Thursday, 19 May 2011

Kung - Fu

Thursday 19th May 2011

11 days left traveling the world.

MP3 track of the day: Kung-Fu fighting – Carl Douglas (could it have been any other song?)

Weather: Not anywhere near as hot as yesterday; a cool breeze ran through both the Shaolin Temple and Luoyang. The smoggy sky, though, could still be seen in both places.

As it turned out I didn't have the room to myself last night. Later on that evening a Japanese guy, called Honk, turned up and he chatted to me for a while. I was already for bed; he, having seen this, kept the conversation brief. He was a nice guy and, in the morning, he was up the same time as I. I was hurrying but he wanted to carry on last nights conversation; finally he left me his email address, and phone number, as he too will be travelling to Beijing soon. This is the second person in as many days who's given me their contact details; the 'nutter' from the train also gave me his. Why I wasn't sure; at least the Japanese guy could speak English, the 'nutter' could only speak Chinese therefore phoning him would be the biggest waste of time. Why beautiful women, wearing very little, didn't give me their contact details I will never know … but it had become annoying that I could only get email addresses from the weird.

I eventually broke free from the conversation and left my dorm. Being hungry I went for breakfast before walking towards the bus station. 'You want bus to Shaolin?' I heard many times over. Each time asked I replied with a straight no; I knew that they were trying to get to me into one of their private mini-vans, which isn't what I wanted. The mini-vans would charge at least double what the coach would cost and they wouldn't be any faster. Even when I got to the bus station I was still hounded by one mini-van provider; I was starting to loose my temper and with a loud 'no' the guy disappeared. One of the bus station attendants, after seeing my distress, took pity on me and escorted me onto the correct service. She made sure that the driver dropped me off at the right stop and smiled before leaving; I thanked her and choose to sit right at the front of the coach so that I could keep an eye on the driver, and receive any indication that we were close to the temple.

I'd arrived at 8:15am; yesterday the receptionist told me that the coach departed every hour, either on the hour or at half-past. As 8:40am approached I realised that we wouldn't be leaving until 9am meaning that I'd wasted forty-five minutes. Still it's all swings and roundabouts; in Xi'an I was lucky to catch a service that was just about to depart and here I was first person on-board the coach. As I couldn't do anything about it I sat back, watched the chaos of a Chinese bus station unfold in front me, hummed the 'Everybody loves Kung-fu fighting' song and remembered the reason why I was going to see the Shaolin Temple. American Shaolin, by Matthew Polly, is a book that I've read detailing two years of his life training at the Shaolin temple. He gave up his chance to study at college and travelled, on his own, to China in the 1990's. Even though it wasn't particularly well written it was a gripping read and it left me wanting to see the site where the story had occurred.

Just before 9am a lot of activity seemed to happen. Firstly, on the coach to my left, two Chinese guy's were kicking a large delivery into the cargo hold when out poured loads of blood … I was glad that my bag wasn't in there. Then people, in ones or twos, started to board my coach; it wasn't anywhere near full yet the coach driver seemed satisfied when he counted how many customers he had. Eventually, with the twist of a key, the coach roared into life and we were off. The suburbs of Luoyang changed into small towns and villages that had the feel of South East Asia; as I looked out of my window the design of the small urban areas felt very poor and reminded me of Laos. It seemed odd for the world’s second biggest economy and I realised just how much work China still had to do. Eventually we started to climb into the mountains where the views became more interesting, though not that spectacular; due to the heat the earth was dry and dusty, with a few plants clinging to life. The mountains had less definition than the ones within the Tiger Leaping Gorge; the sides were more rounded and the tops curved into a dome shape instead of the straight, vertical sides I remember from almost a week ago. Small pieces of rock spread out thinly across the sides of the mountains and down into the valley below. I sat back and continued to look outside; the Chinese guy next to me obviously didn't like the view and stretched over to close the curtain. I think he got the message when I re-opened it.

