Kungfu wears tartan slippers and smokes a pipe
15.04.2009 - 16.04.2009 16 °C
I had been considering visiting some of China's great sights for some time but various factors (such as the horrendous weather) had been putting me off. With the advent of Spring I felt the time was right to venture out into the world outside the school and see what China had to offer.
I didn't want to spend too long away from training and I was on a budget so we were going to try to pack a lot in to a few days. After a LOT of research and planning the schedule was as follows;
Catch a train overnight to Zhengzhou (pronounced Jung Joe) in Henan province.
Arrive in Zhengzhou and catch a bus to Dengfeng (pronounced Dungfung).
Visit the Zhongyue Miao Temple in Dengfeng.
Stay in a hotel overnight.
Get up super early and spend a whole day at the Shaolin Temple
Catch a bus to Luoyang (pronounced Loo-oh yang) and visit the Longmen Caves
Catch a bus to Zhengzhou, then get on an overnight train to Yantai.
Arrive back at the school
So, that was the plan, who wants to know what actually happened? Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin...
I had thrown the trip open to all comers and was joined by three other students from the Kungfu school; Darragh, a young man from Ireland studying Bagua Palm, Yorma who studies Mantis Fist with me, and Hilary who smells.
We bought our outgoing tickets, Yantai to Zhengzhou, at a local ticket office four days before we were due to leave. We managed to book places in a "Hard Sleeper" carriage which in theory provided comfortable conditions at an affordable price. We were unable to book our return tickets however because it is apparently impossible to book tickets remotely in China. If you want to travel from Zhengzhou then that's where you have to buy the tickets. This was a concern since we knew Hard Sleepers are always in demand and you have to book well in advance. Still there was nothing we could do so we resolved to set out for Zhengzhou and try to buy return tickets immediately upon arrival.
We left the school shortly after lunch on Wednesday. I was a little bit nervous having never traveled by train in China. I wasn't sure quite how we were going to know which train to get on, if the destinations were all written in Chinese characters things would be difficult, and then there was the problem of the return tickets... still despite the nerves there was a definite sense of anticipation.
The train station in Yantai was absolutely packed. We breezed in through the security checks and stood there looking lost as we tried to find any kind of scheduling board or sign that might give us a clue where to go. Hmmm, nothing. Drawing a blank on the thinking-for-yourself option we approached a security guard and waved our tickets at him hopefully. Ah, yes, this was the right tactic, he waved for us to follow him and took us to a small waiting room at the side of the station that was almost deserted. He had us wait whilst he did some furious texting, then after a moment came and showed us the words on his phone, "train delayed until 17:00." Ok, that was only an hour and we had somewhere to sit so no biggy.
Anyway, he left to go back to work so we sat and played cards whilst we waited. It turned out that we were in what was effectively the first class lounge and occasionally a member of staff would come in, shout a destination, stamp some tickets and direct people to the platform which meant we could relax in the knowledge we would be the first to know when our train arrived.
And arrrive our train did! We wandered out across the train tracks to the waiting train we assumed was ours. Every few paces we waved our tickets at the nearest member of staff and followed the pointy hands they waved back.
It didn't take us long to find our carriage and our berths for the night. Unfortunately, due to another quirk of ticket booking in China we were unable to book four berths next to each other so we did the responsible thing: got there first and grabbed the beds we wanted. To be fair there was only one bed we needed to swap with someone else and we figured we'd deal with that by looking lost/hopeful when challenged. It had worked so far . The two bottom bunks were taken by a nice old couple who were quite friendly. We took the top four in the cabin.
The train was actually really comfortable and a good choice for traveling long distances in China. We got some pot noodles for 5 yuan and then settled in for the night.
I woke up early the next morning and sat watching the world pass by the windows. I had been hoping to see amazing scenery in great variety but instead all we saw were the same flat fields repeating monotonously mile after mile.
See, rubbish :P
Sixteen hours after we set out, we arrived in Zhengzhou. So far so good . The first thing that struck us about Zhengzhou was how busy it was. Everywhere you looked there were crowds of people, and most of them were looking at you.
We did our best to ignore the stares and followed the signs to the ticket offices. At the information desk we thankfully found a nice lady who spoke English so the phrases we'd had Scarlet prepare for us proved unnecessary. Unfortunately the lady informed us that there were no Hard Sleeper tickets available on the return train we wanted. Ok, not a disaster, what about Soft Seats? (about the same price but obviously not bed-like). Nope, none of them, (mutter, mutter, mutter) OK, desperation, Soft Sleepers? (Double the price of the Hard Sleepers). Nope, none of them either.
Well, all that was left then were Hard Seats, something of a misnomer as they didn't actually guarantee you a seat. Think of the lower decks of the Titanic where they packed in as many people as they could then locked the door. None of us were sure we were desperate enough to spend a 16 hour train journey standing up so we stepped away from the counter to consider our options.
I though that a Hard Seat might be an interesting experience but some of the others were keen to explore other avenues. The bus station was just the other side of the square so we went that way to see what they could offer us.
