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Iran: Kashan

My trip through Iran included a little bit of everything: from ancient ruins and nomadic shepherds to a ride on the Tehran subway and a weird visit to the former U.S. Embassy.  Lots of blue tiled buildings, lots of desert, and lots of eggplant and chicken kebabs with rice. Some fun and lovely sites and stories; some wacky experiences. I even came home with a couple of real Persian rugs. The small city of Kashan was actually the last stop of my trip around Iran, but the pictures are handiest so I’ll start at the end.

Agha Bozorgh Mosque and school. From the back (near the volleyball court!).

Agha Bozorgh Mosque and school. From the back (near the volleyball court!).

People have lived in what’s now the Iranian city of Kashan for 8,000 years, making it one of the oldest known human settlements. It’s been a hub for royals and merchants for at least 2,000. By some accounts, it’s where one or more of the biblical “three wise men” of the nativity came from. Kashan’s location on the historical Silk Road network allowed the merging of Asian silk with Persian wool rug-making skill.  Lots of VIPs have come through Kashan.  Now I have, too.

Unfortunately, a 1778 earthquake mostly leveled the place, so most of the structures you see around town are “only” a couple of hundred years old.  That photogenic two-level mosque is Agha Bozorg, built shortly after the earthquake.During the 1800s, the local mega-merchants built some sprawling, luxurious private homes so they could host their travelling merchant business associates in grand style. One of those old houses had been remade into my very snazzy hotel, which was a welcome respite after a couple of weeks that had included multiple nights on a mat on the floor — or in an open-sided tent in the desert.  More on that later.

Like most Iranian men, this guy's name was Ali. He's wearing black to commemorate the two-month mourning period for Imam Hussain, a descendant of Muhammed who died a hero 1300 years ago. Ali spoke perfect English and was eager to give this American a quick tour of the shrine of Sultan Amir Ahmad, another descendant of Muhammed.

Like most Iranian men (half-kidding), this guy’s name was Ali. He’s wearing black to commemorate the two-month mourning period for Imam Hussain, a descendant of Muhammed who died a hero 1300 years ago. Ali spoke perfect English and was eager to give this American a quick tour of the shrine of Sultan Amir Ahmad, another descendant of Muhammed.  He also asked if I’d pose with him for a selfy (so I got one, too).

 

Agha Bozorg at night

Agha Bozorgh, just after dark

 

Abbas told me about his family in the U.S. and said his neighbor in Kashan was somehow related to the Sultan Amir Amad (whose neon-lit shrine is in the background). Abbas insisted that I join him for hot tea. That led to meeting the other elderly gentlemen shown in some of the pictures below.

Abbas told me about his family in the U.S. and said his neighbor in Kashan was somehow related to the Sultan Amir Amad (whose neon-lit shrine is in the background). Abbas insisted that I join him for hot tea. That led to meeting the other elderly gentlemen shown in some of the pictures below.

 

The old Hamam (bathhouse).

Inside the Amir Ahmad  Hamam (bathhouse).

 

Artsy, huh? This is the pond atop a natural spring well at Fin Garden in Kashan.

Artsy, huh? This is the pond atop a natural spring well at Fin Garden in Kashan.

 

Seriously, this is the courtyard of my hotel.

This is the courtyard of my hotel.  I’ll bet you weren’t expecting something this nice in a small Iranian town.

 

 

 

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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Panama Canal

If you want to get a boat from the Pacific Ocean to the western Atlantic or Caribbean, you can brave the three-week trip around Cape Horn at the bottom of South America — or you can spend one sunny day in the Panama Canal. Big cargo ships pay $100,000 or more to get through; it cost me about 200 bucks.

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It’s easy to get turned around in Panama.   My Panama City hotel room window looked east onto the Pacific Ocean. A hundred miles due west of me was the Atlantic (Caribbean) coastline. The highway route to North America heads southwest out of the City, and the flight to the nearest major South American airport heads northeast to Cartagena, Colombia. If you travel the Panama Canal from Pacific to Atlantic (as I did), you go mostly north-northwest.

 

The history and identity of the region arises mostly from that tiny distance – as little as 40 miles — between its two coasts. Spanish control dates from the 1513 crossing by Spaniard Vasco Balboa, who became the first European to see the Pacific coast in the New World. In the early 1800s, the “Isthmus Department” was a part of Gran Colombia after Simon Bolivar led their collective split from Spain. By the turn of the 20th Century, Colombia was in civil war. Panama was able to declare its independence thanks to an agreement with the United States, which effectively created both the Panama Canal and Panama itself. The U.S. committed to provide military assistance and protection for an independent Panama, and Panama gave the U.S. the right to build and control the Canal – all “in perpetuity.”

