China 2012 – Day 11 – Shaolin Temple, Yellow River

During our trip, many of the people we met asked us if we were going to Guilin. Apparently it’s a beautiful spot. But, even though it had been on our original itinerary, we weren’t going to Guilin. Why? Because I had decided that if I only made it to China once in my life, I wanted to see the Shaolin Temple, the legendary home of martial arts in China. So Guilin had fallen victim to this addition to the itinerary. In fact, the past three days of sightseeing had all been set up because of this diversion.

As I mentioned before, our hotel was actually within the security perimeter of the Shaolin Temple, so it certainly had location going for it.  That’s a good thing, because in every other respect, it was one of the shabbiest joints we stayed in on the entire trip (although the honour of “shabbiest” has to go to the hotel we would stay in next in Zhengzhou.)

Our morning began with a mediocre breakfast – no coffee, tea, or juice, and very little selection. But we shrugged that off because after breakfast, we were scheduled to see a “Shaolin” Kung Fu performance, which took place in a building within our hotel complex.  Charlie told us we should just go into the theatre and he would look after getting tickets for us, so, with nothing else to do, we wandered into the theatre over a half-hour before the performance was slated to begin. That turned out to be a good choice. The performers soon began wandering in and stretching, and then, for half an hour or so, we watched them practice parts of their routines while their instructor dealt out various advice and criticisms. Even though this was in Mandarin, I was able to follow some of his suggestions by body language.

As I watched these young folks practising, though, I realized that my expectation of actually seeing some of the monks perform had been a bit naive and optimistic. These young men were obviously not monks but students of one of the many local schools which have proliferated outside the monastery complex and benefit from their proximity to it. So, once again, I was a bit disappointed, but I resolved to set that aside and enjoy the performance no matter what.

For once, we had to express gratitude for Charlie’s advice.  His suggestion that we go into the theatre early by the back door couldn’t have been more valuable, and not just because we got to see the performers practice. About five minutes before the performance was slated to begin, the official entry doors were flung open. What happened next could only be described as a stampede.  Hundreds of people from the Chinese tour buses broke into the room and sprinted across the floor to snag the best seats they could.  We both thought this was a bit unnecessary, since there really wasn’t a bad seat in the house. But then, as people continued to flood in, we realized that they knew something we didn’t; there were far more people waiting outside the doors than the little theatre could possibly accommodate. By the time the dust had settled, there were people on the floor, people in the aisles, and even people standing outside the door trying to see in. And there we were sitting front row centre. Thank You, Charlie. Had we been left to our own devices, there’s no way a couple of bewildered, middle-aged westerners would have survived that surge.

The performance itself was quite good. It was a little heavy on weapons form/demonstrations, but that’s understandable, since that stuff has a greater wow factor for folks outside the martial arts. One certainly can’t help being impressed by the athleticism of these young people, that’s for sure. (photos) Photography was a bit of a challenge because I didn’t want to use my flash; that made freezing action very difficult. Once again, though, I was probably the only person in the room who did turn off his/her flash. The performance culminated in some of the standard things we’d already seen, breaking metal bars over the head (photo, note fragments flying through the air), and bending a pointed staff with the throat (photo). They did do one very different demonstration, though. One of the performers thrust a pin through a pane of glass to break a balloon on the other side without breaking the glass (photo). Hadn’t seen that one before.

After the performance, we met up once again with Charlie and strolled the short distance up to the monastery itself.  (photos) I can’t say what I expected to experience by visiting the monastery. I suppose I thought I might actually see some monks engaged in everyday activities, perhaps some training. We saw none of that. The only monks we saw were manning the entrance gates and selling trinkets and souvenirs within the compound. I should rephrase that. They weren’t “selling” souvenirs; they were “taking donations” in exchange for souvenirs. Mind you, those “donations” had a set price, the cheapest being 100 RMB ($16). I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disillusioned a bit by all of that. Even Charlie expressed some cynicism at this and advised us that souvenirs were far cheaper outside the monastery. In a rare display of tact, he chose to do that beyond earshot of the monks.

