Tsomoriri, Ladakh: Nomads, Altitude and Yaks

I’ve been terribly delinquent at organizing my pictures from last fall’s trip to the Ladakh region of India. The trip was originally intended to include Kashmir, but last summer’s rioting and stonings convinced my group to stay east of there in Ladakh. The upside was a more in-depth tour of Ladakh.

J75_9676

Our local driver convinced this nomad lady to put on her ceremonial formalwear for us to see. She wasn’t eager to have her picture taken, so she wouldn’t come fully out of her tent, and I only had a minute.

 

Compared with the U.S., India has 4 times as many people on 1/3 as many square miles.  But Ladakh — the very mountainous far-north region near the Pakistan border — is mostly isolated small towns and villages.  The mountains were bare and stark — not simply like mountains above a tree line, but like a mostly barren desert that happened to have 23,000 foot peaks.  I spent a few nights in tent camps at 13,000 to 15,000 feet.

The sparse villages of the various areas within Ladakh have very distinctive and varied tribal cultures and ethnicities.  One of the more interesting stops visited a nomad camp near the remote village of Korzok on Lake Tsomoriri, a long day’s drive southeast of Leh. These nomadic people move a couple of times a year – taking their herds of sheep, goats, and yaks to better grazing   Their tent homes are made of yak-wool, and when it’s time to move, the yaks themselves carry the tents (and everything else).

We camped just one night at the lake; it’s at 15,000 feet elevation and chilly even in the fancy tents they had set up for us. One of our drivers was from the area, so he knew their dialect and convinced them to let us into their tents to really see how they lived. They were surprisingly roomy and full of rugs. My brief curiosity about where the rugs came from was immediately satisfied when I saw one of the women patiently weaving a yak wool rug.

 

J75_9568

Those pictures of the young mother and her kids around their tent make me think of the Dorothea Lange iconic depression-era photograph of the “Migrant Mother,” Florence Thompson. Lange’s work was famous for showing the world the startling struggles of 1930s American nomads. The living conditions of these Ladakhis may appear to be surprisingly similar, but that’s probably deceptive. Lange photographed people in a crisis, but this is a way of life for the Ladakhi nomads, and they seem very capable of providing food and shelter much as their ancestors have for centuries.

 

_JCE5190

 

_JCE5055.jpg_JCE5273.jpgJ75_9497.jpgJ75_9504.jpgJ75_9530.jpgJ75_9544.jpgJ75_9608.jpgJ75_9616.jpgJ75_9653.jpgJ75_9676.jpgJ75_9761.jpgJ75_9779.jpg

Ladakh, India: Buddha on the Indus

Most of my September trip to India was in the Ladakh region of Jammu & Kashmir, in far north India near the Pakistan border.  Everything there — the people, the terrain, and the religion — looks more like Tibet than India.

_jce8173

Golden prayer wheels and images of a musical Buddha at the temple entrance at Themisgan Buddhist monastery in the Ladakh region of India.

Hinduism was a primary defining feature of modern India as it was partitioned from Muslim Pakistan in 1947. The names “India” and “Hindu” both come from the same Sanskrit word for the Indus River, which runs through the Ladakh region of far northern India. Somewhat ironically, though, Ladakh is unique in India: most everyone is Buddhist – except for a few Muslims near the Pakistani border.

 

_5jc8454

A young monk serves tea as part of the early morning prayer service at Thiksey monastery in Leh, Ladakh, India.

_5jc7246

Morning prayers inside the assembly room at Rangdum Gompa in Suru Valley, Jammu & Kasmir, India.

The Buddhism practiced here bears little resemblance to the Buddhism I saw last year in Myanmar (Burma). As I described last year, Myanmar’s Theravada Buddhism is a simple philosophy and barely a religion at all. They learn to think good, peaceful thoughts and try to do good things. To the Theravadas, neither Buddha nor anyone else is divine, immortal, or supernatural. They don’t really pray; they meditate. The Burmese monks are humble and quiet, and their monasteries are modest community meeting halls. But everything Buddhist looks very different in Ladakh.

_5jc8590

The statues with 12-armed, horned, and 3-headed Buddhist “protector god” icons are kept covered in drapes.

