The Bridges of Long Island

I flew into JFK last Sunday after many years. With the new automation at these airports, one passes through immigration much faster. I was out in no time and on the road to Long Island.

Driving from JFK to Long Island through its many parkways, the one thing I have always noticed is a succession of very low bridges. An article in New York Times written almost ten years ago details some of the hilarious and horrendous road accidents that these lead to.

I went back to that article and found the intriguing statement "Sometimes, this was by design, as in the case of some parkways on Long Island, where bridges were built too low for buses to pass under." Following this up, I came to Robert Moses, and the allegation that he built these bridges low deliberately to exclude the low-income black households living in Queens from accessing the beaches of Long Island. The reasoning given is that poorer people did not usually own cars, and would have to make a trip like this by bus. By keeping clearances under the bridges which are sometimes half of the standard, Moses is said to have planned to exclude buses from entering these areas.

The 40 year old Pulitzer Prize winning book by Robert Caro about Robert Moses called "The Power Broker" which brought together evidence that there was systematic racism in the city services designed by Moses has now become contentious. The low bridges of Long Island however, continue to be traps for trucks.

Modern comfort

After spending a morning with Gaudi’s idiosyncratic architecture in the church of Sagrada Familia and then in the apartment building called the Casa Mila or La Pedreda, The Family and I went off to a nearby restaurant for one of Barcelona’s famous three course lunches. Gaudi’s architecture is mesmerizing, and both of us were a little stunned by the decorativeness of his style. During lunch The Family asked who the other famous architects in Barcelona are. Now Barcelona has works by so many brilliant architects, that I fumbled for an answer. When I blurted out "Mies van der Rohe", it was my subconscious speaking.

My first acquaintance with the work of one of the makers of modernist architecture was through photos of the Barcelona chair, which (I later found) were designed to go with his German Pavilion in the Barcelona World Fair of 1929. One of the iconic structures designed by him was this pavilion. I was under the impression that it was dismantled within a year of being set up, but was surprised to find, just a few months ago, that it had been reconstructed.

So we found the simplest connection through the subway to take us there, finished our coffee, and set off into the hot afternoon. The clean lines of the pavilion are a refreshing sight after a morning of Gaudy excess. There is a small fee for entry, which we gladly paid, as we walked past the glass curtain "into" the structure. The interesting thing about this pavilion is that there is really no inside and no outside. The walls do not partition the structure; rather they offer a continuous path through the structure. Immediately behind the glass curtain is this wall of red-gold onyx (photo above).

When you go round this wall another curtain of glass appears (photo above), and you must decide whether to pass in front of it, or behind. The slab of the roof floats lightly above this, providing welcome shade. There were a very small number of people taking photos, very considerately moving out of the field of view of each others’ cameras. On the far side of the view above was the rectangular pool which is called the large basin.

Behind me was the small basin (photo above) with a statue called Alba by George Kolbe. The U-shaped wall behind it is made with green marble, and creates the main enclosed space in the pavilion. Interestingly, there is no roof above it, so that in another dimension it is open.

I found one place from which you could see all the different kinds of material used in this structure (photo above). This was the wall where a few of the Barcelona chairs had been placed (featured photo). The Family sat down on one of the chairs and declared that it was indeed comfortable. Was it the most comfortable chair ever designed, as advertisements used to claim once? She was not sure, but she said she could sleep in it. I’d always thought of the Barcelona chair as black, but it turns out that the first edition, which was placed here in 1929, was white.

We sat there together and contemplated the vision which has now conquered the world. If the Barcelona Pavilion seems to be so ordinary, it is because every modern atrium looks faintly like this: the mixture of exotic polished stone and steel and glass curtains, soaring above you. Even the little pool with Kolbe’s architecture has been copied and transmuted. This is why Casa Mila stands out as extraordinary: it is not the way the world is. I’m happy that the world followed Mies van der Rohe’s vision and not Gaudi’s.

The most Dangerous Airport in the World

I first heard about Paro airport from a friend’s son. When he was ten years old, he was addicted to flight-simulator games, and Paro was a legendary airport to him and his little group of enthusiasts. I first learnt from him of the extremely steep angles of approach and take off, needed because Paro is a deep valley, at an altitude of 2300 meters, surrounded by peaks which are over 5000 meters high. This was not all, he said, it had a short runway, and the approach had to wind through a safe path between mountains. Interestingly, since the beginning of civilian flights in 1983, Paro airport has not had a single accident.

A few years later, I was in a party of four who flew in for our second visit to Bhutan and saw all this first hand. On our previous visit we had taken the road up from Phuentsholing on the Indian border. The flight took off in the early morning from Kolkata. Later I realized why. The pilots make a visual approach, and have to return to Kolkata and be ready to try again the same day if the weather turns bad.

