Category Archives: Other

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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Double Ironman trip: South Africa and Taiwan (via Hong Kong and Macau): But there’s still so much to be done

My Ironman trip around the world — with Scott Humphries and Shane Merz.  Imagine getting the chance to spend almost three weeks circling the globe with a couple of your best friends — yukking it up, exploring two continents, and — oh yes — doing two Ironman triathlons without coming home in between.

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Hong Kong at Night, from Kowloon looking south.  A stopover after Ironman South Africa and before Ironman Taiwan.

 

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Shark Rock Pier, Nelson Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

 

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Scott Humphries, me, and Shane Merz in Hong Kong.

 

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Kenting, Taiwan. The last few steps of the six-continents Ironman plan.

IRONMAN PANGEA: SIX CONTINENTS. Some years ago, after finishing our first Ironman (in Brazil), my friends (Scott Humphries, Shane Merz) and I got the bright idea to complete an Ironman triathlon on every continent. The quest required a couple of trips to Europe, retreated briefly to Ironman Texas, and made a trek to Scott’s native Australia. There isn’t actually such an event in Antarctica, so we were down to two remaining continents — Africa and Asia.   Someone (me, I fear) got the further bright idea that we should finish off those two continents with two back-to-back races, in a single two-week period without coming home in between: Ironman South Africa (in Port Elizabeth), then the inaugural Ironman Taiwan (in Kenting, the tropical southern tip of Taiwan).

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Scott celebrating his Taiwan finish

 

COLUMBUS WAS RIGHT – OR WAS IT GALILEO? OR…PYTHAGORAS?:  I knew this already, but for the first time I was able to verify for myself that the Earth is round. We left Houston headed eastbound toward South Africa, then eventually got home via Hong Kong, and Taipei from the west.   There were nine flight legs in all, plus a bus, a couple of ferries, a handful of trains, five hotels, and more taxis and shuttle vans than I could count. The logistical absurdity of the adventure required schlepping 100 pounds each of triathlon gear (bicycles, cases, wetsuits, etc.) literally around the world.

 

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Shane on the bike in Taiwan

IRON AGE MATH: L = M50-54. Competitions like this are done in age and gender groupings – usually five-year gaps like M (Men) 30-34 (years old), M35-39, and so on. So sixty-year-old females (F60-64) compete against one another – not really against 25-year-old (M25-29) men — although we’re all on the same course at the same time.   For this purpose, you are considered to be whatever age you BECOME during the calendar year. So even if you don’t turn 30 until November, you’re treated as being 30 all year long.

August 2015 will bring a very round-numbered birthday for me, so I was in the “M50-54” age group. Gulp. Seeing “The Big 5-0” associated with my name for the first time was a little startling, but seeing it in this context took some of the sting off.  In fact I’d be more proud of those race finishes if I were, for example, M70-74. (I sometimes claim to be 82 years old because – modesty aside – I look pretty good for an 82-year-old.) Besides, the 50-year old group is often just as fast as even much younger men; the patience and wisdom to pace one’s self is a strong virtue in such events.

I think I’m going to use the more elegant Roman numeral, “L” to denote my age (Come August, that is. I’m still XLIX for another couple of months, thankyouverymuch).

 

20150326_153228_resizedWHO CAN GO THE DISTANCE? WE’LL FIND OUT, IN THE LONG RUN: The races themselves? An Ironman event is a 2.4 mile offshore ocean swim, a 112 mile bike race, then a 26.2 mile (marathon distance) run – all in one day with just 5 minutes or so in between to change your shoes. It usually takes us around 13 hours – starting at sunrise and usually finishing in the dark. The hilly South African bike course was especially brutal (imagine mixing 5,000 feet of vertical climb and nasty winds into those mileages), but at least the area’s much-discussed great white sharks resisted the allure of the nearly 2,000 black-wetsuit-clad swimmers out in Nelson Mandela Bay. (Before the start, the race announcer told us we might be “lucky” enough to see dolphins swimming near us in the bay, so we should look for their dorsal fins. I had a mild suspicion that this was an ingenious fib to prevent widespread panic should anyone spot a shark out there making an otherwise-harmless appearance.)

Taiwan was hot but less windy, and the water was crystal clear for our South China Sea swim. Most important, we all finished both events in good health and even better spirits. The Continental Ironman Quest is complete!

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Shane and Scott at the Big Buddha just outside Hong Kong.

