20 Oct 2004
|Well, I tell you, I am thrilled to bits to be here, at THE actual Shaolin Temple, the Mecca of the Martail Arts world. Though I may be less thrilled after tomorrow's 5.30 am run, as I have got rather out of condition the last several weeks here.
Getting here involved some good news and some bad news. Some nice family gave me a lift to the town in their taxi, and even made sure it dropped me at a bank to change some more money. Then my fears were confirmed when I found out I did have hard seat not hard sleeper after all. But I stiffened my lip and blew up the Weston cushion. I usefully used some of the time to do some planning, and eventually decided not to spend a week exploring Shianxi Province or about 10 days in the far North-west in Central Asia, but as I was concerned about not being able to get overland to Khatmandu from Lhasa due to weather, I would head straight for Tibet after Xi'An, my next stop.
My suffering was punctuated by the strange spectacle of members of the uniformed train crew giving speeches, to great applause from all the passengers. Maybe this happens all the time in Hard Seat? And then the semi-good news, only fourteen hours later - at 2 am in the morning - we got to Zhengzhou. I was tired and confused, and wasn't going to be caught out the same way as my last train trip, but yes, it definitely said Zhengzhou (Lonely Planet said it was a 30 hour journey?). So a few hours in a grotty hotel and then a bus to Shaolin.
Bit more of a tour than a bus-trip really, but it actually worked out quite well as we visited another temple I wanted to go to anyway. It made me realise I haven't seen any nice temples for a while. And then eventually Shaolin itself. I was so excited!
I checked into a Wushu (kung-fu to the rest of you) School that I knew had nice rooms for softy foreigners. Good job too, as you should see everyone else's. The older ones are like normal dorm density, but the kids are completely packed in. There must be several hundred people in this building alone, all bouncing around the place as I walked home this evening, climbing up poles, spinning through the air, etc, etc. Reassuringly, a lot of them were playing badminton badly. There are over 40,000 people training in the immediate area, they are just everywhere. It is quite a sight.
After I checked in and dumped my stuff I explored the temple area proper, which was very pretty, and has really been done up well and recently, indeed the whole place is quite a classy and new-looking tourist attraction, though there weren't too many tourists around. What it isn't is spiritual, though it is certainly martial. A lot more Westerners than I have seen for ages too.
The monks do several performances a day, so I went to see one. My fave bits were one throwing a needle through a pane of glass, and the pictured one breaking an iron bar over his head! But the funniest bit was when one monk was whirling this sharp heavy object on a long chain round himself in all sorts of athletic ways, and then the chain broke and it went scything off into the audience, fortunately missing everyone. No-one seemed particularly concerned, and everyone just carried on as before. Chinese are even more fatalistic than Arabs and Muslims.
And then I signed myself up for a day's preliminary Kung-Fu tomorrow, starting at 5.30 a.m. with a run before breakfast! What have I done?!
Day Two: Well, to be honest, I ache in most places, and am mildly injured in a number of others. It can't be that bad though, as I signed myself up for another day tomorrow. I am actually quite jealous of the people who train here for long periods (up to three years) and would like to myself. You would certainly be good by the end of it, even the five year olds here are amazing. I was staggered to find out today that there are 14,000 students at this School alone, never mind the dozens of schools in the area. People are training everywhere all the time (except during the long meal breaks), and there is an incredibly martial atmosphere, it really feels like we are all preparing for war. During my breakfast break this morning I saw what could have been the entire campus march past in groups of a 100 or so to who knows where. It took a while.
Essentially I have my own coach, a guy called Fan, who is a good balance of pushing and letting me rest, and lethal at kung-fu. Thankfully he loves to chat, so I get more breaks than I probably should have. He is fascinated by Western relationships and thinks it is great how easy it is to get a sexual partner and how little commitment there is to staying in relationships (compared to China). I think though, that that is because he isn't expecting to be on the receiving end of such a situation. And I am enjoying myself winding him up and portraying Western women as very scary and un-servile.
The training itself is frankly very hard, especially for someone who has spent a lot of the last several weeks on trains. I nearly threw up by the end of this morning's pre-breakfast session, but got into my stride more with the day. However, I am realy enjoying it also. It is very violent, as they attach a lot of importance to being able to actually fight and do a great deal of damage, as well as all the flowing Tai-Chi type stuff that comes later. I'm not sure when I will get to use all this heavy duty stuff, but I'm enjoying it anyway, despite the pain and the (minor) injuries. I have a feeling I will ache a lot more tomorrow, which should make the 5.30 run interesting. Tomorrow I don't have to actually get up until 5.30 itself when this extremely loud trumpet call is repeated dozens of times across the campus, and everyone gets up. I feel sorry for the non-combatants here, who won't sleep much past that.
Day 3: Rats running around the dining room last night, whihc also has conveniently placed spittoons next to each table. Nice.
I ached like hell this morning, and even more (if that was possible) after the first session this morning at 5.30. There is an English girl here who has been here for three months, and she says she is shattered, and I can see why. She also says it is normally much harder, but the senior foreign instructor is away, so all our instructors are coasting it apparently. The mind boggles. Nevertheless, I am still having fun, and today I learnt a whole form, all 29 moves, many unfamiliar, and a cool-looking one too. I have tried to transcribe it as otherwise I may well forget it by the time I get home. Much as I enjoyed it though, I wasn't sorry that it has ended, though I think I will be good for nothing other than lying in bed for a few days. I think its the three runs a day I find particularly hard. Fan thinks I have lost weight already, which wouldn't be suprising the amount I have sweated, but I think not.