A good view of Everest over a cloud bank

Our flight was uneventful. We had a clear view of the massive summit of Mount Everest. Auguries are part of the culture of Bhutan, and the calm and majestic view of Chomolungma augured well for our trip. The uneventful trip included a hair-raising descent to Paro airport. We could clearly see the mountain walls which seemed to hang just outside the windows of the cabin. The plane twisted and turned through the valley of the Paro river until it came down to a perfect soft landing at the airport. The small cabin broke into applause. It was well-deserved, the pilot was one of the handful who are qualified for Paro airport.

Paro airport terminal, Bhutan

Bhutan, with its population of half a million, was a refreshingly informal place. We could stay on the apron and admire breathtaking views of the walls of mountains rising around us. Eventually we moved into the squeaky-new airport terminal, got our visa and moved on.

How I learnt to love the roads of Bangkok

We decided to spend a couple of days in Bangkok imagining a relaxed time in a large city on the way back from Myanmar. We did manage to relax, but in taxis stuck on the road. On one memorable occasion, during the evening rush hour, our taxi took more than half an hour between two successive traffic lights. According to a year-old article, during the evening peak hours, Bangkok’s traffic moves at one-tenth the speed it would have on a clear road. On the average the traffic moves at half the speed that it would have on a clear road.

One sure sign of bad traffic is multiple layers of roads and flyovers. In the featured photo of Bangkok (taken near Sukhumvit) you can see the road, then the pedestrian walkway from which I took the photo, a flyover for road traffic, and an elevated corridor for the metro. This photo was taken a little after three on a weekday. Two hours later, the traffic was a standstill.Kitschy hoarding covers a cnstructions site in Bangkok I’ve seen such multiple layers of roads in China before, and they are now coming up in India.

Some claim that Bangkok’s traffic has become worse since the government decided to refund the tax to first-time car buyers. Mumbai had prepared us for Bangkok. When we were stuck in traffic, The Family and I tried to take it as an opportunity to spend some quality time talking to each other. When we couldn’t bear the incredible joy of being thrown into close contact for long, we took the sky trains. The coverage of the city is minimal, but at least it can be used to reduce the distance you have to travel in traffic. Another joy of travelling by metro is that you get a view of really kitschy hoardings meant to cover up construction sites (above).

Spring cleaning

Into each life some rain must fall, and the last five days have been a bit of a record for the twenty million people in my city. So I decided to spend my time indoors in moving some of my older photos from my laptop into a backup disk. And, of course, I got distracted by my first photos of Shanghai.

The Family and I landed in Shanghai in early May last year late in the afternoon. We’d flown out of Mumbai in the night, changed planes in Chengdu, taken the maglev train from the Shanghai Pudong airport, changed to a Metro, and eventually found our hotel. We did not speak or read Mandarin. Our hotel was off East Nanjing Road, and I’d selected it to be close to the Bund. After a shower we took our first walk in China.

It is hard now to recall our feelings, although The Family and I have talked about it now and then. China was still an unknown, even walking on the road was an adventure. We bought a bottle of water, tried out a local sweet, and eventually reached the Bund. I no longer remember what I’d imagined it to be. But it was not the wide promenade full of people at complete leisure. It was so familiar, but, at the same time, so totally different.

Our timing happened to be right, the sun was setting behind us, and lighting up the wonderful high-rise buildings of Pudong new area (see the featured image). Later we would learn to distinguish the buildings. Now we just gawked. It was a mysterious and exciting city. Over time we got to know it better. We still find it exciting, but a less mysterious. That’s the unfortunate side of travelling: the world becomes a tiny bit flatter.

Five bridges of Porto

Porto slopes down from a height to the Douro river and comes to an end at the river bank. The river separates it from Vila Nova de Gaia, a town known mainly for its warehouses of Port wine. Five bridges cross the river from Porto. On our first evening in the town, we decided to take a cruise along the river and under the bridges.

porto1-arrabida

The westernmost of these is the Arrabida bridge (photo above), completed in 1963. The single arch across the river was once the longest in the world. This was one of the two works of Edgar Cardoso, one of Portugal’s iconic engineers, which we saw. The deck of the bridge, and the traffic it carries, passes high over the boat. Porto stretches even further to the west, right to the shores of the Atlantic. As the boat passes beyond the bridge, you see the river widening out, and Vila Nova de Gaia coming to an end. The river cruise turns around well before coming to the ocean.

porto3-freixo

Dom Luis 1 bridge (featured photo) is the iconic bridge of Porto. The double decker bridge was completed in 1887 and had a record arch span at that time. The bridge was designed by Teophile Seyrig, who had earlier worked with Gustave Eiffel. The upper deck was strengthened by Edgar Cardoso a century later. We saw trams crossing the upper deck. All other traffic crosses along the lower deck. As we passed below it we saw three other bridges lined up ahead.

