FULL MOON

Beijing, 25 February 2013

Yesterday started with my wife finally remembering a song that had been chasing around in her head all night: “September”, by Earth, Wind and Fire, whom we see here in concert:

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This is a song from “our” generation; it came out in 1978. My wife tracked down a version of it on the web and promptly played it for the rest of the day. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song – a feel-good song, my wife calls it – but after you’ve sung along with the refrain

Ba de ya – say do you remember
Ba de ya – dancing in September
Ba de ya – never was a cloudy day

for the fifth time, it begins to pall – at least for me. But not my wife. Mercifully, she had to turn it off when we went to bed, but then the fireworks, which had been grumbling along all day,

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began to build up to their final roar for midnight.

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Because, for those of you who do not closely follow matters Chinese, yesterday was the Lantern Festival, the last day of the Chinese new year celebrations, whose end is traditionally celebrated with an orgy of fireworks.

At one moment during the evening I slipped out to the local 7-11 to buy a bottle of our favourite wine (a Spanish tempranillo – but I digress). Coming back, I looked up and glimpsed through the clouds what all this sound and fury was all about: the full moon.

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Because the Chinese new year is really a lunar festival. It starts on the second new moon after the winter solstice and ends 15 days later at the full moon. I had picked up the new moon – or newish moon; it had already waxed a few days – in Luang Prabang.

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And now I was seeing the full moon, shining serenely down on all this silliness.

A full moon is a beautiful thing. It certainly has caught the attention of many poets. A short search on the web brought to light at least 100 poems about the moon by well-known poets; Lord knows how many have been written by bad poets. But the poem which always comes to my mind when I see a full moon is not actually about the moon. I need to explain. One night in Vienna, I woke up and was enchanted by the brilliant nearly full moon pouring its white light into the bedroom. Two nights later, I was in Cambodia on the shore of the Mekong River. Looking up, I saw the full moon and thought to myself “This same moon will be shining down on my wife and children in a few hours” and found that thought immensely comforting. Now for the poem, which is by the Welsh poet Alun Lewis. He wrote it during the Second World War, when he was far away in India, in the city of Poona.

Last night I did not fight for sleep
But lay awake from midnight while the world
Turned its slow features to the moving deep
Of darkness, till I knew that you were furled,

Beloved, in the same dark watch as I.
And sixty degrees of longitude beside
Vanished as though a swan in ecstasy
Had spanned the distance from your sleeping side.

And like to swan or moon the whole of Wales
Glided within the parish of my care:
I saw the green tide leap on Cardigan,
Your red yacht riding like a legend there.

And the great mountains Dafydd and Llewelyn,
Plynlimmon, Cader Idris and Eryri
Threshing the darkness back from head and fin,
And also the small nameless mining valley

Whose slopes are scratched with streets and sprawling graves
Dark in the lap of firwoods and great boulders
Where you lay waiting, listening to the waves
My hot hands touched your white despondent shoulders

And then ten thousand miles of daylight grew
Between us, and I heard the wild daws crake
In India’s starving throat; whereat I knew
That Time upon the heart can break
But love survives the venom of the snake.

When I read the poem for the first time, I was reminded of that night in Vienna with its full moon. And now, when I’m far away from home and see the moon, I think of this poem and of my wife.

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Earth Wind and Fire concert: http://sharelike.me/image/pics/EarthWindandFireconcertPics1ApCC7Md5iwM.jpg
Fireworks-1: http://cdn.ph.upi.com/sv/em/upi/UPI-16811361735171/2013/1/9eb14390c758aeb27fd87349de4d55bc/China-celebrate-Lunar-New-Year.jpg
Fireworks-2: http://findlaydonnan.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/fireworks-to-celebrate-the-chinese-new-year-light-up-the-sky-above-beijing-china-on-january-26-2009-chinese-welcomed-the-arrival-of-the-year-of-the-ox-with-raucous-celebrations-on-sun.jpg?w=497&h=283
Full moon: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-gY39tpbGmzg/TnLTHVEnSyI/AAAAAAAABaM/R2kBI2LddYg/s1600/Moon_Lantern_Festival.jpg
New moon Luang Prabang: my photo

TEMPLES IN LAOS

Luang Prabang, 20 February 2013

I must confess to a certain weakness for the Buddhist temples in this part of the world. I first came across them nearly thirty years ago (Good Lord, is it really that long ago?) when my wife and I visited Japan. My photos of that trip are packed away with all the rest of our stuff in Vienna, so I’ve borrowed a few pictures from the web to refresh my memory, all from Kyoto, a wonderful place. This is Kiyomizu-ji.

