A Travellerspoint blog

Competitions, Eclipses and Head Injuries

A strange few days

sunny 32 °C

So, I believe I owe you a blog. And what an eventful time I've been having.

To start with there was the solar eclipse and a few days ago I competed in my first martial arts competition. And then of course there's my little accident...

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Eclipse:

As usual I will start at the beginning. The recent eclipse of the sun visible in Asia was kind of a big deal:"the most spectacular observed within China in 500 years" according to the Zijinshan Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (although they measure those 500 years starting in 1814 and finishing 2309 which seems a little cheeky). Eleven provinces in China were to witness the total eclipse as it passed across Asia, unfortunately Shandong, the province I'm situated in, was not among them. The closest the eclipse would come to Yantai was Shanghai, a few hundred miles away but still close enough to be able to experience a good eclipse of up to 90% coverage. Certainly good enough for me :)

I was fairly excited about the prospect of witnessing an eclipse. I missed the one that occurred in the UK a few years ago and was very pleased to find out my time and placement in China coincided with this eclipse.

I'd made sure that I was well prepared for the event searching the internet for advice on how to view eclipses and constructing various pinhole cameras (with little success) until eventually stumbling across instructions showing how to transform a simple shaving mirror into a cunning device that reflects an image of the sun onto a nearby flat surface.

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The day of the eclipse arrived and I have to say, I was more than a little excited. I'd been nervous about the weather, but luckily we had a beautiful day for it. Unlike the day before which had been grey and overcast, the sky was a clear and beautiful blue.

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The eclipse was predicted for around 9:35 and since a total eclipse lasts about 6 minutes I assumed the event would be over quite quickly. Class started at 8:30 so I figured we'd probably call it a day around 9:30 to watch the eclipse.

The whole time I was watching the clock, determined not to miss a thing. At 9:15 however the caretaker popped his head in the door of the training hall to tell us the sun was already half covered! I was a little surprised since I thought it was a bit early for that and looking out the window it looked as bright as ever.

I set up my little mirror on the porch of the training hall and sure enough, there was the silhouette of the moon across the sun. I know you shouldn't but I did try to look at the sun a couple of times to check, but even with sunglasses on it was still far too bright. My camera wasn't having any of it either. Over the next few minutes the moon slowly moved to cover more of the sun but the sun seemed to remain as bright as ever. The only difference was that the day didn't feel as warm.

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At its peak the the sun looked no different to normal but the light outside looked slightly overcast. It was very strange, the image of the sun we had reflected on the ceiling showed almost none of the sun was visible, yet there was still a tremendous amount of light coming from the small sliver of sun remaining. Even through a welding mask the sun was too bright to look at.

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After half an hour of staring at a blob of light on the ceiling and occasional furtive glances at the sun itself we went back inside and continued training. I have to say I was a little disappointed. Despite 90% coverage a partial eclipse was not a particularly earth shattering event. Perhaps a total eclipse would be better.

I'm told that an eclipse is seen as a bad omen in China and I had a competition the following weekend, but I figured everyone at the competition would be equally as unlucky so it would balance out.

Competition:

The masters were very keen for us to get involved in competitions to raise the profile of the school. We have all been preparing our forms for some time now, Christoph and me practicing Mantis, Daniel practicing Shaolin. I was also preparing a taichi form for the Traditional Kungfu category.

I've got to say, competitions aren't really my thing, I don't like to compete unless I have a good chance of winning and I knew there would be people there who had been practicing kungfu their whole lives so it seemed a little pointless for me to compete against them. I decided not to worry about it and just hoped I could get through my form and not forget anything in front of the judges.

The competition was held on a Sunday morning and started at 8:00am. To get there on time we had to leave at 5:00am. Ouch. We had fetched some bread and boiled eggs from the kitchen the night before and ate them in the bus on the way to the hall where the competition was to be held.

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We knew we had arrived when we saw the crowds of kids all decked out in their colourful kungfu suits, many of them waving weapons around. This would never be allowed back home. There were children waving halberds and staves and a large troupe of Koreans all dressed in black with some mean looking metal nunchucks.

Qu Sifu and one of his disciples went inside and got us signed in then we all proceeded to the competition hall where we lined up and waited for the teams to be formally introduced to the judges.

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After we had been announced and had waved to the crowds we went to find a good vantage point. The competition opened with some displays from well known martial artists, both local and visiting. There was a brilliant guy with a massive two handed sword, a group of famous taichi practitioners who performed Chen 56 form in unison and those nunchuckers made an appearance too (although they looked bored the whole time they were running through their routine).