 

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Big ships like this have only a foot or two of clearance on each side of the locks. Those train-like “mules” on the side walls pull and guide the ships through.

 

A French group had attempted a canal before, in the late 1800s. Their plan was a sea-level passage – a simpler design that wouldn’t need locks but which failed because it required way too much digging. Twenty-thousand people died in the French construction attempt.

 

J75_5578The U.S.-built canal has six pairs of locks – three up and three down — that raise boats to an elevation of 85 feet for most of the passage then lower them to the opposite ocean. The physics are driven by the good fortune of a major river (fed by seasonal tropical rainfall) in the middle of the isthmus. It’s dammed to make a huge lake, and water flows out in both directions – into both the Pacific and Atlantic – filling the locks along the way. The locks are in pairs to allow two-way traffic.

U.S. control of the Canal Zone lasted 65 years, from its completion in 1914 until 1979, when Jimmy Carter gave it (and the adjacent U.S. military bases) to Panama. From America’s perspective, the controversial (curious?) politics of that decision looked worse in hindsight: within a few years, Panama was a military dictatorship with drug-trafficking General Manuel Noriega running the country. By 1989, the U.S. had to send troops to oust Noriega, stabilize the country, and preserve the availability and integrity of the Canal.

 

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Today, Panama seems to be doing well, thanks in no small part to the revenues of the canal. As our boat guide said, if you come to Panama expecting a third-world country, you’ve come to the wrong place. The skyline of downtown Panama City looks like Miami Beach. Donald Trump has a big hotel and casino here. The main highways are in great shape, and I jogged one of the most impressive running paths (a two-mile bridge looping around Casco Antiguo) I’ve ever seen. This was not one of my off-the-beaten-path adventures.

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The Canal – aging though it is – is still considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.  Its hundred-year-old gates swing dozens of times a day to connect the world’s two largest oceans.   A new, larger set of locks is under construction for the canal, but the effort seems to be half-complete and floundering in delays.

 

My own coast-to-coast passage was a bit on the touristy side – narrated in three languages, with lots of selfies, bad food, and Panama hats. We saw towering ships loom above us – some with 3,000+ cars inside, others carrying nearly 1,000 semi-truck-sized containers each, still others full of LPG and grain. The trip was long and slow: we shoved off early into Pacific saltwater and docked after sunset in a Caribbean harbor. I wouldn’t have missed it, but was glad I brought a book (and a hat, and sunscreen, and snacks).

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Bagan, Burma: Temples, Monks, Balloons & Fractals

On my first morning in Bagan, I watched the sun rise from one of those balloons; the next day I watched the balloons go by from the top of one of those big temples.

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One of the dozens of hot air balloons that fly every morning over Bagan, viewed from atop the 950-year-old Shwesandaw Pagoda.

 

The Burmese City of Bagan was the capital of the Kingdom of Pagan* in the 9th to 13th Centuries.   The people of Pagan built several thousand Buddhist temples and monuments (“stupas”), some smallish and some reaching nearly 20 stories tall. The Mongols (a “horde” of them, no doubt) overran Pagan in the late 1200s. Happily, though, they left the Buddhist monuments largely intact, so thousands of them survive even today.

 

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Many Bagan monuments are solid “stupas,” but many are hollow temples like this one, usually with Buddha statues inside. There are thousands of them; I’m not sure this smallish one even has a name.

 

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Some of the young monks you see in Buddhist cultures are orphans, who live and go to school at places like the Shwe Gu orphanage and monastery in Bagan.

 

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A “fractal” is something with repeating patterns at different scales, so that if you “zoom in” on it, it still tends to look the same. Picture a stock market chart: A typical ten-year chart often looks about like a typical one week chart or a typical one-hour chart. The fractal-like shape of an ocean coastline can look much the same whether you trace the outline of a 100-yard stretch, a 10-mile stretch, or a 1,000-mile stretch. The temples at Bagan made me think of fractals. If you take a broad view, you see huge temples dotting the landscape. But zoom in and you’ll see a similar patterns of smaller temples filling in the gaps.  Similarly, the enormous scale of these monuments is all the more impressive when you see the tiny, intricate detail painted on the interior walls of many of the temples.

 

* As best I can tell, the Asian kingdom of “Pagan” has nothing to do with the “pagan” gods or practices of, e.g., the ancient Romans.