered sub that carried four nuclear-capable cruise missiles which could only be launched when the sub surfaced – as the launchers had to be lifted to the angled position you can see in this image.
  
With the arrival of SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles) that could be fired from below the sea's surface, this design became more or less obsolete. Yet the 16 Juliett-Class subs remained in service until the early 1990s. U461 was decommissioned in 1994 and sold to Germany.
  
It is now a private “maritime museum” (a rather grand designation for a single museum vessel) at Peenemünde, next to the main museum about the Nazi German rocket development programme (which is a different story for a separate post one day).
  
The museum's marketing even claims it's “the largest U-Boat Museum in the world” – but that is simply not true. The French “Le Redoutable” nuclear submarine on display in Cherbourg's Cite de la Mer is significantly bigger than this. But never mind. It is still worth a visit for all the cramped quarters populated by dummies in Russian navy outfits and for all the old Soviet technology …
  
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Tuesday 21 March 2017
  
  21 03 17   sail of the Kursk, Murmansk
  
Photo of the Day: another one from Murmansk. This is the city's monument to perished submariners … and it incorporates the original 'sail', or 'conning tower', of the “Kursk” submarine … yes, the one that so tragically was lost in August 2000 after two explosions aboard the submersed vessel caused it to sink in the Barents Sea during a naval exercise operation.
  
The case was not just a sad tragedy with a great loss of life (all 118 aboard the “Kursk” perished) but was also surrounded by a depressing display of incompetence on the part of the Russian Navy and a disastrous PR failure on the part of the Russian authorities (under President Vladimir Putin who had just been newly installed at the beginning of that year).
  
While the Russians initially refused to accept offers of assistance from the outside world, the Russian Navy first undertook a number of botched rescue attempts on its own but failed to get to the escape hatch of the stricken sub. Only five days after the sinking did Putin authorize the acceptance of help from Norway and Britain. When Norwegian divers eventually got to open the escape hatch seven days after the sinking, they found the sub flooded and everybody aboard dead.
  
The following year, the wreck was lifted from the seabed by a Dutch recovery team and put in a dry dock for an extensive investigation. After that the sub's nuclear reactors were de-fuelled and the hull cut to be scrapped.
  
The conning tower somehow survived and was rediscovered by a journalist on a scrap yard in 2009. It was then decided to incorporate it into this memorial. So it can now serve as a kind of pilgrimage site … It did indeed feel like a pilgrimage of sorts for me and my wife when we finally made it to this remote Arctic city, coming over by bus from Kirkenes in Norway.
  
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20 March 2017
  
  20 03 17   the Lenin, nuclear icebreaker
  
Photo of the Day: I've just committed myself to travelling back to Russia this summer by booking my in- and outbound international flights (now I have to hope that it all goes well with the visa ...).
  
To mark this I give you a photo from the last time I was in Russia, namely in Murmansk in 2012. This northern city's harbour is the base of the Russian fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers. This was the very first one of this type of vessel ever built. And of course it had to be named “Lenin”.
  
It served in the Soviet High Arctic waterways from 1959 to 1989 and after it was retired it was turned into a museum ship at its now permanent mooring in Murmansk harbour.
  
There are one-hour guided tours (in Russian) taking in the bridge, living quarters, engine room and even a glimpse into the reactor compartment. The small souvenir shop on board the vessel gave me the irresistible chance to pick up some pretty unique items that I still cherish, including a T-shirt with the logo of the Arctic nuclear fleet and the name of the ship in big bold letters on the front while the back sports a glorious portrait of Vladimir Ilyich complete with the Soviet hammer-and-sickle symbol.
  
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Friday 17 March 2017
  
  17 03 17   Ijen crater with its fabled blue flames, Java, Indonesia
  
Photo of the Day: … yet more flames. This time another photo taken at the fabled Blue Flames of the Ijen Volcano crater in southern Java, Indonesia.
  
The blue flames in the back are from burning sulphur, which is mined here in truly infernal conditions. That alone is worth witnessing. But the real stars here are of course those other-worldy blue flickering flames.
  
The yellowish-greenish lights in the foreground are from miners as well as visiting tourists with torches. Those extra lights can not only distract from the eerie beauty of the blue flames but also make capturing them in photos more difficult. The same applies to inept photographers' attempts to capture the flames by using flash, which is obviously doomed to fail, because lit up you won't see any of them. That is why you have to come down here in the middle of the night in the first place. Once dawn breaks the flames become invisible again.
  
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Thursday 16 March 2017
  
  16 03 17   Darvaza   mangled steel object at the crater rim
  
Photo of the Day … more flames – this time not as part of a monument, not deliberately ignited and perhaps not “eternal” (see below) but certainly dramatic to look at.
  
This is the fabled Darvaza flaming gas crater in Turkmenistan again, images of which have featured on this page a few times before, mostly in night shots. But it still does look quite cool in this daytime shot from the crater rim too, I'd say.
  
Brief reminder: the crater is the result of an industrial accident in Soviet times – basically some test drilling for gas going wrong, the ground collapsing and later the gas that the bottom of the crater was emitting ignited to keep burning ever since. The bit of mangled metal you see in the foreground is said to be one of the remnants of the drilling expedition's damaged equipment left behind at the site.
  
There are still rumours that the current president of Turkmenistan (who answers to the fabulous 10-syllable name of Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov) wants the crater extinguished. I heard of this first in 2010 – and hence rushed to get on the next tour to still get to see it. But apparently there is no rush in putting the flames out. The crater is still burning away and still regularly features in tours. But of course you can never be too sure in countries ruled by regimes such as Turkmenistan's. Rulings could change overnight. So if you want to see Darvaza, better don't put it off for too long ...
  
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Wednesday 15 March 2017
  
  15 03 17   Almaty war memorial's eternal flame
  
Photo of the Day: another eternal flame – this one is in front of the Soviet-era War Memorial in Panfilov Park in Kazakhstan's largest city Almaty.
  
The name of the park is a reference to one of the USSR's most revered hero stories – that of the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen who during the defence of Moscow in WWII allegedly destroyed 18 German tanks and killed 70 or so German soldiers before all perishing themselves.
  
This story of self-sacrifice fitted the ideals of Soviet propaganda perfectly, so the post-war glorification of the event went on undeterred, even though doubts about the correctness of the story emerged. Various monuments were erected, not only at the site of the battle, but also all over the USSR, including this one in what was then Alma-Ata.
  
As recently as November 2016, a new drama war film glorifying the 28 Panfilov Guardsmen was released in Russia and Kazakhstan (original title: 28 панфиловцев), However, only the year before that a declassified document from Russia's State Archives suggested that the whole story may actually have been concocted by war journalists at the time. They were obviously desperate enough for such a tale of heroism that they just made it up, and did it so well that it was just too good not to believe.
   
Yet we will never be 100% sure of how much, if anything, of it is grounded in truth. History is complicated and historiography clearly “malleable” ... and in this new post-truth age of today, should we even care?
   
In any case, it is actually quite remarkable to find this eternal flame still burning. I encountered dozens and dozens of such memorials all over the former Eastern Bloc, and in almost all cases the formerly eternal flames had long been extinguished (with a few notable exceptions, of course, e.g. that at the Alyosha monument in Murmansk – posted here earlier).
  
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Tuesday 14 March 2017
  
  14 03 17   JFK's and Jackie's graves
  
On this Day: 50 years ago, on 14 March 1967, the body of John F Kennedy was moved to a new permanent burial place, complete with an 'eternal flame', in Arlington National Cemetery, as shown in today's picture. It was consecrated and opened to the public the next day.
  
He has been lying down there undisturbed ever since. But I guess good ol' JFK will have done quite a bit of turning in his grave lately …
  
His former wife Jackie, even though she had remarried (namely Aristotle Onassis in 1968) and was widowed again (in 1975) was buried alongside her first husband after she had died in 1994.
  
JFK's brothers Robert Kennedy (also assassinated – in 1968) and Edward “Ted” Kennedy (who died in 2009) are buried in the vicinity too, though not as part of the main JFK & Jackie patch.
  
