18 September 2008

All That It Was and Could Be

I have said farewell to the Himalaya. Here's the view from the plane.

But there were three weeks before I left, three weeks in which I moved by motorcycle, bicycle, jeep, bus, and again happily and humbly as a pedestrian. I hit 6 high mountain passes, awed at three high altitude lakes, and clicked over a 1000 pictures. There were endangered species sighted, extraordinary people met, and somewhere along the way all that this Himalayan adventure was and could be was realized. I hope this selection of pictures and whatever aphorism I can offer helps communicate the experiences these mystic mountains gave me.

Spiti had one last surprise for me before I could start my motorcycle ride to Leh. The visit of the Rinpoche Lama to Kaza brought people in from the outside villages to line the streets and wait for him.

This woman waits with a "kahtee" cloth, an offering to the coming high lama.

And this was the scene for a few hundred yards up and down the road from Kaza's temple until the Rinpoche arrived: dressed in their best, offerings in hand, and waiting patiently they'd recieve their honored guest.

My landlord Nataji would play an important role for the day. He went out early in the morning to meet the Rinpoche at the Kunjum La, the pass and official entrance to Spiti Valley, to have the red cloth in his hand blessed by the lama. This special cloth will be kept in the Kaza's new monestary.

The Rinpoche passes through the fog of incense smoke on his entrance to the temple.

It was the first time I'd seen hats like these.

The guest of honor. That such venerated Lamas can be so young will always be something that puzzles many of us about Buddhism.

My host's wife, my Spiti Amma, also played an important role in the welcoming by dawning traditional clothes and performing a traditional dance. After seeing some traditional dances performed for non-traditional reasons, I felt really lucky to see dance on an authentic occasion.

The next day the drive to Leh, in the Kashmir region of India, commenced; although I reached Leh only four days later, it was my longest and most epic motorcycle ride through the Himalaya. There are five high passes between Kaza and Leh, some good sections of road but mostly very bad, and non-stop gorgeous scenery.

A local bus reaches the pass at Kunjum La on its way to Spiti Valley as I leave. To the left many prayer flags flutter in the constant wind, and the bus kicks up dust to a background of glacier; the bus stops for a moment here for local people to pay respect, and for foreigners to collect their rattled bones.

I spent my first night of the ride camped at Chandra Tal, or "Moon Lake", a small but high (4,300 meters) puddle of serenity. Taking a rare moment to look away from the Lake's waters I took this picture of grazing horses.

Early morning stillness.

And late morning colors: earth water and sky at Chandra Tal.

Back on the road for the roughest section: between Losar and Keylong the road goes over large, loose rocks, rough gravel, mud, through knee deep water, along cliffs, via active landslides, and is, in a general way, ominous and uncomfortable.

Self portrait from the road.

This picture symbolizes the end of The Day of Four Passes, as I refer to it in my journal. Having ridden all day I reached this pass, the Taglang La (5,300 meters) at about 6:00PM, cold and tired, but it was beautiful to be up here in evening, and satisfying to have packed so much into one full, bursting, epic day. I arrived in Leh the next day dusty and tired; happy.

Leh was a very welcoming place with an easy balance of culture and comfort that make it easy to see why it's become such a popular tourist destination. Endlessly picturesque pathways along trickling channeled water, the imposing palace looming above, and shops full of beautiful, handmade carpets, jewelery, wool and silk... surrounded by the Himalayas it's many peoples notion of paradise.

I have seen many Himalayan gompas before, but none so large and impressive as Tikse. Situated about 30 minutes outside of Leh, it's Ladakh's most famous monestary.

Another look at Tikse.

Blowing a brass horn 10 feet long takes a lot of wind, and this monk puffs to muster it, but the sound, such deep and lasting vibrations, will stay with me forever.

Young monks are not forced into endlessly serious existence; I see them having lots of fun.

The impressive palace that overlooks all of Leh.

What's this picture of my Mom's garden doing here? Actually, these zinnias are part of the amazing garden at Oriental Guest House, my home away from home.