Eventually the coach pulled up and the driver indicated that this was my stop; actually I didn't need his help due to a large statue, of a monk in a Kung-fu pose, giving the area away. I still thanked him and I asked where I picked up the return coach to Luoyang. He pointed to a spot and gave me a schedule on the back of a business card. I disembarked the coach and headed in the direction of the crowds; as I paused for a second – taking in water and getting my camera ready – I surveyed the area. In front of me was a dark stone path that leading to a white stone gate; said gate was flanked, on each side, by a line of souvenir shops all selling wooden weapons, cheap training equipment and t-shirts … basically anything tacky or cheap. I avoided these and head straight to the ticket office; there I purchased one entry ticket at the cost of 100 Yuan (£10). I'd wish the price hadn't been a round figure; ninety or 110 would have been better as I had little change for the coach back. I went through the ticket barrier and made my way down the hill.

As I walked down a large tarmac road, intermingling myself with many different tour groups, I noticed training areas located on either side. Along with other tourists I stopped and watched hundreds of Chinese boys -all in the same outfit - training, in the blazing sun, with fake swords, spears and whips. Moving on further classes, focusing on hands and legs only, could be witnessed and I watched a large group of boys performing a couple of moves in front of their teacher; after a little while the tutor dismissed the class and they all ran off in the same direction. I continued to walk further into the Shaolin complex; it took me a little while to realise that the dominant language, surrounding me, had changed. Instead of Chinese, English could be heard though it was poorly spoken. Only one nation speaks English with that accent, I thought to myself, as I realised that I was in the middle of an American tour group. As I pondered which tour group I hated the most – Chinese or American – I over heard the American tour leader state that 'the next Kung-fu show was going to start within thirty minutes'. He added that the doors were about to open and would his group please follow him. My guidebook said that the show – included in the cost of entry – was one of the highlights of a visit and so I joined my American brothers.

Once up a small, stone, stair case a maze of red metal barriers, that ended at a closed wooden door, could be seen. I joined the end of the queue with the Americans behind; a few old Chinese people, with their 'tour group' baseball hats, were trying to push through which seemed to have annoyed the Americans as much as I. That became the ice breaker and I found out that they were all from the same University on a student swap scheme; in return I told them that I'd been travelling around the world for a year though, sadly, it was all coming to an end very soon. We continued chatting as the doors opened; we formed an impenetrable barrier that no baseball cap wearing person could fit through. With the lower level seats already taken, I followed the group of Americans up to the top level of the theatre where we managed to secure front row seats. I could see below a small square shaped stage with a mock temple behind. Before the show started I continued to chat to the Americans and they all seemed very pleasant indeed; the lights darkened, silence reigned and only a spot light, illuminating a woman with a microphone, could be seen. She spent a while introducing the show but eventually she was replaced by monks and loud fighting music.

The show lasted for thirty minutes and, in my opinion, wasn't that great. Having studied martial arts for four years I know that power comes from a strong stance (i.e. when throwing a punch having your feet firmly on the ground will give it extra force) however these monks, talented though they were, spent most of their time jumping through the air and lying on the floor. This was followed by, about ten minutes, of volunteers climbing on stage trying to copy moves and failing to the pleasure of the crowd. Finally a test of toughness was performed with a monk smashing a metal rod over his head and another firing a pin, into a balloon, through a sheet of glass without breaking it. As the lights came back on clapping could be heard. I too joined in thanking the monks for the show; however I believe that's all it was, a show, not the real art.

As I got out of my seat I said goodbye to the Americans and made my own way down the path to the Shaolin temple. The temple it's self was similar to a lot of other temples I've seen recently; the grounds were rectangular in shape with buildings along the outer perimeter. Three small temples were placed inside the rectangle area creating three, small, enclosed courtyards. As I walked through the temple complex it got higher the further I got; the temple was painted red and guardians were positioned in many places. There was lots of renovation work but luckily I managed to get a glimpse of the old brick temple where the monks used to practise. Apparently the dents within the floor were from training. Within the temple there were other signs of practice; the trees had many holes in which, it is said, is where monks repeatedly hit them with a single finger trying to make it stronger. After viewing the above the only rooms I didn't venture into were ones that had tables of souvenirs for sale; even outside the temple there were a few stalls and so I quickly moved on towards the final part of the site.

