“There Is A Difference Between Knowing The Path, And Walking The Path” – A Journey To THE Shaolin Temple

I get so caught up in my training here I sometimes forget the rich heritage that comes with the study of Kung Fu. I am lucky enough to learn from my masters who are all from The Shaolin Temple, which is the 1500 year old monastery that is the main temple of the Shaolin School of Buddhism. To educate myself on the compelling history of Kung Fu, to understand what my masters went through in their traditional training, and to motivate myself to train as hard as possible in my last few weeks, I planned a school trip to the Shaolin Temple! Headmaster Bao and Master Du were also going to see their Kung Fu brothers there at the same time, so this had all the hallmarks of a great trip!

15 of us were leaving to go to the temple. That’s alot of people to organise. I had one aim;

Get everyone to The Shaolin Temple and back to the academy…alive, and with all their limbs

Not too much to ask I think?

The Road To The Shaolin Temple

I was dreading this! We had to leave the comfort of Jiangsu to get to another province, Henan. Xinyi to Zhengzhou, Zhengzhou to Dengfeng and then find the hostel. This was a 12 hour travelling trip. Some people love the travelling part, thinking it’s fun and part of the experience. I ain’t some people! Just get me there! First was the 6 hour seated train-of-doom to Zhengzhou. It is very hard to catch some sleep on this type of train. Every couple of minutes there’s a cart going down the aisle selling fruits, vegetables, noodles…portable chargers? Couple this with the cosiness Chinese people like to have on public transport and you have the ingredients of a terrible journey. I already knew I wasn’t getting any sleep because I had organised this trip, so I wanted to be constantly aware of everything and ensure everybody got to where we were going, safely. This meant that I would be generally worse off (understand this later) but that is the cost of ensuring everyone else has the good time they signed up for.

Kristian using his Tetris skills to load our luggage on a packed train

After the train-of-doom we had to wait at Zhengzhou for just over an hour for the first morning bus, this was OK though since there were fast food places open all night. We got on and I was last on the bus, so I had to squeeze in with a grandma and her grandson. They were not allowing me any space, and he fell asleep and was squirming like a trapped squid! After just under 2 hours on the air conditioned bus (thank the Lord for air con in this country!) we were in Dengfeng, yes! Cabs to the ‘Dengfeng Climb International Youth Hostel’ and we were ready to get our Kung Fu history on! It was safe to say ALL of us were very sleep deprived, but we soldiered on because we needed to make the most of our weekend away.

A 10 minute power nap for Mike, Kenneth and baby Phil

The Shaolin Temple Area

Master Du had put me in contact with a master who was still training at the temple, Master Wu. I was messaging him and he was nice enough to meet us at the entrance, get us half price entry and show us to the temple. The area was super busy. There was some cool spots to see like a tree that had the holes in it from the Shaolin monks conditioning their fingers. There was the usual temple shizniz; massive statues of gods, prayer areas, and more steps than an alcoholics anonymous path to sobriety! 

Massive statue that looks like me after 6 JD & cokes. Me & standard budha. Wicked golden statue by the top on the temple

Astrophysicist Phil posing with a tablet with a mathematical equation on it

There were areas to light some incense and say a prayer. Now I’m not Buddhist, or even a really religious man, but something felt right here, so I lit 3 sticks for my late cousin Adeline, who passed away before her time, and my Ahmah (Malaysian grandmother), who I always think is watching over me on these crazy journeys, looking down on me saying “ai yer!”.

Prayer Area – The area where you can light incense for those you wish to pray for

Just after we finished looking around the temple it came thundering down with torrential rain. We got soaked! Because we were wet through, we decided just to accept it and walk in it…uphill! We were looking for a restaurant to grab some grub, but with rivers flowing down onto us it was challenging to say the least. We ate classic chinese style with standard rice and stuff ready to see more of the area, and I really wanted to see some of the resident students training.

Entrance to the Shaolin Temple – When it rains it pours

Within the temple area there are numerous schools. There is a very famous school here called Ta Gou, which is where my Master, Master Wang, studied. We were just casually sitting in an open area and saw 30 students from that school marching and jogging military style to warm up. As time went on more and more groups of students starting appearing like wild Pokemon! Before we knew it we were surrounded…approximately 2000 students were now in the area. Each group was doing something different, from basics to sanda to acrobatics. Their sheer discipline was amazing, and the older students techniques were so on point I was sitting their in awe. I went to take a video of an older group with their sanda coach, and the coach pointed at me, said something in Chinese (that included the words punch and outsider!). The students then all looked at me and then looked like they were trying extra hard. I hope he just said “try hard because there is a foreigner watching”…that would be a nice version of the events. Seeing these guys train it was EXACTLY the techniques of warmups and exercises that Master Wang uses with us, which was just bloody great to reaffirm our training ways! 2000 students is alot, but the Ta Gou school have a HQ outside of the temple where there are 30,000 students, and that is where Master Wang studied. Foreigners are not allowed to just go in there, but Master Du knew a coach there (he is so damn connected) but they could only allow 3 of us to go. Due to their Kung Fu journey being cut short due to some illness, everyone thought the spots could be taken by Kenneth and Astrid. Kasia also went and from what I hear it was spectacular…maybe if I return I can visit. 