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Unfortunately the organisers had decided to lay a temporary surface on the floor of the hall, a layer of carpet that was not fixed down. This caused a number of mishaps in the opening displays. One guy slipped when he was doing his form, fell over and had to start again, one decided not to continue any further after his form was disrupted by shifting carpets. The nunchuck guys had a really bad time with their spin kicks. At one point one of them lost control of their weapon and hurled the spinning mass of metal and chain into the judges. Luckily no one was hurt.

After the displays the competition proper started with the kids taking to the display area first. The carpet in this area was better secured but still not great. Thankfully about halfway through someone managed to find some more rolls of carpet and they put down another layer length-ways which made a big difference.

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The kids were all pretty good although most of them seemed to have been schooled in modern display wushu rather than traditional and practical kungfu. As the competition progressed we realized this was true of most of the competitors.

The program of events was very loose, no times were mentioned, the judges were just working their way down the list of people. I was getting a little nervous that we would not be told before we went on and therefore not have time to stretch before so I asked if we could find our names on the program and make a guess about how long we had left. This was when we found out my name was not down in the Taichi section.

We asked the masters whether I would actually be performing Taichi and they had a brief argument where we learned that Cui Sifu had forgotten to tell Qu Sifu that I was planning to enter the Taichi category. Cui Sifu had assumed I would tell Qu Sifu, Qu Sifu had assumed that it was only Mantis students and Shaolin students entering, and I had assumed that the masters who had asked me to compete would make all the arrangements. Doh! I wasn't too concerned though, just meant less stress for me :)

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The judges moved through the list of contestants quicker than we had thought they would so it was not long before we had to go and warm up and prepare. As I practiced my form with Christoph we watched Daniel perform his Shaolin Triangle Continuous Striking form for the judges. He got a massive round of applause from a group of kids that had been following him round for most of the day.

Next it was my turn to perform. I joined the line that was due to go on and waited for someone to give me my cue. Had a bit of a yes-no-yes-no? moment with the marshal but I got out there at the right time. I had to share the floor with one other contestant. We were to perform on two rows, him in front, me behind. I bowed to the judges and started my form.

The moment I started I knew I had made a mistake. I was stood too far to the right of the stage so I hadn't enough space to do the moves. I rapidly started altering footwork to compensate as I ran through the movements, I just had to make it to the point where I turned around and I'd be ok... but when I got there and turned around, I picked up the form at the wrong point! I missed out the middle section and continued from a point near the end. I finished the form, bowed to the judges and walked off with a big stupid grin on my face. I knew what I'd done but there was nothing I could do about it now.

Despite my screw up I hadn't paused or panicked, I maintained my composure and just kept going. I don't think the judges really noticed because they awarded me a decent mark, 8.53. Qu Sifu's disciple was up next and he did a fantastic job as always. That guy rocks. Christoph did a good job with his form too, remembered all the moves and kept the power throughout the form.

We sat and watched the competition as Qu Sifu went to get the certificates and any medals we may have won. To my surprise I was awarded a gold! As was everyone else on my team! We were also awarded a plaque for being an excellent team. I have to say though, I don't really feel like I deserved a medal for my performance. I can do a lot better than that. Still, I'm not going to complain :)

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We had the chance to stay and watch the rest of the competition but we decided since it had been an early start and none of us had really eaten anything, to head back to the school and get some much needed rest. As everyone knows, when you get tired, you make mistakes...

My stupid accident:

I've been training broadsword for a few months now. It's not really coming naturally to me. You have to grip the sword really tight but relax your arm and wrist enough to keep it agile, and all the time Qu Sifu is shouting at you to make it fast and show the power.

I've hit myself with the sword before, clipped my arms or dinged the back of my head. I've even slapped myself in the face with the flat of the blade twice, but the other day I made contact with the back edge of the blade as it swang towards my face. I carried on with my form for a little while but it didn't take too long before I realized my head was a little more warm and damp than it should be and there was some red stuff trickling down my nose. I turned to the master and pointed at my forehead... I wish you could have seen his expression, that made my day. He sorted me out with some tissue then went running off to get a car. I was fine, there wasn't really any pain and I've had enough head injuries by now that a little blood doesn't really worry me.

A minute or two later Mr. Wu came driving up in the car and he and Fiona took me to the local hospital. The doctor saw me immediately and took me to a room where he cleaned the blood from my face and assessed the damage. I'd put a vertical gash in the middle of my left eyebrow, not massive but a good size, so he numbed me up and put a stitch in to make sure it holds together as it heals.