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Monday 13 March 2017
  
  13 03 17   ghetto memorial funded by Roman Polanski, Krakow, Poland
  
On this Day: 74 years ago, on 13 March 1943, the Nazis' final “liquidation” of the Jewish Ghetto of Kraków began under the command of Amon Göth (who was also the commandant of the nearby concentration camp of Płaszów and was portrayed, in a brilliantly sinister performance, by actor Ralph Fiennes in Steven Spielberg's movie “Schindler's List”). About two thousand Jews were killed in the streets on that day; the remainder were deported to Płaszów and Auschwitz.
  
This photo shows a monument in contemporary Kraków, located on pl. Bohaterow Getta and consisting of rows of empty steel chairs. This monument was apparently largely funded by film director Roman Polanski. It symbolized the way the Nazis threw furniture (and elderly people) out of windows during the liquidation, as depicted in Polanski's 2002 movie “The Pianist” (whose realism, in my view, easily outshines Spielberg's earlier effort).
  
Polanski himself is probably the most famous survivor of the Kraków Ghetto. As a then 9-year-old boy he escaped with the help of Catholics and adopted an undercover Catholic persona to get through the remainder of WWII. His mother was killed in Auschwitz, but his father, who had been deported to Mauthausen, also survived and they reunited back in Kraków after the war. Polanski then went on to Łódź to study his chosen form of art at that city's famous Film School.
  
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Friday 10 March 2010
   
  10 03 17   Lenin death mask in Gyumri
  
Photo of the Day: final one in this week's little series of images of communist symbolism and cult-of-personality.
  
While yesterday's Lenin depiction on that Turkmen rug was rather dodgy and unflattering, today I give you a grimly more realistic one, namely a Lenin death mask! Allegedly this is the only “surviving” original death mask of Lenin's.
  
I saw this in a gallery adjacent to the Museum of National Architecture and Urban Life in the second largest city in Armenia, Gyumri.
  
Gyumri, in the Shirak region of what is today north-western Armenia (Western Armenia proper ended up incorporated into Turkey – but that's another story), was in Soviet times called Leninakan, after Lenin. So in a way it is only fitting that this unique item of Lenin memorabilia should have ended up here.
  
In addition to Lenin's death mask there are plenty of other heads on display too, plus photos of various Lenin and Stalin statues made by same artist, Sergei Merkurov, including the one that used to stand on a square in the city, but, like so many since the fall of communism, was removed. Leninakan was re-re-named Gyumri again in 1990 too.
  
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Thursday 9 March 2017
  
  09 03 17   very badly made Lenin rug, Tolkuchka Bazaar, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
  
Photo of the Day: one more in the communist imagery series. In addition to symbols and oversize Mother Russia statues, the most popular depiction of any real person in the former USSR was of course that of Lenin. This is a rather rarer form of a Lenin depiction in the form of a rug, spotted at the famous Tolkuchka Bazaar, in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan.
  
It is of course a fabulous example of really badly executed socialist-realist art. Whoever was responsible for weaving this rug either had no clue what Lenin's head really looked like or was just very incompetent at his/her craft. Or maybe it was a deliberate attempt at making a caricature out of good old Vladimir Ilyich.
  
I found this so ugly that I thought it was actually crazily good, too good to ignore; and so I was for a moment tempted to acquire it. But in the end I thought better of it. Anyway, I'd already had enough of the haggling that is obligatory at such bazaars (and I'm not normally very good at it, more like Brian and his fake beard in the “Life of Brian” … though at Tolkuchka I was at least able to haggle down the price of an antique necklace by half that I wanted as a gift for my wife). It would also have added more bulk to my luggage. Moreover I wasn't sure whether anybody else would get the sarcastic humour in displaying such a piece of ugliness. So I just took this photo but left the actual rug where it was ...
  
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Wednesday 8 March 2017
  
  08 03 17   Rodina Mat, Kiev
  
On this Day: it's 8 March = International Women's Day. So let's mark this in style, in old glorious Soviet style! ...
  
This is arguably the mother of all Mother Russia statues, the Rodina Mat in Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine. (Only her sister in Volgograd is even larger.) And of course this is also another instalment of photos featuring communist symbols.
  
This giant mother is no mere Iron Lady … no, she's made from titanium! Hence the shiny silver look, just like a new aeroplane. She's staring resolutely towards the east, i.e. in the direction of Moscow (which invites all sorts of interpretations, old and new).
   
And she's tall! 62 metres (over 200 feet), together with the plinth even more than 100m. The sword in her right hand used to be even longer (a full 16m) but was apparently shortened a bit after Ukraine became independent (allegedly so that the whole structure is no longer taller than the nearby monastery complex's tallest steeple).
  
In theory it is possible to go up inside her (partly by lift, partly on foot – or on all fours – and with the help of a rope) to reach a viewing platform behind the shield in her left hand that bears the hammer-and-sickle emblem. I've not had a chance to actually do this yet, but will try when I'm next in this fabulous city.
  
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Tuesday 7 March 2017
  
  07 03 17   red star in Nova Dubnica, a Stalinist style planned model town in Slovakia
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post. If this was in Bulgaria I guess the red star would have to be painted over. But this is in Slovakia, more precisely: in the small town of Nova Dubnica.
  
It's a “socialist model town” and a prime example of Stalinist-style urban planning of the early 1950s.
  
And unlike so many other such places, this one was not simply left to deteriorate and crumble after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, but has actually been spruced up to shine in its full old glory again, complete with plenty of red stars like this one.
  
In addition there are superb examples of socialist-realist murals on the walls of many buildings, as well as stonemasonry involving lots of Soviet commie symbolism, especially around the typical central square.
  
And if you look very closely you can also still find the odd ČSSR flag in a couple of the wall murals … that is: the same flag that the other successor state of the former Czechoslovakia, the Czech Republic, still uses as its national flag, so it's rather odd to see this here in modern-day Slovakia.
  
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Monday 6 March 2017
  
  06 03 17   love for Stalin on MiG 21 cone, Sofia military museum, Bulgaria
  
Photo of the Day: for Stalin with love … and a star.
  
Spotted at the military museum in Sofia, Bulgaria, a few years ago. These doodles in the dust on an old Soviet-era fighter jet's air intake cone must have been left there by somebody with a strange kind of old Soviet-era nostalgia. I wouldn't necessarily have expected it in Bulgaria.
  
In fact Bulgaria has just passed a law that makes any public display of the old symbols of communism illegal, so leaving such “graffiti”, especially the communist star, on anything could now be much more risky.
  
Unfortunately, however, this new ruling also affects some of the remarkable relics from the communist era that one can still find in Bulgaria, which are now more at risk than ever. Some specialist tour operators who offer itineraries on that theme may also run into difficulties.
  
In a way it actually amounts to censorship in its own way too, sanctioned by the state just like the old communist-era censorship was. In effect it means revisionism, rather than engaging with the country's recent past it orders people to forget about it. But forgetting one's history has never been a particularly clever political guideline …
  
So, obviously, I am very critical of this new legislation. I can only hope its negative effects will not be too severe and won't set a precedent for other countries of the former Eastern Bloc to follow.
  
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Friday 3 March 2017
  
  03 03 17   two individuals of one of the most endangered species on earth
  
On this Day: 3 March, it's World Wildlife Day, as declared by the United Nations only a few years ago (2013). Let's mark this with another one in the (comparatively small) series of “dark-tourism and animals”.
  
These serene-looking birds are nene – an endangered species that is better known as the Hawaiian goose. The species was on the brink of extinction not that long ago but through concerted protection efforts the population has recovered again somewhat, though they are still threatened.
  
You can spot them in Big Island Hawaii's Volcanoes National Park, which is a dark-tourism destination primarily for very different reasons (namely those volcanoes and their trail of destruction).
  
Within the Park's boundaries it is at least easier to give the species some protected space. There are also warning signs by the roadsides admonishing drivers to look out for nene on the roads, on which severe speed restrictions apply in any case.
  
I spotted this pretty pair at the head of the Napau Crater Trail. They were quite relaxed, and provided you moved very slowly and calmly you could get quite close to them even.
  
