Monday, May 14, 2018

Ruins in the Transcaucasus Unofficial States

Red flakes of paint peel off a fence in a field
Of changing thrones and shifting boundary stones that yield
The right to steer but not to interfere.________
__________________________It's evident
That the weapons they thought were heaven-sent
Were from the neighbor trying to stay relevant.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant the revival of national ambitions for many of its former republics, but it also meant the revival of many age-old ethnic tensions. This was especially true in Transcaucasia, the sliver of lands south of the Caucasus Mountains on the border of Eastern Europe and Western Asia, which today hosts more unofficial sovereign states than any other part of the world. The series of wars that erupted in this region following the collapse of the Soviet Union was as vicious as it was predictable.

In the early 90s, Georgia lost control of two of its regions, Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which it maintains as parts of its territory to this day. For many Abkhazians and Ossetians, distinct ethnic groups with their own languages and cultural identities, the fall of the USSR was a golden opportunity to shrug off foreign claims and reassert their independence. Abkhazia, in particular, enjoyed the status of an independent Soviet republic until it was downgraded to an autonomous region within the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia in 1931, a decision which would lead to decades of resentment and protests. In July 1992, following the outbreak of war in South Ossetia and the subsequent freezing of the conflict, the Abkhazian government declared its independence from Georgia. The Georgian National Guard was immediately dispatched to restore control over Abkhazia, resulting in a bloody one-year conflict. The Abkhazian separatists received support from Chechen, Cossack and other North Caucasus and Russian militants. High levels of corruption in the Russian army led to arms being provided to both sides, but the bulk of Russian support went to the Abkhazians. Russia continued to see the post-Soviet space as under its dominion, and having a foothold in Georgian territory would enable Russia to apply pressure to the Georgian government at will and maintain its authority in the region. And so another frozen conflict zone was not the concession but the goal.

The capital of Abkhazia, Sukhumi, was heavily bombarded by Russian fighter jets toward the end of the war, and today it still bears the scars of the bloody conflict that took place here. The hollow remains of bombed-out structures bear testament on every street. Schools display the pockmarks left by sprays of angry bullets, and family homes are nothing more than derelict skeletons entwined with weeds. Visions of the war dominate conversation as much as they do the architecture of the city. Every conversation tends to reminisce about life "before the war," and resentment toward Georgia for its part in the war would seem to preclude the possibility of there ever being a peaceful reunification. "You see this school?" one teacher asked me. "This bombed-out school? It's not normal. Georgia bombed everything during the war." "Why are you photographing this or that?" a suspicious police officer continued. "Are you planning to take the photos back to Georgia for some nefarious purpose?"

The tallest building in the country, the former Abkhazian parliamentary building, was completely burned out during the war, and today it remains as a silent reminder of the conflict. In the interlude, an entire ecosystem has developed within its decaying wings. Not far away in the center of the city, the large Glory Park, the city's principle sight for national celebrations, displays plaques that list the names of those who fell during the war. While national tragedies should never be forgotten, it might not be healthy to dwell upon them on a daily basis.

What's clear is that this small, unofficial state is still struggling to pick up the pieces of what it once was 25 years after the conflict and redefine itself as something more than a breakaway state. At the end of each September, Abkhazians celebrate their Victory Day over Georgia, but it's hard to see what exactly they won in their war for independence. Abkhazians have traded autonomous status within Georgia for complete economic dependence upon Russia. They are also unable to obtain visas to travel to Europe, the UK, the US or Canada on account of their disputed status. Only four UN member states recognize Abkhazia, while the rest support Georgia's claim of sovereignty over the territory. Abkhazia is a country forgotten by the world and where the societal mindset is fixated on living in the past, and short of a shift in attitude that's unlikely to change anytime soon.

500 miles to the southeast lies the Republic of Artsakh, also known as Nagorno-Karabakh. This unofficial state and frozen conflict zone can trace its origin through a similar sequence of events to those that created Abkhazia. The region has long been disputed by Armenia to the west and Azerbaijan to the east, and a seemingly arbitrary last-minute decision by Joseph Stalin to append the territory to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan in 1921, when the population of the region was over 94% Armenian, has been a thorn in the side of the Armenians ever since. Just as in the case of the Soviet decision to append Abkhazia to Soviet Georgia, Stalin understood that border lines that enflame regional ethnic tensions serve to reinforce Russia's hegemonic influence by making Moscow the sole neutral mediator in the ensuing conflicts. When the USSR collapsed and the influence of Moscow was diminished in the resulting power vacuum, war was inevitable. Again Russian arms found their way to both the Armenians and the Azeri, and again mercenaries were heavily used by both sides to wreck widespread destruction. After years of fighting, Armenia forces secured control over Nagorno-Karabakh and the adjacent Azerbaijani territories. Today the region is an independent state with almost complete reliance on Armenia, with whom the population shares an ethnic and cultural identity. Azerbaijan and the bulk of the international community, however, maintain that the region is sovereign Azerbaijani territory. The status of the region has led to the spoiling of relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as Armenia and Turkey, a close ally of Azerbaijan.

