Testing sending a post to my blog from The Iconfactory’s Tot app.

Well I got the outside work done just in the nick of time. It looks as though we have rain for the rest of the day, though the weather forecast deems to differ. There are times when I really like a wet day or afternoon. It just feels right.

Green grass and bushes under a cloudy sky.

The Story Behind the Photograph: The Taj Mahal

While going through my mixed up and messily catalogued, that is a very generous term, slides, I came across these two images of the Taj Mahal. I am pretty sure that I have some more, but the state of my slide storage means that I am unlikely to come across them in a hurry, chance discoveries aside. So I scanned in what I had found with my rudimentary equipment and am sharing them here.

The year was 1990, the month February. I was on the road, exploring. I set off from home with a strong urge to see the the Karakoram and Himalayan mountains, and Central Asia as well. Something else was pulling me to the subcontinent. I was not sure what, but the pull was strong and I knew that I had to make this trip.

I had destinations and I also had time. Not unlimited time, but enough to allow myself the flexibility to explore as my nose took me. About six months into the trip I found myself in India. I had no plans for India. I can’t even remember if India was on my itinerary when I left home? As I traveled through this year away my interest in Tibetan Buddhism deepened. Such did not exist at all before I left. My travels introduced me to something sitting deep inside, uncovered it for me, revealing why I had left home. Perhaps I shall say more in a later post?

So I had wandered down to India in no small part because India is the birth place of Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha. During my time there I visited pilgrimage places connected with the Buddhist traditions, and at the same time I had other interests, curiosities….so those curiosities took me to the Taj Mahal.

The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum for the wife of fifth Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan (r. 1628–1658), a symbol of the love he held for his wife, alongside his own immense wealth.

When I found my photos of this famous building, I went back to my journal to see how my time in Agra, where the Taj Mahal is situated, was. I was surprised by what I read. I do remember having some problems there. Being continually hassled to visit marble factories, the Taj Mahal is made out of marble, by people in my hotel, by rickshaw drivers. Those taking me would get a commission whether I buy something or not. I turned down all offers, though finally relented just because I got fed up with the struggle…and actually found the visit quite interesting.

Then there was the Taj Mahal itself. I don’t know what I would think of the building now, but this is what my twenty six year old self had to say,

The Taj Mahal was crowded and I had to queue for tickets. I walked through the entrance to the gardens and there it was. Initial reaction? Smaller and slightly overrated. It was swarming with mostly Indian tourists. I just sat and looked. Basically it’s a white Mausoleum made out of marble and inlaid with semiprecious stones. I walked around it and waited until the sunset. The Taj turned ghostly, appearing from a distance to hang there.

“Smaller and slightly overrated” Hmm? I don’t sound as though I was too impressed? That’s a shame. And smaller than what, I don’t know? Than what I was expecting? I do remember the inlays of semiprecious stones, though. I think that some of the undiscovered slides that I have from my visit includes photos of some of those inlays.

The Taj Mahal, an ivory-white marble mausoleum built in the tradition of traditions of Indo-Islamic and Mughal architecture seen on a misty morning across its reflecting pool.
The Taj Mahal early in the morning.

A close up of the marble side of the Taj Mahal with the sun shining on it creating a gold glow, with people walking around in front.
The sun catches the side of the Taj Mahal.

Although I was staying in Agra, the next day I headed out to Fatehpur Sikri, an abandoned yet well preserved Mughal town. Founded as the capital of the Mughal Empire in 1571, by 1610 it was completely deserted.

The following morning, before leaving Agra, I went for an early morning visit to the Taj Mahal to watch the sunrise over the mausoleum. I was joined by an Australian couple. This is what I wrote,

We walked to the Taj, no hassle, and boy was it quiet; the right time to visit it. Again ghostly white in the early morning mist. I went inside. The cooing of the pigeons inside echoed beautifully as did the occasional “la, la” of an Indian obviously there to demonstrate the echo. Dimly lit candles and the early morning sun. I walked around. Yes beautiful, but not worth a trip all the way to India. I still think rather overrated.