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Thursday 2 March 2017
  
  02 03 17   Afghanistan
  
Photo of the Day: after yesterday's long post, today I'll keep it short. And also to offset yesterday's photos' gruesomeness I give you something that is just beautiful – even though it's a rather dark part of the world.
  
This is Afghanistan, seen from the plane that took me back home from India in January.
  
Empty, snowy mountainscapes in low evening light. Serene and peaceful looking, yet that impression is of course a somewhat deceptive one ...
  
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Wednesday 1 March 2017
  
follow-up to yesterday's post. That showed a chance encounter outside one of the university buildings. But the real reason I went to Semey for DT was to see its anatomical museum. The photo below shows the exhibition room. I will add close-up images, “hidden” as comments & replies so they don't hit you directly.WARNING: some of these images are VERY graphic indeed and may freak out some people. Do not go into the 'comments' and 'replies' unless you are sure you really want to see these images.
[in this reconstruction, where i do not have that option of hiding them in comments, I have instead put them on a separate page here that you can chose to go to before coming back here - the choice is yours!]
  
  01 03 17   anatomical museum in Semey
  
It really is not for the faint of heart, but those with a serious interest in the medical side of nuclear testing should see them. They are stark warnings from the history of the atomic age. And it's about as dark as dark tourism can get.
  
Since yesterday's text was so short, I should give you a more elaborate explanation of the background:
  
Semey is the new name in independent Kazakhstan for what used to be called Semipalatinsk during Soviet times. It is the city closest to the USSR's principal ground for nuclear weapons tests. The area was accordingly known as the Semipalatinsk Test Site (STS). It was the Soviets' equivalent to the Nevada Test Site (NTS) in the USA. Both the STS and the NTS are located in very remote desert country … yet not remote enough for them not to have had some serious effects on people in the surrounding land.
  
In the case of the STS, many people, nomadic or living in small farmsteads around the main testing ground, were affected by radioactive fallout from the atmospheric tests conducted there. The long-term damage done includes a markedly elevated number of cancers and birth defects. The problem is still ongoing. And the Semey Medical University is heavily involved in dealing with these problems.
  
In addition they have a collection of specimens showing defects so serious that they were not survivable. This includes anencephalus, double-headed babies and even a cyclops, the infamous “monster of Semipalatinsk”, also referred to as the “one-eyed baby of Semipalatinsk” in the book “A Nuclear Family Vacation”.
  
In the meantime, so I have been informed by later visitors, the museum has changed a lot – and far fewer specimens are apparently on display now. So I was “lucky” to have seen it before those changes.
  
I was also lucky to get to see it at all, since it was summer and it turned out that out of term the museum was closed (and the tour operator I used had failed to pick up on this rather significant point … even the local guide I was promised never turned up). But our Russian driver decided to go straight to the university's rector, asking for a special “audience” for an “international visitor and researcher”. And remarkably we were granted this. Following a short impromptu lecture by the rector about the nuclear legacy that his institution was dealing with we were then also granted special entry to the museum and even allowed to take pictures.
  
It was a totally unique photo opportunity. And concentrating on the technicalities of my photography helped me in coping with the horrors that I saw. In a way it only really hit me when I looked at the photos back home.
  
So I'm sharing a couple of those pictures here, but, as I said, only in the comments, so that I can leave the decision whether you want to see them at all to you.
  
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Tuesday 28 February 2017
  
  28 02 17   outside the pathology department, Semey, Kazakhstan
  
Photo of the Day: … just because I have a doctor's appointment this morning and not much time to write anything long.
  
I'm confident, though, that I'll come out of it better than the poor person in this photo …
  
... spotted outside the pathology department of the Anatomical University in Semey, (formerly Semipalatinsk) in Kazakhstan.
  
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Monday 27 February 2017
  
  27 02 2017   Reichstag
  
On this Day: 84 years ago, on 27 February 1933, the German parliament building, the Reichstag in Berlin, was set on fire in an arson attack.
  
Barely a month previously, Adolf Hitler had been sworn in as the new Reich's Chancellor. And for him the Reichstag fire came as a welcome pretext to consolidate the grip of power his Nazi party was assuming.
  
The arson attack was blamed on a Dutch communist who apparently had been apprehended under suspicious circumstances at the Reichstag that same night. He allegedly confessed to the crime too. Yet whether it was really his work, or whether he could have acted alone, or whether maybe it was the Nazis themselves who had laid the fire, remains a contested issue to this day.
  
What did become clear very soon, though, was that the Nazis used the fire to justify their clampdown on communists in Germany, and eventually any kind of political opposition as Nazi Germany was turned into a full-blown dictatorship.
  
After WWII the Reichstag building remained largely abandoned throughout the Cold War, standing right by the Berlin Wall, i.e. directly bordering East Berlin, the capital of the West's new communist “enemy”, the GDR, which was a member of the Warsaw Pact.
  
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, which paved the way for Germany's reunification in 1990, the Reichstag building received a complete restoration and modernization, including the famous new glass dome at the top (designed by Norman Foster), to yet again become the seat of the German parliament, now the “Bundestag”, in 1999.
  
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Friday 24 February 2017
  
  24 02 17   partly collapsed bridge over Aras Nehri river, remote Anatolia
  
Photo of the Day: final bridge of the week. This is a partially collapsed bridge somewhere in the remote rural backwaters of eastern Anatolia between Iğdır and Kars, Turkey.
  
It's a little element of rusty decay in an extremely scenic part of the country, where there are few signs of humans except the road, this bridge and the occasional small settlement. The colours of the eroded, mountainous landscape are fantastically psychedelic at times (you can see a mere indication of this in the background of this photo).
  
I drove that route along the Aras River back in 2007 after I had been to Doğubeyazıt at the foot of Mount Ararat and to the border regions near Iran. Kurdish territory.
  
Currently, that region cannot so easily be visited. At times there are even complete travel bans around Mt Ararat, and e.g. the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office currently advises against travel in the region. That's mostly due to the ongoing conflict between Kurds (the PKK) and the Turkish military/security that has resurged, especially in the wake of the recent “tightening” up in Turkey after last year's attempted putsch (if it was one).
  
I hope this part of the country will become freely accessible again, and if it does I can only recommend a road trip in that magically empty and arid scenery. Driving in Turkey generally requires a high degree of alertness and observation (there can be sudden potholes, military checkpoints, animals on the road, crippled trucks, donkey carts, as well as the odd reckless car driver careering at breakneck speed), but overall it is a superb experience nonetheless.
  
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Thursday 23 February 2017
  
  23 02 17   North Korea in 2005
  
Photo of the Day: another bridge. This one I spotted while touring North Korea (DPRK) back in 2005. It's an ex-railway bridge in a rural part of the country north of Pyongyang en route to Myohyangsan.
  
As you can see in this photo, instead of trains it's people who take advantage of this bridge to cross it on foot. The grass growing on the tracks suggests that it may have been a while since any regular train traffic used it.
  
Similarly, the industrial plant you see in the background was also out of use and just silently stood there, seemingly abandoned.
  
Both the old bridge and the derelict factory are signs of the economic strain North Korea and its crumbling infrastructure had come under since the end of the Cold War and the transformation of China, which lost the DPRK its most crucial allies and economic supporters.
  
Of course, it's not normally part of tourism in North Korea to witness such symptoms of decline and poverty, as the official line is to glamorize the country, its regime and history and only let visitors see the “jewels”, the grand monuments and such like.
  
Yet travelling overland to sights outside the capital Pyongyang (in this case to the surreal “International Friendship Exhibition”), it becomes inevitable that tourists do occasionally get a bit of a glimpse of the fact that not all is so well and socialist-paradisical in the DPRK. But of course there will be no comment or even acknowledgement of any such issues on the part of the guides (and it's advisable not to raise the subject either – just quietly keep your eyes open …).
  
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Wednesday 22 February 2017
  
here we go! Article based on an extensive interview I did a couple of weeks ago. I'm quite chuffed about it  ;-)... even though a couple of details (e.g. re. Rwanda) are not quite spot-on. But you can't have everything ...Still much better than the usual "moral-panic" or sensationalist coverage of DT that you typically get in the media. 
  
