Category Archives: Random

Most posts will be in this category I guess…

The Potter and the Clay

Ruth’s china decorating class recently had an exhibition in of the town’s local council buildings as a part of the end of term celebrations. Ruth’s course began last September, but many women have been attending for a couple of years. Because Ruth only joined the course a few months back (yes, she snook in despite usually having to wait till September for the new intake!), none of her work was exhibited (she has only been doing practice work to try out the skills needed). However, it was very exciting to see the quality of work that her coursemates are now able to produce. Hopefully one day she will also reach that level… we’ll see…

You can see some examples of the class’s work by clicking on the photo below.

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Hidden Gems of Istanbul

We’ve been enjoying the sunshine and getting around to some of Istanbul’s lesser known (to us) sights. Our latest trip took us to Rustem Pasa Mosque and to the Eyup shrine, both breathtaking and intriguing in their own way. You can find pictures from our trip by clicking the photo below.

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The Rustem Pasa mosque was a jewel in the crown of Mimar Sinan (Sinan the Architect) whose work includes some of Istanbul’s finest historic sights. This tiny mosque is nestled on top of a higgledy piggledy assortment of bazaar-like shops, and, slipping a veil over my head as we entered through a shadowy archway and up some spiralled stairs, it seemed that we could be going back to Sinan’s time. The meydan (courtyard) is small but prettily arranged with plants and some tiled walls that, although stunning in themselves, are actually an aperitif to the stunning mosque interior. Slipping off shoes and entering into the mosque, it feels as though one is entering an Aladdin’s cave; a true diamond in the rough exterior of Istanbul’s bazar district. Every inch of wall was covered in exquisite tiles, and the height of the domed ceiling added a grandeur wholly unexpected in a place so small. Although we couldn’t stay long, I felt as though we should have stayed for hours just soaking in the beauty and paying tribute to the workmanship that had so lovingly crafted this jem-like place. Here are photos of the china tiles from Rustem Pasa Mosque, Eyup and Pierre Loti; click on the photo below to view the album.

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From there we took the halic (Golden Horn) boat to Eyup. The boat journey itself presented a chance to admire Istanbul from a new vantage point, and although the Golden Horn is notoriously more industrial than the Bosphorus, it still has some sights along the way to redeem itself and give interest to the eye.

Eyup is a pretty, leafy little town that gives the illusion of spaciousness despite hugging the base of a clifflike cemetery. The place has a great importance for more religious Turks as it has a shrine to Eyup, considered to be the standard bearer of their Prophet. It is therefore considered a holy place, and going there is deemed to bring blessing to the pilgrim. In fact, there is even a special area dedicated to circumcision, and families often take their young sons there as they believe that such rites of passage are entrance points for either blessings or curses into family life. Above the cemetary there is also a famous cafe, Pierre Loti, named after a French Turkophile writer who, it is supposed, frequented the cafe. Although the cafe only serves beverages, there are also a couple of eateries that also profit from the commanding view back down the Golden Horn. We sat there and enjoyed our Menemen and Manti, traditional Turkish dishes, before taking the steep cable car back down to the town.

It was then time to visit the shrine ourselves, and, entering alongside many pilgrims, it was amazing to see the homage paid to the relics (including a stone said to bear Eyup’s footprint), hear the fervent prayers, and observe the respect as people walked backwards out of the place so as not to turn their backs on the shrine itself. The walls were again lavishly adorned with tiles that showed countless hours of painting and design.

Leaving the shrine, we then meandered through the town and along to another fine mosque the Zalmahmut Pasa Mosque. Although we didn’t enter it, the courtyard provided a welcome rest amidst leafy pergolas, tea drinking locals and one friendly, ‘lazing in the sun’ cat. What a treat to live in such a richly cultured, and intricately woven tapestry of a city.

And About Time Too…

Well, after threatening to become more dormant than Vesuvius, Kata Markon is back! And goodness me, an awful lot has happened since August 29th 2006: Mark’s return from China, moving to Nottingham, getting engaged to Ruth, moving to London (at which point Ruth headed out to Paris), frequent trips to Paris, and planning a wedding! But, there’s still been time to party along the way, not least at the marriages of Richard and Rachel, and David and Felicity! Hurrah! You can find the photos in the gallery, or by clicking on the appropriate photo:

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Back to Beijing

I’m now in Beijing. The overnight train ride was the longest train ride I’ve ever been on, weighing in at just under 17 hours. I slept for a lot of that time as I had a bed – praise God, and I also made conversation for a few hours with a police lawyer who is at college in Beijing, read most of Romans and talked to several other random people. I’ve got internet in my (quite expensive – £10/day) hotel room in Beijing, so I should start putting pictures up soon and back-dating my blog with entries about what’s actually been happening in China this year.

