I guess I ought to apologize to those of you who check this on a regular basis. Having completed everything on my bucket list, I have been incredibly busy and have been traveling all over the place over the past three weeks. During this time, our program visited the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Warriors, and the following weekend my roommate and I went to the Shaolin Temple to train with a few masters (no big).
In summary, the Great Wall is big, there are a lot of Terra Cotta Warriors, and Shaolin IS THE COOLEST PLACE EVER (if, and mind you this is a rather large stipulation, you know someone that can match you up with a guide and arrange for you to meet some of the masters).
As one walks along the Great Wall for a while, one can easily take for granted the splendor of the monument, finding the size of the wall impressive but somewhat less grand than previously conceived…until one walks over the next hill. The Great Wall is HUGE. The scenery is nice, very nice actually, but I think the coolest part of the Great Wall is its immense nature. Because it rolls with the hills, the Wall provides new angles and perspectives as you go along, and in my opinion, keeps things interesting. I honestly think I might have gotten bored with it after the first half hour if we hadn’t kept walking. The farther you go, the more you realize how frickin’ big it is and appreciate how much effort must have gone into making it. [I used the word hill, but it’s more accurately part of the mountains so be prepared for one hell of a hike if you wish to save money by not using the lifts]
The following weekend, our program travelled to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. Seeing several thousand (practically) unique statues was pretty damn cool [they were all constructed from a set of variable moldings that were later modified by the sculptors].
Apparently, a group of farmers digging a well found the buried warriors. I cannot imagine unexpectedly stumbling upon something so monumental. Unfortunately, the farmers reported the paint on the warriors started to fade as soon as the air hit them (oxidation can be rather toilsome in this regard).
Both the Great Wall and Terra Cotta Warriors are extremely impressive, but both have somewhat dark histories. The construction of the Wall led to hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths. In addition, it is said (I do not think it was necessarily confirmed) that the Emperor who ordered the construction of the Terra Cotta Warriors had all of the workers killed after their work was finished. There is a lot to Chinese culture that is nothing like the black and white / good versus evil culture that Americans grow up with (such as republicans and democrats, or the Empire versus the Alliance in Star Wars) [Though I’m not saying we Americans only live on extremes].
*please disregard the excessive (and likely, misuse) of parenthesis and brackets
The following weekend, my roommate and I found the Shaolin Temple to be just as touristy as the other sites. Everywhere one goes, one should always expect to see stands and small gift shops with fervent shopkeepers, eager to make a profit from inexperienced shoppers. I had been expecting the commercialization from the get-go, and honestly, it didn’t bother me. For me though, this experience was far more than just another tourist stop. I shall start from the beginning…
My roommate and I had to leave our program’s belated Thanksgiving dinner a little early to jump onto an overnight train to Zheng Zhou. [Side note: the food was awesome and it was very nice to celebrate something purely American after being away for so long]. We arrived at Zheng Zhou’s the train station at about 6:30 the following morning. From a single point on the open square outside the train station, we counted 4 KFCs and 4 McDonalds…
With the help of my roommate, who is actually competent in Chinese, we traveled to Deng Feng (the establishment outside of Shaolin) via bus. Upon arrival, I called my martial arts instructor, and he had his master pick us up to take us to a Kung Fu-themed hotel. The hotel was probably better than most I’ve stayed at in the US.
The following day, we toured the Shaolin Temple. I was impressed by the size of the grounds, which I had presumed to host only a few hundred monks. When we walked down the road after going through the beautiful entranceway, we saw a massive expanse (more than a few football fields) filled with monks practicing. I later found out that the Temple houses several thousand monks.
My instructor called a friend (one of the masters at the Temple) to have him find us a personal guide. The monk that showed us around was 15 years old, very friendly, and apparently knew my instructor. I didn’t realize –rather foolishly– that the Shaolin Temple actually has a large Buddhist temple on its grounds. Many Chinese Buddhist practitioners come to Shaolin for religious purposes instead of to see martial arts performances.
After our tour, our monk guide snuck us in the back way to the performance hall so we didn’t have to wait in line, and so we could have the best seats. During the performance, monks of various ages (ranging from about 10 to 18) performed acrobatic stunts, martial art forms, and at one point, a monk broke a metal bar over his head to demonstrate the power of qi. The best part of the performance, however, was when they asked for members of the audience to volunteer. Since I kind of knew what was coming, I didn’t raise my hand.
Three audience members were paired up with a monk and asked to mimic the actions (in a rather humorous manner) of the monks. One man was rather large, and his replications of the monk’s kicks and tumbles were hilarious. He was far more capable than I would have expected.
After touring the grounds for a little longer, we headed back to the hotel. The Kung Fu-themed hotel also had a performance theatre, where we saw a second performance. Although there were only eight people in the audience (there aren’t that many martial art enthusiasts that come during the winter because it’s freezing cold), there were about three dozen performing monks. Not only did they demonstrate how to use a larger assortment of weapons, but there was also a contortionist, a monk who was suspended off the ground only by spears, and an eight-year old monk that could do things that I would still argue are humanly impossible. It was insane.
The following day, we met up again with my instructor’s master at the elementary school that he runs (I found out later that my instructor’s master is the vice president of the area’s beauro). My roommate and I then received personal training for two hours from one of the teachers at the school who was also a shaolin monk.
Afterwards, the teacher brought us to train with a group of two dozen elementary school kids (ranging in age from about 8 to 16). They were very polite compared to what I would have expected of elementary school kids that have to share a class with intruding foreigners. We did a bunch of drills, and at one point, were asked to perform what we learned in front of the kids. I don’t do so well under pressure like that, so a lot of mistakes were made. When we finished, all of the students began clapping for us (which admittedly made me feel awkward).
These were probably the toughest kids I’ve ever met. They train in freezing conditions every morning, their dorms lack heating systems, and from what I saw they weren’t fed enough for having to survive the cold. Despite all this, they were still very friendly, fun to talk to, and very polite.
We later had lunch with the teacher, and then received another hour of training. My instructor’s master came in at that point, and he took great pleasure in teaching us the applications of each move.
Leaving around midafternoon, my roommate and I headed to the train station for our overnight trip home.
Although I really loved my experience, I do not necessarily suggest Shaolin as a place to visit unless you have a passion for martial arts because there are a few things that detract from the experience. Shaolin (like everywhere in China) is commercialized, and now, in addition to being a school, functions as a tourist site, not a training camp for anyone who comes to visit. Moreover, Hunan province has the worst pollution in China. Said pollution and seemingly endless construction will promptly disillusion anyone with preconceptions of lush bamboo forests or other Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon-esque scenery.
There isn’t much to do in Shaolin unless you are a practicing Buddhist or have previous arrangements. Moreover, it is not easy to find Shaolin unless you can navigate both train and bussing systems, which are in Chinese.
I have fulfilled everything on my bucket list in China. It was good timing as well because on the Monday following our weekend Shaolin excursion we took our Sociology final. How dare school ruin my vacation…