At the bus station we started trying to explain ourselves and once again an English speaking member of staff magically materialized to help us. We were told that there were three buses on the Saturday returning to Yantai. The first two, in the morning and afternoon, were Sleeper Buses, the last one at eight in the evening was not. Our program meant that we were spending much of Saturday in Luoyang so the final bus was the only option available to us. After some deliberation we decided that guaranteed seats on a bus were better than a crowded train so we booked ourselves some tickets and hoped it wouldn't be too busy so we could grab a few seats and lie down.
With that out of the way we had a quick walk around Zhengzhou and grabbed ourselves a small lunch before setting out for Dengfeng.
The bus ride to Dengfeng was actually quite nice. We got the front four seats on the bus which gave us a great view of the landscape which was actually quite different from Shandong. It also meant we got to experience the terror of Chinese driving with an unrestricted view :P
Dengfeng is a small town only really of note because it is the closest to the Shaolin Temple. When the Chinese government had the Shaolin Temple made a World Heritage Site they moved all of the kungfu schools from the base of Song Mountain near the Temple to the town of Dengfeng so they could better preserve the area.
On arrival the first thing we noticed were the crowds of taxi drivers, bus drivers, tour guides and other altruistic types all wanting to take us under their wing and help us make the most of our time in Dengfeng. What they lacked in English skills they certainly made up for with enthusiasm and persistence. We had to push our way through them whilst we got out the guide book and my hand drawn map of the area. First stop was going to be the Taoist temple, Zhongyue Miao on the outskirts of Dengfeng. The hotel wasn't expecting us for a few hours and this active temple was meant to be pleasantly peaceful.
One of the overly pushy taxi drivers struck lucky and we all piled into his van. We had made sure to agree the price before we got in, always makes me nervous when they're that keen to "help". A short drive and 7 yuan later we arrived at the gates of the temple.
Our first impression was probably the same as yours: "Oh look, scaffolding" :P
Still there were a few tour groups around and we could see people inside so we headed for the building marked "Information". As it turned out the temple was indeed open and doing pretty good trade too. The guide book said entry was 25 yuan so we got our money out and headed for the counter. Unfortunately it seems that since the guide book was written they have increased the entry fee somewhat. Eighty yuan they said. EIGHTY YUAN!
We backed away from the counter and sat down for a minute trying to make sense of what they'd said. It couldn't be right, the Shaolin temple charges one hundred yuan and they're the most famous monastery in the world, this little place covered in scaffolding can't charge that much can they? Whilst we were deliberating we watched a couple of tour groups of Chinese go through, each person paying 25 yuan! The sign behind us, whilst almost entirely Chinese characters had the number 25 and the symbol for yuan.
We returned to the counter and pointed at the sign behind us. Eighty yuan they said again. You mean eighty yuan for four people together, we asked? They looked shocked. Eventually one of them took us outside to a sign on another building that declared clearly in English that entry to the temple was indeed Eighty sodding Yuan. We said "bugger that" and left.
After this minor set back we were a little unsure how to proceed. There's not really much to do in Dengfeng so we hailed a cab and got it to take us to our hotel on the off chance the rooms would be ready early.
Luckily they were so we checked in. If you are ever in Dengfeng and you need budget accommodation then may I recommend the Shaolin Hotel, No.66 Zhongyue Street. The rooms were clean, the beds comfortable and the staff helpful (although non-English speaking).
After dropping off our bags we decided to kill some time walking around Dengfeng. As it turns out the town is not entirely unattractive. They have gone to considerable trouble planting trees and bushes around the town and there are a couple of very well maintained parks. We ended up in the park at the East end of town where there is a large pagoda on top of a hill.
About 350 steps to get up there but the view was worth it.
After the long journey we were all pretty tired and hungry so after our stroll we decided to look for somewhere to eat. We asked at our hotel where the Dengfeng night market was held and through the magic of Yahoo`s online translator the manager managed to give us its approximate location.
As it turned out this was just over the road from the hotel and they were just setting up. We walked down through the stalls checking out what was on offer but eventually decided on a small restaurant that had just opened its doors.
The lady that ran the place was very nice and patient with us as we picked dishes at random from the Chinese menu. The food when it did arrive was excellent. The sweet and sour chicken was so good we ordered a second plate. We ate until we were stuffed although we were a little confused since, despite clearing the table, we thought we had ordered one more dish... and as it turned out we had. As we were joking about how full we were and the missing dish, the lady brought over the biggest plate of chicken hotpot. That`s the trouble with ordering things when you don`t know what they are, you`re never sure when you`re finished.
We struggled through as much of the chicken hotpot as we could manage, which thanks to the size of the bowl seemed shamefully little. Like all the other dishes it was excellent but we just couldn`t eat any more. Anyways, we paid up and waddled away into the night
Before retiring to our hotel we thought we would have a quick look around the night market proper. The food area looked interesting although I don`t think it`s quite bug season yet so no scorpions on sticks. The rest of the market looked like the usual junk you get anywhere but we did stumble across a very nice calligraphy shop. They were selling massive hand painted scrolls which were very tempting but we managed to resist any major purchases knowing that there would be plenty of souvenir opportunities at the Shaolin Temple in the morning.
And with that we headed back to the hotel and climbed into our beds. I set my alarm early so we could get up in good time to beat the crowds to Shaolin and passed out as soon as my head touched the pillow
<part two to follow...>