I did buy one thing at the monastery, though, a guide book on The Shaolin Monastery itself. I didn’t think I would find that anywhere else.  Always the name-dropper, Charlie had been regaling us with tales of Vladimir Putin’s visit to the monastery and had shown us pictures (on more than one occasion) taken from a book written by the current Abbot of the monastery. When he saw what I had bought, he said, “Oh, English,” and then pointed to the Abbot’s book, “But this one is written by the Abbot himself.” as if he couldn’t possibly fathom how I had made such a stupid decision. I said nothing in reply, but in my mind, I was thinking, “Right, Charlie. But it’s in fucking Mandarin, so unless I give a shit about pictures of Vladimir Putin – which I don’t – I think I’ll go for the English one.”

Charlie was in his usual manic phase, in which he would rush us through a venue and then, near the end, suddenly stop and declare, without the slightest twinge of irony, “Take your time. No rush. We have lots of time.” That certainly didn’t help me appreciate the site. In hindsight, I probably should have explained to Charlie the significance the site held for me, but I was reluctant to reveal that I was a practising martial artist. Once Jenny had found that out, she constantly made references to it, which I tend to find embarrassing.

All in all, I’m still glad I went on that little pilgrimage even if it wasn’t quite the experience I had hoped for, and I have to thank my wife for allowing me to indulge in that diversion.

Just outside the Monastery complex lies the Forest of Pagodas (photos), which has served as the traditional burial site for the Monastery’s many Abbots and monks since the 8th Century A.D.  I have to confess that in many ways this was a more satisfactory experience than the monastery itself; there were far fewer distractions from the solemnity and austere beauty of the place. And here one could imagine hundreds of years when the Monastery might actually have lived up to the ideals of Buddhism and the martial arts tradition. While I would have enjoyed being able to walk among the pagodas themselves, I appreciated the authorities’ decision to fence them off to prevent tourists from desecrating them by climbing all over them.

Apparently the fences were a recent addition. Charlie’s explanation was that “foreign tourists” had complained about how the pagodas were being treated, so authorities had demanded the fences be built. This was his stock explanation for any changes that he didn’t care for. Those foreign tourists are such a pain in the ass.

On the way out, we walked the usual gauntlet of vendors and hawkers, selling everything from prayer beads to fruit and snacks – not to mention the opportunity to have our picture taken on a camel (photo). I will have to say this, though: Chinese vendors are far less persistent, intrusive and obnoxious than many we experienced in India. They call out as you pass by, but they drop the issue quickly and don’t pursue you down the road tugging at your sleeve.  We probably could have made these experiences even smoother had we bothered to learn the phrase “bu yao xie xie” (no thank you) a bit earlier in the trip. Once we began using it, we found that vendors were surprisingly susceptible to this small expression of good manners and prone to dropping their sales pitches much more quickly.

After we left the temple behind, we travelled on to Zhengzhou, where we were to catch the plane to Chengdu.  It wasn’t immediately evident to us, but after a while it became clear that this was the only reason Zhengzhou was on our itinerary.

Before we stopped in Zhengzhou, though, we made a small detour to the Yellow River Scenic Area.  In some brochure that Charlie had shown us earlier, this site had been accompanied by a photo of a dam, so I was mildly interested in having a look see.  BIG disappointment.  When we arrived, Charlie informed us there were two things to do here.  One was to have a look at a recent (2007) phenomenon, the images of two legendary Chinese generals carved into the side of a mountain – essentially a modern day Chinese Mount Rushmore (or, as Charlie referred to it, “Yellowstone Park”). The other was to take a hovercraft ride on the Yellow River at a cost of 80 RMB (~$14) a piece.