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Mr. Wu was very kind and paid for everything despite my insistence that he hadn't been the one to hit me and therefore shouldn't be the one to pay.

I returned to the school half an hour later with a course of antibiotics to prevent infection and a large dressing above my left eye. Qu Sifu says I should take a few days off so the wound stays clean whilst it heals so I'm using the time productively and catching up with my blog :)

I only have two weeks left here now and the time is really flying by. It might be because I don't have much spare time at the moment. When I'm not practicing kungfu I'm working on the school website or teaching English to the kids that are staying here. I am very much looking forward to Bali in two weeks time and relaxing for a while before returning home.

And that's all my news for the moment. I hope you're all well and I expect I'll see most of you in a few short week's time :)

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All the best,

Robin

Posted by IRShaolin 30.07.2009 00:08 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Swine Flu & Opera

When fatal disease can sometimes be better than cultural education

sunny 34 °C

Well, it's been a long time since my last entry, mostly because things have been ticking over here without much incident. My training has continued at a steady pace, the weather is fine and occasionally students quietly come or go. The only two noteworthy events of the last months have been the arrival of an opera troupe and our brush with Swine Flu...

Opera:

Hmm, I'm, not sure how to begin this opera section, I may already have built it up too much. Let's just start at the beginning.

The boss's brother-in-law works at the school as the head chef, and somehow he organised for the amateur dramatic society from his home town to come here and put on a show. They arrived in two very large coaches and took over the training hall one weekend.

Chinese opera has a mixed reputation. It is colourful and spectacular, often with incredible displays of gymnastics and martial skill. It can also be very long and meandering, and is completely unintelligible unless you are fluent in Chinese AND know what the plot is meant to be in advance. Setting a tonal language to music has limitations.

The night came for the big show and we were ushered into the training hall which was already packed with people. There were children running around everywhere, climbing all over the stage and everyone was very excited. Special signs had been hung up advising people not to smoke or hock phlegm on the carpet but that was apparently seen as more of a guideline than a rule.

We were shown to the best seats in the house, right at the front, with a table in front of us and cups of tea that were being constantly refilled. I felt a little self conscious, particularly since we were a little bit late and they had waited for us to start the show.

Anyway, once we were there and seated the lights came down and the orchestra (six men with violins) started playing.

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The musicians were all pretty good although I found the score itself to be more than a little repetitive.

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The story began with the arrival of a "man" carrying a fan which I am told marks "him" as a scholar. I was a little surprised to see a woman playing a man and was in fact expecting to see men playing women as is traditional in Chinese opera. I guess there are a shortage of men wanting to dress in skirts and sing falsetto here. It took me a little while to work out that she was also heavily pregnant and that bulge was not part of her costume!

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As the opera progressed I was disappointed to find that there were to be no sword fights, displays of acrobatics or pretty girls. In fact the "young" girls were actually a little bit scary, especially the one in the light blue dress who insisted on sobbing shrilly as she sang.

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Combine the shrill sobbing and piercing singing voice of this harridan with the unceasingly, repetitive violins and you have a recipe for a headache of awesome proportions. And we're still only half an hour into it. I was really starting to wish we hadn't been seated right at the front so I could quietly sneak away.

The story continued at a snail's pace with memorable highlights being when the trollop turned round too fast and lost some of her elaborate hairpins, or when their father came on singing but had forgotten to turn on his radio mic.

Two hours later this five minute story concluded in a predictable fashion with the union of a pregnant man and an aging damsel in a lesbian wedding that I'm sure wasn't state authorised.

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Everybody applauded, a surprisingly quiet round of applause given how full the hall had been... oh. Since we were sat at the front enduring the tuneless screechings of a foreign tongue at full volume, we hadn't noticed the locals had done what I had hoped to do and sneaked off out the back at, what I would guess to be, a MUCH earlier stage of the performance.

Later that evening they put on a second show which we politely declined to attend. Once was enough :)

Swine Flu:

Daniel, a returning student, arrived here on a Saturday evening and on Sunday was required by the local police to go for a medical check-up to make sure he didn't have the dreaded swine flu. He had been checked all through the journey, on the plane, at the airport etc. because everyone is so worried about the spread of this terrible disease.

At the medical they discovered his temperature was 0.2 degrees lower than normal (shocked gasp) so he was quarantined over night, Scarlet, the translator who was with him, was quarantined and Liu Sifu, the driver who took him to the hospital, was also quarantined.

China's well-oiled emergency response teams were quickly dispatched to the school, where they jumped out of their van and proceeded to suit-up in their bio hazard gear before questioning us about how much contact we had had with Daniel, where we were when we talked to him, whether we washed after shaking his hand, etc. and marking down our responses on large, complicated looking forms.

