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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 16:28 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

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