There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Friday, 25 November 2011

Three Favourite Buddhist Temples and Monasteries: Beijing, Lhasa & Kharkhorin

I am not a believer, but I am interested in religion and I have a soft spot for Buddhism. It seems to suffer less from the false piety that often spoils other religions. Buddhists are relaxed and tolerant in their observances; you are supposed to walk clockwise round temples and other religious sites, but if you get it wrong, nobody shouts at you or tuts or even stares. I like that, and it somehow makes me try harder to do it right.

I like religious buildings.  I like their architecture, I like the history they contain and I like the sense of community they embody. Building a church, mosque, or as in this post, a Buddhist temple is somebody’s attempt at the sublime. Sometimes it is built for the greater glory of god, sometimes for the greater glory of the builder. Here I am appreciating their efforts not judging their motivation.

Yonge Gong, Beijing

Built in 1649, what is now the Yonghe Gong was originally a residence for court eunuchs. It then became the palace of Prince Yong, who turned part of the complex into a lamasery when he became emperor in 1722. On his death in 1733 Tibetan Buddhists were invited to take over the whole site. Developments since then have produced buildings which mix Tibetan and Chinese styles. 

Lynne at the Yonghe Gong

The temple complex survived the Cultural Revolution and re-opened to the public in 1981. One of the charms of the place is that after so many years of religious repression many would-be devotees do not seem sure of what they should be doing.

Uncertain worshippers, Yonghe Gong
The temple contains a remarkable 18m high statue of the Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood.

Maitreya Buddha carved from a single piece of sandalwood

The Drepung Monastery, Lhasa

The Jokhang temple, in the centre of Lhasa, is the heart of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a fascinating place to visit and I hope to get round to writing about it one day, but as a building it is not very photogenic. The same is not true of the Drepung Monastery.

Five kilometres outside Lhasa, Drepung is the largest monastery in Tibet. At its peak there were as many as ten thousand monks. There are now less than a thousand, and with tight Chinese control the monastery lacks the moral authority it once had, but when we visited in 2005 it was clearly a thriving community. 

Just Part of the Drepung Monastery Complex

It is a large complex on many levels on the side of Mount Gephel.  Climbing from courtyard to courtyard up steps that were more ladders than staircases was hard work. It was our second full day in Lhasa and the thin air at 3500m (11 500 ft) took its toll. Lynne leaned against a wall to get her breath and then slowly slipped down to a seated position. Leaving her in the ticket office in the care of some solicitous and friendly monks I continued alone.*

Drepung Monastry
Sadly, she missed the hall full of monks chanting sutras.....

Chanting monks, Drepung Monastery

....the monk's prayer hall near the top of the complex.....

Prayer Hall, Drepung Monastery
....and this view of a lone monk standing on a roof, surveying the world.

Waiting for his kettle to boil, Drepung Monastery
True son of Tibet that he is, he stands behind the gold encased finials waiting for his kettle to boil.

* Lynne got her own back four years later. In 2010 she went to see the palace of Tipu Sultan while I languished in our Mysore hotel suffering the after effects of a dodgy murgh makhani.

Erdene Zuu, Kharkhorin, Mongolia

Erdene Zuu is some 300 km from Ulan Bator. Getting there involves a long drive, most of it over grassy steppes - quite literally, there is no road.

Ghengis Khan built his capital of Karakorum on this site in around 1220. Not being a settling down sort of guy, Ghengis soon moved on, though the city thrived for a while before being destroyed by a Ming army in 1388. The monastery of Erdene Zuu was built in 1585, using such remnants of Karakorum as were available. The site is surrounded by a wall containing 100 stupas. 108 is a mystical number in Buddhism, so perhaps somebody miscounted when they were building the stupas.

Erdene Zuu

The modern 'city' of Kharkhorin - actually no more than a big village - is marked by the industrial looking smoke in the distance.

Stupas, Erdene Zuu

By the end of the 19th century there were over 60 temples on the site, but in 1939 it was largely destroyed by the communists.

Survivng Temple, Erdene Zuu

Inside a temple, Erdene Zuu

What remained then became a museum but in 1990 the site was handed back to the lamas and again became an active monastery.