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But probably the most iconic temple of them all in Kyoto is Kinkaku-ji, the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

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Look at that delicate architectural tracery embedded so naturally, so lightly, in the surrounding greenery.

Many years later, my wife and I saw another style of Buddhist temple in Bangkok during a brief stay there on our way to Angkor Wat. This is Wat Benchamabophit:

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And this Wat Ratchanatdaram:

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And then, once here in China, we saw yet another style, a heavier, more “imperial” style. The Temple of Heaven in Beijing is one of the nicer examples.

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All quite different. But I think you will agree that there is a common thread: the raking of the roofs. I don’t know what it is, but this lift of a roof at its tip really gives a wonderful grace to a building, even a rather heavy, stodgy building like the Temple of Heaven.

So it was with pleasure that we saw this again in Laos, first in Vientiane:

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Then in Luang Prabang:

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I saw other things that warmed the cockles of my heart, like this for instance:

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This is where I can refer the reader back to my previous post. What we’re seeing is the similar use of paintings to educate the faithful in two places that are nearly 9,000 kilometres apart. The Italians have an expression for this, tutto il mondo è paese, the whole world is but a village; in the end, we’re all the same wherever we live. In the previous post, it was my young daughter who was illiterate. In this case, it was me – and alas, I had no-one who could explain the story which the paintings were telling.

We also liked the way that the temples had different roofs piled one on the other.

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It quite reminded us of the stave churches in Norway, several of which we had visited some five years ago:

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Tutto il mondo è paese.

We also liked a certain set of Buddha statues that we came across. These are in the “praying for rain” position:

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And these are in the “no war” position:

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Well, I suppose that’s what we all want, isn’t it? We want to eat our fill and live in peace.

Tutto il mondo è paese.

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Kyoto-temple-1: http://anime.aplus.by/uploads/posts/2011-01/1293979203_xigasiyama.jpg
Kyoto-temple-2: http://www.gadventures.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/Kyoto_GoldenTemple.jpg
Bangkok-temple-1: http://misto-market.com.ua/turizm/images/interestplace/98/1.jpg
Bangkok-temple-2: http://travel-tips.s3-website-eu-west-1.amazonaws.com/holidays-Bangkok-Thailand-hotel-package-deal-travel-tips-guide-Wat-Ratchanatdaram-Temple.jpg
Temple of heaven: http://templeofheavenbeijing.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/Temple-of-Heaven.jpg
Norwegian stave church: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_llqkm5GrsA1qzxqgco1_1280.jpg

the other pictures: mine

SUNSET OVER THE MEKONG

Luang Prabang, 16 February 2013

I first came into contact with the Mekong some ten years ago, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I remember looking in awe at this hugely wide river and planning some day to take a boat down it to Vietnam; a plan still waiting to be executed. In the meantime, our lives have crossed the Mekong many times. Several years ago, my wife and I had a close brush with it when we cruised on Tonle Sap Lake while we were visiting Angkor Wat. This lake has a strange relationship with the Mekong: during the dry season it drains into the Mekong, but during the rainy season the Mekong’s current is so strong that the flow reverses and it is the river that runs into the lake.  Two years ago, in September, we came across the Mekong again, red-brown and very silty, at Xishuangbanna in the far south of Yunnan province, down by the border with Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. While we were there, a story broke of the captain and crew of a Chinese ship plying the Mekong being executed by shooting one night under mysterious circumstances; a story of drug running, it turned out, in that wild part of the world. And now we were in Laos, a country traversed by the Mekong and much of whose borders are defined by the river. While we were in Vientiane a few days ago, we walked along its bank and looked over to Thailand on the other shore.  And we have spent the last two days in Luang Prabang, the country’s ancient royal capital, which lies at the confluence of the Nam Khan River and the Mekong. As we have criss-crossed the narrow tongue of land between the two rivers on which the old town was founded, we have found ourselves gazing down on the Mekong many times.  We have watched the ferry crossing it:

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We have watched ships taking tourists up and down the river:

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We have crossed a spindly bamboo bridge spanning the Nam Khan:

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to gaze down on the confluence of the two rivers:

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And now, on our last evening, we have been sitting on steps leading down to the river and have been watching the sun set behind the hills on the far shore.

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And with that last flash of light there has floated into my mind some lines from a hymn we used to sing at school when I was young, sung to a serenely tranquil tune:

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day.