Hmm? I still don’t seem to be impressed…that or it was growing on me and I didn’t want to admit it to myself. My perspective might have been affected by the hassle that I received by so many people trying to sell me something? I certainly experienced more of that than I had done anywhere else in the six months I had been away. It was tiring and spoiled the experience of my visit to Agra.

The final photo, more grainy than the others, is the Taj Mahal from a distance with the Yamuna River behind it.

A calm river bends around a hazy landscape with buildings in the distance and a rocky shoreline in the foreground.
The Taj Mahal peeking above surrounding buildings with the Yammu River behind it.

A large egg has appeared outside of our front door.

A large stone sphere sits on a landscaped area with dark gravel, concrete pathways, and greenery in the background.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s 89th Birthday Message

The Story Behind the Photograph: The Khunjerab Pass

This story started as an exploration of the speed of travel, but I decided that there was a story within that just about my traversing of the Khunjerab Pass. The Pass is closed for a part of the year simply because of snow, it sits at 4,693 meters (15,397 feet), and for the rest of the year is at the whim of politics. I made the journey in 1989, only a few months after the student protests in Tiananmen Square and the subsequent Chinese government crackdown. I would see results of that further into China, but right now sitting in the Pakistan border town of Sust there was no sign that anything was awry. The Pass was open.

The Khunjerab Pass sits on the Karakoram Highway which connects Pakistan with the city of Kashgar in Xingjang Provence. The first part of the journey would take me from Sust to the city of Tashkurgan, close to China’s then border with the USSR. Back in 1989, from my memory, Tashkurgan was not much more than a collection of buildings. The Wikipedia article that I linked to above has a photograph suggesting that it is much larger now. The article also says,

Tashkurgan has a long history as a stop on the Silk Road,

which suggests that my memory is not serving me well here and it might have been larger?

I first became aware of the the Khunjerab Pass through reading the book Danziger’s Travels, by Nick Danziger. A fascinating read if you can get your hands on a copy of the book. It is currently out of print. I decided that this was the way that I wanted to travel into China, through the Karakoram Mountains and Central Asia. For me at that time it felt like one of the last few great adventures, and doing it with local transportation felt like the way to go.

We, a collection of independent international travelers who had met up in Sust, and local people traveling between Sust and Kashgar, made the journey on a colourful Pakistan bus. It would take us two days to get to Kashgar.

At immigration before setting off the border officer gave me a fright, threatening legal action and to send me back down south as my paperwork was apparently not in order. I had heard that it was necessary to register with Pakistan immigration if one was in the country for over a month. On my travels to date I had met a couple of travelers who had registered, but the majority appeared not to have done so, and so not wanting to deal with officialdom where I didn’t have to, I chose not to register. Despite all but one of those in front of me at immigration not having registered, the official asked where my form was and on me replying that I did not have one, asked me why not! He put my passport behind the desk, threatened me with a journey south and got on with processing others in line. I wrote in my journal,

After a few minutes ‘playing’ with me, he gave me the exit stamp and shook my hand, it shook me up.

I remember a grin on his face as well.

With that behind me, I snagged a front seat on the bus hoping to get some good views as we climbed up to the Pass.

A snow-capped mountain range is visible through the windshield of a vehicle, framed by rugged, rocky terrain.

Again from my journal,

The road cut its way through a narrow gorge the dirty water, slowly turning crystal clear which it stayed most of the way to Tashkurgan. A couple of stops, army & check post people giving the driver money for alcohol from China. Most of the climbing to the pass was right at the end. The snowy peaks came closer, beautiful peaks complete with untouched virgin snow.The road was effected here more by landslides.

This traveler, and from my memory my fellow travelers were all hoping that the bus would stop once we made it to the summit of the Khunjerab Pass. We were very unsure whether this would happen though, as after all this was just a ‘local’ bus service and not a sightseeing tour. However, after a very steep and vertical climb up to the pass the driver did indeed stop when we reached the border separating Pakistan from China, at the Pass’s summit. Whether that was for the benefit of of the international passengers that he had on board or simply because he wanted to take a rest, I don’t know. Either way, the stop was much appreciated.