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Wednesday 22 February 2017
  
  [photo could not be found again - but see the gallery for the relevant chapter here!]
  
Photo of the Day: continuing the theme of bridges that have some dark-tourism relevance, here's a particularly historic bridge: the Glienicke Bridge (aka "Bridge of Spies") on the edge of Berlin, leading into Potsdam.
  
During the Cold War era, when Germany and Berlin were divided into West and East, this bridge found itself right on the border between the American sector of West Berlin and the territory of East Germany, the GDR, i.e. it was part of the co-called Iron Curtain between the West/NATO and the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact.
  
As such the bridge was closed to all traffic – except for occasional transborder “traffic” of a very special kind: the Glienicke Bridge was famously used for the exchange of spies. The first such exchange took place here in 1962, when the Soviets released US pilot and CIA agent Francis Gary Powers, who had been shot down in his U2 spy plane over the the territory of the USSR in 1960. And in return the West handed over Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy who had been caught out when passing on classified information about the US atomic weapons programme.
  
Hence the legend started of this structure as “The Bridge of Spies”. In actual fact, though, there were only two more such spy exchanges, the final one in 1986.
  
Yet the legend of the bridge persists to this day. And now a small museum in a nearby mansion on the Potsdam side of the bridge (Villa Schöningen) tells the story of the bridge, the Cold War and of German reunification ...
  
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Tuesday 21 February 2017
  
  21 02 17   The real Bridge on the River Kwai, Thailand
  
Photo of the Day: moving away from last week's border wall theme, and in recognition of calls for building bridges rather than walls, let's look at some bridges that have a dark-tourism connection …
  
No.1, in today's photo, is the Bridge on the River Kwai. Yes it does exist, and it was indeed built as part of the Thailand-Burma “Death Railway”. But the real River Kwai bridge, at Kanchanaburi, western Thailand, does not look remotely like the one depicted in the famous movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai” which was a rather romanticized version of the Firth of Forth Bridge made of bamboo.
  
The real Bridge on the River Kwai, in contrast, is a rather unspectacular steel bridge. And it was never blown up but still stands. And it still takes trains across the river …
  
However, that river wasn't actually the River Kwai, not originally at least. Instead of the similarly named Kwae River (which the authors of the fictional story must have had in mind) the bridge crosses the Mae Khlong, that the Kwai/Kwae is a tributary of.
  
But as tourists began asking for the Kwai Bridge the Thais applied an ingenious method of lateral thinking and renamed the original Kwae “Kwae Noi”, 'little Kwai', and the former Mae Khlong was rechristened Kwae Yai, 'Big Kwai' – and voilà, suddenly the bridge got rid of that awkward “fault” in reality and had become the legendary Bridge on the River Kwai after all … and the local tourism industry is happy.
  
So here's to building bridges, both literally and figuratively speaking.
  
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Monday 20 February 2017
  
  20 02 17   spy tunnel, Berlin, Allied Museum
  
Photo of the Day: as a kind of contrasting follow-up to last week's wall theme here's something that shows a way of surmounting a border wall, or rather: undermining a border, quite literally.
  
What you see in this photo is a section from the legendary “spy tunnel” that the Western Allies (British and US) had dug under the border strip to the Soviet sector of Berlin (i.e. the GDR's capital East Berlin) in order to tap Soviet telephone lines. However, thanks to a double agent, the Soviets were fully informed about this tunnel. They then used that knowledge to stage a propagandistically dramatic “discovery” and arrest of the “enemy” agents.
  
This tunnel section later became one of the celebrated larger exhibits at the Allied Museum in the south of West Berlin.
  
This museum is scheduled to be moved, however, namely to the old Tempelhof Airport. The move will likely also mean a complete overhaul of the exhibition. But I would presume that this spectacular exhibit should make it to the new incarnation of the Allied Museum too.
  
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Sunday 19 February 2017
  
  19 02 17   brick from the Bin Laden compound
  
Photo of the Day: to finish the wall theme … this is a single brick from a wall of what used to be Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
  
It was the place where bin Laden was killed in a US special military operation on 2 May 2011, in a somewhat late act of revenge for the attacks of 9/11 that bin Laden is believed to have been the “mastermind” of.
  
The building had only been built in 2005 as a “safe house” for bin Laden and his family, and after the 2011 raid – which sparked a surge in interest in his former Abbottabad home – the Pakistani authorities decided to demolish the whole compound in February 2012.
  
This brick is now on display at the National 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York, in a section following the main museum about the 9/11 attacks, in an add-on exhibition about (the war on) terrorism since 2001.
  
The brick had been chiselled out of a wall of the compound before its demolition by an Islamabad-based Fox News journalist who was reporting on the hunt for bin Laden at the time. So it was a kind of “souvenir”. He later donated it to the new 9/11 Memorial Museum.
  
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Friday 17 February 2017
   
  17 02 17   harbour wall destroyed by lava flow, Heimaey, Iceland
  
Wall photo of the Day: … and this is what Mother Nature thinks of walls when they are in the way …
  
This one's in the harbour area of Heimaey, Westman Islands, Iceland. It was partly crushed by a lava flow that threatened to engulf the entire fishing town and its harbour, but in the end it stopped just short of that.
  
The lava flow was part of the Eldfell eruption of 1973, when without much forewarning a new fissure suddenly opened up, a mile long, right next to the island's single town of Heimaey and forced the overnight evacuation of its entire population (which was successful – no lives were lost in this natural disaster!).
  
The eruptions and ensuing lava flows ended up engulfing a significant proportion of the town's houses, and the entire place was covered by a thick layer of heavy ash. While the latter could be cleared away after the eruption had stopped, the houses buried by lava were lost for good. A few of them have more recently been excavated and made accessible for tourists – under the fitting banner of “Pompeii of the North”!
  
The Eldfell eruptions have also famously been caught on film, and you can see some of the footage both in Reykjavik and in Heimaey itself. Or find it online – worth watching!
  
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Thursday 16 February 2017
  
  16 02 17   Great Wall of China
  
Wall photo of the Day: Great Wall of China!
  
This has to be the “mother of” all border walls, if we go back in history a bit further than is normally the case in the context of dark tourism (I know I am stretching the limits of that concept a little here).
  
But even back then (much of the wall goes back to the 14th century, some parts are even older) the reason for it having been built was pretty similar to more modern incarnations of border walls. In this case it can be paraphrased as primarily “to keep them Mongolians out”.
  
“Other purposes of the Great Wall”, according to Wikipedia, “have included border controls, allowing the imposition of duties on goods […] and the control of immigration and emigration”. There you go. Not that much has changed, then.
  
This photo was taken at one of the better preserved (or reconstructed) stretches of the wall at Mutianyu north of Beijing.
  
I visited that city as part of my 2005 trip to North Korea, since the company I was going with (good old Koryo Tours – greetings to Simon Cockerell!) has its base in Beijing and the trip therefore started and ended there.
  
So I added a few days in Beijing before and after the week-long itinerary in the DPRK, and on my last day made the excursion to the Wall. I chose Mutianyu deliberately instead of the more famous stretch at Badaling, since I had read that the former is far less overcrowded with tourists than the latter. This expectation was indeed borne out. There were hardly any other foreigners, and among the relatively few Chinese tourists was a group of soldiers who basically used the steep stretch of wall that you see in this picture for fitness training: ascending it at running speed! I took my time to get to the top, but it was still quite a strenuous ascent.
  
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Wednesday 15 February 2017
  
  15 02 17   high border security on the El Paso side of the Mexican border
  
Wall photo of the Day: the border strip between Mexico and the USA, wall included.
  
Yes, you read right. It already exists. Believe me.
  
OK, not along the entire length of the border, admittedly, but in places like this it already looks almost like what the former GDR border used to look like during the Cold War (see yesterday's post). Look at those barriers on the lower bridge – they're pretty much exactly like segments of the Berlin Wall, complete with that rounded top (to make it difficult to climb over).
  