India’s Buddhism is mostly a form of Mahayana Buddhism – sometimes called Tantric, Tibetan, or Vajrayana. The rituals are elaborate (think chants, horns, drums, and bells). The monasteries are often castle-like (indeed, some are actual former castles), their temples decked with colorful and elaborate tapestries and paintings. Worshipers prostrate themselves as they arrive. There’s a hierarchical pecking order among the cloistered monks and lamas (up to and sometimes including the powerful Dalai Llama). Prayer wheels and prayer flags are everywhere. There are idol-like statues or paintings on the temple walls of various “tantric deities” or “protector gods” – some with multiple heads, a dozen arms, horns, swords and blue skin, wearing voodoo-like human-skull-decorated hats. And that’s not even the strangest part (let’s just say there’s a good deal of unsubtle sexual symbolism). They believe in reincarnation generally, and believe that their high priests are literal reincarnations of their ancient priests. We even heard their version of an end-of-the-world apocalypse.

To most Americans and westerners, the complicated tales of how they scour the region’s villages to locate a 3-yr-old reincarnation of the supreme religious leader are hard to fathom — much less accept and believe — as are the seemingly convoluted explanations of those statues, symbols and rituals. But of course, all the themes of Christianity and Judaism that are familiar to us surely sound bizarre and ridiculous to them. As is so often true in international travel, learning about other cultures can teach you as much about your own culture as it does about the foreign one.

 

_5jc7984

This voodoo-looking Buddhist gargoyle is on the roof of Deskit monastery, overlooking the Nubra River valley in northeast India, just a few miles from Pakistan.

 

_5jc8558

Buddhism expert Dr. Khenpo Konchok “Lama Ji” Rigzen, through some of the Buddha tapestries at Thiksey Monastery in Leh, India.

_jce0607

A Buddhist chorten (monument) and prayer flags, underneath one of the 20,000+ peaks in the Suru valley. This marked our return to Buddhist territory after a day or two in the muslim region near Kargil.

_5JC7700.jpg_5JC8246.jpg_5JC8307.jpg_5JC8378.jpg_5JC8428.jpg_5JC8507.jpg_5JC8590.jpg_5JC8639.jpg_JCE0828.jpg_JCE0884.jpg_JCE0914.jpg_JCE0953.jpg_JCE1073.jpg_JCE1141.jpg_JCE1328.jpg_JCE1959.jpg_JCE3140.jpg_JCE8447.jpgJ75_9197.jpgJ75_9264.jpg

 

 

_jce4528

Late evening sun on Thiksey monastery, seen from the “Shey Palace” monastery, a former ruler’s castle near Leh, India.

 

_jce4719

Monks return from their visit to the “throne” (upper right) of His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa during the 1000-year Naropa Festival in Hemis, India.

_jce4773

 

NAROPA 1000: Once every 12 years, the Drukpa Order (a sect or denomination of Buddhism) celebrates its Naropa Festival in Hemis, just south of the small city of Leh in Ladakh.  By coincidence, I was there during part of the festival.  I missed the highlight — when His Holiness Gyalwang Drupka (this sect’s equivalent of the Dalai Lama) dons the 1000-year-old crown and jewelry of the sect’s founder, but did get to watch His Holiness receive gifts from pilgrims and deliver a long, monotone sermon. That’s him sitting on the golden throne, atop that pyramid temple.  No kidding. Somehow I stumbled into a front row position for a few minutes (with thousands of monks and worshippers up the hill behind me). It was definitely one of those moments when I pause, laugh, shake my head, and marvel at the wacky situations I’ve been getting myself in the middle of.

_JCE4667.jpg_JCE4677.jpg_JCE4699.jpg_JCE4784.jpg_JCE4789.jpg_JCE4811.jpg_JCE4841.jpg_JCE4852.jpg_JCE4878.jpg

 

Superheroes Run #4 for Child Advocates of Houston

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

“MRE Consulting presents the Child Advocates Superheroes Run, Powered by Direct Energy!”

(As always, I need to make very clear that the kids in these pictures are NOT the kids who are the beneficiaries of Child Advocates’ programs. These are some of the our young race participants who came out to support other kids not quite so lucky.)

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

The start line of the 1K portion of Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

The 4th Child Advocates Superheroes Run is in the record books. I’m proud to say it was bigger and better than ever! We had nearly 1,000 “runners” (using the term loosely in many cases) and raised over $120,000 for Child Advocates.