The next bridge up river was the Ponte Infante Dom Henrique (photo above). It was completed in 2003 by Antonio Adao da Fonseca. I admired the clean modern lines of this concrete bridge as we passed below it. Beyond this were a pair of railway bridges.

porto45-mariapia-saojoao

The Ponte Maria Pia (photo above) was the first of Porto’s bridges. Gustav Eiffel’s engineering company, then little known, designed and completed it in 1877. Teophile Seyrig, who then worked for the company, is usually credited with having designed it. At that time it was the longest single arch bridge in the world. It was superseded in 1991 by the bridge we passed under next. This is the concrete Ponte de Sao Joao (photo above), designed by Edgar Cardoso, and completed in 1991.

The boat ride lasted about an hour. Interestingly, there are no explanations or commentary during the ride. You see what you want to see. Fortunately, I had taken the time to read up on the bridges before, so I could appreciate them. There must be much along the river which I missed. I am not a fan of continuous commentary, but it would be nice if there was a cruise which could point out the main structures of interest as we passed them.

Asia’s second highest bridge, perhaps

singshorebridge

The heights of bridges are usually measured in terms of the drop from the bridge to the lowest point below. The highest bridge I’ve been on was the Millau Viaduct, which is the highest in Europe. I had a vague memory that most of the world’s highest bridges are in China (8 of the top 10, as I verified later). So when our driver, Hem Kumar, insisted that he wanted to show us Asia’s second highest bridge I began to wonder what he meant.

We’d wanted to go to Rinchenpong, to see the statue of the ati-buddha in the monastery there, and to take a look at the view made famous in a painting by Nicholas Roerich. Hem Kumar insisted that the monastery was broken and old, and not worth seeing. The Family argued for a while but Hem Kumar prevailed.

The morning had started clear, and we had a view of Kabru at sunrise, although the peak of Kanchendzonga had been hidden by clouds. The day grew foggier as the sun rose. On our drive I tried to get some information on the Singshore bridge. Network connectivity while driving in the mountains is a little dodgy, but not impossible. So I managed to glean some information.

The bridge was completed in 1996. Wikimapia seems to have the most detailed information, and it claims that the gorge over which the bridge stands is 700 feet deep at places. This would make the bridge a little over 200 m high. The Highest Bridges Wiki claims that it cannot be more than 100 meters high, but gives no references. As a result, it currently ranks this as the 632nd highest bridge in the world, and far down in rankings even inside Asia. The highest 10 bridges in the world are over 300 meters in height, and 8 of them are in China. So even with a disputed height, the Singshore bridge cannot be the second highest in Asia in terms of deck heights. So how did this precise description: “second highest in Asia” come about?

The Singshore bridge lies between Dentam (altitude 1500 meters) and Uttarey (altitude 2300 meters) villages, and closer to Dentam. I would guess it is at an altitude of a little less than 2000 meters. So could this be one of the highest altitude bridge in Asia?

Searching for high altitude bridges led me to a site called Fun Trivia where a bid by the Sanchahe Bridge was disputed by a claim on behalf of the Bally Bridge. The page turned out to be completely wrong. Chasing links from this page to the Bally Bridge led to Kolkata, which is about as close to sea level as you can get. The other claimant, Sanchahe Bridge, turned out to be in Guizhou province in China. This is a mountainous province, but much lower than Nepal or Tibet. So I don’t think either of these count as remarkably high-altitude bridges.

Country-wise searches led me to the China-Nepal Friendship bridge, near Zhangmu in China (altitude 2300 meters), and the Liuwu bridge near Lhasa (altitude 3650 meters). Other bridges in Nepal are much lower in altitude, and one cannot find any information on other bridges in Tibet. So, the Singshore bridge could well have been the second ranking high-altitude bridge in Asia (and probably the world) when it was built. It is likely that now it is the third highest.

The bridge is a narrow strip of road suspended above a river far down. Cables descend from 36 meter high towers on either side to hold this in place. Only one car can pass at any time, and there’s a speed limit of 10 Kms/hour on the bridge. We got off the car and walked on to the bridge; this is allowed if you sign in a register. We felt the bridge swaying slightly as we walked on. Looking down, The Family and I thought that the deck height was more than 100 meters. The towers provide a convenient scale for such estimates.

Far below we could see another bridge, perhaps one of the many foot bridges which span rivers in the Himalayas and connect villages. A jeep rattled by us at high speed. Since the bridge is almost 200 meters long, a car travelling at the speed limit would take over a minute to cross it. This jeep was going at perhaps thrice to four times the speed limit. The bridge instantly started to sway. We saw fat stay cables anchoring the bridge to the sides, and they damped the vibrations fairly efficiently.

We walked to a tea room on the Uttarey side of the bridge. It was run by a lady whose two children mobbed us. Hem Kumar, for all his lack of information, had lots of children’s songs on his mobile. He’d told us about his daughter, and now said that the songs were her favourites. The children took his mobile and paged through the songs; he seemed pretty cool with that. We finished our tea, and went on to Uttarey.