Sunday, February 19, 2017

X at the Shaolin Temple

We had a one-week holiday the first week of October, only about five weeks after I started this job near Beijing, China.

I went to the Shaolin Temple.

Of course.

Yeah, a few tourists, sure. 
It's not too difficult to get there from Beijing; about 3 hours on the high-speed train to Zhengzhou, and then a bus to Dengfeng and a taxi to the Shaolin Temple.

 (Unfortunately this was during a Chinese national holiday, which means the better part of a billion and a half people were on the move, so the 1.5 hour trip from Dengfeng took more like 3 hours.)

To describe the Shaolin Temple as "cheesy" would certainly be accurate. It's kind of like a kungfu Disneyland.

But you could also use "fucking awesome" and "well worth the trip."

Some students practicing a move that would probably be about the most useless and dangerous thing
 you could possibly do in a fight.

Hey, get a room you two!

Live simply and die with a big monument; that's Zen baby. 

In addition to the Shaolin Monastary itself and the martial arts training center, there is a Pagoda forest and a handful of other temples; for your 100 yuan entry fee, you also get Mount Song and the surrounding area, which is pretty fucking cool itself. You can see the cave where Bodhidarma meditated, bringing Zen Buddhism to China. (Of course I didn't take a picture of that, you think I'm culturally insensitive?)

The authenticity of the actual temple is pretty dubious; it's been blown up and rebuilt about a half-dozen times, and most of the stories about its founding and history are more likely legend than reality. (Shaolin Temple wikipedia entry.) 

 But, tourist attraction though it is, it is still a working center where martial arts is taught and studied.

Now probably a lot of you alpha-man-osphere doofs out there are going to chime in that the Gracie Family or Conor MacGregor could kill every living soul in the Shaolin Monastary in about a minute; but I would have to ask, could Conor MacGregor put his leg perpendicular to the ground next to his head, and then do a split onto his testicles?  

I thought not! 

Shaolin Kungfu, according to the legend, was developed by the Bodhidharma after meditating for 9 years; understandably feeling a bit stiff and achy, he began imitating the animals around him (tigers, cranes, mantises, monkeys, etc) for the sake of his fitness.

The reality of course is probably nothing even close to that, but there are so many legends and stories about it all it doesn't much matter anymore. 

And of course, you watch a video like that, you think: Oh, man that's the perfect sport for a middle aged dude. 

I have been doing Shaolin Kung Fu workouts off of YouTube videos since I was a young man of 40 back in 2009; one of my bucket list desires was to actually study kungfu in China. For the last 8 years I have been trying to arrange it. Even with the abundance of money and free time I've had since 2009, I hadn't managed to get it worked out. 

Until now. 

Mission accomplished, baby. 

(And yes I am aware that kung-fu is not really the correct word for Chinese martial arts, but even the schools tend to use it that way, so step off.) 

Plaque near the training center warning against factionalism within schools of kungfu

I stayed there for a total of 4 nights, at one of the small guest houses connected to the various schools in an area to the side of the main tourist area. There seemed to be about a half-dozen small schools and I was absolutely fucking delighted to see groups of  young men in different uniforms jogging around, running and jumping and practicing forms, and even standing on their heads on the concrete. 

 I went and had tea with the guy who owned the guest house connected to the school and he said he could arrange a day of instruction for $100 or so. (That included a t-shirt, some track pants, and some kungfu shoes that didn't fit.)  Probably a bit expensive, but am I going to haggle with a Shaolin Monk?

That evening I met with the actual teacher, who seemed more than a bit skeptical of me and didn't speak any English. When I showed that I was familiar with a lot of the basic moves, and actually in reasonably good shape for an older guy, he warmed up to me a little.

So the training started the next day. Typical day for a Shaolin student consists of: a morning run at 5:00am; 2 hours of training in the morning, 8:00 to 10:00 am; 2 hours of training in the afternoon, 1:00 - 3:00pm, and 1.5 hours of training after dinner, 6:00 - 7:30pm.

Once he established I was familiar with some of the exercises, he took me to train with his main group of students, in one of the many practice fields nearby.

There were about 20 of them. The oldest one was probably 17. Most of them were ripped-to-shreds little extreme athletes, but within the class, there was some streaming of students, and I ended up with the basic class, one of whom seemed to be autistic, several of whom were overweight, and one of whom had some kind of gimpy leg where he could barely walk. Oh, and there was a 5-year-old also.

I ran, I kicked, I punched the air, I leapt and crouched and did the horse-stance. The kids ran rings around me, alhtough I probably did outperform the retarded one and the overweight ones. The kids really got a kick (pun intended) out of me studying with them and were very supportive and helpful with all the moves.

I had a fucking blast.

By the end of the day, of course, both my knees were swollen up like cannonballs, and I could barely walk. The kungfu shoes they had provided were too small, and both of my big toenails turned black, to fall off a few weeks later.

But I did that shit, baby.

I studied kungfu at the Shaolin Monastary.