Shaolin, birth place of Kung Fu
A weekend sortie to check out the monks
I did what I'd always vowed never to do. I signed up for a tour group weekend trip away. As I only have two months left in China, I suddenly have this overwhelming desire to see as much as possible before I leave. Such a vast country, so many sights to see, but holidays I'd almost been tripping over my feet in my haste to escape from China. Now, after three years, I want to see it all.
There must have been about sixty of us, with a large German contingent and far too many little kindergarten age children, which met at the train station in Nanjing the Friday evening, to head 5 hours north on the bullet train to Zhengzhou capital city of the central Henan Province, near the Yellow River. A population of 8 million, the junction of the north/south and east/west train lines. Busy, busy with many people and a KFC on every corner. From there we caught a bus to Luoyang, a much smaller city surrounded by the majestic Song'Shan mountains where we spent the night in our hotel.
Luoyang is a much smaller city, and far less modern. It was one of the ancient capitals of China and I didn't spot a single KFC, although I am sure that they were hiding there somewhere. We woke up bright and early to have breakfast in the hotel, only to discover that what they meant by a western breakfast were slices of bread and jam. Filter coffee was supplied but no cups, so we were forced to fill our juice glasses with piping hot coffee. First time I have ever had rice and vegetables for breakfast and wondered if the fried cabbage leaves I had eaten would backfire on me later. Luoyang is also the hometown of many of the scientific inventions of ancient China, such as the seismograph, armillary sphere, paper making, printing and the compass.
From Luoyang we headed out to Dengfeng City to the nearby Shaolin Temple which was the place of origin for Chinese Zen Buddhism and the cradle of Chinese Martial Art. It was originally built about 700 years ago, but has been rebuilt many times over the years because of damage by marauding armies and the cultural revolution. Zen Buddhism was brought to China by an Indian Buddhist monk.
Dengfeng City has many Shaolin Kung Fu schools where 50 000 boys aged 6-18 attend boarding school and study Kung Fu. The boys come from all over China and their parents make many sacrifices to be able to send them there. Normally, school fees are free, but to attend one of the Kung Fu schools, parents have to pay RMB10 000 a year, which is a large sum for many people. This includes accommodation and food. The boys practise Kung Fu seven days a week and have lessons in culture and other normal subjects on six days a week. Jet Li came from this area in China, and attended one of the Kung Fu schools.
The Shaolin Temple is quite beautiful, but it is the pagoda forst that was really quite stunning. 240 Stone tombs and pillars for monks who were highly regarded by their students. Monks not so highly regarded, just had their ashes put in a public tomb. Our guide said that it's not easy to be a monk, as you have to be between the ages of 6 and 60, have no criminal record and mustn't be married. I did wonder which part made it difficult, the lack of a criminal record or the marriage part, as if you're 6 years old you shouldn't have those problems!
Chinese lunch at Luoyang, but none of the traditional noodles we were told about, and then on to the man made Longmen Grottoes next to a tributary of the Yellow River. These were made in about 300AD and are a UNESCO Heritage sight. The grottoes dug into the rock, all have statues of Buddha and pagodas sculpted into the rock. Quite impressive, and thousands of Chinese tourists having a look-see.
Sunday morning and we had our rice, vegetables and coffee in a glass for breakfast, then headed out to one of the biggest Kung Fu schools with 8000 students. The kids were amazing what they could do. The highlight of the trip. However, when it was relaxation time, it was disturbing to see all these young boys just sitting in the dirt with nothing to do. No toys to play with, nothing. There was one ping pong table with bricks for a net, but that was all. most boys played with sticks and practised their moves. The children seemed happy enough and crowded around us to see the photos we'd taken. However, I did find it quite disturbing as it did not appear to be a very stimulating environment.
On the way back to Zhengzhou to catch our train back to Nanjing, we stopped off at the cave houses to see how many Chinese people were forced to live about 50 years ago when gripped by extreme poverty during the Cultural revolution. Incidentally, many of the Buddhas at the Longmen Grottoes had heads and hands chopped off during the Cultural revolution. We were introduced to an old lady aged 93, who is supposedly the last person left still left living in the caves. I say supposed as I just had a feeling that the whole thing was staged right down to the chopped greens on a table outside ready for cooking for dinner. The government has built housing for the old cave dwellers and most moved out the caves about 40 years ago. Sometimes, the Chinese do do anything to making a buck off tourists. You almost expect to see a show about how we pillaged the villages and raped the women. The old woman was very keen to show us her toddler-sized feet as her feet had been wrapped in bandages to prevent them from growing. This horrible practice was started in the 17th Century and continued up until the early part of the 20th century. The benefits of keeping a woman's feet tiny, was that she had to remain in the house and couldn't walk very far to escape her loving husband. Also, tiny feet were supposed to be the most beautiful sight for a man to see and highly erotic. If your parents didn't bandage your feet, no one would want to marry you. Even if you had the hottest body and most gorgeous face in your whole district. Big feet were a no-no.
The bus back to the station in Zhenzhou and the train back to Nanjing. A great trip, very interesting, but next time I'd rather go with people without little children. Some of them are undisciplined and run up and down screaming while their parents stand and drink beer and do nothing. If you're ever in China, this does rank with the terracotta warriors in Xi'An and the Great Wall in Beijing!