Everyone has heard of Shaolin. It’s famous in the West for exactly one thing. Kung Fu.
From Xi’an, we travelled via public bus. We had all kinds of nightmare visages of what this might entail but it was just a regular coach and as comfortable as you would expect.We are staying in a small village with only one hotel. No shops, restaurants or pubs. We had the option of purchasing purchasing four cooked meals from our host or taking or own food that would most likely have been more pot noodles. Fortunately, the cooked meals turned out to be both plentiful and incredibly tasty. It even included a plate of the tomato and omelette dish we have grown so fond of.The area is famous for the Shaolin Temple, a place where martial artists, like Jackie Chan, are required to regularly return to. Shaolin is considered to be the birthplace or at least spiritual home of both Kung Fu and Zen Buddhism.
There are tens of Kung fu schools here. Each with it’s own Master. The children of one local school put on a show for us. They seemed genuinely proud of their studies. It is definitely a school as they not only study kung fu but also take normal lessons too. Kung Fu involves a six day learning week. On sundays they wash their clothes.
The rest of the group engaged in a kung fu lesson. I didn’t partake as I feared it would be contrived. It actually looked like quite good fun but I had this strange feeling that it was something I would only want to do with the intention of sticking at it and giving it the respect it deserves. The lesson was not cheap but the income was clearly being used for renovations. The outdoor area our show took place in was literally being built as the kids performed.
We went to the ShaoLin temple. I’m not sure what I expected but a huge tourist trap was not what I wanted. The temple, at a glance, is just another temple really. Though there are kung fu style statues placed all around to emphasise the point. Plus we were treated to a professional Kung Fu show, showcasing many feats of physical prowess and several different animal styles, including tiger and frog.
The pagoda forest was the best part. Hundreds of small stone pagodas that range in size and shape according to how high ranked the monk was whose honor it was erected in.
We walked up to the Dharma cave. A small stone ‘natural’ cave that had a lovely tiled floor and carved stone arched doorway. It was here that Zen Buddhism was supposedly founded. Zen is the chinese style of buddhism and taught concurrently with Kung Fu.
The Darma spent 9 years visiting the cave and stood facing the wall to pray. He also taught lessons on buddhism nearby. Its 1700m from the bottom to the top. Up sloping paths and many, many arduous sets of stairs. We didn’t think we would make it, but we stopped regularly and tried talking to chinese tourists for encouragement and to urge them on in return. It’s amazing how the shared experience of being sweaty and out of breath can break a language barrier.
We stayed at the cave for a while once we made it. The view was obscured by mist but still staggering. We were impressed we had made it this far but our tour group came down from the statue, a further 100m up the mountain, saying it was not too far or difficult. We decided to brave it. We had come this far after all.
We made it to the top but we were well over half way through our allotted 2hrs of free time. The statue of Dharma was big and the view slightly more impressive than the cave, though still obviously obscured by mist. There were people having picnics up here, listening to music and hanging out.
We took tourist photos and selfies before embarking on the return journey. Going down was much quicker but still hard. My legs once again turned to jelly, as they had in Yangshou, and quivered under my own weight. Not as bad as Moon Hill though. This was 10 degrees cooler for a start.
Modern day China is home to 1.4 billion people mostly living in tiny lodgings in tall tower blocks, traversing the city streets on electric scooters. It’s often hard to believe that the concept of Zen was formed here. Until you get on escalator that is. In China, pushing and shoving to get somewhere first is just standard practice, however, once you set foot on an escalator, you can enjoy a brief moment of tranquility until you reach the top. Unlike London, you can stand on the left or the right as no one is rushing past.
We returned to the hotel for lunch. The food here has been home cooked, tasty and abundant. And cheap as we all share. It’s the end of our time here and we are treated to three private cars to take us to the train station.
We board another night train but for only 8 hrs this time. I didn’t sleep well, even after our group had finished being incredibly loud and the lights went out, the train seemed to bang the carriages together with the frequent stops made through the night. It also switched tracks a great deal causing rocking and banging. The train itself was newer and cleaner than the previous overnight train we caught so it was at least an improvement in that sense.
The great wall awaits in Beijing…