Stories & Movement

DAILY PHOTO: In a Temple at Lamayuru Monastery

 

Taken in August of 2016 at Lamayuru Gompa

Taken in August of 2016 at Lamayuru Gompa

Traveling Kashmir Under Curfew

Taken in July of 2016 in Srinagar

Taken in July of 2016 in Srinagar; Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) in back, fishermen in front, a typical Srinagar scene

 

We’d made our arrangements. We’d fly into Srinagar and spend a week there to acclimatize and sight-see before a trek that would take us from Sonamarg to Naranag (fyi: this direction was reversed the night before the trek because of bandhs (strikes) that blocked the road from Srinagar to Sonamarg.)  After Kashmir we’d head to Ladakh. Standing on the Tibetan Plateau, Ladakh’s greatest risk would be mountain sickness–a risk we’d curtail by acclimatizing in the lower altitudes of Kashmir. On the other hand, Kashmir had the potential to be dicey, but there’d only been infrequent violence in recent years–and never directed against foreigners or tourists. One didn’t even have to get special permits to visit anymore.

 

That was about a week before a militant commander of Hizbul Mujahideen, Burhan Wani, was killed. Wani’s death triggered a wave of outrage leading to violence. The death toll crept into tens of people. The violence mostly consisted of rock-throwing by young men directed at military, paramilitary, and police forces, and the response of those units involving lethal and less-than-lethal weapons (the latter occasionally were not so “less than,” as was seen with the  pellet guns which caused a fatality, reinvigorated the conflict–unbeknownst to us–as we were on the trail.)

 

We were on the horns of a dilemma. Should we dump our plans and either go to Ladakh for the entire time or someplace else like Kyrgyzstan–which had been on our short list when planning the trip. Either way, we’d loose a little bit of money, but safety wouldn’t be a concern. If we went straight to Leh (11,000 ft+ / 3500m) we’d be less eased into the altitude. Or, should we hope that the troubles would blow over and Kashmir would return to a safe status quo.

 

It was impossible to tell whether events would settle down or take a turn for the worse. Furthermore, the Indian government took an approach that was–for a democracy–baffling.  They shut down the local news outlets, making it even more difficult to find out what was going on on the ground. They also shut down phone and internet communications such that we couldn’t get in touch with our trekking company for several days. We could get in touch with our hotel because many of the locals have lived through past episodes and know how to set up communications so as to avoid being put out of business by government shutoffs. However, asking individuals who have an incentive to keep one coming regardless of the situation, one never knows how much one can trust their suggestions. We dealt with reputable operators, and they were ultimately a primary source of information, but one can never tell in the beginning.

 

I can only assume the Indian government’s thought process went something like this: 1.) We can’t suggest that people don’t travel to Kashmir because we’ll be seen as pounding the final nail in the coffin of Kashmiri tourism for a season that will already be dismal. This will only exacerbate the current problems because the Indian government is largely blamed for how backwards and under-performing Kashmir is. (Note: while there is wide variation as to what Kashmiris seek–some want to remain part of India but with more autonomy and access to resources, others want to be an independent country, and still others want to be part of Pakistan, none seem to be pleased with the current state of governance.) 2.) On the other hand, we can’t recommend that people travel to Kashmir either because we’ll look like huge putzes if we encourage tourism and travelers gets hurt–we may even face a crisis of confidence in tourism nationally. Therefore, lets just be as opaque as possible. We’ll try to prevent anyone from knowing anything about what’s going on so that whatever decision they make we can say we had no part in it.

 

Given the dearth of information, our decision ultimately came down to whether we wanted to be optimistic or pessimistic. We chose to be optimistic. I guess that was the right course, because ultimately the trip worked out. However, we did have to be flexible and make a lot of adjustments–often at the last minute. However, we didn’t loose much–or any–money because of the cancellation policies of the businesses we engaged.

 

First of all, there were some places that we’d planned to visit that were strictly no go. We’d planned to do a day trip to Gulmarg and an overnight trip to Pahalgam. Needless to say, we would have seen a lot more of Srinagar, itself, had it not been closed off. Basically, we could go anywhere we wanted to in the Dal Lake area, including the numerous gardens, but trips into Srinagar Old Town were not happening. We ended up taking an overnight trip to Sonamarg. We didn’t plan to do this because we were to see that town as part of our trek. However, there’s not seven days worth of Dal Lake to see (unless you really want to just relax), so we ended up making two visits to Sonamarg (which also doesn’t warrant that much time, but we couldn’t get anywhere else, and Sonamarg was safe and accessible.)