The costumes get better (and more plentiful) every year. Every superhero you’ve ever heard of and lots that you probably haven’t. And for reasons I can’t fully explain at a “Superheroes” event, there were cows and alligators and goldfish and beauty queens, too! That big orange Child Advocates arch was new this year. (It was donated, so the cost doesn’t come out of CAI operating or sponsor funds.)
Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

 

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

 

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

I’m proud to have been the Chairman of the event since its inception four years ago.  As I’ve said before, that means mostly that my generous friends get their arms twisted to donate.  A huge, special thanks to all the friends who let that happen.  I don’t actually get to run in the race, but this year I wore a GPS tracking watch, which told me I’d run/jog/walked 7.5 just running around and organizing all the activities!

Each year (2013, 2014, 2015), I’ve made a short pitch in this blog to explain why I think CAI is an especially worthwhile charity. Forgive me if you’ve heard some of this before:

    • CAI helps kids in our own hometown who are in desperate situations through no conceivable fault of their own.
    • CAI’s one-time intervention seeks to permanently and efficiently solve problems and affect the kids’ entire lives, without creating dependency or requiring permanent or ongoing assistance.
    • CAI’s cause is financially undersupported, largely because few potential large donors have close personal experience with, or risks of, this kind of extreme child neglect or abuse. There’s nothing wrong with donating to your own alma mater or church, or to charities addressing diseases that affect you or your family, but that can leave a huge gap for charities like Child Advocates. I think this is true philanthropy.

If you or anyone you know is willing to volunteer, donate, or become an advocate, let me know at jeff@jeffcotner.com.

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

Shane Merz, partner in the Race’s founding and “Presenting” sponsor MRE Consulting, grabbed the megaphone and welcomed racers across the finish line.

_JCE5770.jpg_JCE6317.jpg_JCE6378.jpg_JCE6077.jpg_JCE5969.jpg_JCE5789.jpg_JCE6573.jpg_JCE5856.jpg_JCE5851.jpg_JCE6025.jpg_JCE6034.jpg_JCE5993.jpg_JCE6375.jpg_JCE5784.jpg_JCE5779.jpg_JCE6009.jpg_JCE6461.jpg_JCE6202.jpg

The first 3 pics on the second row were our fastest man, fastest woman, and fastest “kid” in the 5k.

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

Child Advocates Superheroes Run 2016

CLICK HERE to see LOTS more pictures

 

Crown of Palaces: The Taj Mahal in Agra, India

 

If you get up early in Agra, skip the most popular viewpoints near the reflecting pools, and hurry around to the west side by the Yamuna River, you can find yourself mostly alone, watching the sun rise over the Taj Mahal, with the world’s most famously beautiful building seemingly all to yourself.

 

_5jc5890

_5jc5912-hdr

_5jc6137

 

_5jc6171

Muslim Mughal emperor Shah Jahan built the white marble “Taj” in the 1600s as a mausoleum and memorial for his favorite wife (and mother of 14 of his kids).  A probably-apocryphal legend says Shah Jahan planned to build a similar black marble Taj directly across the river as his own eternal resting place. But it’s tough being a Mughal emperor, and one of his sons took over and sent Jahan to a far less glorious prison cell for his final days.  The Shah’s final tomb is wedged into the Taj beside his wife, the only thing asymmetrical in the whole place.

“Taj Mahal” means “crown of palaces,” reflecting Jahan’s intent to make it the fanciest place in the world. The signs say he spent around a billion inflation-adjusted U.S. dollars on it, and from the perspective of a visitor 400 years hence, that was a billion bucks well spent.

 

 

_5jc5627

 

 

 

_5jc5755-hdr

_5jc6036-hdr

 

_5jc5995-hdr

The red out-building to the west — from which some of these pictures were taken — is still treated as a mosque (no shoes allowed), though the identical red building to the east is not.   If you put booties over your shoes, you can go up on the balconies of the Taj itself, which is a fine spot, but the best views are “of” the Taj, not “from” it. Unfortunately, there was some maintenance work going on when I was there – thus the scaffolding on the east side and on two of the minarets.