In addition you have here: not one or two, but THREE security fences, a patrol track (with border security patrol car), rows of lamp posts, a sand strip and TWO waterways. That's quite a lot to overcome if you wanted to cross this border illegally ...
  
One of the waterways, the sad little trickle on the right, btw., is the “Rio Grande” (yes, total misnomer these days, since most of its water is taken for irrigation in the USA before the river reaches its mouth). This “river” forms the official border line here. You can see it marked above the water on the higher bridge (which is for cross-border traffic), where the border crossing line is flanked by the two countries' flags.
  
This is the border between the cities of El Paso in Texas, USA, and Ciudad Juarez in Mexico (until recently the “murder capital” in the world, btw., but that's another story).
  
A few years ago (in 2012) I crossed this border once, and back, on foot, just to get a short glimpse of Juarez, when I had a stopover in El Paso on a road trip of the South West.
  
Getting over to the Mexican side was piece of cake. The Mexicans didn't even want to see our passports.
  
Getting back to the American side was a different story. For US citizens there was a fast lane, but my wife and I had to get in line with the Mexicans and other nationalities. And it took a long time. However, when it was finally our turn to get our papers checked, the border control officer was actually quite friendly and chirpy – he asked what we had wanted to cross into Juarez for, and when we replied “well, just to have a quick look … and to go for a real Margarita”, he asked “and? was it good?”, “Yes”, “So it was worth it then, right? Great – have a nice day ...”
   
To tell the truth, the Margarita was quite good, though not spectacular. But: we had it in the bar where this cocktail was first invented (or rather: the bar that has one of the best claims to this, though there are other contenders). And on the shelves there were old bottles from the Prohibition era, when Mexico was a destination for “refugees” of sorts, namely because it was where producers of famous Whiskey brands, for instance, moved to be able to continue production. So, there was a bit of history involved in this short cross-border visit too.
  
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Tuesday 14 February 2017
  
  14 02 17   Berlin Wall
  
Photo of the Day: there's been a lot of talk about border walls again recently, so let's look at some such walls with a dark history.
  
The No. 1 of the lot has to be the Berlin Wall, of course. In this photo it is seen in its preserved/reconstructed form at the main Berlin Wall memorial site at Bernauer Straße, though not from the front of the memorial, but from the rear, as it were, namely through a gap of the so-called “Hinterlandmauer”, i.e. from the “freundwärts” side (the 'friendly side', as the GDR border security forces called it, not without a good dose of cynicism, given it was there to stop GDR citizens from going west, not for keeping 'unfriendly' West Germans out).
  
From here you see what the main wall (“feindwärts” – 'on the enemy side') used to look like, but from the inside – i.e. you see the wall as it looked facing the GDR side … hence without the graffiti that you typically found on the (therefore) more famous western side.
  
In between the two parts of the wall is a reconstructed stretch of the “Todesstreifen” ('death strip'), i.e. where a meticulously raked strip of sand would not only have made any footsteps visible, but which could also have been a minefield … except that in Berlin no mines were actually used, as is known now, but who could have been so sure at the time …?
  
The Berlin Wall, together with the whole inner-German border (i.e. THE icon of the Iron Curtain), was the most elaborate and most secure fortified border system ever devised. And still there were successful attempts to surmount it … So: no wall can ever be perfect. That's also a lesson to be learned here.
  
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Monday 13 February 2017
  
who would have thought that dark tourism and the Eurovision Song Contest could ever have anything to do with each other, but here we are: ChernobylMe.com have a special discount offer on for Chernobyl tours to coincide with the upcoming ESC to be held in Kiev, i.e. for 9th, 11th and 13th of May this year! Check their brand new site: http://www.chernobylme.com/
[Note, that website has meanwhile been replaced by this one: https://private-chernobyl.guide/]
  
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Monday 13 February 2017
  
  13 02 2017   beginning of Dresden bombing
  
On this Day: 72 years ago, on 13 February 1945, the bombing of Dresden began (and lasted all night, next day and until midday of 15 February).
  
This photo shows a damaged statue salvaged from the rubble of Dresden after the devastating bombing. It is now on display at the Imperial War Museum's outpost at RAF Duxford, Cambridgeshire, namely in the new American Air Museum (which, as a museum, is excellent). In a way that is fitting, since it was a joint RAF and USAAF air raid.
  
In a by then well rehearsed choreography, the bombers first dropped high explosive bombs to “crack open” the roofs of houses, followed by a shower of incendiary bombs that caused a so-called “fire storm”. At least 20,000 people lost their lives in this inferno. The exact figure is hard to establish because at the time unknown numbers of refugees had been coming into the city from the east, fleeing the advancing front line as the Soviet Red Army pushed towards the Reich.
  
The destruction of Dresden stands out in history as possibly the most controversial large-scale aerial bombing of a civilian target, and the verdict is still out whether it might even have constituted a war crime.
  
Firstly, the timing of the bombing is one issue – by February 1945 the Third Reich was on its knees and had practically lost the war already. So the official strategy of “Bomber Harris” – to bomb the German civilians into giving up on Hitler was really no longer necessary ... so the air raid can be seen as sheer terror bombing (even Churchill indicated this at one point). Secondly, the city had become a haven for refugees fleeing from the war in the east, adding to the humanitarian tragedy. Thirdly, the city was hardly of major strategic value as a military target (and those parts of the city that arguably may have been, like the industrial suburbs, were not targeted in the raid), Dresden was simply selected because it hadn't been bombed before (like most other large- to medium-sized German cities). And moreover: Dresden was of exceptional cultural value, the “Florence of the East”, a masterpiece in Baroque architecture.
  
Even some members of the bomber crews are on record for having expressed regret for this. I once personally met an OAP in a pub in Yorkshire (in the late 1990s) who had been a rear-gunner in a bomber taking part in the raid … and he said quite frankly: “what we did to Dresden, that was just plain wrong”.
  
Any views on this?
  
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Friday 10 February 2017
  
  10 02 2017   at Peenemünde, last service 1945, none since
  
On this Day: 72 years ago, on February 10, 1945, this piece of technical equipment at Peenemünde was serviced for the last time. The next due service never came.
  
Peenemünde, on the Baltic Sea island of Usedom, eastern Germany, was the rocket development facility where the Nazis' V1 and V2 missiles were devised and tested, under the leadership of Wernher von Braun. They were pure terror weapons (the V stands for “Vergeltungswaffe” – 'vengeance weapon'), too inaccurate to be of much military use, but aimed at cities (especially London), did cause fear and terror amongst the residents – as well as very real destruction and casualties where they did hit.
  
Despite all that, or the fact that the Peenemünde complex also used forced labour from an on-site concentration camp or the fact that the mass production of the V1 and V2 was done at sites as horrific as Mittelbau-Dora (one of the deadliest concentration camps), Wernher von Braun and the top pick of his team, seamlessly made it over to the American side at the end of WWII.
  
Von Braun then developed the first ICBMs for the USA. And later he became the leader of the Apollo programme, which culminated in the moon landings. More than two sides to his story, then …
  
This photo was taken inside the power station at the historic Peenemünde site. It's the largest of the surviving structures still to be found there and also houses an excellent museum. A top dark-tourism site in Germany and absolutely unique in its historical ambivalence.
  
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Thursday 9 February 2017
  
  09 02 17   cobweb forming a natural veil, Recoleta cemetery, Buenos Aires
  
Photo of the Day: coming back to yesterday's post – actually those other photos from Recoleta cemetery I did not post here on this page (sorry if you tried to find any in vain) but over at the dark-tourism photography page on FB. But I can re-post here ...
  
This is one of my all-time favourites: sepulchral art meeting “accidental” beauty in decay … through that cob-web that looks almost like a veil … isn't she beautiful?
  
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Wednesday 8 February 2017
  
  08 02 17   cemetery still life, Recoleto cemetery, Buenos Aires
  
Photo of the Day: back to the southern hemisphere, today: An angelic sepulchral ensemble.
  