Monk taking a prayer wheel for a walk, Erdene Zuu

Saturday, 5 November 2011

The Cowpat Walks: 1 Ironbridge Gorge

After spending some 25 days between February 2008 and May 2011 walking in large circles first round Stafford and then round Swynnerton, followed by a smaller circle round Stone (which appears on this blog in three parts here, here and here) we were running out of places to go.

Francis suggested a series of circular walks around points of interest on or near our previous routes. I, somewhat whimsically, wanted to call them petal walks. Mike observed that they were roughly circular and scattered randomly about the map so should be dubbed ‘cowpat walks’. I hate it when somebody has a better idea than me, but here I nobly admit defeat: Cowpat Walks they are.

We gathered at Mike’s for bacon and oatcakes. Thus fortified, Mike drove us to and then round (or was it through?) Telford. Apparently 162 000 people live there but, like Milton Keynes, the other 1960s invention I drive through regularly, it is hard to tell if you are in the town or not. Where is Telford? What is it hiding?

Telford may be difficult to spot, but the same cannot be said of the Wrekin. This 400 m high pile of ancient and heavily weathered lava dominates northern Shropshire and can be seen from Swynnerton some 40 km north – and indeed from much further away. Little Wenlock sits at the foot of the Wrekin and we parked on the southern edge of the village. The last houses enjoy a spectacular view across the Severn valley to the Long Mynd, Caer Caradoc and Clee Hill. They should also be able to see the Wrekin, just a mile to the northeast, but today it was sulking beneath a bank of cloud.

The Wrekin - somewhere inside that cloud.
 We walked south over the small protuberance of Braggers Hill and down towards the Severn.  We soon had an excellent view of Ironbridge power station. There were few spots on the walk where we could not see either the power station or the Wrekin (mist permitting) - or both. The current version of the power station has been generating electricity since 1967. It may be hard to believe, but it was designed to merge as seamlessly as possible into its natural surroundings. The concrete of the cooling towers has a red pigment, granite chippings decorate the turbine hall, and it hides round the corner of a cliff so as to be invisible from Ironbridge itself. Friends of the Earth claim it is the second most polluting power station in Britain per megawatt output. There are no plans to reduce its emissions to meet modern standards and it will close in 2015 [Update Dec 2015: It was converted to burning wood chips in 2013 and closed in November 2015].

Ironbridge B - a coal fired power station opened in 1967

A long, straight, stony descent brought us to the river just east of Buildwas. 

Mike wears shorts in November
We, and the A4169, crossed the river on a bridge built in 1905 to replace Thomas Telford’s original. The constructors seemed pleased with their efforts and erected a commemorative plaque. I paused to wonder what the great engineer would have made of the city named after him, then I plodded across the somewhat nondescript bridge that replaced his 18th century structure.
The constructors seemed pleased with their efforts
As we crossed the bridge, a coxed four appeared round the bend in the river. Rowing downstream they moved with impressive rapidity and soon passed beneath us.

Moving swiftly with the current, River Severn
For a kilometre we had no option but to follow the main road away from the river, passing Buildwas Cistercian Abbey. Maintained by English Heritage, the ruins are open to the public but are too well screened by trees to be worth a photograph - and hardly worth a mention.

Crossing the Severn valley from the Malverns to Breedon Hill had taken us a whole day (or more accurately two half days a year apart). Here, 60 km upstream, it took less than an hour. Crossing back at the Ironbridge gorge would take minutes.

Leaving the main road we struck off south west into low wooded hills. After some climbing, some contouring and some more climbing we emerged into an open meadow near the top of the hill.

A nice picture of the stile which allowed us to 'emerge into an open meadow'
In front of us the land dipped and rose to more woodland, the trees clothed in their autumn colours.
'In front of us the land dipped and rose....'
We stopped briefly for coffee before descending the hill, crossing the A4169 and turning north across open farmland. This side of the hill we could not see the Wrekin but the power station chimney (at 205 m the tallest structure in Shropshire) was there to guide our steps.

The power station chimney was there to guide our steps...
A minor road took us to the hamlet of Wyke from where we crossed more farmland to Benthall Edge. A kilometre west of Ironbridge the river bends north and the cliff that forms the southern edge of the gorge turns south, leaving enough space between them to accommodate a modest power station.