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Before they left they issued us with a list of rules detailing that we were to stay in our rooms and not go within two metres of anyone else; phones, keyboards, taps and toilets were to be thoroughly washed; we were to open the windows of our rooms to get some fresh air and we were to do light exercise indoors to raise our immune systems. No one was allowed to leave the premises and we were to eat all meals on our own, in our rooms.

They phoned at ten the following morning to tell us that, to no one's great surprise, Daniel didn't have swine flu, he could come back to the school and the restrictions could be lifted. Daniel however was to be confined to his room and barred from train for the next seven days. Something about the flu having a seven day incubation period, although seeing as he didn't have the flu we weren't sure quite what the point was.

We were all meant to have our temperature checked twice a day whilst they were testing Daniel but since he was only away over night I was the only one who got checked before they phoned through the all-clear. Fiona came to my room with a thermometer and asked if I knew how to use it and of course I said, yes.

"OH!" she said, "most Chinese people put it in their armpit!"

"Oh" I said, and took the thermometer out of my mouth.

My temperature was 36.1, I'm glad the CDC didn't see that or I'd have been in trouble.

Conclusion:

So that's about it really. There has been some talk about a television crew coming to film Qu Sifu and the Mantis class for a documentary but they were unable to come in the end since they accidentally double booked with the Dragon Boat Festival, you know, that annual festival they have on the same date every year? Don't sound like the brightest people do they? :P

Incidentally, that was another let down, nothing actually happened on Dragon Boat day, no dragons, no boats, very disappointing. Anyway, the next big event should be the upcoming Laishan competition in June which I will be taking part in. That should definitely be worth a blog whatever happens :)

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Hope everyone's well back home and having fun, I'll see you all in a couple of months :D

All the best,

Robin

Posted by IRShaolin 27.06.2009 19:33 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

More Video Fun

Poetry in motion

sunny

Remember all those months ago when I promised you I would post up more videos of me flipping out and busting some killer moves? Well, that day is finally upon us!

First may I present Obstruction Knuckle Fist!

This is the first fist form I learned in Mantis class although really it's a Shaolin form with a few Mantis characteristics. I quite like this form, it's very practical.

Next up we have The Crushing Steps!

This is the first basic Mantis form that all of the Mantis students learn. This is not one of my favourites :\

And finally, we have the first half of White Ape Steals the Peach!

This is the form I am currently working on so there's still plenty of room for improvement. It's the first time I've tried practicing this form with long sleeves which made things a bit harder too.

There's quite a few mistakes in my forms but if I tried to get them perfect before I posted up the videos we'd be waiting for another five years :P

Anyway, that's it for now, I have a few other little bits of news like the Chinese Opera that visited the school but that'll have to wait for another time :)

All the best,

Robin

Posted by IRShaolin 03.05.2009 19:10 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Visiting The Home of Kungfu (Part 3)

The road to Luoyang... and then the road out of it

overcast 14 °C

All the traveling of the previous three days was starting to catch up with us but it wasn't over yet, we had one more day of sight seeing before we had to make it back to Zhengzhou. The final stop on our itinerary was Luoyang, home of the White Horse Temple, the Longmen Caves and a number of ancient tombs.

We dragged ourselves out of bed early on Saturday morning, packed our bags and checked out of the hotel. We had to leave because Darragh had started breaking things.

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With little problem we flagged down a taxi and headed for the bus station. We acquired tickets for Luoyang with the greatest of ease, hopped on a bus and away we went :).

Once again the morning was very misty, a worrying factor as we careened down narrow cliff edge roads.

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We passed through a number of villages on the two hour journey, the only one of note; a coal mining town where the road and all buildings within twenty feet of it were stained black with coal dust. Beautiful country, China.

Shortly before we arrived in Luoyang we started to pass a LOT of parked buses at the sides of the road. The White Horse Temple was a little further up the road. The first Buddhist temple on Chinese soil was jammed to the rafters today with Chinese tourists. We began to cautiously re-assess the idea of visiting a major tourist site on a weekend.

At first glance Luoyang appears to be a rather boring industrial city with little character. Despite being the Eastern capital for the Tang dynasty and once home to over 1300 Buddhist temples Luoyang was sacked in the 12th century and, according to the Lonely Planet guide, it never really recovered. The only really special thing about Luoyang today is the annual Peony festival which we had arrived in the middle of.