As with Abkhazia, the war disrupted a lot of lives and has had an enduring effect on the people still living in the area. Ruined homes and mosques fill old Azeri cities, and the ghost town of Agdam, once home to bustling population of 40,000 Azeris, looks as though it were the victim of intense aerial bombing. One small town has taken grudge-holding to a new level by constructing a long wall of Azeri license plates removed from cars that had been captured or abandoned during the war. Outside of the capital, roads are regularly shut down so that Artsakh soldiers can train with live ammunition, and brief bouts of fighting have been known to break out between Artsakh and Azerbaijani soldiers along the border.

And yet Artsakh seems to offer a brighter hope for the future than Abkhazia. The capital of Stepanakert, which suffered immeasurably during the war but remained in Armenian hands, today shows few signs of disrepair. The most vivid reminders of the war have been isolated in less populated regions, and this has enabled people to live their lives without constant reminders of past suffering. The largest and most iconic monument in the country, a large stone carving of two heads, is not a war-time relic but rather a statement on the region's shared cultural heritage, and every holiday is an opportunity to exhibit that culture. The locals, furthermore, tend not to frame the war as a conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but rather as just another episode of an ancient clash between Islam and Christianity. They seem to have lost a lot of the targeted malice that the war generated, and I think this is in no small part due to the architectural reconstruction following the war. When the buildings are healed and the most visceral and evocative testaments to the conflict are removed, then the people can begin to move on with their lives. It's a lesson that Abkhazia would do well to heed.

September 17, 2017
October 7, 2017

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Living a Story in Himalayan Nepal

In rolls of fame the heroes shine,
Sprung from Tenzing's stalwart line,
Who daily death and cold contest
To guide the treks to Everest.

I've just flown into London and I'm about to catch my transfer to Chicago. Looking at my transfer ticket, I realize it's not a plane ticket but a bus ticket. Thunder Dome Bus Station is on the other side of the city, I have to take several taxis to get there. Each taxi driver quotes prices upwards of £300, and I have to tuck and roll out of the car doors to avoid getting ripped off. Finally I make it and grab the last seat on the triple-decker intercontinental minibus between a guy in superhero spandex and a vampire in a gorilla suit. What happened after that I can't recall because I slipped into another equally vivid dream. In reality, I was in Lobuche, a small Nepali settlement situated at 16,210ft (4,940 meters) above sea level and one day's hike from the base of Mt. Everest. Strange and lifelike dreams are common occurrences when sleeping at high altitudes on account of the low oxygen, and there's no more likely place to experience this phenomenon than Nepal, where just the average elevation is higher than the highest points of 141 of the world's countries. Here in the shadow of Everest imposing peaks loom in every direction and plumes of wind-blown ice crystals unfurl from them like heraldic pennants proclaiming each summit's majesty. Beneath the rugged spires of rock and the treacherous ridges of ice, avalanches of cloud careen through jagged canyons before spilling out over the vast Khumbu Glacier. At night, the world's tallest mountains seem like humble hills when silhouetted against the vast canopy of blazing stars. A grave marker dedicated to an unsuccessful alpinist near the base of Everest seems to encapsulate the experience of ascending to the lofty realm with a simple exhortation - "live a story."

And yet Nepal, which hosts some of the most popular hikes on the planet, offers a surprising range of diverse climates and habitats to explore. The trek to Mt. Everest base camp traverses valleys of lush terraced rice farms before winding up over cloud-shrouded cliffs and knife-edge ridges to finally climb high into echo chambers of frozen waterfalls and snowy bluffs beneath the austere gaze of the world's highest peaks. Another well-known trail around Annapurna I, the deadliest of the 8,000m+ mountains to climb, begins in warm and humid jungles at just 840m above sea level before ascending through fields gushing with greenery to dense pine forests, arid canyons and icy lakes skirted by impassable and menacing curtains of snow and ice. Both hikes together cover 311 miles (501km) of foot trails, climb up to 18,208ft (5,550m) above sea level, take roughly 40 days to complete and pass through dozens of picturesque villages and settlements brimming with warm teahouses to welcome weary travelers.

