Saturday, September 25, 2021

Near the Top of Asia, the Kingdom of Lo (Part 7, Heading South)

Heading south out of Lo Manthang

Dear readers, we have walked to the remote capital of Lo Manthang in Nepal's Kingdom of Lo and ridden horses to the monastery of Nyiphu near the Tibetan border. But autumn was approaching, and it was time to head south and, eventually, home. 

Leaving Lo Manthang, we walked south through a rather desolate and bleak landscape. Imagine the winter here at 3,800 m elevation. For our trek south, we followed the eastern route which approximately follows the Kali Gandhi River. We crossed a couple of passes exceeding 3,900 m elevation, but it was not hard walking, and we had been at that altitude for over a week.

Modern steel girder bridge at Charang
Charang (Tsarang)
Long day in the saddle, Charang

Charang (or Tsarang), at 3550 m is the first town south of Lo Manthang. We stayed in the Kailash Hotel, a rustic but clean place. Note from the photographs above that we still had magnificent weather, with nights just a bit below freezing. It was October 14, so winter would be here soon.

A ruined palace, once the home of the Raja of Mustang, strategically overlooks the town.

Dhargyeling Monastery, Charang

The Dhargyeling Monastery in Charang, possibly over 500 years old, is a treasury of statuary, painting, and sacred scrolls. How do these pigments survive the brutal cycling from cold to hot?


In another day, we reached the village of Ghami, where we had stayed a week before. From here on heading south, we retraced our steps along the Kali Gandhi River. 

Main Street, Syanboche
Packing up at the Dhaulagiri, Syanboche

Our next night was in Syanboche (also Syangbochen? approx. 3,800 m), really little more than a dirt street between some houses. 

Sure-footed walking near Chungsi
At the Annapurna, Samar

Samar was a rather well developed town, just a short distance above Chele and the crossing of the Kali Gandaki. North of town, the road passed through some treacherous terrain of landslides and rotten rock. We saw road crews trying to cut the road across some cliff-faces. We learned later that in the following winter, parts of the road were swept away in landslides. Our horses were more sure-footed than we were.

The next day, we walked across the river and stayed again in the big town of Kagbeni, which I described in Pat 2 of this series (click the link).


Oh, oh, traffic, electricity, stores, lights - after another day's walk south from Kagbeni, we reached Jomson, the main commercial town of southern Mustang. Jomson has many hotels as well stores, a health center, and an airport. This was a major stop on the Annapurna circuit, so it has received tourist traffic for decades.

Jomson was the last stop for most of our group. They returned to Kathmandu by air. Within about a week, brutal cold descended into Central Asia, and many Mustang villagers had to head south abruptly. 

I opted to continue south on foot and walk down the fantastic valley of the Kali Gandaki. The river cuts the deepest canyon in the world between the 8,000-m peaks of Dhaulagiri and Annapurna. This amazing 4-day walk carries your through several biologic zones as the elevation drops and the temperature goes up. You are in high altitude desert at Jomson and semi-tropical rainforest at Tatopani. I wrote about this canyon walk in 2017. Highly recommended!

This ends one of my best hiking trips ever. I hope you enjoyed riding (walking) along. 

Friday, September 17, 2021

Near the Top of Asia, the Kingdom of Lo (Part 6, Nyiphu Monastery)


Waypoints from a Garmin Geko GPS receiver. Mystique is the guesthouse in Lo-Manthang. Maps made with ESRI ArcGIS software

North of Lo-Manthang, the terrain looks dry, wild, and forbidding. But humans have inhabited this area for at least 2500 years, indicating there was sufficient water for agriculture and animal husbandry. The cliffs around the valley are riddled with caves, some of which were used for human occupation hundreds of years ago. Many were tombs and contain religious relics dating back to the origins of Tibetan Buddhism.

Chhoser is a small town in the valley north of Lo-Manthang. I think this is where we bought tickets to visit the monastery. In the photograph above, note the rock walls made of rounded river rock. I assume this is one way that the villagers cleared the land to make it suitable for some agriculture (barley?) or grazing. You see similar rock walls in New England, where settlers in the 1600s and 1700s cleared rocks from the land and used walls as a disposal method.

The  Nyiphug Namdrol Norbuling Monastery is north of the town of Chhoser and is partly built into the mountain. We rented horses for the 8 km. trip north out of Lo-Manthang. Our Sherpa guides walked, but we wimpy lowlanders opted for the bumpy luxury transportation.