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We jumped off the bus, pushed our way through the crowds of helpful taxi drivers waiting for us and made for the ticket office. Using my basic Chinese skills I attempted to communicate to the ticket lady (and the incredibly persistent taxi driver who was following us) that we wished to buy a bus ticket to Zhengzhou at 1700 today.

They pointed to a bus that was about to leave, "that bus goes to Zhengzhou." Ah, hehe, thank you but we wish to travel this evening.

"That bus, Zhengzhou."

Right, right, yes, but TODAY, we look round LUOYANG, TONIGHT we go to ZHENGZHOU.

"Shaolin Temple?"

Ok, perhaps they don`t understand my appalling pronunciation, my bad, let`s fall back on the basics. I copied out a sentence from my phrase book and pushed it through the hole in the glass. No joy. I wrote out our itinerary, times and places, little drawings of buses and times, I drew pictures of tickets and pointed at them, I showed them actual bus tickets and wrote on them details of the actual ticket I wanted to buy... nothing.

Looks like it wasn`t me, these people were just stupid. Forget it then, we'd come back when we wanted to leave. They clearly weren't switched on to the idea of forward planning.

Having wasted our first half hour in Luoyang we left the bus station and, lacking any idea which way to go other than South, turned right and started walking. It didn't take long before we were wondering why we had bothered coming to Luoyang.

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After twenty minutes hard walking we finally managed to find a main road, and after another twenty minutes managed to find a restaurant where the food looked like it might not kill us. We went in and attempted to order some food, showed them Hilary's little "I'm a veggie'" sign and hoped for the best.

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As it turned out the food here was actually really good. They did a wonderful sweet and sour chicken coated in what I can only describe as chip-shop batter and the egg fried rice was great.

Having once again stuffed ourselves silly we decided walking any further was out of the question so we hailed a cab. Seeing how busy the White Horse Temple had been and assuming that the Longmen caves would be too busy to make the most of the 80 yuan entry fee, we asked the taxi driver to take us to the cheaper Guanlin Temple.

"Eh?" She said.

Brilliant, we got another one. We opened the guide book and showed her the Chinese characters for our intended destination. She looked confused. Great. Ok, give up, let's go to Wancheng park, I've got the town map open in the guide book, it should be five minutes up the road.

"Eh?"

Once again we show her the Chinese characters for the destination, point to the park on the map, wave our hands, pull faces... what more can you do? Eventually she pulls down a laminated sheet of destinations tourists usually go, with English to Chinese translations on it. Neither of the places we had chosen were on the list which is obviously where the confusion had arisen. We were the crazy sort of tourists that didn't follow the pattern, thought for ourselves...

We looked down the list, saw Peony Park, thought what the hell, there's only one park on the map, that must be the one, so off we went.

I followed our progress on the map and initially all looked well but as we reached the point I thought she should be dropping us off she instead turned right and started heading for the airport. By this time I was fed up with trying to communicate and thought I'd just sit back and see where we ended up.

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Turns out Peony Park is not on the map because it is a bit North of the city, and unlike other parks where you just wander in, this one charges 40 yuan entrance. Well we'd just paid 25 yuan for a taxi to get here might as well go take a look at the famous Peonies.

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To say the park was a disappointment would be an understatement. It was basically a large flower plantation. The Chinese tourists were clearly having a good time, wading into the flowers and taking hundreds of photos of each other, in various family group combinations, but we were hoping for something a little more... I don't know, parky?

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Any thoughts on Luoyang Mr Squirrel?

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There wasn't enough time left to do anything worthwhile so we decided to write off Luoyang and head back to Zhengzhou early. We walked down to the front of the park and hailed a cab. Take us to the bus station we said in Mandarin.

"Eh?"

Good God, get me out of this stinking town!!! Bus station, Bus Station! BUS STATION!!!

There we go, he started moving. The taxi driver pulled out of Peony park and started down the road, however, instead of going back the way we'd come he turned West, which raised some eyebrows, then turned down a driveway towards some buildings with a big sign marked; Ancient Tombs.

Stop the bloody cab, get the bloody guide book out for like the 100th time, point to the bloody bus station. OK? Yeah? Are we sure? Let's go then.

We were glad to finally reach the bus station and jumped on the first bus out of town. I was stunned that somewhere with the largest tourist draws in China could be so ill equipped to deal with tourists. We decided that most tours are probably run out of Zhengzhou and do day trips everywhere because they know that Luoyang is just a hole in the earth where the idiots are kept.

The drive to Zhengzhou was peaceful. The scenery was quite attractive and there were some interesting caves carved into the cliffs along the way. We were all filled with a great sense of relief.