The people that call these slopes and valleys home are all-around hard-working and generous hosts, many of whom have grown dependent upon tourism for their livelihood. Gracious hospitality is considered a core virtue, and "guests are god" is an oft-repeated mantra. The customary greeting is to press one's palms together in front of the chest and say "namaste" ("I greet the god within you"). The ethnic Sherpas that inhabit the areas near Mt. Everest belong to the Nyingmapa sect of Tibetan Buddhism, which emphasizes mysticism and shamanistic practices. They believe spirits dwell in every rock and tree and conduct ceremonies and rituals to appease the deities and demons inhabiting their mountainous homeland. Mt. Everest is known as "Chomolungma" and worshiped as the "Mother of the World."

Established rituals build strong community ties, which are essential for surviving in rugged, high-altitude areas. Every year before the summer monsoon season, each village celebrates the Dumje Festival, where a few households take turns reaffirming their commitment to the community by providing all of the food and entertainment. The men of the village drink a local barley beer named chhaang during the festivities, as well as raksi, liquor made from millet. Strong family bonds and clear gender roles are also essential for communities where marriages are typically arranged. Men are charged with plowing the field and engaging in trade, while women are tasked with fetching water, collecting firewood and maintaining the house. It's not uncommon for young children as old as five or six to be fully responsible for their younger siblings.

Most people in rural villages care little for politics outside of those governing local affairs under the purview of family and religious elders, but during campaigning seasons for national elections large delegations march from village to village promoting their candidates. Villages all along the trails marked the occasion with an abundance of hammer and sickle flags, beneath which gatherings of men in dhaka topi (a national hat that resembles a garrison cap) assembled to listen and voice their grievances. Cowboy hats, which have been fashionable to wear ever since a 1905 British expedition to Tibet wore Stetsons, are also not uncommon. The ruling social-democratic party lost a lot of influence following their mismanagement of the 2015 earthquake relief and a gas blockage with India, and in 2017 a coalition of two communist parties swept the national elections for the first time. They were the first elections to be held since 1999 following a volatile eighteen years marked by a bloody civil war, a coup, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and a truly horrific royal massacre by the crown prince.

Although roads are continually being constructed in the areas around the Annapurna mastiff, much to the detriment of the trails there, many rural villages are still only accessible on foot. This has given rise to a thriving porter culture. Trekkers frequently share the trails with locals in flip-flops carrying wicker baskets on their backs with the aid of a rope stretching over their forehead and a short yet heavy cane that doubles as a stool. Everything from wood to food to trekkers' packs to mattresses is piled up to the sky on their backs, a feat that requires incredible strength and endurance to manage. Mountaineering porters, the true heroes of Everest, have become so indispensable to anyone planning to summit one of the Himalayan peaks that the Sherpa people, with their knowledge of the terrain and ability to perform at high altitude, have become synonymous with the profession. The first people to summit the world's highest mountain were Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953. Since then, Sherpas have gone on to claim most of the world records associated with the mountain. Pack animals - namely mules at lower altitudes and yaks at higher - are typically used to carry the heaviest burdens, like rice and gas canisters. More exotic local species, such as musk deer and blue sheep, are also regular sights along the trails.

The long walk to Everest is almost as spiritual an experience as physical, so it's appropriate that the trails themselves should pay homage to the Tibetan branch of Buddhism that has held sway here since its introduction in the 8th century. The most visible of these tributes are the stupas painted with the eyes of the Buddha and prayer flags, which are called "lung ta" (wind horse) in Tibetan. Prayer flags come in five colors, which are associated with the five astrological elements (blue for space, white for water, red for fire, green for wood, yellow for metal). The horse in the center is associated with air and symbolized speed. He carries on his back the three jewels: Buddha, Dharma (Buddhist teachings) and Sangha (the greater Buddhist community). In a religious context, this symbolizes the rapid transformation of negative forces into positive ones. On the corners of the flags are four animals: an eagle (fire), a dragon (water), a tiger (wood or air) and a lion (earth). The flags are said to aid those who see, touch or simply breath the air the flags come into contact with in resisting greed and ignorance and achieving Nirvana. Surrounding the lung ta are ancillary flags bearing mantas from three of the great Buddhist Bodhisattvas, including Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism from India to the Himalayas. Prayer stones and wheels, the latter of which typically surround Buddhist monasteries, are also decorated with mantras and serve a similar purpose to the flags. Wind-powered and water-powered prayer wheels cleverly facilitate the effort of sending forth prayers and blessings to all sentient beings.

Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are brightly colored inside and out and are adorned with vivid images and designs of religious significance. Here monks in maroon robes recite prayers and mantras daily to the sound of traditional instrument like conch shells and long tonqin horns, which generate a deep wail that sounds like the mountains themselves are lending their voices.