Ancient books wrapped in silk
Modern notebooks at a study table
Buddha backed by a modern commercial decorative cloth (or tablecloth?)
The rooms built into the rock are decorated like many gompas, with colorful fabrics, a sitting Buddha, candles, some electric lights, and a variety of offerings donated by pilgrims. Fascinating.

Monks occupied some of these caves in solitary meditation, sometimes spending months or years alone. Other caves shielded families in the past during warfare. I am not sure how they handled water supply. Some caves contained tombs dating back thousands of years. A 2017 Public Broadcast System (PBS) NOVA program described an expedition to investigate Secrets of the Sky Tombs. We were able to climb up to some of the caves, which have passageways and platforms that are semi-safe for tourists.
View from a cave above Nyiphug Gompa
This is a very special place. And the remoteness and culture will be profoundly changed when the road is complete down the Kali Gandaki. Already, the road to China means Chinese trade goods come in from the north. What happens when mass market tourism comes via bus? As David Ways wrote in 2019:
For trekkers the dreaded road from Pokhara to Lo Manthang to Tibet is not yet as bad as some people make out (it only exists in small sections and is completely off-road). However, once it is finished and the trading route to China is fully open there’s little doubt the Kingdom of Lo will disappear into folklore and package tours much like the Annapurna Circuit of 10 years ago.
Returning to Lo-Manthang
As of 2011, Lo was still a magical place, a time capsule of tradition and a way of life little changed over the decades. I am glad I visited this remote part of the world. When the COVID crisis is finally under control, consider a trip to the Kingdom of Lo. 

These are digital images from a Panasonic G1 digital camera. This was Panasonic's first micro four thirds (µ4/3) camera and was very refined for a version 1 product.

Saturday, September 11, 2021

20-Year Memorial: Destruction of the World Trade Center, New York City


Dear Readers, 20 years ago, the unthinkable happened. On September 11, 2001 terrorists commandeered commercial jet airplanes and two of them flew into the World Trade Center Buildings in New York City. The first plane went into the North Tower at 08:46 am. The second plane flew into the South Tower at 09:03 am. Within an hour and 42 minutes, raging fires caused both towers to collapse into a gigantic pile of twisted steel, smoldering debris, concrete, and rubble. Several other buildings in the complex also collapsed. In total, 2,977 victims died and over 25,000 sustained injuries. At least 8,000 first responders have died since then from toxic dust in the air near the site.

America changed forever. We engaged in a "War on Terror," which had profound consequences on the countries involved, our adversaries, our allies, and us. In some ways, we prevailed. Jihadist organizations have not mounted a successful external terrorist act in the USA since 2001. 

But for 20 years, officials in the US Government lied to the American public about the success or lack of success in the wars. Deceit became entrenched, an unspoken conspiracy to hide the truth. We never learned the real goals of the war, the definitions of success, or the cost. The longer the war lasted, the more its “grotesque subtext” of nativism and racism moved to the foreground of American politics (Spencer Ackerman, 2021. Reign of terror, How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, Viking Press). 

Many of the divisions, hatreds, suspicions, intolerance, and viciousness that we see today in our domestic politics stem from those two decades of warfare. In a long article by The Washington Post by Carlos Lozada titled, "9/11 was a test. The books of the last two decades show how America failed," Lozada points out,

Rather than exemplify the nation’s highest values, the official response to 9/11 unleashed some of its worst qualities: deception, brutality, arrogance, ignorance, delusion, overreach and carelessness. This conclusion is laid bare in the sprawling literature to emerge from 9/11 over the past two decades — the works of investigation, memoir and narrative by journalists and former officials that have charted the path to that day, revealed the heroism and confusion of the early response, chronicled the battles in and about Afghanistan and Iraq, and uncovered the excesses of the war on terror.

America was indeed knocked off balance. As William Galston wrote in American Purpose, the fact that the USA is now "weaker, more divided, and less respected than it was two decades ago" was due to our own choices, not prescience by Osama bin Laden or other jihadist theorists. 

  • Now we have renewed domestic right-wing terrorism here at home, although the state's security apparatus can probably keep it under control. 
  • Now we lie to and deceive ourselves, and we have the Covid pandemic running rampant. 
  • The 9/11 terrorists did not manage to fly a plane into the Capital, but American traitors attacked it on January 6, 2021. 
  • We invaded Iraq to dispose an autocrat, but several contenders here in USA want to impose autocracy on the USA. 
  • We tried to teach Iraqis and Afghans to hold free and fair elections, but in many US states, Republicans are undermining voting access for minority citizens and corrupting the vote certification mechanisms.