While Leh seems to be doing great now, clean, prosperous, but still unique, the pathway to a sustainable future for this unique culture was not always bright. With the original influx of military to secure the border with Pakistan and China, the improvement of the roads, and the opening to tourists 30 years ago, the Ladakhi way of life was greatly threatened by pollution and whole-sale selling out to Westernized culture-- the conflict outlined by Helena Norburg's book Ancient Futures. This picture points to one of the tools bringing Leh onto a brighter future. It's a solar cooker, reflecting the sun to one hot point at which heats a kettle of water. It's not as fast as a stove, but a lot cleaner than burning dung.

I was in Leh for the Ladakh festival, a cultural event put on by the tourism bureau. So while it's a bit of a circus for tourists and photographers alike, it definitely created a number of exciting events I was happy to witness.

Welcome to the Ladakh festival: the opening procession on September 1st.

Wild costumes on display.

Shy smiles.

A spectacle of spectators.

Another common sight in Leh, the fort on high.

Local monks also come to watch the festivities.

Costumes and dancing from dusk to dark.

This is the magic seabuckthorn berry. To learn about the wonders of this plant go check out http://www.spitiecosphere.com/health_seabuckthorn.htm

Since I was planning to do some high altitude climbing, I thought it would be a good idea to do some good cardiovascular training. Also, since I sold my motorcycle on arrival in Leh and Kardhung La, "The Highest Motorable Pass in the World" seemed like a necessary place for me to go, riding a rented bicycle to the top seemed like the best way to go.

Here's the home stretch-- although you can see the actual pass in this photo (just to the right of the second bump from the left), it's still seven kilometers away. Not normally so far, you have to remember these kilometers at an elevation over 16,00 feet.

Riding a rented bike in boots and rolled up jeans and peddling the granny gear, I reached the top in snow. I hadn't been on a bicycle since I came to India, and I think driving a motorcycle had made me lazy. It took me about 6 hours to get to the top, and when I got there my ass was so sore!

High altitude training finished, I was ready for my high altitude climbing. I had just read Jon Krakauer's book Into Thin Air, and was fascinated with the idea of climbing a big mountain. (I think the book for many has the opposite effect). I found out what was the biggest, summitable peek in the area and went out after it: Chammser. Chammser, on the east side of lake Tso Moriri, reaches an altitude of 6,600 meters, or 21,600 feet, and can (according to the locals I talked to) be climbed without ropes or crampons-- just a really big hill to walk up I thought. I got gear together, bought food and rented a stove, and hitched a ride to Tso Moriri hoping for a view from the top. That was not to be.

Laying pavement on a road in the Himalaya: not on my list of dream jobs.

Tso Moriri is a very remote area of the Himalaya, neer enough to the border of Tibet to require a permit. On the edge of the lake at an elevation of 4,500 meters is Karzok, the only village in many kilometers. The night I arrived here the weather quickly turned bad and brought high, cold wind and snow, but I absolutely love this picture: a woman hurries back to her village as the storm begins to fall.

Morning was much nicer as I settled in to Tso Moriri and readied to start walking North, clockwise, around the shore.

Barley. The local people call say "Strong food."

A portrait from Karzok

On my first day of walking I teamed up with a Frenchman, Cedric, because he seemed like an interesting fellow and we were going the same way. To my luck, Cedric turned out to be a proper naturalist, a man who spends months and months every year in the wild identifying birds and mammals-- just my sort. So we watched birds, talked about women, and had ideas about climbing the Mountain.

Along with Cedric came Gismet, his local ponyman.

Gismet was joined by Tashi, and thus you see the trio pictured here on the third day. Also note the weather. Every day there had been storms with snow coming down and wind blowing hard; it didn't look good for a climb.

The lake, on the other hand, was offering all kinds of treats to the tune of rare wildlife and nice wildflowers.

On the fourth morning, there were clear lake views and, very very good luck, a Tibetan Wolf, "Shanku". With weather as it had been, and hiking around the lake all that it was, it was the morning I chose keeping to the Lake over climbing the Mountain: All That It Was or What Could Be.