 

Second, we could only travel in the dead of night. You probably read the word “curfew” and thought, “Oh, that means that no one can be out after dark.” In Kashmir that logic was reversed, and everybody does everything after dark. As mentioned, drivers wouldn’t drive many stretches of road. However, the places they would go (e.g. safe and secure Sonamarg and locations along the Srinagar-Leh Highway, NH1D) they would only drive overnight. I had trouble grasping this logic, all though it seemed to work. It seemed to me that it would be easier to conduct an ambush in the dark and get away with it. I was told that it wasn’t ambushes that anyone was worried about. Drivers were worried about rock throwers breaking their windshields. Fair enough. It still didn’t make sense. It seemed that if one were going to make mischief, one would set an alarm for 1 am or 5 am and place your basket of rocks next to the bed. The roadblocks created what one might call a target rich environment because all the vehicles were bunched up together. Ultimately, I concluded that the reason it worked was that the rock-throwers lived with their mommies and daddies, and they were tucked in in their jammies during the hours in question.

 

During our first full day in Srinagar, there was an Indian Minister visiting to help ease tensions. We, therefore, didn’t realize that the vast numbers of police and paramilitary forces were unusual–even relative to the current heightened state of security.  The next day, it was a lot less intimidating as there were not AK-47-toting guards every fifty feet along Dal Lake Boulevard.

 

Ultimately, we never felt unsafe or saw any violence firsthand. Our most unnerving moment came traveling along the Srinagar-Leh highway in the middle of the night when we came upon a huge gathering of people blocking the road. The were just pashmina merchants and restaurateurs who were getting no business, and who were trying to stir up some business in the middle of the night. Needless to say, I suspect few were in the mood for 2 am shopping or eating. However, generally, while the locals were desperate because their tourism season had been strangled, the Kashmiri’s are relatively laid-back compared to much of India, so even the touts weren’t unusually annoying.

 

We were told not to tell locals that we were American, and we complied with that suggestion. (This obviously doesn’t apply to anyone who can ask to see your passport–e.g. security forces, nor to the sparsely arrayed other tourists–including India tourists–who are more likely to be able to differentiate accents and for whom there is nothing to be gained by deceit.) It’s not that there was any animosity against America, but rather there is a thought that mighty America can fix any problem that it puts its mind to. My wife is of Hungarian origin, so this didn’t even require a lie, per se, as long as she did the talking.

 

I guess the question of interest to readers is whether they should travel to Kashmir or not? If you can tolerate your plans being changed (or are the type that don’t make plans at all) you’ll be alright. I don’t regret the trip, and I think we had an educational and enjoyable experience.

 

That said, you may want to adjust downward any times your guidebooks recommends for your visit because you’ll end up bored if your travel is restricted. You may also want to allow more time for travel because only traveling at night means you  may lose a day trying to get out of town. I should point out that the hotels were very accommodating with regard to the early check-in necessitated by this travel situation. However, it is a bit more exhausting having to travel through the night.

 

If you’re not familiar with the nature of the Kashmir conflict, here is a handy timeline from the BBC to help clarify it.

 

DAILY PHOTO: Rainy Day in Sonamarg

Taken in July of 2016 in Sonamarg

Taken in July of 2016 in Sonamarg

 

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

The Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And SleepThe Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore, and didn’t know what to expect–but was intrigued. It’s a book on the Tibetan Bön approach to dream yoga and sleep yoga, written by a Bön lama (monk.) Dream yoga is a term used in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions to refer to what is called lucid dreaming in Western scientific circles. My review will focus on the more than 3/4ths of the book that deals in dream yoga (lucid dreaming.) The 40-ish pages that deal with sleep yoga are outside my wheelhouse. The author suggests that that part is for initiates who are familiar with certain background concepts. I’m not an initiate, and—in fact—I have no idea whether there is any merit to sleep yoga practice. Lucid dreaming is a well-studied and documented phenomena, but, as far as I know, what the author calls sleep yoga remains unstudied. All I can say is that the part on dream yoga is readily comprehensible, despite much of it being couched in spiritual terms, but a lot of the section on sleep yoga is arcane and ethereal.

