A Travellerspoint blog

Visiting The Home of Kungfu

Kungfu wears tartan slippers and smokes a pipe

sunny 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;

Wednesday:
Catch a train overnight to Zhengzhou (pronounced Jung Joe) in Henan province.
Thursday:
Arrive in Zhengzhou and catch a bus to Dengfeng (pronounced Dungfung).
Visit the Zhongyue Miao Temple in Dengfeng.
Stay in a hotel overnight.
Friday
Get up super early and spend a whole day at the Shaolin Temple
Saturday
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.
Sunday
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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About 350 steps to get up there but the view was worth it.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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...>

Posted by IRShaolin 23:47 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Kungfu Suits

My disguise is perfect

12 °C

Just a very quick entry to let you know that I picked up my new kungfu suits on Saturday and I am extremely pleased with how they turned out. I wanted to post pictures straight away but it rained on Saturday, we went on a nine hour hike on Sunday (don't ask) and it snowed on Monday so today was the first chance I've had to get some photos.

So here we go then;

First in the Yantai Spring collection we have this classic design in black with white cuffs.

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Next we have a very similar outfit but this time the jacket is all in white, much like Stephen Chow in Kungfu hustle.

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Finally, le piece de resistance, we have stunning reinterpretation of a classic design, a traditional kungfu suit in the style of Bruce Lee's jump suit from Game of Death.

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Qu Sifu couldn't stop grinning when he saw it :)

I'll try to post up some videos of me doing forms soon now the weather is starting to warm up a bit so you can see the suits in action.

Anyways, I have to be up early tomorrow for Taichi so I better wrap this up. Hope you are all well and having fun back home :)

All the best,

Robin

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Posted by IRShaolin 04:30 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Birthday Blog

The big three two!

all seasons in one day 5 °C

Happy Birthday Me!!

And what a happy birthday it was! I received presents from my fellow students and Haribo from my family back home, I started learning a sword form in Taichi and an intermediate level form in Mantis, and to top it all off we've enjoyed the hottest weather so far this year!

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Despite relatively good weather last week it snowed on Friday which worried me a little, I've seen a lot of snow this winter and to be honest I'm getting kinda sick of it. Somehow, through some miracle of meteorology, by Sunday the weather had turned and we had three days that were so hot we were training in shorts! What are the chances, eh? Unfortunately it was a little too good to be true and the rest of the week was grey and rainy. It's a relief to know the sun does shine here occasionally though, we were starting to forget what it was like.

Taichi has been going very well. I've finally finished Yang 42 form and, although I'm a long way off being able to perform it flawlessly, I have moved on to learning Taichi sword. As some of you may know I've been itching to learn Taichi sword for some time now, so the fact that it coincided with my birthday week seemed somehow appropriate. It is very different from learning a fist form, much harder to coordinate, so I am practicing with the sword every spare moment I get.

Mantis is going quite well too. It's much harder for me to see my progress in Mantis as my master is never satisfied with my performance, there is always something for me to correct. I must be doing something right though as he has just started me on an intermediate form. This form is called "White Ape Steals the Peach." White ape is apparently a reference to the highly agile gibbons found in China, and stealing the peach is a euphemism for severing your family tree. Think about it. I am learning this at a much slower pace than the previous forms which suits me fine. I would prefer to spend more time perfecting a few movements and getting to know them really well than racing through multiple forms without understanding them.

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My actual birthday was on Tuesday so I spent the day training hard (and getting slightly sunburnt). That evening Qu Sifu gave me a cake to celebrate and I opened the parcel my family had kindly sent. Hilary surprised me with a tupperware box jammed full of Oreos that had been dipped in milkybar chocolate and creatively decorated with gummy sweets.

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I'm having to limiting myself to one of those a day, I'm not used to that much sugar all at once anymore. I shared the cake out that evening whilst it was fresh but we decided to do the proper celebrating at the weekend. We wanted to pay a visit to Yantai's Pizzahut, make sure the pizza was up to the franchise's exacting standards.

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It was gooood :)

I had my doubts about the icecream at KFC so we had to check that twice...

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Hehehehe, you have no idea how good junk food makes you feel after months of abstinence. Despite craving salt and junkfood we've never been tempted to eat here however:

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Dico's? What were they thinking? :P

I was hoping I would have one more thing to tell you all about but instead the end of this is entry is going to be something of a cliff hanger. The weekend before last we went into Muping to visit the tailor and be measured up for kungfu suits:

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Unfortunately tailor has a large backlog of work at the moment so I won't be able to pick mine up until next weekend. I will be sure to post pics when I do though :)

Anyways, that's it for now, expect an update soon about the outfits

All the best,

Robin

Posted by IRShaolin 20:38 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (1)

Six Months down, six to go!

