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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Journey to Shaolin

The love for putting Ip Man, Wong Fei Hong and almost every kind of martial art flick on repeat summoned me to the mysterious island of Shaolin. I'm a martial arts zealot, but i'm not very good at it. Kungfu films were my primary inspiration for learning Judo and Takewando (a far cry, i know).
Backpacking to Shaolin.
Getting There
It took quite abit of research to determine an authentic school at the right place. Almost every school had "Shaolin" on their website, even if their school wasn't located in Shaolin zone. Shaolin, being popular, is used as a marketing keyword. I had to countercheck where the original Shaolin temple is on Maps but even so, i wasn't too sure. Even tour sites that offer packages to the Shaolin temple didn't mention the location of Shaolin. 

The location was very mysterious, but i later confirmed it to be in the Henan province. 
The first statue i saw got me very excited.
I took a chance with Song Shan Kungfu Academy with a non-refundable registration fee of USD 100. It could be a scam as anything fake imaginable can be found in Motherland (like buying fake "legit" medical certificates during the World Cup from Taobao.com) but i was willing to take a bet. 
Go Somewhere You've Never Been before
I boarded the 8 hours overnight train (SGD 200, first class, 2 way) from Shanghai to Zheng Zhou with trepedition. Our sleeping cabin for 4 is overcrowded with 6 but we survived with no collasping beds. 

Upon arrival, a school rep greeted us at the station and its another 90 min drive to Defeng, the town where every restaurant has "Kungfu" in its name. 

The Realm of Order

The Shaolin zone is a gated community. Tourists pay an entrance fee to enter the area where they can pay additional fees to visit 

A) Shaolin Temple
B) Kungfu performance theatre
C) Cable car ride to Mountain A with Four Flavours of Water Temple 
D) Cable car ride to Mountain B with dangerous looking bridge
E) Dalai Lama Cave where he spent meditating 9 years in
There's a temple up the mountains in the Shaolin zone that has 4 natural wells with 4 different tastes!
Sweet, sour, bitter and spicy.
Co-existing with these tourist attractions are dozens of kungfu academies. Song Shan Kungfu Academy is at the foot of Mount Song and is near the original Shaolin Temple. I'm relieved to find it for real. 
In the Shaolin temple, you'll find this ancient tree where the holes in the tree were supposedly created by warrior monks practicing! In some temple halls, you will find depression in the floor, also created by training monks.
This huge pot was what the head monk used to stir-fry vegetables UPSIDE DOWN.

Enroute to my kungfu school, i passed the training grounds of some 30,000 local children. Small to large groups of children were seen training in various pockets of land. The teenagers training for military service were either topless or dressed in exercise sweats. The children in independant schools wore the robes of warrior monks. 
Check out the boys' stretching warm-up.
See a back flip? Kungfu training against a picturesque backdrop of the Song mountains.
Children were seen somersaulting through the air and bending backwards. Their shaven heads bobbing up and down as they train relentlessly under the sun,  practicing stunts off wooden structures and running day to night. Its like walking into a kungfu film set

No wonder Westerners think all Chinese know kungfu. Damn, 30, 000 people practising kungfu at one time? That's pretty representative of all Chinese.

Even in a Shanghai park, we saw unsuspecting old men practicing "defensive" Taiji. Slow defensive strokes turned offensive. 

The Chinese martial arts is representative of highly varied martial systems that are somewhat difficult to trace. This is something that sets the Chinese arts apart from the majority of martial arts systemswhere a clearer lineage is often known.

Living Spartan
We arrived at kungfu school and were shown to our room. A time schedule written with calligraphy on aged paper was plastered on the wall. I felt like i've transported back in time. 

Maroon sheets on twin beds, a small but clean room, this is going to be our resting place for the week. We later found ourselves hardly wanting to stay in the room at all because the bathroom emits a smell. Thankfully, the smell is bearable. 
In a Chinese village in the countryside, we wouldn't have any better options. The accomodation draws water from a nearby pump, thus resource is limited. 

One evening, i was bathing with a trickle of water before it spluttered and died. There i was, shampoo in my eye and body slippery, i had to call for help to deliver mineral water from the bottle. Mindful of water conservation, as it means going down the hill and lugging back 5 gallons of drinking water, i wiped soap off myself with a wet towel.  Its the first time i slept with shampoo reminants in my hair. 

There is also no hot water but it was summer so cold showers were welcomed. However, it rained 2 days while i was there and i swear i wasn't aroused despite my body parts looking like it. 

I didn't dare take a dump in my unreliable room toilet. Sometimes it flushes, sometimes it doesn't. I wasn't going to take that risk. 

Most of the time, we were dirty and constipated. 

Meal times were what i looked forward the most. Although the variety is not extensive, i was enjoying every meal. Can't say for those students who stay more than a month (imagine eating the same hotel buffet every day) but they said its the best they've tasted compared to other kungfu schools around China. 
Students checking out the offer.
You learn to be very "Chinese" during meal times. Don't be the last to the table or there'll be scraps or worse, nothing left. The chefs are afterall feeding famished students who trained kungfu-ly hard. After my first meal, i wisen up to be at the canteen 3 mins before meal hour. 
Don't the chefs look out of the movie God of Cookery?
Everyday, breakfast is freshly-made Chinese pancakes with a sprinkling of carrots and chives that tasted pretty plain like pita. Some students hold their own bottle of honey as a spread and share it around. I bet a jar of Nutella could get in return some serious favours...
Raw cucumbers and carrots with hard boiled eggs were also supplied. What's unique is the school concocts their own protein shakes (made of beans) for students! Every morning, we get a different mixture and we drink them from a bowl like ancient kungfu pugilists do in teahouses. 
Lunch and dinner is purple-grained bean rice with 3 hot vegetarian dishes (1 has chicken) and a cold vegetarian dish. Other than the occassional treat of thinly sliced potato fried like chips, there is no other junk food. 