This was photographed at the highly atmospheric (and historic) Recoleta cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  
This cemetery is best known for the grave of Evita Peron (of “Don't Cry for Me Argentina” fame), which is the one spot that most tourists flock to … and too many make do with just that. But it is worth devoting some more time to exploring the rest of this cemetery too.
  
I found many a stunning detail and lots of fantastic examples of sepulchral art here.
   
And some of these have already featured on this page before …
  
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Tuesday 7 February 2017
  
  07 02 17   inside Chernobyl NPP   control room of Block 2
  
Photo of the Day: control room at Chernobyl NPP, Block 2
  
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Monday 6 February 2017
  
  06 02 17   mud volcano gas bubble bursting, Bledug Kuwu, Java, Indonesia
  
Photo of the Day: maybe it's time to look the other way, far away, to the southern hemisphere, South-East Asia, let's say: Indonesia.
  
This photo shows a hot steam bubble bursting at the very active mud volcano field of Bledug Kuwu in a remote rural spot in the central part of Java.
  
This constant show of (un)earthly flatulence is quite fascinating to watch. The steam bubbles breaking through the mud in the centre of the field are often several metres in diameter. Some burst and splatter as evenly as the one in this picture, but sometimes they burst sideways, or even eject jets of mud high into the air. As you never know what exactly the next bubble is going to do, it's quite mesmerizing to keep watching.
  
But the place can also be dangerous – hence there are guards on duty who make sure visitors (mostly locals, hardly ever foreigners) do not go where the ground is unstable or get too close to the 'action'. It has happened, so there is a distinct 'dark' element here as well … beyond just a fascinating natural entertainment show.
  
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Friday 3 February 2017
  
  03 02 17   warped America
  
Photo of the Day: ... final reflection of the week ...
  
(picture taken in Oklahoma City)
  
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Thursday 2 February 2017
   
  02 02 17   tunnel vision in NY
  
Photo of the Day: as promised yesterday, here's another 'reflective' image.
  
This could be called “high-up reflection at the end of the arty tunnel”.
  
The picture was taken in August 2002, i.e. less than a year after the 9/11 attacks, in New York City, through an art installation against some skyscraper's mirror-glass façade somewhere in downtown Manhattan … using my first ever digital camera (which had something like 2.3 megapixels resolution – a great value at the time!).
  
It was a time when the newly found, immediately post-9/11 solidarity amongst New Yorkers was already beginning to fade (as my NY host back then told me “everybody's gone back to being nasty to each other again”) and the stage of world politics had changed too. The Bush administration had embarked on retaliatory bombing raids in Afghanistan and was preparing for its military invasion of Iraq, which was launched in early 2003.
  
How quickly times can change. When he had come into office in January 2001, George W. Bush had initially rather pledged to get less involved in the world outside the US. But then it turned all militarily aggressive, “unilateral” and “pre-emptive”, declaring “old Europe” and the UN irrelevant and/or redundant in the process … remember all that rhetoric? And the protests? The divisive media coverage
  
And now …? Who can really tell where it will really head? ... in any case, a bit more reflection wouldn't go amiss, would it?
  
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Wednesday 1 February 2017
  
   01 02 17   Hustler 2
  
Photo of the Day: full-frontal view of a hustler, with its tiny prick poking out at the front ...
  
This is a Convair B-58 (code name 'Hustler') supersonic nuclear bomber - on display at the Pima Air & Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, USA.
  
The 'Hustler' can be described as bit of an aviation folly – it was the pretence of menace and ultra-cool, but in actual fact it was totally flawed and basically obsolete before it even entered service in 1960. So the USAF began phasing the type out just five years later, withdrawing all 116 units ever made by 1970.
  
There were a variety of reasons for this: it was so accident-prone that almost a quarter of all B-58s crashed (meaning, statistically speaking, that had the type stayed in service, all of them would probably by now have been lost in accidents). At the same time it was hugely expensive and very high-maintenance.
  
Most importantly, though, its intended role as a nuclear deterrent in the form of a high-speed, high-altitude penetrator of Soviet airspace (as depicted in the original version of the 1964 Sidney Lumet movie “Fail Safe”) had become redundant by the 1960s. That role was taken over by ICBMs and SLBMs – while the role of conventional bomber (e.g. in the Vietnam War) was better served by the slower but much heavier and sturdier B-52 (which is still in service to this day).
   
In short: the Hustler was a failure – sleek, fast, pretentious, yes, but in real-world practical terms a complete non-starter. It happens from time to time.
  
Still, I like this particular image of it, especially from a photography/aesthetics point of view, in particular for the reflection in the shiny nose of the four jet engines under the wing and the shadows on the ground …
   
I'll see if I can find yet more such “reflective” photos to follow this one up with ...
  
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Tuesday 31 January 2017
  
  31 01 17   big crack down the side of Liberty Bell, Philadelphia
  
Photo of the Day: big crack down the side of Liberty Bell
  
(Symbol of American freedom and independence on display in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA ... liberty is clearly fragile!)
  
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Monday 30 January 2017
  
  30 01 17   inside Thurston lava tube, Volcanoes NP, Hawaii
  
Photo of the Day: no (natural) light at the end of the (orange-lit) tunnel.
   
Inside Thurston lava tube, Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, USA.
  
Lava tubes are amongst the weirdest volcanic phenomena. They form when the outer parts of a lava flow solidify but the hot lava inside keeps flowing until it drains off, leaving behind tunnels of rock.
  
Thurston lava tube is one of the largest and most easily accessible examples of such tunnels. This, however, also makes it one of the most popular particular sights within Volcanoes NP. During the day masses of people push through the tunnel. Noisy throngs are of course quite detrimental to the spooky atmosphere that this sight otherwise exudes. On my first attempt I therefore aborted my visit even before reaching the entrance to the lava tube. I came back the next day at 6 a.m., just after watching the sun rise at the Kilauea crater rim, and found the lava tube completely empty, in all its wonderful eeriness. Only as I left the site the first other visitors arrived. So I had timed it well ...
  
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Sunday 29 January 2017
  
  29 01 17   Ellis Island, a reminder of the fact that the USA has a tradition as an immigration country
  
Photo of the Day: at Ellis Island, New York ... a reminder of the fact that the USA has a tradition as an immigration country. Without immigration, the USA wouldn't even exist as a nation state.
  
The memorial at the former immigration centre of Ellis Island honours that fact. And so it should be.
  
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Friday 27 January 2017
  
  
On this Day: it's Auschwitz Day – or 'International Holocaust Remembrance Day' – marking the anniversary (this year it's the 72nd) of the day the Soviet Red Army liberated Auschwitz in 1945.
  
The name Auschwitz has become almost synonymous with the Holocaust as such (it's often used as a metonym to refer to the whole Shoah). The actual sites of the concentration camps/labour camp/death camp of Auschwitz (there were actually three separate main sites with different roles) are thus the foremost memorials of this greatest ever crime against humanity.
  
As such, Auschwitz must be the most difficult dark sites to manage too – and indeed it struggles with the sheer numbers of visitors and has often been the subject of criticism regarding exactly how the Holocaust is to be commemorated at this site. In many ways it's such a tall order that it is practically impossible to get it right.
  
The article linked to below raises a few very valid questions about all this. I share the author's respect for the site management's efforts in general, but also some of the caveats. Some of these, however, simply stem from the fact that at Auschwitz dark tourism meets mass tourism. Crowd control alone necessarily entails some detraction from the solemn commemorative function that the more or less authentic sites of Auschwitz I (Stammlager) and Auschwitz-Birkenau should fulfil.
  
The article is a little bit one-sided, though, by addressing only the management issues of authenticity, reconstruction and the use of some of the buildings for ancillary touristic functions (esp. the infamous gatehouse of Birkenau – which is indeed problematic). But it does not address the issue of visitor behaviour – even though the title photo shows a prime example of highly dubious visitor antics.
  
Wielding a selfie stick right underneath the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at Auschwitz is probably as disrespectfully low as any tourists' behaviour can get. If contemporary visitors really cannot sense for themselves that at such a place their smartphones are NOT the most important things in the world, then I think they will have to be told so, and that the site management should enforce this. (It can be done – e.g. in Tallinn, Estonia, selfie sticks are now banned on the Old Town Square and the fines for violating that ban are hefty). I'm always shocked when I read about, or have to witness, such despicable visitor misconduct – and it irritates me that such behaviour is then used in the media to give all of dark tourism a bad name (not in this article, though, thankfully).
  
