Arrival: Bhutan, January 2018

Every year now, Naropa University facilitates a study abroad program in Bhutan, or Druk Yul, or The Land of the Thunder Dragon. This tiny, tiny kingdom is situated north of the Indian state of Meghalaya, east of Nepal, and south of Tibet. I’m a writing student at Naropa, founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (a native Tibetan who spent time in Bhutan) and the Beat generation’s Allen Ginsberg.

Landing in Paro is a story all its own. I’ll post next time about the flight.

nepalbhutantibet-mapMap retrieved from https://nepalandbhutanblog.wordpress.com – a good place to learn more about the culture, geography, and politics of the Bhutan and Nepal.

Quick facts about Druk Yul:

  • Government: democratic monarchy
  • Geography: landlocked, almost entirely mountainous in the Himalayas
  • Capital: Thimphu City
  • Population: ~700,000
  • Considered a “medieval” country until the turn of this century
  • …more on all this later…

The traditional dress for women in Bhutan is called a kira and the traditional dress for men is the gho. A kira can come in two forms: full or half kira. A full kira is a long bolt of cloth which is wrapped around the body with a pleat and pinned with brooches over the shoulders, worn with an inner blouse called wonju, and fastened at the waist with a woven belt. A half kira is similar – wrapped around the body at the waist with a pleat, either tied or clipped in place, and worn with a wonju and an outer jacket-like layer called toego. A gho comes in one piece and before it, too, is wrapped and belted up, hangs at the length of the floor. After the robe-like cloth is belted, its length ends at the knee. Gho-wearers joke that the garment has the largest pocket in the world – both full kiras and ghos have a flap of fabric around the front, supported by the belt, that can be filled with objects.

This year’s Naropa group met in Bangkok on the 24th of January and flew into Bhutan on the 25th. One of the first things we did upon arrival was shop together for these traditional clothes, which would carry us through the country’s universities, restaurants, family homes, dzongs (a unique style of government building which also houses the monastic body), festivals, temples, and sacred sites.

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A textile shop in Paro, Bhutan.

Both kiras and ghos are made from textiles with many different patterns. These patterns range in complexity from simple stripes to the intricate geometry of kushuthara.

The simplest patterns are plain weaves. These include horizontal stripes, and the slightly more complex plaid patterns. The next most complex are the warp-weaves which are typically horizontal rows of stripes alternating with rows of patterns (see the photo of a mensi martha weave below). The most complex are the extremely decorative and multi-colored weft-weaves, including colorful kushuthara (also seen below).
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Dargavs: City of the Dead, Part II

What follows are more photos from Dargavs, the place we visited in the previous post, in the independent republic of Ossetia-Alania in the Russian Federation.

I really wanted to pull the words from my journal to share my impressions from this day, but I jump straight from November 17, where I am ruminating about a traumatic event, to December 5, the night before my first departure from Mineralniye Vody.

According to my Russia visa, since it had been three months, I would have to exit and reenter the country – but things were a little complicated, so I decided to take a length of time somewhere else. I signed up for a website called Workaway and found a place to go. It was a Buddhist temple on the island of Menorca, off the coast of Spain. I would be a gardener in exchange for room and board… Menorca was my location when I began this blog, incidentally.

Since I succeeded to document with photos but failed to do it with words, here are certain things I am remembering now:

In one of these steep Ossetian valleys, a tawny hare darted from the rim to the floor as sleek and fast as a diving hawk.

Our cheese and beet green hichins sat in Anzor’s backseat window, and he encouraged me again and again to request a stop if I’d like to make a photo – the cliff dwelling and the church you see at the end of this post are the results of such stops.

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Here is some information about the towers, courtesy of Sasha:

“One of the main symbols of Ossetia are its ancestral and tactical towers. They can be found in the most strategically convenient places of almost every village of the mountainous Ossetia, taking avalanche and landslide threats into consideration. The towers from one or even several neighboring gorges are often visually similar.”  Continue reading

Dargavs: City of the Dead

DARGAVS SET ONE (21 of 30)

Dargavs is a village in North Ossetia-Alania. It sits about an hour and twenty minutes or so south-west of Vladikavkaz. North Ossetia-Alania is one of Russia’s southern independent republics – it still functions under the Russian Federal government, but it has some autonomy. It is certainly linguistically and culturally autonomous.