I’ve just added 50 photos from our travels so far, so have a look here: china2006/travel/

Further Insights into Creation, Leg Hair and the Chinese Black Market

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Wow – the national park was really amazing, and as a picture is worth at least a thousand words, I’m not going to attempt to describe it in detail here but rather post some photos and panoramas on my gallery soon. It was so nice and relaxing to be able to sit by the side of the great lake, looking over to North Korea and talk with each other, and meditate on God more deeply – such great times of fellowship; thanks guys!

Anyway, we arrived at about 3pm on the 24th after our 6 or 7 hour train journey. We had some good chats to random people on the train who spoke a little bit of English. There were some students travelling with us, going back to visit their families for a week or two before restarting university elsewhere in China, and they tended to speak quite good English. We also had some fun ‘conversations’ with some Chinese people who wanted to teach us Chinese, but unfortunately we didn’t really know enough Chinese for the purpose, and they knew no English. Many people outside the major cities find white people fascinating because they are seen so seldom. Even as you walk through a town (particularly Tonghua), you can feel the eyes of the multitude upon you and often-times people come up and want to see how much Chinese you really understand. I’ve even had grown men come up to me and stroke my arm and leg hair because no Chinese people have these. It gets quite strange sometimes…

The first person we met when we got off the train at Baihe was a guy called Cao, who was just about the only person there who spoke much English – praise God. It turns out that his family are pretty much the ones in charge of the tourist trade in Baihe and Changbai Shan. We tried to get train tickets for the return journey (I want to go to Tonghua and the others will go to Shenyang and then on to Xi’an to meet up with other people travelling afterwards), however because Baihe is quite a small station (currently being built), they are unable to issue tickets more than a day in advance. Cao was of course interested in having us stay in town and commute to the park each day, however it is only slightly more expensive to live in the park and not pay the entrance fee (150 Yuan = £10) each day, so we chose that option in the end. We stayed in a rather run-down youth hostel place, which, it turned out, gave us free entry into a Korean-style (i.e. naked) hot-spring place for baths. Although it was quite a dump, it was the cheapest place in the park for us to stay (100Yuan (£7) /person/night), the next cheapest was about seven times the price, almost into English hotel prices! That evening, we planned the next day and then went to sleep at about 9pm because we were so tired!

On the 25th, we all went to the Heavenly Lake (Tianche), going past an amazing waterfall and stunning views of the forests stretching to the horizon, and mountains stretching far up into the sky (the highest point in the park is about 2600m, and the air is noticeably thinner than at ground-level, although very fresh and crisp, especially compared to Beijing air). We wandered up onto some of the taller mountains surrounding the lake and spent most of the day sitting there admiring God’s creation. Again that evening, we were so tired we all fell asleep before 10pm.

The next day, Peter was sick several times in the night and spent the day in bed. The four of us went to the ‘underground forest’ (a forest which is in a valley, carved out by the river which runs from the Heavenly Lake), and then went to see some of the less impressive waterfalls (less impressive than the big waterfall; by themselves they would be very impressive elsewhere). I started to feel a bit queasy that morning, and by midday I was pretty faint. Nonetheless, we had to head back into Baihe and so we left the park at about 3:30 and headed back to the town (a journey of about 45 minutes by taxi). We got a youth hostel room at Cao’s hotel (5 people in one room for 70 Yuan (£5.50)) before I started to be sick, and then spent the evening there. We tried to buy train tickets so that I could get back to Tonghua and the others could get to Shenyang, which is a story in itself…

As I’ve mentioned before, trains in China usually have a sleeper section; most trains only have ‘hard sleeper’ (i.e. triple-decker, about 50 people in one carriage) and ‘hard seat’ (like normal British second class trains, but sometimes overcrowded and smelly, especially on 10-hour train journeys). Because China is so corrupt and the rich are so greedy for more gain, only about 10% of these hard sleeper tickets make it to sale to the general public at train stations. The rest, it turns out, are dealt with shadily through travel agents and railway employees, eager to make some mark-up from the demand. Despite knowing some of this, even I had not realised the extent to which the Chinese railways were corrupt before we tried to buy these tickets to Shenyang.

The four people going to Shenyang (about 14 hours by train from Baihe) were naturally eager to have hard-sleepers, which do not cost that much at the train station (about 100 Yuan (£7)). Cao’s brother said that he was able to acquire us those tickets (plus 10 Yuan (70p) per person in mark-up), despite them not being on sale at the ticket-office. We agreed to this and he said he would come to find us at midnight and give us the tickets. At about 9 O’clock, he came to our hotel room and tried to get money from us for the tickets. After about 30 minutes of talking to him in our broken Chinese and his broken English, we worked out that he did not actually have the tickets himself but rather wanted the money to go and buy them. We gave the money to him (the mark-up now doubled) as long as he would allow one of us to go with him to see the tickets, assuming he would simply purchase them from one of the numerous travel agents. He said he wanted me to go with him, and as my strength had returned a bit and I’d stopped throwing up, I agreed. We went out towards the railway station in the pitch-black night with the rain pouring down (yep; the weather was quite English…) but then walked past it and into the car-park which was even darker. At the entrance to one of the hotels overlooking the car-park, he met another man who had obviously stood there for a little while and had been smoking quite a lot. Nods where exchanged, and then they walked a little further, hopping a fence to get into the station and, crossing the railway tracks on foot we entered into one of the stationary trains. We were greeted by two Chinese ladies who worked on the train, one seemed to be the accounts manager and the other the train manager. They took us to one of the smoke-filled hard seat carriages and proceeded to haggle for about an hour with the second man (seemingly a ticket-broker to travel agents) over the price of the tickets. Eventually, a number was arrived at and the broker bought about 20 hard sleeper tickets, all the ones which were left on the train. I don’t know how much of the money which he paid actually went to the railway company, and how much to the ladies pockets, but I’d guess it was about half-half; I had always wondered how the people who worked on the trains had such nice watches given they probably weren’t paid very much.