Another thing: the fact that the infamous “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign of Auschwitz 1 is not authentic but a copy, as the article's author complains, should perhaps be explained too. It's because the original sign was stolen in 2009 (a spectacular and shocking story at the time in itself), and even though it was later recovered, it was decided to keep the original in a safer place in future and put a replica up in the original location. So it's for very good reasons, not out of negligence with regard to preserving authenticity.
  
But as I already said above, at Auschwitz it is pretty much impossible to get everything right to satisfy everybody and their expectations as to what the memorial should or should not be, do, look like, and how it should manage the crowds, etc., etc.
  
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Thursday 26 January 2017
  
  26 01 17   plane aiming at the Trump Tower ... better aim at Trump himself
  
Photo of the Day: and yet another one in this week's series Dark America ...
  
Trump Tower, Chicago
  
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Wednesday 25 January 2017
  
  25 01 17   orange Fat Man replica, USAF museum, Dayton, Ohio
  
Photo of the Day: ... next one in the Dark America series:
  
Orange Fat Man mock-up.
  
(On display at the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio, next to the original "Bockscar", the plane that delivered the Nagasaki bomb for real ...)
  
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Tuesday 24 January 2017
  
  24 01 17   US national symbols   plus there's some big orange ass in the bottom right corner
  
Photo of the Day: next one in the Dark America series.
  
This is, of course, Washington DC with some of the most iconic national symbols of the administrative heart of the US of A ...
  
... but what's that orange arse doing there towards the bottom on the far right?
  
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Monday 23 January 2017
  
  23 01 17   cracked road, Centralia, Pennsylvania
  
On this Day: cracked road, USA.
  
This is the next one in the Dark America series that I promised in my last post. It shows part of the stretch of Route 61 that used to lead into Centralia, Pennsylvania.
  
This small coal-mining town fell victim to an underground coal fire that started in 1962 and has since kept smouldering away underfoot, unstoppably, emitting toxic fumes and making the ground unstable.
  
Eventually the town had to be evacuated (although a few of the townsfolk resisted being moved). The ghost town that Centralia thus had become was later mostly demolished, leaving behind little to be seen beyond an empty grid of streets. In some places, however, you can still see evidence of the underground fire venting fumes …
  
The former road in today's photo also fell victim to the underground fires, which warped and cracked the tarmac so that the road became unusable (a new stretch was then built parallel to the old one, so the former ghost town is still easily accessible).
  
This desolate site used to be just an exotic place off most people's radar, but in more recent years it has attracted more and more curious visitors, dark tourists, that is, intrigued by this unique place. This was partly fuelled by the fact that it featured in the media more and the case of Centralia was also the inspiration for the horror movie “Silent Hill”.
  
All this heightened awareness of the place also brought increased traffic in terms of graffiti … this photo was taken in 2012. More recent images I've seen show virtually every inch of this stretch of road covered in graffiti. I've even seen it referred to simply as “graffiti road”.
  
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Friday 20 January 2017
  
  20 01 17   Liberty drifting away
  
On this Day ... later today the office of 45th president of the most powerful nation on Earth will be taken by a man whose politics could, as several political analysts have doom-and-gloomed, spell the death knell for any last hopes of curbing climate change and may bring a dangerous destabilization of global security.
  
So if in, say, 30, 40, 50 years there's still anybody left who can be bothered with recorded history, then today may well end up being classed as possibly humanity's darkest day ever.
  
It may not come to that. Sense may still prevail. Things might still pan out alright. We simply don't know at this stage. All that seems to be clear is that a worrying degree of uncertainty lies ahead. But the potential for irreparable catastrophic effects is immense.
  
I'll mark the occasion here on DT by a series of photos from America, beginning with today's, which shows a toppled Lady Liberty drifting past in a fast-moving light projection at Fremont Street, Las Vegas, Nevada – I thought it was kind of symbolically fitting …
  
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Thursday 19 January 2017
  
Instead of a Photo of the Day, today I have a request: is there anybody out there who can recommend a good, but not too overpriced, English-speaking guide/tour operator in Moscow who can provide specifically dark-tourism-oriented tours/activities? Ideally they should also be able to provide Russian visa support (for a Brit and a German). If you have any suggestions, either reply here or send me a message. Any help would be greatly appreciated!
  
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Wednesday 18 January 2017
  
  18 01 17   death by salt   Dead Sea, West Bank, Israel
  
Photo of the Day: death by salt. As a follow-up to yesterday's post about the salt lagoon of Garabogazköl: this is what such extreme salinity looks like up close.
  
This was, however, taken not in Turkmenistan but at the Dead Sea in the Middle East. This salt lake is similarly saline and lifeless and thus bears its name for a good reason. The only life to be found in the Dead Sea is right at the mouth of the Jordan River's outlet into the Dead Sea, but from there on it becomes totally hostile to supporting any kind of life (other than maybe certain hardy bacteria, but definitely no fish).
   
To make it even darker, the Dead Sea is also shrinking at an alarming rate, due to both Israel and Jordan over-using the river's fresh water for irrigation, thus depriving the salt lake of most of its replenishing waters. So the salinity goes up further, and the water levels drop by about a metre every year. Where the waterline has receded, large sinkholes have appeared. In fact, the ground is so unstable that big warning signs have been erected to prevent people from walking on this treacherously brittle soil and being swallowed up by it.
  
This photo was taken at Ein Gedi on the Israeli shore, just south of the border with the West Bank territory of Palestine held by Israel (so there's a politically dark element here too). Ein Gedi is (was?) a spa village on the Dead Sea shores – except that the shore has receded so far that even ten years ago, when this photo was taken, patrons wanting to take a dip in the famously buoyant Dead Sea waters had to be carted to the shore and back by a shuttle bus. Now it will be even further away, and the old spa facilities are apparently crumbling.
  
When you reach the water, yet more warning signs admonish bathers to just sit back in the water and not to dive, splash about or swallow any water – and if you accidentally do swallow a gulp of Dead Sea waters you have to immediately seek medical attention, such is its briny toxicity … still, it cannot be denied that floating, or rather bobbing like a cork, sitting in/on this otherworldly body of water, is quite fun nevertheless ...
  
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Tuesday 17 January 2017
  
  17 01 17   Garabogazköl, Turkmenistan, from the air at nightfall
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post ... with apologies for this being probably one of the lowest quality photos I've ever posted here. But it's the best I can offer and it's for a good reason.
  
As our flight from India back to Europe took us all across Turkmenistan we eventually reached the Caspian Sea shore at about sunset, and I caught a faint glimpse of another very alluring place in Central Asia: the Garabogazköl salt lake lagoon. It's that slightly darker, bluer shape in the centre of this image, under the plane's wing, just above the watermark. I know it's barely visible, but still ...
   
Garabogazköl is the world's largest body of briny water, and alongside the Dead Sea is amongst the saltiest in the world too (35% salinity!). Hence it's an almost totally lifeless world
   
Unfortunately it is also one of the most extremely off-the-beaten-track locations anywhere, even by Turkmenistan's standards, so it's very hard to get to (and there's almost no infrastructure at all). Because of that it wasn't part of my Turkmenistan trip a few years ago, unfortunately. But I would so love to go there one day … but that would be an expedition, not tourism, really
   
Also a very post-apocalyptic thing to see in this area would be the bizarre salt mining operations (by moveable rail tracks!) at Guwlymayak to the south-west of Garabogazköl. You can also just about make out the white areas of this salt lake system in this photo towards the bottom left corner.
  
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Monday 16 January 2017
  
  16 01 17   mud crater, Turkmenistan
  
Photo of the Day: mud crater in the Karakum desert in central Turkmenistan.
  
Like its better-known nearby counterpart, the legendary flaming gas fire crater of Darvaza (which has featured on this page a number of times), this crater is also the result of an industrial accident during surveying operations for natural gas back in the Soviet era.
  
