30 November 2015

Shaolin, China 2014

Shaolin Temple is located at Song Shan, near the city of Zhengzhou in central China, and is "the home of Zen Buddhism and Kung Fu."[1] Beginning about fifteen hundred years ago the storied monks developed their martial arts skills to a renowned degree in order to keep fit and support their meditation practices, but ultimately their prowess enabled them to survive the vicissitudes and changing fortunes of China's history. At times, the masters of Kung Fu were the favoured elite warriors for different rulers. (available for "special ops" one might say).

On our way to the temple, we made an unscheduled visit to one of the many Kung Fu schools in the area. Hundreds of kids, all ages, were going through outdoor drills on a sunny March day. Others came excitedly to hang on the fence, laughing and chattering away to us. A fun greeting on both sides. Squads of all ages were being trailed by the little guys. Indoors, some of the boys treated us to a brief performance of the skills they learn: it was truly awesome! The acrobatic element was stunning, so much more than I expected. They move like lightning, almost impossible to capture the quicksilver movements with an amateur camera.
 Kids as young as four can start here, including girls these days. It's a residential school where the youngsters see their parents only about once a year. Apparently one of the benefits is a healthy remedial effect on delinquent "problem" children. In the end, their superior training puts them in demand for desirable jobs in the army and police forces.

At the temple complex, we walk through a lovely, peaceful park called the Pagoda Forest because it is the monks' burial ground alongside a small river. The most revered have grandiose stone tombs. As strolling visitors, we are at the forefront of tourist season.

But uh-Oh! On a bridge to the right I spot the most magnificent Bactrian camel, obviously set up and groomed for photo opps.
Can't take my eyes off him, rush over, pay my 20 yuan, ditch my jacket, and mount the camel (all the while knowing most of my oblivious group is disappearing down the path). Quite the stand has been rigged for mounting. A very comfortable saddle, padded with extra wool. Why not ― look how much this lush beast has to spare! But the wary animal turns his head a couple of times, trying to bite my leg; see the gob marks on my knee. Man in charge takes my camera for the photos but also a couple of friends are clicking away. Rush-rush. Then I have to wait while they process and laminate the photo. Meanwhile Lisa the tour leader discovers our absence and reads me the riot act of disapproval. One must not detour without permission.

We catch up to the group at the temple entrance. It's a series of rooms or temples within the temple as a whole, each higher than the one before, associated with the levels of Kung Fu (remember that movie, The Karate Kid?). Wonderful trees here, especially an ancient gingko. Several hours walking and climbing around leave us drooping. Clearly we lack the physical stamina and discipline of the estimable monks.

A lot of excitement and experiences in one day and that was just our afternoon! The morning had seen us hiking along the Huan (Yellow) River to the Longmen caves at Luoyang where many statues of Buddha are carved into a steep mountain side. Vegetarian dinner tonight; this is Buddhist country. We celebrate our exhilarating day.

[1] Sara Naumann, "A Brief History of Shaolin Temple, Home of Zen Buddhism and Kung Fu," AboutTravel (http://gochina.about.com/od/zhengzhou/p/Shaolin_History.htm : viewed 14 September 2014).

© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman

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