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We arrived in Zhengzhou with about 3 hours to kill before the bus home. We popped into McDonald's for junk food and to use the facilities. The lunch in Luoyang didn't kill anyone but it was starting to make life a little uncomfortable for some members of our party. A parting gift :P

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We spent the rest of the time looking round the large shopping centre near the bus station and playing cards on the steps outside.

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Unfortunately it started to rain so we had to make a dash to the bus station earlier than we had intended and hung around there for a while.

Our bus was on time and we managed to get decent seats and spread ourselves out at the back. The seats reclined until they were near horizontal so it looked like it wouldn't be too uncomfortable a trip... until we made an unscheduled stop and the bus filled to capacity. The bus was so full no one could recline their seat, the seals on the windows were defective and rain water was bubbling in, there was a small child at the front that wouldn't stop crying and people would not stop staring. What the hell is wrong with China!?

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We got what sleep we could through the night, although for Hilary that wasn't much as she was soaked with cold water pouring in the window. Come morning we found that the bus had emptied significantly during the night as people got off at various towns along the way so we spread out again.

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Finally, after 14 hours on the stupid bus we arrived on the outskirts of Yantai.. and as the last passengers we were promptly kicked off the bus. I know Yantai bus station and this wasn't it. Thankfully we found a really nice couple who spoke English and they helped us travel the last ten miles by public transport to the centre of Yantai and the real bus station.

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And I guess that's the end of our little Chinese odyssey. Organizing it had not been easy and not all of the trip had been fun but we got to see the Shaolin Temple which is an experience that will stay with me forever plus we got to see a bit more of the country we had all traveled so far to visit. I don't think I'll be doing much more traveling in China before I leave in August but on the whole I think we can declare the trip a success (despite Luoyang).

I hope you've enjoyed reading about our little adventure, I'm probably not going to have much to report for a little while as I'm going to be concentrating on my training. There's an international Martial Arts tournament in Yantai at the beginning of August that I might participate in if my form's good enough. As always, I'll let you know how it goes.

Hope you're all well and having fun :)

All the best,

Robin

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Posted by IRShaolin 23.04.2009 02:09 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Visiting The Home of Kungfu (Part 2)

The Shaolin Temple... of DOOOOOOOM!

semi-overcast 16 °C

I woke up early on Friday morning excited at the prospect of visiting the actual, original, one-and-only Shaolin Temple. Hilary was a little less excited than me but she got up eventually.

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We went to the hotel "canting," (which we assumed meant "canteen,") to check out the breakfast options available. Deciding that bean sprouts and fried vegetables were not really what we needed to start the day we instead feasted on Oreos before heading outside to find a taxi.

I was a little worried as the weather that day was not looking good. The sky was grey and overcast, there was mist in the air and it felt like it might rain at any moment. Indeed, the Chinese weather report I had found on the telly that morning had shown a large band of rain moving East across the country towards us. Given that one of my main motivations for visiting the temple was to get some nice reference photographs, this could be make or break for the trip.

I had heard mixed reviews about the Temple in my research, some people saying it's overly commercial whilst some said it was fantastic. The one thing I knew for sure was that this would not be any kind of spiritual experience. The once home of Kungfu is now a home to tourists and Wushu (a cross between kungfu and gymnastics).

The taxi drove us out of Dengfeng towards the mountains of "Song Shan scenic area". All along the road were Wushu schools of immense proportions. Really, you would not believe the scale of these places, each one must have housed thousands of students. Whilst stopped at traffic lights we snapped some photos of kids training at one of the smaller schools.

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It was a little strange seeing young kids learning how to use a sword at school. Wish they'd given us that option back home.

As we got further from the town the buildings along the sides of the road thinned out a bit. I'd like to say we got to see more of the countryside but the mist was so thick we couldn't see very far at all. I was starting to think perhaps the weather might work in our favour though, maybe there would be fewer people at the temple, and the mist might not be a disaster for the photographs, you know, give them some atmosphere :).

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After twenty minutes or so we arrived at the entrance to the Temple. As we had expected it looked more like the entrance to a theme park than a monastery, but that didn't matter, Shaolin was waiting!

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The walk to the ticket desk was lined with souvenir shops but we figured we could shop later. We paid our 100 yuan and entered the gates! (actually more of a turnstile really)

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After passing through the gates we were not too sure where to go. We appeared to be in a car park, the maps were all in Chinese and none of the buildings had signs. We did what most tourists do in situations like these and followed the crowd, although since we had managed to arrive early enough to avoid those we ended up following a small Chinese family.