Woo hoo! We're halfway there!

sunny 7 °C

I don't quite know what to say, um, I'd like to thank my sister for being so supportive, my parents for their help making this possible, I'd like to thank Tasha for giving me the idea and Anna for having a birthday and introducing us, I'd like to thank China for thinking up Kungfu, Bruce Lee for popularising it in the West, Hollywood for continuing to produce such mind-blowing advertisements for it, but most of all I'd like to thank the gangsters, without whom learning kungfu would not be necessary. Is there anyone i missed? (Shutup Hilary)

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Kungfu training is still going well here, it's pretty tough since the bar is continually being raised, you think you've finally got a movement down and then an extra layer of complexity is added. Sometimes it can be a little disheartening, never quite reaching your goal before it is whisked away from you but I try to focus on the bigger picture and think about how good I'll be after another six months of being pushed like this.

Mantis is a very tricky martial art to get a handle on. The Shaolin stuff I learned was fairly simple and direct but Mantis requires some relatively complex footwork and great flexibility and agility of the upper-body. Some of the things I have been taught are not natural or intuitive and it takes a lot of effort to drill them into myself and try to make them fluid and relaxed.

Applying these techniques is a whole new challenge, it's one thing learning a movement and coordinating your body, it's another thing entirely trying to do it when there's someone stood in front of you, let alone someone who moves around and throws punches. Obviously Mantis has been practiced and refined for many centuries; the techniques a distillation of many lifetimes' work and fighting experience, so it's unquestionably effective but it's still a big jump between knowing that and kicking someone's ass. The good news is that Mantis has a lot of built in redundancy, the movements in the form often string together in combinations, each allowing for the possible failure or neutralization of the previous attack. This means that hopefully, should your first strike miss its mark, instinct should lead you to the next opening without pause.

Of course, it's not just Mantis I'm studying here, I continue with my Taichi in the mornings, getting up painfully early every day for the honour. I have nearly finished learning Yang 42 form and will hopefully start learning Taichi sword in the very near future. Not only has the class improved my Taichi greatly over the last six months but I find it has been invaluable in helping me with the other martial arts too. My leg strength, balance and stability is at a much higher level after months (and probably miles) of Taichi step, the basic exercise we do before each Taichi class.

And then we have Qigong, I have to say, after six months of standing still for an hour a day I am undecided about the benefits of cultivating Chi. A great part of my reservation is based on my observation of the masters here. They are undeniably fit, healthy and powerful however not one of them could be described as calm, enlightened or even just balanced, despite spending a significant chunk of their lives in quiet meditation. On a personal level, despite having spent over 100 hours now, stood stock still, legs bent, arms out in front of me, I see little benefit. I've had three colds since Xmas and if this health keeping meditation can't protect against a simple cold, how is it going to fare against more serious illnesses? I'll let you know if there's any improvement after another 125 hours :P

Whilst I've certainly made progress in studying kungfu these last six months I still feel like I have a long way to go. Some of my form work is still sloppy and I continue to have problems "showing the power". Qu Sifu has faith in me however and is hoping to enter me in the Yantai International Martial Arts Competition/Festival this August. To be honest, I think this has less to do with faith in my abilities than it has to do with his faith in his own teaching but I'm not too bothered so long as I get the kungfu skills :)

So that's about it really, six months down, six to go and still going strong. Here's to another six successful months, wish me luck :)

All the best,

Robin

Posted by IRShaolin 23:35 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (2)

Happy (Chinese) New Year!

Year of the Kungfu Mantis

overcast 1 °C

Hi guys,

hope you're all well, I'm good here although the weather has been bitterly cold. It's snowed a few times and the pool at the front of the school had a layer of ice so thick you could walk across it. And it's not just the pool that's been icy, in the mornings my window looks more like a kaleidoscope than a pane of glass. Thankfully we've been training hard which keeps us warm :)

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I finished my first month of Northern Mantis and it's been pretty good. Mantis boxing, for those of you who don't know, is a kungfu system supposedly based around the movements of the praying mantis. One of the main characteristics in mantis fist is that it utilizes many grabs to control the opponent and create openings. Like many forms of kungfu it has been influenced and absorbed techniques from other successful styles such as Wing Chun and Tai Chi.