As the cliff leaves the river it becomes wooded and less precipitous. We followed the Shropshire Way on its long descent across the face of this scarp. On the bank we could see clear signs of old workings, the first indication that there had once been industry here.

Alison leads the descent
We passed the fourth cooling tower of the power station and reached the river, though we were still 40m above it. Turning east we followed the stream and descended steadily. We noticed the first buildings of Ironbridge village on the far bank, then caught sight of the bridge itself through the trees. Soon we emerged on the road beside it.

Brian and Alison would help with the route finding - but only Francis has a map
Major advances in iron smelting were made near here by Abraham Darby in the early eighteenth century. Cast iron became much cheaper (and locally abundant) so in 1775 Thomas Farnolls Pritchard designed an iron bridge to be built across the Severn. He died in 1777 but the work was taken on by Abraham Darby III, the grandson of the man who had made it possible. The world’s first iron bridge was opened on the 1st of January 1781.

The settlement of Ironbridge grew up around the bridge. Tourism started early and in 1784 the bridge’s owners built a hotel to accommodate visitors. We marched across the bridge and straight into that hotel in search of lunch. The less said about the sandwiches the better, but the Station Bitter, from the Stonehouse Brewery in Oswestry, was exceptionally good. 

The Iron Bridge
After lunch we paused briefly to photograph the bridge before heading straight up the side of the gorge through village streets too steep and narrow to have ever carried wheeled vehicles. As usual on walks, I phoned Lynne to assure her that I was still alive and fully intended returning home. The steepness of the path meant that most of the call consisted of heavy breathing. I do not make a habit of this.  

I'm doing heavy breathing on the phone AND trying to take a photograph -
no wonder I'm lagging behind 
No sooner had we climbed up, than we started down, through more woods, towards Coalbrookdale. The path was signed to ‘Paradise’. I have always thought of Paradise as being vaguely ‘up’ but the descent was steep; indeed purgatory for those with arthritic knees. We emerged beside the Coalbrookdale Youth Hostel in a street called ‘Paradise’. The youth hostel, housed in a 19th century former literary and scientific institute, is an imposing building, but none of it quite lived up to my concept of paradise. Come to think of it, I have only a hazy idea of what paradise might be like – it might even involve a bar of chocolate-coated coconut.

Abraham Darby’s blast furnace was located in Coalbrookdale and fired by coal from drift mines in the surrounding valleys. Pedants might point out that the Industrial revolution did not start on one place, it involved a range of new ideas developed over a wide geographical area, but given the importance of cheap iron and the early date involved, Coalbrookdale has some justification for claiming to be the cradle of the industrial revolution.

In its pomp, Coalbrookdale looked more like hell than paradise, at least according to the 1801 painting ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’ by Philippe Jacques de Loutherburg, which now belongs to the Science Museum in London. I have shamelessly half-inched this image from Wikipedia.

Coalbrookdale at Night
Industry can look bad, but post-industrial dereliction looks worse. Coalbrookdale has gone beyond that and arrived at post-industrial cute folksiness. We passed the iron museum, a row of cottages that must soon form part of a museum and an old furnace pond. All this, along with the iron bridge and Blists Hill Victorian Town, forms a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Furnace pond, Coalbrookdale
We also passed the Aga cookers factory  - some industry does remain in Coalbrookdale. Ironbridge, however, was never particularly industrialised and the largest factory there belongs to Merrythought Teddy Bears. This may not be heavy industry, but they are responsible for producing the mascots for the 2012 Olympics.

We left Coalbrookdale along the Rope Walk, a long straight path above Leamhole Brook once used by ropemakers for stretching out and twisting together the strands of hemp. As the path left the village the surroundings became more wooded and the path became rougher. It rose gently and although we were quite deep in the valley, the brook was a long way below us.

The Rope Walk, Coalbrookdale
The path, such as it was, eventually climbed out of Leamhole Dingle. Crossing the bridge over the main road, we found ourselves back in open farmland. A field of unharvested maize and another where a bull eyed us warily before running away brought us back to the top of Braggers Hill.

Back to the top of Braggers Hill
Sunset made the Shropshire hills look much more impressive and mysterious than they really are....