Ethnic Ossetians and Russians make up most of the population of North Ossetia.

Ossetians trace their identity and language back to the Iranian-speaking medieval kingdom of Alania – a fact reflected in the republic’s formal name: “Republic of North Ossetia-Alania”.

Russian influence in the area increased in the 18th century with the founding of a military outpost at Vladikavkaz.

In the early 1920s the territory was part of the short-lived Soviet Mountain Republic – made up of six districts including Chechnya and Ingushetia. Autonomous status was given to the districts in 1924; in 1936 North Ossetia became an autonomous Soviet republic.

Learn more: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-20210708

DARGAVS SET ONE (1 of 30)Anzor and Sasha in the front seat, leaving Vladikavkaz.

When I lived in Pyatigorsk with Sasha, I often saw women, bundled up, sitting at little folding tables along the wide walking paths of the city. Next to them sat free-standing wooden boards with pictures pasted on them of the glorious mountains to the south, and what was among them.

Sasha didn’t want me to stop and gawk, because we would inevitably be solicited to buy a tour, but I couldn’t help it. I was compelled to visit the dizzying slopes, ancient structures, mineral waters and fragrant forests of the Caucasus.

See what I saw here: http://mashuk-tour.ru/severnii_kavkaz

I was very fortunate to have Sasha to guide me through the region – his parents knew people from many localities, Sasha is both savvy and charming, and we made a point to visit things together that he hadn’t yet seen himself. Dargavs was one of them.

Sasha’s father, Valeriy, organized for us to meet Anzor, one of his colleagues, in Vladikavkaz. We left in enough time to stay in the city and explore before we departed for the remote village in the valley.

DARGAVS SET ONE (2 of 30)Sasha doing complex operations on my veteran D90.

DARGAVS SET ONE (3 of 30)Sasha and Anzor on the road to Dargavs – a construction delay. This was interesting because these roads through the mountains are only a few years old.

Anzor is a photographer too, so when we drove off into the mountains, he told me, “If you want to stop and take pictures of anything, just say it and we will stop.” He brought a 35mm Soviet camera with him and Sasha and I brought the Nikons.

I always get carsick when I’m in the back of a vehicle, but throughout all my stays in Russia, Sasha carried little boxes of peppermints for me to eat and feel good while we traveled – by taxi, by minibus, or in friends’ cars on winding mountain passes. Whenever I looked queasy, he wordlessly tipped them into my palm.

I heard from Sasha that Anzor is currently ascending Kazbegi, the tallest mountain in the same region. To me, that sounds like a fantastic summer excursion!

DARGAVS SET ONE (4 of 30)The boys told me this was Russia’s first hydroelectric power plant, on the banks of the Fiagdon River.

DARGAVS SET ONE (5 of 30)

DARGAVS SET ONE (6 of 30)

My first requested stop happened when Anzor pointed out the window to a cliff dwelling, barely visible among the stones.  Continue reading

Trespassing: a Master Class

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me
A sign was painted, said “Private Property”
But on the back side it didn’t say nothing
This land was made for you and me

                                                                          — Woody Guthrie

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Winter descended upon Stavropol and I didn’t have a winter coat. Sasha introduced me to his friend Nina, who happened to have some extras. We went to visit her house and take a look. We played with the cat and looked at antiques from the Soviet era.

If you click here, you can look at pictures of old stamped silver icons from the Russian empire. Nina’s family had something like this hanging on the wall, but it was something much more ephemeral and very precious. It was the virgin Mary , peeking out from behind layered rings of intricately embossed golden foil: it was the Soviet icon. When religious objects were hard to come by, people took old images and prints of biblical figures or saints and made their own icons with the crinkly, flimsy foil of candy bars.

The room was curtained, dark at midday, so unfortunately, I have no photos of the icons. After looking around the house and sifting through Nina’s closet for a nice, warm jacket, we sat down with her mother for tea.

Normally, Nina goes to school in Moscow, but for a week during my stay, she came to Stavropol to visit her family. Sasha has known her for many years, so together we would meet for snacks, tea, and adventures.

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Sasha spots Nina as she hops the iron gate.