There's much less physical conditioning than in my previous class (no more finger push ups) but there is a much greater drive to perfect the movements and techniques. That's not to say we don't work just as hard though, Qu Sifu walks around with a stick shouting at us: "More power!" "Turn waist!" "NO! I have told you this many times, do it wrong again and I will strike you!" Heheh, he certainly knows how to push his students and get the best out of them. He's only hit me with his stick once but now all it takes is a glimpse of him from the corner of my eye and I find a focus I never knew I had :)

Anyways, to celebrate the completion of my first month we were given a week off, which coincidentally coincided with Spring Festival and Chinese New Year. What are the chances? ;)

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Spring festival is pretty much the largest social event on the Chinese calendar. It celebrates the New Year and marks the end of Winter. We'd all been looking forwards to this holiday for various reasons. Some of us were keen to experience a Chinese festival, some people were looking forwards to some large meals, some people were hoping for the warmer weather and some people just wanted a week off.

The staff at the school had all been looking forward to the holiday too, since (with two exceptions) they were all going home to be with their families. Exception number one was Mr. Wu, the owner of the school, who instead of visiting his family had invited all of them to come here. Exception number two was Fiona our translator who was required to keep an eye on us. First Spring Festival she's not spent with her family, bless her.

The run up to the holiday was not without its difficulties though. Temporary staff had to be found to cook for those people remaining at the school and the main gates had to be cleared of rubble.

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Impressive, eh? Some "gangsters" from the local village have been trying to convince the boss here to cut them in on the profits from the school. Their first visit finished with then being ignored off the premises so they decided to make a statement by dumping about 10 tonnes of dirt and concrete across the front gate of the compound, effectively barricading us in. The atmosphere here was one of disbelief and mild amusement because really, who blackmails a kungfu master? Long story short; some phone calls were made, some "friends" of the manager showed up and went into the village, next morning the gate was mysteriously clear again. Magic.

With that out of the way preparations for the festival proper could begin. The food of choice for Spring festival is dumpling and it's traditionally eaten after midnight as the first meal of the new year. We all chipped in to help make them:

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Some have coins in and finding them can be considered lucky or unlucky depending upon how deep it penetrates your digestive tract.

The actual celebrations kicked off at about 7pm with a large and sumptuous meal, mostly of meat dishes. Virtually every edible animal in China was represented: Chicken, mutton, various pig dishes, fish, prawns, scallops, not to mention donkey and dog. I tried the dog meat out of curiosity and it was quite nice, couldn't bring myself to eat donkey though. Mr. Wu's family didn't waist any time getting stuck in and pretty soon the beer started to flow. It didn't take long for alcohol to overcome the language barrier and everyone had a great time.

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The fireworks were meant to wait until midnight but Mr. Wu could not resist and a few got set off after the meal. Very nice they were too but I was unable to get any photos due to being somewhat drunk. At formal meals people make toasts, shout "Gambe!" and expect you to finish whatever's in your cup. And when a toast is made to someone it needs to be returned, so you can instantly double the number of drinks you intended to have. Couple this with some very generous people with bottles of 60% rice based spirit and you have almost unavoidable inebriation.

Here is the one photo of a firework I did manage to get:

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Yeah, I know, looks like a sparkler. I can't actually remember what it was. Unfortunately there's not a great deal I do remember from that evening and what I do remember I almost wish I didn't. I remember Harry opening his box of 500 bangers, and I remember running to my room to get my sellotape for him. I remember him fetching his tank fireworks he'd bought but unfortunately don't remember them going off :(

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It's about the size of a matchbox car, has little wheels underneath and when you light it it scoots along the ground before the three fireworks mounted in the body go off. It's like irresponsibility personified :)

I remember crawling into the common room and falling asleep on the sofa and I vaguely remember Hilary waking me up and making me drink water before I went to bed. What I don't remember is this:

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this:

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or this:

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And somehow I managed to sleep through all these going off during the night:

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Some of those tubes are so big I can fit my arm inside and not touch the bottom, and I missed it all. Needless to say the first day of the New Year was a little painful for me, particularly since the fireworks continued all morning and my head felt like it was ready to explode itself. A day in bed did me a world of good however, and by the following day I was back on form.

I'm happy to say the weather has warmed up somewhat too, we had three beautiful days of sunshine last week, I've stopped wearing my gloves to bed and I'm actually able to see out of my window in the mornings. I even managed to put in some outdoor practice. Hopefully the weather will hold and we'll see a gradual improvement over the next few weeks. Fingers crossed :)

Anyways, happy New Year everybody, it's the Year of the Ox, enjoy it whilst it lasts :)

All the best,

Robin

Posted by IRShaolin 21:11 Archived in China Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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