Category Archives: Travel

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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

 

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

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

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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.

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

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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:

 

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South Dakota’s Spring Cattle Branding

NOTE to South Dakota Folks: CLICK HERE for full set of pics.

Late spring is “branding” season in South Dakota. A local rancher who caught a ride with us to one of the calf branding events called them “celebrations.” The cold winter is over and the year’s crop of calves are a couple of months old and in need of vaccines, brands, and more. The whole community works together almost daily, with all the local ranch families taking turns helping one another. It’s both hard, serious work and social event. Notice in the pictures how often people are smiling.

The fire, ropes, needles and knives look harsh to the uninitiated – and I surely wouldn’t want to be one of the calves. But the health of the cattle is a major purpose of the process. A veterinarian was on site at all times. Every one of the hundreds of calves I saw hopped up and scurried spryly back to its mom as soon as its short ordeal was done.

 

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South Dakota rancher, Tom Trask

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Emily Linn (right) takes a turn wrestling the front end of a calf during a branding on the Trask’s Spanish Five Ranch.

 

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Justin Namken, the sole non-family-member “hired hand” on the Spanish Five Ranch.

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            Here’s how the branding process works: The cattle – usually a few hundred pairs (mother and calf) at a time – have been gathered in advance into a single section of pasture. On the morning of the branding, the first hour or two is spent herding them all into a set of pens. Next, the cows are separated from the calves, generally by horsemen urging the adult cows one by one through a gate while a handful of sorters (on foot) push the calves in a different direction. Most of the attention will be on the calves, but the cows may also be sent through separate chutes to get vaccines or other treatments. Batches of 150 or so calves go into a medium sized roping pen adjacent to the branding area – which is set up at the edge of the big pasture.

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A minor glitch in the process of sorting moms from babies.

            Three or four mounted ropers go in and out of the calf pen, roping calves by their hind legs and then dragging them out one at a time. Pairs of “wrestlers” (mostly teenagers and younger men) take each calf. One grabs the roped rear legs; the other grabs the tail and shifts quickly to the head. With a swift and skillful yank, they flip the calf onto its side, hold it down legs splayed, and release the rope so the roper can go get another.

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            Now things really start to happen: people converge on the calf like a pit crew on an Indy car. Two give shots containing multiple vaccines. Others apply treatments for worms, flies and ticks. Another person walks up to crop an ear. If the calf is male, someone with a sharp knife deftly castrates it – an operation that takes about 20 seconds and produces surprisingly little blood. Preschool-aged kids follow the castrators, carrying the self-explanatory “nut buckets.” An antiseptic foam is sprayed on the incision site. Depending on the breed, the calf may be de-horned (by burning the budding nubs of horn using small irons similar to the branding irons). And of course, there’s the brand itself: just an old-fashioned piece of red-hot metal that burns the hair and scars the skin. Between calves, most of the crowd have a beer or two from the cooler – which is usually in a pickup bed next to the laden nut buckets.

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A “nut bucket.”

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Tom Trask owns around 20,000 acres next to the Cheyenne River east of Rapid City. He and his sons lease several thousand more, for a total of nearly 50 square miles of land. His brother Pat’s ranch is just to the north; his cousin Todd’s place is just to the south. Tom got much of his land from his dad, whose U.S. Army uniform is hung proudly in Tom’s home.

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Mark Trask (My apologies to his brother, Mick, and sister Tomilyn, for whom I failed to get good portraits).

 

If you imagine life on a rural ranch as serene or simple, you should spend a few days with the Trasks. The most striking aspect of my visit was the remarkable array of skills and knowledge required to run a huge ranch like this. They can do an emergency bovine C-section, battle weevils on their hay crop, raise bees to pollenate their alfalfa, train horses for roping, milk cows, build their own houses, weld broken tractor parts back together, recommend the perfect ammo for prairie dog eradication, and drive a pickup through a muddy field without getting stuck. It should tell you something that the one “hired hand” on Tom Trask’s cattle ranch has two college degrees: one in animal (livestock) science; the other in “range” (grazing land) science. They dig 75 million year-old fossils from the creek for extra money. They host paid deer hunts in the fall, and can butcher the venison onsite and do the taxidermy work to mount the trophy.

 

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Todd Trask

 

South Dakota winters are biting cold, the summers are scorching, and blistering spring winds don’t allow much relief in between. The work is hard and the hours are long. Around huge animals and farm machinery, the risks of accidents and injuries are a routine part of life. I overheard one conversation about which kind of tractor would be most easily operated by a young woman with a devastating farm injury that left her with very limited use of her legs. These folks are tough and resilient.

 

The county sheriff’s office is about an hour and a half away in Sturgis. As in other areas of their lives, the folks here view it as their responsibility to take care of themselves and of their own families, and they’re ready to do so. There are a lot of guns, and people know how to handle them. They say they have very little crime out here. {Note: They’re right.  South Dakota’s homicide rate ranks #44 among states; its gun ownership rate ranks #4.}

 

The folks here are hardworking, loyal, patriotic, and proud – and I think they’d consider those descriptions to be the highest of compliments. In the last few years, I’ve been on six continents and met fascinating people in exotic cultures, but the lives and lifestyles in a down-home and close-to-home place like South Dakota are every bit as interesting and in many ways probably far more relevant for other Americans to appreciate and understand. These folks will vote in the same elections and will have to live by most of the same laws as people from New York City and Washington D.C., and yet each group often has only a faint caricatured picture of one another’s worlds.