Home sweet home. My tent in the corner can convey some notion of the scale of this place, but the only way to understand the size of these mountains and this place is to walk around, from here to there, and feel the unquantifiable space. These are the Himalaya, and they are another size from all other mountains.

These beautiful little horsies are Tibetan Wild Ass, or "Chang". Not many people get so close to such a large group of these.

On the sixth day it was time to finish my circuit of the Lake and for Cedric with his ponymen to go on to Kibber, treking to the Spiti valley. The four of us spent some quality time together: preparing dinner, drinking tea, hiding from the wind under a parachute tent. Meeting and learning from these three people was a unique opportunity, a conspiring of circumstance only possible here and now, in India in this moment.

A portrait of Chammser as I walked away. Chang in the foreground, and all 7,000 feet from lake to summit in between, it still looks climbable. Incredibly formidable yes, but climbable... for next time, I decided.

Beautiful Bar Headed Geese in flight

The trip to Tso Moriri was very special for me. Before I left for India, the wilderness was my home over half the year, so going back to the wilderness, even if it was Himalayan wilderness, was like going home, back to something familiar, that I love. My passion for camping and photography flared as I remembered what's possible. I began dreaming about winter camping in Yellowstone and sea kayaking in Alaska. By the end of the trip I felt my appetite for life renewed.

A mane wall of carved stones and stupas in Karzok the morning of my departure from Tso Moriri.

Yaks on the banks of Tazang Tso, just north of Tso Moriri, with Mentok reflected in the water.

No one in India knows what a "GAMA" is either, but these poetic roadsigns of warning are everywhere. "After whiskey, driving risky" "If you're married divorce speed" "Speed is the knife that cute [sic] a life" etc etc.

Having grown used to the liberties of photographers over the many years of tourism, Leh was OK with people taking pictures inside gompas and stupas. I was happy to get to take a picture of this Avolokeshvara, of which the Dalai Lama is said to be an incarnation of. Avolokeshvara has 1000 hands with 1000 eyes for which to see all the suffering of the world and help all beings on The Way.

The last day of the Ladakh Festival, of which I made sure to get back from treking in time for, was the Polo Match. This was a really exciting thing to see, and so much fun to photograph. It's a bloody rough game; the horses are ridden to full tilt, riders acrobaticly lean to reach the ball, players jostle shoulder to shoulder at full gallop, sometimes scattering the crowd should the ball stray into their midst.

Good Old Red White and Blue

Himalaya by Moonlight

A fisheye look from my room on full moon night.

I hope I've shown everyone a little bit here of what makes the Himalaya so special, but truly it's a place that must be experienced viscerally to understand. These mountains spellbind; they will captivate me for life.
I'm back in South India now to bring this trip to India full circle. Tomorrow I'm on my way to Hampi for a week of rock climbing, and then I'm on my way back to my teacher Bharath in Mysore for another month of yoga study. I want to end my trip this way, back where I started yet in a brand new place. I appreciate symmetry.
America, the election is coming. Scary isn't it? Please don't let another Republican in... I'll be back Nov. 4th.
Love you all,


Hanna said...

oh my, i had to come and take a look again and i still don't get it, that places like these really exist - seems like another world! and yet there's something so familiar - maybe a norway kind of feeling in some of the pics :) what a beautiful journey you're making!

cocolinajones said...

At long last, Ethan Burns, I have figured out how to place a comment to you...THANK YOU!!! Your storytelling and pictures have gotten me through my worst moments working at St. Charles! I can't tell you what an ispiration you are to me. I sing your praises loudly and often! I hope we get to adventure together soon, even if it's just to a new tea or coffee shop!
Much love,
Cathy Jones

Unknown said...

hello Ethan....this is lanzom kesang ,daughter of your host netaji at spiti.........i liked the way you written about our valley..........and nice to see my valley's n parents pics on it.......hope you will reply me.....my e mail id is kimkesimsang@yahoo.co.in.......