Friday, November 28, 2008

From a bridge to a wall

The Great Wall of China at Badeling

I'm grateful to Peter about his comments on my photographs from Olympic Park Seoul and, of course, I have no objection to him (or anyone) using them as a desktop wallpaper. As long as no one tries to make any money out of them - though that's pretty unlikely.
The photograph I am currently using on my own desktop is the one above of the Great Wall of China. It's quite a contrast to the serenity of Olympic Park, with its the lone walker striding into the distance. There were so many people crammed into this particular section of the Great Wall that it was more jostling than walking.
And yet... for me there was something serene and awe-inspiring about this location too.
As I stopped and looked out at the Wall, seeing it snake across the countryside in bizarrely random directions as it clings impossibly to the contours of the hills and mountains, and knowing that it continues like this for over 2500 miles, I felt a sense of awe and amazement at what had been constructed here.
Much of it, I suppose, is in ruins and the Chinese authorities have been quite clever to concentrate visitors on particular restored sections like this one (nearest to Beijing.)
Looking at all the people going up and down various sections of the wall reminded me of watching ants at work, except that ants seem to have a much greater sense of purpose about what they are doing.
If we are being watched from outer space (and whether we are, or are not, makes absolutely no difference to me...) but if we are, I wonder what our extra-terrestrial observers would make of our crowded highways and even of that scene above?
...And back down here, with all the gloomy news of recession and Credit Crunch (possible name for a new breakfast cereal perhaps...?) do any of us really know where we are going?

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Bridging the Gap

I've always been fascinated by bridges.
I once had the "brilliant" idea of photographing all the bridges over the River Clyde, from source to estuary and writing an illustrated book telling the story of each bridge. (Some of them are pretty old, it has to be said.)
I gave up the idea when I realised that it is almost impossible to say which of the small tributaries that come together near Abington is the real source of the Clyde and also when I realised I couldn't be bothered doing all the research that would be necessary.
There are plenty of bridges in South Korea. It is, after all, a very mountainous country. Seoul itself has something like 27 bridges spanning the Han River- some of them quite impressive feats of engineering.
We came across the construction of a new bridge on our journey towards the border with North Korea and I managed to snap a few pictures from the window of our fairly fast-moving bus. (Hence the blurring in the foreground.)
I wanted the pictures because it seemed to me that this unfinished bridge was a symbol of our developing partnership.
In so many areas of life - not least in the Christian Church - there is a desperate need to tear down dividing walls and at the same time to build connecting bridges.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Olympic Park

Talking of exercise... the favourite form of exercise in Korea is also one of the least expensive... walking! Every morning, hundreds of thousands (maybe millions) of the citizens of Seoul religiously set out for a walk. It's the same in the evening. And, not surprisingly, one of the favourite places to walk is Olympic Park - a real oasis in the midst of the busy city, full of measured pathways so that you know exactly how many kilometres you have covered. And (of course) beautifully kept!
Given the number of people who were in Olympic Park on the morning I took these photographs, it was quite an achievement to make it look so deserted.

Monday, November 17, 2008

And on a lighter note...

Just to prove that newspapers are not completely full of bad news... there is a little snippet in today's Herald (not in the electronic version) which says that "songs that make our hearts soar can make them stronger too." Apparently even just listening to 'heart-warming' songs can be good for your heart, and this very non-aerobic form of exercise has a similar effect to that of recently-lauded medications, such as statins and ACE inhibitors.
I would just want to add that singing such songs yourself (including inspiring hymns) is even better.
It has long been known that singing has positive health benefits for everybody (except occasionally for those who may be in earshot??)