Unlike Darvaza, this crater opened up not a flaming gas leak but a mud volcano, which is constantly bubbling away at the bottom.
  
Though not quite on a par with seeing the Darvaza gas crater at night, watching this mud volcano is also a pretty mesmerizing sight to behold.
  
I was reminded of all this on my flight home from India a week ago. The flight path took in the entire length of Turkmenistan, right from the foothills of the mountains in neighbouring Afghanistan in the east to the Caspian Sea shore in the west. In between there is almost nothing but uninhabited, featureless desert. It's like flying over a different planet.
  
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Friday 13 January 2017
  
  13 01 2017   Vilnius TV Tower
  
On this Day: 26 years ago, on 13 January 1991, the protests against Soviet rule in Lithuania's capital city Vilnius climaxed in the clashes of protesters and Soviet military at the city's TV Tower, seen here from a distance in today's photo.
  
In these turbulent times, the Soviet leadership under Mikhail Gorbachev took one of its less forward-looking decisions and sent in the military to stop the Baltic states' endeavours for independence from the USSR.
  
Tensions had already been running high for two days in the city, when in the early hours of 13 January things escalated at the TV Tower. From here defiant broadcasters had been playing a vital role in rallying the protests, and so the Soviets were keen to silence that voice calling for independence. However, protesters had assembled at the base of the tower to protect the broadcasting station. Suddenly in this face-off shots were fired and a tank rolled right into the crowds, crushing two of the civilian protesters. Even more were shot dead or injured in the clashes. One Soviet soldier was killed by “friendly fire”.
  
The Soviets eventually managed to break into the broadcasting centre to turn it off – the scenes of them barging in were still seen live on TV until it went black.
  
This Soviet “success” was very short-lived, though. The images of these scenes of Soviet brutality caused an international outcry, which in the end only accelerated Lithuania's (and the other Baltic states') path towards full independence … and eventually also the demise of the Soviet Union itself not much later.
  
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Thursday 12 January 2017
  
  12 01 17   Nicholson Cemetery, Delhi
  
Photo of the Day: another one from Delhi, the noisy, hectic, grimy capital city of India. This is one of the few serenely quiet spots in this bustling megapolis: Nicholson Cemetery.
  
It's named after Brigadier-General John Nicholson, who is buried here alongside several other British Christians from the colonial era. Nicholson was a key figure in the recapturing of besieged Delhi during the “Mutiny” of 1857, better-known in India as “The First War of Independence”. He died a few days later from the wounds he sustained in the battle.
  
Due to his role in India's colonial history he remains a highly controversial figure in independent India to this day – and hence the restoration of his grave and the cemetery a few years ago was also met with controversy.
  
Fortunately for us, the cemetery is still there and can be visited – as I did on my first day in Delhi at around dusk, when the golden late afternoon light further enhanced the spooky but silently serene atmosphere of this exceptional place.
  
Those susceptible to believing in paranormal things (which I am not) even regard this cemetery as “haunted” by “ghosts” … of the deceased British ex-colonialists. Take it or leave it.
  
Cemeteries as such are quite an unusual sight in India, by the way – since most Indians rather cremate their dead, so there are no lasting "abodes" of the dead as such. The few proper cemeteries you can find are thus mostly Christian cemeteries from the colonial times. And of the half a dozen or so I saw on my recent trip to India, Delhi's Nicholson Cemetery was definitely the highlight.
  
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Wednesday 11 January 2017
  
  11 01 17   King George V statue in Coronation Park, Delhi
  
Photo of the Day: follow-up to yesterday's post. This is the (by now rather weathered) statue of King George V that used to stand under the canopy next to the India Gate memorial in New Delhi.
  
After India gained its independence, the statue was eventually moved to its present location in the 1960s – namely to Coronation Park. This sprawling expanse of now pretty grubby parkland lies on the fringes of the city. It was the site where the Indian “Durbar” mass assemblies took place during the British colonial era. The final one in December 1911 was attended by George V in person, shortly after his coronation back at home.
  
This event was to serve as the official coronation of Georgie #5 as emperor of India and it was a lavish affair with lots of fanfare and pomp all staged at great cost. Almost every member of the Indian gentry was there to pledge their allegiance to their sovereign.
  
However, at the same time the British colonial grip on India was in fact already showing cracks that would eventually lead to the collapse of British rule and India's independence … but that's another story for another (set of) post(s).
  
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Tuesday 10 January 2017
  
  10 01 17   India Gate
  
Photo of the Day: India Gate, the grand memorial in New Delhi honouring the ca. 90,000 Indian soldiers who fell in World War One fighting for the British.
The colossal arch was unveiled in 1931, and since 1971 a set of eternal flames has been burning directly underneath - serving as India's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
  
The canopy you can see in the distance behind the India Gate used to be the home of a 15m tall statue of King George V, but following India's independence from Britain this old symbol of colonialism was removed in the 1960s (and is now to be found in the so-called Coronation Park on the outskirts of the city).
  
Apparently there have been plans to erect a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in the King's place under the canopy instead, but so far nothing has come of that idea.
  
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Monday 9 January 2017
  
  09 01 17   Fortress Europe
  
Photo of the Day: back in Fortress Europe!
  
It's been an incredible trip to India over the past three weeks, and I'll post more photos from it. But first I have to sort and process the lot (68GB worth of material, some 7000 shots altogether, many in RAW, so I first have to develop them ... but let's leave the techie photography talk at this).
  
About immigration and that "Fortress Europe" reference: it actually turned out more time-consuming to LEAVE India than it had been getting in. OK, the visa-checking on arrival did take some time (plus taking fingerprints, photos, wielding lots of stamps and plenty of paper-shuffling - the Indians LOVE bureaucracy!), but on departure it took a full two hours to get through check-in, immigration (exiting) and security checks ... and then the long march to the gate at Delhi airport (which is vast). No wonder they advise you to get to the airport three hours before departure. There were quite a few people who clearly hadn't heeded that advice and found themselves still in the queue at immigration as their flights were already called for boarding ... needless to say, there was a lot of tension about.
  
Immigration back at Vienna airport, in contrast, was a breeze ... well, at least for those holding an EU passport. These days, my British wife always gets a bit irritable at this point, not knowing for how much longer she will be able to enjoy that privilege of the EU members' lane. Unless Brexit is somehow averted or expats get granted some special European citizenship deal or something, she's foreseeing a time when on arrival from overseas I will still be able to sail through EU immigration in no time at all while she'll be forced to join the slow queue for the "outside-fortress-Europe" treatment, along with the Indians, Iranians, Brazilians et al ...
  
It's cynical in a way, I know, but I do appreciate my German passport now more than I ever did before ...
  
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Sunday 7 January 2017
  
  07 01 17   another one from the Cellular Jail, Port Blair, Andaman
  
Photo of the Day: another one from the eerie but at the same time so mystically photogenic Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andaman Islands ... too good to leave it at just the one photo from yesterday.
  
But now I'm back in Delhi and it's been the last day of this three-week trip to India.
  
Other countries may have more to offer with regard to dark tourism, but overall it's been a very special experience all the same - not least in culinary terms.
  
Tomorrow, I'll fly back home and then I will have thousands of photos to sort through yet again ... and then of course several new chapters for my main website dark-tourism.com to write, which should finally give India the coverage it deserves. But it will take a while, so please bear with me ...
  
Right now I'm looking forward to a good night's sleep without the prospect of having to get up at 5:30 a.m. yet again ...
  
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Friday 6 January 2017
  
  06 01 17   the rather photogenic Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andaman
  
Photo of the Day: at the eminently photogenic former Cellular Jail in Port Blair, Andaman Island ... visited earlier today ...
  
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Wednesday 4 January 2017
  
  04 01 2017   Lucknow Residence
  
Photo of the Day: the Residency in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India, visited on New Year's Day.
  
You can still see the cannon ball scars on the walls that it sustained during the siege in the "Mutiny" of 1857 (in English parlance ... or "First War of Independence", as the Indians prefer to call it).
  
    
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