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The path was broad and clearly quite new, as were the benches and phone boxes lining the way. We passed the Shaolin International hotel on the right, with its large stage for outdoor performances, two large but empty training fields on our left and an unmarked building we thought might be the indoor performance hall before finally arriving at...

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THE SHAOLIN TEMPLE!!!!!

Man, I didn't care if the walk here had been lined with tacky phone boxes and plastic rocks, they could have been windmills and garden gnomes and it wouldn't have mattered to me. This was THE actual Shaolin Temple. We stood outside for a while savouring the anticipation. We weren't sure what state the temple would actually be in, our trip to Penglai had shown us that the Chinese approach to preservation could be a little heavy handed but Shaolin looked pretty good so far. We couldn't stand outside forever though so we plucked up our courage and headed inside.

Upon passing through the entrance building you enter a long narrow courtyard lined with stone stelae. Since there were no tourists about we stopped to bust some kick-ass kungfu poses:

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Before long some people showed up and started staring so we continued deeper into the temple.

The building at the end of the courtyard contained two very large guardian statues, one black and one blue, the colours you'd end up if you tried to enter without the monk's permission ;)

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Just the other side of this building lies the Daxiong Hall. It is situated in a very large courtyard with the Bell Tower on the right and the Drum tower on the left. In front of the hall are four stone turtles carrying large stone tablets covered in inscriptions.

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There were a few tour groups around us but it was still fairly quiet, allowing us to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere in an unhurried stroll through the temple. The buildings themselves had clearly been restored almost as good as new, the paint bright and the stonework crisp and clean but it had been done well and with care.

There were a few monks about watching over the various shrines and we even saw a troop of novices scrubbing one of the buildings clean.

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It was amazing to think this was the place that was the source of so many legends, the 13 monks rescuing the Tang Emperor, Pak Mei betraying the temple and the ensuing massacre, Ng Mui developing Wing Chun, not to mention the countless books and movies based upon Shaolin lore.

We worked our way to the back of the complex to the Thousand Buddha hall, the one famous for having depressions worn in the floor from all the monks training kungfu. The inside of this hall was covered in ancient, flaking paintings and had not undergone any restoration. It was a struggle to make out any detail in the semi darkness as there was no artificial lighting but we could just see the images of the 500 Luohans. Not really any point taking photos of the interiors however as they wouldn't have come out.

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It seems that a lot of work has been done to clean up the temple recently and looking at pictures of it from just a few years ago this is undoubtedly an improvement. Previously there were tacky gift shops within the temple itself and the structures looked like they were in danger of collapse, so you can't fault the restoration of the site. The work is still far from complete with some areas still under construction. It's a shame they have not been able to preserve some of the historical and spiritual atmosphere, although really we didn't have too bad a time of it in the uncrowded misty morning we spent there.

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Having raced to get to the temple ahead of the crowds we felt we could now relax and see the rest of Shaolin at a more leisurely pace. We wandered back down the path to see if we could find out what time the Kungfu demonstrations would be taking place.

We arrived at the demonstration hall to find people piling in through the doorways so for consistency's sake, we followed the crowd :)

The auditorium was not very large and was already quite busy, the stage playing host to four monks posing for photographs with the paying public. We managed to find a couple of seats but Darragh and Yorma ended up sat on some steps for the half hour show.

I'd like to say we were blown away by the finest demonstration of Kungfu ever experienced by mortal man but unfortunately I can't. I should be able to; the Shaolin Temple recruits the best of the best young martial artists in China, and then selects the very best of them for its display teams, but the show we saw was a relatively sloppy exhibition of modern Wushu. They were OK but not at the standard I would expect from the home of Kungfu. I guess the top members of the display team were traveling with the world tour leaving the B-team performing back home.

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After the show was over we wandered into the nearby gift shop to have a quick look. There was nothing amazing, the swords were all of mediocre quality, the T-shirts were horrendously overpriced and we didn't really want to buy any jade jewelery. Rather randomly we did get blessed by a Shaolin monk however. Not quite sure what happened but you show your ticket to a lady who gives you a small piece of jade and you show the jade to a waiting monk who waves his hands around a bit. I'm sure we missed something there but hey, not gonna argue with a Shaolin :)

We thought we'd head over to the pagoda forest next, apparently the largest in China, but first we wanted to get some food inside us. The guide book said the Shaolin International hotel behind the Auditorium did a wonderful buffet at a reasonable price so we headed over there. Rather disappointingly the hotel staff ignored us when we arrived, ignored us when we looked through a menu, and ignored us as we said "screw you then," and walked away.