At number 100 ulitsa Komsomolskaya in Stavropol sits a crumbling mansion.   Continue reading

Since it’s Ramadan…

Since Ramadan began in the US on May 26 (and continues until June 24), I thought this would be a good time to look back at a visit to a historic Mosque in Vladikavkaz, Russia. Personally, I’m not Muslim and I don’t fast for Ramadan, but I respect everyone who calls this spiritual tradition their own. Ramadan Mubarak to everyone celebrating this holy month.

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Vladikavkaz is home to the Mukhtarov Mosque, a Sunni place of worship, built in 1908. At some point, this ornate temple was damaged by an explosion and has been the subject of historical restoration and preservation since mid-last century.

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We left Pyatigorsk very, very early in the morning to catch the only minibus to Vladikavkaz. Just as dawn broke, we swaddled ourselves in winter clothes – heavy coats, woolen socks, mittens, scarves. A neon sign blinked “мёд техникa” behind us, making the street blush.

That autumn in Pyatigorsk was a very warm time in my life. I felt cared for, welcome, and loved everywhere I went. There was not a lonely moment. I woke in comfort each day alongside a family I loved each day.  Continue reading

Stavropol, or Halloween in Russia

This post chronicles the last few days of October and the first few of November 2015.

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Persimmons and other goodies on Masha’s table in Stavropol.

Every table I was welcomed to in Russia was piled high with food: people in the Caucasus  welcome guests with culinary love. At the time we went to Stavropol, Sasha was helping his friend Masha round out her plan for implementing a project that she won a grant for. The project involved creating better opportunities for people in remote, rural areas in the Caucasus, to limit depopulation and increase sustainable development.

One evening, Masha and Sasha made an appearance on a live radio show for the Stavropol region to answer questions and discuss the project. We walked from the Soviet blocks to the bus station, hailed a little bus and wove through the damp, black streets.

“На остановке!” people shouted to the driver, and climbed off the bus, one by one. Eventually we called, and Sasha tipped a handful of coins into the driver’s hand to pay a fare for two as we stepped into the street. Tarnished yellow light filled the streets, but often couldn’t break the foliage to fall down through to the sidewalks. So we walked in the shadows of trees, avoiding velvet-black puddles like children playing a game. Continue reading

Torre de Picada

A surprise, even to me: this post is about something I did recently! A few days ago, I returned to the Driftless from a two week visit to Mallorca. I wanted to see my friends again. Those two weeks were packed full of fun stuff. I thought that when I arrived, I would just have time to revisit favorite places and meet with the few friends I made last year… but I was so wrong. I made a lot of new friends, spent hours and days with my old ones, swam in the Balearic sea, hiked new mountains and ridges.

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A crooked little house on the way up the hill.

The first friend I met was Violetta, a new tenant in my old residence. I had just come from Russia and she’s from Moscow, so it was a serendipitous time to meet. As soon as we had a free day together, we met Jacqueline (who knows the island very, very well) and went to Port de Soller for a hike.

We were hiking toward Torrw de Picada, one of the many preserved structures on the isle of Mallorca. There are structures ranging in age from prehistory (taulas and talaiots) to medieval city walls, to elaborate twentieth century village homes.

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Me at the coast.

This tower was built in 1622 and its entrance is in the air: it’s a few meters off the ground. This deterred intruders and stopped them from entering even if they appeared. Many of the watch towers on the island were constructed in this way.

Torre de Picada and other watchtowers are built upon the precarious edges of coastline cliffs – this is another deterrent to intruders, but the primary function of a tower like this was to get the first look at pirates approaching the island. Mallorca had pirate problems as recently as the 1970s.

The tower’s security was too tough for us to breach from its backside. It’s privately owned now anyway, so maybe getting in would mean getting into trouble, too.

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Violetta sitting on the coastline wall.

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Jacquie enjoying the beautiful afternoon.

Our hike began in Port de Soller and wound up the mountains inland until we curved back to the coast. When we reached the top – it was a short hike, a few hours all around – we stopped for a picnic at the foot of the torre.

Violetta and Jacquie ate sandwiches and I ate boiled eggs, hummus, and a big bowl of rice and veggies I’d made the night before.

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We had a visitor during our picnic. She came back again and again! Continue reading