Thoughts on a depressingly rainy Monday morning

At the North Korean border

Since yesterday was the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church* and also the start of Prisoners' Week, our evening service last night focused entirely on the plight of Christians in various parts of the world who are oppressed, imprisoned and persecuted because of their faith.
Following on from my recent visit to South Korea, we included a special focus on North Korea.
North Korea is, as most people will know, a very closed society out of which it is very difficult to get accurate impartial information but the estimates are that there are about 400,000 Christians in North Korea and anything up to a quarter of them are currently imprisoned, many of them subjected to torture and some to execution.
Religious persecution is, of course, nothing new, and down through the centuries the Christian Church itself has often been guilty of horrendous abuses of power, especially in relation to Jews, and to Muslims at the time of the Crusades.
There is something very dark and dangerous in our human nature that is able to pervert the thoroughly wholesome desire for a sense of belonging and togetherness into the brutally destructive impulse to cast out those who seem to be different, or to attack those who do not belong to your tribe.
The attitude of Jesus himself was directly opposed to this sectarianism and he deliberately, and provocatively, stepped over boundaries in the company he kept and in his willingness to embrace the stranger. Of course, we know where that led him.
It has never been easy to stand up for the truth.
I was disturbed this morning to read a number of articles in the Herald that indicated that all is not well even within our so-called 'free' world.
In the first of them is the shocking statistic that one in four children have been bullied because of their faith.
Another article reported on the intolerant attitude of many adults in our society to children in general. (Apparently, half the population believes children are dangerous and behave like animals!)
In a third is reported the sadly predictable reaction of some people in the USA to the election of Barack Obama in a wave of racially-motivated crimes all over the States.
As well as praying for those (of all faiths) being persecuted around the world simply because of what they believe, and praying for those who persecute them, we also have to be constantly vigilant about what is happening in our own back yards. Somehow we have to 'stamp out' the small fires of intolerance that could easily be whipped up into the wildfires of outright hatred.

*in some places Sunday 9th November was observed as the Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church

Saturday, November 15, 2008

New Horizon

Another picture of the sun rising over the East Sea near Sokcho.

I have just returned home from a "reunion."
To be honest I wasn't really looking forward to it... though as things turned out I am very glad that I went.
I think my apprehension was related to another reunion that I had attended in 1988 to mark the 400th anniversary of my secondary school (Hamilton Academy.) That event had taken place in the old school building itself and I found the whole experience a little bit disorientating - not because everything had changed, but on the contrary because most things seemed to be still the same as they had been more than 20 years previously.
Of course, many of the people had changed... outwardly at least.
The trouble is - I found the whole school reunion thing so superficial and even artificial- and I kept asking myself why I was there? What did I really have in common with all these other people?
A few years ago I also attended a reunion of my Final Year group from University (Divinity Faculty) and I found it equally strange. Just another poignant reminder of how quickly time passes.
But tonight's reunion somehow was quite different.
The purpose of the evening was to mark the 35th anniversary of a Christian singing group that I used to be in and of which, for a while, I was one of the leaders. The group was called "New Horizon" and it was formed in 1973. I had to leave the group in 1978 when I began work as an assistant minister in Castlehill Church in Ayr.
After I left, the group continued for another 17 years, performing and recording under the excellent musical leadership of Ian Watson. Since New Horizon continued long after my departure many of the newer members of the group were people I did not know, and had never known, and I think part of my apprehension (apart from my previous 'reunion' experiences) arose out of the feeling that since I had only been in the group at the very start of its life, I wasn't really a very significant part of its whole story. In the event that feeling quickly disappeared on entering the hall.
It was just a big family reunion.
But what made tonight special was that I met some people I hadn't expected to meet (and, to be honest, had always thought I might never meet again) and found that in spite of all the intervening years we could easily talk with each other as if we'd last met on Tuesday!
It's as if things that really matter to you never change and yet are always new.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Take my breath away

The standard of driving in Seoul is not quite as hair-raising as that of Beijing (where taxi drivers seem to be on a perpetual mission to drive people to pray - well every taxi journey I took certainly drove me to pray... for safety!!)
But the driving style of Seoulites can still leave you a bit breathless when you are but a passenger, especially if your driver has a habit of accelerating as fast as possible towards clearly-red traffic lights and the obviously stationary vehicles up front, or when he/she chooses to career violently from one lane to another through seemingly impossible/invisible spaces.
(It reminded me a little of the Rockin' Roller Coaster at Disney's MGM Studios... but maybe even hairier! Although I remember as we went round the first 'bend' of that particular ride my specs flew sideways off my face. Amazingly, I caught them in my right hand.)
Anyway, back to car journeys through Seoul...
Worst experience of all was when my taxi driver decided to do a high speed illegal U-turn against a red-light into 6 lanes of oncoming traffic, then (in the space of a few yards) dart from the outside lane right across to the pavement in order to stop outside my hotel!!
As a guest, of course, you feel that you can say nothing- you just quietly grip the edge of your seat and try to take in the scenery as you are propelled along.
Having said that, much of the time that you spend on Seoul's roads you are going nowhere!
Since Seoul is the second most populated metropolitan area in the world (Tokyo having the dubious privilege of topping the list) one thing the city is rarely short of is the traffic jam!
But even the ironically-named "rush hour" can have its compensations.
I was stuck in one such traffic jam and my eye was drawn upwards to the elegant street lamps bathed in the late afternoon sunshine. They seemed to me to be like a flock of migrating geese (albeit the ones on the left only seem have one wing!)