A common feature on the insides of the temples is a Bhavacakra, a visual representation of the Wheel of Life, which is depicted as a wheel of four concentric circles. The wheels depicts Samsara, or the cycle of rebirth, and the moon in the top left-hand corner of the image represents Nirvana, the ultimate goal and the only escape from endless reincarnations. In the very center of the wheel and at the center of Buddhist philosophy are three animals, which embody the three poisons or central character flaws of Buddhism - ignorance (represented by the pig), hatred and ill will (represented by the snake) and attachment and greed (represented by the bird). The animals are often depicted biting each other's tails so as to demonstrate how these three roots of suffering are all interconnected. The most important of the group is ignorance because it is from ignorance that anger and greed are derived. In particular, it is the ignorance of impermanence. When we realize that everything and everyone is temporary, we do not become attached to the things around us or become frustrated with them. The path to Nirvana involves accepting that all things are constantly changing, an idea symbolized by the fearsome figure, the embodiment impermanence itself, seen clutching the wheel. The second layer of the circle represents karma, the byproduct of the three poisons in action, and is separated into two halves. The light side with joyous people represents good karma, and the dark side with miserable people bad karma. Those with bad karma are reborn in the lower realms of the next circle, which depicts the six realms of suffering in Samsara. Although these six realms are divided into the lower realms of suffering and the upper realms of pleasure, they are infinitely inferior to the ultimate goal of Buddhism, which is to escape the cycle of rebirth, and thus they are all deemed "hells." The zombie-like denizens of hungry ghost realm in the lower plain wander in desperate hunger and thirst but are unable to ever satisfy their needs. Those in the animal realm suffer the constant dangers and toils that accompany rebirth in animal form. And finally there are the torturous and fiery hell familiar in Western teachings, eighteen in all. The remaining realms of Samsara are the demi-god realm, the god realm and the human realm. Although the first two are characterized by boundless pleasure, the inhabitants are often so caught up in envy or pride that they forget that pleasure is a meaningless and temporary distraction and find themselves on the lower half of the circle in their next life. Humans, in turn, suffer from hunger, thirst, heat, cold, separation from friends, being attacked by enemies, not getting what they want, and getting what they don't want. They also suffer from the general sufferings of birth, old age, sickness and death. Yet it is only the human realm where the practice of Dharma and ultimate escape from the cycle of rebirth in Samsara is deemed possible because here there is neither constant pain nor enduring pleasure to distract them.

Many modern Buddhists prefer to interpret these different realms as metaphors than strictly as worlds. For example, moving up into the realm of the gods could be interpreted as being born into a wealthy and powerful family, whereas a hungry ghost might be someone born into a poverty-stricken family. This offers an explanation for the inequities of our stations at birth and for how practicing Dharma may be more difficult for some than for others. It also serves as the basis for the caste system in Nepali and Indian society. Yet for more traditional communities, the realms of the gods and the hungry ghosts are all too real. In some places, should the first-born son die young, it is customary to preserve his body in salt and bury it in the wall of the family's home to protect the residence from hungry ghosts. Doorways are also frequently built short because hungry ghosts, according to tradition, can't bent forward.

Ultimately, karma too is just a distraction, and while being a good person and helping others might seem like laudable pursuits, I was told in no uncertain terms that they are not the vehicle to Nirvana. This ultimate goal can only be achieved by lifting the veil of ignorance, recognizing everything as temporary and severing your attachments to the world. These feats, in turn, are accomplished through meditation, a strictly regimented lifestyle and withdrawal from human affairs. The latter idea can be effectively summed up in the Tibetan word "gompa." Although it is generally translated into English as "monastery," a more accurate translation would be "a remote and disconnected place."

One of the most interesting Tibetan Buddhist events in the vicinity of Mt. Everest is Mani Rimdu Festival at Tengboche Monastery. Days of quiet prayers to the Buddha of compassion, Chenzig, culminate in a colorful and communal celebration marked by dances and blessings. The masked Cham dances of Tengboche Monastery come from Rongbuk Monastery in Tibet and reenact the establishment of Buddhism in the Himalayas by the legendary Guru Rinpoche. The sixteen dances delight the crowd and convey Buddhist teachings in symbolic form - the conquering of demons symbolizes the overcoming of hatred, greed and ignorance through meditation on compassion and wisdom. In one dance deities and devils engage in complicated choreography to the buzz of ritual instruments, in another exorcisms are performed and evil influences and dispelled. In the middle of the day-long ceremony are two comedic interludes, during which masked performers draw from the crowd of tourists and chastise them in Sherpa, a derivative of the Tibetan language, to the delight of the locals. One of the fools carries trekking poles and wears a mask with a gigantic nose to poke fun at the Western tourists who flock to this region. The local Sherpa continue the festival in the courtyard of the monastery, where they sing and dance away all harm in the world until the early hours of the morning.

October-December, 2017