As it happens, I was pleasantly surprised with the portion of the book about dream yoga. Having read a number of books dealing with the subject recently, I wasn’t sure whether I would learn anything that was both new and useful. But I was exposed to ideas that were new, useful, and mind-blowing. There were a few ideas for helping one to achieve lucid dreaming—mostly through practices carried out during the day—that I’d not seen in other works, at least not put in such clear terms. Also, while there is a lot of reference to the Bön and Buddhist spiritual traditions, this didn’t result in the explanations being needlessly complicated or arcane. There is a lot of information that one doesn’t need if one is a secular practitioner, but many readers will find it interesting, even if it’s not necessary to advance their practice.

The book is organized into six parts: 1.) The Nature of Dream, 2.) Kinds and Uses of Dreams, 3.) The Practice of Dream Yoga, 4.) Sleep, 5.) The Practice of Sleep Yoga, and 6.) Elaborations. The last part has information pertinent to both dream yoga and sleep yoga.

There are some graphics in the book including photos, line drawings, and tables. Most of these aren’t essential, but some make it easier to imagine what the author is describing (e.g. when he discusses sleeping positions.) The book has a glossary and bibliography. The former is useful, and the latter doesn’t hurt (but it’s only one page and offers only a handful of citations.) The glossary is mostly of foreign terms, but includes English terms specific to the religious traditions discussed. It offers both Tibetan and Sanskrit variants of the word if they exist, which is a nice feature. There is also an appendix which summarizes the crucial practices elaborated upon in the book.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in developing a lucid dreaming practice. I will say that it may not be the best first book to read on the subject, unless you are a practitioner of Bön or intend to be. (For that, I would recommend Charlie Morley’s “Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide…” which I recently reviewed.) However, this book makes an excellent follow-up once one has read a book that is couched in simpler terms (i.e. not specific to a certain spiritual tradition) and which reports on the science. I found that the book gave me a number of new ideas, and—in fact—offered some insightful ideas.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lucid Dreaming by Charlie Morley

Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner's Guide to Becoming Conscious in Your DreamsLucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide to Becoming Conscious in Your Dreams by Charlie Morley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Lucid dreams are those in which the dreamer is aware he or she is in the dream and can interact with the dreamscape. Most people experience lucid dreaming only as a happy accident. Some people dream lucidly in their youth, but never as an adult. Some people become aware they’re dreaming under specific conditions, e.g. on a certain medication. However, lucid dreaming has been practiced in some traditions for centuries, most notably by Tibetan Buddhists (though chapters 5 & 6 demonstrate that it’s much broader than just the Tibetans.) Furthermore, having confirmed lucidity in dreams in sleep laboratories, scientists have moved to advance our understanding of the phenomena using the scientific method and by taking advantage of the latest brain imaging technologies.

Charlie Morley has written a couple books on the subject as well as giving a well-received TEDx Talk on the subject. Morley studied under a Tibetan lama as well as studying up on the science of the phenomenon.

There are eight chapters in this book. The first three chapters constitute part one, the basics. This part introduces one to the subject of lucid dreaming, considers some of the reasons why people get into it, and explains how to recognize one is in a dream. The remaining five chapters form the second part, which is about going deeper with one’s practice. The second part explores what one may see in a dream, and how one can use the experience of being lucid for self-improvement. Lucid dreaming is one of the few access points to one’s subconscious mind. The second part also charts the development of lucid dreaming in both the West and the East, as well as offering suggestions about how nutrition may help in one’s practice.

The book is written as an instructional manual, and offers “toolboxes” of techniques to help advance one’s lucid dream practice by teaching one to remember one’s dreams, understand the phases of sleep, recognize one is in a dream, achieve lucidity, and know what to do once one is lucid in a dream. These are handy summaries of the lessons taught in greater detail in the text. All of the chapters but 5 and 8 have one of these toolbox summaries. There are also frequent text boxes of strange but true facts about lucid dreaming, tips from experienced lucid dreamers, case studies, and stories used to make relevant points about lucid dreaming. There are no graphics, but they aren’t missed.

I found this book to be useful and interesting. It’s readable and logically organized. I’d recommend it for anyone interested in developing a lucid dreaming practice—particularly if one is starting from scratch. There are a number of books on the subject, but many will be too ethereal to be of value to a new practitioner, but Morley writes in an approachable fashion and organizes the book to help one get into a practice as efficiently as possible.