We told Charlie we were reluctant to shell out the extra cash for the hovercraft; we doubted we would see very much given the thickness of the haze that day.  Charlie assured us that it would be fine; as long as we could “see the generals” visibility would be great. Then he capped off the sales pitch with, “This is a clear day.” Against our better judgement we both burst out laughing, then seeing the pained look on his face, apologized and awkwardly tried to explain our rudeness with, “No, if you’re from Canada, this is not a clear day.”  In case you judge us too harshly, let me clarify: here’s an un-retouched image of the generals on the day we were there. (other photos – retouched)

Finally, partly out of embarrassment for our outburst, and partly because there was nothing else to do here, we decided, what the hell, and forked over the money for the hovercraft ride. Charlie accompanied us so that he could do some interpretation of the onboard guide’s mandarin explanation. The ride itself was a bit depressing, but it was salvaged somewhat by a stop on a sandbar in the river where we could see construction on new bullet train track over the Yellow River (photo). We also got to turn down the opportunity to spend even more money on horse rides and ATV rides across the sandbar.  We did shell out 5 RMB, though, so I could take a picture of Irene on one of the ancient ATVs (photo). She later emailed it to her boss, Corey, suggesting that there was a real market here for new ATVs.

Upon returning to shore, we wandered over to the park area and took a few minutes to peer at the stone generals through a thick blanket of haze. I guess the whole scene is impressive in its own way, but I can’t get all that excited about stone carvings done in the past ten years with the benefit of modern machinery and technology. Heck, I don’t even have much of a burning desire to see Mt. Rushmore, although I’d be more tempted to go if it were actually in Yellowstone National Park.

After that, we travelled back to Zhengzhou (this site had actually taken us past the city) and landed at our hotel, a rather shabby looking joint in central Zhengzhou. Of all the rooms we stayed in, this one was the most run down. While most of the rooms were graced with king size beds, this hotel’s idea of a king was two double beds shoved together. In other words, extra wide, but not so long. All the beds we slept in in China were very firm, but this one took firmness to a whole new level, and added some uncomfortable lumps and protruding springs to enhance the effect. (More on this room in tomorrow’s post).

One thing we can say in Charlie’s favour is that he always fed us very well at lunch time, so it was quite late when we set out to find something for supper.  That’s when we discovered that we were living on the doorstep of a huge train station. Not only did that make it awkward to get around, but it also meant that our restaurant selection was largely limited to fast food outlets.  For example, there were three KFCs and two McDonalds in our immediate vicinity. We finally settled on Mr. Lee’s, a Chinese fast food chain. While the service was quick, and the food was cheap, it was also very bland and totally unremarkable. Fast food, evidently, is the same everywhere. You may leave full, but you probably won’t leave satisfied.

Our meal was disrupted at one point when a dishevelled old Chinese man (probably homeless) walked up to our table and, for a minute or so, launched into a mandarin diatribe at the top of his lungs. Apparently, our whiteness pissed him off in some inexplicable way. To the management’s credit, they hustled him out of the restaurant as quickly as they could get there.

I say he was probably homeless because we had seen a half dozen or so homeless men bedding down for the night on the cobble stones outside the train station on our way to the restaurant. This was the largest group of homeless people we ever saw in China.  Other sightings were limited to the occasional individual, usually in public parks. Still, in over three weeks of travelling in China, I don’t think we saw a dozen homeless people. One could see more within a weekend of walking downtown Calgary.

Perhaps it was the condition and location of our hotel, but we both agreed that Zhengzhou was our least favourite city in all our travels in China. There was general griminess to it which made even Luoyang look appealing. Let me punctuate that for you with a photo I took of the skyline when we woke up the next morning. After Luoyang and Zhengzhou, both heavy industry towns, the smog situation had nowhere to go but up. We both found ourselves wishing the tour company had found another location to fly out of, but we took comfort in the fact that we would land in a different – hopefully less polluted – city tomorrow.

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