A colourful red and white Pakistan bus parked at the Khunjerab Pass. People walk around with snow covered mountains around
A Pakistan bus parked at the Khunjerab Pass.

I jumped out and played the tourist, elated that I had made it to this remote part of the world. On the edge of central Asia, and so rich in history despite its isolation.

A theme that ran through these travels for me was one of familiarity. I experienced a sense of familiarity with the land that I was traveling through, and a similarly with the peoples whom I encountered. But in that moment of arrival at the Pass, I was just very happy to have crossed into China via this route.

A sign in English and Chinese commemorating the opening of the Khunjerab Pass
A sign‌ commemorating the opening of the Khunjerab Pass.

From my journal,

The Khunjerab Pass was a plateau on which a couple of posts and guards were based. A green plain. We went crazy, acting the tourist, arm around a Chinese guard. I’d arrived and felt great.

My arm around a Chinese guard at the Khunjerab pass. Standing on the highway, a single lane road, with the snow covered mountains behind us
My arms around a Chinese guard at the Khunjerab Pass. I’m not sure he was as happy as me?

There was little there to mark the border apart from a couple of signs. I felt for the couple of Chinese guards positioned here, the isolation. Pakistani personal had got off lightly…there was no one from Pakistan positioned there. Nowadays, as this image from Wikipedia suggests, the border is a lot more obvious, and I assume that there are more substantial buildings around it? I was now at the highest point that I had ever visited, 4,693m (15,397ft), although I would break my own record later on in the trip.

Once back on the bus and moving again we started the journey down to Chinese immigration. We lost height quickly on leaving the pass. The road started off poor, I would guess due to the weather conditions at the pass, but soon after improved and was excellent from then on. Again, let me share from my journal,

Chinese workers were out here, in a beautiful wilderness in the back of beyond. The road dropped down onto an open plain of brown surrounded by mountains. At Pireli, Chinese immigration, we sailed through officialdom and waited a long time for the buses to load up and leave.

I mentioned this place Pireli in my journal, but can find no mention of it now online or on maps? Maybe it was a temporary immigration post that has now been reassigned somewhere else? However, I do remember a long wait there before we boarded the Chinese buses to Tashkurgan. My guess is that the Pakistan bus returned to Pakistan having picked up travelers departing China. It must have got back to Sust quite late, unless the bus hung around for a morning departure?

A person in a red shirt sits on the ground near a road with several others in the distance, under a bright blue sky with scattered clouds.
Waiting by the side of the road at the Chinese Immigration town of Pireli.

Sitting, waiting,I reflected on where we were. The stamp in my passport said China, but this was not an ethnic Chinese area. The peoples here are Uyghurs. Not too far away, over the mountains was not only Pakistan but also Afghanistan. With this being 1989 the Soviet Union was north of Afghanistan, surrounding Xingjang Province of China to the north east. Today the countries of Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and to the north of that Kazakhstan have replaced the USSR to border the province. These countries' presence did not diminish the impression of vastness that this part of Central Asia left on me, indeed their presence possibly added to that sense. Sitting there waiting for the bus allowed me time to take in the expanse and isolation of where we were. That and this sense of familiarity.

A group of people and their belongings are sitting at the side of a deserted road, with mountainous terrain visible in the background, while another person walks on the opposite side of the road.
A group of travelers sitting by the road in remote Xingjang Province, waiting for a bus.

Cadaqués, Spain by day and by night.

A collage of two views of Cadaqués, Spain. On the left by day, on the right by night. Both are looking across the bay towards Cadaqués with boats in the bay and the town, backed by a church spreading around the bay and up the hill. Green Mountains surround the town.

Nautical scene, Cadaqués, north eastern Spain.

A metallic “L” shaped object standing upright on the water’s edge. Behind is an ocean bay with an old sail boat anchored off shore

The Bullring in Alcácer do Sal. I believe that there are very few bullfights there, maybe two or three a year. One was due to take place just after we left Alcácer mid-June.