 

My dad and I were in South Dakota in late May and early June. The weather cycled between rainy, chilly, windy, and hot. We stayed in a modest small-town Best Western, and the local Subway and Dairy Queen were the best restaurants in town. Yet it was one of my favorite trips ever. Getting to know the Trasks was a real treat.

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A multigenerational “pit crew” descends on a calf (under there somewhere) as Rob Powell pulls the Spanish Five branding iron from the fire. That’s Mick Trask in the camo cap, holding down the head.

 

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Tyler Trask with an “it’ll do” roping result: this time catching just one leg.

 

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Calf roping is an equal-opportunity and co-ed endeavor. Kelly Anders seemed to be one of the best ropers in the county.

 

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Mick’s daughter, Annie.

 

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Lunch

 

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That’s my dad below (green hat) with Todd Trask.  He met Todd and Tom 20+ years ago when they were all hanging out together in the mountains of southern Colorado.  That’s me (orange vest) with my calf-wrestling buddy/instructor Matthew, who works up at Pat Trask’s ranch. (I didn’t catch the name of the photo-bomber).  Matthew taught me how NOT to get kicked in the face by a calf as you restrain its rear legs. It’s harder than you might think. Actually — restraining a 150-pound calf while it’s being castrated is probably exactly as difficult and awkward as it sounds.

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CLICK HERE FOR MORE SOUTH DAKOTA 2016 BRANDING WEEK IMAGES 

 

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The big sign in the “middle” of Elm Springs, South Dakota gives directions to all the community’s homes. (For example, 3E 1N means you drive three miles to the east, then 1 mile north).

Cartagena: Caribbean, Colonial Colombia

The movie “Romancing the Stone” was set in and around Cartagena, Colombia. Viewers were introduced to a tropical country full of emeralds and bad guys. Another lasting impression: Michael Douglas taught America to mispronounce “Cartagena” – putting a “NYuh” sound as the last syllable rather than the simple (correct) “Nuh.”

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Old Town, “Centro,” in Cartagena Columbia.

 

_5JC5076Cartagena is on Colombia’s northern coast, in the southwest corner of the Caribbean Sea.  Much like Havana (Cuba), San Juan (Puerto Rico), and St. Augustine (Florida), the walled colonial city, guarded by seaside forts, was built by the Spaniards to anchor and protect their trading and shipping empire in the 1500s to 1700s. In that era, Spain controlled much of what is now northwestern South America – modern-day Venezuela, Peru, Colombia and Ecuador where they still speak Spanish even today.  But the eastern part of South America – the part most directly accessible from Europe – was controlled by the Portuguese (Brazil) and by the French, Dutch, and Brits (the Guyanas). So Spain’s primary access to its South American empire was from the north, through the Caribbean port at Cartagena.

 

Nowadays, Cartagena is probably the most “visitable” city in Colombia. Cruise ships stop here, there are dozens of nice hotels and upscale restaurants, and old town Cartagena’ colonial architecture and Spanish fortifications are great for sightseeing.

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One of the many stunning murals on alley walls in Getsemani, Cartagena, Colombia.

_5JC4463The amazing wall murals (and the crazy night-time crowd scenes) are in a neighborhood called Getsemani (“HET-seh-MAH-nee”). Named for the biblical garden (“Gethsemane”) – it was, until recently, a rough place, full of some conspicuously un-holy activities. But like much of Colombia, it’s been cleaned up (literally and figuratively) dramatically in the last decade.

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A festive tradition: throwing corn meal on people. It took some negotiation to get a few pictures without them dousing me (and my camera).

It was Cartagena Independence Day weekend, and as we wandered around a church square in Getsemani one day, a guy named Ramone told us there’d be a “fiesta” there that night, with dancing.  I naively envisioned choreographed and costumed Carnival-like holiday spectacle. That night we found a few thousand people crowded around tiny Plaza Santisima Trinidad; their primary activities were recklessly throwing firecrackers into the crowd, and squirting each other with giant shaving-cream cans rigged to spray 20 feet or so. With minor exception, it was all friendly and fun. My camera only got soaked once; it wiped right off.

 

 

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Celebrating Cartegena Independence weekend in Plaza Santisima Trinidad in Getsemani. Not surprisingly, I was unable to keep my camera dry.

 

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By taking these guys’ picture (and joining them in one shot of their rum), I was able to avoid having corn meal rubbed on my head (like they were doing to each other).

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Since I had a camera-toting buddy on this trip, I get to include a couple of pictures OF me.  Thanks (and photo credit) to Grant Harvey – a long-time friend, one of my G&B law partners, and now a fellow photographer!  That’s Grant in the hat (and yes, he enjoyed the humor of a hat that screamed “tourista”!)

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