 

 

 

_jce7145

 

_jce7493

I also visited the Agra Fort across town. It’s an interesting complex, but the only real photo opportunities there were its hazy views of the Taj Mahal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

+ + + + + + + +

 

A final Agra amusement: I knew the days ahead in northern India would include more than a few nights in cold tents and without showers, so I’d decided to spring for an unusually nice room for the two nights in Agra, with a balcony that overlooked the Taj Mahal complex. The place must’ve been nearly full (or nearly empty?) because they instead upgraded me to a ridiculously lavish top-floor suite with two big balconies, seating for 18, and Taj views even from its glass shower and bath tub. A further amusement was that most of the hotel staff had no idea that I was in Suite 512 only through a flukish free upgrade, so they treated me like a Maharaja! They also let me know that Prince William and Kate Middleton had been in the same suite in April when they were in town.  Pictures of the hotel, and of or from my snazzy suite at the Oberois Amarvilas Agra:

 

_5JC5601.jpg_5JC5590.jpg_5JC5602.jpg_5JC5581.jpg_5JC5584.jpg_JCE7272.jpg_JCE7277.jpg_JCE7271.jpg_JCE7268.jpg

 

Hauling Ass In Leadville

A preliminary shout-out and photo credit to MIKE SHORT, photographer for all these pictures.  Also: For the record, I’ve limited myself to just one “ass” pun per paragraph.

J75_7774

Me with Beethoven just after the start, in downtown Leadville, Colorado

You’ve probably heard the phrase about a “rented mule.” Well, my new buddy Beethoven was actually a rented burro (a.k.a. donkey; a.k.a. “ass”). They don’t allow any of those half-ass mules in the Leadville Boom Days Pack Burro Race.

 

J75_7826

I was a rookie to the event, so I didn’t exactly get first pick of available teammates. The ass I got handed to me was named Beethoven. He was once a wild burro running free on federal land, and his track record as a racing burro wasn’t good: last place in Leadville a year ago; second-to-last in a similar event just week ago (each time in a field of a few dozen racers). His 2015 Leadville results got him the dubious Last Ass Over the Pass award, and resulted in a 2016 rule change limiting the time allowed. Pessimistic, I opted for the shorter course and steeled myself for a long day. Even the “short” course is 15 miles, and it climbs up to 12,000 feet elevation. It didn’t surprise me a bit that our assigned race number was 13.

 

J75_7977

I’d done some homework – even a couple of hours of donkey-whisperer lessons from Bill Lee (the Santa Claus looking guy in one of the pictures). The trick to burro racing with an ass like Beethoven is to remember that donkeys are herd animals. Try to head off by yourself and things will go poorly. Group up with a handful of other burro teams going at a decent pace and you might – might – have some success.   So I put my ass on the line for a fast start, and tried to coax him into the thick of the action.

J75_7718

The rules say you can lead, push, pull or even carry your burro – but he can’t carry you. As the pictures reflect, the humans run along on their own power. Sometimes you lead the burro from the front, sometimes you “drive” from behind, and sometimes you just find yourself in a tug-of-war battle-of-wills. I covered my ass (as the rules require) with a 33-pound packsaddle equipped with a shovel, pick and prospector’s pan as a fun tribute to the traditional roots of the sport and the Colorado mining region.

An amusing part of the rental agreement was that I would have to split any prize money with Beethoven’s owners. Unsurprisingly, that provision was of no relevance, but Beethoven and I actually did okay. The little ass only kicked me once; we had a prompt come-to-donkey-Jesus discussion about that and seemed to get along mostly fine for the rest of the day.  There was a lot of slow trudging, but occasionally I’d get my ass in gear and we’d run like a well-oiled machine. Brad Wann (Beethoven’s owner) has an email tagline that says that once you’ve tried burro racing, it’s “hard to walk away.” Several of the other racers I spoke to actually talked about being “hooked” on the sport. I guess it’s a little like golf – hours of frustration punctuated by a few brief moments when everything comes together perfectly.

J75_7971

The race starts and ends in downtown Leadville, and loops up into the mountains east of town.  There were 30 human/burro teams at the start for the 15-mile short-course race, though a couple of them apparently never got past the first couple of blocks. Beethoven and I spent most of the day running and herding alongside a guy (in sandals) named Pat Sweeney and his burro Mr. Ziffer. (It turns out that Pat is sort of famous in the ultra trail running world).  After helping one another all day, we had a final, awkward “drag race” up Leadville’s main street, Harrison Avenue. Beethoven and I finished about # 16 out 30 teams.  Next year we’ll do better.

 

J75_8069

The burros’ skittishness about the crowd and noise made for an awkward, slow-motion finish back in downtown Leadville.

J75_7714.jpgJ75_7766.jpgJ75_7832.jpgJ75_7834.jpgJ75_7990.jpgJ75_8075.jpgJ75_8092.jpgJ75_8112.jpgJ75_8118.jpgJ75_8146.jpg

J75_8147

My mom and dad, Joyce and JB Cotner, with me after the race. I’m sure they’ve never been prouder.