Civil war is coming to the USA (or is already here), and we did it to ourselves. 

How will history books a century from now describe the war and its consequences? Who will write these history books?

Some Photographs

World Trade Center, May 30, 1997 

This is the view of the WTC from the rooftop of 270 Broadway. I attended a meeting in that building on the top floor, and the view was too good to resist. This is a vertical panorama using an Olympus Zuiko 35mm ƒ/2.8 shift lens, with one frame shifted fully down and the second frame shifted up. I joined the frame with Photoshop's >Automate>Photomerge function. It is amazingly effective. Click to see the panorama at 3000 pixels

South Manhattan panorama, May 30, 1997, from 270 Broadway

This is a horizontal panorama from the roof of 270 Broadway. My lens was not wide enough to include the top of the World Trade Center towers. Click to see 5000 pixels wide.

West panorama from 138 Lafayette Street, New York, Dec. 9, 1994

I took this panorama from the rooftop of the old Holiday Inn at 138 Lafayette Street. Back in the mid-1990s, this was one of the few hotels in lower Manhattan. Now there are dozens of trendy hotels. The Holiday Inn was a bit grungy, but it was convenient to the Federal Center, where I had business. The smog is over New Jersey.

New York view south from roof of 138 Lafayette Street (Leica IIIC, 5cm ƒ/3.5 Elmar lens, Kodak Tri-X film)

This is another view south from the roof of the Holiday Inn at 138 Lafayette Street. The tall building in left center is the Jacob Javits Federal Center. Click to see the photograph expanded.

Manhattan view north from the South Tower of the World Trade Center, April 29, 2001. Panorama consists of four frames from a Rolleiflex 3.5F camera with 75mm lens. The north tower is on the left of the scene. Click the photograph to see the full-size image.

Notes from the 10-Year Anniversary

I wrote about the World trade Centers on the 10-year anniversary. Please refer to these earlier articles:

The early years before 2011:

The later years and destruction:

Thank you for reading. I hope I can write an article in 2031 at the 30-year anniversary.

Sunday, September 5, 2021

Near the Top of Asia, the Kingdom of Lo (Part 5; Lo Manthang)

 Lo Manthang is the largest town in remote north central Nepal, near the border with Tibet. According to Wikipedia,

Lo Manthang was the walled capital of the Kingdom of Lo from its founding in 1380 by Ame Pal who oversaw construction of the city wall and many of the still-standing structures. After the Shahs of Gorkha forged Nepal out of numerous petty kingdoms in the 18th century, Lo became a dependency but kept its hereditary rulers. This arrangement continued as long as Nepal remained a kingdom, until the country was declared a republic in 2008 and Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista (c.1933–2016) was stripped of his title. His protector King Gyanendra suffered the same fate, however the raja or gyelpo of Mustang was 25th in a direct line of rulers dating back to 1380 AD. 
Crossette (1996) provides some of the cultural and mid-20th century background to Lo: 
Until the unification of Nepal by Gorkha kings in the eighteenth century, most Tibetan borderlands were not really a part of the country. Psychologically, many pockets still are not. The kingdom of Mustang, nearly 150 rugged miles from Kathmandu in a protuberance thrusting into Tibet, was one of them until Nepal opened the territory to develop­ment and  trekking.  In upper Mustang, the Buddhist kingdom of Lo, with its walled capital, Lo Manthang, broke free of Tibet in the fourteenth century, reached its height about a hundred years later on the strength and income of trade with Tibet, and enjoyed an independent existence for nearly four hundred years. During that time temples and a few palaces were built in what was called Mustang Bhot - Tibetan Mus­tang. "Bhot," ''Bhotia," "Bhutia,'' and other variations of the word often mean Tibetan to South Asians in the same way "Hellenistic" meant not quite Greek but within the influence of the Greek world. The word, probably a variation of ''Bot," originally meant Tibet in the Tibetan language. 
Although the kings of Mustang had lost all their residual powers and the formal use of titles in the 1950s, Mustang was a wild card as late as the 1960s, when Nepal was unable to do much to stop a Tibetan exile guerilla force based there with what is widely assumed to be substantial help from the United States Central Intelligence Agency. The guerrillas, known in Nepal as Khampas because most were from the Kham region of eastern Tibet, obviously never stood much of a chance against the Chinese army in Lhasa, but they could serve as an annoyance to Beijing. Tibetan exiles in the Indian hill town of Darjeeling told me, with linger­ing bitterness, that American enthusiasm for their cause ended as sud­denly as it had begun when President Richard M. Nixon recognized the Chinese Communist regime. Some Tibetans went on fighting until the mid-1970s, when Nepal sent soldiers to wipe out the bases of the rebel­lion. About the same time, the royal government of King Mahendra introduced some development to Mustang, which had lost its Tibetan trade.
Lo-Manthang city map (only a bit not in scale)
Rooftops of Lo-Manthang
After walking for days northward through Mustang, Lo-Manthang seemed like the big city. We saw jeeps and motor bikes, some street lighting, stores, cows, horses, and guest houses. We even saw some satellite dishes, and the guest houses had wi-fi. Note the traditional wood sticks placed along the roof parapets. 
Winter preparation, Lo-Manthang, Nepal
Passageway supported by ancient timbers