Leaving the train and crossing the tracks once more, we went to a different hotel where three travel agents were already sitting, cigarettes in hand, waiting for the broker to arrive with the tickets. It turns out that they wanted about twice the number of tickets than the broker had managed to get from the train staff, and so there was quite heated debate between the travel agents as to who would get which tickets. In the end, because I was there in person and taller than any of the travel agents (stature seems to hold quite a lot of sway in China), I managed to get 4 sleeper tickets, rather than the two that the broker initially offered. In the meantime, the others had purchased 5 hard-seat tickets from Baihe to Tonghua in the event that we weren’t able to get the tickets to Shenyang, and so when I left to go to Tonghua that evening I had a row all to myself which meant I was able to lie down and get a bit more sleep than if I had just had a normal hard seat for the journey.

This morning, I arrived in Tonghua and have now spent the day in bed trying to recover from this sickness. I (rather remarkably) managed to find a travel agent here who can get hard sleeper tickets to Beijing, so tomorrow I’ll be getting an overnight train to Beijing and staying there for the remainder of my time in China.

The Joys of Chinese Railways…

Yesterday (23rd) we had a nice lie-in, packed and tried to find some DVD’s to watch on the train. We had lunch in a similar noodle restaurant and then went into central Dalian to try to find the train station. We got a little lost on the bus, but eventually managed to get to the train station, and after waiting in the waiting-room for about two hours, got the 16:07 to Tonghua, which arrived at 6am this morning. Trains in China are rather different to trains in England, not so much in terms of what they are, but rather in their function. England has quite a small railway network by Chinese standards, but almost every town or village has a railway station. In China, to have a railway station a city needs to have several million people or be quite large and on a direct line between two big cities. The trains in China seem to function more like short-hall flights in England, with buses and taxis doing the rest of the transportation. The overnight train that we were on was quite good, we had managed to get hard sleepers somehow, but they were better than the other hard-sleeper carriage on the train, perhaps because we were going the full distance rather than a partial distance. Even on trains which go over the day, you can still get beds because it is much more relaxing than having seats. Six hours on a Chinese train in a bed doesn’t really feel like any time at all compared to six hours on an English train.

This train journey from Dalian to Tonghua was quite fun because we were able to talk to several people, a few Chinese and a few Koreans (heading back to North Korea?). There was no air conditioning, which is probably why the ticket price was so low, but the train didn’t get too hot because we kept the windows open (which helped to get rid of the smoke from cigarettes) and there were also fans which were rather noisy and klunked quite a lot, but I managed to sleep very well. The only problem with hard-sleepers is that they wake you up a while before you arrive at the station and try to take all of your bedding etc. away so it can be washed. This morning, the lights came on at 4:30am and all the bed-clothes were stripped off by 5:30. We arrived at Tonghua at 6am, rather tired but managed to get 5 tickets to go on the next stage of our journey, travelling to Baihe.

I’m writing this on the train, and it’s now about 10am. The train left at 8:15 and we should arrive about 2:30pm. The tickets were an incredible 21 Yuan (£1.40) each; I’m not sure you could even get a 10 minute train journey for that, and we are going for over 6 hours! It seems from what I saw at the station that Baihe is a growing city, whereas the several-yearold internet site with the railway timetable on has no direct trains from Baihe to Beijing or Shenyang (a big city in the north-east of China), there are now trains which you can get on from Baihe which let you go straight to these places. When I tried to buy tickets from Tonghua to Beijing, I wasn’t able to get a sleeper, even 4 days in advance, so I hope that when we arrive in Baihe there will still be some tickets free, or we can get them through a travel agent. If this doesn’t happen I will just have to wait outside the station a while before the train departs because there are always people looking to sell tickets for a small mark-up. If I still can’t get a hard sleeper, I should be able to get at least a seat, but on a 15-20 hour train journey that isn’t the safest or most ideal option, particularly if I’m travelling alone as the other four will be going to Xi’an via Shenyang.

Tonight we’ll be heading to a national park (the largest one in China) which borders North Korea, so I’m not sure when I’ll next be able to get on the internet to update my blog with pictures of the journey and the park.