When I say the final part of the site there was also mountain, that you could walk up, after the monks cemetery. My guidebook hadn't rated the walk that highly and, in truth, I couldn't be bothered therefore, for me, the monks’ cemetery was the last thing to visit. After a short walk I found myself surrounded by pine trees; within this pine forest stood hundreds of stone pagodas each dedicated to a fallen monk. The pagodas were of incredible detail and, with the mountains in the back ground, I could think of few other places so picturesque to be buried. I felt a little odd, taking photos of a cemetery, but for me it was certainly the most scenic area of the whole site. It wasn't, however that big, and so it didn't take me long to wander through the yard and back onto the road. Within the graveyard the Chinese had placed rugs, with souvenirs on, to sell to anybody who came through. Personally I thought that this was disgusting; taking photos was borderline but trying to sell tacky souvenirs within a cemetery ... do these people have no morals? I ignored the calls of 'buy this, buy that' as I left the cemetery and walked back down the road towards the temple. On one side of the road flowed a stream, and on the other the Shaolin temple. I hugged the stream side to avoid most of the tourists and it was, at this point, that I saw a camel on a bridge. There was a small tent, in front of said camel, with a guy allowing tourists, for a fee of course, to have their photo taken whilst sitting on the camel's back. Why I hear you ask … I have no idea. What a camel has to do with an ancient Chinese martial art beats me.

The next bridge lead to a car park and the temple 'of a thousand golden Buddha's'. As it was only 1pm I decided to venture into the temple. The temple was set out like a ludo board and you walked around it just as you would move your pieces in the game. It's a shame that no photography was allowed, as this was one of the more interesting parts of the site; as I walked down the stone corridors golden Buddha's, on each side, were placed almost on top of each other. Each seemed to have an individual character and they all had a lot of life with arms pointing, in different directions, and many different facial expressions. Some Chinese were praying to specific Buddha's, one of which looked a lot like Tony Blair. With no photography allowed I whizzed down the corridors viewing each statue for only a couple of seconds.

Once back outside I checked my watch; 1:20pm. If I hurried I could make the 2pm coach back to Luoyang. As marched my way back to the ticket gate I thought about my visit; the Shaolin Temple was the sole reason I'd visited Luoyang and was it really worth it? The answer, no; the location of the temple – up in the mountains – was beautiful and the crowds hadn't been that large, the problem was how the Shaolin owners had gone about setting the place up for tourism. The entrance was fake, the show was fake and everywhere you looked souvenir stalls could be seen either in temples or within the courtyards. Still if I hadn't have come I would have always been wondering what it the place was like, and it did make me want to read The American Shaolin again.

I got to the bus stop, a little hot, at around two minutes to two. I'd cut it a little fine though I decided to wait hoping that the service wasn't running early. A pleasant lady crossed the street and asked if I was heading to Luoyang; I nodded and she indicated that I was stood in the right position. She was very pleasant, even though she didn't speak a word of English, and see waved the coach down for me when it arrived. I got on and regretted that I hadn't got any change; I gingerly handed over a crisp 100 Yuan note to which the ticket inspector frowned. After a lot of rummaging I was handed the correct change and presented with an annoyed smile.

The journey was no different from this morning except the Kung-Fu film had changed. I flicked between the world outside and the film. I arrived back in Luoyang around 4pm where I went out for a walk. Whilst walking around the park I noticed a lot of people playing Chinese chess and I was very tempted to challenge one of them; maybe tomorrow. I walked around until 6pm when I had tea and went back to my hostel room; the Japanese guy, Honk, had checked-out and into a hotel nearby (was it something I said). A Malaysian girl had taken his place and boy could she could talk. I timed her and, as I was trying to write this blog, she talked at me for thirty minutes without pause. She was very pleasant but, at this moment in time, I wished she would leave me alone; as if she had read my mind she left the dorm room and I was allowed to continue my work in peace.

As I was finishing my blog a knock at the door could be heard followed by a 'it's me … Honk'. Looking very flustered, Honk burst into the room and sat on the seat opposite. He was trying to tell me something in regards to money (300 for this and 100 for that) but for the life of me I had no idea what he was going on about. I gave him a big smile and said 'okay'; he left as fast as he had appeared. A nutter on the train, a talkative Malaysian girl and a flustered Japanese bloke … how odd.

Tomorrow the Longmen Caves.

Toodle Pip!

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