The motorbikes have an interesting trade connection. As of 2011, the road south through the valley of the Kali Gandaki towards Jomson was not complete. We saw workers constructing sections of the road and learned that during the following winter, rock slides and avalanches destroyed some of their work. However, the Chinese had built a road north from Lo-Manthang to the border with Tibet. Therefore, most of the goods we saw in the small shops, such as packaged foods, cosmetics, candies, and propane bottles, came from China. We learned that several times during the year, Chinese traders held a fair at the border to which Nepalese buyers could visit without visas. That is where the Nepalese bought inexpensive motorbikes, petrol, spare parts, and who knows what else.

But change was ongoing already. As early as the early-1990s, Crosette (1996) describes the trip taken by a Nepali writer, Manjushree Thapa (1992), to Mustang:
She described the king's palace in Lo Manthang, with linoleum on the floors and men who drank themselves into nightly stupors while rolling dice. But she also wrote of the piety and devotion of people who had maintained their Buddhist temples and monasteries undisturbed by poli­tics over centuries. She sat down for tea with monks eating Chinese candy brought back from Tibet, where temples are once again open to them. One of their lamas made regular trips to Tibetan gompas, they said, where he was much in demand to say prayers, In return he brought back butter for the butter lamps of impoverished Lo Manthang. It was an interesting trade-off: the wisdom and piety of an unbroken Tibetan Buddhist tradition for the biscuits, sweets, and butter of soldier-rich, monk-poor Tibet. Tibetan gompas aren't alone in looking toward Lo for a rare cultural purity, Thapa wrote. With the barriers to outsiders coming down, Mustang, like Bhutan, will draw a special breed of tour­ist. "Because it promises a Tibetan culture more pristine than in Chi­nese-occupied Tibet, Lo is the darling of discoverers, adventurers and Tibetophiles," she said. But the outside world is alien, no matter what its motive for coming to Mustang. And outside influences were already making a mark before tourism began, as more people from this hidden kingdom traveled beyond its mountain walls.

Being a former royal capital, Lo_Manthang was full of ancient chortens. 

The raja's Royal Palace is a complicated, five-story structure built around 1400. Imagine the passageways and semi-forgotten chambers. There was probably a cistern to save rainwater. Does it have indoor plumbing now? Several large Tibetan mastiffs sat on an open porch and growled at everyone and everything.

The king signing a book. Note the magnificent furniture.
Dorky tourists with the King of Lo

Jigme Dorje Palbar Bista (Nepali:जिग्मे दोर्जे पलवर विष्ट) (1930-2016) was the unofficial King of Mustang (Mustang Rājā) between 1964 and 2008, when Nepal abolished the Monarchy. The King continued to live in the Palace, and local residents throughout Mustang continued to respect him and his opinions on cultural and administrative matters. We learned that he lived in the palace for the summer but spent winters in Kathmandu and Los Angeles. The raja died in Kathmandu at age of 86. His only son died at age 8, and the current heir to the throne lives in California, married to a Bhutanese princess. 

The school (read the sign for the full name) is supported by the American Himalayan Foundation. It is is a modern building and has electricity. 

Example of street lighting. 

I cannot remember how many nights we stayed in Lo_Manthang, either 3 or 4, making this a fascinating  cultural experience. GO before this remote part of the world changes forever!


Crossette, Barbara, 1996. So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas, Vantage Books, 320 p.

Thapa, Manjushree, 1992. Mustang Bhot in Fragments, Himal Books (Kathmandu), 139 p.


These are all digital files from a Panasonic G-1 digital camera. I may have posted too many pictures, but this is a fascinating site off the normal tourist route. 

