The Filth of Agra and the Beauty of the Taj Mahal

A teardrop on the cheek of eternity

The Taj Mahal was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, in mourning for his beloved third wife Mumtaz Mahal.  It’s a monument to the beauty and insanity of love, and it truly is ‘A teardrop on the cheek of eternity’ as stated by Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.  After seven months of travel, meditation, paragliding, and kayaking in the remote mountains of Asia, the Taj was a critical chance to illustrate our endeavors to certain perplexed members of the extended family – we needed a picture for grandma.  Caroline did everything in her power to make a respectable looking man out of me in my threadbare, hash-holed paraglide pants and finest wrinkly travel shirt.  Not to be outdone, she scrubbed at seven months of stains in her P-Gucci summer dress, pinned up the hair, and put on her nicest Havaianas..

For grandma

Out the gate and around the corner

Before going inside the Taj, we strolled down to the river to catch the timeless image of the Taj reflected in the waters.  A particular moment stands out against the backdrop: walking down to see one of the most iconic images of beauty and purity in the universe, we passed a large heaping garbage dump.  A young street-urchin girl was crawling through the garbage in a filthy blue dress, sorting for treasures amongst the heaps.  She looked upwards, noticed us from the distance, and waved out in joy.  HELLO!!! She yelled, waving her hand.  HELLO!! from her cute, stained, dirty little face.  And just as quickly, she turned back to her garbage and continued the search, full of vigor and enthusiasm.

We of course returned the greeting, then walked onwards.

Inside the beautiful marble walls of the Taj Mahal, one can completely forget the dirty and chaotic world outside.  Every school child in the world knows of the splendor of this place,

Flowers carved in to sandstone

yet up close the intricate details only serve to broaden the magnificence.  The macro alignment of every feature to every other as well as to the cosmos or directions was accurate to an inspiring degree.  At the micro level, every surface was decorated with elaborate stone and shell inlays to form patterns of flowers, designs, and hidden symbols of blessing to the universe.  Certain patterns of inlay are set in a stone that reflects vibrant color from the day’s sun, while others glow under the light of the moon.

In every detail, the Taj Mahal truly is a monument to the power and beauty of love.

Climbing the Limestone Karst Towers of Yangshuo

Caroline in Green

The fabled land of limestone karsts towering abruptly from ancient rice fields, Yangshuo is the archetypal image of China.  The place is renowned amongst global travelers for its classic beauty, and amongst the smaller world of climbers it is known for its world-class sport climbing.  We came for a little of both.

Drying rice in the sun

Throughout our China travels, many of the fellow travelers we encountered considered the bike ride through the exotic countryside of Yangshuo to be amongst their favorite China experiences.

Limestone karsts

Black Diamond sponsors a local climber named Abon, one of China’s strongest.  His prowess on the rock has now earned him tickets to climbing events throughout the world.  He was kind enough to lend us a rope and some quick-draws while we were in town so that we could spend time out at the crags.

As always, a favorite aspect of mountain-sport is the way it draws you off of the travelled path and deeper in to the experience of a place.  Following a climbing treasure map, we rode our bikes into a small farming village, pushed them along rice-paddy trails, and eventually carried them through the thicket to arrive at the base of a limestone tower.  Once there, we encountered more of the local climbing crew.  It was cool to see how similar they were to the rest of the underground climbing world, despite the huge differences in surrounding culture.

We climbed for several days in the stark countryside, clinging to limestone towers surrounded by rural farmland, complete with little bent-over farm ladies chasing their water buffalo through the rice paddies!

Scouting climbing routes in Yangshuo