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DAILY PHOTO: Nishat Bagh, Srinagar

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Taken in July of 2016 in Srinagar

Taken in July of 2016 in Srinagar

 

Bangalore–during one of the city’s many iterations–was once called the “garden city.” While this title is as likely to be mocked as honestly cited these days, if I were issuing that title to an Indian city it would have to go to Srinagar. Many Indian cities have an impressive botanical garden, and some have some picturesque parks. But Srinagar takes the cake for a city its size. Besides the Botanical Garden there’s the Nishat Bagh (pictured), Shalimar Bagh, the Char Chinar, and Nehru Park. Furthermore, there are historical sites such as the Pari Mahal and Chashme Shahi Bagh that are also loaded with plants and flowers.

DAILY PHOTO: Marmot Along the Road to Pangong Tso

Taken along the road to Pangong Tso in August of 2016

Taken along the road to Pangong Tso in August of 2016

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The one on the bottom was rocking out, singing “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey into an air mic. Not really, but you can imagine it, can’t you? In fact, I bet you now have that tune stuck in your head. You’re welcome.

POEM: The Certain Man

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I met a man

along the road

who thought he knew

which way to go.


Certain was he;

he knew the path.

He had a map.

He’d done the math.


“Your map won’t help

you now, I fear.

Past the map’s edge

the world turns queer.”


“I’ll find my way,

be sure of that,”

the man dismissed

with words he spat.


When I returned,

an hour ago,

I passed a car-

cass in the snow.


No doubt, twas he,

the certain man–

hit a blizzard

in burning sands.

BOOK REVIEW: The Best of Poetry: Thoughts that Breathe and Words That Burn ed. by Rudolph Amsel & Teresa Keyne

The Best of Poetry: Thoughts that Breathe and Words that Burn (In Two Hundred Poems)The Best of Poetry: Thoughts that Breathe and Words that Burn by Rudolph Amsel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a collection that gathers 14 poems for each of 14 different themes. If you’re a math whiz, you know that means it’s a collection of 196 poems, but they round it out with four bonus poems to make a clean 200. If you’re a poetry reader, many of these poems will be familiar. They’re classic works from master poets from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries (a few earlier.) Still, they are worth revisiting, the collection is inexpensive, and the organization, itself, is thought-provoking.

The fourteen themes that create the organizational schema for the book are: 1.) rapture: words that burn, 2.) a door opens; a door closes, 3.) love, 4.) humor & curiosities, 5.) memory, 6.) nature, 7.) tales & songs, 8.) solitude, 9.) contemplation, 10.) mystery & enigma, 11.) parting & sorrow, 12.) animals, 13.) inspiration, and 14.) cities. Then there are a couple bonus poems each attached to both the introduction and the epilogue.

As mentioned, the poets are mostly household names of English-language poetry, including: Emily Dickenson, Walt Whitman, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, W.B. Yeats, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Thomas Hardy, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Ben Johnson, Lewis Carroll, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Wordsworth, A. E. Housman, Edgar Allen Poe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Frost. There are some names that are less than household names, but none that are obscure to poetry aficionados.

Again, many of the poems are well-known. Some of them are fragments of long poems, but most are stand-alone works. Examples of some of the standards include: “Chicago” by Sandburg, “If” by Kipling, “The Road Not Taken” by Frost, “Let My Country Awake” by Tagore, “The Tiger” by Blake, “The Raven” by Poe, “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge, “The Daffodils” by Wordsworth, “The Jabberwocky” by Carroll, “She Walks in Beauty” by Byron, and “There Is No Frigate Like a Book” by Dickinson.

 

I should point out that this is the first volume in a multi-volume set. There is also a second volume out, but I don’t know what the plans are beyond that.
I enjoyed this collection. I’d read most of these poems before, but the vast majority deserve re-reading and re-reading again. I’d recommend it for poetry lovers.

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DAILY PHOTO: Giant Maitreya of Diskit

Taken in August of 2016 in Diskit, India

Taken in August of 2016 in Diskit, India

 

It’s over 100ft (30m) tall.

 

A Maitreya is a “future Buddha,” meaning a Buddha who hasn’t yet appeared, but who was prophesied to live in an era to come. For people unfamiliar with Buddhism, this might seem strange. The Buddha we normal think of is Gautama Buddha, or the Shakyamuni Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama.) He was the founder of the religion, but one of many said to have achieved enlightenment. In other words, the Buddha we think of was an awakened one, not the awakened one.

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