Sunset over the mysterious hills of Shropshire
but we turned our backs to them and retraced our steps down and then up to Little Wenlock and the end of the walk. 
Down and then up to Little Wenlock
Thanks are due to Mike for providing breakfast and doing the driving, Francis for planning the walk and doing all the map reading (well that is what happens when you are the only one with a map), and to Alison T who just happened to be taking a cake from the oven as we returned: fine timing, fine cake.

The Cowpats

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Three Favourite Mosques: Turpan, Esfahan and Cairo

I said at the start of Three Favourite Churches that I am not a believer, though Lynne is. I should add here that neither of us are Muslims, but I like mosques for the same reason I like churches. I like the architecture, I like the history they contain and the sense of community they embody. Building a church or a mosque is somebody’s attempt at the sublime, sometimes for the greater glory of god, sometimes for the greater glory of themselves. Here I am appreciating their efforts not judging their motivation.

The first and third of these mosques appear elsewhere in these pages. To read about them in context, click the link.

The Emin Mosque, Turpan, China

The Emin Mosque, Turpan
Turpan, in Xinjiang, is an oasis city on the northern rim of the fearsome Taklamakan Desert. The Xijiang Uigher Autonomous Region is in China's far west and is more Central Asian than Far Eastern. The Uigher's are not ethnically Chinese and they speak their own Turkic language which is written in Arabic script.

Corridor Inside the Emin Mosque

Turpan is famous for its intensely sweet green raisins. The Emin Mosque was built amid the vineyards on the edge of the city in the eighteenth century by Prince Suleiman and named in honour of his father Emin Khoja. The region was incorporated into China during the Qing dynasty, but the Qing treated their empire with a light touch and encouraged their supporters in the building of this mosque. Uighers have been Muslims since the tenth century but after decades of communist repression, religious observance in Turpan is not overt. We walked round the elegant building and its well-tended grounds, the beneficiaries of much government cash. Perhaps significantly, the building is no longer in use as a mosque. The design, particularly the huge pepper pot  minaret - at 44m the highest in China - recalls the great mosques of Samarkand and Bukhara. It may lack their rich colours, but the clean, simple lines make this the most elegant of buildings.

The Sheik Lotfallah Mosque, Esfahan, Iran

The Sheik Lotfallah Mosque, Esfahan
Imam Square, also known as Naqsh-e Jahan Square (Image of the World Square) in Esfahan is one of the world's great city squares. Its is huge, over 500m long and 160m wide, but it is not the size that makes it great, it is the way everything fits so perfectly. It is surrounded by a two story arcade of shops broken only by a palace and two extraordinarily fine mosques. A third great mosque, the Friday Mosque is a short walk away through the Great Bazaar which also opens onto the square.

Under the dome of the Sheik Lotfallah Mosque
The Sheik Lotfallah Mosque is the smallest of the three and was built between 1603 and 1618 as a private mosque for the Shah's hareem, which is why it needed no minarets. It was once connected to the Ali Qapu Palace by a tunnel under the square and the entrance was guarded from prying eyes. It is now open for anyone to enjoy.

The Ibn Tulun mosque, Cairo, Egypt

The Ibn Tulun Mosque, Cairo
Ibn Tulun was appointed ruler in Egypt by the Caliph of Baghdad in 868 AD. He promptly declared independence and founded his own dynasty, which ruled until 905. His mosque, built in the ninth and tenth centuries, is massive and plain. It's open courtyard 'has the grandeur of the desert where all of Allah's worshippers are prostrated equally beneath the sun' (The Rough Guide to Egypt). It was extremely hot the day we were there and we had the place to ourselves. The simplicity and quietness were impressive - few places in Cairo are ever quiet - but I would have thought that worshipping in the open courtyard was a recipe for sunstroke (maybe I have spent too much of my life in the chilly north).

The unusual minaret with an external spiral staircase is traditionally said to have been the result of Ibn Tulun  absent-mindedly twisted a scrap of paper and then justified his fiddling by presenting it as a design for the minaret.

The arcade, Ibn Tulun Mosque
Around the arcade is a sycamore frieze. It is over 2 km long and bears a fifth of the Koran in Kufic script. That must have a taken a dedicated person a long time.

see also
Three Favourite...............