An indulgence would be walking down the hill in the evening to the little shops for an ice-cream. There was even a makeshift stall selling bubble-tea by kids! I was tempted, but remembered toilets were not condusive. I even bought "FEIYUE kungfu shoes" from the shops for only USD 2!!

In the evenings, its nice to take a stroll outside the school as we watch the local children being whipped into perfect pugilists. "They run the hell out of them", our school secretary said. These children as young as 3 are placed here by their parents either to toughen them up, or hoping they become a star like Jet Li or make a future living as a performer. I saw only 2 little girls out of the hundreds of boys. I was mesmerized by the little children, what discipline and perfect form they had. 
Teenagers were slapping sacks furiously with their hand like a karate chop, we joked they should open a Shaolin bakery where sacks are dough. That'll kill two birds with one stone! 

We had wanted to pay for tickets to watch a kungfu performance at the Shaolin performing theatre but was told peeping into local schools is better. Indeed its better as its raw, real and awesome but on hindsight, watching an inexpensive performance would have been breath-taking too!

The Characters
I never would have thought but enrolling into a Shaolin kungfu academy could be rehab for some. I look up with admiration by these individuals who could 
1) openly acknowledge their alcohol, smoking, drugs and abusive relationship issues
2) seek to save themselves as no one else can
3) commit to a totally different culture and lifestyle semi-permanently

Most came with martial arts background, one was a gymnastic performer onboard a cruise, one a dance cheographer and a 14 year old who is a descendent of the Spartans! The Maniot started Karate at 7 and initially wanted to experience Karate at its birthplace, Japan, but later changed his mind to learn something different. He got his parent's blessing (and money) and flew in from Dubai. 
Most students are relatively youthful, with the youngest ever being a Western girl aged 9 and the oldest in their late 40s. The 9 year old girl hopes to take a year off school to return for a year long training! It reinforced my thought to inculcate my children in martial arts. 

There were 4 Russian children, aged 12 and below, in my kungfu cohort. They were mischievous as kids are. Their parents sent them to China for "summer Shaolin camp", hoping to instill discipline and appreciation by stripping them from tablets, mobiles and the luxuries of city life. The boys remained naughty still in their first two weeks, vandalising furniture and disturbing lessons but hopefully over time it'll change. They led a simple life and strict regime like the adults do, no excuses. 

Heads of students don't need to be shaved, but many do because of the heat and/or as a symbol of removing vanity from life. As i left the school, i overheard a potential punishment to the mischievous boys was to shave their heads. 

People from all corners of the world, come together, to train, to laugh, to learn. 

Sweat, Sand and Poop
The school has a schedule and discipline is metted out to those who disobey. Punishments start from 100 push-ups for not being punctual. We start the day at 5.30am with non-religious meditation to prepare mentally for what comes physically. We collect a cushion, close our eyes and sit cross legged. Some sneaky students like me, will use this 30 mins to continue their dreams sitting upright. As long as you don't start snoring, you'll go undetected. 

At 6am, we start cultivating our Qi with Qigong and Taiji. 
At 7, we break bread, or rather, chinese pancakes. 

We resume training from 8.30 to 11.30. This time would be used for power stretching, practicing kungfu forms and weapons. We rest for lunch at noon before resuming afternoon training at 4.30 till the evening. 
Horsing around.
Training can be customised to each individual's objective. Longer stay students can pick a form to perfect (drunken fist, praying mantis, tiger, crane and more) 


There's alot of fun in body conditioning training too! Like acrobatics and more. 
Its not all about kungfu as each afternoon has informal cultural lessons like calligraphy, mandarin, tea appreciation and the likes. 
The schedule for Mon to Fri is different but it repeats weekly. Every Friday, we climb a thousand steps to Dalai Lama's cave X 4 times. 

Famous Last Words
I've never been healthier; in bed by 9.30pm for an early rise. Simple food never tasted better; despite it being vegetarian. Body never more leaner; a total cleanse and detox without skinnymint, teatox, nakedjuice and other cheesy names. 

Inspired by the people who came, all with one purpose, to be introduced to the world of Shaolin. The whole experience was not a walk in a film park, my body ached and it took alot of perserverance but it was living a life tailored for a Hollywood film. 

Unassuming characters from all walks of life and martial arts discipline came to the mountains around the Shaolin Temple to study kungfu from a “real kungfu master”. Shi Yan Jun is the disciple of the 34th abbot, who could teach us the pure, unadulterated Shaolin martial art.

We snuck into the Shaolin Temple in our warrior monk robes and learned history of how the temple was destroyed in a heist ordered by the Emperor, witnessed evidence of the existence of kungfu monks. 

Master Shi shared that Shaolin never wanted to pass on the knowledge of art to the Western world but he hopes to make the art live longer. He and the Taiji master resembled those from an ancient Kungfu movie. Shaven heads, cherubic faces and a really long white beard invites confessions. Their demeanor non-judgmental, soft and tolerant. They personify Chinese martial values. 
ok, slippers not part of the kungfu outfit

We left in excellent shape. Shifting from horse stance to bow stance in a flash, our punches and kicks carry the sound of wind on robe. 

As Dalai Lama said, "Go somewhere you've never been before". 

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