This left us considering the somewhat limited alternatives. Surprisingly, there is a definite shortage of places to eat in the area. We ended up at a small stand by the side of the path who mixed us up some pot-noodle of the same variety we had on the train. Not the most filling of meals but it was something at least.

All through the trip we had been very careful to check how much things cost and agree prices before we set out. But we forgot to do that with the noodles. Can you remember how much I said we paid for the noodles on the train? 5 yuan. And that was on overpriced public transport, in a shop these things cost 3 yuan. You know how much the nice lady wanted to charge us? 50 yuan. Each. That's £20 for four pot-noodle.

We told her through mime and pigeon mandarin that was FAR too expensive, we knew how much these noodles cost and we wouldn't pay. She insisted. What could we do? We'd eaten them, we clearly owed her something. We decided to compromise with 100 yuan, that was £2.50 for a pot-noodle, five times the standard price, still horrendously expensive but it seemed like the only option to us. She was still shouting, probably telling us about her overheads and other things we really didn't care about, clearly not happy with the 100 yuan note she'd just taken off us. We tried to walk away and she started getting a little pushy, physically, and called her boss over.

At this point one of those crowds we thought we'd avoided was starting to gather and we were getting really unhappy. I turned to the manager and said "fine, we're not paying, what are you going to do?" and thankfully he just waves us off. I was starting to wonder whether we'd have to break out the real kungfu and kick some ass. I must say, I was a little curious how far we'd get, kicking-off in the Shaolin Temple :).

After that debacle we were grateful for the long walk to the Pagoda Forest to give us a chance to calm down. The sun was coming out and it looked like it was going to be a nice day after all.

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The Pagoda Forest is the final resting place for important monks from Shaolin and is the largest of its kind in China. There are 228 stone or brick pagodas built from 791 AD until the present day and are in varying states of repair.

It was not quite what we were expecting. I thought it would be a small area of woodland or a hillside covered with pagodas and trees. In fact, it's just an area to the side of one of the paths where the pagodas have been built. It's quite pretty though, and there is a definite sense of history here unlike other parts of the Shaolin experience.

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We spent a little time wandering through the pagodas and taking photos before considering our next move. We could either walk up the mountain, a possible 6 hour trek across rope bridges and cliff's edge paths or we could go visit the cave of Damo, where Bodhidharma, the supposed founder of Chinese martial arts, is said to have meditated for 9 years without moving.

I wanted to see Bodhidharma's cave as it was the last really Shaolin thing we had left to do, Darragh and Yorma were keen to go for a hike but 6 hours seemed excessive, even to them and Hilary wanted to sit quietly and read her book for a while, bless her ;)

So, Damo's cave it was then :)

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The trek was actually quite hard work. We knew from the signs that the cave was 4km away but of that, 1km was almost straight up the mountain on crumbly staircases. I was very glad I'd brought a large bottle of water as we were all sweating buckets. At last we reached our goal, the startlingly unimpressive cave we were not allowed in to!

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At least the view was nice:

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After that I thought I'd head back down the mountain to make sure Hilary wasn't having too much fun without us, whilst the boys continued to the top to check out the large Buddha statue up there. They joined us at the bottom not long after with the news that out of interest, they'd attempted to buy noodles at the top... and they'd only been charged 5 yuan!!! I said they should have bought 4 and we could have sold them to that other lady for a profit!

After all that fun we were getting kinda tired so we decided to head towards the exit. On the way we stopped to watch the kids practicing on the large training grounds. It looked to us like most of them were practicing Sanda, Chinese kickboxing.

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We also stumbled upon another Wushu display on the outdoor stage near the entrance of the Shaolin International Hotel.

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This performance was made up of a cast of quite young kids and was actually a little better than the previous one we had seen. Still, Wushu is really not my thing. The flimsy swords that flap around all over the place, the impracticality of the movements, it just seems a little pointless to me. What do you think Mr. Squirrel?

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Right on!

After that we waved goodbye to the Shaolin Temple, stopping only to buy a few over-priced souvenirs from the shops by the gate. We caught the bus back to Dengfeng without any problems, Darragh even got to sit next to a monk on the bus :)

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We went back to the hotel as those of us who had climbed up to Damo's cave really needed to change before returning to the restaurant we'd been to the night before, this time ordering a little more conservatively. Once again the food was excellent but really we were so tired we would have eaten anything.

We stumbled back to the hotel and fell into bed. I'd set my alarm for early O'clock as tomorrow was another busy day...

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<... to be concluded...>

hehe, this is a bit like Lost isn't it ;)

Posted by IRShaolin 21.04.2009 16:28 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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