Sometimes in our everyday lives we may feel we are being propelled at breakneck speed by events beyond our control, but occasionally you get the chance to stop... and look up and find beauty in everyday things.
Try it some time.
It might take your breath away in a different way altogether.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Land of the Morning Calm

Talking of the new dawn... early morning is one of my favourite times for taking photographs. (Well, sometimes it is.)
The picture above was taken during the Korean trip, looking out on the East Sea from Sokcho, or at least near to Sokcho.
Before the sun had come up, the waters opposite our hotel were buzzing with little cuttlefish boats plying backwards and forwards, but despite all the activity there was a wonderful sense of calm and tranquillity, perhaps enhanced by the way in which the rising sun had transformed the sea into what looked like a vast lake of molten gold.
Perhaps not every new dawn is quite so spectacular but when one does come along, wherever it may be, it is worth taking the time to stop and stare and drink it in.
Even seeing the photograph full-screen on the pc rekindles something of the sense of calm of that morning.
Easy to see why Korea is called "Land of the Morning Calm"

(In fact 'Land of the Morning Calm' is apparently an English language nickname loosely derived from the hanja characters for Joseon, the name derived from the Joseon Dynasty and the earlier Gojoseon.)

The dawn of Hope

(Sunrise on the Indian River, Florida, Feb 2008)

Am I imagining this (or perhaps projecting my own feelings on to those of others) but isn't most of the world heaving a sigh of relief at the result of the US Presidential Elections? Well, I am at least. Congratulations, Barack Obama! Naturally, we in Scotland are trying to claim him as one of our own! With slightly more justification the Kenyans too are excited and proud.
I was particularly heartened by the obvious desire of the American electorate to embrace change.
I am old enough to remember the 1960's - a time when black people in some parts of the States were not even allowed to vote. And now...?
Love them or loathe them, there is no doubt that Americans know how to 'do optimism.' (A little linguistic nod there to the way in which they are also skilled at 'doing in' the English language!)
The American Dream has been resurrected and I for one rejoice in that.
Living as I do in a much older nation, with an often tired and cynical attitude to democracy and to politics in general, I find it refreshing to witness the audacity of hope.
One 'scary' thing about Election 2008, though, is how closely reality seemed to mirror the fictional storyline of The West Wing. I think someone should check Obama's name. Maybe it is really Matt Santos?

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Salted shrimp, anyone?

On a visit to Ganghwa Island with my host and friend, Rev. Chang Bin, we found ourselves at the annual salted shrimp festival. It was a very colourful sight, especially the market stalls, but no photograph can capture the sounds or smells of such a marketplace. Nor can any of my words describe just HOW salted these tiny shrimps were!! Wow! Even thinking about it makes me thirsty! Not my favourite I have to say.
Actually, during our Korean trip I tasted all sorts of dishes that you are not likely to find in the average Scottish diet. Most of them (including seaweed, stuffed octopus, tofu soup, cold noodle soup, and even stuffed pigs intestines..) I could eat... and enjoy. And some, especially kimchi, I absolutely love!
But there was one dish I was happy to steer well clear of... hot, roasted bugs. I can't remember exactly what kind of larvae they were (perhaps even silkworm) but the smell of them roasting on a stall near the Seoul Tower at Namsan ensured that I gave that particular stall a very wide bodyswerve.
On the whole, though, I am a pretty adventurous eater. I can't understand people who travel to far off places then insist on eating exactly the same things they would at home. What's the point of that?
But sometimes even I have to draw the line.
When you think of all the strange things that human beings do eat in various places around the world it makes you wonder who first decided to try eating some of these things. It also makes you wonder how many people learned the hard way what NOT to eat.
What's the strangest dish you've ever eaten?