Younglings from one of the schools off to training

Ta Gou – Marching and warming up. Sanda combinations lead by their Sanda Coach

Master Bao and Master Du visited us in the night to tell us some offers they have from their Kung Fu brothers. One offer was to get up at 4am to train actually in the Shaolin Temple. Price was just £30 but we were all so knackered after a long-arse day! Maybe if I knew in advance I would have been on this, alas, I wanted more sleep than a narcoleptic. Master Du offered the Ta Gou school tour which I mentioned earlier, but not everyone could go. Master Bao also told us a few stories of him training in the area. Some of us (not me!) went to the peak of the temple area, where Master Bao said he had to do training runs up. While reminiscing and smirking he said;

Who went to the top? That place…I hate that place.

Glad our masters cared enough to try and sort stuff out for us and it looked like they had a good laugh back with their Kung Fu brothers. 

Headmaster Bao explaining to us how thin the steps were on his morning runs at The Shaolin Temple…apparently very thin

The next day, after a glorious (and much needed) lie-in, I went with Thijs, Phil, Kasia, Kristian, Kenneth and Astrid back to the temple to watch a Shaolin Show. Always love seeing these things, the highlight being when a student threw a metal pin through a glass pane to hit a balloon on the other side. There was the usual (I say usual, it’s only since I’ve been at competitions and stuff lately) weapons forms like staff, daggers and my trusty friend the broadsword. Flexibility and spirit were off the scales for these performers mainly because this is their life, all they do. They live and breathe Kung Fu and it definitely shows! 

Back to the Temple! – Thijs, Kristian & Me at the entrance ready for a Shaolin Show

On the way to the show – Kristian & I pouncing on Chinese tourists to brighten up their day

Each Shaolin trainee showing a different weapon form

The late afternoon was for some of us to go into Dengfeng to buy weapons and Kung Fu attire. I had everything I wanted from when I was at the competition. Also, I am not in the position to have a lot of time left that I can buy weapons and hope to learn how to use them…I know everything I am studying for the next month(ish). It’s haggle central in these stores so I helped out a bit and the team picked up some nice straight swords, uniforms and Sabine picked up some damn nice throwing knives (she’s becoming a very dangerous woman). 

Beautiful Dengfeng – the mountains behind me, Sabine, Kristian, Jo, Jim & Thijs

A big part of this weekend was a goodbye to Morten, one of my best mates on this Kung Fu adventure. He was leaving the day we returned so time for a drink! The last night we all were in the bar area of our hostel where they set up karaoke for us. There was a great mix of eclectic greatness from us all. From Backstreet Boys “Larger than Life” to my B.B King “Stand By Me” (with a little Sean Kingston “Beautiful Girls” mashup). We toasted not just Morten, but to Astrid, Kenneth, Phil, Kristian and Nemr who were also leaving the same week. Kenneth and Astrid (#Kastrid) were always fun to be around and I was really disappointed that they were leaving earlier than expected, but wish them so well on their future. Now Phil and Kris only were here a couple months but they made a big impact on me, reminding me of my uni boys back home…drunk and crazy basically. Pity they were not around longer because they gave me more giggles than laughing gas at the dentist’s. Saying goodbye to Morten was going to be hard anyway, something we addressed when he left (oh, the feels!). The owners kept the place open til’ 1am, more than enough time to give a good send off and murder several more songs. 

The Road Home

To ensure we got our night train home we travelled to Zhengzhou early enough to spend a few hours there. It showed how knackered everyone was because even on the bus ride to ZhengZhou people instantly concked out! In the city most of the group used this time to stock up on McDonalds and generic fast food before heading back to a world of rice every meal!

Phil, Kasia & Mike one minute into the bus ride to Zhengzhou

Steve – “I’m Lovin’ It…Ba da ba ba ba!”

Sabine and I went to explore (don’t get me wrong, I had a double cheeseburger first!) where there were tons of market malls selling the same shitty clothes in every store. It took us a while but we found the “western malls” where Starbucks and the chain gang were. A cool thing we saw was a ceiling full of just a computer screen showing the pigs of the Angry Birds game, odd. 

Sabine & Me underneath the Angry Birds ceiling

On the trip from the academy Shane hated, HATED, the train ride. This time to comfort the American I said;

It’s slightly earlier so we don’t need to sleep. We can just sit and chat. It’s a little bit shorter so an easier journey.

What happened? 2 hour delay and the train journey itself took an extra 2 hours..so we got back to the academy at 5am Monday morning…no morning training for me! It was bad though. Shane’s face…priceless! We all got back safely and ready for a week of training, job done!!!

Kristian & Kenneth passing the 2 hour delay by watching Jim Carey’s ‘The Mask’…What a Movie!

Train Home – Phil curled up like sonic the hedgehog & me sleeping dressed as Bruno Mars

Did this trip give me the motivation I was looking for? Definitely. The main catalyst was seeing my master’s school (Ta Gou) students. That especially helped me picture what he went through, which has sparked the Kung Fu fire in me once more. I am seriously considering persueing more Kung Fu training back home, but for now I am back at the academy ready to pack in as much training as I can before my return to western shores. 

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