 

GOOD FRIENDS, GOOD HEALTH,  AND GOOD FORTUNE: There’s no way any of this intercontinental athletic foolishness would ever be happening (for me) without my two very close friends Scott Humphries and Shane Merz. (You’ve surely heard these names before, e.g., here and here and here . . . ). It does not escape my notice that Scott and Shane have jobs, wives, and kids. How they pull this off, I do not know.  We did a lot of philosophizing during the trek — maybe we were influenced by the those big meditating Buddhas?  One overarching observation:  we were extraordinarily fortunate to have good health and good friends, together with the ability, the means and the freedom to roam and see the world in a way only a tiny fraction of earth’s inhabitants have done through all of its history.

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Evening in Hong Kong

 

JIMMY BUFFETT GETS INVOLVED:  Our Ironman-related travels had already taken us to some amazing places:  Zurich, Rio, Sydney, Germany, the Caribbean, Hawaii and more. This time, we had a week to mostly “kill” between the two races – mixing some sightseeing in among short workouts to stay in shape. We spent four days in Hong Kong and two in Macau, China (a former Portuguese colony with Las Vegas-sized casinos where we watched a guy playing US$100,000 hands of Baccarat).

We rode from Hong Kong island to Macau (on the Chinese mainland) via the high-speed express ferry; we chuckled that it was a “fast boat to China.”  That phrase is a line from Jimmy Buffett song, “Last Mango in Paris.”   In the song, a man reminisces to Buffett about his life of international adventures, then finishes, “But Jimmy, there’s still so much to be done.” I adopted the phrase as a motto of the trip.

This is the year I turn L years old. The six-continents Ironman quest is complete — but there’s still so much to be done.

 

 

Mandalay, Myanmar: Maha Muni and more

The last of a dozen or so posts from a long stay in Burma. The first was here.

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Only males can approach the golden Maha Muni Buddha in Mandalay. It’s one of just a handful of Buddha statues actually cast during the human Buddha’s lifetime. Supposedly Buddha himself gave it a hug, and some Buddhists think his soul lives on in there. It’s one of their most sacred relics, so it’s especially odd that even the most devout and dutiful Buddhist women of Mandalay are never allowed to go into the chamber and see it up close, while a non-believing American male was free to wander up, take some pictures, hang out, touch the statue, and more.

 

When you go up on the platform, the custom is that you take some pieces of gold leaf and press them onto the statute. That’s what all those wart-like bumps are on Buddha’s body: gold! The individual sheets gold leaf is so thin they’re hard to handle; you can buy a few tiny sheets (bigger than a postage stamp) for a couple of bucks. But the centuries of pilgrims adding gold to the Buddha have made its body a barely-recognizable blob. I pressed myself back against the side walls to try for better photographs, then dutifully pressed my slivers of gold leaf onto big Buddha’s shoulder and headed down the stairs.

 

Though the semi-belief that the statue is “alive” with Buddha’s soul inside mostly conflicts with Theravada Buddhist teaching, the monks nonetheless brush the thing’s teeth and wash its face once a day. Can’t hurt, right?  At a minimum, surely it’s good karma.

 

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Burma has been governed for decades by a fairly oppressive military junta, so my perceptions of their army were anything but kind and gentle. It was striking, then, to see this soldier spending his day off and some of his surely-modest salary to bring a tiny handful of flowers as an offering to the Maha Muni. He was also nice enough to stand still for a photograph.

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Even the local craft and industry revolved around Buddha. Just a few blocks from Maha Muni was Marble Street – home to dozens of businesses and hundreds of craftsmen dedicated to carving, polishing and selling Buddha statues out of big chunks of marble. Junior craftsmen carved the bodies, leaving the carving of the face for a master artist to do later – thus the blockhead Buddhas you see in the pictures.

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The Shwe ba Daung (aka Po Win Daung; aka Pho Win Daung) caves are a couple of hours west of Mandalay (a little west of Monywa, the place where we left our boat on the Chindwin), but my photography of the caves didn’t seem to warrant a blog post all their own.   There are hundreds of caves in the complex – large and small – most with big carved stone Buddhas and many with elaborately painted walls. They’re mostly 400 to 800 years old. Those Buddhas were carved in place (they’re bigger than the caves’ doorways): the cave-diggers just left the existing stone in place in the shape of the Buddhas and carved out the open space of the caves around it.

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I packed my camera bags after seeing the sun set at U Bein bridge in Mandalay, so that’s my final image from a great photography trip to Burma.

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