A black and white photograph of a bullring from the public park next door. In the foreground is a lawn and flowers. Then a fence and the circular wall of the bulging with cars parked in front.
Bullring, Alcácer do Sal

I find myself disagreeing with the idea of a bullfight. I don’t know what the majority feeling is in Portugal and specifically in Alcácer, though I have heard that one of the best bullfighters in the country comes from/came from the town? We were told by a friend in Alcácer that the bull is not killed in bullfighting in Portugal, though I don’t know when a fight is deemed to be over?

My wife and I discussed whether we would have attended if we had still been in Alcácer when the fight took place. I went from not at all to only if I could sit on a seat near to an exit should I choose to leave early. I started to feel that if I lived in Alcácer I had to understand the people and the culture better before offering my opinion.

My repulsion towards bullfighting comes from my sense that it is simply cruel to bulls and in this day and age does not have a place. I have a similar feeling towards fox hunting in the UK which is now outlawed. However, while I come from the UK and use to have fox hunts pass where I lived in South Wales and so had some experiential sense of that activity, I hesitate to call it a ‘sport’, I have not seen a bullfight. Could I critique that which I have not seen - yes, no, maybe? I felt better that I see it. That time will have to wait though.

Poop Fright

Now there is a click bait title if ever there was one. However I am guessing that what I am going to write about below is something that anyone who has traveled can relate to in some shape or form (please excuse the uncomfortable imagery).I have even heard the Dalai Lama in a public talk make reference to his own personal experience with disturbed bowl movements.

I am of course referring to one’s pooping cycle being interrupted and pushed off course by traveling long distances.

While I assume that the disruption to regular bowl movements is caused by a combination of lack of sleep and where the traveling involves crossing time zones, a confused body, I have also wondered if a psychological fear, dislike or uncertainty of the new toilet facilities also plays a part?

So this piece is not going anywhere in particular. I’m just voicing an experience that seems pretty common amongst long distant travelers, and has effected me recently due to international travel.

Too much information, sorry…but can you relate?

💩

Back in the land of the rainbows. Here is this morning’s. If you look closely, it is possible to make out a faint second one above the first. 🌈

A rainbow against a blue sky and above green hill, in the foreground is a bed of various shrubs and a lawn

Somewhere around 2010 I went to an evening celebrating the anniversary of the massive eruption of Mt. St. Helens that took place in 1980. There were three speakers at the event. Gary Snyder, Ursula Le Guin and a scientist whose name escapes me, but who had worked at the blast zone since the eruption.

The evening was memorable for the very different and personal accounts of Mt. St. Helens that the three speakers brought. I remember Ursula Le Guin speaking about watching the eruption from her house in Portland, Oregon.

Now other writers will be able to enjoy the view of Mt. St. Helens from Le Guin’s house, as her home is set to become a writer’s residency.

🏝️ I drove up to my acupuncture appointment this morning with the windows open instead of the A/C on, enjoying the tropical smells and humidity of the island.

The air, the landscape was so still and quiet this morning. You’ll probably have to turn up the volume to hear the bird song in the recording below.

Blue sky and clouds capturing the orange light of a rising sun, above the silhouette of a long bush and tree

🥵 After the dry heat of Europe, I forgot how hot & humid Maui can be. My gratitude for the Trade Winds that keep the islands cooler than they might otherwise be.

🙉 As we make our way back home, I find myself wanting to push back on the familiar sights, sounds and stimuli that are returning to us, and instead hold onto the tastes and experiences that the last three months have brought.

Letting go is not always easy.

🛫 We will soon be taking off from Barcelona airport. San Francisco next stop. Starting the journey home…though I’m starting to wonder where that is right now?!

🛌 My bed wouldn’t let me get up this morning. At least that is my excuse and I’m sticking with it.

Out walking, pounding the streets of Barcelona.

The shadow of two people walking on hard sandy coloured surface. A foot of each person is visible.