Cover of So Close to Heaven

Monday, August 30, 2021

Grand Isle, Louisiana, before Hurricane Ida

Grand Isle, Louisiana (from Google maps)

We will temporarily interrupt the trek through the Kingdon of Lo (Mustang, Nepal) for a few photographs of Grand Isle, Louisiana, in a cheerful time before it was torn up and inundated by Hurricane Ida. According to the Weather Channel (Aug. 29, 2021), "Ida officially made landfall at 11:55 a.m. CDT near Port Fourchon, Louisiana, about 18 miles southwest of Grand Isle and about 60 miles south of New Orleans. Maximum sustained winds were 150 mph, making Ida a high-end Category 4." Any category 4 hurricane in the northern Gulf of Mexico is serious trouble because of the shallow continental shelf. This lets lets the winds push a surge of water ahead of the storm. Louisiana is so flat, the bayss and marshy islands are inundated. 

Grand Isle is the only inhabited barrier island along the southern Louisiana coast. The island is at the mouth of Barataria Bay, where it merges into the Gulf of Mexico. The island has been repeatedly hit by hurricanes during its era of recorded history, when storm surges rushed over the most of the island and destroyed building. I will not try to list the many storms here. 

Plantations existed on Grand Isle before the Civil War. The war effectively ended agricultural activity. Developers began to advertise the island as a resort in the 1870s, and steamship service soon brought vacationers from New Orleans. Meyer-Arendt (1985) in the Annals of Tourism Research (Vol. 12.pp.449-465) provides a readable and interesting summary of the island's development over the last two centuries. 

Grand Isle did have a short-lived gilded age. The New Orleans, Fort Jackson and Grand Isle Railroad carried sophisticated vacationers most of the way to the island. But the opulent Ocean Club hotel, built in 1891-1892, only survived one year before an immense hurricane with 175 mph winds overwashed the island and destroyed most of the buildings. The storm killed an estimated 1,600 along the Gulf Coast, and Grand Isle's gilded age came to an abrupt and terminal end. 

1953 aerial photograph of Grand Isle near Coulon Rigaud Lane (US Army Corps of Engineers Beach Erosion Board archives, Vicksburg, MS)

Grand Isle has been an erosion problem for the State of Louisiana and the US Army Corps of Engineers for decades. The Beach Erosion Board conducted one of its earliest studies of the island's erosion problem in 1937. The Corps also presented a Beach Erosion Control Study to Congress in 1955 (84/I H. Doc. 132-). The 1953 photograph above was one of the aerial photographs used for this study. Many other studies have followed. Mid-century, some agency built cross-shore groins to try to stabilize the ocean shore (see the 1953 photograph). These were rebuilt numerous times. Since then, the Corps of Engineers has built segmented detached (meaning offshore) breakwaters along the entire Gulf side of the island. They have added beach sand from offshore sand deposits numerous times. 

We do not yet know what Hurricane Ida has destroyed on Grand Isle. Late August 31, the Jefferson Parish president reported that 100 percent of the properties suffered damage. 

Long-term, the bigger issue might be relative sea level. The southern Louisiana coast suffers from the most extreme relative sea level rise in the United States (meaning the combination of water elevation rise and land sinking). Will Grand Isle be viable 10, 20, or 50 years from now?

By the way, there is a terrible 2019 movie titled Grand Isle, starring Nicholas Cage.

Morning at the Blue Dolphin Inn & Cottages is a sunny delight (in good weather).

Lunch or dinner at the Starfish Restaurant, with an old-fashioned ambience and friendly service. Chairs and tables from the 1960s? This building is at ground level and vulnerable. 

Cottage on Medical Lane, Grand Isle (Hasselblad 50mm Distagon lens)
Cottage on Chighizola Ave.
Cottage on Nacari Lane

On any barrier island, look for the Oak forest and you know you are in the most stable part of the island, the part that has withstood erosion and serious overwashing for decades or centuries. Only a small section of Grand Isle shows this stability, and only a few of the early 20th century cottages remain. Most of the other houses are newer and raised on pilings. You also see mobile homes up on piles, many rather nasty. Even the Our Lady of the Isle Catholic Church is a modern structure up on concrete piles. 

Over text few weeks, surveys and news reports will reveal the extent of damage from Ida. Rural Louisiana will be forgotten as the news concentrates on New Orleans, but people live and suffer in rural areas, too.

Long-term readers may remember some of my photographs of Hurricane Katrina damage in New Orleans: 
Katrina struck exactly 16 years ago. What an amazing coincidence. And recall, the botched federal response to Katrina's damage and flooding largely destroyed President Bush's presidenccy.